Scary Iran Plot

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: The Big Issue Is Not Miranda, It’s Presentment

Particularly given Lindsey Graham’s persistent tweeting yesterday that “the last thing we may want to do is read Boston suspect Miranda Rights,” there was a lot of discussion in the moments after Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured last night about whether he would be read his rights.

At first, there were reports he would be. But then DOJ announced he would not be read Miranda immediately; they would invoke the public safety exception to question him.

“The suspect is en route to the hospital for immediate treatment,” the official tells TPM’s Sahil Kapur. “But we plan to invoke the public safety exception to Miranda in order to question the suspect extensively about other potential explosive devices or accomplices and to gain critical intelligence.”

As of about 40 minutes ago, he had still not been read his rights.

Now, thus far, I’m actually not that worked up about Miranda rights (though I may get there soon). As Orin Kerr explains, the public safety exception is a legally recognized law, and Miranda itself only limits what can be admitted as testimony against Dzhokhar in his trial (I’m betting he’ll plead guilty in any case). The government appears to have so much evidence against him in any case, any confession he makes will likely not be necessary to convict him.

Mind you, as Charlie Savage reported two years ago, the government has been institutionalizing longer delays before they give Miranda warnings, most notably with people they (or foreign proxies) interrogate overseas first, followed by a clean team Mirandized interrogation. And as the reference to “gain[ing] critical intelligence” above suggests, the Obama Administration is stretching the intent of pre-Miranda interrogations to include more substantive interrogation (update: Emily Bazelon also made this point).

But here in the US, the delays on Miranda warnings aren’t that long. The best–quite similar–example is the 2009 UndieBomber, who was interviewed for about 50 minutes under a public safety exception when he was captured. That entire interrogation was deemed admissible and in fact formed a significant part of the opening arguments in his trial (which didn’t get much further than opening arguments before he plead guilty). So the UndieBomber’s case is one reason the Administration is confident they could question Dzhokhar without Mirandizing him at first (though the length of time has gotten far longer than used with the UndieBomber).

There’s a precedent from the UndieBomber I find more troubling though. The judge in that case also allowed the use of UndieBomber’s statements from the hospital after he had been given a fair amount of sedation. While there was a dispute about how much he got and what kind of effect that might have had, conversations he had with a nurse were also used in the opening arguments of the trial. The two issues together — a suspect interviewed without a lawyer after he’s been given serious drugs, both of which will be apply to Dzhokhar, as well — is troubling on legal, humanitarian, and practical grounds. The High-Value Interrogation Group had already been brought in last night, which suggests he may well be asked questions while in precarious medical state.

But the big issue, in my opinion, is presentment, whether he is brought before a judge within 48 hours. In addition to stretching Miranda, the government has also been holding and interrogating suspects for periods — up to two weeks for American citizens and far longer for non-citizens — before they see a judge. Not only does this postpone the time when they will be given a lawyer whether they ask or not (because judges are going to assign one), but it gives the government an uninterrupted period of time to use soft coercion to get testimony and other kinds of cooperation.

In my opinion, two of the most troubling cases like this, both involving naturalized citizens accused of terrorism, are Faisal Shahzad and Manssor Arbabsiar.

Continue reading

FBI’s Shrink-for-Hire Undermines Their Case While Trying to Rebut Manic Defense

When last we heard from Dr. Gregory Saathoff, he suggested doing and managed production of a thoroughly hackish report trying to argue that the anthrax case against Bruce Ivins was solid. (See also this post, and Jeff Kaye’s post laying out what other hacks Saathoff recruited for it.) That report took all the FBI’s theories about Ivin’s alleged acts as a factual baseline–even the ones undermined by the National Academy of Science’s scientific review–but then claimed it was not predisposed to support the FBI case.

All that suggests a certain desperation on the part of the FBI, which called on Saathoff to rebut Manssor Arbabsiar’s defense argument that he was manic during the period when he was confessing to the Scary Iran Plot. Yet, in his attempt to do so, Saathoff reveals several new problems with the case against Arbabsiar.

Two things to lay out before I review how Saathoff’s report makes the government case worse. First, here are some of the symptoms that both Saathoff and defense expert Psychiatrist Michael First used in diagnosing whether or not Arbabsiar was bipolar:

  1. Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
  2. Decreased need for sleep
  3. More talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
  4. Flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing
  5. Distractibility
  6. Increase in goal-directed activity
  7. Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences

Now, in just one way, Saathoff’s report does make the government’s case stronger: an FBI Agent named Mustafa Shalabi (Shalabi was replaced as Arbabsiar’s night guard by Damon Flores the following night for the remainder of his pre-presentment custody; Flores says he would cut off Arbabsiar when he talked about his crime) had a conversation with Arbabsiar in the middle of his third night in US custody. Among the other things Shalabi said Arbabsiar told him was,

He said that his cousin was a “big general”, [who] was “senior” with decision-making powers. [He was] Approached by cousin to then give money to kill the Saudi Ambassador. As he was telling me this, he reflected back on the whole situation. As he told me the story, [as] he said that, he looked upset and [said that he] had been used by his cousin.

