Saturday, December 27, 2014

Shadow War: The magic show

Agents needed an illusion so convincing the Iranian would tell them anything.
Could they pull it off?

Iranian arms broker Amir Ardebili carried his passport with him to Tbilisi, Georgia – it was his first trip out of his home country. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)
Iranian arms broker Amir Ardebili carried his passport with him to Tbilisi, Georgia – it was his first trip out of his home country. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)

 

TBILISI, REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA, OCT. 1, 2007

Darius stood in the Tbilisi International Airport arrivals lounge, scanning for Iranian countersurveillance.

Though he towered above the Georgian crowd, his 6-foot-5 frame was unlikely to betray him. He shared his parents' Baltic cheekbones, spoke Russian, and wore the slacks of a wealthy German.

Few would suspect that "Darius" was an undercover agent of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

More coverage
  • Supporting Documents:
  • Emails between Darius and Ardebili - Part 2
  • Emails between Darius and Ardebili - Part 1
  • ---------------------------------------------------
  • Recent stories about the embargo:
  • Atlantic Magazine: Point of No Return
  • New York Times: Web of Shell Companies Veils Trade by Iran's Ships
  • Deutsche Welle: US and EU struggle to make Iran sanctions watertight
  • The Turkish Weekly: Are Sanctions the Best Solution to Tackle the Iranian Issue?
  • 60 Minutes: "Made In the USA in Iran"
  • NBC Video: ITT fined $100 million for Illegal exports

  • He checked the monitor again. The flight from Baku, Azerbaijan, had just landed. Passengers were moving through customs.

    A dour Georgian from the Ministry of Internal Affairs pulled close and slipped Darius the flight manifest. The American saw a name he recognized and suppressed a smile.

     

     

    Some undercover agents approached their work as a science, closely following a script. Others considered themselves artists, actors at an improv.

    Darius liked to think of himself as a magician, creating an illusion so convincing his target would reveal everything.

    In 24 hours, the American would know whether his magic show would work, or if he would go home a fool.

    The traveler from the Baku flight stepped forward and presented a brown Iranian passport bearing the name Amir Hossein Ardebili.

    The border guard studied the passport, its pages empty save a visa admitting the bearer to Georgia. The guard stamped the visa and shooed the traveler along to baggage claim.

    In the arrivals lounge, John Richards loitered 30 paces behind Darius.

    He held a Georgian-language newspaper and an ice cream cone. It was an undercover trick he'd learned decades ago as a Philadelphia police officer. What looked less like a cop than a guy eating an ice cream cone?

    Richards - not his real name - was a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement supervisor, a Girard College grad and former hockey player, a man always in motion.

    To stop arms from flowing across America's most porous border - Canada - he'd set up ICE's first office there, in Toronto.

    To help persuade Dubai officials to do more to thwart arms smugglers, he'd flown them to New York to see ground zero.

    Richards was a get-stuff-done kind of guy.

    At the Tbilisi airport he stood beside U.S. prosecutor David Hall. Prosecutors and supervisors rarely ventured into the field under cover, and certainly not so far from home.

    But Richards and Hall felt compelled to stick close to the action. Operation Shakespeare had consumed them for three years.

    To lure the Iranian arms broker outside Iran, the Americans had created an undercover arms company in Europe, a rare and difficult endeavor for a U.S. law enforcement agency.

    International undercover counterproliferation cases were always fraught with risk, and often fell apart for no apparent reason, even after months or years of engagement. Even now, prosecutor Hall put the odds of success below 50-50.

    As Hall and Richards waited for the plane, they mulled worst-case scenarios:

    Were they about to meet the arms broker they'd been negotiating with by e-mail and phone for three years?

    Or was this all a setup?

    Were the Iranians wise to the U.S. sting?

    Would they send a spy in his place? Or a team of agents to disrupt, embarrass, or even harm the U.S. agents?

    When the plane arrived, the plan called for Darius and two Georgian cops posing as bodyguards to drive the Iranian into town, where they'd consummate the deals in an undercover hotel suite. To impress the arms broker, they'd rented an armor-plated Mercedes SUV, complete with tinted windows and gray curtains.

