Sorry this has been a few days in coming, I’ve been tied up. So anyway, is he going to jail or not? My summary advice to both sides would be, don’t get your hopes up. I am getting a clearer picture of what actually went on between 1999 and 2001 with respect to Galloway, Iraq and oil, but there is still a big murky patch of uncertainty. I would also submit that Galloway is correct on one important point; despite the great big smile all over his face on the news, the Presidential hopes of Senator Norm Coleman are probably dead and buried and can’t be redeemed by getting Galloway – the secret is out that he is a flat-track bully who falls apart under pressure and anyone facing him in a debate from here to the end of time will know that. But anyway, what is the new news in the Senate Report ?
 Actually the majority (ie Republican) staff report from the committee but I do not think this detail is important.
Well, I’d first like to include by citation the summary of the charge that I wrote on the lbo-talk mailing list in May. It still pretty much stands up, and it will make this all a lot easier to understand if you read it. Shortly after writing it, I had to add the important revision that “the Charities Commission did not need Galloway’s copy of the Mariam Appeal’s accounts because they were able to subpoena his banking records, so this charge looks rather weaker to that extent”. This point is also quite important. (I have also underestimated the extent to which fraudulent payments continued under the post-1999 sanctions regime, which is important and misspelled Fawaz Zureikat’s name as “Faraz”, which is probably less so).
The trouble is that it is pretty easy (and always has been) to connect Gorgeous George to the money, but it has been much more difficult (and still is) to connect him to the oil. The payments that have come into Galloway’s wife’s account and into the Mariam Appeal have all come through middlemen. As anyone who has followed a fraud trial in detail will know, a third party in the middle who can keep his mouth shut is worth his weight in gold, because it is powerfully difficult for the prosecution to prove that you knew what was going on. And indeed, Galloway’s defence all along has been that although the money definitely did flow the way the Senate said it flowed (since the Charities Commission investigation there has been no point denying this), he himself had no idea of its source. If anyone wants to send him to jail, this is the defence that they’ve got to break and at present, Fawaz Zureikat is not answering the phone.
The perfect smoking gun would obviously be an unequivocal communication in the other direction. A note in GG’s handwriting saying “Dear Tariq, thanks for the oil, love George” would be just perfect. However, no such communication has been found so far and frankly, Galloway doesn’t strike me as the kind of chap who writes thankyou letters. So, something more circumstantial is probably going to be the best the prosecution will be able to get. What do they have?
Well, reading the Senate Report, the thing that really strikes me is how strong the Daily Telegraph’s case was. The letter that David Blair turned up in Baghdad is the main plank of the Senate Report and it has nearly everything that you would need in such a document. It is a record of a meeting between Fawaz Zuriekat, George Galloway and a member of Saddam’s intelligence services (the IIS; the letter is referred to in the report as “The IIS Letter”, although “The Daily Telegraph Letter” might be a bit fairer in giving credit where it’s due), minuting the discussion of oil allocations. More or less bingo. Except …
Except that it might not be genuine. There are two ways in which the document could be bogus. First, it might be a forgery, like the documents which showed up in the Christian Science Monitor. This seems unlikely at present; document experts have had a fairly intense look at this, and in all forms and details, it appears to check out for rogue superscripts, wrong type of paper, etc. But this isn’t the only way in which a document can be unreliable. It could be that it is a genuine record of a bogus meeting; that, for example, the IIS agent and Zuriekat decided between the two of them that they wouldn’t get the oil allocations unless they could convince the Iraqi government that Galloway was in the loop, so they cooked up a minute for the purpose. Something like this is, as far as I can tell, George Galloway’s fallback position in those moments when he isn’t questioning the very authenticity of the document itself. This is quite a difficult alibi to break, and is presumably why the Telegraph didn’t try for a defence of justification (truth) in the libel trial, given the extremely strong statements they’d made and the burden of proof in a British libel trial where this defence is being used.
So, given that the IIS Letter wasn’t considered strong enough to support a libel case, it seems unlikely to me that it would be strong enough evidence to support a criminal prosecution. What more have the Senate turned up?
Well, the only really new stuff in the Senate Report (some of the evidence on specific payments is new, but the general fact of the payments was well-known) is that they have three pieces of witness testimony. They have recorded comments from Tariq Aziz about his having discussed oil allocations with Galloway and interviews with two Iraqi oil traders who remember having been asked by him about the mechanics of trading in sanctions oil.
It is impossible to really judge the strength of this evidence. Frustratingly, although the report contains a number of verbatim quotations from the three witnesses, it does not quote them verbatim on the most important points, and at times the report seems annoyingly vague to the point of self-contradiction (in particular, on page 13, a subheading reads ” Galloway Personally Solicits Oil Allocations” but the text only actually quotes Tariq Aziz as recalling him soliciting “financial support for the Mariam Appeal”). It is possible that the Senate Committee has introduced a bit of spin into its summaries of the witness reports. But obviously, as an outsider there is no way for me to be sure of what the transcripts actually say; I’m working on the assumption that every summarised statement is accurate, but that the committee is presenting the strongest case it has (that there isn’t a lot more damning stuff in the transcripts). Of the three witnesses, we have the most detail on “Oil Trader #2”, because he gave a written statement which is provided as an exhibit, however, irritatingly enough, it turns out that #2 is not a particularly useful witness in breaking Galloway’s alibi, because he only ever actually spoke to Zureikat.