This is as clear as any statement in the complaints in this case that Arbabsiar’s cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, did ask him to hire someone to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir (though Arbabsiar’s comment that he had been used may suggest far more). As with all the evidence in the complaint, it in no way supports that that’s what the money transferred was about (elsewhere the report repeatedly cites Arbabsiar emphasizing no one got killed), but it does provide one more witness implicating Shahlai in a conspiracy to assassinate al-Jubeir. But note, even there,

Shalabi described this brief ten-minute period when Mr. Arbabsiar had chain-smoked several cigarettes and washed his shirt in the bathroom sink using the term “erratic” as defined by “deviating from what is ordinary or standard.”

Shalabi insisted Arbabsiar wasn’t crazy multiple times, but provided clear evidence that Arbabsiar was exhibiting sleeplessness, poor judgment, and grandiosity at the time he offered up a confession, just days after his capture.

The treatment of Shalabi’s interview comes among abundant evidence that Arbabsiar was describing his shitty used car dealership as one of the best dealership in Corpus Christi and being “narcissistic” or a “braggart” (according to jail personnel) about other issues, dealing with insomnia until drugged to treat it, and fighting depression. Saathoff also dismisses Arbabsiar’s practice of bringing lovers to his home as simple long-term “hypersexuality,” not that of a manic. That is, there’s plenty here that to my totally untrained eye sounds like could be symptoms of bipolar, and each Saathoff dismisses (I expect Jeff Kaye will bring a more professional analysis to this shortly). My favorite is the way Saathoff dismisses Arbabsiar gifting airline staffers with duty free fragrance and getting himself a tour of the cockpit.

Around 2004, while on a Lufthansa flight from Europe to Iran, Mr. Arbabsiar spoke with the flight attendant and suggested that he would like to buy her some cologne from the duty-free catalogue. “She was beautiful, and I told her I would do something for her.” When she declined, Mr. Arbabsiar stated that he would also like to do something for the pilot and express his gratitude for their dedication in maintaining a safe flight during the increased flight security following September 11, 2001. He purchased duty-free cologne costing approximately $30 each for only the flight attendant and the pilot, who then both expressed their appreciation for what the pilot termed “the nice gesture.” In fact the pilot, with 25 years of flight experience, personally escorted Mr. Arbabsiar from his economy seating to the cockpit, where he was allowed to sit in the co-pilot’s seat for approximately five minutes as the pilot described and showed Mr. Arbabsiar the controls for operating the plane.

Note, Saathoff doesn’t say he interviewed the pilot (and he doesn’t cite how he learned the pilot had 25 years of experience). But he would have you believe that a man gifting his way into a cockpit after 9/11 is perfectly normal because once he got there he didn’t do anything crazy.

Because coach class passengers manage to gift their way into cockpits during flights all the time.

I’m more interested, though, in two specific details that show Arbabsiar treated his interrogation as grandiose.

First, Saathoff doesn’t find it at all grandiose that Arbabsiar believed his personal interrogator was President Obama’s right-hand man.

Because the crime he is charged with involves the planned assassination of a Saudi official, he felt that it would have the attention of top U.S. leadership, including President Obama. In my interview with FBI Special Agent (SA) # 1, he affirmed that one of the agents told Mr. Arbabsiar that FBI SA # 1 knew the president. This impressed Mr. Arbabsiar, who would then ask the agent about the president’s involvement following the case. Another FBI agent who questioned him, FBI SA # 2, stated to me that, “we portrayed [the other agent] as the president’s right hand man. That impressed him. He wants to be important.”

“He wants to be important” sure sounds like grandiose.

And then Saathoff dismisses Arbabsiar’s references to starting World War III as a joke.

Mr. Arbabsiar made references to World War III (WWIII) that were sarcastic in nature, according to FBI SA# 1. Exasperated with his Iranian handlers and their directives to him to avoid sending emails, Mr. Arbabsiar would say, “If I start WWIII, I start WWIII.” In fact, Mr. Arbabsiar indicated to the agents that he believed that the Iranian handlers were overcautious and was confident that even if sending incriminating emails from his address was wrong: “One mistake will not start WWIII.”

