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Militarism examined

An interview with David Leigh

Professor Leigh is one of Britain’s leading investigative journalists, and winner of the 2007 Paul Foot Award for Campaigning Journalism. David was Assistant Editor at The Guardian, with special responsibility for investigations. He also worked in London at the Observer, where he ran an investigation team, and at The Times. He has won seven press awards, including Granada’s Investigative Journalist of the Year, the British Press Awards Campaigning Journalist of the Year, and an award from the UK Freedom of Information Campaign. In 2006 he was Highly Commended for investigations into alleged corruption at BAE Systems. Here Matt Kennard of AOAV interviews David Leigh about his work on the arms trade.

How did you find yourself involved with BAE and issues of corruption in 2006?
We got involved with BAE because we started to look into the government archives about the origin of the government’s arms sales unit. Then, it was called D.E.S.O. (the Defense Export Services Organization), which was a kind of euphemism. The history of it is pretty interesting. It was set up by Harold Wilson in the 1960s, in order to get into the business of arms sales. The idea was that the British government would back the arms manufacturers to make a lot of money for them; or, arguably, to make a lot of money for Britain. This inspired our research. We wanted to research the origins of British arms sales. We went down to the National Achieves, in Kew (whom, after thirty years, release government documents). The results of this trip were pretty fascinating; not only did we find documents on the origins of D.E.S.O., and how it had been set up by politicians, but, within this, we discovered stunning admissions about what was involved. The documents quoted a number of ministers admitting, quite cheerfully, that the only way to sell arms was through bribery – and it was as blunt as that. Upon this discovery, we continued to read files on Saudi Arabia and found, according to the files, very detailed accounts of bribes being paid to Saudi princes, and people around them, to sell arms. This is what triggered the lager BAE investigation.

How did the historical investigation turn into a contemporary investigation of BAE practices in 2006?
We started publishing stories about D.E.S.O and the history of it, and how there had been a whole network of corruption stretching back forty years involving government support for bribery. This was against a backdrop of illegality surrounding overseas bribery that the government had supported in 2001. Before 2001, arms companies has said, ‘We don’t bribe at home, that’s against the law, but, you know, we can do what we like abroad,’ and the British government had supported this position.’ However, after September 11th, the government supported law reform on overseas bribery, demonstrating a strong commitment to preventing terrorist financing. With this in mind, we started publishing stories on bribery detailing the extensive history on the matter itself. People started to come forward, claiming bribery had taken place across areas that you wouldn’t realize. Gradually, as whistleblowers came forward, we assembled the picture of a huge, global network of secret payments to middlemen all over the world to make arms sales. At the centre of this, was BAE.

Why is the UK government so embedded within arms companies? It seems there is an extra value put on arms exports, more than any other sector. Why is this, and what effect does that have around the world?
There are two reasons I think why the British government threw its weight, and why successive British governments have thrown their weight, so avidly behind arms sales. First, you can get political influence through arms sales. Governments want arms.  It’s always a political decision, whether you’re going to supply some regime on the other side of the world or not. You can buy influence by sending them arms. Second, there’s lots and lots of money in it. When you start looking at the particular details of any arms scheme, you find: firstly, the British arms are wildly overpriced; secondly, they’re invariably sold through bribery, and that means that there’s huge sums of money involved.

If the system is built upon bribery, are a lot of arms deals made to those who may not need to buy them? For example, with Tanzania, if a government minister is bribed to buy some equipment from the U.K., is it the case that they do not even need the equipment and the sale is a consequence of bribery?
Tanzania was a classic case in which ministers in Tanzania, a poor African country, were persuaded to buy an air traffic control system, which they didn’t need, and which was wildly overpriced. The only reason they purchased it was because a lot of money changed hands under the counter.  This is a characteristic of virtually every arms deals.  Saudi Arabia has purchased billions and billions of high-priced British equipment, such as typhoon warplanes, which at the time they probably did not need. However, it turns out they found a use for them: they now spend their time bombing Yemen with them, with British assistance.

In terms of BAE, were they just apart of the corrupt system or did their policies demonstrate a particularly bad practice?
BAE is the biggest arms manufacturer in Britain.  It controls virtually all the weaponry that we make now, and that ranges from tanks, to ships, to planes. With this in mind, arms sales and BAE are virtually synonymous.

What’s is the history of BAE?  Why has it assumed this role as a monopoly?  There doesn’t seem to be any other players even close to being the same level as it, what reasons is it, to become this sort of behemoth?
They consolidated and consolidated, and they function really as an arm of government, I mean, it’s wrong in a way to look at BAE as a private company. In a way it’s really not very distinct from like a state arms company. In other countries, like in South Africa or Russia, you can see state arms sales.  BAE functions as a state arms company and it sees itself as a state arms company. This means the relations between politicians and executives of BAE are very close.

