Former Reagan Aide Robert McFarlane's Dealings With Sudan Raise Questions

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The government of Sudan, eager to curry favor with a U.S. government that accused it of genocide, sought help last fall from an unlikely source: a former Reagan administration official known for his role in the Iran-contra scandal.

The approach by Sudanese officials led to a $1.3 million contract for former national security adviser Robert "Bud" McFarlane, who went on to meet with two of the Obama administration's top policymakers on Sudan and its strife-torn Darfur region, according to documents and interviews.

The unusual talks between Sudan and McFarlane featured meetings in Middle Eastern capitals, clandestine communications with Sudan's intelligence service and a final agreement with the government of Qatar, which is employing McFarlane as part of its peacemaking role in the eastern African region.

The episode puts an old Cold War hand in the middle of the volatile 21st-century conflict in Sudan, whose president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, faces international war crimes charges for allegedly orchestrating a campaign of murder, torture and forced expulsions in Darfur. The arrangement also places McFarlane, 72, close to the edge of U.S. legal requirements, which mandate disclosure of work for foreign governments and which prohibit doing business with Sudan under sanctions first imposed in the 1990s.

McFarlane dismisses suggestions that he has done anything improper, saying he has adhered to U.S. restrictions while focusing on his work to unify feuding tribal leaders and help create jobs in Darfur.

His involvement, however, presents another serious complication for the Obama administration, which is struggling to formulate a coherent policy on Sudan amid disputes between the State Department and Sudan envoy J. Scott Gration, who has signaled support for easing sanctions against the Khartoum regime.

Top administration officials met Wednesday to continue a reassessment of Sudan policy, but White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said no changes are imminent. "The policy is being worked on," he said.

Copies of internal e-mails and other documents obtained by The Washington Post portray a Sudanese government hoping to gain access to the new administration to persuade Obama aides to lift sanctions and remove Sudan from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. The strategy to approach McFarlane was dubbed "Plan Tragacanth," named for a natural gum indigenous to the Middle East.

The records show that a Sudanese diplomat played a central role in proposing and securing McFarlane's contract with Qatar and that the diplomat was in regular contact with Sudan's intelligence chief and other officials during the negotiations. The documents also show that Sudanese officials discussed the need to provide funds for McFarlane and others once an agreement was complete, while McFarlane pledged to "work together" toward "restoring a normal relationship between our two countries."

In written answers to questions from The Post, McFarlane characterized Sudan as an intermediary in his negotiations with Qatar and said he has not received money or entered any agreement with the Khartoum regime.

"In the course of this work, I have of necessity had periodic contact with Sudanese officials," he wrote. "However, I do not now, nor have I ever had a business or other affiliation with any part of the Government of Sudan."

McFarlane met with Gration and national security adviser James L. Jones earlier this year about the Sudan conflict, but White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said neither official approved of McFarlane's consulting plans.

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