Shadow War: Treasure trove
After the sting, U.S. agents began to probe the Iranian's laptop. What would it reveal of Iran's military plans?
TBILISI, REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA, OCTOBER 2007
The Iranian arms broker Amir Hossein Ardebili found himself locked in Tbilisi's notorious Prison No. 5.
The crumbling, filthy facility, a 19th-century factory converted to a desolate jail, was largely shuttered in darkness, crammed with sweaty, shirtless prisoners. They slept in shifts, up to 74 inmates in a holding pen.
"We washed in the toilet," Ardebili recalled.
THE STORY SO FARAn Iranian arms broker is arrested in the Republic of Georgia following a sting by undercover U.S. Homeland Security agents. As the Iranian sits in a Tbilisi prison, the U.S. agents scramble to extradite him to Wilmington.
HOW THIS SERIES WAS REPORTED
Human Rights Watch and the European Commission for the Prevention of Torture had repeatedly cited Prison No. 5 for inhumane conditions. A year earlier, guards killed seven inmates during a riot.
And yet, what Ardebili feared most was extradition.
If sent to the United States, his lawyer argued to the Georgian courts, this would violate Ardebili's human rights - for surely, he would be tortured.
PHILADELPHIA, OCTOBER 2007
Although Ardebili fought extradition, his laptop was already in U.S. hands.
After his arrest, the bulky Gigabyte-brand computer was hand-carried from Georgia to the U.S. Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices on Chestnut Street.
Once a judge signed a search warrant, ICE computer experts got to work. In a windowless room, they cracked open the laptop shell, removed the hard drive, and copied it. They pasted the copied data onto the hard drives of six clean computers and returned the laptop to the evidence vault.
On two computers, they placed complete copies of Ardebili's laptop. These would be searched and analyzed by a sophisticated program called Forensic Toolkit, software that allowed agents to search every file, every e-mail, every website visited, even those Ardebili had deleted.
A rudimentary search for the word missile, for example, returned hits in 1,498 files.
To sort data in a different way, the agents put the same material onto the four other computers, dividing it by file type, such as PDF or JPEG.
The techies easily broke the passwords. Most were as simple as "1111," even "123."
The agents began sifting through years of data, 101,000 files in all. They found PDFs of brochures from American companies, Excel spreadsheets of price quotes, PowerPoint presentations from U.S. and Canadian weapons manufacturers, and Word documents of correspondence and shipping information.
The files clearly incriminated Ardebili. They provided hard evidence that he'd bought millions of dollars worth of military-grade technology. More important, the files revealed what the Iranians were asking for - what they needed to upgrade, resupply, and expand their army, navy, and air force.
For example, agents discovered evidence that the Iranian navy planned to wrap 40 vessel hulls with stealth technology designed to avoid U.S. radar.
And they discovered a deal with an unwitting Arizona firm for at least 124 microcompressors, the very make and model of a component used to trigger IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan - creating an indirect but startling link between Ardebili and some roadside bombs responsible for more than 2,000 U.S. troop deaths.
The computer files were also filled with technical spec sheets and complex drawings the Homeland Security agents did not understand or recognize.
The agents doubted that Ardebili dabbled in nuclear technology, but they couldn't be certain. They needed help.
They called Washington.
SHIRAZ, IRAN, NOVEMBER 2007
Negine Ardebili was no fool.
She was a college student majoring in genetics, the daughter of a biophysics professor, wife of the successful Shiraz businessman Amir Ardebili.
Yet she had believed her father-in-law's lame lie.
When he'd returned from Tbilisi in October - arriving in Shiraz without his son - he'd explained it this way: Amir had been required to stay behind as a witness to the arrest of an American charged with illegal arms sales. He'd be back soon.
But as days became weeks and now a month with no word from her Amir - no calls, not even an e-mail - Negine grew angry and frustrated. What was happening? Where was her new husband?
In the customs of her culture, Negine could not confront her father-in-law. So she waited for the right moment and went through his things. She found a Georgian court document that revealed the truth.
Negine was incredulous. Her husband was in prison in Tbilisi. Worse, the Americans wanted him to stand trial in the United States.
She sat in their new home, thinking: Will I ever see Amir again?
WILMINGTON, NOV. 8, 2007
The American prosecutor was beginning to wonder the same thing: Would he ever see Ardebili again?
Without an extradition treaty between the two nations, things were moving slowly.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hall was optimistic, but knew extradition was never a sure thing. In recent years, U.S. agents had arrested Iranian arms dealers in Hong Kong, France, Germany, and Austria, friendly, stable nations with established court systems. Yet none had been extradited, and a few had even been released and returned to Iran.
The situation in Georgia was also becoming far more complex. Iran was allegedly applying pressure, warning of dire repercussions if Ardebili were extradited to the United States. According to a report from the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Iran was threatening to cut off Georgia's natural-gas supply in the middle of a bone-chilling winter.
