The Informant Racket and the Scary Iran Plot

Jeralyn Merritt has been focusing closely on the DEA’s use of informants of late. And as part of a discussion of how much the DEA informant in the Viktor Bout case, Carlos Sagastume, has made off his lucrative informant career ($8 million and counting, with much of that coming in the Monzer al Kassar case), she wondered whether Sagastume might be Narc, the informant in the Scary Iran Plot. [Update: Jeralyn now thinks Narc can’t be Sagastume.]

A prior “catch” of informant Sagastume was Monzer al Kassar, (Indictment here.)who was convicted and sentenced to 30 years following a sting very much like the one used on Bout. Al-Kassar’s conviction was upheld last month, and the Second Circuit ruled lies by the DEA to to those it is trying to trap in order to get jurisdiction in the U.S. are okay. The opinion is here. An interesting sidenote: one of the three judges affirming al-Kassar’s conviction was District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, sitting by designation. She is the trial judge in Viktor Bout’s case.

As for why Sagastume has received $8 plus million for his informant work, I suspect it’s likely that he’s getting a percentage of property ordered forfeited. In cases of criminal forfeiture, like al-Kassar and Viktor Bout, the Government must get a conviction on the criminal charge in order to succeed on the forfeiture. So if Bout were to be acquitted, there would be no forfeiture. That gives the informant a personal stake in seeing Bout convicted.

[snip]

One last note on Sagastume and Al Kassar. Al-Kassar sold weapons in a lot of countries over his 30 year career, including Iran. Was Sagastume involved in the recent sting involving the alleged plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador? While Sagastume is not the only informant the DEA used in al-Kassar, Bout and similar arms cases, he speaks Spanish, is experienced in the world of Mexican drug smuggling and could play the role of a Zeta as easily as a FARC operative, and could probably convincingly claim to have Iranian connections. It seems likely to me there must be a limited number of DEA informants with the savvy to bridge such disparate groups as the Zetas and Iranian secret forces. It’s not like the DEA just calls Central Casting.

Mind you, Jeralyn is just speculating, but I find it interesting speculation for several reasons.

First, because Jeralyn points to the Circuit decision in the al Kasser case. It held that the US government could charge non-Americans in stings conducted entirely outside of the United States so long as the government had demonstrated a clear intent to hurt the US.

In an opinion on Wednesday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York affirmed the increasingly prevalent government tactic of using sting operations to trap arms and drug traffickers worldwide.

[snip]

Kassar’s attorneys argued on appeal that U.S. prosecutors were not allowed to charge non-U.S. citizens caught in a sting operation abroad. The appeals court conceded that Kassar “never came close to harming any U.S. person or property,” but concluded that was “irrelevant for conspiracy offenses, which often result in no palpable harm.” Instead, the court said the government had clearly established Kassar’s intent to harm the U.S.

The circuit also found the government had not “manufactured” jurisdiction by creating the chance for Kassar to break the law.

“While it is true the DEA agents lied to the defendants, this does not make the nexus (to the U.S.) artificial or invalid.”

Now, this decision is unnecessary to ensure the government could convict Manssor Arbabsiar. He’s an American citizen (though the only overt act he committed in the US was a money transfer). But they’re on shakier ground with Gholam Shakuri. At least given what the government has presented in the complaint, there’s zero evidence that the Quds Force set out to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir in the US. I’ve noted that Narc invented all the most spectacular elements of the plot–including the civilian casualties, the dead Senators, and apparently the WMD. And while you might assume soliciting a North American cartel to carry out the kidnapping (or assassination) of a US-based Ambassador would imply an attack in the US, there is no evidence in the complaint that Arbabsiar’s handlers specifically asked for that. None. But by charging this in NY, you can rely on the al Kasser decision, point to the fictional dead Senators, and worry less about including Shakuri in the sting.

None of that has to do with the possibility that Sagastume was the Narc in this case. But Jeralyn’s comments about Sagastume’s effectively working on spec does. As I noted, there was almost nothing new in the indictment presented on Thursday.

Almost.

