Videos Deepen Mystery of Iranian Scientist
By NAZILA FATHI
The mystery of an Iranian nuclear scientist who Iran says was kidnapped and tortured last year by American agents deepened Tuesday, as Iran publicized what it called a videotaped statement from him that proved its claim. That videotape was contradicted by a second videotape posted on the Internet in which a man who identified himself as the same scientist said he was studying happily in the United States.
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A video in which Shahram Amiri says he is safe and free in the United States and studying for a Ph.D
The rival videos that claimed to show the scientist, Shahram Amiri, 32, emerged on the eve of an expected United Nations Security Council vote on a new set of American-backed economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Iran has accused the United States of extracting information about its program from Mr. Amiri.
In preparing for the vote, the Obama administration has been offering classified intelligence briefings to members of the Security Council. In these sessions, American officials have used new evidence to revise previous conclusions about whether Iran has suspended efforts to design nuclear warheads, according to foreign diplomats and some American officials.
It is not clear whether information from Mr. Amiri contributed to these revised assessments.
The United States government has never acknowledged Mr. Amiri’s existence, much less admitted to having any role in his disappearance. But one United States official, declining to speak on the record about an intelligence matter, said the very fact that the video released by Iran showed someone talking over an Internet connection would suggest that he was not being held under duress.
“The United States doesn’t force people to defect or hold them here if they do,” the official said. “That’s ridiculous. It’s ultimately their decision.”
The official added: “Does anyone really believe that someone supposedly held captive has Internet access and the ability to make and send videos? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Mr. Amiri, whom Iran has described as one of the country’s top nuclear scientists, vanished during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia a year ago. He worked at Iran’s Malek Ashtar University, an institution linked to the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guards.
ABC News reported on March 30 that Mr. Amiri had defected to the United States, citing current and former C.I.A. officials.
But Iranian authorities said Tuesday that the video it publicized was the first document that proved Mr. Amiri had been abducted. The Foreign Ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador in Tehran to press a formal complaint, the ISNA student news agency reported.
The Swiss handle American interests in Tehran because Iran and the United States severed diplomatic ties after the 1979 revolution.
“In the meeting with the Swiss envoy, Iran emphasized that America is responsible for the life and well-being of Mr. Amiri,” the ISNA report said. “It stressed that his abduction was against international laws and human rights.”
The report said Iranian officials also submitted other documents to the Swiss ambassador that they said proved their claim of Mr. Amiri’s abduction, and also that of a former Iranian deputy defense minister, Alireza Asgari, who disappeared during a trip to Turkey in 2007.
In the Iranian video of Mr. Amiri, which was broadcast on state-run television, an announcer identified a young man, in a blurry video wearing a T-shirt and talking in Persian through a computer phone hookup, as Mr. Amiri. He said he had been kidnapped in a joint operation involving the C.I.A. and the Saudi intelligence service in Medina on June 3, 2009. He said that he was taken to a house in Saudi Arabia, that he was injected with a shot, and that when he awoke he was on a plane heading to the United States.
He said he recorded the video on April 5 in Tucson, Ariz. The announcer said that he could not disclose how the video was obtained. The second video, which was released shortly afterward on YouTube, showed a young man, slightly more overweight than the man in the first video, wearing a suit in a well-decorated room, who also identified himself as Mr. Amiri. He said in Persian that he was free and safe in the United States and was working on his Ph.D. He also demanded an end to what he called faux videos about himself, saying he had no interest in politics or experience in nuclear weapons programs.
“My purpose in today’s conversation is to put an end to all the rumors that have been leveled at me over the past year,” he said. “I am Iranian, and I have not taken any steps against my homeland.”
The rival videos emerged as Iranian officials in Tehran denied some speculation that they would be willing to swap three American hikers, who have been in jail there since last summer, for Mr. Amiri.
Ramin Mehmanparast, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in Iranian government news accounts that it was not Iran’s practice to “exchange people whose cases are still with the judiciary,” referring to the cases of the three hikers, who are accused of entering Iran illegally and spying.
“The two cases are not comparable,” Mr. Mehmanparast said. “Iran will use legal channels to secure the release of Mr. Amiri.”
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.
Monday, June 28, 2010
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
KABUL—More than $3 billion in cash has been openly flown out of Kabul International Airport in the past three years, a sum so large that U.S. investigators believe top Afghan officials and their associates are sending billions of diverted U.S. aid and logistics dollars and drug money to financial safe havens abroad.
