BAE Systems: British Arms Exposé
Last time BAE Systems was threatened by justice in 2006, it wriggled free with the aid of a from Tony Blair. His questionable claim was that throwing the book at these merchants of war would threaten lives on British streets. The pressure on the Serious Fraud Office to drop its probe into the firm's Saudi dealings amounted to – in the words of the high court judge who reviewed the case – "a gun held to the director's head". After the SFO announced yesterday that it will seek the attorney general's consent to for further alleged corruption in eastern Europe and Africa, the big question is why things should turn out any different this time around.
One reason to hope that they might is the SFO's decisive announcement, which exposes the whole issue to daylight, making it trickier for the arms dealer and its Whitehall patrons to exert influence without being noticed, as they so often have in the past. Award-winning Guardian journalism has helped to establish a powerful case for the biggest corporate fine in history, but it is still far too early to be sure that this will carry the day – or even to bank on there being any sort of prosecution at all. The current law on overseas bribery dates back to 2001, and the SFO is building up a team of a hundred to work on the issue. So far, however, only one company has been successfully prosecuted, and the inadequate nature and implementation of the UK laws regularly earns Britain opprobrium at the , where the world is supposed to come together to stamp corruption out. Even in the one case where a charge was made to stick, that of the , a plea bargain was arranged. Despite the fact that such arrangements are supposed to be used only where a company willingly comes forward to confess its own failings, there is every chance that BAE will pull the same trick, putting a cap on its fine and perhaps even avoiding the worst of the charges in return for taking others on the chin.
The concerns are heightened because of Gordon Brown's failure to see through the overhaul of the role of attorney general, which he had signalled support for during his first summer in Downing Street. On our pages today, , the former attorney general who announced the pulling of the Saudi investigation, again insists the decision was the SFO's own. But whatever the formal position, there is no getting away from the reality that the man who licensed the Iraq war was also the conduit through which prime ministerial pressure was able to flow. That happened thanks to the attorney's warped job description, which mixes superintendence of prosecutions with party political duties. The 2007 promise to restore trust in the office was betrayed by anaemic proposals last year which allowed the attorney to retain influence over any prosecution decreed to affect national security. By this year it was decided that there was no need to legislate for any change at all; instead a mere "protocol" on prosecutions was issued, which affirmed that the attorney is free to "engage" in any case deemed "particularly sensitive".
The pathetic retreat from reform ensures that legal processes remain vulnerable to political viruses picked up in the attorney's office. As Britain's largest manufacturer, and a firm with tentacles that reach right across Whitehall, BAE enjoys unique lobbying power. After the SFO's bold move, ministers would probably shrink from scuppering the prosecution outright. But it would take great faith in the state to assume that there will be no backroom requests for the fine to be kept to a moderate level. Any such demands must be withstood. As the justice secretary, Jack Straw, , corruption is a plague which threatens democracy, fosters crime and entrenches desperate poverty. This is the crime of which BAE stands accused. Should it be found guilty, it surely deserves to feel the full force of the law.
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