When you were investigating, what did you find about the relationship between the government and BAE?  Were there regular meetings?  Were politicians aware of the bribery that was happening of foreign dignitaries and foreign politicians?
Well, this is where the yellowing archives in the national archives at Kew turned out to be so valuable, because what you saw was reports written for government ministers saying, ‘you’ve got to pay bribes to do this kind of business,’ and there it is.  So, there’s no question that officials and politicians, of all political stripes, have known that this involves bribery, ever since the government’s arms sales unit was set up.  It’s all down there in black and white.

It’s quite interesting you said ‘how Wilson set up the D.E.S.O.’  Can you elaborate on the bipartisan nature of the support for the arms industry? In some instances, people might imagine that a Labour government would be more controlling or restrictive when it comes to arms companies. Is this true? Or, is there a continuity between parties?
The arms sales organisation in Britain was set up by a Labour government, under Harold Wilson, and it has continued under Conservative and Labour regimes, without any alteration. The impulse to sell arms is not altered. It’s not a party-political ideology, it’s structural. It is considered to be central to the British economy. Certainly, there is another reason why governments of all stripes have supported the arms trade: it is a way of subsidising British arms procurement. You build, for example, typhoon warplanes and it costs a lot of money. However, BAE can supply them relatively cheaply to the British government, if they’re allowed to overcharge audaciously to foreign governments that they bribe to buy them.  Therefore, it is a way of subsidising the British military establishment, and enabling it to prosper, you might say.

The bipartisan nature of the industry is interesting. You have leaders, such as Jeremy Corbyn, who maintain an anti-arms trade stance. For example, Corbyn has said if he was to become Prime Minister, that he will stop arms exports to Saudi Arabia and other human rights abusing countries. Given the trade is, arguably, so embedded within the political system, how easy would this be for him?
When we exposed BAE in The Guardian, one of the great difficulties we had was getting Labour politicians to take up this story. Indeed, one person that put obstacles in our way was Jack Straw, who was then a Labour minister.  He had a constituency in Blackburn, which had a lot of BAE workers in it, and I don’t think he ever saw beyond that point.

With that in mind, do you think that Corbyn could do it? Do you think that the move to stop arms exports is a move that could be possible?
The Trade Unions who support Labour, and Corbyn, are the same Unions with members in the arms industry, particularly BAE, in Scotland and Northern England. Immediately, the first thought is ‘this is going to cost us votes, this going to put our voters out of work, we don’t want to do it.’ However, this is very shortsighted. There is a lot of research that argues you can place workers in the arms industry into more constructive industries, with relatively little pain. Therefore, it’s perfectly possible to do it.

With regard to the effect of the arms industry on the British economy, is it a major benefit? Or, is this a myth propagated by the government and arms companies themselves?
It’s certainly true that the British arms industry employs a lot of people, up and down the country—making submarines, warships, planes, tanks etc. Whether this constitutes a benefit to the British economy is quite a political question. It’s not necessarily beneficial to the British economy to have thousands of people making unnecessary items, or indeed, obnoxious items, merely because they employ a relatively high level of technical engineering. It would be better, in the long run for everybody, including the British economy, if people made something a bit more constructive, such as wind turbines.  You can imagine quite a lot of high-tech activities that could replace arms sales, but none of those are going to put as many bribes in people’s pockets.

What about the relationship with Saudi Arabia? Over 50% of British exports go to Saudi Arabia. How did this become a huge market for BAE and other companies?
Saudi Arabia is central to the British arms industry. They buy an enormous quantity of arms from Britain. Some of these deals are eye-wateringly big. For example, forty billion for the Al Yamamah program, which was a warplanes deal, and many, many other items of military equipment.  Saudi Arabia is a country with an immense amount of oil money and Britain recycles it by selling them this military equipment. Saudi Arabia has found an unwelcome purpose in using it to bomb the Yemenis. This is an example of what happens when you saturate a country, a despotic regime, with arms, they’re going to misuse them, obviously. It’s a mistake to imagine though that Saudi Arabia is an independent actor in all this.  Britain sold Saudi Arabia virtually an entire airforce, during the Al Yamamah deal, and they run it, they maintain it, they supply the planes, they supply the spare parts, they supply the pilots, who are often seconded out of the R.A.F.  It’s an operation that wouldn’t happen without the British. It’s all about the money!  These are truly gigantic sums of money that come back, and it enables the British military establishment to equip itself with all these things at a price that they think they can afford.  So, you might say, everybody wins, except the people in Yemen that the bombs drop on.

The Al Yamamah deal was the biggest arms deal in history, right?
The Al Yamamah deal was the biggest arms deal in history.

