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A blast from the past

CLAUDIA BRAUDE - Jan 24 2006 15:00
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A major political corruption scandalin the United States has again focused attention on the role of seniorDemocratic Alliance official Russel Crystal in apartheid-era dirty tricks.

Central to the scandal is Jack Abramoff, a former high-flying Republican lobbyist, who pleaded guilty on January 3 to charges of conspiracy to bribe public officials, fraud and tax evasion.

For several years after its launch in 1985, Abramoff (47) was the Washington face of Pacman, code name for the International Freedom Foundation (IFF). In 1995, the New Nation reported former security policeman Paul Erasmus as describing the IFF as a stratcom-military intelligence (MI) project designed tosway world opinion against the anti- apartheid movement.

The IFF was reportedly the brainchild of Crystal, current deputy national executive director of the DA. He, Abramoff and former top spook Craig Williamson worked closely together in launching the organisation.

Among Abramoff’s South African projects was the anti-communist film Red Scorpion, made in South African-occupied Namibia and, according to Williamson, funded by the South African military.

With a 1991/92 budget of more than R10-million, Pacman was terminated by former president FW de Klerk in the early 1990s, along with other covert apartheid-era projects.

The IFF was ostensibly founded as a conservative think-tank, but was in reality part of an elaborate South African military intelligence operation, code-named Operation Babushka. Established to combat sanctions and undermine theAfrican National Congress, it also supported Jonas Savimbi and his rebel Angolan movement, Unita.

Crystal first came to public notice as the head of the National Students Federation (NSF), which worked to break the grip of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas)on English-speaking campuses. According to Truth and Reconciliation Commission researcher John Daniels, the NSF was partly funded by the notorious Bureau for State Security (Boss). Crystal denies this: "As far as I am concerned, the NSF was not connected to the police,"he told the Mail & Guardian recently. "If people were manipulating the situation, it was not with my knowledge."

Crystal established links with right-wing student bodies internationally. Daniels records that in 1983, Abramoff visited South Africa as head of the College Republicans National Committee (CRNC) to forge links with the NSF.

CONTINUES BELOW


Moving to Washington, he took over the CRNC, transforming a "sleepy establishment organisation" into a vibrant right-wing activist group.

Daniels reports that the CRNC and NFS co-sponsored an international conference of right-wing groups at Savimbi’s Jamba headquarters in June 1985, attended by Savimbi, leaders of the Afghan mujahedin, Nicaraguan contras, Laotian guerrillas and members of the Oliver North American right. Crystal and Abramoff were also present.

According to Daniels, theyorganised a follow-up conference in Johannesburg a month later, with the same participants. The participants received a message of support from former president PW Botha.

According to The SundayIndependent, Crystal conceptualised the IFF in Jamba, while a source close to the IFF said he had been directed to discuss the idea with MI.

The Sunday Independent reported that senior MI operative Craig Williamson also played a role inestablishing the IFF. Williamson, who left the police in 1985 ostensibly to go into business, in realityestablished Longreach, a South African Defence Force (SADF) front company that aimed to influence businessmen in favour of the apartheid government. According to Daniels, the IFF was sub-contracted to Longreach. Williamson helped direct Operation Babushka.

In 1995, he described the IFF to Newsday as an instrument for "political warfare" whose job was "undercutting ANC credibility". The operation was constructed to prevent people knowing "they were involved with a foreign [South African] government. They ran their own organisation, but we steered them."

The IFF was officially headquartered in Washington, where the South Africans were given entrée into the American political establishment by Abramoff and the Young Republicans. But, it was effectively run from Johannesburg by Crystal. Newsday reported that the Johannesburg office was "the nerve centre of IFF operations worldwide".

Though he denied any direct connection between the IFF and Longreach, Crystal confirmed the IFF’s links with MI on specific projects relating to sanctions and support for Unita.

"There were certain things [MI] wanted done — tackling the ANC as a terrorist-communist organisation," Crystal told Newsday. "I knew Williamson very well. I knew him politically," he told the M&G. "The projects we did for them, they paid for. As far as we were concerned, our client was the government," he told The Sunday Independent.

In Washington, Longreach set up an intelligence office to capitalise on the IFF’s material. "The advantage of the IFF was that it pilloried the ANC," said Williamson. "That was backed up with writings, intellectual inputs."

And movies. After quitting the IFF in 1989, Abramoff released Red Scorpion, an action movie that portrayed a Savimbi-liked anti-communistguerrilla commander supported by Washington and Pretoria.

Crystal said the IFF was not involved in the film’s production. According to Williamson, however, it was "funded by our guys", who also provided military trucks, equipment and soldiers as extras.

Abramoff’s move from the South African government payroll to Republican lobbyist has crashed spectacularly. In addition to federal charges, including defrauding Indian tribal clients of millions of dollars, he is cooperating with a broader US Justice Department corruption investigation that is scrutinising his relationship with political aides, government officials and businesspeople. He has testified to lavishing junkets, campaign contributions and meals on House and Senate members.

Prosecutors refer to only one congressman, Ohio Republican Robert W Ney. Suspicions of a quid pro quo relationship with Abramoff have forced him to resign as chairperson of the House administration committee. But Abramoff built a key alliance with House Republicans, including former majority leader Tom DeLay, a Texas conservative ascending to House leadership who received more than $70 000 (R420 000) from Abramoff for his campaign committees.

Other careers are threatened, as lawmakers return his campaign contributions. He also paid newspaper columnists thousands of dollars to write favourably about his clients.

Attracting initial scrutiny were the astronomical fees he charged to his Indian tribal clients enriched by casino revenues — $80-million between 2000 and 2003.

He urged them to hire publicist Michael Scanlon, his secret partner, who invisibly returned half the payments to Abramoff, who diverted these tribal funds to favoured Republican lawmakers, seeking reciprocal favours.

Another concealed financial vehicle was the "non-profit" American International Centre, ostensibly a think-tank, but in reality a cover for Abramoff and Scanlon’s bills to foreign clients whom, for various reasons, they preferred not to represent openly. Abramoff and another associate, Adam Kidan, were indicted on unrelated fraud and conspiracy charges relating to the purchase of SunCruz Casinos, a fleet of Florida-based gambling boats that cruised international waters beyond the jurisdiction of US gambling laws.

Former SunCruz owner KonstaninasBoulis, murdered in January 2002 in a gang-style hit, alleged that Kidan had links with organised crime.Congressman Ney also placed comments in the Congressional Record backing Abramoff’s efforts to gaincontrol of SunCruz.

Crystal is considered an influential behind-the-scenes operator in the DA. Writing about the DA’s 2004 election campaign, journalist Paddy Harper described him as "responsible for making sure every Tony [Leon] event works. The package Crystal creates is slick, an integral part of selling the new-look leader."

Crystal said he hoped his past association with Abramoff and the IFF would not taint his work.

"I hope we have set aside what happened 20 years ago," he told the M&G. "Politics means influencing public opinion. That is my field. I don’t see why my work then should have anything to do with my work for the DA now."

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After quitting the IFF in 1989, Abramoff released Red Scorpion




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