An attention-grabbing rundown on the tangled web woven around a diminutive Sunbelt bank that helped underwrite many of Saddam Hussein's more dubious development programs. Drawing on a variety of sources, including his own reportage, Atlanta Journal-Constitution correspondent Mantius proves persuasively that no agency of the US government has ever been willing to make a clean breast of its involvement in the affair of Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL). Before addressing the issue of what BNL was up to, however, the author sets the crowded scene. During much of the 1980s, Washington went out of its way to conciliate Iraq with intelligence and trade concessions, in large measure to ensure a balance of power against Iran in the oil-rich Mideast. In the meantime, BNL (owned by the Italian state) opened a representative office in Atlanta. This backwater outpost soon granted Baghdad billions of dollars worth of loans, many of them guaranteed by the US government. Fearful they might be held criminally liable for the branch's exceeding the statutory lending limit, two disaffected staffers blew the whistle, precipitating an FBI raid in 1989. The manager of the branch, Christopher Drogoul (an amiable but ineffectual yuppie whose capacity to conceive, let alone carry out, a transnational scare remains in serious doubt), became the designated fall guy. Despite the efforts of Texas congressman Henry Gonzalez to shed light on the question of whether American troops had faced Iraqi weapons financed by US-based institutions, behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the CIA, State Department, and other government agencies kept the lid on a potentially explosive scandal. Drogoul went quietly as well, serving 33 months in federal prison. This year, the Justice Department released an in-house report putting paid to any notion of a bipartisan cover-up. A sorry, well-told tale. Mantius offers a wealth of circumstantial and documentary evidence of egregious improprieties as well as questionable judgments in high places.