The Weakest Link
The mishandling of informants by unqualified law enforcement and covert agency personnel at the highest levels of management, has led to horrific tragedies, from the killing of innocent citizens and false arrests to the opening of the heart of America to terrorist actions.
“Trust but verify”-Russian proverb and motto of the KGB.
Law enforcement agencies call them CIs (Cooperating Individuals and/or Confidential Informants, and/or Criminal Informants). Cops who use them call them stoolpigeons, stools, rats, chotas, etc. Intelligence agencies (CIA, DIA etc) calls them “Assets” or the more confusing: “Agents.” Whatever they are called 99.9999% of them have one thing in common: they are traitorous information whores who betray friendships, relatives, business and/or criminal associates, nations and even terrorist organizations. They are criminals and conmen who use their insider positions of trust to steal and barter information that can and often does destroy those who most trust them. A good police instructor with real first-hand experience will always tell you “Never trust an informant.” A prosecutor who wants to win his case at all costs will always tell a jury “Trust this informant.” If you’re assigned to a narcotics and/or an anti-terror unit, both of which overlap mightily these days, and you believe the prosecutor, do yourself a favor and grab a transfer to the Traffic Division. You’re a danger to yourself and your community.
I’m not going to talk about the alleged 1% of informants who risk their lives in this very dirty and dangerous game and whom training manuals refer to as “good citizens,” or people motivated to inform on other people as a result of “ideological motivation,” mainly because in my now 44 years of training and experience encompassing the close association with more than 10,000 Criminal Informants (CIs) , I’ve yet to meet one I would trust enough to give my home phone, except when I was stationed overseas and had no choice.
Yet, every one of the thousands of covert operations in which I have been directly or indirectly involved during my now 44 years of training and experience, has depended upon the manipulation and use of Criminal Informants. Thus, as a police instructor and/or DOJ supervisory reviewer—as opposed to most, if not all, training that I am aware of— it made no sense to me to separate the use and/or misuse of a CI from the training of law enforcement personnel in Undercover Tactics. It was for this reason that, when I was asked to devise a course for the New York State Department of Justice Services, that course was entitled “Undercover Operations and Informant Handling.”
In this paper I will present real and documented cases of tragic operational failures, that resulted entirely from the use and/or failed use of Criminal Informants in covert operations. All the case’s presented, with the exception the first and second attacks on the World Trade Center and the CIA’s little known “Thousand Informant Disaster,” come from my own personal involvement as either case agent, supervisory officer, reviewing official, or trial consultant and expert witness. What follows, in essence, will be a failure analysis of each case—as viewed through the lens of my now 44 years of training and experience particularly as an OPR Operational Inspector— in affixing management responsibility for operational disasters.
I will then summarize this presentation with what I believe can be done to best improve our defenses in these areas.
Donald Carlson v Agents and Officers of DEA, US Customs and the San Diego Police Department
Donald Carlson was butt-dragging weary. His job as a top executive with Anacomp a Fortune 500 company had kept him working late, and after a very late dinner, he just wanted to get home and get to bed. As he drove through his quiet, upscale neighborhood in Poway California, he couldn’t possibly have noticed the dozen or so cars and vans, strange to this neighborhood, parked on the dark streets approaching his home, most with their engines running.
Not in Donald Carlson’s wildest of two-martini dreams could he have imagined that at the very moment he was using his remote to open one of the doors to his three-car garage, nervous voices were barking radio commands calling him “subject” and “target” and that he was one of several targets of a three month federal and state, international narcotics trafficking investigation.
Not even if he were stoned on LSD, would Donald Carlson have believed that at the very moment he was making a beeline toward his bedroom, a dozen heavily armed men, a newly formed SWAT team of federal agents and San Diego police, were racing across his meticulously manicured front lawn in combat crouch positions, cradling sub machine guns and shotguns, expecting to be met by four Colombian hit men who had sworn never to be taken alive, guarding 500 kilos of cocaine.
Unfortunately for Mr. Carlson he had a pistol license. So when he heard his door being battered down followed by what he thought was a grenade exploding in his living room he grabbed his pistol and moved to the hallway, shouting for the intruders to identify themselves. Talk about bringing a knife to a gunfight; Donald Carlson might just as well have been armed with a Swiss Army knife for what was about to happen.
When the raiders clad from head to foot in black combat suits and flak vests with black baklavas concealing their faces charged through the door, Carlson, his hand trembling a 9 on the Richter Scale, fired two times, missing everything moving. A DEA agent just back from what is basically a jungle combat tour in South America, then executed a Ramboesque, diving, combat roll firing a dozen shots from an H&K submachine-gun, turning the living-room into sawdust, but missing Mr. Carlson. The wily albeit hysterical corporate executive then retreated to his bedroom, threw the gun away and dialed 911. He was still holding the phone when he was hit twice by gunfire, handcuffed, arrested and transported to the hospital where he lay close to death in the intensive care unit, handcuffed to his bed. His most vivid memory of the hospital is some officer’s voice telling the doctors and nurses attending him, that he was a “drug dealer.”
Of course the raiders found no Colombians, no drugs, not even an unlicensed dog to shoot. The Fortune 500 executive, they were about to learn, was a Dudley Doo-right who wouldn’t know cocaine from garden mulch.
The Customs supervisory officer commanding the troops, himself undaunted by not finding drugs or Colombians, still had two more search warrants to serve all of which were based almost entirely on the semiliterate words of a Criminal Informant who couldn’t even speak Spanish. The next house they hit they found vacant, nothing to shoot, not even a stick of furniture to seize.
In the third house they found a San Diego City Marshall and her husband fast asleep in their home. The marshal luckily didn’t go for her gun. Once again, contrary to what Ron Edmonds—the man the Customs Supervisor had described as a “reliable informant” in court papers—had said, the raiders found not an iota of drugs, not even a package of Bambu rolling papers.
Mr. Carlson, who miraculously, survived his wounds sued the government as well as each officer as individuals, and that’s where I came in.
Analyzing a Disaster
When the lawyers representing Mr. Carlson contacted me, they were looking for a Use of Force Expert, which happens to be an area of my expertise. I don’t accept cases against police agencies easily, but when I heard some of the details my jaw literally dropped and I was on board. The lawyer was surprised when I told him that what he really needed, in addition to a Use of Force expert, was an Informant Handling and Undercover Tactics expert.
As Mr. Carlson’s expert and trial consultant, I was furnished with thousands of pages of reports, transcripts, photos, training records and sworn deposition statements of every officer involved, to read, study and absorb. My job was to arrive at an expert opinion about which I would testify under oath, as to how in the world a semiliterate, street level CI and petty conman, could have possibly fooled teams of supposedly well-trained cops and prosecutors, for a three month period of time, into believing in the existence of an international conspiracy that did not exist, when the Pacific Bell phone company didn’t even trust the man enough to give him a telephone.
The way it went down:
“I met this guy Carlos in the park,” said Ron Edmonds. “The guy be watchin me doin’ one arm pushups. He say he from from the Medellin Cartel and wanna hire me for security to cover a big load of coke comin’ in from Colombia. Five hundred kilos. ” This was the story he told a San Diego DEA Group Supervisor.
Edmonds, the G/S learned, was a street level informant described as “previously reliable,” by the Hillsboro County Sheriffs Department in Florida.