So, what do the transcripts say? Well, basically, there appear to have been two conversations which took place in 1999, when Galloway brought the “Big Ben To Baghdad” publicity stunt bus to Iraq. In a conversation with Tariq Aziz, he asked for the Iraqi government to fund the Mariam Appeal’s campaigning (it was previously more or less reliant on donations from a couple of Gulf State sheikhs). And shortly after this, he had a conversation with Oil Trader #1 after bumping into him at a hotel buffet, in which Oil Trader #1 explained how oil allocations were used by the Iraqi government as a slush fund to pay its mates (in return for kickbacks).
Sidebar: Here’s my summary of the oil-for-food fraud scam. Basically, the way the oil-for-food program worked is that the Iraqi government provided “allocations” to traders, which allowed them to buy oil from the Iraqi government at slightly less than the world market price, in return for dollars which were paid into a blocked account administered by the UN. The traders would then sell the oil at the market price and make a profit. So in other words, there were a set of “magic counters”, the allocation of which was entirely under the control of the Iraqi government, which could be converted into cash profit. Note that this was the way the scheme was intended to work. I must confess that once I understood the mechanics of the scam, I found it quite hard to understand why anyone was surprised that the Iraqi government used it as a slush fund. Given that the allocations were under the control of the Iraqi government, it is inconceivable that they would not have used this control to benefit themselves. Without exonerating the people who actually took the bribes, the special element of moral outrage at whole “UNSCAM” farrago appears to consist of a lot of people shouting “we are shocked, shocked, that this slush fund has been used as a slush fund”. Just to clarify a final detail, the Iraqis worked the system in two ways; they encouraged their overseas mates to set up oil trading companies to receive slush fund payments, and they required people who got allocations to make side payments into separate, non-blocked accounts.
The report also says that Tariq Aziz was asked by Gorgeous George to increase his allocations at two later dates. However, there is no letter saying “Dear Tariq, hope all is well, please send more oil, love George”, and the Senate Report certainly does not quote Aziz verbatim as saying that it was Galloway he had spoken to at these later dates. It therefore seems likely to me that these subsequent conversations could have been held with Zureikat, representing himself as Galloway’s agent, so the element of deniability creeps in again. I strongly suspect that the case against Galloway, if it ever reaches court, is going to have to rest on these two conversations.
In which case, to my unpractised eye it doesn’t look strong enough to put a man in jail. Even if we assume that Oil Trader #1 can be coaxed to shed his anonymity and get into a courtroom, and even if we assume that the testimony from Tariq Aziz was taken in such a way as to be admissible evidence itself and not to prejudice the trial (which two points I would not necessarily take as given), there are still two versions of reality which are consistent with the picture painted by those two conversations.
Version 1 Galloway rocks into town in 1999. He asks his mate Tariq for help. Tariq informs him that funds are tight, but that there is this dinky little trick they have worked out with the oil allocations. George goes back to his hotel and makes friends with an oil trader and tells him to expect a call pretty soon from his Baghdad fixer, Zureikat. George then tells Fawaz to sort it out, and the money rolls in over the next few years.
Version 2 Galloway rocks into town in 1999. He asks his mate Tariq for help. Tariq starts babbling on about oil; George doesn’t understand what’s going on but it sounds crooked. Later in the hotel, he finds out that his dining partner is in the oil business and tries to find out what’s going on. He gets it explained to him and it seems like the answer to his prayers, but on the way home, he decides that it’s all a bit dishonest and he wants nothing to do with it. He tells Fawaz about his odd conversations, and Fawaz says “don’t worry George”, with what might in retrospect have seemed like a knowing wink. The money rolls in over the next few years from courtesy of Fawaz and, poor unsuspecting innocent fool that he is, George never really thinks to inquire where it’s coming from.
To be honest, Version 2 seems pretty implausible to me. But would we be sure that Version 1 has been established beyond reasonable doubt? I suspect that the answer is no.
I take back none of my fairly negative assessment of Galloway’s character. I think it is actively dangerous for a (semi-)popular left movement to be so closely connected with a figure like him. I don’t like his habit of being cleared in the courts on fairly technical matters and loudly shouting that he has been definitively vindicated (a habit he shares with J. Archer and J Aitken, who also won lots of court cases, until they didn’t). And as I note above, I honestly can’t bring myself to believe that he was as ignorant of Fawaz Zureikat’s business affairs as he claims to be. In other words, I think he’s guilty, at least of the fairly minor charge that the Mariam Appeal received money from a UN-approved slush fund (it should be noted, by the way, that Galloway recorded the payments he received from the Mariam Appeal in the Register of Members’ interests; I think the Committee is wrong to say that there was any obligation on him to disclose where the Appeal got its money from – where would a chain of this sort end? The question of the payment to his wife, which he claims to be ignorant of, is another matter). He doesn’t appear to be guilty of the much more serious charge of being a bought-and-paid for advocate of the Iraqi government, since even the Senate Committee Report is now quite clear on the fact that Galloway was an active campaigner against sanctions even before the oil-for-food program began (by the way, the oil-for-food program did a hell of a lot of good for Iraqi infant mortality, so well done the pre-1999 anti-sanctions campaigners, a point that is not made nearly enough in this context). However, as far as I can tell, the joy in the anti-Galloway camp is premature for the minute.
Unless … if Fawaz Zureikat picks up that phone, or replies to the Senate Committee’s faxes and letters, things could get very nasty very quickly for Gorgeous George. That, I think, is the real potential smoking gun.