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 Two Scary Iran Plot Complaints: A Comparison

As I wrote on Wednesday, earlier this month, the government released Manssor Arbabsiar’s original complaint in the Scary Iran Plot. As I showed, comparing the original with the amended complaint reveals that the government tried to hide the roles of Arbabsiar’s brother and several western banks (possibly including Chase) in transferring the money for the plot.

A comparison of the two complaint shows a number of interesting things, which I’ll detail below. But the two most striking details are the complete absence of any mention of Gholam Shakuri in the original complaint and the complaint’s silence on the opium deal that formed part of Arbabsiar and Narc’s discussions.

Remember what I’ve observed before: four of the five charges against Arbabsiar are conspiracy charges which couldn’t be charged without evidence of another conspirator. Now, I expected to see a lot more implicating Shakuri in the second complaint. After all, along with getting a confession during the period when Arbabsiar purportedly waived his Miranda rights, they also got him to make 3 calls to Shakuri that, while they were are inconclusive about whether Shakuri knew of an assassination, make it clear he did know about the transfer of $100,000. But the original complaint doesn’t even include the information at ¶33(d) in the amended complaint showing Shakuri delivering more funds to Arbabsiar (and therefore, not surprisingly, the earlier complaint does not include ¶3(c) claiming the earlier funding was one of the overt acts in this conspiracy). In fact, the only co-conspirator alleged in the first complaint is Arbabsiar’s cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, described as CC-1. Now, I assume the government has a ton of intelligence-derived evidence in this case they don’t want to show us. But in their original complaint, they show very little real evidence of a conspiracy. Which makes Arbabsiar’s “cooperation” all the more striking, given that that cooperation forms the key evidence (at least that we’ve seen) for most of the charges against him.

The complaint’s silence on the drug deal is just as interesting. I had speculated that they might have charged Arbabsiar on trafficking charges and used the threat of hard time to convince him to waive Miranda and flesh out the assassination plot. But obviously that’s wrong; they didn’t include the drug charges in the earlier complaint. So why would the government not charge the Quds Force on efforts to set up drug deals with Los Zetas? Two possibilities are, first, that longer term drug deals are the basis for Arbabsiar’s relationship with Narc; revealing that would damage the story line that Arbabsiar just found Narc by accident. A closely related possibility is that the FBI and DEA had recruited Arbabsiar to set up these deals as a way to infiltrate Quds Force, in which case Arbabsiar would be granted immunity for such things. Or maybe they just wanted to keep the focus tightly on the flashy part of the plot?

In any case, here are the other differences, laid out by paragraph (unless specified, the numbering comes from the amended complaint, which has more paragraphs).

Intro and ¶14. Two different agents wrote these complaints. James F. Walsh Jr, who has been a Special Agent since just September 2004, wrote the original complaint (this article refers to an FBI Special Agent who was probably Houston-based in 2005). O. Robert Woloszyn, who has been a Special Agent since March 1999, wrote the second complaint. In spite of having two different ostensible authors, though, the language is almost exactly the same; for the most part Woloszyn just copied oevr Walsh’s language. That’s one thing that makes amendments so interesting.

¶1, •. The amended complaint describes the start date of the conspiracy “spring 2011,” as compared to the “May 2011” date in the original complaint. That may reflect earlier conversations Arbabsiar had with Quds Force figures revealed in his confession.

¶3(a-c). As noted, the amended complaint replaces the origin of the money–probably a European bank–with “a foreign entity.” And the amended complaint adds language about Arbabsiar’s spending money being part of the over conspiracy.

Read more

Confirmed: the Government Hid–and Is Still Hiding–Manssor Arbabsiar’s First Docket

I first raised questions of why the government had charged Manssor Arbabsiar–the Scary Iran Plotter–with an amended complaint almost two weeks ago. As I noted then, the obvious existence of an earlier sealed complaint might suggest the possibility that Arbabsiar was charged with something entirely different than the murder-for-hire charges he got charged with on October 11.

First (and this is what got me looking at the docket in the first place), the complaint is an amended complaint. That says there’s a previous complaint. But that complaint is not in the docket. Not only is it not in the docket, but the docket starts with the arrest on September 29 (notice the docket lists his arrest twice, on both September 29 and October 11), but the numbering starts with the amended complaint (normally, even if there were a sealed original complaint, it would be incorporated within the numbering, such that the docket might start with the amended complaint but start with number 8 or something).