Except a forfeiture provision, calling for Arbabsiar and Shakuri to forfeit any property tied to a terrorist attack on the US.

That’s still not a tie to Sagastume, necessarily. And given the money already transferred–just $100,000, as far as we know–that’s chump change for someone like Sagastume, who has already made millions for his narc work. But who knows? Maybe there are big proceeds from the opium deal the government doesn’t want to tell us about.

That still doesn’t say anything interesting about Sagastume.

But the timing might.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the government decided to spring this sting on October 11. After all, it has had the most critical pieces of evidence since August 9. Narc first raised the possibility that Arbabsiar would have to fly to Mexico to guarantee payment on August 28. And yet the sting waddled along, as Shakuri’s urgency increased, but with no resolution. And what dictated the timing after Arbabsiar was arrested on September 29? Why wait until October 11, four days after the last (mentioned) unsuccessful attempt to get Shakuri to send more money, before you announce the charges? And given that the government had had all this evidence for months, why had, according to Preet Bharara, “None of the people that have been mentioned by me and others [who investigated the case] [] gotten much sleep lately”?

If Sagastume were Narc, it might explain the government’s (though not Shakuri’s) urgency. The government announced the charges on October 11. On October 12, Viktor Bout’s trial started. I can see how the Bout trial date would serve as an artificial endpoint to the Scary Iran Plot investigation. And if I’m reading the reports from the trial correctly, Sagastume testified on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week. Then the trial broke for the week, as opposed to on Thursday, which might be more normal. On Thursday, the fairly simple Indictment (one that might take just a few hours to present) came out. And yesterday and today, Sagastume’s back on the witness stand in Bout’s case. In other words, the Scary Iran Plot and the Bout trial coincide in ways that would make it very easy to manage the star Narc’s testimony across both cases, in one tidy trip to the US before he goes off to whatever swank retirement the government has arranged for him.

Again, both Jeralyn and I are speculating, nothing more (though her comments about informants are worthwhile reading and applicable more generally). But it all would fit rather nicely. And if Sagastume stands to make millions–as he has from prior stings–it might add another layer of intrigue to the Scary Iran Plot.

The OTHER Saudi Assassination Plotter Got a Reduced Sentence in July

This post from Cannonfire reminded me how convenient for our country it is that Moammar Qaddafi was executed rather than captured alive and tried: he will not be able to tell anyone, now that he’s dead, how Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, who under torture provided one of the casus belli for the Iraq war, came to be suicided in a Libyan prison just as Americans started focusing on torture in 2009.

That, plus the death of the Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud, made me think of another plot Qaddafi brings to his grave: that he had purportedly arranged to assassinate then Crown Prince now King Abdullah. The evidence to support that plot mostly came from Abdulrahman Alamoudi, a prominent American Muslim who was arrested in 2003 on charges he violated trade sanctions against Libya.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. A naturalized American citizen is arrested upon re-entry to the country and charged with a bunch of crimes. After a period of no bail, he confesses to participation in the assassination plot of a top Saudi.

Court documents said the assassination plot arose from a March 2003 conference at which Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and Prince Abdullah had a heated exchange. Angered at how Gaddafi was treated, Libyan officials recruited Alamoudi.

Even after he learned that the target was Abdullah, Alamoudi shuttled money and messages between Libyan officials and the two Saudi dissidents in London, the documents said. Although Gaddafi is not named as a planner, sources familiar with the case have said he appears in the documents as “Libyan government official #5,” who met personally with Alamoudi.

Mind you, though the judge considered the assassination plot in Alamoudi’s sentence, he plead guilty not to murder-for-hire, but to prohibited financial transactions with Libya (the kind of thing JPMC just got its wrist slapped for), unlawful procurement of naturalization, and tax evasion.

Anyway, thinking about the similarities between that case and the Scary Iran Plot led me to consult Alamoudi’s docket (most of which is not available online). What happens to a guy convicted in connection with plotting with a nasty African dictator as we launch the war to finally kill that dictator?

