Despite Ban, Clinton Aide Sought CIA Data on Citizens
A Clinton White House official asked the CIA in 1995 to provide intelligence on several U.S. citizens despite a presidential order banning the agency from distributing such information, according to CIA documents and U.S. intelligence sources.
The requests were made by Sheila Heslin, then a White House National Security Council staff member in charge of coordinating U.S. policy on the Caucasus and oil-rich Caspian Sea region of the former Soviet Union.
Heslin sent a request to the CIA for any information held by the spy agency on a series of U.S. citizens who had a range of political, ethnic and business connections to the volatile region. The Clinton administration at the time was trying to develop closer ties to the region.
In one instance, she asked for information on a Glendale physician active in the Armenian American community of Los Angeles. In another case, her request for information appears to have been influenced by a large U.S. oil company with a major stake in the Caspian region, according to CIA documents obtained by The Times.
A spokesman for the NSC said the requests by Heslin, who left the NSC in November 1996, were “very unusual” but did not break any law.
The NSC spokesman said that while it is illegal, with certain exceptions, for the CIA to spy on U.S. citizens or distribute intelligence about them, it is not illegal for the White House to ask the CIA for such information.
How the CIA responded to the requests is uncertain.
One CIA source said that information about at least one individual was, in fact, sent to the White House.
Heslin refused requests for an interview. But a written statement by Heslin’s attorney, Richard Janis, also suggests that intelligence was sent and notes that the CIA never rejected any of his client’s requests by saying they were inappropriate.
“Not only did the CIA never provide such advice or direction to Ms. Heslin or decline to provide her information she requested, but it provided her information from sources within the CIA to which her requests had not been directed,” Janis wrote.
“Finally, Ms. Heslin explicitly advised the CIA on a number of occasions when she requested information that the agency should not provide her with any information that it was inappropriate to provide,” the statement said.
Prohibition Stems From Watergate
A 1981 executive order, crafted in response to Watergate and other scandals involving CIA domestic espionage, prohibits the CIA from collecting or distributing intelligence on U.S. citizens except under certain clearly defined cases, such as the involvement by a U.S. citizen in terrorism or other threats to U.S. national security.
But Janis said in his statement that “all requests for information made to the CIA by Ms. Heslin while employed at the National Security Council were fully consistent” with the law.
“Moreover, if any such request by Ms. Heslin had raised questions under applicable laws and regulations, it would have been incumbent upon the CIA to so advise Ms. Heslin and to decline to provide the requested information,” the statement said.
But several former senior CIA officials said they found the effort troubling and inappropriate. They said CIA officials should have told Heslin to drop the request immediately.
“This is outrageous,” said a former senior CIA official who asked not to be identified. “Everybody at CIA knows you don’t do U.S. persons. Somebody up the chain should have stopped this.”
Another former senior official at the agency said: “This was certainly not a routine request and should have been sent up to the CIA director, so he could have gone to the national security advisor in order to tell Heslin to get lost.”
CIA attorneys say that the agency does not keep files on individual U.S. citizens. Under law, it can keep information that mentions U.S. citizens in other files gathered in the course of operations targeting foreign citizens, organizations or governments.
In addition, the CIA can keep files on U.S. citizens who voluntarily provide information to the CIA--including traveling U.S. business executives. Such files include biographical information on the individuals as a means to help determine the person’s credibility as a source. But even that information is not allowed to be distributed as intelligence throughout the government.
By the time Heslin made her requests, the Caucasus had split into a series of independent states, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the discovery of huge oil deposits in the Caspian basin had put the region on the front burner for the United States.
In particular, the administration was attempting to develop closer ties to oil-rich Azerbaijan, which in 1994 had signed a multibillion-dollar deal with a consortium of Western oil companies, including U.S. firms Amoco, Unocal and Pennzoil, to develop and produce oil from the Caspian fields.
But those White House efforts had stumbled in the face of stiff opposition from the powerful Armenian American community. Armenia and Azerbaijan had been engaged in a bloody war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, and in 1992 the Armenian American lobby had succeeded in winning a congressional ban on U.S. foreign aid to Azerbaijan.
Ophthalmologist in Glendale Targeted
As part of efforts to tilt U.S. policy toward Azerbaijan, the Clinton administration was lobbying Congress to lift the ban.