    Over meetings in the hotel suite, Darius and two other U.S. undercover agents planned to deliver the promised radar, missile guidance, and F-4 equipment, and to get the buyer to reveal as much as possible about Iran's covert arms effort.

    That was the plan.

    Things never go according to plan.

    The Iranian emerged wheeling a suitcase, a laptop bag slung over his shoulder. An old man shuffled beside him.

    The effusive Darius moved to greet them, shaking hands vigorously. Amir Ardebili introduced himself and his surprise traveling companion, "Nasrollah Ardebili, my father."

    Darius didn't know if the old man was Ardebili's dad or an Iranian intelligence operative. He looked to be 70, weak. At least he wouldn't pose a physical threat.

    Darius led the two Iranians to the Mercedes, and the three squeezed into the backseat. As the SUV pulled out onto George W. Bush Avenue toward downtown, Ardebili and Darius joked about their language differences.

    A camera hidden in the rearview mirror captured every word.

    Darius' cell phone rang and he silenced it, using the ruse to launch his next gambit.

    "Oh, this reminds me," Darius said in Russian-accented English. "I have for you a SIM card for your phone."

    "I can use here?"

    "Of course, why not?"

    Ardebili wedged the SIM card into his phone, oblivious that Americans would now be able to monitor his every call and movement in Georgia.

    "You are kind," he said.

    Darius waved his hand and said, "So, you were with the Iranian government in a security position?" Darius wanted to get as much background as possible on camera.

    "Yes, I was in this business when I was with the government, eight years," Ardebili said. "I got a lot of knowledge in the government and decided it is better to work private, on my own."

    Darius nodded. "I'm hoping we will come together for a very profitable relationship."

    As they rode on, Darius talked about the fun they'd have at a Black Sea resort once the deals were done.

    Ardebili was all business. "The goods are here?"

    Darius explained that his American cousin, Patrick, had arrived with the radar microchips, but that a second American, the one bringing gyroscopes, had been delayed a day. This was a lie: The U.S. agents wanted time to extract as much information as possible. "He will bring it to you tomorrow," Darius said.

    Ardebili nodded.

    Darius said, "These gyros are [used for] military, yes?"

    "Yes."

    They were nearly at Ardebili's hotel now, and Darius wished the ride from the airport hadn't been so short. Ardebili was blathering on about how he'd made arrangements to have the gyros shipped through Azerbaijan to avoid U.S. laws.

    It was late afternoon, and Ardebili asked if he and his father could take a nap at his hotel, before traveling on to meet at Darius' hotel to talk business.

    Sure, Darius said.

     

     

    At the Ardebilis' hotel, the bodyguards unloaded their bags, continuing the red-carpet experience. As Darius led Ardebili inside, they joked with the familiarity of old friends.

    Ardebili and his father checked in. When they reached their room, Ardebili phoned Iran, boasting to his wife of the grand reception he'd received.

    At 8:04 p.m., Ardebili and his father entered Darius' wired hotel suite, carrying two tins of Iranian pistachios and excitement for a bright future.

    Darius introduced Patrick Lechleitner, an affable ICE agent posing as a Yardley, Pa., arms broker.

    "Patrick is cousin," Darius said, "more like brother to me. If I die, I don't know if he will cry, but he gets to wear my shoes."

    Ardebili chuckled, and Darius directed his guests to two chairs by the window. "Seats for the guests of honor," he said. Seats facing the hidden surveillance cameras.

    As Lechleitner and Ardebili chatted about their hometowns, Darius studied the Iranian's eager face. A former military-trained interrogator, Darius searched for clues that might betray a lie: Did Ardebili's neck muscles tense? Did his eyes flicker? Did he pick lint from his clothing?

    So far, Darius thought, the Iranian was smooth, either a master dealer or a spy.

    Darius gobbled a pistachio and said, "We brought something for you, but I don't think you are going to eat it."

    More laughter.

    Darius opened a small white box to reveal 1,000 radar microchips. The 10 in the top row were real; the 990 others were excellent fakes.