Well, it turns out that at about the time it was clear we’d stick around to ensure Qaddafi died in this kinetic action, a sealed document got filed in Alamoudi’s case. And, on July 20, 2011, Alamoudi got about 30% knocked off his sentence, from 276 months to 197.

Mind you, no one was hiding the fact that Alamoudi would continue to cooperate with authorities while in prison–so it’s no surprise his sentence got lowered. Nor does Alamoudi’s sentence reduction necessarily have anything to do with Alamoudi’s testimony in the assassination plot.

But I do expect, a decade from now, that’s what’s going to happen to Manssor Arbabsiar’s docket.

DOJ Offers No More Detail on Scary Iran Plot in Indictment

I had this naive hope that DOJ would use the opportunity of an indictment to fill in some of the holes in their case.

Like I said, naive hope.

The indictment appears to be the amended complaint, without the affidavit, with an arrest warrant for Gholam Shakuri.

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. Read more

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?

Scary Iran Plot: Follow the Money

A number of people–from MadDog to the Administration–have claimed that the money trail in the Scary Iran Plot is what makes it credible.

I’d like to lay out what the Administration showed in the complaint–as opposed to in its predictable trail of anonymous leaks that the Administration apparently believes can replace actual evidence–regarding the money trail. I actually find their anonymous claims that the money trail shows more damning details to be more believable than some of the other things they’ve said about this. But the most solid evidence described in the complaint–as I described here–shows money being delivered with no explanation into the hands of a person, Individual #1, and from there being sent to the US. Yet Individual #1 doesn’t even appear to be Quds Force and was neither charged in the complaint nor sanctioned by Treasury.

Money was exchanged, but for what?

Before I lay out what the money details show, though, let’s lay out the many possible operations the money paid for. According to Manssor Arbabsiar’s confession, his cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai told him to go get drug traffickers to kidnap the Saudi Ambassador. Arbabsiar’s confession says it evolved into a capture or kill deal (though says it did so in conversations with Gholam Shakuri and Hamed Abdollahi, not Shahlai). The complaint also mentions plans of “attacking an embassy of Saudi Arabia” (Narc’s account of the May 24 meeting with Arbabsiar), for “a number of violent missions” (Narc’s account of purportedly unrecorded June-July meetings), “the murder of the Ambassador” (Narc’s account of purportedly unrecorded June-July meetings), and targeting foreign government facilities located outside of the United States, associated with Saudi Arabia and with another country [reported to be Israel]” (footnote 6 describing what Narc reported from these earlier meetings). The quotes from July 14 are ambiguous whether they refer to kidnapping or assassination of al-Jubeir. The quotes from July 17 include clear reference to killing what is presumably (thought not specified as) al-Jubeir. And note what the complaint rather damningly doesn’t mention, though Administration leakers admit?

The plotters also discussed a side deal between the Quds Force, part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Los Zetas to funnel tons of opium from the Middle East to Mexico, the official said.

In other words, several things were being negotiated: the kidnapping and/or assassination of al-Jubeir, hits on embassies in Argentina, possibly some other horrible things, and drug deals. So we need to be careful to tie any payments to specific ops.

The use of two different codes in the taped conversations doesn’t make tying payments to specific ops any easier–the complaint mentions “painting,” or “doing” a building (September 2, 20, and October 4), which the FBI Agent interprets without stated confirmation in Arbabsiar’s confession as the murder, as well as the “Chevrolet” (October 5 and 7), which Arbabsiar’s confession says also referred to the murder (syntactically, though, the Chevrolet sounds like a drug deal, while the building seems more closely connected to the murder).

Finally, a conversation on September 12 seems to suggest (though the FBI Agent doesn’t interpret it this way) that Arbabsiar had presented Narc several choices of operations, and the plotters just wanted them to pick one to carry out. After insisting the price would be “one point five,” Arbabsiar told Narc, for example, that he could “prepare for those too [two] … but we need at least one of them” [ellipsis original]. He went on to say that if Narc did “at least one … I’ll send the balance for you” [ellipsis original]. Particularly given the two different codes–building and Chevrolet–it seems possible there were still at least two different operations (both Arbabsiar and Shakuri offer up the building, not the Chevrolet, when they are not being coached as the operation they’re most anxious about). At the very least, this means that two months after the two meetings supposedly finalizing the plan for the assassination, both the price and the objective remained unclear.