That was the political backdrop when Heslin asked the CIA for information on Dr. Sahag Baghdassarian, an ophthalmologist in Glendale who is active in Armenian American community affairs. Born into Lebanon’s large Armenian exile community, Baghdassarian came to the United States in 1975 and became a U.S. citizen in 1981.
Baghdassarian’s name was mentioned to the White House in 1995 by Mourad Topalian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America, as a potential candidate to be named to the unpaid and largely honorary board that oversees the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
While Baghdassarian’s appointment would seem of small importance, Topalian’s organization was actively lobbying to keep the ban on foreign aid to Azerbaijan.
Heslin’s request for information on Baghdassarian, as well as her queries for information on other U.S. citizens, was detailed in a CIA memo dated May 17, 1995. The purpose of the memo, written by an official in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, was to relay Heslin’s requests to the Directorate of Operations, the agency’s espionage arm.
“Mourad Topalian wants Dr. Sahag Baghdassarian, an Armenian-American from California, to [be named to] the Holocaust Memorial” Council, the memo says. Heslin “wants some background on Baghdassarian.”
The memo shows that agency officials were troubled by the request. “This is probably an issue for the FBI,” which conducts background checks on presidential appointees, the memo states.
Baghdassarian, told by The Times about the request to the CIA, said he was stunned. “This doesn’t sit well with me. I am a registered Democrat.”
Baghdassarian said he never heard anything back from the Clinton administration about the Holocaust board post, and he was never appointed.
Request ‘Really Shocks Me’
Topalian said the request to the CIA “really shocks me. This is an American citizen being considered for an honorary thing, an unpaid, voluntary position. Sahag was very involved in the Los Angeles Armenian community. He is a well-qualified, fine Armenian, a good man, and he would have made a fine addition to the Holocaust Museum.”
The CIA memo also details Heslin’s request for information on S. Rob Sobhani, an Iranian American who was born in Kansas and eventually became involved in Republican politics, serving in the late 1980s on the congressional staff of Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.).
Sobhani was then a professor at Georgetown University and a consultant to oil companies in the Caspian region, including Amoco, the Chicago-based oil firm that was a leading member of a new consortium of Western companies developing Caspian oil with the government of Azerbaijan.
But he had also helped the CIA in Azerbaijan, arranging at least one meeting between CIA officers and an Azeri leader, while also passing on to the CIA and the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan tidbits of information gleaned during his visits.
In an interview, Sobhani said Amoco officials had made it clear to him at the time that they were concerned that he was talking to the CIA about information he gathered while traveling as an Amoco consultant.
According to the CIA memo, Heslin apparently had been talking with Amoco. “Rob Sobhani--What do we have on him?” the memo asks. “Sheila [Heslin] says Amoco claims he’s a consultant and keeps him at arm’s length. Who does Sobhani answer to? What are his Iranian links? What is his access with the Azeri and Armenian leadership?”
Again, the author of the memo raised a red flag. “If Sobhani is an American citizen, we have to consider how we can legally answer,” the memo says.
Told by The Times about Heslin’s efforts, Sobhani said, “I find this terribly upsetting.
“I have done my damnedest to help U.S. interests in the Caspian. . . . I know what passport I carry: an American passport. This questions where my loyalties lie.”
Amoco spokesman Jim Spangler said the company was not aware of any background search on Sobhani and never made any request to the White House for CIA information about the consultant.
A third person named in the memo was Roger Tamraz, a controversial Lebanese American oil financier who became a central figure in this year’s campaign finance scandal.
Tamraz, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was trying to put together a multibillion-dollar deal to build a pipeline to transport oil out of the Caspian region and was hoping for Clinton administration support.
But his questionable business dealings in the past, including long-standing charges that he had embezzled millions of dollars from a Beirut bank he had run, made U.S. oil companies, the governments in the Caspian region and Clinton administration officials wary.
It has been widely reported that Heslin asked for CIA information on Tamraz and his New York-based company, Oil Capital Ltd., in preparation for a meeting she had scheduled with him on June 2, 1995.
But the CIA memo recently obtained by The Times suggests she also considered using the CIA information to blunt Tamraz’s access to private U.S. companies.
“Oil Capital Ltd.--information on company and its head,” the memo says. Heslin understands Tamraz “caused problems in Turkmenistan and has left U.S. companies in the lurch before. Would like classified and unclassified information. Bethlehem Steel, for example, has been approached by Oil Capital Ltd. NSC would like to warn them if there are potential problems.”