The cash—packed into suitcases, piled onto pallets and loaded into airplanes—is declared and legal to move. But U.S. and Afghan officials say they are targeting the flows in major anticorruption and drug trafficking investigations because of their size relative to Afghanistan's small economy and the murkiness of their origins.
Officials believe some of the cash, if not most, is siphoned from Western aid projects and U.S., European and NATO contracts to provide security, supplies and reconstruction work for coalition forces in Afghanistan. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization spent about $14 billion here last year alone. Profits reaped from the opium trade are also a part of the money flow, as is cash earned by the Taliban from drugs and extortion, officials say.
The amount declared as it leaves the airport is vast in a nation where the gross domestic product last year totaled $13.5 billion. More declared cash flies out of Kabul each year than the Afghan government collects in tax and customs revenue nationwide. "It's not like they grow money on trees here," said a U.S. official investigating corruption and Taliban financing. "A lot of this looks like our tax dollars being stolen. And opium, of course."
Most of the funds passing through the airport are being moved by often-secretive outfits called "hawalas," private money transfer businesses with roots in the Muslim world stretching back centuries, officials say.
The officials believe hawala customers who have sent millions of dollars of their money abroad include high-ranking officials and their associates in President Hamid Karzai's administration, including Vice President Mohammed Fahim, and one of the president's brothers, Mahmood Karzai, an influential businessmen.
Where they allegedly get the money is one of the questions under investigation.
Vice President Fahim, responded through his brother, A.H. Fahim, a businessman, who denied the allegations. "My brother? He doesn't know anything about money," Mr. Fahim said.
Mahmood Karzai said in an interview he has engaged in only legitimate businesses and has never transferred large sums of cash from the country.
In a Jan. 22 financial disclosure form that he gave the Wall Street Journal to review, Mr. Karzai declared his net worth was $12,157,491 with assets of $21,163,347 and liabilities of $9,006,106. He reported an annual income of just over $400,000 but didn't provide dates.
Mahmood Karzai, an American citizen, blamed the allegations that he was transferring illicitly earned cash from Afghanistan on political opponents.
"Yes, millions of dollars are leaving this country but it is all taken by politicians. Bribes, corruption, all of it," he said. "But let's find out who is taking it. Let's not go on rumors. I've said this to the Americans."
President Karzai addressed the matter at a news conference Saturday, calling for greater scrutiny of business run by relatives of officials.
"Making money is fine and taking money out of the country is fine," he said. "The relatives of government officials can do this, starting with my brothers. But there's a possibility of corruption," he said without being specific.
Between the beginning of 2007 and February of this year, at least $3.18 billion left through the airport, according to Afghan customs records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Jo'l van Houdt for The Wall Street Journal
The Sharay-e-Shahzada financial trading center, the main money exchange market in Kabul. More than $3 billion in cash has been openly flown out of Kabul International Airport in the past three years.
U.S. officials say the sum of declared money may actually be higher: One courier alone carried $2.3 billion between the second half of 2008 and the end of 2009, said a senior U.S. official, citing other documents that are in the possession of investigators.
The officer said officials believe the money was declared, and that Afghan customs records may not be complete.
In their declarations, couriers must record their own names and the origins of the money they are transporting. Instead, they usually record the name of the Afghan hawala that is making the transfer and the one in Dubai that is accepting the cash. Often, the actual sender of the money isn't named, officials said.
"We do not even know about it. We don't know whose it is, why it is leaving, or where it is going," Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal said at a December conference about the money leaving the airport.
The capital flight has continued apace in 2010. In the week ending May 29, more than $20 million, about half of it in U.S. currency, left the airport, according to a senior Afghan customs official. Apart from U.S. dollars, the currencies being flown out range from Saudi riyals and Pakistani rupees to Norwegian kroners and even outdated Deutsche marks now redeemable for euros.
"You get boxes loaded on the back of airplanes. You get guys, literally, bringing boxes of cash onto the plane," said the senior U.S. official.
The declared cash is believed to represent only "a small percentage" of the money moving out of the airport and all of Afghanistan, said Gen. M. Asif Jabar Khail, the chief customs officer at Kabul's airport.
Hundreds of millions of undeclared dollars, maybe billions, are being carried across Afghanistan's porous border with Iran and Pakistan, where a number of Afghan hawalas have branches, he said.
One figure often cited by Afghan and Western officials is $10 million a day leaving Afghanistan. That is $3.65 billion a year, more than a quarter of the current GDP.
Officials can't say how much money is coming into Afghanistan; that isn't tracked by Afghan authorities.