One curious detail about this passage: Saathoff doesn’t describe whether this was a reference to sent email before he was arrested or after. But there’s no reference to email in the complaint, suggesting the FBI may have been trying to get Arbabsiar to exchange email with Gholam Shakuri while he was in custody. If so, that would suggest Arbabsiar “joked” about starting WWIII for the actions he was doing while in custody, not before.

In any case, this exhibits the same lack of caution Arbabsiar used when first talking about avoiding transferring large sums, but then transferring two almost $50,000 sums.

And note that elsewhere, Saathoff insists on contextualizing Arbabsiar’s comments in the interrogation techniques the FBI Agents were using. Yet, having laid out Arbabsiar’s seeming flouting of his handler’s caution about email (and also money laundering, which Saathoff doesn’t mention), Saathoff makes this claim.

In fact, Mr. Arbabsiar’s ability to successfully and appropriately engage his Iranian contact during three phone conversations, using prearranged code words at times, on three separate days demonstrates an absence of mania in that he demonstrated the ability to interact appropriately in a novel situation. To conduct three separate phone calls and converse in code without arousing the suspicion of his Iranian contact required a significant amount of emotional and cognitive control.

Now, I’m not sure why Saathoff claims that Arbabsiar’s calls didn’t arouse his Iranian contact–Shakuri’s–suspicion. In spite of FBI efforts, Arbabsiar never succeeded in getting Shakuri to transfer additional money (and therefore almost the only evidence against Shakuri the FBI has is Arbabsiar’s confession), which suggests either the plot(s) weren’t all that important to Shakuri or he was suspicious (though he may have been already, since he advised Arbabsier not to go to Mexico in the first place). Moreover, the FBI’s claims about the codes never matched the actual syntax of the calls as quoted in the complaint (the FBI conflates “the building” and “the Chevrolet”–though I still suspect that suggests there was a drug deal that may have been a priority), so it’s totally unclear Arbabsiar did get the codes right. That is, Saathoff’s claim reflect a very flimsy reading of the complaint, which he cites among his sources.

And note one more detail about Saathoff’s review. Among the other resources he relied on, he cites this:

Walsh, J. F. (2011, October 10). FBI post arrest statements made by Manssor Arbabsiar from September 29-October 10, 2011, pp. 558-633

James F. Walsh Jr is the FBI Agent who wrote the first of two complaints in this case. Saathoff may have interviewed Walsh, but he did, it’s sekrit (he lists interviews with Special Agent 1 and 2, but not interviews with Walsh or Robert Woloszyn, the author of the other complaint; but it’s almost certain that’s just a dumb ruse to hide Walsh and Woloszyn’s identities as Arbabsiar’s interrogators).

But it seems that Saathoff has only referred to 75 pages out of at least 633 recording Arbabsiar’s statements. If that’s right, not only does Saathoff not deal with the bulk of First’s evidence, Arbabsiar’s speech (though it seems likely the references to Obama and WWIII were among the redacted citations First included), but he never looked at at least 88% of Arbabsiar’s comments.

Now all these details just assess Saathoff’s interpretations about people who think they’re going to start WWIII. His report damns the government’s claims that this was a consensual interview in some other ways, which I’ll describe in a follow-up post.

 

The False Flag Waves in the Fog

“Absolute nonsense!” Israel has responded to Mark Perry’s “False Flag” claim that Mossad agents recruited Jundallah members by posing as CIA officers. They’ve responded clearly, they claim, because they don’t want US-Israeli intelligence cooperation to get as bad as it did when we caught Jonathan Pollard spying for Israel.

But I’m just as interested in the “proof” Israel offers that this didn’t happen: that Meir Dagan is still welcome in Washington.

The senior Israeli government official said that if there were any truth the claims in Perry’s report, Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad at the time of the alleged operation, would have been declared a persona non grata in the U.S. and that “Dagan’s foot would not have walked again in Washington”.

Now, it is true that Dagan ran Mossad at the time–2007-2008–when the recruitment in question is alleged to have taken place. And it is true that under Dagan Mossad got rather embarrassingly caught using US (and other Western allies’ passports to facilitate their assassination squads in the Dubai assassination of Quds Force surrogate Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

But it is also notable that Dagan has made a series of increasingly strident remarks against war with Iran and for the kind of engagement that the latest scientist assassination seems designed to undercut. And then there’s the presumably intentional irony in the statement: Dagan’s ability to travel is limited not by his welcome among Western allies, but because Bibi Netanyahu revoked Dagan’s diplomatic passport last summer in response to his efforts to prevent war against Iran. Since traveling without diplomatic immunity would expose him to arrest for acts that include the al-Mabhouh assassination, Dagan, the former head of Israel’s assassination agency, cannot travel freely to prevent such assassinations in the future.