What's more, U.S. agents learned of an alleged Iranian plot to have Ardebili poisoned before he could be extradited to the United States.
Georgian officials, meantime, were grappling with tense domestic affairs, including increasingly violent protests against the government. In early November, riot police bearing batons and tear gas beat back protesting crowds, injuring hundreds, damaging Georgia's reputation as a post-Soviet democracy and straining relations with the United States.
"The situation in ROG [Republic of Georgia] is worsening," a U.S. Embassy official reported to Hall on Nov. 8. "A state of emergency has been declared. The army has closed main highways. Commercial air traffic is expected to be suspended. Deputy ICE attaché is locked down at embassy. Ominously, Ministry of Justice has not been able to reach the prison by phone."
Georgia's president ultimately eased tensions by calling for early elections in January. Shortly thereafter, Hall learned that the Georgian Supreme Court was expected to take up Ardebili's case soon.
Start making plans now, the Georgians hinted. Once the court rules, you will have 24 hours to pick up Ardebili. The Georgians, it appeared, were eager to wash their hands of the whole messy affair.
PHILADELPHIA, NOVEMBER 2007
The squad from the Department of Energy specialized in high-tech weapons of war.
These included seemingly harmless but critical parts needed to build a nuclear bomb.
The DOE team arrived soon after the call from Philadelphia, setting up at the Holiday Inn on Pattison Avenue. After scanning Ardebili's laptop for 48 hours, the scientists emerged with good news: no evidence of nuclear weapons.
What they found surprising, however, was the sheer volume of military-grade trading going on.
"They told us they'd never seen a prolific Iranian buyer," an agent recalled. "The guy seemed to be working all the time, trying to buy stuff from American companies 24/7."
To help the agents dig through the data, including 26,000 e-mail messages, the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security sent help - experts on 14-day and monthlong assignments. Raw data flowed to Washington; intelligence officials visited Philadelphia.
From Ardebili's laptop, agents traced 33 bank transfers - money sent from Tehran via Germany to the U.S. accounts of American manufacturers. They also found transactions involving 70 American companies, 16 of which held large Pentagon contracts.
Homeland Security agents identified two dozen Iranian procurement agents - men just like Ardebili - as well as 50 Iranian government subsidiaries buying weapons and components for the Islamic Republic's military.
Ardebili's laptop would keep U.S. agents around the world busy with investigations for years.
Now all they lacked was Ardebili.
CHANTILLY, VA., JAN. 21, 2008
On a cold, clear morning, prosecutor Hall and the ICE team strode toward an unmarked Gulfstream IV jet at Washington Dulles International Airport.
Tipped that the Georgian Supreme Court was poised to deliver a ruling, the Americans needed to be in position. They would fly to central Europe and wait for word from Tbilisi.
For such a time-sensitive extradition, the ICE team couldn't rely on a commercial flight. And a marked U.S. plane might make a fat target if the Iranians were lying in wait.
The G-IV wasn't cheap. A weeklong rental would run $250,000, perhaps more.
The team boarded the jet carrying laptops and business clothes, no weapons. The team leader, undercover supervisor agent John Richards (not his real name), believed they should arrive dressed for a legal prisoner transfer, not a covert rendition.
As they settled into the plush seats, someone from the charter company approached Richards.
Sorry, he said, there's been a change. The plane will have to refuel in Amsterdam, complicating costs. The new tab will be closer to $300,000.
Normally, such a major change would delay the flight or even scuttle it, jeopardizing the case. But by a stroke of luck, one of the three undercover agents who had stung Ardebili in Tbilisi now worked in Washington, for the very official supervising overseas operations.
Richards called the agent, Patrick Lechleitner. It was Martin Luther King's birthday and ICE offices were closed. Richards reached Lechleitner out shopping with his wife.
"We're on board, getting ready to close the doors here and take off," Richards told Lechleitner. He didn't have to explain that this opportunity might represent the only chance to grab Ardebili.
Lechleitner called HQ. The middle managers on holiday duty balked. Lechleitner called Richards to apologize: Clearly, the bureaucrats didn't understand the stakes.
Taking this in, the restless Richards glanced down the cabin, his ICE squad ready to go. The former Philly street cop knew what to do. Shouting into the phone at his friend, Richards said, "What's that, pal? I can't you hear you. Sorry, you're breaking up. You're breaking up. . . ."
Richards snapped the phone shut and shrugged. "I guess we're OK," he said. Take off, he told the pilot. As the plane taxied, Richards hoped Lechleitner had his back, but he wouldn't know until they got to Amsterdam.
He needn't have worried.
Lechleitner could guess what Richards was up to. He took a deep breath. He might lose his job for this, Lechleitner thought, but his guys were operational. He couldn't abandon them. He called HQ back.
"The flight change is authorized," he said.
"Who's authorizing it?" the duty officer asked.
"Put my name on it."
Contact staff writer John Shiffman
at 301-320-6655 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
FRIDAY: A SECRET FLIGHT