A short time after listening to Edmonds, who by the way didn’t speak a word of Spanish, the G/S, an experienced rat handler, called him a liar and booted him out of the office.
But Edmonds, undaunted and wise to the world of informant competition between all law enforcement agencies, told the same story to a Customs supervisory officer who had recently been placed in charge of a multi-agency task force combining DEA, the San Diego Police and other agencies. Let’s call him Weak Link#1 (WL#1).
WL#1, might have been a good administrator, and a courageous leader of men in battle. He might have even had a law degree and taken every course in Informant Handling available. Whatever his qualifications were on paper, he lacked the most important quality necessary to handle a criminal informant: he was simply not streetwise.
WS#1 believed Edmond’s claims, and assigned the investigation to a Customs Agent/Pilot— WL#2—a man who was equally clueless in the Informant Handling department. A debriefing report of Edmonds was prepared in which the career stoolpigeon’s incredible story was repeated. This was submitted to an upper-level management figure, Weak Link #3, who read the thing and signed off, authorizing operational funding.
The end result of all this listening, writing and signing, was that for the next three months, Ron Edmonds, supervised by WL#1, would be paid a five-figure salary plus expenses for his services. In return for this taxpayer funded bounty, he would furnish his handlers with a steady flow of tantalizing information implicating dozens of innocent people as members of a cult-like, a group of fanatical, multi-cultural drug dealers, conspiring to import a massive load of cocaine from the Medellin Cartel at any moment.
Edmonds described the group as being comprised of people who spoke in mysterious codes and held clandestine meetings that he would find out about hours or even minutes after they had happened. The “conspirators” had Edmonds contact information and would call him regularly to make certain he was ready to perform security duties the moment the massive load of cocaine arrived, but he had no way of contacting them.
Finally, as the months dragged on and not a single body was put in a cage, nor a gram of drugs seized, WL#1, under pressure from WL#3 for spending all those government greenbacks without results, and hearing rumors that the men and women under his command were laughing at him, amped up the pressure on Edmonds; if he didn’t come up with some proof of his months of allegations, he would be blackballed from ever working as a stoolpigeon again, and maybe even prosecuted.
“No problem” said Edmonds, like most CI, a man with the equivalent of a PHD in Street Survival. If the feds would give him a tape-recorder, he’d try to record a conversation between himself and a female San Diego City Marshall, whom, along with her husband, he had identified as part of the conspiracy. Within days he was back with the recording. When the Weak Links heard it, they brought it to a secret meeting with one of the marsha’s bosses, who said that it “sounded” like her. That was all the combined weak links needed to hear. Now their flagging confidence in Edmonds was restored again to new and even feverish heights.
It would later be learned that recording had been staged between Edmonds and a female who would never be identified, and that Edmonds “information” about the identities and descriptions of the marshal and her husband had come from a casual association at a local health club. It would also be learned that the other “suspects” that had been named by Edmonds during his three months of “undercover” work, were names taken from old news articles, phone books and overheard conversations. License plates were picked at random on the street. Some of the names were of people with whom he’d had casual conversations. All were implicated as “drug traffickers” in government databanks on nothing more than Edmonds’ uncorroborated words which were repeated in voluminous government reports as “fact.”
The specific tactics Edmonds used to turn BS into taxpayer dollars, were typical of those that a minimally satisfactory training course should have provided countermeasures against, and are listed as follows:
a. Streetwise CI skillfully dangles “the big case” before the noses of decidedly un-streetwise, handlers and a supervisor. A typical CI seduction pattern.
b. Streetwise informant threatens to “shop” the case, i.e. If you don’t believe me, I’ll go to the FBI, and they’ll get all the credit.
c. Streetwise informant picks out the least streetwise officer he meets and tells the unit leader he’d be the “perfect” handler for the case.
d. Cons his handlers to believing that he couldn’t wear a wire to record his alleged criminal conversations without “burning” the case. They accept this with no standard corroborative checks.
e. Cons his handlers into believing that close surveillance of his activities would “burn” the targets of the investigation.
f. Cons his handlers into believing that violators will not speak on the telephone and/or that they have refused to give Edmonds any contact information.
g. Edmonds supplies license plates and descriptions of alleged criminal contacts that could easily have been obtained in public records and/or news reports.
h. Edmonds is given a tape-recorder to record his own conversations, with no law enforcement controls or corroborative checks.
When, another month passes and Edmonds is still unable to bring the squad of feds any closer to the “big load” he had promised, WL#1 amps up the pressure again. This time he manages to frighten Edmonds into an act of LID (Lying Informant Desperation) that is hard for the unschooled to even conceive of, but “old news” for those of us who have truly been around the block. Edmonds suddenly tells WL#1 that he has just learned from one of his mysterious but not fully identified contacts that the 500 kilos of cocaine had already arrived and was now hidden in the garage of a home in Poway, California. He’d been given the address but nothing else. He also throws in another address as a possible “stash house.” This would be the vacant house.
Prosecutors many of whom, in my experience, are completely untrained in the tactics of CI Handling and Covert Ops, then accept a sworn affidavit of WL#1, describing Edmonds as a “previously reliable informant” and issud three search warrants, and two arrest warrants for the marshal and her husband.
The rest is now civil court history.
Mr. Carlson and his lawyers agreed to accept $2 million to go away. My own detailed review of the case, as the expert retained by Mr. Carlson and his lawyers, indicated that none of the Weak Link management officials charged with the oversight of Edmonds, had sufficient technical and/or tactical knowledge and/or the aptitude to be assigned to their positions. In the aftermath of this case, no changes were made in training standards or requirements, and WL#1 was promoted in rank, to a mid level management position where he could oversee the handling of dozens of CIs..
No one Bucks a Chain of Command.
My review of the case resulted in another extremely important finding that holds true in every informant or undercover disaster case that I have ever reviewed, from those run by small local police departments to those run by the FBI and CIA that will be covered in the continuation of this article; that no matter how stupid, dangerous, inept or downright insane the order given by a superior officer, no law enforcement officer, military man or spy will buck that chain-of-command.
For example, the DEA agents who were assigned to work under the command of WL#1, including the carrying out of a military style assault on an American home, did so in spite of the fact that a DEA supervisor was on record as calling Edmonds an obvious liar. No one would buck the chain of command. One of the San Diego police officers assigned, when interviewed by Internal Affairs, said that the people handling the CI should not be allowed to have badges and guns, yet they were functioning as his superior officers and when they issued orders that he know from his own experience were dangerous, he followed them.
In my classes on Informant Handling & Undercover Tactics, I usually wait until there is a certain amount of trust built between myself and the federal and state law enforcement officers sent to attend. Then my question is, “By a show of hands, how many of you with some experience handling informants and/or undercover work, have never had a superior officer order you to do something that you thought ridiculous and even dangerous?
I have yet to see a hand raised.
This is a serious and even deadly problem in every agency involved in the use of Human Intelligence, as the continuation of this article will point out; however, it is made even more serious by the fact that in most cases of informant and/or undercover disaster, no matter how ill advised the orders, if they are issued by a weak link in the upper levels of the chain of command, they are followed without question.