    Ardebili examined a chip through the plastic packaging. "Thank you," he said.

    "Hard to get," Lechleitner said.

    Ardebili agreed, and said he needed 15,000 more. "They're making special radar, phased array."

    "Looking in the skies for airplanes?" Darius asked.

    "Yes, for protection. For antimissiles, I think."

     

     

    Next door, in a room crowded with U.S. and Georgian agents and cloudy with cigarette smoke, the feds from Philadelphia crowded around a monitor.

    Hall, the prosecutor and Navy Reservist; Richards, the restless, worldly ICE supervisor; and Mike Ronayne, the muscular Boston-born agent, watched intently.

    The stakes, they believed, could not be overstated.

    For 30 years, Iran had circumvented the embargo, buying U.S.-made weapons for a future war. Already, officials said, some had surfaced in IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Now, the ICE team had an Iranian broker on the hook, an insider with intimate details of his nation's clandestine procurement network.

    To make a criminal case, the agents couldn't just hand Ardebili the contraband and arrest him. They had to get him to incriminate himself, make four separate admissions: that he understood he was violating the embargo; that he personally sent every e-mail; that he laundered money through foreign banks; that he engaged in an illegal conspiracy.

    The agents held grander ambitions as well. They sought intel about Iran: What did its military need? What was it getting and how? Which U.S. companies were helping?

    The trick was to get Ardebili to tell them all of this on tape without realizing what he was giving up.

    Darius pulled out bank documents, including the deposit Ardebili had wired to a Delaware bank for the microchips. Darius acted impressed. "How did this happen? I am confused."

    Ardebili took the bait. "As you know, there is no way to transfer funds from Iran to the United States. But we have an exchange in Tehran."

    "Money comes from Iran?"

    "Yes. ... My friend is an expert, and he can do it. I never say to our sources that I am Iranian. I always say United Arab Emirates. ..." Awareness of the law, money-laundering, conspiracy.

    Darius posed his next question as innocently as possible.

    "When I send e-mail, it is only me, Darius, sending you e-mail. Is it same with you?"

    "Yes, only with me," Ardebili said. "And always you?"

    "Yes," Darius said. "And every Yahoo chat, only you?"

    "All of them, yes," Ardebili replied. The Iranian was so unaware of the setup - that this confirmation would seal his fate - he threw out a joke: "And when you made an angry message to me, I would shut down the computer."

    Everyone laughed.

    They spoke of future deals. Of sonar and night-vision goggles. Of contacts and a secret Tbilisi warehouse.

    Thinking big, the Iranian proposed a partnership: "You will ship here to Georgia and I will transship to Iran and I will pay you commission."

    They could use state-owned Iran Air. "Free shipping!" Ardebili joked.

     

     

    It was nearly 10 p.m., and Darius began going over the next day's agenda: a morning meeting, a nice lunch, a tour of historic Tbilisi, and a final meeting to receive the gyroscopes. Then they'd visit a warehouse and drive to a Black Sea resort.

    Oh, one last thing, Darius said. He handed the Iranian a list of every query for military goods Ardebili had made during their years of e-mails.

    "Please review tonight," Darius said. Let us know if you still need any of these.

    Ardebili didn't sense the trap. Such a list would tell the Americans what Iran's military had obtained, what it still needed, and which U.S. companies were supplying it.

    "OK," Ardebili said.

    As they rose to leave, Ardebili reminded the undercover agents of the first e-mail he'd sent, back in 2004: "An inquiry from Iranian government for radioactive material."

    The reference to nuclear technology, though years old, caught the attention of the Americans listening in the next room.

    They were thrilled that Ardebili had admitted so much on tape and that he'd naively promised to help them put together a list of Iran's current needs.

    But as the evening wound down, prosecutor Hall and Homeland Security supervisor Richards were not smiling.

    They were busy worrying about two alarming developments, either of which could ruin Operation Shakespeare.

     


    Contact staff writer John Shiffman

    at 301-320-6655 or jshiffman@phillynews.com.

     

    WEDNESDAY: THE STING

    John Shiffman / Inquirer Staff Writer