In other words, this is a very witty but nevertheless quite serious reminder that the same people now trying to find a peaceful path forward are themselves thoroughly implicated in the same crimes they now disown. This is Bibi’s camp reminding that everyone has been breaking the rules in ways that could cause significant legal trouble.

Right on cue, Iran has sent diplomatic notes to both the US and Britain, claiming that the CIA is behind the most recent assassination.

The message addressed to the U.S. government, read, “According to authentic documents and reliable information, the assassination plot was directed, supported, and planned by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was carried out with the direct involvement of the agents affiliated with this organization, and the government is directly responsible for it and should be answerable based on international regulations and rights and bilateral commitments.”

[snip]In the protest note, Iran also said, “The Islamic Republic of Iran condemns the inhumane assassination, calls on the U.S. government to provide an immediate explanation, seriously warns about its repercussions, and calls on the (U.S.) government to stop supporting any kind of anti-humanitarian terrorist action against the lives of Iranian citizens, which is in contravention of international rights and the relevant commitments and pose a serious danger to international peace and security. In addition, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran reserves the right to pursue the issue.”

In the note addressed to the British government, the Foreign Ministry pointed to the remarks that MI6 chief Sir John Sawers made on October 28, 2010, in which he said, “Stopping nuclear proliferation cannot be addressed purely by conventional diplomacy. We need intelligence-led operations to make it more difficult for countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons.”
The note read, “The Foreign Ministry of the Islamic Republic of Iran takes into consideration the fact that the assassinations of Iranian scientists began right after the announcement of the very attitude of the British government by Mr. John Sawers, the head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, and once again expresses its protest about the repercussions of the mentioned attitude of the British government and holds the country responsible for such terrorists acts.”

Gosh, Iran could have drafted these letters using the letters the US issued after it busted the Scary Iran Plot allegedly involving Manssor Arbabsiar as a model! (Which reminds me. Has anyone checked in on the Saudi involvement to defeat Iran, of late? And what they–and the Pakistanis–think about Israelis purportedly running terrorists out of Pakistan?)

Remember, too, according to Perry’s “False Flag,” the recruitment of the Jundallah members–by whomever–largely took place in London, “under the nose of U.S. intelligence officers.” So if Perry’s piece was meant as preemptive inoculation against evidence his sources knew might be revealed, it would not be surprising if such evidence implicated both the US and Britain.

Now, if it weren’t for the latent lethality behind all this posturing (and if weren’t so clear that, whatever Iran has, Israel surely has evidence of our complicity here, if they ever feel the need to reveal it), this might be a somewhat amusing and overdue spat between Israel and the US.

But as it is, it seems the winner of this conflict between Israeli and US neocon Hawks (some of who presumably remain in government positions) on one side, and those trying to avoid war (if not regime change) on the other threatens may depend most on who wins the infowar that has broken out. Clearly, all sides have the goods on the others, but no one can risk having all this damning information come out.

Update: Corrected post to reflect that Mossad did not use US passports in the Dubai hit.

Iran Seeks Interpol Prosecution of Neoconservatives Jack Keane, Reuel Marc Gerecht

Jack Keane, on left, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, on right.

Multiple news outlets in Iran are reporting that Iran has asked Interpol to prosecute former General Jack Keane (co-author of the Iraq surge) and former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht on the basis of their open calls for the assassination of Iranian figures during a meeting of two House Homeland Security Subcommitttees on October 26.

From Mehr News:

In a letter to Interpol, Iranian National Prosecutor General Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei has called for the prosecution of the U.S. officials, IRNA reported on Monday.

/snip/

According to the online magazine Firstpost, at a session of the committee, Jack Keane, a retired four-star general who helped plan the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, called for the assassination of the leaders of Iran’s Qods Force in retaliation for their alleged role in a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, a claim vehemently denied by Iranian officials.

“Why don’t we kill them? We kill other people who are running terrorist organizations against the United States,” he said.

The other witness, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer who is now a senior fellow at the neoconservative think tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the committee, “I don’t think that you are going to really intimidate these people, get their attention, unless you shoot somebody.”

The article then goes on to report that Congressmen Peter King, Michael McCaul and Patrick Meehan signed a November 22 letter stating “that the U.S. should undermine Iranian officials and damage the country’s infrastructure through increasing covert operations”.

