Lisa Monaco Would Like to Thank the Academy

One nice touch of today’s press conference rolling out the latest FBI-created plot (aside from comedy lines like “they had no regard for the rule of law” and “we will not let other countries use our soil as their battleground”) is that the fairly new Assistant Attorney General for National Security, Lisa Monaco, got a speaking role.

That’s certainly not inappropriate; given that this plot was either invented by or targeted at Iran, the NSD would be right in the thick of the action.

It’s the content of her statements, focusing almost entirely on thanking participants in the “investigation,” I find so interesting. She started by thanking her reports in the NSD, particularly the Counterterrorism Section. Then the US Attorney’s Offices in Southern District of NY and Houston. Then the FBI, the DEA, and the NY Joint Terrorism Task Force. After having thanked those groups–two of which (FBI and DEA) are members of the Intelligence Community–she then thanked the Intelligence Community.

Finally, I want to thank the intelligence community for its critical role in this matter. The National Security Division was designed to serve as the place where intelligence and law enforcement come together at the Justice Department. I am proud to say that we served that purpose here. This case demonstrates exactly how the division is supposed to work and should serve as a model for future cases.

(Holder offers less demonstrative thanks to the intelligence community too.) In other words, the head of the NSD, which would handle cooperation between the ops side and the law enforcement side, dedicated one-fifth of her comments, a quarter of her thanks, to the IC members presumably above and beyond the FBI and DEA officers who led this sting.

By itself, that’s not a surprise. After all, even the recent model plane UAV plot the FBI invented would have involved the NSA and CIA closely because the FBI seems to have targeted Rezwan Ferdaus, the plotter, because of his comments in jihadist chat rooms. But by contrast with such operations as that one, the complaint in this case offers no obvious tip to the involvement of the IC.

Sure, there would be intelligence analysts, the experts on the Quds Force (though the FBI agent writing the complaint attributed information on the Quds to Treasury and State declarations and “other ‘open source’ information,” in the same way he attributes information on Los Zetas to “published reports”). There might be Treasury investigators, the people who use SWIFT to track the two international wire transfers that are the primary evidence in the case, but the FBI could probably track the transfers themselves, not least because the transfers ended up in an FBI bank account and I suspect they went through a friendly bank in NYC. You’d think the NSA would be involved, but the informant, who I call “Narc,” taped all the phone conversations himself until Arbabsiar’s arrest, after which the FBI taped his calls. There is a reference to pictures of Quds members, presumably taken by intelligence agencies.

But those are the only visible signs of IC involvement. Indeed, the complaint appears designed to hide any hint of IC involvement and the sting appears designed to avoid any obvious involvement from the IC. That is, from the looks of things, this arrest required less involvement from the IC than Fardaus’.

Which I assume is the point: to create the appearance of an FBI arrest that seems entirely unmotivated by underlying intelligence plots.

And yet unnamed agencies in the IC got prominent kudos for their “critical role in this matter.”

With that in mind, I wanted to point to a few interesting details in the complaint.

Perhaps most interesting, the complaint’s account of how a seeming incompetent like Arbabsiar got sent out to negotiate ties between the Quds and Los Zeta indicates Arbabsiar suggested he get involved, not his cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai (described here as Iranian Official #1).

ARBABSIAR told Iranian Official #1 that as a result of his business in both Mexico and the United States, he (ARBABSIAR) knew a number of people who traveled between the two countries, and some of those people, he (ARBABSIAR) believed, were narcotics traffickers. Iranian Official #1 told ARBABSIAR that he wanted ARBABSIAR to hire someone who could kidnap the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States and that ARBABSIAR should find someone in the narcotics business, because people in that business are willing to undertake criminal activity in exchange for money.

And note how, at the start, Shahlai wanted only a kidnapping? Arbabsiar and Narc turned it into an assassination. And Narc offered up the C4 that is the entire basis of the WMD complaint (and, more largely, the terrorism charge).

Note, too, how it was orchestrated such that Arbabsiar would be in custody making calls back to Iran that would capture Arbabsiar’s co-conspirator, Gholam Shakuri, in the plot (every single one of these charges is a conspiracy charge, so getting some evidence against Shakuri was critical to even charging Arbabsiar without having him engage in an actual attack). The explanation was that Narc wanted something–either more money or Arbabsiar’s presence in Mexico–as a guarantee of the remainder of the $1.5 million payoff before he’d order the hit. Shakuri advised against Ababsiar traveling to Mexico.

