PHILADELPHIA, JULY 2007
U.S. Homeland Security agents faced a serious problem. It was a good problem to have, but nonetheless a problem.
After months of haggling, an arms broker inside Iran had surprised the undercover agents by wiring a deposit for 1,000 phased-array radar units — lightning-fast microchips that help target attacking jet fighters. Such dime-size weapons of war, so tiny, so deadly, were highly coveted by America’s enemies.
Now the agents had to come up with the goods to complete their sting. Where would they get 1,000 radar chips? And how would they pay for them?
They couldn’t just borrow them from the Pentagon. The ones the U.S. military owns are already installed inside weapons systems, not stored separately.
They decided to reach out to the closest manufacturer, a New England company. The task fell to Special Agent Michael Ronayne because he was a Boston native who still spoke with a thick accent.
Ronayne dialed and was transferred to a woman who answered curtly, “How can I help ya?”
The agent started describing programs to prevent military technology from falling into enemy hands.
She cut him off. “Yeah, yeah, I know all about that. How can I help ya?”
The agent explained.
Yeah, the lady responded, that is a problem. The chips, constructed of gallium arsenide, take from 10 to 12 weeks to build. The wholesale price for 1,000 units is $100,000.
This is important, Ronayne said. He did not have to explain that American pilots’ lives might someday hang in the balance — that any air force using phased-array radar holds a great advantage.
The woman promised to check into it. A few hours later, she called back.
“I can sell you 10 real radar shifters and make you 990 blanks that look and weigh the same. Put the real ones on top, and the buyer won’t be able to tell the difference.”
TBILISI, REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA, AUGUST 2007
At 4 a.m. on a dewy summer day, a Lufthansa flight carrying undercover agent Patrick Lechleitner and prosecutor David Hall landed in the Georgian capital.
Now that the Americans had microchips to offer the arms broker, they needed a place to stage their sting, a spot where an Iranian would feel comfortable traveling and where the locals would agree to host a covert U.S. operation. They found it in Georgia, a former Soviet republic straddling the geographic and cultural border between Europe and Asia.
The veteran prosecutor and the young agent were met at the airport by their effusive European ace, “Darius,” the undercover Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent based in Frankfurt.
Georgia seemed a perfect place to lure “Alex Dave,” their Iranian target. Georgia was close to Iran and known for outlaw business practices. It was also an emerging U.S. ally.
For the Bush administration, Georgia represented a success story, a young, stable democracy, at least compared with Iraq. Bush himself was heartened when 100,000 Georgians cheered him during a 2005 visit. The highway from the airport to downtown Tbilisi was even renamed in honor of the U.S. president.
For Georgia, wary of Russian aggression, especially in the separatist South Ossetia region, U.S. support helped keep a looming enemy at bay. Georgia was even trying to join NATO.
The Russian threat was omnipresent. The month that Philadelphians Hall and Lechleitner arrived in Tbilisi, a “stray” Russian missile landed in Georgia, increasing tensions. This provocation would be a precursor to a full-fledged invasion the following year.
Darius, a tall, blunt, and confident man who speaks fluent Russian, quickly forged bonds with the Georgians.
“They are warriors — a combination of Klingons and Apaches,” he recalled. “The Georgians get along with the U.S. very well because they think the rest of Europe is a bunch of wimps.”
Hall met a top Georgian prosecutor, and she agreed to the sting so long as President Mikheil Saakashvili and a Tbilisi judge signed off.
Hall and Darius headed back to their hotel to check e-mail. Darius saw one from Alex Dave, who wanted to chat by instant message.
Hall leaned over Darius’ shoulder as he typed.
Darius: I’m in Tbilisi now with partners eager to meet you. Can you meet us here to pick up the microchips in late September or early October?
Alex Dave: Yes. By the way, can you write something for me in Russian?
It was a test — Darius was posing as a Russian arms dealer. The ICE agent didn’t miss a beat. His laptop had a dual keyboard. Switching from Roman to Cyrillic characters, he banged out a reply in Russian, “We have a bright future together.”
SHIRAZ, IRAN, AUGUST 2007
All businessmen bluff.
Ardebili considered himself a simple merchant, but he projected as polished an image as possible. He spoke and wrote English, the international language of business. He created a smart logo and website for his company.
“Every businessman,” Ardebili said later, “wants to show himself as a big man.”
The deal with Darius the Russian was growing bigger now, beyond the initial radar deal. Ardebili had negotiated to buy gyroscopes used for missile navigation, as well as cockpit computers, devices Iran needed to upgrade its hobbled F-4 fighter jets.
All would be delivered to Ardebili in Tbilisi, where Darius had good contacts.
Things were looking so good, Ardebili stopped using his fake name, Alex Dave.
“Amir Hossein Ardebili, this is my real name,” he wrote to Darius.
“Very nice to meet you.”
By late September, they were making final arrangements for the Tbilisi meeting.
Darius: “Do not worry about anything. I will be meet you at airport on Monday. You will have good room! Even if I must throw other hotel guest into the street.”
Ardebili said that sounded nice. “I really need to relax. This is five months working hard without any rest. I hope to have good meeting and longtime friendship.”
Ardebili revealed trepidation about his first foreign trip: Will I need a visa to travel from Tbilisi to the Black Sea coast? Is it dangerous to walk about the city? Will my cellphone work? Will I need a necktie for meetings?
Darius reassured Ardebili and signed off with a flourish: “I want you to bring your ideas and knowledge. I have much to learn from you. You will be the professor and I will be the student.”
“I do not have any thing to [teach] you,” Ardebili replied. “I can only open the window for you in the Middle East and work with you. I should learn from you, Darius. You are great.”
