As America hurtled toward the invasion of Iraq last year, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh suggested in a magazine article that senior Pentagon adviser Richard Perle had improperly mixed his government role with a private effort to win homeland security contracts.
Then Chairman of the Defense Policy Board -- the influential, unpaid panel that uses classified information to advise Pentagon leaders -- Perle solicited wealthy international investors in Trireme Partners, a homeland security venture capital fund he was helping to launch.
An early and outspoken advocate of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and of using preemptive military action to combat terrorism, Perle had been a lightning rod for political opposition to the war. Hersh's March 2003 New Yorker article fueled broader suspicions that the military campaign was pushed by profiteers seeking to capitalize on oil and reconstruction contracts.
Perle responded by calling Hersh "the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist." In interviews and in an August 2003 submission to the Defense Department inspector general, Perle vowed to sue Hersh for libel, but he backed down, telling the Tribune a court victory would not be worth the cost.
Prompted to investigate by Hersh's article, the Defense Department inspector general cleared Perle of violating criminal laws or ethics regulations, saying the federal conflict-of-interest provisions don't apply unless an individual has worked 60 days a year. (Perle's Defense Department work officially amounted to just eight days a year.) But Perle resigned as chairman then as a member of the Defense Policy Board.
Perle provided the Tribune with the sheaf of statements and interview transcripts he submitted to the inspector general. "The materials make it absolutely clear that [Hersh's] reporting is false," says Perle's attorney Samuel Abady.
A Tribune examination found the materials do not support such a sweeping conclusion. One of Perle's three witnesses -- the notorious Saudi arms dealer and financier Adnan Khashoggi -- contradicted Perle on important points, and said in an Tribune interview that as far as he knew, Hersh's report was accurate. "There are facts we cannot run away from," Khashoggi said.
Reading the statements in the light most favorable to Perle, Hersh erroneously reported that Perle, at a single January 2003 luncheon meeting, pitched Trireme to a potential investor while simultaneously presenting himself as a liaison to the Bush administration.
But during two meetings with business investors in December 2002 and January 2003 -- both including Khashoggi -- Perle appeared once as a powerful U.S. military adviser and the other time as an international dealmaker born aloft on the winds of war.
Perle says he assiduously separated his chairmanship of the Defense Policy Board from his private efforts to win homeland security contracts -- which he calls beneficial to society as a whole. He deserves praise -- not calumny -- for faithfully serving the country as a Reagan administration Assistant Secretary of Defense and since then as a military adviser to Democratic and Republican administrations, Perle's attorney Abady said.
"The reality is that [Perle] did keep a Chinese wall between" his public and private roles," Abady said. "He never exploited his public office for personal gain." The inspector general's case "was won simply because, whether you like or hate his politics, Richard Perle is a person of high moral rectitude and extreme concern about abiding by ethical rules. It wasn't hard to prove he was an honest guy because he is an honest guy," Abady said.
The dossier titled "In the Matter of the Investigation of Richard N. Perle" details jet-setting business meals in Belgium, Paris and Marseilles, and offers a glimpse at Trireme, the venture Perle helped form within weeks of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The venture capital firm gathered a striking cast of characters.
Listed as a Trireme advisor was fellow Defense Policy Board member Henry A. Kissinger, the former Secretary of State. Also serving both the defense board and Trireme was New York financier Gerald P. Hillman.
Khashoggi said he was helping Trireme explore a joint venture with Saudi businesses. Once known as the world's richest man, the 69-year-old played a central role in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal and has been accused of business fraud in civil lawsuits. He was acquitted of federal racketeering charges in 1990.
Khashoggi, who lives primarily in Cannes, didn't sign the affidavit prepared for him by Perle's attorney. Instead, Perle's lawyer submitted the transcript of a lengthy interview in which Khashoggi sometimes brushed aside questions. Asked if Perle was at one meeting, for example, Khashoggi said, "He was present but he was not, you know."
Perle met potential Trireme investors at the ivy-girdled countryside chateau of Belgian Prince Charles-Antoine de Ligne, a wealthy, 57-year-old nobleman who in the early 1990s promoted unsuccessful schemes to build California rail lines. To lobby for one rail proposal, de Ligne had hosted California officials at his castle, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1993.
Helping de Ligne promote California rail ventures in 1992 was international business consultant Christopher Harriman, who said at the time that he was related to the diplomat Averill Harriman, a claim that was disputed by the Harriman family, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Harriman could not be reached for comment.
Harriman, who had known Khashoggi and done business with him for years, worked for one of Hillman's companies to help a division of Trireme apply for European homeland security contracts.
In October 2002, Harriman and Khashoggi had dinner in Paris and discussed old times -- as well as current, homeland security-related business ventures, their statements show. Topic A: The Saudi government had allocated billions of dollars to provide increased security for the country's oil fields and pipelines.