SHAKURI stated that no more money should be given to [Narc], and advised ARBABSIAR against traveling back to Mexico. SHAKURI said that ARBABSIAR was responsible for himself if he did travel.

Then, when he was in custody pretending to be in Los Zetas custody, Arbabsiar called Shakuri and told him Narc wanted more money–presumably a ploy by the FBI to get Shakuri reconfirming the plan for the plot and his involvement in the money transfer. But Shakuri rejected that request.

SHAKURI then stated: “You said it yourself, they–from our point of view of–when we get our merchandise, we get our merchandise.” SHAKURI added, “We have guaranteed the rest. You were our guarantee.”

If this were a real plot and Los Zetas were really playing hardball for a bigger advance, then Shakuri’s decision might well have gotten Arbabsiar killed. At the very least, Shakuri’s refusal to pony up any more advance money suggests some ambivalence about the operation (or Arbabsiar’s life).

Now, it’s not clear when Arbabsiar decided to cooperate with the FBI–only when he was arrested (and promptly waived Miranda rights), or back in the spring when he proposed reaching out to Los Zetas to his cousin and along the way turned a kidnapping into a terrorist attack.

But it seems clear that someone orchestrated this sting from behind the scenes to create the appearance of a Quds-sponsored terrorism plot in the US. And for that reason, among the other players and directors and cinematographers Lisa Monaco thanked at the press conference, she also thanked the IC for the critical role they played in orchestrating the show.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

31 replies
  1. John B. says:

    What a bunch of crap. Sometimes my/our government sinks to lows even I thought they were not capable of…read Glennzilla…he is equally devastating…

  2. William Ockham says:

    If you believe the FBI story, a high-ranking Iranian official (one that we claim is responsible for a 2007 attack in Iraq) talked to his cousin, a used car salesman from Corpus Christi, Texas, about hiring someone to kidnap the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Then, out of all the Mexican drug cartel folks, this guy just happened to talk to U.S. confidential informant. That seems pretty incredible. Odds against would have to be something like 1,000 to 1.

    On the other hand, if the IC were aware of that first discussion in Iran, then the whole crazy scheme becomes a lot more believable.

    That’s where the IC community earned their thanks.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @William Ockham: I’d say it’s worse than that.

    Why would the used car salesman offer up his services after all?

    The govt is on the record as trying to find evidence of crimes from people they’d like to flip (Ted Olson said they were using legal FISA warrants to do that back in 2002).

    And this cat admitted he knew narcotics traffickers.

    So I would suggest they found some reason the car salesman might be in a legally awkward position, found out who his cousin was (if he wasn’t already under surveillance bc of ties to a Quds Force officer), and then used the legally awkward bit as a way to flip the car salesman.

  4. rosalind says:

    @emptywheel: there’s a diary up at MYFdl that seems to have some local color:

    Being here in TExas, I heard some local news about this guy. He is a Texas resident. He lived in Corpus Christi, Dallas, and Round Rock. His business was in wholesale car deals, and he owned a minute mart. They interviewed a civil attorney he hired in Corpus about 10 years ago and some of his old neighbors. Nobody pegged him for being the type. He had some outstanding arrest warrants already for petty theft, fraud, and evasion of arrest.

  5. BoxTurtle says:

    I ain’t saying I believe the government, I ain’t sayin’ I don’t. But it looks to me as though they think they have the evidence to trace that cash back to Iran’s government. I’d really like to see that evidence, as it’s the only chunk so far where I don’t have to take ObamaLLP’s word on faith.

    Boxturtle (Perhaps Obama has caught a mouse and would like us to think it’s a tiger)

  6. William Ockham says:

    @emptywheel: First, “a lot more believable” doesn’t mean I believe it all. In your scenario, they are prosecuting an asset just so that they can make the conspiracy charges stick against the guy they are really after. I could buy that. They can use his post-arrest cooperation as the excuse to give him a sweetheart deal. But they don’t have the guy they are really after. They can’t expect Iran to turn him over. So this would be a total propaganda operation. I hope the Holder DoJ isn’t that corrupt, but it could be.

