Bush's Bulgarian Partner in the Terror War Has Mob History, Investigators Say

Views on BG | March 8, 2007, Thursday // 00:00

By Jeff Stein, CQ National Security Editor

The most powerful politician in Bulgaria, Washington's newest ally in the global war on terror, is a close associate of known mobsters and linked to almost 30 unsolved murders in the Black Sea republic, according to a confidential risk-analysis investigation of of the country commissioned by a private bank.

The U.S. partnership with Boyko Borisov, 48, a popular former interior minister now poised to capture Bulgaria's presidency, is the latest example of the political trade-offs involved in the Bush administration's global war on terrorism, which has put the Pentagon, CIA and FBI in bed with some of the world's most corrupt and thuggish leaders.

Borissov, former body guard to both the last communist dictator and his post-communist successor before being appointed chief secretary of the interior ministry in 2001, claimed a major role last year in having the FBI open an office in Sofia, the capital.

A karate fanatic - a one-time coach of the Bulgarian national team - whose signature attire is a black leather jacket, Borissov was also a major player in last year's deal with the Bush administration to base U.S. air, naval and army forces in Bulgaria, a potential staging ground for an attack on Iran, about 800 miles east across the Black Sea.

Borissov, who encourages comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger, shed the interior ministry last year to become the immensely popular, high profile mayor of Sophia, and there is little doubt in Bulgaria he is maneuvering to take control of the government in the 2009 elections.

But according to a 3-inch thick confidential dossier compiled by a team of former top U.S. law enforcement officials on behalf of a Swiss financial house, Borissov is also considered "a business partner and former associate of some of the biggest mobsters in Bulgaria."

The 18-month-old report was obtained on condition that the bank and its investigators not be identified.

During a four-year term as interior minister during 2001-2005, the report suggests, Borissov used his responsibility for policing official corruption to help mob associates wipe out their underworld competition.

"Since Boyko Borisov was appointed chief secretary of the interior ministry in 2001 . . . there have been a large number of assassinations and mob-style killings of persons identified with criminal groupings in Bulgaria," the report says.

"None of these killings have been solved. Many investigations reportedly led by Borissov have been closed without results or explanations," the report says.

The report amasses details on the connections of IPON, Borissov's private security company, and its allegedly close relations with the criminal group known as SIK.

(Neither IPON nor SIK could be rendered into English by the press section of Bulgaria's Washington embassy.)

"Borissov has a documented history of business affiliations with persons who are alleged to be the top leaders of organized crime in Bulgaria," says the report, which includes detailed profiles of suspected criminal associates of Borissov and 28 unsolved "assassinations" under his watch.

"During Borissov's reign as chief law enforcement officer only low-level, inconsequential mobsters are brought to justice while his former business partners thrive, and their alleged competitors are systematically murdered," the report says, citing widespread Bulgarian media reports.

The bank investigators concluded that Borissov's alleged mob ties should prompt "extreme caution on the part of U.S. law enforcement agencies that are responsible for liaison and information exchange with Bulgaria."

EU Probes

Investigators for the European Union have come to similar conclusions - but cited five times the number of mob-style killings as the private report.

In May 2006, E.U. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told the European Parliament that there had been "very few investigations and prosecutions" of criminal gangs in Bulgaria.

"There have been over 150 contract killings linked to organized crime since 2000 and not one conviction," E.U. investigators said in their report.

Eight months later, top Bulgarian police officials called a press conference to announce that trafficking in heroin, a main source of the violence and corruption, had been wiped out.

"Bulgaria is no longer used as a main drug trafficking channel, the head of the country's special unit for fighting against organized crime said Tuesday," according to the Feb. 6, 2007, report from the Sofia news agency Novinite.com, without attributing the statement to any one of the three particular police officials at the press conference.

Bulgaria's Washington embassy referred questions on Borissov to the mayor's office in Sofia, which did not respond to two detailed questionnaires.

But Klaus Jansen, a German investigator dispatched by the E.U. to look into Bulgaria's progress, said he encountered a "kiss my ass" attitude whenever he tried to probe officials about reforms.

"They believed they would get into the E.U. anyway," Jansen told the Financial Times. "There is no positive pressure that you can put on them."

Indeed, Bulgaria was admitted to the E.U. in January. In 2004 it was admitted to the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and promptly dispatched 400 troops to Iraq.

According to some reports last year, Bulgaria has hosted one of the CIA's secret counterterrorism detention centers, which experts say would have directly involved Borissov as interior minister, but the Sofia government denied the reports.

"Bulgaria's most popular politician," according to one account, Borissov recently formed formed a new, right-wing populist party and - with an 80 per cent approval rating - is primed to become prime minister.

"One thing is certain . . ." wrote a Bulgarian analyst, surveying the political landscape, "Borissov is, and will be, the strong one."

Close to U.S. Intelligence

"Boyko Borisov is a flamboyant character who appears frequently in the Bulgarian press characterizing himself as Bulgaria's eyes and ears of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Secret Service," said the private investigators' report. "The Bulgarian public are said to pay Borissov great deference because he is reported to be close to the FBI, Secret Service and Interpol."
Borissov's May 2006 visit to Washington, where he met with senior CIA and State Department officials, seemed to confirm that.
John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director who was involved in the new security arrangements with Bulgaria, said he did not remember meeting specifically with Borissov, but counseled patience with the former Soviet bloc state.

"They are interesting people, who want to be helpful - and they are," McLaughlin said in an interview. "They are still finding their way in the world after decades of subordination to the old USSR. It will take a while longer."

But the new alliance may have already paid a counterterrorism dividend.

Two months after Borissov's visit, Bulgaria intercepted a truck filled with radioactive material destined for Iran, according to a July 23, 2006, report by the French news agency AFP.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who said he "truly fell in love" with Bulgaria when he was an election monitor there in the 1990s - and subsequently created the congressional Bulgaria Caucus, applauds the new alliance.

"A good relationship with Bulgaria is crucial," he said in a recent phone interview, "because Bulgaria is strategically located in southeast Europe."

Other Bases

A Bulgarian news agency reported recently that U.S. stealth bombers and cruise missiles would be launched at Iran from Bulgaria in April.

But Wilson said he didn't believe the U.S. established bases in Bulgaria to stage attacks on Iran.

"We have bases closer to Iran and aircraft carriers (in the Persian Gulf)," he pointed out.

Wilson also said Bulgaria "had made progress" on corruption, pointing to its admission to the E.U.

But a former top FBI official deplored the Bush administration's embrace of Bulgaria, and by extension, Borissov, as a counterterrorism ally.

"Borissov has probably gone a long way to clean himself up," said the former official, who requested anonymity, "and my opinion is that he was much more vulnerable to criticism in 2005 than he is today."

But he added, "the U.S. government made a terrible choice in who to go to bed with in Bulgaria.

"What the hell - we seem to take help from anyone, however dirty, in the вig war on terror.' "

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