POSTSCRIPT / October 25, 2001 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Issue low-number plates only to top four officials

ARE HIS HANDS CLEAN?: We’re disturbed by this item sent by Billy Esposo on alleged ties of President George W. Bush himself to the financial network of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, the man whose accounts he had ordered frozen.

In an article written by Wayne Madsen for the Institute for Public Affairs, Madsen reported that Bush, now enjoying an astounding 92 percent approval rating, has not always practiced what he is now preaching. He reports:

Bush’s own businesses were once tied to financial figures in Saudi Arabia who currently support bin Laden. In 1979, Bush’s first business, Arbusto Energy, obtained financing from James Bath, a Houstonian and close family friend. One of many investors, Bath gave Bush $50,000 for a 5 percent stake in Arbusto.

At the time, Bath was the sole US business representative for Salem bin Laden, head of the wealthy Saudi Arabian family and a brother (one of 17) to Osama bin Laden. It has long been suspected, but never proven, that the Arbusto money came directly from Salem bin Laden.

In a statement issued shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House vehemently denied the connection, insisting that Bath invested his own money, not Salem bin Laden’s, in Arbusto. In conflicting statements, Bush at first denied ever knowing Bath, then acknowledged his stake in Arbusto and that he was aware Bath represented Saudi interests.

In fact, Bath has extensive ties, both to the bin Laden family and major players in the scandal-ridden Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI) who have gone on to fund Osama bin Laden.

During the ’80s, BCCI also acted as a main conduit for laundering money intended for clandestine CIA activities, ranging from financial support to the Afghan mujahedin to paying intermediaries in the Iran-Contra affair.

When Salem bin Laden died in 1988, powerful Saudi Arabian banker and BCCI principal Khalid bin Mahfouz inherited his interests in Houston. Bath ran a business for bin Mahfouz in Houston and joined a partnership with bin Mahfouz and Gaith Pharaon, BCCI’s frontman in Houston’s Main Bank.

The Arbusto deal wasn’t the last time Bush looked to highly questionable sources to invest in his oil dealings. After several incarnations, Arbusto emerged in 1986 as Harken Energy Corp. When Harken ran into trouble a year later, Saudi Sheik Abdullah Taha Bakhsh purchased a 17.6-percent stake in the company. Bakhsh was a business partner with Pharaon in Saudi Arabia; his banker there just happened to be bin Mahfouz.

Though Bush told the Wall Street Journal he had “no idea” BCCI was involved in Harken’s financial dealings, the network of connections between Bush and BCCI is so extensive that the Journal concluded their investigation of the matter in 1991 by stating: “The number of BCCI-connected people who had dealings with Harken — all since George W. Bush came on board — raises the question of whether they mask an effort to cozy up to a presidential son.”

Or even the president: Bath finally came under investigation by the FBI in 1992 for his Saudi business relationships, accused of funneling Saudi money through Houston to influence the foreign policies of the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

Worst of all, bin Mahfouz allegedly has been financing the bin Laden terrorist network — making Bush a US citizen who has done business with those who finance and support terrorists. According to USA Today, bin Mahfouz and other Saudis attempted to transfer $3 million to various bin Laden front operations in Saudi Arabia in 1999.

ABC News reported the same year that Saudi officials stopped bin Mahfouz from contributing money directly to bin Laden. (Bin Mahfouz’s sister is also a wife of Osama bin Laden, a fact that former CIA Director James Woolsey revealed in 1998 Senate testimony.)

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ABUSIVE ESCORTS FLAYED: Leyte Rep. Ted Failon was right in calling attention the other day in Congress to abusive police escorts of government officials careening through traffic like they owned the road and everything on it. It was high time somebody did that.

But in fairness to Executive Secretary Bert Romulo, the official being escorted in the road incident related by Failon in the budget hearing Tuesday in the House of Representatives, the soft-spoken Little President had nothing to do with the behavior of his escorts.

As in all past complaints, however, after the outbursts and the scurrying about to fix things, nothing corrective comes out of it. We have such a short span of attention.

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NO TO LOW-NUMBER PLATES: In the other congressional chamber, Sen. Nene Pimentel struck a similar chord when he proposed the doing away with special low-number car license plates for officials who think highly of themselves.

One of the few Senate stalwarts who have not lost their common touch, Pimental was referring to special plates for senators, congressmen, justices and judges and a scattering of other small fry who had managed to wangle special plates.

If special plates are to be issued anybody, they should be only for those who are in the presidential line of succession — meaning the vice president, the Senate president and the Speaker of the House. Nobody else should hanker for any lower number.

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AMBULANCE ABUSE: The abusive use of vanity plates was highlighted days ago with the arrest of a Quezon town mayor, one named Ronnie Mitra, with several others who were transporting shabu worth P1 billion in an ambulance (!) backed up by escorts in Mitra’s car bearing a “Mayor” plate.

We have just been given another reason not to pull over every time we see in our rear-view mirror a Sweepstakes-type ambulance with siren blaring and flasher blinking like some patient is in the throes of death.

Some friends from the Alabang area tell us that every early weekday morning, they spot an unusual number of ambulances forcing their way through the tight traffic crawling from the South to Makati. Their passengers, in their rush, probably think the use of the ambulances would work.

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CORRECTIVE LAWS: Clearly there is need for corrective legislation. For instance, there ought to be a law on situations such as these:

  • Banning the issuance and use of license plates outside the three-letter + three number format to anybody who is not in the presidential line of succession. The letters that are usable do not include O and I, as these can be mistaken for zero and number one respectively.
  • Making an official being escorted jointly liable for any offense or crime that his escort commits.
  • Raising the penalty for the illegal or unauthorized use of sirens and similar gadgets, the penalty for the unauthorized use of such vehicles as fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and vehicles sporting special low-number plates. In the case of low-number plates currently in use, the registered owner of the vehicle should be made jointly liable for the driver’s offense.
  • Penalizing the continued use of temporary commemorative plates one week after the end of the commemoration, and the substitute or simultaneous use of a foreign plate on a vehicle registered in the Philippines.

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GMA TAPS MICROSOFT: Among the more solid results of the trip of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to the recent Shanghai summit was the signing in the background last Friday of three agreements on the raising of the skills and competence of Filipino infotech workers.

President Arroyo and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates witnessed the signing of three memoranda of understandings on this priority concern of her administration:

Under the first memo signed between the Presidential Management Staff and Microsoft Philippines Inc., the latter committed itself to help monitor through a computer network the progress of projects listed by GMA in her State of the Nation Address (SONA).

The second MOU was signed by Clark Development Corp. and Microsoft Philippines for a training and certification program at the new Clark Polytechnic that will primarily serve the firms inside the former US base. The project aims to produce top-class Filipino software developers.

The third MOU was signed by Microsoft with PLDT and Systems Technology Inc. (STI) for the promotion of online education or e-learning in the Philippines.

President Arroyo and Bill Gates are expected to have follow-up discussions when GMA visits the US next month. A computer buff herself, GMA is pressing the use of computers in streamlining government service and improving competency of infotech workers.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 25, 2001)

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