No quoted passage ties the $100,000, the $1.5 million, and the assassination

Those two meetings–which do tie money to an attack on the Saudis–took place on July 14 and July 17. Before those meetings even started, however, the $100,000 that was purportedly the down-payment for the al-Jubeir assassination had already been transferred to a middleman; Arbabsiar tells Narc that Individual #1 (who is not described in the same way the Quds officers are, and appears not to have been sanctioned with everyone else) got the “money at nine in the morning.” The quoted passages definitely tie what appears to be the $1.5 million to doing something with Saudi Arabia. “Take the one point five for the Saudi Arabia.” That might be doing something with the Saudi embassy, though later in the same conversation Arbabsiar does confirm Narc’s question that “you just want the main guy.” Given the number of plots they were discussing, that’s not definitive that the $100,000 was tied to the al-Jubeir plot at all, nor is it definitive that the “one point five” was the agreed upon payment for assassinating–as opposed to kidnapping–al-Jubeir. There is no quote that ties all these things together; but assuming the FBI Agent’s interpretation is not really wacko, it does seem this conversation ties the money to some kind of attack on al-Jubeir.

The July 17 conversation–which with the July 14 conversation, includes one of two discussions of bank account numbers for the transfer–makes the focus on assassination much more clear. Narc pretends his guys are in Washington (meaning there’s no doubt the attack in discussion was al-Jubeir rather than the Saudi Embasy in Argentina). And–in the sole quotations in the entire complaint that make it clear Arbabsiar was talking about assassination–in response to Narc’s cue, “I don’t know what exactly your cousin wants me to do,” Arbabsiar says his cousin “wants you to kill this guy” and goes on to say that if necessary, collateral damage of citizens is acceptable.

Consider how laughable this deal-making is. On July 14, Narc gives his price for the job. Then on July 17, he’s still looking for clarification about what the task really is! Read more

Scary Iran Plot: Making an International Case before Passing the Ham Sandwich Test

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger;

I want to return to something Manssor Arbabsiar’s attorney, Sabrina Shroff, said the other day. “If he is indicted, he will plead not guilty.”

I’ve suggested Shroff may have reason to believe Arbabsiar will get a plea deal before this ever goes to the grand jury. Which would mean no one would ever challenge the government on the many holes in this case [oh hey! that’s me at Atlantic.com]: the claimed lack of taped conversations, the explanation why Arbabsiar cooperated, some holes in the government’s money trail (at least as it appears in the complaint), the remarkable coinkydink Arbabsiar just happened to ask a DEA informant to help him kidnap the Saudi Ambassador, and some perhaps incorrect interpretations of existing tape transcripts.

It would be very convenient for the government if this never went to trial.

But think, for a moment, about the government’s actions in this affair. It rolled out a splashy press conference. Joe Biden has declared no options off the table; Susan Rice is “unit[ing] world opinion” against Iran. And if that doesn’t work, Hillary Clinton will make personal calls followed by onsite teams to persuade allies that this whole plot isn’t a bunch of bupkis.

We have rolled out a giant campaign to use this plot to do … something … with Iran.

But it has yet to pass the ham sandwich test.

Our government has had eleven business days now to subject its amended case to the scrutiny of a grand jury, it had two and a half months to subject its original case to the scrutiny of a grand jury, and it hasn’t yet bothered to do so. We’re sharing our case with the rest of the world before we’re subjecting it to the most basic level of oversight enshrined in our Constitution. Instead of using the legal process laid out in our founding document, we’ve gotten the signature of a Magistrate Judge and run off with it to the rest of the world. And while I have no doubt of the competence of Magistrate Judge Michael Dolinger, the judge who signed the complaint in this case, that’s simply not the way our judicial system is supposed to work. Average citizens are supposed to review the work of the government when it makes legal cases, not just Magistrates.

