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BOOK REVIEW : Irresistible Story With Brazen Self-Hype : THE OUTLAW BANK: A Wild Ride Into the Heart of BCCI by Jonathan Beaty and S.C. Gwynne Random House $25, 352 pages


The Bank of Credit and Commerce International--better known to prosecutors and headline writers around the world as BCCI--was built on an international conspiracy worthy of a novel by Robert Ludlum or Richard Condon. And that's exactly how investigative journalists Jonathan Beaty and S. C. Gwynne style the story of BCCI in "The Outlaw Bank."

"BCCI was the largest criminal corporate enterprise ever," they write, "biggest Ponzi scheme, the most pervasive money-laundering operation in history, the only bank . . . that ran a brisk sideline business in both conventional and nuclear weapons, gold, drugs, turnkey mercenary armies, intelligence and counterintelligence, shipping, and commodities from cement in the Middle East to Honduran coffee to Vietnamese beans."

Beaty and Gwynne are the reporters who dogged the BCCI story for Time magazine from its earliest stirrings, and now elevate themselves to the heroes of their own story: "Beaty and Gwynne were the Woodward and Bernstein of the BCCI scandal," goes the publisher's blurb. Instead of "Deep Throat," they give us a mysterious CIA source who is known as "Condor." And they describe their own high-tech efforts to avoid the attention of eavesdroppers (and their own editors) by creating a satellite-based telephone "cut-out" system "based on the techniques used by the Colombian cocaine cartels."

Notably, the authors persist in writing about themselves in the third person and in frankly awe-struck terms: "Beaty's specialty was the journalistic equivalent of a high-wire act performed without a net." As if savoring the day when the book is optioned for the movies and the roles of the heroic reporters are cast, the authors dress up the narrative with dialogue and stage direction:

"Beaty grimaced. 'You're saying (Clark) Clifford, one of the biggest powers in the Democratic Party (is) fronting for this giant criminal bank?'

"(Jack) Blum smiled, an impish twinkle in his eye. 'I told you, we're talking serious cover-up here.' "

The hype and self-promotion may be shameless, but the story itself is irresistible. BCCI was the creation of a gifted banking entrepreneur from Pakistan named Agha Hasan Abedi who understood how to parlay an abundance of petrodollars--and the ambitions of miscellaneous oil sheiks, arms-dealers, influence peddlers, spies, fixers and terrorists--into a vast financial network that eventually collapsed under the weight of its own secrets.

"Abedi's vision was precise," the authors write. "He would build what no one had ever built before: a globe-straddling, multinational Third World bank that would break the hammerlock the giant European colonial banks held on the developing world."

Abedi is a genuinely intriguing figure--"a Muslim, a mystic and a poet" who also boasted "the best Rolodex in the Middle East." Eventually, the names of prominent American politicians and powerbrokers--including, fatefully, the venerable Democratic insider Clark Clifford--found their way into Abedi's Rolodex. In the end, of course, Clifford took the fall with Abedi when the BCCI scandal broke in 1991.

"Stripped to their bare essentials," the authors conclude, "both men were masters of the ancient art of wielding public influence--or the appearance of influence--for private gain."

Gwynne and Beaty have an undeniable genius for writing lucidly and engagingly about the Byzantine world of international high finance. They point out, for example, that Abedi launched himself as a player in petrodollar banking by indulging the passions of "a Stone-Age sheik in Abu Dhabi" who loved falcon-hunting above all else. And they demonstrate that BCCI managed to conceal its most sinister schemes through the simplest of expedients: the most sensitive accounts were kept by hand in old-fashioned ledgers, and the entries were in Urdu.

"The Outlaw Bank" belongs to the curious genre of business books that holds out the sometimes tedious details of mergers and acquisitions, off-book accounting, and securities manipulation as the stuff of a thriller. I confess that I approached the task of reading it with some trepidation. But "The Outlaw Bank" is one corporate saga that actually delivers on the promise of high adventure and human drama.

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