The spook bank.

Media criticism.
Jan. 10 2005 10:37 PM

The Spook Bank

More on the Riggs-CIA connection.

Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn R. Simpson earned a much-deserved attaboy from me last Friday for his story, "Riggs Bank Had Longstanding Link to the CIA" (Dec. 31, 2004), which places the Riggs Bank money-laundering scandal in new context by being the first to connect it to the agency.

Simpson reports how the Riggs-CIA "relationship," which goes back some time, may foil the prosecution of alleged money-launderers employed by the bank. (Riggs admitted no wrong-doing last year when regulators fined it $25 million for violating currency laws.) The connection, Simpson writes, puts the government in the unenviable position of convincing juries that the "bank's failure to disclose financial activity by the foreign officials wasn't implicitly authorized by parts of the U.S. government."

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Simpson's piece also invites speculation that the Justice Department might abort the prosecutions lest courtroom brawls reveal more about Riggs and the CIA than the government wants made public. The Riggs-CIA romance goes back at least to 1961, according to this passage in Thomas Powers' biography of former CIA head Richard Helms, The Man Who Kept the Secrets (1979):

On Friday, April 21, 1961, for example, two days after the surrender of the exile invasion force [in Cuba], two men in workclothes—they might have been taken for window washers, say, if not for their neat Ivy League haircuts—approached a teller in the DuPont [sic] Circle branch of the Riggs National Bank in Washington with an unusual request. They asked the teller for six to eight bank checks totaling well over $100,000 to be made out in the name of Arthur Avignon. The teller was not as surprised as he might have been. Men from the CIA often arrived quietly to inspect the financial records of certain local embassies, and the teller was also familiar with several oddly active accounts in the name of groups like the National Association of Loggers, the Dry Cleaners' Association, and so on. When he had asked about these strange accounts after first going to work at the branch he had been told frankly, "Oh, those are dummy accounts."

Powers writes that a week later the teller read an Associated Press story datelined Havana in which Fidel Castro damned the CIA for its plots against Cuba and specifically mentioned funds that had come from Arthur Avignon.

Although the Nexis Way-Back Machine doesn't cough up many Riggs-CIA stories, the spooky ones it does unearth encourages further research into Simpson's finding that the relationship between the bank and the agency is "longstanding."

In 1977, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward tied Riggs Bank to payments in a CIA operation in Iran, where the shah had contracted for a $500 million border surveillance system. That same year, the Washington Post's Robert Meyers reported from the espionage trial of former CIA employee Edwin Gibbons Moore. A defense psychiatrist who examined Moore and thought him paranoid told the court that the defendant claimed to have spoken to the "CIA liaison officer at Riggs bank." (Moore was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 15 years in prison.)

The FBI seems to have its own special relationship with Riggs. In a 1986 Nation column, Christopher Hitchens writes that the FBI obtained—without a subpoena or court order—the account information of a friend of his who banked at Riggs' Dupont Circle branch. Later, FBI Director William Webster admitted that the information was made available "on two occasions" by "confidential sources." Prior to President Bill Clinton's sacking of FBI Director William Sessions, a Justice Department ethics investigation determined that the director had purchased a $435,000 house that was beyond his means with a "sweetheart loan" from Riggs. Riggs Chairman Joe L. Allbritton referred Sessions and his wife to a Riggs bank official after he learned they were house-hunting, according to a Feb. 4, 1993, story in the Washington Post.

As long as we're indulging in speculation, what should we make of the 1997 deal in which J. Bush & Co., a money management firm owned by Jonathan Bush, George H.W. Bush's brother and W's uncle, was purchased by a unit of Riggs Bank? Exactly how close is the Bush dynasty to Riggs and its scandal?

President Bush is on record promising a "full investigation" of charges that Riggs helped Chilean junta leader Gen. Augusto Pinochet (among others) launder millions. Will he make good on that promise or pretend he's protecting national security by shutting it down?

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