Fars News Agency claims that Interpol stands ready to help in the effort:

Iran’s Deputy Police Chief Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Radan announced that the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) has promised to help Tehran prosecute the two former US officials who had called on the Obama administration to assassinate Iran’s top military commanders.

“The Interpol will take the steps for the prosecution of two Americans who sponsor terrorism,” Radan told FNA on Tuesday. Continue reading

In Terror Fight, “Rush For Immediate Results” Leads to Loss of Tradecraft, Misses Real Threats

Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo have a long AP article this morning, outlining yet another huge blow to CIA operations, this time in the form of the loss of a number of agents in Lebanon. However, in describing that situation, Goldman and Apuzzo provide a description of a likely root cause of the problem that I think may apply more globally than just to the CIA and counterintelligence:

The Lebanon crisis is the latest mishap involving CIA counterintelligence, the undermining or manipulating of the enemy’s ability to gather information. Former CIA officials have said that once-essential skill has been eroded as the agency shifted from outmaneuvering rival spy agencies to fighting terrorists. In the rush for immediate results, former officers say, tradecraft has suffered.

As described by Robert Baer in his description of the utter failure of tradecraft in the Khost bombing, the loss of tradecraft in the CIA started when it was under the direction of John Deutch (whom I think of as likely Clinton’s worst appointment and entirely inappropriate for the job), but as Baer described, the massive expansion in CIA activities post 9/11 with so few properly trained field agents contributed even more strongly to the current shortage of tradecraft.

But it is not just within CIA where a massive shift in actions and priorities occurred post 9/11. Consider what has been put forward just in the past few months from the FBI and NYPD and it is easy to see that here, too, a “rush for immediate results” has hurt the fight against terrorists, producing laughable arrests while missing real threats.

Just last night, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly staged “terror porn”, in which they described the arrest of the “Christmas Light Bomber” in a case that it appears even the FBI found not worth pursuing. The FBI looks no better, however, having chosen to indict a group of Georgia crackers who met at Waffle House to discuss making ricin from a few castor beans. And, of course, the FBI really outdid itself in concocting and making an arrest in the Scary Iran Plot, where we are asked to believe in a connection between Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and a Mexican drug cartel. Continue reading

The Declining Credibility of the IAEA

Yesterday, I pointed out that the IAEA is preparing to release a report on potential development of nuclear weapons in Iran almost exactly two years after the departure of Mohamed ElBaradei as its leader.  As discussed in that post, one of the key pieces of evidence that is anticipated to be discussed in the report is a large steel container in which explosions are carried out.  The claim will be that this chamber is being used to test the use of conventional explosives as a trigger device for a nuclear weapon.

Even before the official report comes out, there are now serious questions about the credibility of the claims on the steel tank.  In a post yesterday at Moon of Alabama, b informs us that there is a likely very different use of the conventional explosive technology and the steel chamber where the explosions are carried out.  A key to unraveling this mystery was an examination of the area of expertise for the Russian scientist cited as the source of the explosive technology in the Washington Post’s “scoop” of the expected content of the IAEA report.  From the Moon of Alabama post:

Dr. Vyacheslav Danilenko is a well known Ukrainian (“former Soviet”) scientist. But his specialties are not “weapon” or “nuclear” science, indeed there seems to be nothing to support that claim, but the production of nanodiamonds via detonations (ppt). According to the history of detonation nanodiamonds he describes in chapter 10 of Ultrananocrystalline Diamond – Synthesis, Properties, and Applications (pdf) he has worked in that field since 1962, invented new methods used in the process and is related with Alit, an Ukrainian company that produces nanodiamonds.

/snip/

Some years ago Iran launched a big Nano Technology Initiative which includes Iranian research on detonation nanodiamonds (pdf). Iran is officially planing to produce them on industrial scale. It holds regular international conferences and invites experts on nanotechnology from all over the world. It is quite likely that famous international scientists in that field, like Dr. Danilenko, have been invited, gave talks in Iran and cooperate with its scientists.

Producing nanodiamonds via detonations uses large confined containers with water cooling, for which Danilenko seems to have a patent. The Ukrainian company he works with, Alit, shows such a detonation chamber on its webpage as does the picture above from the French-German nano-research company ISL. The detonation nanodiamond explanation thereby also fits with another allegation from the IAEA report:

So it turns out that the most likely use of the “bus-sized steel container” is the production of nanodiamonds.  As b points out in an update, that explanation now has reached the Guardian (though without citing Moon of Alabama, I would note): Continue reading

From US-Pakistan Meetings: No Pakistan Action in North Waziristan; Petraeus to Deliver Evidence Against ISI

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RaRKHVw4rUo[/youtube]

The high level meetings in Islamabad between US and Pakistani officials head into their second day today, after a marathon four hour session late yesterday.  The line-ups of officials present for the two countries is remarkable and reflects the seriousness with which the two countries view the current situation.  Pakistan’s Express Tribune provides a partial list of those present at the meetings:

Clinton was accompanied by US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsy, Director Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) David Petraeus, US Special Envoy Marc Grossman and US Ambassador Cameron Munter, while Premier Gilani was assisted by Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, ISI chief Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and other senior officials.

