Democratic donor Roger Tamraz says that over the years, he’s been kidnapped by Lebanese suicide bombers. He’s been beaten and tortured and almost poisoned to death. He’s been arrested by security forces in a former Soviet republic, had a billion dollars of his assets seized and staged clandestine meetings with foreign heads of state.
So when the international businessman ran into trouble getting a meeting with President Clinton on a pipeline project he was promoting, he viewed the obstacle as a piece of cake.
Tamraz, a central figure in the campaign fund-raising controversy, simply took out his checkbook and made some big contributions - $300,000 - to the Democrats.
Tamraz, the 57-year-old son of a self-made Lebanese millionaire, kept listeners on the edge of their seats Thursday with colorful testimony at the Senate fund-raising hearings that jumped from world capital to world capital but provided the most insight of all into the ways of Washington.
The Egyptian-born financier - whom the National Security Council had tried to keep away from the president because of a “shady and untrustworthy reputation” - shrugged when senators tried to heap abuse on him and portray him as a poster boy for the influence-peddling scandal swirling around him.
Referring to his international activities, some executed in conjunction with the CIA, Tamraz told senators: “I don’t have to prove to anybody that I’m a good American patriot because I’ve put my life on the line.”
Tamraz, an American citizen who lives in New York but said he is not registered to vote, explained that he was merely playing by the rules of Washington in buying access to politicians - Democrats and Republicans alike. Ever resourceful, Tamraz explained that he would have found another way into the White House if his donations had not done the trick.
“If they keep me out of the door,” he said, “I’ll come through the window.”
Tamraz also described the jockeying inside the White House by those seeking to whisper in Clinton’s ear.
“You think when you get into the White House you’ve won,” he said. “The fight begins when you get into the White House. Then there’s the guerrilla fight to get close to the president….
“First, the president is surrounded by the ladies, because they swoon around him,” Tamraz said. “Secondly, you have his bodyguards. And thirdly, you have the handlers. The same handlers that get you into the White House are sure, once you get in, that you don’t get the chance to get what you want.”
Those were minor obstacles, however, to an international player such as Tamraz.
“I think you were hustling and I think you were being hustled at the same time,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who got Tamraz to acknowledge that getting access was the “only reason” he gave so much money.
Tamraz got into the White House six times, including one session in which he plugged his project to the president. Despite earlier rejections of his pipeline venture by administration foreign policy experts, Tamraz persuaded Clinton it was worth a fresh look. Clinton told senior adviser Thomas “Mac” McClarty to review Tamraz’s plan for building an oil pipeline from the Caspian basin fields of Azerbaijan through Armenia and Turkey to the Mediterranean.
McClarty later met with Tamraz and then called Kyle Simpson, a senior Energy Department official, about Tamraz’s plan. That set into motion a series of telephone conversations that senators have still not sorted out.
On Wednesday, National Security Council staffer Sheila Heslin described how she came under a barrage of pressure - from officials at the Energy Department, the Democratic National Committee and the CIA - to change her opinion of Tamraz and allow him to meet with Clinton. She said a CIA agent identified at the hearings only as “Bob” lobbied her on Tamraz’s behalf, and that an Energy Department official, Jack Carter, told her that Tamraz was expected to contribute $400,000 to the DNC.
Her account came under criticism Thursday.
Carter testified that he never pressured Heslin, although he did acknowledge that he brought up Tamraz’s political contributions. He said his colleague, Simpson, had briefed him about Tamraz’s donations.
But Simpson, who also testified Thursday, vehemently denied that he told Carter any such thing.
The dispute is important because GOP investigators believe that McClarty told Simpson about Tamraz’s financial support, which would be an unseemly blending of partisan politics with policy.
However, in a statement released this week, McClarty bluntly denied that he mentioned anything, or even knew anything, about Tamraz’s political donations when he spoke to Simpson.
“Bob,” an undercover CIA agent, took the unusual step Thursday of issuing a statement from his attorney calling on the CIA to release classified information that would show Heslin was not telling the truth.