Two things might explain this. First, that there was an earlier unrelated complaint–say on drug charges, but the charges are tied closely enough to this op such that this counts as an amended complaint. Alternately, that Arbabsiar was charged with a bunch of things when he was arrested on September 29, but then, after at least 12 days of cooperation (during which he waived Miranda rights each day), he was charged with something else and the new complaint incorporated Ali Gholam Shakuri’s involvement, based entirely on Arbabsiar’s confession and Shakuri’s coded conversations with Arbabsiar while the latter was in US custody. [emphasis original]

If Arbabsiar were originally charged with something different than he was charged with on October 11–for example, if he were charged with drug charges that might put him away for hard time–it might explain why he waived Miranda rights for 12 days in a row, when he had, on 5 different occasions in his past, hired lawyers to represent him when he got in legal trouble.

Well, this filing not only confirms that an earlier complaint exists–the earlier complaint is dated September 28–but it confirms my suspicion the complaint is in an different docket that is entirely sealed.

On September 28, 2011, Magistrate Judge James C. Francis IV authorized a complaint bearing docket number 11 Mag. 2534 (“Sealed Complaint”), charging the above-listed defendant. The Sealed Complaint is attached hereto as Exhibit A.

On October 11, 2011, Magistrate Judge Michael H. Dolinger authorized an Amended Complaint (11 Mag. 2617) charging the defendant and Gholam Shakuri (“Amended Complaint”). By order of the Honorable Loretta A. Preska, dated October 11, 2011, the Sealed Complaint was ordered to remain sealed. On October 11, 2011, the defendant was presented on only the Amended Complaint.

The Government respectfully requests that the Court enter a limited unsealing order permitting the Government to produce the Sealed Complaint in redacted form to defense counsel as part of the discovery process. The Sealed Complaint would otherwise remain sealed.

First, compare the docket numbers:

First Complaint: 11-mg-2534

Amended Complaint: 11-mg-2617

Criminal Indictment: 11-cr-897

These are three entirely different dockets.

A search for criminal magistrate docket 11-2534 returns nothing. Which means the docket–the entire docket–is and remains sealed.

This increases the likelihood that the first complaint charges entirely different charges–such as opium charges–than the amended complaint does.

Indeed, the language of this letter appears to suggest that only Arbabsiar was charged in the first complaint. Even if this earlier complaint pertained to murder-for-hire charges, this might make sense–as I have pointed out, most of the current charges are conspiracy charges that would involve at least two defendants. But the letter suggests–by stating only that “the defendant was presented on only the Amended Complaint”–that there may be charges unique to Arbabsiar, completely unrelated charges that hang over him still–that weren’t charged because of his 12-day cooperation to implicate Shakuri.

And here’s the kicker. The government isn’t even telling Arbabsiar’s defense counsel all of what was in that first complaint. They are asking that she receive the complaint in redacted form.

So not only are they hiding the original basis of his arrest from us–US citizens and the world community, to whom the government claimed this is an international incident. But they’re hiding parts of this earlier complaint even from the public defender tasked to actually represent this guy.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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: 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

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.

Ignatius: CIA Is Involved with the Iran Plot, So It Must Be True!

In the face of near universal ridicule over the Iran plot, the Administration is now trying to shore up the case that this plot is “real.” Many many media outlets are repeating one US official promising multiple sources corroborated the plot (forgetting, apparently, that one source reading a talking point saying he’s got multiple sources is not the same as multiple sources describing credible evidence).

“Multiple” sources have corroborated the report about an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, a scheme the administration is alleging is tied to Iran’s military, a U.S. official told CNN Thursday.

More interesting, the CIA’s mouthpiece, David Ignatius, has been trotted out to reassure us that this is true because the CIA says it is.

But over months, officials at the White House and the Justice Department became convinced the plan was real. One big reason is that the CIA and other intelligence agencies gathered information corraborating the informant’s juicy allegations — and showing that the plot had support from the top leadership of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the covert-action arm of the Iranian government.

It was this intelligence collected in Iran — not tips from someone inside the Mexican drug mafia — that led the Treasury Department to impose sanctions Tuesday on four senior members of the Quds Force who allegedly were “connected” to a plot to murder the Saudi ambassador.