Michael Robinson – CI – Pedophile and Child Rapist
This is a grotesque case of CI mismanagement that I use in my law enforcement classes, that must be mentioned here. Michael Robinson, a man with a serious record for the kidnapping and rape of small boys, (3 convictions) was removed from incarceration to act as a CI for an Albuquerque, New Mexico, federal task force. In fact, on one court record, Robinson admitted to having committed as many as 200 child rapes. Robert Schwartz, former chief of the Albuquerque District Attorneys Office said that all the prosecutors in his office knew Robinson as “the most dangerous pedophile we had ever seen.”
While working undercover under the “control” of task force agents, supervisors and federal prosecutors, Robinson kidnapped and raped young boys at knife point. During a news report of the incident, Robinson claimed to have told his handlers that he was feeling the compulsion to commit a rape, and was told to just “hold out” until the arrests were made in the case.
As the undercover use of undercover use of Robinson continued, so did his child-rape activities. Albuquerque detectives, trying to find the rapist posted artist drawings and descriptions of the rapist and his car in newspapers, and on television. Two of his handlers would later state that they suspected it was Robinson but took no action. Jeanne Webb, one of the detectives trying to find the, at that point, unidentified rapist would later claim that her investigation was thwarted by the task force and the federal prosecutors office who were protecting the CI, and that as a result, more children were raped by Robinson.
In a televised interview, the federal prosecutor charged with authorizing the removal of Robinson from prison to work undercover—thereby putting himself as a top link in the chain of command — stated that he felt that federal agents passing by Robinson’s place of employment to see that he was in fact there, was “more than sufficient” control of the CI.
In my opinion, for the good of the community, anyone currently assigned to duties involving the handling of Criminal Informants who believes that, should be immediately reassigned to other duties.
It was then revealed that Robinson’s handlers did in fact notify the Sheriffs Department, three days after the attacks were published in the media. However, the handlers, acting under the authority of their supervisors and prosecutors, told the sheriffs investigators that taking Robinson off the streets would jeopardize their case. A plan was then concocted to either “prove” that Robinson was the rapist, or eliminate him from suspicion. There were two problems with this plan. The first was that, at the same time Robinson was under active suspicion, no one was assigned to follow him to stop him from future child rapes. The second was that none of the Albuquerque PD detectives actually working the investigation were notified of anything.
Days after the secret investigation of Robinson had been initiated by the feds and the sheriffs department, Albuquerque detectives found the CI on their own and arrested him. On his way to being booked Robinson told the detectives that in three days time he was to enter the witness protection program, and be whisked away to an unknown location under a new identity. This of course was denied by the federal prosecutor, who told a 20/20 interview that, even if he could go back and do it all over again, he would still use Michael Robinson as a CI.
The end of the story which delivers the message to all law enforcement that you never buck the chain of command, is that the detective who moved in and arrested Robinson, was suspended for acting without “the proper authorization.”
CIA Informant Disaster—Operation Agent Scrub
No one knows how many weak links there are in CIA when it comes to the handling of informants, whom they call “agents.” But if the following event is any indication, one of the best kept secrets in that top secret agency may be their massive ineptitude in the handling of their informant/agents.
In 1997, the then director of CIA John Deutch, under the code name “Operation Agent Scrub,” reviewed the performance records of all CIA’s “agents” and found that 1,000 of them—nearly a third of all their informant/agents—were nonproductive liars, many of whom used their CIA cover to commit crimes with impunity. The fact that they even designate their criminal informants “agents,” by the way, in my opinion as a police instructor and court-qualified expert, adds to the problem by placing traitorous, stool pigeons on an equal psychological footing with their handlers, and giving the CIs a sense of being above the law.
The Venezuelan National Guard Case—Only One of One Thousand
A glaring example of CIA ineptitude in Informant Handling, and the price paid by the unsuspecting public began when a Venezuelan National Guard plane landed at Miami National Airport. When Customs agents found a ton of cocaine on board, General Guillen, the commander of the operation, announced that he was working for the CIA. The Customs officers who were not impressed (possibly because they had never read a Tom Clancy novel) said, Yeah, uh-huh, and placed the general and his crew under arrest, charging them with enough drug smuggling crimes to place them well beneath the jail.
This of course was not to be. The CIA, acknowledging that General Guillen was in fact their agent, would act to get the general and his crew released from jail and back to Venezuela, from where they would never be brought to the US to stand trial.
A secret DEA investigation then ensued, revealing that the drug-smuggling general had been recruited by CIA’s Venezuela station. The investigation spurred the outraged head of DEA, Federal Judge Robert Bonner, to appear on “60 Minutes” and accuse the CIA of being drug traffickers. Judge Bonner’s assertion was consistent with events in my own career with the DEA, wherein I documented CIA “agents” as being among the most damaging drug traffickers on earth.
One cannot even begin to calculate the damage that one thousand lying, crime-committing, out-of-control informants have done to the CIA’s effectiveness, reputation and more importantly to the American people. A ton of cocaine is only scratching the surface of the activities of only a single, mishandled CIA agent who happened to be a General in the Venezuelan National Guard. My own interview of DEA agents with first-hand knowledge of the investigation, indicated that many tons of cocaine had already been smuggled into the US before the Guillen drug smuggling was stopped by the alert Miami Customs officers.
No Effort to Identify CIA’s Weak Links
When CIA Director Deutch “fired” the 1000 agents, it was only half the job that should have been done, if our nation is to get the best protection from its defenders. In my experience as an Internal Affairs Investigator and/or OPR Inspector for the Department of Justice, had a single DEA informant gotten away with providing false information and/or committing crimes for any length of time, a criminal investigation and/or fitness for duty review would have been conducted targeting the CI’s handler, in order to determine how in the world this situation could have come to exist. This type of remedial action is vital for the internal “health” of the agency, the credibility of all law enforcement and intelligence gathering agencies, and the safety and security of the American people we’ve sworn to protect. All claims that espionage or counterterrorism is ruled by a different god are no longer valid. Drug traffickers and terrorist cells, as DEA has learned decades ago, function in an identical manner, as do the methods of attacking each with the effective use of CIs and Undercover Tactics.
Yet, no remedial action of any kind has ever happened in CIA, as to the aptitude, ability and training of every link in their chain-of-command in the handling of informants, which in my opinion as a trained OPR Inspector of Operations, goes a long way in explaining the horrific human intelligence failures that are the hallmark of that agency’s history, including those directly related to 9-11.
US v Roberto Suarez et. al.
“I’m going to give DEA the biggest most important case in it history,” she said speaking Spanish with a lazy Bolivian accent. “They, La Mafia Cruzeña [The Santa Cruz Mafia] control most of the cocaine in the world and one man controls the whole organization: Roberto Suarez.”
She said her name was Lucy. She had dark glasses covering bulging frog eyes, the body of an aging roller derby queen and the face of an Inca war mask. We were in my office at the American Embassy in Buenos Aires, at the beginning of my second week in the position of Country Attaché Argentina and Uruguay in January of 1979. She was my first walk-in CI, and this is precisely what she told me.
Eight years later, when the debacle I am about to summarize was over and the damage done to our war on drugs irreparable, Felix Milian Rodruiguez, Medellin Cartel money launderer, convicted of laundering $1 billion in drug money, would tell a senate subcommittee investigating narcotics trafficking and terrorism, that Roberto Suarez was the most powerful drug dealer on the face of the earth. What neither he nor the senators knew was that an undercover team of DEA agents had netted him, and that inept decisions by a single weak link in the DEA’s chain-of-command had allowed him to escape and to set up what would become “The General Motors of Cocaine.”
