Flashback: TIME Cover Story: The Dirtiest Bank of All.
“I could tell you what you want to know, but I must worry about my wife and family — they could be killed.”
— a former top B.C.C.I. officer
“We better not talk about this over the phone. We’ve found some bugs in offices that haven’t been put there by law enforcement.”
— a Manhattan investigator probing B.C.C.I.
Bank-fraud cases are usually dry, tedious affairs. Not this one. Nothing in the history of modern financial scandals rivals the unfolding saga of the Bank of Credit & Commerce International, the $20 billion rogue empire that regulators in 62 countries shut down early this month in a stunning global sweep. Never has a single scandal involved so much money, so many nations or so many prominent people.
Superlatives are quickly exhausted: it is the largest corporate criminal enterprise ever, the biggest Ponzi scheme, the most pervasive money-laundering operation and financial supermarket ever created for the likes of Manuel Noriega, Ferdinand Marcos, Saddam Hussein and the Colombian drug barons. B.C.C.I. even accomplished a Stealth-like invasion of the U.S. banking industry by secretly buying First American Bankshares, a Washington-based holding company with offices stretching from Florida to New York, whose chairman is former U.S. Defense Secretary Clark Clifford.
But B.C.C.I. is more than just a criminal bank. From interviews with sources close to B.C.C.I., TIME has pieced together a portrait of a clandestine division of the bank called the “black network,” which functions as a global intelligence operation and a Mafia-like enforcement squad. Operating primarily out of the bank’s offices in Karachi, Pakistan, the 1,500-employee black network has used sophisticated spy equipment and techniques, along with bribery, extortion, kidnapping and even, by some accounts, murder. The black network — so named by its own members — stops at almost nothing to further the bank’s aims the world over.
The more conventional departments of B.C.C.I. handled such services as laundering money for the drug trade and helping dictators loot their national treasuries. The black network, which is still functioning, operates a lucrative arms-trade business and transports drugs and gold. According to investigators and participants in those operations, it often works with Western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies. The strange and still murky ties between B.C.C.I. and the intelligence agencies of several countries are so pervasive that even the White House has become entangled. As TIME reported earlier this month, the National Security Council used B.C.C.I. to funnel money for the Iran-contra deals, and the CIA maintained accounts in B.C.C.I. for covert operations. Moreover, investigators have told TIME that the Defense Intelligence Agency has maintained a slush-fund account with B.C.C.I., apparently to pay for clandestine activities.