So after going to great lengths to scrub the complaint of any hint that the CIA or NSC was involved in this plot, pretending, for example, that we weren’t tracking where Manssor Arbabsiar was when he traveled abroad, that we weren’t wiretapping his conversations, and that we hadn’t kept a close eye on a car salesman with serial legal troubles and ties to the Quds Force even before this plot, the government has now decided to admit that the CIA was instead central to the plot.

The same CIA that used the equally dubious laptop of death for years to claim Iran had a nukes program. The CIA that dealt Iranians doctored blueprints for nukes. And hell, while we’re at it, the same CIA that overthrew the elected government of Iran to protect BP.

In short, David Ignatius wants to convince us we should believe this plot because the CIA, which has a long history of fabricating or using fabricated evidence to implicate Iran, says the plot is true.

They were better off when they were scrupulously hiding the CIA’s centrality to this plot!

Read more

How a Used Car Salesman’s Alleged Kidnapping Plot Turned into an International Incident

Let me correct something the press has almost universally gotten wrong about the Manssor Arbabsiar plot. He was not originally sent to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US in a spectacular bombing plot. According to the complaint, after Arbabsiar offered up his service to his cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, sometime in early spring, Shahlai asked him to find a drug cartel that would kidnap the Saudi Ambassador. Sometime between that point and July 17, the plot evolved into a kill or kidnap operation, and then a kill operation. But key details of how and when this happened rather curiously were not taped by the informant (whom I refer to as Narc). This raises the possibility that Narc suggested the most spectacular aspects of this plot, both the bombing attempt and the assassination, after he got approached to kidnap Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir. In other words, it is possible that Narc and his government handlers turned this from a kidnapping attempt into a terrorist plot complete with C4, which makes it a WMD plot.

I’ve got a timeline below, but first, a few points. There’s one section of the complaint that obscures the chronology of how the kidnapping plot turned into the assassination plot. Paragraphs 39 a-e describe what Arbabsiar said in his confession, but the events are dated only with the description, “upon his return to Iran.” There’s one period of time that, the complaint makes clear, Arbabsiar was in Iran, from July 20 through September 28; given the complaint’s clear signal he was in Iran in this period and the wiring of the payment, I’ve put the events described in his confession in that period. However, Arbabsiar was “traveling internationally” during another period, from May 30 to June 23, when Arbabsiar likely was also in Iran, so the events (and therefore the decision to assassinate the Ambassador) may have come earlier. I actually think the most likely scenario is that the first part of paragraph 39a–describing him reporting he had “located a drug dealer”–happened in that earlier window, but the other events happened in the later window.

There’s one other very critical issue about whether the assassination plot came from Narc or the Qods plotters. The complaint says clearly that the code name for the Ambassador assassination was “Chevrolet.” But a number of the other conversations with Shakuri (and, indeed, the September 2 call between Arbabsiar and Narc) talk about a building. And the complaint (and some of the quoted comments below) make it clear they were also talking about other operations with Narc. And when Shakuri first talks to Arbabsiar after he’s in FBI custody (remember, he believes Arbabsiar is with Los Zetas), he raises the building, not the Chevrolet, first. I actually suspect–given the discussion of “buying all of it”–that Chevrolet may actually refer to another plot, perhaps a drug deal (see Juan Cole’s speculation this might be about drugs), whereas the building refers to the assassination attempt. But in any case, at the very least it says that if Chevrolet was, indeed, the code, then Shakuri was most interested in the building plot, not the Chevrolet plot when he first talked to Arbabsiar.

Early Spring 2011: According to Arbabsiar’s confession, Shahlai approaches Arbabsiar and asked him to work with him. Arbabsiar offers up “that as a result of his business in both Mexico and the United States, he knew a number of people who traveled between the two countries, and some of those people, he believed, were narcotics traffickers. Shahlai responds, “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.”

After that meeting: According to Arbabsiar’s confession, Shahlai provided thousands of dollars for expenses. This is, at least from the detail given in the plot, the last that Shahlai is involved personally in the plot.

May 24, 2011: In one-day trip to Mexico from Texas, Arbabsiar meets with DEA informant posing as a Los Zetas member (Narc). The meeting is allegedly not recorded. After the meeting, Narc told his handlers that Arbabsiar was interested in, “among other things, attacking an embassy of Saudi Arabia.” According to Narc, Arbabsiar asked about his expertise, including on explosives. In response, Narc offered up that he was knowledgeable in C4.

Read more