How it Went Down:
The CI was immediately and thoroughly debriefed as to all the information she possessed that would be of any value whatsoever to any agency or department of the US Government. The information she supplied had to be carefully reviewed and corroborated for authenticity, and there were some shortcuts to do this. For example, to corroborate some of her claims, the CI was immediately asked to place a monitored phone call to some of the major targets to whom she claimed she had access.
My review of hundreds of files during my last 19 years as a trial consultant, covering Informant-Handling practices of dozens of federal and state law enforcement agencies, indicates that these simple tactics of informant corroboration are rarely if ever done any longer. I cannot for example believe that most of the CIA’s 1,000 lying informants who had caused the destruction of innocent lives and gobbled up only God knows how many billions of US taxpayer dollars, could have passed such a test, nor could have Ron Edmonds the CI in the Carlson case.
The choreographed phone calls were successfully recorded. It was immediately evident that CI Lucy was telling the truth. At least she knew them and they were amenable to her bringing them a new US “customer” who wanted to buy “lots of shirts.” Thus the investigation had already begun with physical evidence corroborating her story. If this had failed, the Suarez investigation might not have gone any further. There’s a lot of crime out there and not enough money and/or time to waste on a BS’ing informant.
Then began the critical detail debriefing of Lucy which was accomplished by both myself and an extremely streetwise, undercover DEA agent, Max Pooley; a man with considerable talent as an Informant Handler.
Introduction of an Undercover:
Lucy was then asked to make additional controlled and recorded phone calls, this time to key figures in the Santa Cruz Mafia whom she had mentioned during her debriefing. She was instructed ask them to meet with a new “customer” arriving in from the US. Her willingness to do this would be a key additional factor in determining the veracity of her information and its potential.
Experienced and well-trained handlers of CIs use this tactic whenever possible to verify information—an art in itself that requires much experience as both an undercover officer and Informant Handler. It is also an effective tactic in protecting the informant, who once the undercover is introduced to the targets, may never need to testify. It is significant to note that this tactic was never employed in either the Carlson or The Brotherhood cases.
Lucy made calls to key members of the Santa Cruz Mafia, including Marcello Ibañez, ex Bolivian Minister of Agriculture and El Comandante himself, Roberto Suarez. The calls continued to corroborate everything the CI had claimed. The CI, as instructed, arranged an undercover meeting between an undercover agent (myself) and a key member of the cocaine cartel for the following week in Buenos Aires. She, as promised, would make the introduction personally.
Undercover Meeting with Target in Buenos Aires:
Since, by this time in my career, I had already logged well over a thousand hours of undercover work, my Spanish was fluent and I was knowledgeable in the esoteric minutiae of the cocaine manufacturing and distribution business—critical for the assignment— I assumed the principle undercover role.
After long rehearsals of a fictitious history between us, Lucy introduced me as an American Mafia capo, to Marcelo Ibañez, ex Minister of Agriculture of Bolivia. During a full week of undercover meetings with Ibañez in Buenos Aires, much additional intelligence about the burgeoning power of this organization was gleaned, and a tentative deal for the purchase and delivery of 1,000 pounds of cocaine was made. This was to be followed by from 1,000 to 4,000 kilos (9 tons) of cocaine a month for the foreseeable future, the minimum acceptable amount required by this organization to do business.
Weak Link—The Bureaucrat:
As Chief of the DEA station, I then cabled DEA Headquarters, with a fully detailed report of investigation, requesting approval of a suggested operational plan that included the formation of a fictitious mafia family in Miami along with a bogus cocaine laboratory and an undercover aircraft to pick up the cocaine in Bolivia, in order to convince the Suarez Organization to go through with the transaction. The long range purpose stated in the cable was to buy the drugs and complete the transaction, thus enabling a team of DEA undercover agents to enter the inner sanctum of this organization as highly valued customers and co-conspirator, in order to fully identify its hierarchy and operational functions, and then carefully choreograph its destruction from the inside.
I had just convinced the most powerful drug dealers in the Western Hemisphere, that I was a drug dealer with the resources to buy tons of cocaine per month. They were only waiting on my word to start the transaction rolling. It would begin with them coming to the US to inspect my operation. Any delay in my putting my end together would be looked on suspiciously. But, as I was about to learn, the officer in charge of calling the shots, the same one who had been riding The Brotherhood investigation, had no understanding of undercover work, informant handling or the inner workings of the drug business, and I was in trouble. I will call him the Weak Link Bureaucrat, or WLB.
It is important to note that this term is used in a factual and not a disrespectful manner. The fact is that the use of essentially unqualified people in covert operations, particularly in key supervisory and decision making positions, has and continues to wreak havoc in all US agencies involved in covert activities, as will be seen in the continuation of this study.
After a long delay that in itself created distrust by the traffickers in my ability to put together my end of the deal, I received a reply from the WLB, in which he refused permission to continue the covert operation, on the basis of there being no record of the Suarez organization in the data system. The WLB simply did not have the aptitude and/or hands-on experience as an undercover officer or Informant Handler to appreciate that traffickers are not bureaucrats and only perceive inexplicable delays as suspicious. Not acting like the “real thing,” can be deadly, and the man calling the shots, a top level link in my chain-of-command, had no idea how the real thing thought or acted. The WLB was also applying bean-counter logic to a developing covert operation. i.e. if it’s not in the computer it doesn’t exist. It’s a good thing Queen Isabella didn’t consult with a databank when Columbus came to her for funding.
In spite of The Bureaucrat’s refusal to approve the undercover operation, I did what I would never do again: bucked the chain of command by ignoring orders. I continued to use the CI in making undercover contact with the Suarez organization in South America, keeping them appraised of bogus “problems” the American Mafia was having that were delaying the transaction. In the meantime, I made a direct request to of DEA’s Bolivia Country Office, to conduct as much of a collateral investigation as they could to corroborate the CIs information. Within weeks, the intelligence picture presented by the Bolivia DEA office was undeniable. The criminal organization headed by Suarez was already in de facto control of the police and military, and was threatening to overpower the elected government.
After another delay of two weeks, the Bureaucrat finally cabled us with headquarters approval for the operation. The DEA office in Bolivia then skillfully obtained covert support and secret official approval for the operation to enter Bolivia from trusted members of the sitting government, whom logically were in great fear of the Suarez organization. We were finally on track. It was May, 1980 and we had been stalling the cartel for three months waiting for The Bureaucrat’s approval.
As the lead undercover agent, I used the now frightened and demoralized CI to tell Suarez that my “organization” was finally ready to do business. As I feared, they didn’t buy the story. All the trust we had garnered during the undercover meeting was now out the window. In the ensuing tape-recorded conversations between myself and the now suspicious Marcelo Ibañez and Roberto Suarez, they demanded that—before doing business with my Mafia family—they come to the US to inspect our fictitious operation. As a security measure, they wanted to verify that we did in fact have $8 million in cash (the agreed upon price) ready for payment, and to see first hand that I was who I said I was.
After yet another delay of two weeks, The Bureaucrat finally approved the following operational plan:
1. An undercover “mansion” would be rented as my home and headquarters, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where both Suarez and Ibañez would stay while they were with us.
