By ERIC SCHMITT | WASHINGTON – An American ambassador helped cover up the illegal Chinese origins of ammunition that a Pentagon contractor bought to supply Afghan security forces, according to testimony gathered by Congressional investigators.
A military attachÃ© has told the investigators that the United States ambassador to Albania endorsed a plan by the Albanian defense minister to hide several boxes of Chinese ammunition from a visiting reporter. The ammunition was being repackaged to disguise its origins and shipped from Albania to Afghanistan by a Miami Beach arms-dealing company.
The ambassador, John L. Withers II, met with the defense minister, Fatmir Mediu, hours before a reporter for The New York Times was to visit the American contractor’s operations in Tirana, the Albanian capital, according to the testimony. The company, under an Army contract, bought the ammunition to supply Afghan security forces although American law prohibits trading in Chinese arms.
The attachÃ©, Maj. Larry D. Harrison II of the Army, was one of the aides attending the late-night meeting, on Nov. 19, 2007. He told House investigators that Mr. Mediu asked Ambassador Withers for help, saying he was concerned that the reporter would reveal that he had been accused of profiting from selling arms. The minister said that because he had gone out of his way to help the United States, a close ally, “the U.S. owed him something,” according to Major Harrison.
Mr. Mediu ordered the commanding general of Albania’s armed forces to remove all boxes of Chinese ammunition from a site the reporter was to visit, and “the ambassador agreed that this would alleviate the suspicion of wrongdoing,” Major Harrison said, according to his testimony.
Investigators interviewed Major Harrison by telephone on June 9, and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee made excerpts of the transcript public on Monday.
At the time of the meeting, the company, AEY Inc., was under investigation for illegal arms trafficking involving Chinese ammunition.
On Friday, the president of the company, Efraim E. Diveroli, 22, and three others were charged with selling prohibited Chinese ammunition to the Pentagon that they said was made in Albania.
On March 27, The New York Times published an article that said Albanian documents showed that the Miami company had bought more than 100 million Chinese cartridges that were stored for decades in former cold war stockpiles.
Mr. Diveroli arranged to have them repacked in cardboard boxes, many of which split or decomposed after shipment to the war zones, according to the article. Different lots or types of ammunition were mixed. In some cases the ammunition was dirty, corroded or covered with a film.
The repackaging operation, carried out by an AEY subcontractor at the Rinas Airport in Tirana, has become the focus of the Congressional investigation.
According to the transcript excerpts released by the committee, Major Harrison told investigators that he did not agree with the decision to hide the boxes from the reporter, and said that he felt “very uncomfortable” during the meeting.
Major Harrison, who as the chief of the embassy’s office of defense cooperation was responsible for helping American efforts to train, equip and modernize Albania’s military, said that his suggestion to bar the reporter from visiting the Albania base was rejected.
In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the committee’s chairman, Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, said Monday that there were signs that embassy officials in Tirana tried to cover up the November meeting once Mr. Waxman’s staff began an investigation into the arms company. The letter said the committee would seek to interview Mr. Withers and other embassy personnel.
Attempts to reach Mr. Withers through the United States Embassy in Tirana were met with a request to refer all questions to Washington.
But a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing criminal inquiry into AEY, said he had spoken Monday to Mr. Withers, who adamantly denied Major Harrison’s statement.
The senior official said the committee had never interviewed Mr. Withers or other top embassy personnel, and released the information on Monday to fan interest in a committee hearing on the company’s business dealings scheduled for Tuesday.
A State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, told reporters on Monday that the department was reviewing Mr. Waxman’s letter, which included Major Harrison’s statements.
“We have no information that would support the idea that U.S. officials were involved in some kind of illicit activity,” Mr. Casey said. “But obviously, again, any allegations made, certainly any questions raised, by the chairman of a major committee in Congress, is something that we will be happy to look into.”
Mr. Withers, a Foreign Service officer for 24 years, has been ambassador to Albania since July 2007. He has also served in Latvia, Nigeria, Russia and The Hague. His father, John L. Withers Sr., is a former director of the Agency for International Development.
A spokesman for the Albanian Defense Ministry in Tirana could not be reached for comment, and an official at the Albanian Embassy in Washington declined to answer questions.
Capt. Andres Vazquez, a military lawyer for Major Harrison in Germany, did not answer his phone on Monday night and did not reply to an e-mail message.
According to messages obtained by Congressional investigators, Major Harrison urged embassy officials to inform the committee of the Nov. 19 meeting between the ambassador and minister, but the embassy omitted any reference to the meeting in its official response to the committee’s questions.
Embassy staff members seemed sympathetic to the Albanians’ alarm. The day after the November meeting, the embassy’s regional security officer, Patrick Leonard, wrote an assistant an e-mail message obtained by the committee: “NY Times just arrived today and might be doing a story on this and it might get ugly. Ambassador is very concerned about the case.”
When The Times published its article on March 27, it was quickly forwarded to embassy officials. In an e-mail message to several embassy officials, Mr. Leonard said that the article focused on the arms company’s dealings. “No mention of Embassy involvement – thank God!”
In his letter to Secretary Rice, Mr. Waxman said the e-mail correspondence among embassy officials, combined with Major Harrison’s statements, “raises questions about both the State Department’s role in the shipment of illegal Chinese ammunition and the candor of the department’s response to the committee.”
In January 2007, the Army awarded the company a contract, potentially worth $298 million, that made it the main munitions supplier for Afghan security forces in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Mr. Mediu, the Albanian defense minister, resigned in March, before The Times published its article, after explosions at an arms depot near Tirana killed at least 16 people, wounded nearly 300 and littered the area with shrapnel and live munitions. He has denied corruption charges.