Afghanistan's endemic corruption and the suspected involvement of high-ranking officials in the opium trade has left the government deeply unpopular and fueled support for the Taliban, undercutting a war effort that is now focused on convincing Afghans to support their own state and turn away from the insurgents.
U.S. officials are also trying to disrupt the flow of money to the Taliban.
The insurgency is believed to earn a sizable portion of its operating expenses from extortion and the opium trade, funds that can easily be moved abroad to avoid detection or seizure.
But anticorruption efforts have increasingly taken center stage for the U.S. and its Western allies.
Restoring the credibility of the Afghan government is a central tenet in the American counter-insurgency strategy. Combating corruption by the government is now as important a priority as actually fighting insurgents. The investigations into the money flow are part of the shift in focus.
The U.S.-led initiatives carry significant risks: many of those believed by U.S. officials to be involved in shipping money out of the country are key Afghan power brokers who are important allies in the fight against the Taliban.
Balancing demands to clean up the government with the need to keep them on the same side will not be easy, especially after so many years of Western officials effectively turning a blind eye to allegations of wrongdoing by their Afghan allies, U.S. officials say.
Gen. David Petraeus, who is to take over shortly as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, faces the added burden of getting to know many of the main players in the country at the same time that officials under his command are investigating some of them and their associates.
The formal banking system here is in its infancy, and hawalas form the backbone of the financial sector. The State Department says that 80% to 90% of all financial transactions in Afghanistan run through hawalas.
Hawala networks run on what is effectively an honor system and much of the business they do is legitimate.
At their simplest, a customer drops off money at one dealer and is given a numeric code or password, which is then used by the money's recipient when the cash is picked up elsewhere.
The hawala operators then settle up among themselves.
Hawala fees are far cheaper than standard banks, often as little as $150 to move $100,000, and transfers can be done in minutes or hours as opposed to days.
The United Nations, NATO and international aid groups in Afghanistan have at times even used hawalas to move money and pay staff.
Afghanistan, shattered by three decades of war, is a predominantly cash society. "Afghanistan is a country that is built on personal connections and trust.
If someone trusts them, he will do business with them," said Haji Najib, the chairman of Kabul's hawala association. "It is the same for hawala."
But those ties also make hawalas especially difficult for investigators to penetrate to find the identity of funds being transferred.
Most of the cash loads are taken on one of the eight flights a day from Kabul to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Wealthy Afghans have long parked their money in Dubai.
Dubai and neighboring emirates, with their tight banking secrecy laws, also have been used by the Taliban and al Qaeda as a convenient locale to move or stash money, although Emirati authorities have aided American efforts to shut the flow of terror money.
Investigators say it is tough to trace where the Afghan money goes from Dubai. Some of it likely stays in Dubai, either in banks or property, some is probably moved to U.S. and Europe or back to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dubai officials didn't respond to requests to comment.
Over the past year, U.S. and other Western officials have grown alarmed by the ways in which corruption was fueling support for the Taliban and indications that the massive infusions of poorly monitored Western dollars were helping foster a culture of graft.
A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration-led operation to disrupt Taliban finances created last year is now largely focused on corruption, and military intelligence is dedicating more assets to fighting the problem. NATO is also creating a task force to scrutinize contracts given to provide security, supplies and reconstruction work for coalition forces.
American officials have been working with Afghanistan's central bank to impose Western-style regulation on hawalas.
Under Afghan regulations enacted in the last few years, hawalas must report to the central bank every transaction they made monthly.
When they suspect illicit activity, they are required to file suspicious activity reports, as banks do in the U.S.
Compliance has been spotty, say central bank officials. Most still keep track of their transactions in handwritten ledger books, sometimes transcribed in code.
So far, not one suspicious activity report has been filed, said a central bank official who deals with enforcement matters.
Cash also moves easily without detection or declaration through the airport's VIP section, where officials aren't searched and often driven straight up to their planes, according to Gen. Asif and U.S. and Afghan officials.
Gen. Asif said that last year, his men found a "pile of millions of dollars," all undeclared, and tried to stop it from being put on a flight to Dubai.
But "there was lots of pressure from my higher ups," Gen. Asif said. He refused to name the officials who were pressuring him, but said: "It came from very, very senior people. They told me there was an arrangement with the central bank and told me to let it go."
—Mark Schoofs in New York and Maria Abi-Habib in Kabul contributed to this article.
Posted by Steve Douglass at 5:45 PM
Ten alleged Russian spies -- including a Cambridge couple -- were arrested Sunday on charges that they plotted to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation inside the United States.