2. A team of Spanish and/or Italian-speaking undercover agents would be gathered to play the role of my Mafia Family. The would be equipped with a fleet of luxury cars leased for the occasion.
3. Since we were buying a half-ton of cocaine paste, a bogus laboratory would be set up, capable of converting the paste to cocaine hydrochloride.
4. Permission was granted to furnish Suarez and Ibañez with prostitutes and cocaine for their personal use if they so desired.
5. An undercover plane would be flown in from the DEA air wing, by two undercover pilots who would be part of my fictitious organization.
6. $8 million dollars would be brought to a Kendall, Florida bank vault to first show Ibañez and Suarez, and then, once the cocaine was received, to be used as payment.
7. Once Suarez and Ibañez were satisfied with the arrangements and convinced that we were the “real thing,” my pilots my “brother” undercover DEA Agent Richard Fiano, would fly both cocaine barons back to one of the Suarez organization’s jungle laboratories, where we would pick up the first 1,000 pounds of cocaine paste. Once I heard from my pilots, via radio, that the cocaine was safely in the air and en route back to the US, I would pay the $8 million in cash to two ranking members of the Santa Cruz Mafia who would contact me in Miami.
8. The next step in the plan—after the buy was completed—was to initiate a much larger and more complicated transaction that would provide us with a cover pretext to examine the operations of the then biggest cocaine manufacturing organization on earth; an opportunity under the pretext of business negotiations to fully identify the ruling members of the cartel, and engineer, with the help of the already cooperating Bolivian government, its total destruction. Thanks to a series of inept decisions made by The Bureaucrat, this would never happen.
The Miami Operation—The Bureaucrat Creates More Obstacles.
I next flew in from Argentina with the CI arriving 48 hours before the scheduled arrival of the Bolivians. Saucedo arrived soon after, coming from DC as the coordinator from headquarters. The ultimate decision making power, however, continued to be in the hands of The Bureaucrat.
The Bureaucrat, well experienced in budgetary, administrative and political matters but unable to understand customary practices of South American cocaine dealers, had only seen fit to allow for $2,000 cash expenses for the entire Miami portion of the operation, and this was to include food and provisions for the undercover agents round trip to Bolivia for the drugs.
The CI, upon whose shoulder’s the entire operation would depend, was now extremely upset by the fact that our “luxury mansion” turned out to be a small suburban house. The Bureaucrat had vetoed the expense for the rental of a large luxury house, stating that the drug traffickers would appreciate that the Fort Lauderdale property values were high.
The rental house had no furniture. At the last minute about a third of our budget was spent renting furniture.
The Cargo plane to be used for the undercover trip had been used in Bolivia to ferry corrupt Bolivian police officers around the country and was known as a “DEA plane.” The Bureaucrat, having had no personal experience in the high-wire world of the undercover operative, had vetoed the expense involved in changing the N number on the plane’s tail (FAA Fees) and/or changing the plane’s appearance, concluding that it would just be unlikely that any of the police would be at the jungle laboratory at the time of delivery.
The bogus cocaine lab had been put together so much “on the cheap” as per the budget alloted, that the undercover team agreed it would be too risky to show to the targets. We would lie and say that due to police heat it had been temporarily dismantled.
There were only four Spanish speaking undercover agents in the entire undercover Mafia team. The Bureaucrat had vetoed the expense of flying in Spanish speaking agents from other parts of the country for the assignment. As if this wasn’t enough, the Spanish speaking agent who was to play the role of my personal driver was arrested that morning for making obscene phone calls.
Finally, and most important of all: The Bureaucrat had ruled that all subjects within the confines of the United States at the time of delivery of the drugs and/or payment of the $8 million, would immediately be arrested, and the covert operation would end. No amount of reasoning on the part of the far more experienced field officers would change his mind. Not even the fact that there was no extradition treaty between the US and Bolivia that would cover narcotics violations affected his decision. This as it would turn out, would make the arrest of Suarez himself impossible, if he did not come to the US as scheduled, which is what did happen. The Bureaucrat also ignored current intelligence indicating that if the Suarez organization were left in tact, the sitting Bolivian government who was secretly cooperating with the operation, was in grave danger.
And so it was that The Bureaucrat, high ranking in the chain of command of DEA, yet inexperienced and untrained in matters of covert operations and CI handling, had the last word; and not one of us who knew better, had the courage to buck the chain-of-command.
Results of Operation US v Suarez et al:
The skills and courage of the undercover team in pulling together a convincing act for Marcello Ibañez (the paranoid Suarez changed his plans about coming at the last moment), in spite of the obstacles created by The Bureaucrat, were so above and beyond the call of duty that the highest medals for heroism our country bestows were merited, but never received. Particularly the pilots and undercover agent Richard Fiano, who agreed to fly into the Bolivian jungle in a plane that any corrupt Bolivian cop on site would have easily recognized as a DEA plane.
The case drew to a close in a Kendall Florida bank vault where, with the plane loaded with cocaine winging its way back to the US, I paid $8 million in cash to two Bolivian cartel leaders, Alfredo Gutierrez an aircraft broker and Jose Roberto Gasser, scion of the richest and most powerful family in Bolivia. Both were arrested with the money in their hands leaving the bank.
The case received much media attention around the world, and was called the “greatest undercover sting operation in history,” by Penthouse Magazine.
Unnoticed by media, the Suarez organization would move swiftly to eliminate the Bolivian government that had aided DEA in causing him a little bit of embarrassment and the loss of $8 million in merchandise. On July 17, 1980, a Suarez backed revolution begins, to be dubbed “The Cocaine Coup,” that would result in the military ousting the Bolivian government that had aided DEA in the sting operation. Members of that government would be repaid for aiding the US with rape, murder and exile. The “General Motors of Cocaine” would centralize its powers and control in the world cocaine market, and, during the next decade, would grow the United States, it’s the primary customer (via Colombian labs), into a $180 billion a year habit. In the opinion of those of us who were there, if it weren’t for one major weak link in the chain of command, it did not have to be this way.
The Brotherhood Investigation
As opposed to mainstream media’s belief when quoting “experts,” cops and agents know that just because you have the job does not mean you know what you are doing.
The use of officers with established knowledge in the “business” at hand and proven expertise in the tactics of Informant handling is critical in the debriefing and control of all CIs relative to any crime, not to mention those with the information affecting national security. Just because a law enforcement or intelligence agency manager has the title—and I don’t care how many years of service he’s got— does not mean he has the expertise or talent necessary to handle a Criminal Informant, as evidenced by the “The Brotherhood,” one of many from my personal files.
In The Brotherhood investigation, a CI who happened to be a high ranking police official of a South American nation, approached the Buenos Aires DEA office with detailed information concerning the existence of a multi-national criminal and political terror organization with its headquarters in Paraguay. The then DEA agent in charge, a highly ranked officer with decades of experience, accepted the information at face value since it came from another high ranking police official. The ensuing investigation continued for more than four years and, in fact, at one point or another involved virtually every DEA, CIA and DIA office in Europe the United States and South America, local and state police agencies within the US, and numerous foreign counterpart police agencies and military.
On assuming command of the Buenos Aires DO as well as the CI, who at that point had been on the payroll for four years and had collected well into 6 figures in “expense” payments. The same WLB who was directing the Suarez operation ordered me to make this investigation a priority.
