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Three Getaway Trucks By: William Safire
New York Times | Friday, May 09, 2003


The night after President Bush gave him 48 hours to surrender, Saddam Hussein sent his son Qusay to the vault of Iraq's Central Bank to make a modest withdrawal for the family's departure.

It took three tractor-trailers to haul away nearly a billion dollars in cash — all in $100 U.S. greenbacks — plus $100 million worth of euros. Thus did Saddam & Sons bring off the grandest larceny in bank history.

Reading Dexter Filkins's scoop in The Times, my mind harks back to a question asked of Frank Sinatra two decades ago by the chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission: Did the singer ever carry $2 million in an attaché case to a mobster? Sinatra, irritated at the bagman charge, snapped: "If you could get $2 million in an attaché case, I'll give you $2 million."

The novelist Norman Mailer called me when I reported that exchange. He had done some calculations: "A $100 bill measures 6.2 inches by 2.6 inches. You can squeeze 350 bills down to one inch. That's $35,000 in a one-inch packet. You can lay six of those packets along the 17-inch axis of an attaché case, and four others lengthwise into the space left on that first layer."

Ten packets per layer amount to $350,000, and the novelist measured five layers in the 12-by-17-by-5-inch case. That makes only $1,750,000, but with half-inch packets of hundreds stuffed in the corners, Mailer announced triumphantly, "you can fit $2,012,000 into an attaché case." We agreed that Sinatra lost his bet.

This is by way of illustrating the physical size of Saddam's severance pay. Five hundred equally jampacked attaché cases would be required to contain that stolen billion dollars in hundreds, not to mention the loose change in euros (presumably for tips in Europe).

Where does one take such truckloads of cash? Not to a family palace or home, the first places to be bombed or searched. Logic suggests a city outside the war zone. There the money could be laundered to make it untraceably fungible — able to secretly purchase North Korean missiles and nukes, or be used for bribes to Russian guardians of warheads, to pass weapons on to terrorist groups. That danger is what makes finding that money more than a satisfying solution to a massive theft — it's an urgent matter of national security. There's a chance that much of the money has already been found, but even an unaccounted-for few hundred million can underwrite a lot of terror.

Fact No. 1: the Fed tells me that $312 billion in $100 bills is floating around the world, twice as much as exists in the U.S. of that denomination of our currency. (That "float" amounts to an interest-free loan from the world to us.) Fact No. 2: each bill has a serial number, which requires the thief of a huge run to route it through a variety of cutouts lest it be traced back. Fact No. 3: trucks don't have wings.

The stolen billion was probably driven out of Iraq on March 18, the night before the war began. Across which of its borders? Iran, Saddam's enemy, is least likely; Turkey, which does not want further tensions with the U.S., unlikely; Jordan, possible; Syria, occupying Lebanon, with its corrupt Beirut banks, the most probable.

Bashar al-Assad's financiers are sophisticated. To conceal revenues from its illicit pipeline from Iraq, Syria issued phony reports for years exaggerating its own oil production. As a result, the International Monetary Fund concluded that Syria's economic growth in 2001 was double the real percentage. The new Iraqi government should have a billion-dollar claim against Syria for its rip-off of Iraqi oil assets; the shadow of that should induce Bashar to help us track down Saddam's looting of Iraq's treasury.

Money-laundering experts worry that in the past six weeks, Saddam's agents could have been buying and moving gold and gold futures, depositing cash under fictitious names and through straw corporations, moving to the "layering phase": distributing disguised assets through seemingly legitimate enterprises.

Is our financial antiterror network up to Saddam's final challenge? This is far bigger than anything it's had to tackle before.

As a jocular Mailer told me about Sinatra's bet: "You collect and we'll share." In this historic heist, every bill on the getaway trucks belongs to Iraqis.   


William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times.


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