TBILISI, SEPT. 29, 2007
Seventy-two hours before the sting, undercover ICE supervisor “John Richards” — not his real name — met with the Georgian secret police to go over logistics.
“We’re going to meet in a hotel room, drive around in a car a little bit, have a lunch, maybe dinner,” said Richards, a former Philly vice squad cop. “I need to wire all those places because you never know what’s going to be said spontaneously. Even the social events, we’ve got to be ready in case there’s dirty talk.”
The Georgians, old enough to have been trained by the Soviets, laughed and told Richards to get in the car.
They drove to the once-grand Old Tbilisi Hotel, where they ushered Richards to a suite arranged with four chairs.
“He will sit there,” a local cop said. “Your guys will sit here and here.”
“OK, fellas,” Richards said. “Where we going to put the cameras?”
The Georgians snickered and pointed to a Utrillo-style painting on the wall. “Camera is already there.” They led Richards next door to a room filled with surveillance gear. The permanent setup probably dated to KGB days.
Richards laughed and said, “OK, where we going to eat?”
“We know a great place.”
They led him to a high-class restaurant. This, too, was a former KGB haunt, prewired with hidden cameras.
EAST OF TBILISI,
OCT. 1, 2007
From a window seat, Ardebili watched an Azerbaijan Airlines steward distribute drinks: tea, soda, beer, wine.
He shook his head. Openly selling alcohol! I’m not in Iran anymore. Booze could be found in Shiraz, of course, but only on the black market.
He let the steward pass without ordering.
The excitement Ardebili had felt departing Shiraz early that morning was gone now, replaced by exhaustion. He’d flown Iran Air from Shiraz to Tehran and from there to Baku, Azerbaijan. He’d changed airlines for the prop-plane flight from Baku to Tbilisi.
Traveling with him was a surprise guest from Shiraz, now napping in the next seat.
Ardebili was relieved that Darius had promised to pick them up at the airport. It would make things so much easier.
The arms broker carried a present for Darius, two tins of pistachios, a specialty of Shiraz. The irony of such a gift — pistachios were among the handful of items exempt from the U.S. trade embargo — was lost on Ardebili.
He also carried a Western pocket calendar filled with weekly affirmations. This week’s: “Nothing is so contagious as enthusiasm.”
Ardebili couldn’t wait to meet Darius and his American partners. He hoped to learn from them. Make a lot of money.
As Darius had written in a recent e-mail, “Our future is going to be big. I sometimes believe you do not know how big will our deals be.”
Darius’ enthusiasm was contagious.
TBILISI, OCT. 1, 2007
The two U.S. agents in the undercover suite worked furiously, unsure how much time they had.
For security reasons, they couldn’t phone their colleagues at the airport. So there was no way to know if Ardebili’s plane had arrived, or if he was headed their way.
At this late hour, the agents were having panicky second thoughts about relying on the KGB-era camera in the painting. After spending three years luring the Iranian, could they afford to take a chance? Dare they record their best evidence with a decade-old system?
Robert Lerario, a boyish-faced tech expert, dug into the 21st-century black bag he’d brought from Philadelphia. He told undercover agent Patrick Lechleitner to peel off his shirt and began replacing a button with a tiny remote-control button-camera.
Lechleitner put the shirt back on, and both agents winced. The button-camera was round; the other buttons were square. It looked absurd. Lechleitner left to change.
Lerario knelt with a pocketknife and began boring a small hole in a wicker wastebasket and inserted a dime-size camera.
“As I’m threading the wire, I can feel sweat trickling down my neck,” recalled Lerario, an agent of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), a special branch of the Pentagon. “I have no idea how much time I have.”
The DCIS agent finished installing the camera and stood, eager to check the reception next door. As he left, he glanced over his shoulder and caught his breath — where he’d drilled his hole, telltale white-wicker shavings were scattered along the crimson carpet.
Lerario fell to his knees with a roll of Scotch tape. He tore off a piece and began patting the carpet to collect the shavings. Nervous questions swirled in his head:
Would the Iranian fall for our hotel sting?
If so, would the Georgians let us drag him back to America?
EAST OF TBILISI,
OCT. 1, 2007
The whine of the propellers dimmed, and the plane began its descent.
Ardebili looked out the window. They were approaching Tbilisi now. In the distance, a fourth-century fortress hugged a cliff overlooking the capital. The plane buzzed over Bronze-Age burial mounds and a Georgian military factory, then put down at a gleaming new airport of glass and steel.
Ardebili was minutes from meeting Darius.
“I am feeling nervous,” he recalled. “And I am excited.”
In Tbilisi, they planned to do much more than complete deals for the radar, gyroscopes, and cockpit computers. Darius and Ardebili would set the stage for future business. If this deal came through, Ardebili had promised, the Iranian military would buy 50 additional F-4 computers, as well as night-vision equipment and missile-guidance parts.
Darius had instructed Ardebili to come prepared to discuss any number of deals. Remember to bring your laptop, he’d told the Iranian.
Good idea, Ardebili thought.
With his laptop handy, he’d have his whole office at his fingertips. Ardebili could access any e-mail, any invoice, any request from the Iranian government, the names of 300 U.S. companies he’d been negotiating with. Files going back four years.
Darius was sure to be impressed.
The flight from Baku landed and pulled to the Tbilisi gate. Joined by his traveling partner, Ardebili swung his laptop bag across his shoulder and followed the other passengers shuffling to passport control.
Contact staff writer John Shiffman
at 301-320-6655 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TUESDAY: THE MAGIC SHOW