I undertook what should have been a standard corroborative investigation. After two months, the evidence clearly indicated that The Brotherhood was a complete but clever fiction concocted by the CI. By that time the cost of the investigation was many, many millions of US taxpayer dollars, the total destruction of what had been an innocent man’s multi-national business, and the loss of several innocent lives.
The 9-11 Terrorist Act
An example of a significant lack of sufficient tools in Informant Handling tactics throughout the chain of command, from the field level street agents to the ultimate and mist ill-equipped decision makers at the headquarters levels is exemplified in the FBI’s handling of a potential informant, the professional handling of who, might have rolled up the whacky Bin Laden plot, before the hijackers ever reached an airport.
Zachariah Moussaoui, the convicted “20th hijacker,” in the worst terrorist act in American History, had actually been arrested by the FBI almost a month prior to 9-11 on US Immigrations violations, and he was arrested with his laptop computer.
It remains unknown an unexplored by congress, whether or not any FBI agents even attempted to “flip” the student pilot from the Middle East who paid cash for his jumbo jet lessons and was not interested in learning how to land, and basically did everything but wear a T shirt with orange glow in the dark letters, front and back, spelling out I AM A TERRORIST. But it is now well known that the agents did seize the 20th hijacker’s laptop computer, and never explored its contents.
“Flipping” informants—convincing them to do the right thing and cooperate, and searching without a warrant in circumstances that were clearly exigent— is something rookie DEA agents and NYPD narcs learn to do in their first weeks on the job. Those of us “cursed” with decades of training and experience in these type of raid-response law enforcement actions , are plagued with questions that never seemed to surface in either the media or during the congressional hearings; questions that as OPR inspector trying to rectify a terrible flaw in our defenses, would have been the first I asked:
a. From the very moment of the arrest of Moussaoui, what attempts were made to flip him, if any?
b. If no attempts were made, why weren’t they?
c. If attempts were made, what were they specifically, why did they fail, and why weren’t they documented?
d. Why did the agents who had seized Moussaoui’s computer, not immediately begin to explore its contents under the exigent circumstances rule?
e. Who was in charge of this first-reaction team and why did he/she not know better?
f. What was there in the training and/or experience and/or selection of all involved that led to them falling so far short of a professionally acceptable response?
What did come to light, which seems to give us at least one answer, is the fact that the responding agents who did seize Moussaoui’s laptop, instead of just diving into it to find—as they would have—evidence of the whole unfolding plot in time to stop it cold, they asked permission to do so at the FBI headquarters level and were refused!
FBI agent Coleen Rowley, voted Time Magazine woman of the year, would later state that the inside joke in the FBI about those policy makers high in the chain-of-command, running the war on terror, were called “moles for Bin Laden.” This again highlights the problem that, in spite of agents in the field knowing that those leading them were so inept at what they were doing that they were placing lives in jeopardy, it became an inside joke rather than action that would have required jumping the chain of command.
World Trade Center Bombing 1993
A an inept key link in the chain of command, may take it on himself to disregard and/or disbelieve an invaluable CI’s information—as happened in the Suarez case— and, without appropriate corroborative checks, abort and/or undermine covert actions that may even be vital to national security. This is precisely what happened during a covert FBI investigation that led directly to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and might have gone a long way toward preventing 9-11, if it were not for orders issued by an FBI bureaucrat who I will designate as Bureaucrat 2, or B-2.
In this case, a female FBI agent had recruited an ex Egyptian police officer, Emad Salem as her CI. Salem was to infiltrate a terrorist group in New York City headed by the now infamous “Blind Sheik,” Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. Under the skillful guidance of the agent, the CI infiltrated the group then planning to plant a bomb under the World Trade Center. The CI in fact was taking part in the actual building of the bomb, soon to be completed by terrorist Ramsey Youssef, a man who would be later linked to the planning of 9-11.
Salem’s handler reported to B-2 as her supervisor, did not trust the CI’s claims, nor did he apparently trust the abilities of Salem’s handler, who happened to be a woman. Without bothering to attempt any of the basic CI corroborative tactics taught, for example, in the DEA schools, he assigned another agent to contact the CI to inform him that he was no longer going to receive the $500 a week salary he’d been receiving, and for the CI “not to tell [his handler.”
The FBI agent himself was apparently so inexperienced and/or untrained in the handling of CI’s that he violated one of the primary rules of Informant Handling 101: Never discuss anything on a telephone with a CI that you don’t want played back to you in court. In this case, Salem taped-recorded the conversation that would become evidence in the trial of the World Trade Center bombers. Incredibly, the recording remains virtually untouched by mainstream media, whom when it involves covert operations and informant handling, are themselves weak links.
In the recording Salem is heard telling the FBI agent the consequences of his removal as a paid informant: “The bomb it is already being built. . . and it will explode, and [the FBI] will not know when, or who did it.” B-2 ordered him off the payroll. He would later claim that Salem was “not producing enough.” Apparently that was not the case, because the bomb did explode precisely as Salem had predictedp8. The FBI then had to re-recruit Salem and pay him $1.5 million to help “solve” the bombing case.
The important factor to be noted in this case, that applies throughout the study of covert ops and informant handling disasters, is the reluctance to buck the chain of command by personnel who know and realize that their superior officer’s decision is an ill-conceived one, again, even when national security is involved. The following is an excerpt from the actual conversation between Emad Salem and one of his FBI handlers:
Agent: “He [the supervisor] doesn’t understand these things.”
Salem: “He is the boss. He have to understand these things. We are all running our heads around this boss.”
Words, that ought to be engraved on the cornerstone of the new Word Trade Center.
Operation Trifecta and The Suit.
“Customs is in way over their heads on this one,” were the words of a midlevel officer at DEA headquarters in DC. He’d just called me in the New York DEA office where I was assigned as a Group Supervisor. “They got some stool out of jail in Okalahoma, says he set up a delivery of a ton of coke of the Baja coast. Bolivian dopers using the Mexican navy. The CI told them he’s got a Mafia customer for the dope. That’s you. All you gotta do is one meet. Convince them you’re Mr. Big, and they make the delivery.”
“There’s a problem with the whole story,” I said. “Bolivia’s a landlocked country. Bolivian dopers don’t deliver in boats.”
“Yeah, well, apparently nobody in Customs knows that. That’s why we want you to kind of take control of the case, without hurting their feelings.”
Twenty-four hours later I was on a plane heading for California, on the way to what many experts believe would have been the greatest victory in drug war history, if it weren’t for one weak link in the DEA chain-of-command.
On the way out to the undercover house in La Jolla, my DEA agent driver brings me up to date. The Customs CI, David Wheeler, was pounding rocks in an Oklahoma jail, when the news hit that Congress had censured the Commissioner of Customs, Dwight Van Raab, for calling Mexico a “bandido government,” and telling him to put up or shut up. Wheeler contacted Customs Enforcement and told them, Get me out of jail, and I can help you prove that calling Mexico was in the business of drug trafficking. Customs bought the story, and Wheeler too.
By the time we arrive at the undercover house, I learn that the CI had already engineered himself a dismissal of drug sale charges carrying a twenty to life sentence. He’d gotten his handlers to provide him with a salary and expense account comparable to any corporate executive’s, expensive jewelry and clothing commensurate with his “role,” and the promise of a hefty reward at end of the case.