Despite the pomp surrounding the meetings and the seniority of those present, there seems to be little prospect that positions on the major issue will change.   As I described yesterday, Clinton is delivering the “new” catchphrase for the US of “fight, talk, build”, meaning that the US places the highest priority on fighting the Haqqani network, seen by the US as the biggest current threat and unlikely to participate in meaningful peace talks.  By contrast, Pakistan’s Prime Minister has implored the US to “give peace a chance”.  From the same Express Tribune article:

A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s press office also confirmed that Pakistan has no plans to initiate a military operation in North Waziristan.

“Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called upon US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to give peace a chance, as envisaged in the All Parties Conference’s resolution,” said the statement.

We learn from today’s Washington Post that Clinton is warning Pakistan that they will pay a price for this refusal to attack the Haqqani network in their safe havens: Continue reading

Scary Iran Plot: FBI Had No Need to Investigate Arbabsiar’s Corpus Christi Past

So imagine this scenario.

A DEA informant calls up his handler out of the blue and says,

Omigod! Some crazy Iranian just approached me to arrange some kind of hit on behalf of this Iranian terror organization. He asked about explosives (I bragged about my C4 expertise.) He found me through my aunt in Corpus Christi. She says she knows him from when he used to be a used car salesman.

The DEA calls the FBI. What’s one of the first things the FBI would do?

Maybe look him up in the FBI’s own files (they find he doesn’t have a federal record). And just after that, you’d think they’d start investigating him in Corpus Christi, where Narc knew him to have connections. Maybe call the cops there and see if they knew this crazy Iranian. Which, since Arbabsiar has a pretty consistent record of petty arrests and lawsuits, they do.

Which is why it’s sort of odd that the FBI never contacted the Corpus Christi cops–they first talked to them the day after Arbabsiar was charged.

Arbabsiar had previous arrests in Nueces County during nearly 20 years living in the area.

That meant arrest records and personal details were on file in the county’s warehouse. But no one from any federal agency ever asked for the folder, Kaelin said.

“From an intelligence-gathering standpoint, even the tiniest bits of information could have a connection to something bigger,” he said. “They never asked to see it.”

In fact, FBI agents never contacted the sheriff’s office or the police department about their investigation into Arbabsiar.

That’s all the more weird given that some of the criminal files on Arbabsiar were on dead tree files in a warehouse from back in the day when the FBI itself didn’t really use computers (you know, like last year).

Now, my scenario sounds weird, almost impossible, particularly in the age of information sharing between local cops and national counterterrorism investigators.  Even if they were worried about keeping Narc’s identity secret–which I’m sure is particularly critical so close to the border in South Texas–you’d think they’d at least go and make discreet investigations about Arbabsiar (particularly given the claims that, by the end of the investigation, FBI officers seemed to be going out of their way to make their presence known.

Neighbors, however, said it had been years since Arbabsiar lived in the stucco house he once shared with his wife on a suburban cul-de-sac. They said it appeared that as many as 10 people were living in the house, and lately there had been some signs of suspicious activity: When residents looked for available Wi-Fi networks, networks with names like “FBI Van 1″ would pop up.l

Unless …

Unless they didn’t need to do that background research on Arbabsiar when Narc purportedly came to them out of the blue to tell them about this crazy Iranian seeking an assassin purportedly out of the blue.

The FBI’s seeming disinterest in learning about Arbabsiar from the law enforcement officials who ostensibly knew him best suggests they already knew about him when he approached Narc.

(As a number of media outlets have reported, the Grand Jury has indicted the plotters, a mere nine days after the Administration started making an international incident about this. I’ll update or do a post once the indictment is in the docket.)

Why Did the Scary Iran Plotter Speak Directly from a Contested Treasury Department Script?

As I noted on Friday, Manssor Arbabsiar’s cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, who purportedly directed him to arrange a plot with Los Zetas, was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2008, in part for involvement in an attack in Karbala.

Iran-based Abdul Reza Shahlai–a deputy commander in the IRGC–Qods Force–threatens the peace and stability of Iraq by planning Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) Special Groups attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq.  Shahlai has also provided material and logistical support to Shia extremist groups–to include JAM Special Groups–that conduct attacks against U.S. and Coalition Forces.  In one instance, Shahlai planned the January 20, 2007 attack by JAM Special Groups against U.S. soldiers stationed at the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, Iraq.  Five U.S. soldiers were killed and three were wounded during the attack.

