James Giffen, oilman to the Nazarbayevs, and putative inspiration for the oil corruption plot line in Syriana, has been rotting in prison for the past seven years. (My friend Steve LeVine has been following Giffen’s exploits since the 1990s, and catalogued some of them in his excellent book, The Oil and the Glory.) We’ve been trying to follow his case over the last few years, but it had, essentially, stalled out.
Giffen stands accused of funneling about $80 million in bribes to Nursultan Nazarbayev in return for negotiating U.S. access to Kazakhstan’s oil fields in the Caspian; he claimed, however, that he was knowingly and deliberately working for the CIA when he was doing so. This presented something of a quandry for the government: they can either proceed with the discovery phase of the trial and declassify some of their files and operational details in Kazakhstan, or they can try to let Giffen languish in prison until he gives up playing his game and just confesses. Federal authorities went for the latter, and as a result Giffen sat in prison for an unprecedented seven years without a trial.
Eventually, the judge presiding over the case ruled that the CIA was dragging its feet in providing the documents constitutionally Giffen is constitutionally owed in his trial. The government responded by dropping most of the charges against him. Now, Steve LeVine reports:
Call it the triumph of American Putinism. In Russia, the truism above all truisms is the ascendent power of the intelligence apparatus — the siloviki, in Russian. As Dana Priest documented in her recent “Top Secret America” series in the Washington Post, an entire parallel intelligence universe has been created in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Schwartz understood correctly that he could set up a collision between the Justice Department and the CIA in which the latter would probably prevail.
So that’s what happened. Under the prior administration, Vice President Dick Cheney was going to back up the philosophy that U.S. intelligence agencies should not cooperate with the Justice Department by coughing up secret discovery documents demanded by Schwartz. Since Judge Pauley had made clear that Giffen had the right to such documents under the Constitution, this put the government in the position of not being able to uphold the original charges.
It’s kind of unreal: for reasons unknown, the government was unwilling to provide the evidence necessary to convict the man accused of the largest corruption case in U.S. history. So they let him go, slapping him on the wrist for filing a bad tax return twelve years ago. And the last seven years Giffen spent in jail, twisting in the wind? “My bad,” is all the federal government seems willing to offer.