I was ushered into an expansive living room with a wall of glass overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The entire place was wired for sound and video, with a hidden control room manned 24/7 by technicians. The rental alone, I learned, cost more than the entire budget for the Suarez operation. It was now just 24 hours before the scheduled arrival of the Bolivians and Mexicans. The whole undercover team including a Customs midlevel chief and a group supervisor were milling around waiting to have our first planning session and rehearsal. “David”, I was told, “is taking a shower and cannot be disturbed.”
A half hour later, David Wheeler, appeared in a fluffy, terrycloth robe, a solid gold Rolex on his wrist and genuine alligator boots on his feet. In the middle of a room full of federal agents, the drug dealer turned informant sat down on a recliner and held his hand out for a cigarette. One of the agents hand one to him and lit it. Wheeler then looked me up and down and said “He’ll do.” The Customs bosses smiled, and I realized that they didn’t have a clue about covert operations or informant handling. Trusting a CI to call the shots in an undercover operation is like getting into a car with a falling down drunk driver. Once again, any minimally acceptable training course should have taught that.
As a supervisory officer when I saw CIs grossly mishandled, I would step in and correct the situation before it went redline, but it wasn’t happening now. But by this time in my career I, like most law enforcement officers involved in covert operations, was well accustomed to weak links above me in the chain of command, but this time I was working with Customs bosses, and I was DEA. I could work around them, or so I thought.
When Wheeler told me of the specifics of the deal he had allegedly made, through his Mexican connection, for the delivery of Bolivian cocaine via the Mexican Navy, I called him a liar. Told him that, as far as I was concerned, he was a CI, and I was the federal agent. Ergo, he was working for me. The suddenly unsmiling Customs boss called DEA in Washington and complained about my attitude. A DEA upper level suit called me and told me to “be nice.” We were off to the races.
The Mexicans and Bolivians arrived as scheduled. Wheeler’s Mexican connection, Pablo Giron, an Ex DFS officer now a bodyguard for the incoming President of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, had brought together the “real thing” for a meeting—Colonel Jaime Carranza of the Mexican Army, a grandson of the ex President of Mexico who had authored that country’s Constitution and Jorge Roman the head of La Corporacionˆ— the organization that came to be known as the General Motors of Cocaine. During the meeting with me posing as the mafia capo, It became quickly apparent that the “boat deal” was a lie told by Wheeler to keep the salary and expense money flowing, a fact that never seemed to bother the Customs bosses. The cagey Bolivians were there to look us over and to talk a “possible” deal. The Mexicans were hungry to get their piece of anything that came of the meeting.
Once sufficient, albeit wavering, control over Wheeler was established and DEA slid into overall control of the operation, complex international undercover negotiations for the purchase of 15 tons of cocaine from La Corporacion with help from the Mexican army, were successfully negotiated as follows:
(1) The Panama based money laundering operation.
I traveled to Panama, with Wheeler and the undercover team, where in my role as Luis Miguel Garcia, a Sicilian/Puerto Rican Mafia capo, the Bolivians introduced me to Remberto Rodriguez, the head of a massive Noriega protected money laundering operation. The Rodriguez operation laundered drug money for both the Bolivian and Colombian cartels. Meetings were held at Rodrigez’s headquarters—an open office about the size of a city block lined with desks and employees running cash through counting machines. The place was located in a downtown Panama apartment hotel, making it really easy for his eventual takedown—or so I thought.
It took us two days of negotiations to hammer out the tactics for the completion of a deal for the transfer of cash payments for the 15 tons of cocaine from Bolivia, through Mexico and into the United States, in one-ton shipments. A total of $75 million would be transferred through the Rodriguez operation. $15 million, going to top figures in the Mexican government, would be paid directly to Colonel Carranza in San Diego.
(2) The Bolivian cocaine cartel.
Jorge Roman, attended all the meetings in Panama with his aids and bodyguard. I wanted to see his jungle laboratories before I agreed to the deal. He readily accepted my demand. This is normal in the drug business. Members of my Mafia family, including undercover pilot Don Henke, were dispatched to the jungles of Bolivia, where they were given a tour of five immense cocaine labs. During the UC trip, the agents viewed more than 200-300 tons of cocaine on the ground, ready for delivery to both the US and Europe. Henke returned to the US with hefty samples of 100 percent pure cocaine taken from each.
(3) The corrupt Mexican officials.
As part of the video-taped negotiations with the Mexican government and military representatives, a payment of $1 million per ton of cocaine transshipped through Mexico would be paid directly to Colonel Carranza at the undercover house in La Jolla. On camera, the colonel had promised that with the election of Salinas De Gortari as president and the passage of NAFTA, Mexico would be “wide open” for my mafia organization. To show good faith he immediately ordered a Mexican Army detachment to begin preparing a clandestine landing strip in Puebla, Mexico, where our planes loaded with cocaine would land and be refueled by the Mexican military. I dispatched undercover pilot Henke along with Wheeler to verify that this was being done. They flew to Puebla, Mexico and were met by a full Colonel in the Mexican army who was in command of a full detachment of uniformed soldiers already clearing the field. As I had requested, Henke was permitted to take photos of the operation.
The End Game Plan
As in the Suarez operation, the stated plan, (called Operation Trifecta), was to go through with the buy of the first ton of cocaine for $5 million, which would then put the undercover “mafia” team in a position of trust to identify all the conspirators in three countries—Bolivia, Panama and Mexico. As the mafia capo, I could then, using business pretexts, call for meetings, virtually any place in the world where we had an extradition treaty to affect their arrests. At the same time our paramilitary units already stationed in Bolivia could move in and, using the coordinates our UC pilots had taken during the undercover trip, take down all of the labs. In Panama, we already had trusted assets on the ground, taking down the whole Rodriguez operation would be easy. All we needed from one of the top DEA officials in the chain-of-command, was the okay to spend the $5 million for the first shipment of a ton of cocaine. This was received. The operation was a go.
Enter “The Suit”
Just before we went operational, a career top level officer in DEA’s headquarters was placed in charge of overseeing the operation. He would call the shots. I will call him “The Suit.”
The tactical plan began with the undercover plane immediately dispatched to Curacao from where, on my signal, it would fly into the jungles of Bolivia to pick up the first ton of cocaine.
The undercover team was staged in a Miami hotel, ready to fly into Panama where I would show the Bolivians the $5 million in cash, after which Don Henke would be dispatched into Bolivia to pick up the cocaine. The moment his plane was loaded with the coke and ready to take off, I would pay the money to Remberto Rodriguez. Carranza was already on his way to La Jolla to pick up his million. At that point we would be inside ready to both destroy (at that time) the operation that supplied most of the raw cocaine product on earth, Panama’s biggest money laundering operation, and to expose what would eventually become a corrupt Mexican government that was a ready “funnel” for drugs into the United States.
The DEA Hotel
We were still in Miami getting ready to leave for Panama, when I received word from the headquarters Suit that I was to “flash” the money at the one place in Panama that the Bolivians had warned me to stay away from, the Ceasar Marriott. They called it the “DEA hotel,” because they were aware of many DEA covert ops that had been based there. None of this impressed The Suit. His primary concern was the safety of the money. There was no way $5 million would be lost on his watch. When I told him that he was putting us in a life threatening situation, he blew his top. If I couldn’t live with it, as far as he was concerned I could call the whole thing off.
