Just when it looked as if the Gripen investigation would suffer a quiet death, there are new developments. And they are serious. Up to now the committee of experts under the leadership of Ágnes Vadai, undersecretary of the Ministry of Defense, managed to produce a thirty-five-page-long report that was handed over to Prime Minister Gyurcsány. Vadai was interviewed several times in the last few months, and she invariably told the reporters that her committee was not charged with investigating any possible bribery by BAE Systems/Saab concerning Hungary’s surprise purchase of Gripen fighter jets. The members of the committee simply analyzed the legality of the decision making process. They discovered a few procedural problems but nothing shocking.
There was a promise that a parliamentary committee would look into the real question: did the Orbán government receive any money from the British-Swedish company to ensure the purchase of Gripens? After all, the original decision was to purchase American planes, but in the last minute Viktor Orbán alone, against the advice of the Hungarian military experts, decided in favor of the Swedish jets. However, there has been a deafening silence concerning the creation of such a parliamentary committee. This isn’t surprising. The chairman of the committee on national defense is István Simicskó (the good Christian Democrat), who in the Orbán government was an undersecretary in the Ministry of Defense. So it looked as if the Gripen affair had been buried once and for all.
And then comes a lengthy article in The New York Times’ business section, November 25: “Payload: Taking Aim at Corporate Bribery.” The story is fairly intricate, and Hungary is but a subplot. The U.S. Justice Department is examining BAE because BAE generates nearly half of its revenue in the United States, and, more importantly, BAE recently acquired a major supplier of armored Humvees used by the Americans in Iraq. What the Justice Department wants to know is whether BAE violated any domestic laws banning international bribery and money laundering. This case is not unique. The Justice Department is investigating about sixty companies under a law called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).
The article is mostly about BAE’s bribes to the Saudi royal family, but toward the end it claims that BAE most likely also dispersed money to the Czech and Hungarian governments. There were, of course, earlier charges stemming from the Swedish investigation into the Gripen affair. According to the New York Times article, Lt. General Tome H. Walters Jr., then head of overseas sales for the Pentagon, wrote a letter to the Czech foreign minister in which he complained about a “lack of transparency” in the negotiations. He also maintained that “the competition for the contract was not above board.” As we know, the contract was subsequently awared to BAE and its Swedish partner, Saab.
General Walters, now retired, told the reporters that similar problems were encountered trying to sell American jets to the Hungarian government. BAE again secured the Hungarian contract. “American officials say they believe that the Hungarian and Czech governments were influenced by payments. They cite a CIA briefing during which they were told that BAE paid millions of dollars to the major political parties in Hungary to win the contracts there.”
This is a fantastic turn of events and, in my opinion, doesn’t bode well for Viktor Orbán and Fidesz in case these charges can actually be proven. The Department of Defense obviously suspected foul play already in 2001. The CIA was also keeping an eye on the situation. It may take some time, but I hope that eventually we will find out the truth (especially once Western reporters get inspired).
Needless to say, Hungarian reporters ran to Péter Szijjártó, the Fidesz spokesman. They wanted to know the party’s reaction. And what could be the reaction? Fidesz cannot be bothered fighting military companies over contracts. It’s none of their business. The charge is in stark contrast. It was precisely the business–big business–of Fidesz to exact payments for contracts. Let’s see whether the charge can be substantiated.