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US: Cover-Up Is Cited on Illegal Arms

by ERIC SCHMITTThe New York Times
June 24th, 2008

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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