A Shadowy Scandal

ROGER TAMRAZ WAS A MAN WITH a plan--and all he needed was a nod from the president of the United States. Tamraz, born in Cairo of Lebanese parents, is an oil tycoon with an M.B.A. from Harvard and a knack for knowing all the right people in the Middle East. In 1995 he conceived the notion of building a 930-mile pipeline from Turkmenistan, the former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea, to Turkey. The pipeline was to bring wealth to a backward region and, by passing through Armenia and Azerbaijan, help quell their bitter ethnic quarrel: Tamraz, who sells grandiose ideas with evangelical fervor, called it ""the pipeline of peace.'' U.S. backing was essential, and Tamraz had a plan for that, too. Despite his generous support of Republican causes in the past--his political convictions seem a bit changeable--Tamraz showed up one day at the Democratic National Committee's Washington headquarters and announced that he wanted to help the party.

So begins yet another murky episode in the saga of the Democrats' campaign-cash scandals--and this one has a particularly troubling twist. That is the fact that Tamraz, who as a backstage player in Middle Eastern politics has a long association with the CIA, tried to use his old friends at Langley--and his new pals at the DNC--to roll the National Security Council staff. ""The NSC is the high temple of the foreign-policy establishment,'' a former official says. ""This is not where you go to push deals.'' The incident played a pivotal role in former national- security adviser Anthony Lake's decision last week to withdraw his nomination as CIA director. It also implicates Don Fowler, the former chairman of the DNC, in yet another instance of the committee's willingness to peddle White House access in return for campaign contributions--in Tamraz's case, about $170,000.

Tamraz had every reason to play the Democratic money game: he needed access, and fast. His first bid for the Clinton administration's support had been turned down flat by Sheila Heslin, a member of the National Security Council staff, in a meeting on June 2, 1995. The United States wants to see an oil pipeline built from the Caspian region, but it prefers a multinational consortium as the sponsor. So Tamraz was bucking U.S. policy, which he says is too heavily influenced by Big Oil. But Heslin had a CIA background memo on Tamraz and didn't like what she saw--for he is a controversial figure even in the Middle East. Those who know him at the CIA say that he has been a valued intelligence source for years--he was even assigned his own ""handler'' at the agency--and that he more than once put his own life in danger to help CIA operatives in Lebanon. The dark side is that Tamraz, in the view of one State Department official, has a ""used-car salesman's mentality'' and has had at least some brushes with the law. In 1989 a Lebanese court charged him with embezzling $200 million from a bank. In 1992 a Jordanian court convicted Tamraz in absentia for the same fraud and sentenced him to two years in prison. A French court has ordered him to pay $56 million in connection with a financial dispute, and there is an outstanding Interpol warrant for his arrest. All of this--""the good, the bad and the ugly,'' as he puts it--is just politics, according to Tamraz, and was readily available to everyone he dealt with in Washington. But Heslin not only decided against his pipeline--she and the NSC staff recommended that he should no longer attend White House functions.

Having tried and failed to interest the NSC in his pipeline project, Tamraz took his case to the DNC. Like other potential donors, he wanted a chance to schmooze with Bill Clinton or Al Gore--and like many others, he got it. Under Fowler and the then finance chairman Marvin Rosen, the DNC was furiously raising money for the 1996 election: admission to White House events was for sale. White House sources now say that Fowler, a longtime party operative from South Carolina, was more interested in getting the cash than checking out where it came from. In public, he was overshadowed by the DNC's titular chairman, Sen. Christopher Dodd; in the day-to-day business of running the campaign, he was surrounded by White House operatives who held the real power. Sources also say Fowler resented his lack of control and tried to intervene on policy issues for big-money donors. Tamraz gave $20,000 on July 26 and later got into four different White House social events, including a presidential screening of the space-aliens thriller ""Independence Day'' with Clinton. After giving $50,000 more, Tamraz subsequently asked for a meeting with Vice President Gore, but that meeting did not occur.

Tamraz heard he had been banned from the White House and counterattacked through the DNC. In October he had dinner with Marvin Rosen and complained that he was being frozen out. ""Here's a guy who had risked his life . . . then I get treated like this,'' he told NEWSWEEK. ""Of course I resented it.'' Rosen promised to look into it. Fowler then solicited another contribution--$100,000 for the Virginia state Democratic Party. Tamraz also says he told Fowler and others that his White House-access problem could be easily cured if somebody would check him out with the CIA.

What happened next is disputed by just about everybody involved. The CIA says Fowler called to suggest giving Tamraz a little help; Fowler denies making the call. Nevertheless, a second CIA background memo on Tamraz was produced, and this one omitted at least some of the damaging information contained in the first. It was sent to Sheila Heslin at the NSC, and according to CIA sources, Fowler paved the way with a call to Heslin in which he suggested that she ""review'' her recommendation on the pipeline project and said she ""would be getting material from the CIA that would help her change her opinion.'' (Fowler denies making the call.) Appalled at the political intrusion in the policy process, Heslin told a superior, Nancy Soderberg, who called Fowler and chewed him out. She also took her complaint to the NSC's legal counsel, who reported it to the CIA.

One issue here is propriety: did the CIA succumb to political pressure on behalf of a campaign contributor and longtime asset? That is what the agency's inspector general, on the orders of Director-designate George Tenet, is trying to find out. Heslin, now on maternity leave, has said she never asked for the second memo on Tamraz--and if that is true, someone at the CIA may have crossed the ethical line by responding to pressure from Fowler. CIA sources say there is ""preliminary'' evidence that Heslin asked for the second memo. They also say the agency's lawyers sanitized this report for fear of libeling Tamraz. Both reports came from a division of the CIA's operations directorate that was headed by a much-decorated agency veteran, William Lofgren. In December, NEWSWEEK has learned, Lofgren and his staff smelled trouble and wrote a report on the controversy for the then Director John Deutch--but Deutch's office has no record of it. The implication, to Lofgren's friends in the agency, is that Lofgren is the fall guy for the high command's failure to investigate whether the DNC had tried to manipulate the agency.

But NSC officials think someone in Lofgren's section fabricated the story that Heslin ordered the second report to cover up the fact that they had violated CIA rules against yielding to political influence. In any event, Lofgren has since resigned from the CIA--and briefly went to work for Roger Tamraz as a consultant. Now the campaign-money mess is, as George Tenet says, ""extremely serious'' for the agency. It may be for Bill Clinton as well.