    Or, maybe, the IC played the FBI and DoJ. Maybe the FBI didn’t know that our used car salesman was already an asset. That would be pretty risky for the IC.

    I will have to think about this one.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @William Ockham: This is not about legal proceedings. It’s a charade for the international community. Biden’s already saying that nothing’s off the table.

    Vice President Joe Biden said today that “nothing has been taken off the table” when it comes to the U.S. response to an alleged plot by Iran to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. and unleash deadly terrorist bombings in Washington, D.C.

    “It is an outrageous act that the Iranians are going to have to be held accountable,” Biden told ABC News’ “Good Morning America”. “This is really over the top.”

    So after we do whatever we do with Iran, no one will remember it all started with a trumped up op by a used car salesman in TX. He’ll be living in witness protection, if he’s lucky, or maybe get a short jail term. But this is not about rule of law, it’s about manufacturing an international incident.

  8. bmaz says:

    Wait!?!? You had already posted this when I was making cracks earlier on Twitter about Monaco’s “DeMille facetime”?? Well, now I feel a lot less clever….

  9. emptywheel says:

    Incidentally, there’s also this in the complaint:

    I have spoken with other individuals, including other law-enforcement officials, about this investigation.

  10. Mary says:

    So, an Iranian who has outstanding warrants against him in Texas and is the cousin of a known QDS officer – one that the US has had its eye on since a 2007 bombing – is in phone contact (?) with that officer, who just never even dreamed that his cuz would be under any kind of surveillance? And everyone is going to deal in wire transfers, but not to Cayman or Swiss accounts. And instead of using Hezbollah to handle the set up, the QDS decide to use the untrained cuz who has warrants outstanding against him in the US (such a low profile guy).

    If I was writing the fiction on this, there would definitely be a distraction element, but it sure wouldn’t be Occupy Wall Street. The IC owes Obama. They owe Holder. They owe whole segments of the DOJ. There has been one SOL after another run out; there was the cover up of CIA responsibility in both 9/11 and Khost. There’s been Holder structuring outcome after outcome, to get mean-spirited nasty with whistleblowers and to give full support and aid to torture and tortuers and to commissions and coverups. There’s all the info that Lanny Breuer just couldn’t find in that prouction he signed off on.

    And right now, Holder and DOJ have been caught with their pants way down. What Issa is pushing on isn’t something insubstantial for someone like Holder, especially if Obama doesn’t hold on for the next round. And Obama has not been more unpopular – with his GOP possibles looking stronger and stronger against him. Having his AG under high profile investigation for fibbing to Congress about something involving, in essence, DOJ and the Obama admin providing weapons used in crimes – not a good way to go into the elections.

    But Obama & Holder can still declassify and trot out Durham and “find” info, etc – in addition to their already earned markers. Occupy Wall Sreet was actually helping distract attention from Issa’s Fast and Furious efforts, and giving the Dems all kinds of contradictory and petty and ridiculous sound bytes to use against all the GOP candidates later. But this is really going to both bolster the “Obama is competent” meme and not only distract from Fast and Furious, but even give Holder some possible grounds for a classified briefing showing how that program gave them the capabilities to pull this off etc. Or at least, that’s how the fiction would go. An IC payback to the President and AG who not only let them walk on torture and destruction of evidence and killings, but who also kept promoting them up the levels. It may not sound like something QUDs would put together, but it doesn’t sound that far off from something that people who kept torturing a crazy, multiple personality guy with iron in his brain might do, or someone who set up a whole multi-branch, multi-governmental, multi-national kidnap and torture program for a German guy who had the wrong name. Especially when you realize those are the kinds of people who get promoted and put in charge.

    BTW – where has Brennan been in the announcements? I saw Holder give his big “We’ll get Iran for this” talk [even though much later in the fine print voice he admits that they aren’t really even beginning to claim that “Iran” as a gov had anything to do with it], but I’ve missed Brennan.

    Anyway, fictional meanderings notwithstanding, kudos to anyone who worked on all of this in good faith and to generate the best outcome as far as convictions with the least outcome as far as danger and injuries, but bigger kudos still to those who worked for those outcomes, but have also spent a little time scratching their heads over some of what just doesn’t make sense.

