Congressmen Grill Swiss Bankers Over Ties to Bin Laden, Iran, Cuba

BY MEGHAN CLYNE - Staff Reporter of the Sun
March 30, 2006

WASHINGTON - The Swiss banking giant, UBS, may have helped Iran develop its nuclear program, may have held an account for Al Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden, and could find itself investigated as part of Congress's ongoing inquiry into the United Nations oil-for-food scandal, lawmakers said yesterday.

During an intense grilling on Capitol Hill, the bank was also accused of engaging in a pattern of resistance to congressional inquiries, as lawmakers cited years of non-cooperation with congressional probes into improper transactions between the bank and terrorist regimes.

One lawmaker disclosed that UBS had provided a witness for yesterday's hearing only under threats of subpoena, and another accused the bank's representative at the hearing of using "weasel words" to dodge tough questions.

Yesterday's hearing of the House International Relations Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight, chaired by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, was a long-awaited public examination of UBS's alleged money laundering for state sponsors of terrorism, including Cuba and Iran.

It is the latest in a series of inquiries spawned in 2003 when American soldiers liberating Iraq discovered $762 million in American currency stashed in hideouts belonging to Saddam Hussein. The serial numbers on the banknotes were traced to UBS, which distributed the currency as part of the Extended Custodial Inventory Program run by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The Federal Reserve program, in cooperation with international banks, allowed clients to exchange old American banknotes for new ones. One condition of the program was that the international banks were not allowed to accept cash from countries against which America maintains sanctions. They also were not allowed to transfer cash to such countries.

When American investigators probed the $762 million that emerged in Iraq, they found that UBS had also provided $3.9 billion in American currency for Fidel Castro's Cuba, $1 billion for Iran, and $30 million for Libya. Cuba, Iran, and Libya appear on the State Department's official list of state sponsors of terrorism.

As a result of an investigation by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in cooperation with the Department of the Treasury, UBS was censured by the Swiss Banking Commission, and paid a $100 million fine to the Federal Reserve in spring 2004.

As The New York Sun reported in October, UBS, which operates under the secrecy of Swiss banking laws, had long frustrated members of Congress seeking further information about the nature of the improper transactions; whether they included money laundering for terrorist regimes, whether the abuse of the Federal Reserve program helped fund terrorism, and whether the bank had closed all of its accounts with Cuba and Iran.

At yesterday's hearing, the witness provided by UBS, managing director Michael Herde, offered few specifics in response to lawmakers' inquiries, at times appearing to provoke interrogators already seemingly irked by the Swiss bank.

Mr. Rohrabacher likened UBS's current silence to its well-publicized and documented abuses regarding accounts of Holocaust victims, adding that the Swiss bank's "current malfeasance" included "the fact that UBS once held an account for Osama bin Laden."

In 2004, a half-brother of Mr. bin Laden, Yeslam Binladin, testified in a French courtroom that two of his brothers had set up an account at the Swiss bank, and that his terrorist sibling was one of the principal beneficiaries on the account, according to press reports. Mr. Binladin's testimony was confirmed in 2004 by a UBS spokesman, who said that Mr. Bin Laden was not a bank customer but could draw money from it.

During yesterday's hearing, however, when pressed by Mr. Rohrabacher about whether Mr. Bin Laden had an account at the bank, Mr. Herde testified: "I don't believe so."

Mr. Herde did disclose that UBS decided in November, after years of congressional inquiries, to end its business in countries against which America maintains sanctions. He added that the bank was in the middle of closing down its accounts in Iran and Cuba, a process a spokeswoman, Christine Walton, later said would be "around 80%" complete at the end of April.

Mr. Herde also disclosed that "8 to 11" low-level employees had been terminated as a result of the scandal involving the Federal Reserve program, and said that to the best of his knowledge, no one involved in the improper transfers, including higher ups with potential knowledge of the illicit activity, was still employed by the bank.

"'To the best of my knowledge' indicates to me that there is probably somebody very high up in the bank who knows everything and is still there," Mr. Rohrabacher replied.

Grilled by Mr. Rohrabacher and Ms. Ros-Lehtinen about the employees' motives for engaging in the activity, Mr. Herde said the bank's investigation showed that the employees abused the Federal Reserve program because of a "misguided perception that operational efficiencies would be enhanced."

"That does sound like very suspicious language," Mr. Rohrabacher said. "Being a former journalist, I hear weasel words of how to get around things," the congressman added later about the UBS representative's testimony. Ms. Walton said after the hearing that Mr. Herde had been referring to efforts by UBS employees to streamline the exchange of American banknotes by not setting up a separate program for the Federal Reserve cash, as the program's terms required.

Earlier in the hearing, Mr. Rohrabacher said that the bank's transactions with Iran "may have put the whole world in danger," saying that the regime's nuclear ambitions pose "a grave threat that might be traced right back to a major financial institution in the world dealing with the Iranian government."

The bank may also have helped fund oppression and warmongering in Iraq, according to Ms. Ros-Lehtinen.

"Reports have stated that Saddam Hussein, even when Iraq was under U.N. sanctions, had accounts at UBS," Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said. "That has implications for this subcommittee's Oil-for-Food investigation." Committee staff said the UBS connection is of concern because of Saddam's use of the international financial apparatus to perpetrate the Oil-for-Food fraud.

After the hearing, Ms. Walton said that UBS had cooperated fully with the committee's inquiries.

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