Here, once again, despite the absolute senselessness of the order, there was not a single officer in the field, most of whom (myself included) with significantly more tactical and technical expertise than The Bureaucrat, who was willing to jump the chain of command, or even challenge the order. At the same time, we had come too far to let the case die.
When the team arrived in Panama, as luck would have it, we were searched and interrogated at the Panama airport by police on the Bolivian payroll. I called Jorge Roman, at his Panama apartment, and complained. He swore that he had nothing to do with the search. I now had a decent pretext to tell him that I had the money at the Marriott because it was the one place my mafia investors felt their money was safe from a rip off. Roman went bad on me, told me he didn’t buy my story and hung up.
In the meantime, the Customs weak links, infuriated by the DEA weak link’s orders, believing that their chance to prove Mexican government corruption was now down the tubes, sent Wheeler out into the streets of Panama to contact the Bolivians, to make his own deal. I would later learn that part of his discussion with the Bolivians was my assassination.
In an ironic way, the order was so bizarre that it ended up working to shield the security of the operation, which was best captured by the recorded words of Bolivian Cartel leader Jorge Roman who said: “This whole thing is so stupid, that the only thing I am certain of is that you are not DEA.”
The DEA Suit, perhaps under pressure from Customs, finally relented and allowed us to show the Bolivians our money in a small motel half way between Panama City and the airport. However, the DEA suit suddenly decided that DEA did not have the money in its budget and withdrew approval to go through with the undercover purchase, leaving the entire operation high and dry, and likely to collapse. Customs at this point, offered to put up the money, however, the DEA suit, feeling his authority challenged refused to relent. We were to “flash” the money, return to the US and indict all the conspirators, which was like indicting Bin Laden.
Once again I was confronted with an absolute reluctance to buck the chain of command, no matter what the consequences— myself included—which was career death. I only had two cards left to play.
The first was to tell the Bolivians and Mexicans that my investors had now lost all trust, and suggested we all reconvene at the house in La Jolla, where they would be put on my plane with the $5 million in payment, and flown down to Bolivia where my pilots would pick up the first ton of cocaine, thereafter flying back to the US through Mexico. Colonel Carranza would be paid his million at the same time.
The second card, since I was nearing retirement and safety, was to write the book Deep Cover, documenting the whole thing. My own way of revealing to our congress, the incalculable damages done to our nation’s defenses by not addressing the problem of the weak links running the drug war.
The Finale of Operation Trifecta:
All the targets, Mexicans and Bolivians, returned to the undercover house where they were video-taped counting their money, arrested and charged with conspiracy. All were convicted and sentenced to lengthy jail terms.
Myself and another undercover officer from Customs, Jorge Urquijo, were whisked to Panama to identify the money laundering baron for his arrest and extradition, only to find that the entire operation had vanished from its block square suite of offices in downtown Panama, like the wind.
Our troops in Bolivia moved into the four jungle labs Henke had identified, only to find them dismantled and all the cocaine gone. One of the locations still had a couple of hundred empty 55 gallon drums laying around. These were blown up in huge fiery explosions for the TV cameras of the world’s media. What could have been the first, possibly the only real victory in this drug war without an end in sight, instead turned into yet another media show—the price paid by all of us, for one weak link in the chain of command.
Summary and Suggested Remedies
Technical and tactical expertise in the handling of CIs and covert operations in both the wars on terror, drugs and crime, is now more critical than ever. The chains of command of Military, paramilitary and police organizations involved in these high risk areas, must—to a man—be well trained and versed in both the tactical and technical areas of expertise that are vital to a successful operation. No operational unit can afford a single weak link in its chain of command, from the initial contact with the CI, to the ultimate conclusion of the ensuing tactical operation. The training and experience requisite for participation in a covert operations unit, are as follows:
a. Interrogations and Interviews of CIs and potential CIs:
In every law enforcement agency for and with whom I served, a well known fact of life was that only a small percentage of officers were known as “good with informers.” These men and women, with already proven records of success in the handling of human intelligence and utilizing them in covert operations, must be identified and placed on the front lines of covert activities where they belong.
This is not a skill that is easily learned. A glaring example of not having the appropriately trained and experienced field officers in place occurred when Zacharia Moussaoui, the now convicted 20th pilot involved in 9-11, was arrested one month prior to September 11th by US Immigrations. The amount of evidence already known that would indicate the immense dangers this man and anyone he associated represented for the US, was prodigious. Yet, no agent or officer of any US law enforcement or military unit, even made an attempt to interrogate this man, and as we all know, 9-11 happened.
The failed interrogations and corroboration of CIs David Wheeler, Emad Salem and Ron Edmonds (Carlson Case) are only a few of hundreds of examples I can cite.
b. Personnel Hiring and Selection Processes—Life Experience:
The importance of tactical and technical competence in the upper levels of the chain of command, as it relates specifically to the recruitment and utilization of human intelligence in covert operations is now more critical than ever. There are fine officers who can lead men in battle, storm barricades, administer large and complex military and paramilitary organizations, yet, who do not belong within a five miles of a complex covert operation. These must be identified and moved to positions more suited their talents, or the price paid may be a lot steeper than anyone would want to pay.
The hiring and selection of personnel for particular assignments, as in many law enforcement agencies, places a focus on scholastics and language abilities, which, when it comes to the handling of CIs and covert ops, is entirely missing the boat. I’ve worked with too many law enforcement officers and intelligence agents with minimum scholastic qualifications who were fabulous with informants, even when they had to work through interpreters. I’ve also worked with too many who spoke the informant’s language fluently, yet just turned out to be devastatingly weak links.
My now 44 years of training and experience indicate clearly that life experience is a far better indicator of an officer’s potential in these areas. A beat cop, for example, who has developed a stable of street informants that he uses successfully, is far better suited to handling a drug or terror informant than, say, an Arabic speaking Harvard law school graduate FBI agent. I think the 9-11 congressional hearings support that opinion powerfully.
c. Available Training:
Much of my 43 year career, up to this minute, has been involved in the training of law enforcement officers in Informant Handling and Undercover Tactics. I have also attended courses given by the CIA and lectured for the FBI’s Advanced Undercover Seminar in Quantico. Most of the training I have observed and/or been a part of, in my opinion, falls far short of what is needed. Most agencies train its officers in Informant Handling and Undercover Tactics, as though they are two different courses of study one having nothing to do with the other. In my opinion, this is like going to right or left hand schools to learn to play the piano. The two courses must be combined as one for any unit, be it military, paramilitary or law enforcement. Nothing else even makes sense.
The course should be carefully devised by officer/teachers with proven success in the field and not just academicians. The course should include a significant amount of time (Minimum of 120 hours) in duplicating and solving real life situations based on failures in the past.
My 44 years of training and experience scream that No prosecutor should ever be calling the shots in a covert operation. They are trained lawyers, not law enforcement officers or spies.
Michael Levine is a veteran law enforcement supervisory officer, police instructor and court-qualified expert with 44 years of training and experience. He has expert testimony on Covert and Undercover Tactics, and Informant Handling has been accepted by federal, state and foreign courts on more than 300 occasions.
Copyright Michael Levine
Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.