US: Cover-Up Is Cited on Illegal Arms

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

WASHINGTON - A military attaché has told Congressional investigators that the American ambassador to Albania
endorsed a plan by that country's defense minister to remove evidence
of illegal Chinese origins on ammunition being shipped from Albania to Afghanistan by a Miami Beach arms-dealing company.

The approval came in a late-night meeting between the ambassador,
John L. Withers II, the Albanian defense minister, Fatmir Mediu, and
their top aides just hours before a reporter for The New York Times was
scheduled to visit the American contractor's operations in Tirana, the
Albanian capital, last November. The American military bought the
ammunition to supply Afghan security forces, but American law prohibits
trading in Chinese arms.

The attaché, Maj. Larry D. Harrison II of the Army, attended the
meeting and told investigators for a House committee that Mr. Mediu
voiced concerns that the reporter would reveal accusations of
corruption against him. The minister said that because he had gone out
of the his way to help the United States, "the U.S. owed him
something," according to Major Harrison.

When Mr. Mediu ordered the commanding general of Albania's armed
forces to remove all boxes of Chinese ammunition from a site the
reporter was to visit, Major Harrison said "the Ambassador agreed that
this would alleviate the suspicion of wrongdoing," according to
excerpts of a transcript of the interview investigators conducted with
the attaché on June 9, and made public Monday by the House Oversight
and Government Reform Committee.

At the time of the meeting, the company, AEY Inc., was under
investigation for illegal arms trafficking involving Chinese
ammunition. On Friday, the 22-year-old president of the company, Efraim
E. Diveroli, and three other people were charged with selling
prohibited Chinese ammunition to the Pentagon.

Major Harrison told investigators that he did not agree with the
decision to hide the boxes from the reporter, and said that he felt
"very uncomfortable" during the meeting. Major Harrison, who as the
chief of the embassy's office of defense cooperation was responsible
for helping train and equip Albania's military, said that his
suggestion to bar the reporter from visiting the Albania base was
rejected.

In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the committee's chairman, Representative Henry A. Waxman,
a California Democrat, said on Monday that there also appeared to be
evidence that embassy officials in Tirana tried to cover up the
November meeting once Mr. Waxman's staff began an investigation into
AEY.

A spokesman at the United States Embassy in Tirana referred all
questions to Washington. A State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, told
reporters Monday that the department was reviewing Mr. Waxman's letter,
including Major Harrison's statements.

"We have no information that would support the idea that U.S.
officials were involved in some kind of illicit activity," Mr. Casey
said. "But obviously, again, any allegations made, certainly any
questions raised by the chairman, of a major committee in Congress, is
something that we will be happy to look into." Mr. Casey said.

According to e-mails obtained by congressional investigators, Major
Harrison urged embassy officials to inform the committee of the
November 19 meeting between the ambassador and minister, but the
embassy omitted any reference to the meeting in its official response
to the committee's questions.

Embassy personnel seemed sensitive to the Albanians' alarm. The day
after the November meeting, the embassy's regional security officer,
Patrick Leonard, wrote an assistant an e-mail obtained by the
committee: "NY Times just arrived today and might be doing a story on
this and it might get ugly. Ambassador is very concerned about the
case."

When The Times published its article on March 27, 2008, it was
quickly forwarded to embassy officials. In an e-mail to several embassy
officials, Mr. Leonard said that the article focused on the dealings of
AEY. "No mention of Embassy involvement - thank God!" In his letter to
Secretary Rice, Mr. Waxman said Major Harrison's statements combined
with the e-mail correspondence among embassy officials "raises
questions about both the State Department's role in the shipment of
illegal Chinese ammunition and the candor or the Department's response
to the Committee."

In January 2007, the Army awarded AEY a contract, potentially worth
$298 million, that made it the primary munitions supplier for Afghan
security forces in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

An examination by The New York Times earlier this year uncovered
documents from Albania that showed that AEY bought more than 100
million Chinese cartridges that had been stored for decades in former
cold war stockpiles. Mr. Diveroli then arranged to have them repacked
in cardboard boxes, many of which split or decomposed after shipment to
the war zones. Different lots or types of ammunition were mixed. In
some cases the ammunition was dirty, corroded or covered with a film.

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