But as Gareth Porter pointed out yesterday, there are reasons to doubt the US has proof of Shahlai’s role in that attack. Porter’s original report on this from 2007 describes Michael Gordon trying, unsuccessfully, to get Brigidier General Kevin Bergner to provide real evidence of Iranian involvement in the plot. And he describes David Petraeus specifically denying the claim.

Another indication that the command had no evidence of Iranian involvement in the attack was the statements of the top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, on the issue in an April 26 press briefing. Petraeus had referred to a 22-page memorandum captured with the Shiite prisoners that he said “detailed the planning, preparation, approval process and conduct of the operation that resulted in five of our soldiers being killed in Karbala.” But he did not claim that either the document or the interrogation of Khazali had suggested any Iranian or Hezbollah participation in, much less direction of the planning of the Karbala assault.

Later in that briefing, a reporter asked whether Petraeus was “saying that there was evidence of Iranian involvement in that [Karbala] operation?” Petraeus responded, “No. No. No. That—first of all, that was the operation that you mentioned, and we do not have a direct link to Iranian involvement in that particular case.”

At the time Petraeus made this statement, Khazali, the chief of the militia group that had carried out the attack, had been in U.S. custody for more than a month. Despite nearly five weeks of intensive interrogation of Khazali, Petraeus’s comments would indicate that U.S. officials had not learned anything that implicated Iran or Hezbollah in the planning or execution of the Karbala attack

Porter’s post yesterday describes officers subsequently reiterating that the Iraqis, not the Iranians, launched this plot.

In a news briefing in Baghdad Jul. 2, 2007, Gen. Kevin Bergner confirmed that the attack in Karbala had been authorised by the Iraqi chief of the militia in question, Kais Khazali, not by any Iranian official.

Col. Michael X. Garrett, who had been commander of the U.S. Fourth Brigade combat team in Karbala, confirmed to this writer in December 2008 that the Karbala attack “was definitely an inside job”.

Now, perhaps Treasury had additional evidence by the time it sanctioned Shahlai, perhaps not. But suffice it to say the claim that Shahlai had a role in that plot is at least contested, and there is reason to believe it is outright false.

Which is why I find it so interesting that, among the other things Manssor Arbabsiar repeats to Narc about Shahlai, is that he had ties to a bombing in Iraq.

ARBABSIAR further explained that his cousin was “wanted in America,” had been “on the CNN,” and was a “big general in [the] army.” ARBABSIAR further explained that there were a number of parts to the army of Iran and that his cousin “work[s] in outside, in other countries for the Iranian government[.]” ARBABSIAR further explained that his cousin did not wear a uniform or carry a gun, and had taken certain unspecified actions related to a bombing in Iraq. Compare supra ¶ 17. [my emphasis]

That reference back to paragraph 17? It’s a reference to the complaint’s background on the Quds Force. Note the content carefully:

[T]he IGRC is composed of a number of branches, one of which is the Qods Force. The Qods Force conducts sensitive covert operations abroad, including terrorist attacks, assassinations, and kidnappings, and provides weapons and training to Iran’s terrorist and militant allies. Among many other things, the Qods Force is believed to sponsor attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq, and in October 2007, the United States Treasury Department designated the Qods Force, pursuant to Executive Order 13224, for providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.

Note, the Treasury designation the FBI Agent refers to is not the 2008 designation naming Shahlai directly in connection to the Karbala plot, but instead an earlier one first designating Quds Force for material support to the Taliban. Continue reading

Telling Stories about What Iran Is Capable Of

As I’ve mused on twitter and in comment threads, I’ve started wondering who paid more for Scary Iran Plot, the US Government or (allegedly) Quds Force?

After all, it’s clear that Narc offered up the idea to attack Adel al-Jubeir at a restaurant with explosives rather than, say, shooting him or poisoning him. Narc invented the fictional 150 civilians who would be at the restaurant. Narc invented the fictional Senators who might be killed in the blast. Narc said he could, “blow him up or shoot him,” and Arbabsiar said, “how is possible for you.” When Narc warned about those fictional casualties, Arbabsiar said, “if you can do it outside, do it” (though he clearly okayed collateral damage if necessary). Thus, even assuming there is nothing else funny about the plot, it’s clear that Narc authored the most spectacular details of it, the ones that resulted in a terrorism and WMD charges rather than just murder-for-hire, and quite possibly the ones that made this an alleged act of war against the US, rather than just an attack on Saudi Arabia.

