Was Presidential Helicopter Deal a Pay Off for Italy's Pre-War Yellow-Cake Intel Role?
What did the Berlusconi government get in return for providing the Bush administration with a convenient "smoking gun" to attack Iraq? At the end of the yellowcake trail may be the prestigious contract an Italian firm won to manufacture Marine One -- the fleet of presidential helicopters. In January 2005, the U.S. Navy awarded the contract for the construction of 23 new Marine One helicopters to AgustaWestland. Marketing itself as an Anglo-Italian firm, AgustaWestland is wholly owned by Finmeccanica, Italy's largest defense conglomerate.
The choice of AgustaWestland for Marine One surprised most industry observers because U.S.-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. was the heavy favorite.
Not only did Sikorsky lose, but it lost to a foreign firm that has no problems selling its helicopters to the United States' adversaries. (See side bar, "Choppers for Sale, to Everyone")
As with the yellowcake dossier, the key figure in the Marine One contract is Gianni Castellaneta. When the Pentagon put the Marine One contract out for bid, Castellaneta was deputy chair of Finmeccanica and national security advisor to Prime Minister Berlusconi. By the time the contract was awarded, Castellaneta had been appointed Italy's ambassador to the United States.
With center-left opposition leader Romano Prodi taking the helm of Italy's new government, the newly reconfigured Parliament is expected to open a probe into the "Yellowcake One" affair. For Italians, the main question is whether Berlusconi personally profited from the helicopter deal. For Americans, the question is whether the Bush administration paid the Italians back for providing the false intelligence that helped justify launching the war in Iraq.
Long before the Dubai ports controversy raised security concerns about foreign management of U.S. ports, the Bush administration awarded a $1.6 billion contract to an Italian firm to build new Marine One helicopters -- the specialized fleet that carries the president. Ultimately, the contract will be worth $6.1 billion -- $3.6 billion for 23 Marine Ones and the rest for research and development. Though the deal has eluded serious media scrutiny, it could become more explosive since the Italian firm, Finmeccanica, subsequently sold helicopters to Libya and China, and has sought a deal with Iran.
In February of 2005, just a month after it was awarded the Marine One contract, Finmeccanica was pitching its helicopters in Iran, at Kish's annual international air show. (See http://www.iran-airshow.com/exhibitors.htm) When questioned about this by the Connecticut Post, a spokeswoman for AgustaWestland, Finmecannica's wholly owned subsidiary charged with building the new Marine One, said the company was not involved in the air show and had not sold anything to Iran in the last 20 years. But Steven Bryen, the president of Finmeccanica in the United States, conceded to NBC's Lisa Meyers that Finmeccanica does business with Iran. Why? "In Europe, they don't call it the enemy," Bryen said.
"Analyzing the defense industry for nearly 30 years, I try to stay calm and nonpartisan," says John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit think tank based in Virginia near the Pentagon. "But the Finmeccanica deal raised every hair on my neck. Apparently no one else sees the irony in a foreign military contractor building Marine One and Ayatollah One."
Few industry observers expected the Rome-based company to win the contract, given the widespread expectation the White House would never allow a foreign-designed helicopter to serve as Marine One... Certainly the business stakes for Sikorsky couldn't have been clearer. George David, chief executive of United Technologies, the parent company of Sikorsky, told industry analysts that getting the contract for Marine One was "win or drop dead as far as we are concerned."
While seeking the contract, Finmeccanica's helicopter subsidiary, AgustaWestland, positioned itself as an Anglo-Italian firm even after it had bought out Britain's remaining ownership in the firm. AgustaWestland also partnered with U.S. companies Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin; although Lockheed doesn't make helicopters, it acted as the lead partner on the bid.
Don & Kathleen talked about this a lot at the time - (see the comments here and here and here - Kathleen being an expert on Italy and Connecticut among other things, and Don being a helicopter expert, among other things)
I won't rehash too much of the details, but Finmeccanica has offices in Weldon's district. And Weldon's OTHER daughter, Kim, works for Finnmecc's wholly-owned helicopter-making subsidiary, AgustaWestland (the crew that got the MarineOne contract)
And, Steven Bryen's name (the president of Finmeccanica in the United States) also came up twice in my interview with the co-director of Sibel's film. Firstly:
" On many occasions, both Perle and Feith (not to mention their like-minded friends Harold Rhode, Michael Ledeen, Stephen Bryen) have been investigated by the FBI for passing secret information to Israeli officials. And none of what I tell you is secret, it’s been public record for… what… over three decades!"Secondly,
MV: (laughs)… Right! Let me give you an unbelievable example of that. In 2000, in the last months of the Clinton Administration, a panel was established by Congress in order to counter "back door" technology leaks to China. This ‘China Commission’ had already established Israel as a supplier to Beijing of radar systems, optical & telecom equipment, drones & flight simulators. OK, guess who was appointed in 2001 to this China Commission, with the support of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ? An ex-assistant to Richard Perle by the name of Stephen Bryen. Bryen was this ex Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer who had to resign in 1979 after he was overheard in a DC hotel offering confidential documents to top Israeli military officials! Now guess who brought ‘Bryen the fox’ into the hen house by appointing him? Speaker Dennis Hastert!It's a small world.
updating to add that Unger's piece in VF also mentioned the curious finmecc/MarineOne connection