  11. Mary says:

    @emptywheel: From a Biden Presser: Jorno- Mr. VP, I’d like to be clear here. Since the SA Ambassador is here on diplomatic immunity, if he had, for example, pulled up in a car next to Arbabsiar, would it have been acceptable for him to simply pull a gun and execute Arbabsiar? And can you fill us in on who it is that Raymond Davis was teaching to shoot in DC? Jorno#2 – Mr. VP, is the official government position that only SA can execute SA citizens on US soil and if not, can you provide context vis a vis the US execution of Samir Khan in Yemen? Jorno #3 – Mr. VP, has Iran alleged that the SA Ambassador has engaged in material support of terrorist acts against Iraq and, if so, can you confirm that it would have been “impossible” for Iran to get the US to turn over the Ambassador, with his diplomatic immunity, to them? If so, can you provide context vis a vis the US drone executions and cross border raid executions of those who provided material support to our enemy terrorists?

    It’s not like this will change anything in our forever war in Iraq. Withdrawal still on target, right? No impact on the SOFA deal cutting at all – right?
    “U.S. officials have scrambled this past week to redraw a 2012 military training plan after Iraqi leaders announced they would not grant immunity to troops who remain past the Dec. 31 deadline for withdrawal.

    A State Department official said Saturday that while Iraq is not likely to budge on its resistance to military immunity, there are other paths to continuing the U.S. training mission in the country.”
    “Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said U.S. troops might still be able to stay in Iraq as trainers beyond a 2011 withdrawal date, even though the country’s political blocs have rejected giving immunity to any American soldiers.”
    Panetta – I want to make damn sure that you get the same protections I gave to IC torture/kidnap/killers, I mean, if these guys want our operational expertise they have to learn how you fix the Justice system first. Oops, sorry, strike that, mistranslation – apparently this is the better translation:
    “The U.S. Secretary of Defense says any agreement reached that keeps American troops in Iraq past an end-of-the-year deadline to withdraw must include immunity from Iraqi prosecution”

  12. Nox Ninox says:

    @Mary: The IC owes Obama. They owe Holder.

    And if the Washington Times report is accurate about Fast and Furious being a CIA gun running/coke trafficking operation, then they certainly owe Holder for taking most of the heat for it.

  13. emptywheel says:

    Another interesting detail on hiding the intell. When Arbabsiar was overseas, the complaint makes no mention of where he is.

    As if we don’t know!


  14. Kim Hanson says:

    @emptywheel: I think it is likely they flipped Arbabsiar but I think the reasons for thanking the IC run to the initial discovery of Arbabsiar’s involvement, be it either as a drug deal gone bad or as a Quds contact for an assassination attempt. IC snooping, sniffing, phone monitoring, etc likely was involved BEFORE the month of May and that put Arbabsiar onto the playing field (regardless of what the play actually is.) By recording Narc’s conversations and then especially by turning Arbabsiar and recording his conversations with Individual 1, the DOJ is able to make the complaint and go to trial without having to use evidence gathered before May and thus are able to avoid arguments about State secrets, exposing sources and methods, etc. (This is a benefit to DOJ in both a trial situation and as a simply propaganda op in that they have released what they already have without any need to compromise the initial surveillance methods or claim state secrets.)

  15. ron says:

    With elections on the front pages and cost cutting lurking the security services will be busy the next few years uncovering various plots, bringing to justice endless deadbeat bad guys. Its an old script one that Bush used with his various colored alerts and will be a common stable of Presidents for many years and elections cycles.

  16. rugger9 says:

    @Nox Ninox:
    The words “Washington Times” is your tipoff. AKA the Moonie Times, it’s a mouthpiece for the Unification cult of Sun Myung Moon and usually a haven for reactionary thought. Facts are very few and far between.

  17. Nox Ninox says:


    usually a haven for reactionary thought

    Which is precisely why a potential CIA leaker would feel comfortable talking to them, no?

    Anything other reason? I mean other than simply a blanket (dare I say, reactionary) disregard of the source? After all, the NYT doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record either when it comes to National Security issues (Judy Miller anyone?), but I doubt you would make the same conclusive dismissal to justify not addressing the substance of a similar report.