And what did that involve? Was that riven with corruption on all sides?
When we started to investigate the corrupt relationship between the British government, BAE, and Saudi Arabia, the Al Yamamah deal, this gigantic deal, was the centerpiece of it all. I think the most extraordinary thing that we discovered was the way that BAE, with the connivance of the British government, handed over, in total, about a billion pounds to Prince Bandar, who is the son of the defense minister. Not just a billion pounds, they also gave him his own plane, they gave him a great big airbus, which is painted in the livery of his favorite American football team – that’s just a demonstration of how frivolous these people are, if you like. When we succeeded in publishing that astonishing fact, I think that started the impetus for quite a big investigation into what BAE had been up to, which then blew up itself.

It’s quite interesting because obviously there’s a lot of investigative journalists around, and this has been happening for decades, but it seems to me, that you were the first at The Guardian to really catch hold of the issue and really probe it.  Why do you think that is?  Is it because the industry is completely opaque by design, so it’s been very difficult for journalists to get any information? Why do you think it took so long for an investigative journalist to expose really the corruption at the core of the industry?
The corruption which surrounds the British arms industry is very difficult to penetrate by journalists. Of course, it’s secret.  The companies aren’t going to talk to you, the government isn’t going to talk to you, nobody wants to talk to you.  People like the Saudi’s certainly aren’t going to talk to you.  People have been paid bribes, the last thing they want to do is talk to you.  So, it’s a hard one to investigate.  However, there was something that changed. Around 10 years ago or more, in the wake of 9/11, when they legislated to absolutely outlaw overseas bribery, it made it possible to investigate all this.  The way it worked was, because these things had now been made explicitly illegal, the companies got a little bit nervous.  One of the chief whistleblowers who came to us, for example, he’d been kicked out by BAE. He was running some intermediary travel agency, and they were laundering money through it.  BAE got a bit nervous, they said ‘this is all illegal now, we think we’re going to do it a different way, you’re fired.’ He got very indignant, came to us, and wanted to expose it all. People like that started come forward bit-by-bit. That, plus our ability to actually dig out these incriminating documents that had been sitting there in the archives for decades and no one realising it, made it possible to do it, and made it possible to start the work.  I’ve got to say that, also, we on The Guardian were the kind of journalists who were interested in doing this, willing to do this, whereas journalists on more mainstream papers if you like, they would spend their time being taken on lavish trips by BAE, and then they weren’t going to rock the boat, why should they do that? They were bought into this idea that what was good for BAE was good for the country. They had no incentive to burrow into the bribery.

In terms of the publication about BAE, and its reaction, did they come back with arguments against what you were writing or did they remain silent?
We dug away on the paper and we published lots of stories, literally hundreds of stories, over several years in the end.  What was striking was the reaction of BAE.  There was no reaction.  Very early on, they took a decision that they best way to deal with this, in PR terms, was to starve it of oxygen.  So, they didn’t find, they didn’t deny anything, they just stayed completely silent. They refused to comment.  Obviously, they went around behind our backs and they briefed other people that this was all just a bunch of crazy lefties, and there was no truth in it.  But officially, they wouldn’t say anything.  And in fact, this turned out to be an error, first of all, because once we realized that they had taken a decision not to sue whatever we did, we were much emboldened, and our lawyers were much emboldened.  So, you know, we thought ‘we know where we are now, they’re not going to sue us, whatever we say,’ so we just steamed ahead and did it.

Did the revelations have any impact on policy? Did the government have to answer the questions that were raised, or was it just swept under the carpet?
The curious thing was, we plugged away for years and years like this.  BAE kept their heads down.  The government just batted away everything we said.  And then finally, just as is so often with scandals, it was the cover up that brought the whole thing alive because the serious fraud of this, who had taken an interest in our discoveries, was trying to access the Swiss bank accounts of Saudi government ministers, where all this money, where all this BAE money had been stashed.  Soon as they did that, and as soon as the Saudi’s got to hear of it, Prince Bandar, son of the defence minister, flew to London and complained, or threatened, to the Blair government, that this was upsetting their relationship.  Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, stepped in, closed down the investigation.  This caused a huge row, and there was then a political result if you like, because the cover up caused a furore.  In the end of the day, the British closed down their criminal investigation, but the Americans, who got interested with all this row, picked it all up.  The U.S. Justice Department pursued BAE and eventually forced out of them a penalty of more than 300 million dollars and some sort of promise they’d stop doing it.

Did the Americans go for it because it was helpful for their industry themselves?  Because if you hit a competitor, then it might help you….
It’s obviously easy for the U.S. Justice Department to have a go at a foreign arms company rather than Lockheed or somebody like that.

Because I imagine the practices are comparable there, right?
Oh yeah, they all do the same thing, yes!

The whole system is run like that.
Yes, but, I mean, I can, there’s some logic in the American position that why should it be difficult for our companies, but easy for foreign companies.

