By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
A House investigative committee has learned that the American ambassador to Albania knew evidence of Chinese origins was being removed last year from an ammunition shipment before a U.S. contractor sent the material to Afghanistan, said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the panel.
This month, Maj. Larry Harrison, a Pentagon official at the U.S. Embassy in Albania, told staff members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Ambassador John L. Withers II held a late-night meeting with Albania's defense minister. After the Nov. 19 meeting, the order was given to Albanian officers "to remove all evidence of Chinese packaging" from the ammunition, Waxman said in a letter sent yesterday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
In a June 9 appearance, Harrison told the committee that "the ambassador agreed that this would alleviate the suspicion of wrongdoing," Waxman wrote. Harrison also said "that he did not agree with the decision to remove the Chinese markings," Waxman said.
A federal grand jury on Friday indicted Efraim E. Diveroli, president of AEY Inc., the U.S. company involved, on 71 counts, including conspiracy to defraud the government on a $298 million U.S. Army contract to provide various types of ammunition to the government of Afghanistan.
The contract "prohibited delivery of ammunition acquired, directly or indirectly from a Communist Chinese military contract," according to the press release announcing the indictment by R. Alexander Acosta, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. The indictment alleges the defendants falsely said the ammunition was manufactured in Albania after they instructed people to remove the Chinese markings.
After his hour-long interview, Harrison "expressed an interest in seeking advice of counsel" and a Pentagon attorney terminated the session, Waxman wrote. Three days later, Harrison's lawyer told the committee he needed at least two weeks to prepare for continuing the interview.
Waxman charged in his letter that "it appears" embassy officials kept from the committee information related to the ambassador's meeting in Albania. Harrison told the panel that he had "urged embassy officials to inform the committee," Waxman wrote, but embassy officials did not mention it in response to a prior request for information.
"We have no information that would support the idea that U.S. officials were involved in some kind of illicit activity," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said yesterday. He added that "any allegations made, certainly any questions raised by the chairman of a major committee . . . is something that we will be happy to look into."
The New York Times this year reported that AEY supplied decades-old stockpiles of ammunition to the U.S. government, after which the Defense Department suspended the company "from future contracting with any agency in the Executive branch," according to a Pentagon announcement.
In his letter to Rice, Waxman asked Withers and five other State Department officers from the Albanian Embassy to be made available for interviews before July 11.
Withers has been ambassador in Tirana since July 2007, and previously directed the State Department's operations center. He has a PhD from Yale in Chinese history, did graduate-level research at Nanjing University and was China desk officer in the 1980s.