The US Department of Justice issued a press release this afternoon announcing that the 10 people, who allegedly used fictitious names like Murphy and Foley, were arrested in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Virginia.
All 10, and an additional suspect who is being sought, are charged in criminal complaints filed in US District Court in Manhattan.
A couple who went by the names Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley were arrested on Trowbridge Street in busy Harvard Square around 7:30 pm Sunday by a team of FBI agents.
The pair appeared briefly today in US District Court in Boston. A prosecutor asked to have them moved to New York to face charges, but Heathfield and Foley asked for a detention hearing in Boston.
US Magistrate Judge Jennifer Boal ordered them held without bail pending a hearing Thursday on whether they should be held without bail pending resolution of the charges.
The arrests served as a reminder that over two decades after the end of the Cold War, and despite the Obama administration's declared effort to "reset" relations with Moscow, Russia and the United States remain suspicious rivals.
Spying between the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals remains a fact of life, said John Pike director of Globalsecurity.org a military information website.
"They're the only other country on the planet that can wipe out civilization," Pike said. "They are one of the few countries on the planet that could pose a military challenge to us."
But while Washington's intelligence effort centers around Russia's military secrets, the Kremlin's spies on US soil are usually after trade secrets.
"Computer chips, pharmaceuticals, the secret formula for Coke," Pike said, adding that industrial espionage has not often brought Moscow intelligence coups.
"Pretty much the last time they were really successful was when they stole the secret for the atomic bomb," he said.
In court papers, federal prosecutors said all of the spies, including the husband and wife team of 'Heathfield' and 'Foley,' were supposed to become as American as they possibly could.
The Cambridge couple and the others are charged with conspiring from the 1990s to the present to serve as agents in the United States of a foreign government.
Nine of those charged, including Heathfield and Foley, are also accused of money laundering.
According to Massachusetts Secretary of State records, "Heathfield'' incorporated a company called Future Map Strategic Advisory Services LLC this February and listed its business as "consulting.''
The FBI alleges that "Heathfield'' and "Foley'' both claimed to be Canadian by birth but who became naturalized Americans. Heathfield, according to the FBI, took his name from a man who died in Canada in 2005.
The FBI suggests they have long suspected both Heathfield and Foley of being someone other than who they claim to be. In 2001, the FBI said, they searched a safe deposit box at a Cambridge bank and found film negatives of 'Foley' that had been prepared by TACMA, a Russian film company.
They also found a Canadian birth certificate that they used to match the dead Canandian man to the Heathfield living in Cambridge, the affidavit said.
The FBI said the ''Boston conspirators'' would get "info tasks'' from their handlers in Moscow. The requests have included information about "United States policy with regard to the use of the internet by terrorists, United States policies in Central America, problems with United States military policy and 'Western estimation of (Russian) foreign policy.''
The alleged Boston spies, in a May 2006 message, reported about the new boss of the CIA and the upcoming 2008 campaign that ended with the election of the nation's first African-American president.
In cryptic references in the FBI affidavit, the government reported that the Boston spies had established ties to former congressional staffers and faculty members of an unidentified university.
Heathfield, the report said, also had ties with a "former high-ranking United States Government national security official'' whose name was not included in the FBI affidavit.
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Posted by Steve Douglass at 3:41 PM
The head of CIA has defended awarding a large contract to the controversial security company formerly known as Blackwater.
The director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, said the company's bid was US $26m less than its nearest rival.
The contract, worth $100m, is to provide security at US consulates in the cities of Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Blackwater guards allegedly opened fire on unarmed civilians in Baghdad in 2007 killing 17 people.
In the wake of the killings, the company rebranded itself Xe Services.
The company ended its operations in Iraq in 2009, in line with a ban by the government.
The US government said in January 2009 that it would not renew the company's task orders.
An Iraqi inquiry found Blackwater quards killed 17 civilians in 2007
The new contract with the company initialy runs for a year but could be extended to 18 months.
In a rare television interview with ABC News on Sunday, Leon Panetta said the CIA had come to rely on such companies to provide security for forward bases.
"[Xe] provided a bid that… underbid everyone else by about US $26m. And a panel that we had said that they can do the job, that they have shaped up their act. So there really was not much choice but to accept that contract," Mr Panetta explained.
As Blackwater the company provided the US government with bodyguards both in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It hit the headlines when four of its bodyguards were ambushed in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and their bodies left hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
Earlier this month the company was put up for sale.
Posted by Steve Douglass at 6:39 AM