    Not that I am defending the W Times or necessarily crediting its report, mind you. Just that it seems pretty silly to reflexively shut our eyes to what could be a legitimate explanation for these ongoing DOJ shenanigans based merely on ideological prejudices against its source.

  18. rugger9 says:

    @Nox Ninox:
    Sure they’d feel more comfortable. But if you actually read their stuff, it’s like reading the Weekly World News thinking that Bat Boy was real. Since I haven’t checked in on WWN for a while [or the equally malodorous Globe, very anti-WH] BB may be working for the WH. The aliens did when Clinton was there.

    As is typical of the RW apologists [noting that I’m calling out the credulity here, not claiming you’re a troll], you somehow continue to believe the NYT is a liberal paper. It hasn’t been since Pinch took over. Krugman is about as liberal as you’d see there. Brooks, Krauthammer, Charen, Will, Friedman, et al. all stain the editorial pages with their dreck and none of them can be remotely considered “liberal”. Even Coulter has published there, I believe. JudyJudyJudy was a tool of the RW, and even the most cursory review of the Libby trial facts and investigation would make it clear that Miller’s “reporting” was of the same cloth as Brooks, et al., and she was perfectly willing to do Cheney’s bidding as directed by Scooter.

  19. Nox Ninox says:

    you somehow continue to believe the NYT is a liberal paper.

    Actually, I don’t. But your apparently reflexive need to categorize people and publications as left or right makes my point for me, and betrays your blinkered thinking about where actual facts about a issue can often be found.

    I suppose when the CIA starts leaking to Mother Jones you may finally deem the report sufficiently credible to consider the not-inconceivable possibility that the CIA was behind Fast & Furious.

    Until it does (whatever century that may be), I’d simply invite you to consider the possibility that your two dimensional approach to fact gathering may be preventing you from seeing the whole picture here.

  20. Nox Ninox says:

    Here’s a thought:

    Suppose the CIA wants to issue a mea culpa about Fast & Furious to take the heat off of Holder, but do it in a way that will keep the blowback to the agency to a minimum.

    What better way than to leak to the Washington Times? The PTB get the real story, while the Progressive media automatically dismisses the report because it comes from an ideologically untrustworthy source.

    A nice two-fer wouldn’t you say?

  21. emptywheel says:

    @Nox Ninox: Ahem.

    Are you so sure the CIA hasn’t leaked to MoJo? I can think of several stories they’ve published that have been inconsistent versions of stories the CIA was spinning hard.

  22. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Iran or any other would be opponent of US interests would seem unlikely to use resources and cut-outs in Mexico. It would be an invitation to be shopped to US authorities: DEA, FBI, CIA, you name it. Apart from the fact that virtually every armed US federal agency has agents and ops in Mexico, it is notorious for its chaos. Among other things, that virtually guarantees a leak. The list of resources in the Middle East for such a gig would be extensive. The only reason to use Mexican-based resources would have been to get caught, which best describes a false plot.

    Interestingly, the chaos for which parts of Mexico is renowned would provide plausible deniability of the very fact that US authorities have assumed – in the manner of a good economist – on the Iranian side of the ledger: the tie-in between acts purportedly taking place in a foreign state and the involvement of the government of that state. The US assumes such a tie-in with regard to the Iranian state, but not with Mexico.

    This reads more like the guys who spent five decades trying to kill Castro have not yet retired, but have gone into screen writing. A lot more facts will need to come out to make this a credible, independent plot that put at risk material US interests.

  23. Nox Ninox says:

    Are you so sure the CIA hasn’t leaked to MoJo?

    No, but that is hardly the point.

    Then again, given the plethora of derivative, non-responses to my initial post (including your response I’m sorry to say), perhaps publishing in MoJo may end up being the only way to get anybody on this blog to talk about the actual substance of the allegations that the CIA my have been the driving force behind Fast & Furious.

    Too bad, really, because if the allegations are indeed true, the DOJ’s subsequent actions (including today’s press conference) make a helluva lot more sense.

  24. bmaz says:

    @Nox Ninox: You are here beating people’s chops based on that pile of bunk article in the looney Washington Times? You keep saying “if it is true”; well, no kidding. If pigs only flew; but, of course, they do not. I have seen nothing – nothing – that either supports, or is even consistent with, the fantastical allegation that GunRunner/Fast&Furious was all a CIA drug op.

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