All of which ought to raise real questions why our government has decided to share these details with the rest of the world, but bypassed the step where they’re supposed to share them with its own citizens.

What Is the Source of Gholam Shakuri’s Urgency?

I’m working on a big post that raises more questions about the government’s interpretation of the Scary Iran Plot.

But for the moment I want to raise an issue that might provide a nugget of plausibility for the larger story. And that’s Gholam Shakuri’s urgency.

According to the complaint, Arbabsiar confessed that when he traveled back to Iran (I’ve taken this to be sometime after July 20, but as I explained here, it may have happened earlier) Shakuri told him the kidnap or kill operation had to happen quickly.

ARBABSIAR was asked to have [Narc] kidnap or kill the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States, and told that it would need to be done fast.

Because the government has sealed evidence explaining on what terms Arbabsiar is cooperating, I find his confession to be suspect. But Shakuri does repeat that urgency in the recorded call on October 5 (though note I also find the government’s interpretation of the “code” here suspect, both because it derives from Arbabsiar’s confession and the syntax suggests the FBI Agent is reading a multiplicity of codes to all refer to the assassination).

[After discussing “the Chevrolet”] SHAKURI urged ARBABSIAR “[j]ust do it quickly, it’s late, just buy it for me and bring it already.”

I find the urgency interesting because of several events that would implicate Quds Force power, like the push to sell Bahrain weapons, the negotiations on leaving troops in Iraq and–most notably–the negotiation of a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel on the very day the plot was announced. And remember, the US managed the timing of this, drawing out its denouement over two months after money got transferred and 12 days after Arbabsiar was arrested. I don’t know what role Adel al-Jubeir had in this prisoner swap (Egypt is a key player), but the exchange certainly seems like it would serve Saudi goals of giving Palestine some relief while serving Israeli-dictated US goals of thwarting the PLO UN statehood bid, all while lessening Iranian influence with Hamas.

Frankly, that’s all just based on the coincidence between the announcement of the plot and the prisoner swap.

But it seems that one key to understanding who really sponsored this plot–if there really was one–is understanding Shakuri’s urgency.

Yemen Tries to Claim US Drone Strikes as Yemeni Air Force Strikes

As MadDog alerted us this morning, there were multiple strikes against alleged terrorist targets in southern Yemen Friday night.  What stands out to me in scanning the various media reports about these attacks is that even though it is crystal clear that these attacks are carried out by US drones firing missiles, Yemeni defense officials try to claim that the attacks are carried out by the Yemeni air force.  This is an interesting contrast to the approach taken by Pakistani officials, where even though the official position of Pakistan’s government is that US missile strikes are not allowed, Pakistani officials make no efforts to claim the strikes as their own, allowing the assumption that the strikes are carried out by the US to go unchallenged.

The most recent report on the strikes in Yemen that I can find is this brief update from Reuters [Note: the Reuters article was revised and expanded significantly while this post was being written; the passage quoted is from the earlier version and no longer appears directly as quoted, but the drone death toll of 24 and government claim of responsibility survives.]:

The death toll from air strikes that killed a senior al Qaeda official in southern Yemen has risen to 24, local officials said on Saturday.

The Defense Ministry said Yemeni aircraft had carried out the attack on Friday night.

This report has the highest death toll I’ve seen on the story and includes the note that Yemeni officials claim they carried out the attacks.  By contrast, the CNN report on the attacks puts the death toll at only 7 and reports that there were three drone attacks.  This report, although it quotes Yemeni officials, is silent on responsibility for this attack, although it does reference the earlier attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki as having been carried out by the US [Note: this article also was updated, with the death toll up to 9 now.]:

The son of U.S.-born militant cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki was among those killed in a trio of drone attacks in southern Yemen on Friday night, a security official said.

The attacks, carried out in the Shabwa district, killed seven suspected militants, the defense ministry said. It would not confirm that Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki was among them.

The senior security official in Shabwa, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the younger Awlaki had been hiding in the mountains of Shabwa for more than eight months. He had first-hand knowledge of the death, he said.

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