By Steve Weinstein
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Sarkis Soghanalian, the international arms dealer who bought billions in weapons for Saddam Hussein, says he was approached at a Newark airport luncheon meeting in the early '80s by a representative of then Texas oil entrepreneur George W. Bush, who was seeking to do business in Iraq.
Featured in lengthy interviews on 60 Minutes, 20/20, and PBS's Frontlineover the years, the twice-convicted Soghanalian was dubbed the "Merchant of Death." He was released from prison at the request of federal prosecutors who, as recently as 2001, cited his "substantial assistance to law enforcement." Justice Department officials questioned him in Washington this year about an ongoing case in Peru involving the sale of 10,000 assault rifles to Colombian guerrillas, but they did not extradite him though he is facing a possible 15-year jail sentence there for brokering the deal.
Soghanalian recalled in half a dozen phone interviews with the Voice that he met with a business associate of W's whose full name he cannot recall but who, like Soghanalian, was Armenian. The meeting was arranged, he says, by a friend who was a leader in Armenian charity circles. Soghanalian recalls that the business associate told him: "George W. Bush wants to do business in Iraq."
"Unfortunately, I was pretty high-profile at the time," says Soghanalian, "and everyone was trying to get close to me. Why would I want their business? I knew his father. What did I need him for?" Soghanalian, who had a stopover in Newark on his way to Baghdad, says he can't remember any specifics about the suggested business. The businessman, he said, "was sent on behalf of Bush" and "said to me, 'This is an important man.' " Soghanalian claims that the man told him that W had "a lot of contacts overseas" and that Soghanalian replied: "I have contacts too. I don't need more contacts." Soghanalian says he has known the senior Bush since at least 1976, when Bush was CIA director. Soghanalian has had such a long-standing CIA relationship that David Armstrong of the National Security News Service calls him the agency's "arms dealer of choice."
Soghanalian says Bush's representative continued to "chase me around" after the airport meeting. Living in an overseas location he did not want disclosed, the 300-pound, 75-year-old legendary dealer said: "I am not where I am and have never been where I was." Though he volunteered the story of the Newark solicitation, he expressed concerns about "angering" the Bushes and repeatedly cut off later interviews, citing health concerns.
It's widely known that prior to the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations maintained friendly ties with Hussein, but there has never before been any indication that the current president was seeking business deals with him. In the '80s, the younger Bush managed a series of struggling Texas-based oil companies, one of which, Harken Energy, did secure a major oil deal in Bahrain that caused a public furor, since it appeared to have been awarded to earn favor with the Bush administration. Bush's storefront start-up Arbusto (later renamed Bush Exploration) was in deep trouble in the '83-'84 period when Soghanalian says the approach occurred.
The Soghanalian overture is only one of several Bush business intertwinings with the dark side, starting way back in 1974, when he was 28 years old. Like the Soghanalian adventure, each of these tales has CIA ties, which touch virtually every Bush business venture until 1990.
A mysterious Alaska summer
Neil Bergt, The New York Times' "richest man in Alaska" in the '80s, gave W a summer job in 1974, when he was in between years at Harvard Business School. Bergt says he doesn't know why the young Bushstill living, by his own account, the "wild and woolly days"wanted to come to Fairbanks, where the company was based. But a Houston construction executive contacted him and asked him to hire Bush, who has been described by professors and friends as an out-to-lunch business student. Bush's father was then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, installed by President Nixon, and Bush Sr. would wind up that summer appearing on the White House lawn when Nixon resigned, waved farewell, and climbed aboard the presidential helicopter for the last time. Bergt concedes that the Bush job was "a political hire."
In several wide-ranging interviews, Bergt oscillated between demands that the Voice pay him $250,000 for "the real story" that "only I can tell" about Bush and insisting that there was "no story here" and that Bush spent a quiet summer preparing a business plan for him. Asked why Bush preferred a summer in Alaska to Wall Street or Houston, Bergt suggested that the motive was nefarious, and that a full account could affect the election, adding: "I'm not talking without money."
Bergt's company, Alaska International Air, certainly has a checkered history. In 1979, it sold a coveted military cargo plane, a Hercules C-130, to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, despite a U.S. ban that specifically barred the delivery of that particular plane. Bergt contends he was tricked by the middleman on the $8.6 million transaction none other than Sarkis Soghanalian. Soghanalian, who claims to have never done an arms deal that wasn't covertly sanctioned by the CIA, says Bergt, who also has a plethora of CIA ties, was fully aware that Qaddafi was getting the plane and participated "voluntarily."