I’ve been looking into the licensing system, which to me seems completely toothless.  It doesn’t mean anything.  If you can sell arms to Saudi Arabia at the level we do, while they’re bombing civilian targets in Yemen, what would have to happen for us to stop selling arms to anyone?  What do you think of the licensing system? Do you think there’s any reason for its existence, apart from just sort of sugar-coating a system where we’ll sell to anyone we want.
Well the export licensing system is supposed to prevent Britain from selling arms to bad regimes doing bad things. This is bound to be largely cosmetic because structurally, all the government impetus is to sell as many arms as possible to as many people as possible.  So, it’s only with reluctance and in a limited way that they are ever going to dampen or inhibit the sale of arms.  You need something to make it look ok. It would probably be too much to say it’s completely cosmetic, I imagine that it does have a dampening effect on some things.  Nobody’s going to sell nerve gas precursors to the Syrian regime or to North Korea. To that extent, it does moderate the kind of things that would get sold otherwise, but it doesn’t moderate it very much.

If you were starting a project now on the U.K. arms industry, what would be the things that you’d look at?  What do you think hasn’t been investigated?  What elements of the system need to be exposed that haven’t been?
Since we exposed the role of the British government through D.E.S.O., and the role of BAE, two things have happened.  First of all, D.E.S.O.’s continued. They simply shut it down, changed the name, and reopened it under a different name. In fact, I suspect they hadn’t shut it down, I think everything just carried on. I think people ought to be investigating the newly, euphemistically titled, Arms Sales Department, and pay a lot more attention than people do. Secondly, I would look at the way BAE’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia have continued, because I don’t think that people have taken on board enough, that the Saudis are only able to bomb the Yemenis because the British help them to do it.  It’s not that the British just carry their bags, it’s that they are running their air force. We’re signing up more and more arms deals all the time, and the amount of rocketry and ammunition that we’ve sold to Saudis, and bombs we’ve sold to Saudis to do this, is enormous.

Do you think there’s a problem that our media does not investigate and look at this industry? As I said before, up before you guys exposed a lot of it, there wasn’t hardly anything out there; you get the odd article that criticizes the fact that we’re selling arms to Saudi Arabia, but there’s no regulatory stuff really coming out.  Do you think that’s a dereliction of duty on the part of the media?
I think the problem with the media and the arms industry is that, in terms of public behavior, the British governments have actually not sought to conceal that they sell arms, in fact they seek to boast about it, but they boast about it in terms of how good it is for the British economy and how good it is for British workers. They’ll call press conferences to boast about it, and then journalists tend to write all this down at face value. The only opposition comes from activist bodies, like the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, whose starting position is a bit uncomfortable for a lot of people because their starting position is all arms are bad and wicked, so they appear to be extremely partisan in that way.  There ought to be a center ground in which the media engage in some robust analysis of the crooked way this industry operates.

Does the arms industry a strong PR department?  I imagine that, as you said earlier, they take a lot of journalists on all-expenses-paid trips to different places to show off their latest gadgets.  Is that a problem?
The arms industry is like the tobacco industry, there’s people there making a lot of money out of it, and they’ve got a lot of money to spend on lobbying, pressurizing, you know, all the black arts of PR.  Plus, you have got this political pressure that they can say to local politicians, well they say one thing, ‘come on a trip, and see what we’re doing, see how wonderful we are, and we’re giving work to all these people in your constituency, you wouldn’t want to upset them, would you?’

And final question: the U.K. seems to have become this center of wealth in the world. We are the second largest arms exporter, we’re the first for cyber surveillance technology, which is being exported, we’re the first for private military and security companies.  How do you think the U.K. became this preeminent workshop for war in the world?  And is it by design or just sort of by default?
It’s quite difficult to understand looking at it why the United Kingdom should be such a big player in the arms business because we’re not such a big country. We have rivals in this trade, the Americans primarily, also the French, and the Russians, they’re all, you know, big arms salesmen.  So, why does Britain do so well? It’s a hard question to answer, and I think the central part of the answer is the level of government support that’s given here.  I think BAE has managed to capture the British government, almost entirely, and as a result of that, you’ve got an integrated industry.  In other countries, such as the United States, you have got the level of political support. where arms companies can lobby senators in the districts that they have factories. However, I don’t think there’s the same embedded quality.

The military-political nexus has birthed big political problems in the past; for example, when Eisenhower was pushed toward war by companies who wanted to increase their share price. Do you think this level of corruption effects policy in the U.K.?
Obviously we don’t live in a country where the generals run the country, so we don’t have a military industrial complex in that sense. However, if you look again at the Yemeni bombing, all those bombs and all the ammunition represents a profit of revenue stream for BAE, and represents British workers. If you want to look at it that way, which is the way some politicians look at it, then it’s all money in the bank.