Even assuming the Iranians dreamt up this plot, the US wrote the screenplay for it.

So how much did each side pay to create this plot?

I’d put the Quds force tab at $175,000. They allegedly advanced $100,000 for some kind of plot–but refused to send any more money. And on July 17, Arbabsiar describes asking Shahlai for “another $15.” Given that that happened in month 6 of a 9 month plot, I think it fair to estimate he was paid three installments of $15,000, or $45,000. Add in $30,000 for Shukari’s time, and you’ve got $175,000. (It’s not clear whether Arbabsiar paid for his international flights out of his advance, but I’ll also leave out the much greater travel costs on the American side. Further, all this assumes we haven’t paid in the past or agreed to pay Arbabsiar in the future for his part in the plot.)

The government, for its part, paid Narc to work Arbabsiar for at least four months. They paid Craig Monteilh $11,800 a month to run around safe mosques to try to entrap aspirational terrorists in LA; I presume they’d pay more for an actual cartel member to risk his life as an informant in Mexico. But let’s assume they paid the same rate they paid Monteilh, which would work out to $47,200, remarkably, about what Quds Force allegedly seems to have paid Arbabsiar. In addition, we’ve got at least the time of Robert Woloszyn, the FBI Agent who wrote the complaint. He doesn’t seem to have been Narc’s handler, so you’ve got Narc’s handler working long hours. In the press conference rolling out this case, Preet Bharara said two prosecutors, their two supervisors, the Deputy US Attorney, and the Acting Criminal head in NY “have [not] gotten much sleep lately.” In addition to SDNY, there was involvement from the Houston US Attorney and FBI offices, Houston DEA (which may be where Narc’s handler worked), NY’s JTTF. And all those intelligence personnel who played a critical role that we can’t discuss (except in anonymous leaks to journalists). Now clearly, many of these people were probably not personally involved in the crafting of a story that took alleged Quds Force intent to attack Saudi Arabia and turned it into the spectacular attack on a fictional restaurant in DC. But it’s probably safe to say that the US Government paid as much to craft this plot as the Quds Force allegedly did, even before you account for the money spent surveilling Arbabsiar, Shahlai, and Shakuri before the plot as well as the money spent stopping it.

With that in mind, check out the language State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland uses to describe how other countries are receiving the State Department’s efforts to persuade them to treat this plot as real.

Other countries are buying the basic idea of the plot, Nuland said, despite fairly widespread skepticism among Iran watchers about the likelihood the Quds Force would put such a clumsy plan into place.

“Countries may find it quite a story, but they’re not surprised that Iran would be capable of something like this,” she said.

It seems that our allies may be just as skeptical as many American observers that the Quds Force planned the precise plot that–it is clear–Narc’s handlers wrote the screenplay for. But, Nuland says, they buy the basic idea of it–”they’re not surprised that Iran would be capable of something like this.”

We had to invent this entire screenplay–perhaps investing as much money or more as Quds Force allegedly did–to get our allies to agree that the Quds Force might engage in terrorism? Didn’t they already know that?

(I sort of wonder whether our representatives are also asking our allies whether they think we’re capable of assassinating nuclear scientists?)

Therein lies the problem with the American practice of using stings to craft the scariest terror story possible. If the sheer improbability of it makes the story less credible, if all it does is reinforce a widely held belief, then doesn’t the theatricality of it work against the government?

Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz @walterwkatz @mattdpearce My bet is McCulloch does not even submit a proposed indictment, but rather just leaves them w/a pile of statutes
7mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz RT @erinscafe: The Raiders fans/juggalos Venn diagram is just like a solid circle, right.
25mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @erinscafe All from a terminal at Heathrow, like the character in the Tom Hanks movie.
36mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @MonaHol This is news? some of us been talking about Art II and EO for long time.
38mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @rachelmack @iwelsh Separate But Equal with Sidney Poitier
40mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @phillipanderson @albanyproject Very cool. Good luck!
1hreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @evanperez @WTOP @Walmart Standard defense pleading though; if true would be malpractice not to so allege.
1hreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz RT @erinscafe: The NFL is going to start penalizing guys who point to the sky and thank God after a TD now too, right?
2hreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @imraansiddiqi Just think what Bill Montgomery was thinking "Hell yes, that's a penalty!!"
2hreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @ggatin @lrozen @CBCNews Carry on lying to yourself
2hreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz RT @BenVolin: It's not like Brady refused to give Garoppolo a high-five. He outright ignored him after the touchdown. Now is sitting on the…
2hreplyretweetfavorite
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