WikiLeaks: US diplomats pushed Boeing deals

AFP, Wednesday 5 Jan 2011

US officials can not keep politics out of business as the whistleblower website WikiLeaks revealed on Wednesday

US diplomats have on several occasions intervened to convince foreign governments to buy aircraft from Boeing rather than its European rival Airbus, newly released diplomatic cables show.

The cables, obtained by the New York Times from the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, document several incidents in which diplomats were involved in haggling over the billion-dollar deals seen as key to US economic growth.

One cable describes Saudi King Abdullah responding favorably to a personal request from then-president George W. Bush in 2006 that he buy as many as 43 Boeing jets for Saudi Arabian Airlines and another 13 for the royal fleet. But the king "wanted to have all the technology that his friend, President Bush, had on Air Force One," the cable said.

Once the king's own plane was outfitted with the world's most advanced telecommunications and defense equipment, "'God willing,' he will make a decision that will 'please you very much,'" the cable said.

In November, state-owned Saudi Arabian Airlines said it had signed a contract for 12 new Boeing 777-300ER jets worth some 3.3 billion dollars.

The State Department confirmed to the Times that it had authorized an "upgrade" to the king's plane but declined to provide further details on security grounds. In another incident, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina demanded landing rights for its national carrier at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport as a condition for a Boeing deal.

"If there is no New York route, what is the point of buying Boeing," she was quoted as saying in a November 2009 cable. The deal went through, but so far Biman Bangladesh Airlines has not been given the landing rights, the Times said.

The Times said such practices have continued despite decades-old agreements between US and European leaders to keep politics out of airline deals.

But State Department officials interviewed by the newspaper defended their involvement, saying such high-value exports were crucial to US President Barack Obama's efforts to pull the country out of its economic slump.

"That is the reality of the 21st century; governments are playing a greater role in supporting their companies, and we need to do the same thing," Robert Hormats, under secretary of state for economic affairs, told the Times.

Airbus may receive similar aid: other US cables cited by the Times describe the Bush administration and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's government scrambling to win a jet deal from oil-rich Bahrain in 2007.

In the end, US diplomats convinced Bahrain to buy from Boeing after linking the signing of the deal to an upcoming visit by Bush in January 2008, the first-ever by a sitting US president, the Times said.

Washington has been infuriated by WikiLeaks and launched its own criminal investigation into the disclosure of the documents.

WikiLeaks has argued that its release of documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the inner workings of US diplomacy exposes US military abuses on the battlefield and "contradictions between the US's public persona and what it says behind closed doors."

On Sunday, Republican Representative Darrell Issa blamed US Attorney General Eric Holder for failing to bring criminal charges against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.

Issa, who takes over as the chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform committee, said that "the world is laughing at this paper tiger we've become."

He said legislation would be swiftly taken up by his committee, "so the diplomats can do their job with confidence and people can talk to our government with confidence."

Assange is on bail in Britain fighting a bid by Sweden to extradite him over allegations of sexual assault made by two women. His strict bail conditions include reporting to police daily and wearing an electronic tag.

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