Alex Constantine - December 9, 2016
Did the DEA Nab an International Weapons Dealer, or a CIA Asset Hung Out to Dry?
Trevor Aaronson, Murtaza Hussain
The Intercept, November 28, 2016
IN THE LATE evening of December 15, 2014, agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration descended on a hotel in Podgorica, Montenegro, to take into custody a man arrested by local authorities for arms trafficking.
Flaviu Georgescu, an American citizen from Romania, had been in the DEA’s sights for years. A tall, heavyset man in his mid-40s with close-cropped hair, Flaviu worked as a private security contractor in Bucharest.
Over the past several months, Flaviu had been meeting with a Colombian man who claimed to be a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. This man had sought Flaviu’s help setting up a multimillion-dollar arms deal to help rearm FARC in Colombia. Arrested with Flaviu in the hotel that night was another man, Cristian Vintila, then a high-ranking government minister in Romania and another participant in the alleged arms deal. It seemed like a high-profile nab for the DEA.
Robert J. Scott was among the DEA agents who came to the hotel room that night in Montenegro. Flaviu immediately motioned with his head that he wanted to talk to the DEA agent.
“I’m with the CIA,” he told Scott.
He was working undercover to provide more information, he told Scott that night. Scott wasn’t interested. He’d heard excuses before. A 17-year veteran of the DEA, he knew handcuffed criminals would say just about anything to escape punishment.
Over the next several hours, Flaviu told agents in detail about the proposed deal — how a Southern California man introduced him to the Colombians seeking weapons. He told the agents how he connected with Vintila, as well as with a flamboyant former member of the Italian parliament named Massimo Romagnoli, to piece together the supply chain for the arms deal.
That night, Flaviu helped DEA agents lure Massimo to Montenegro to be detained. As a former member of parliament facing unrelated charges in Italy, Massimo would have been cumbersome for the United States to extradite from that country. But Flaviu, in a DEA-controlled call, coaxed him into the trap.
Flaviu didn’t ask for a cooperating agreement or any other guarantee for his help, insisting to DEA agents that he was working for the CIA and had been gathering information all along. According to him, this was all part of the job.
Flaviu spent several weeks in detention at a local prison. In February 2015, the three men — Flaviu, Cristian, and Massimo — were extradited to the United States to face trial on charges of material support for terrorists. In a statement announcing their extradition, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara described them as “ready and willing merchants of death.”
The reality, it turned out, was far more complicated. Flaviu contends he had been running his own sting operation — using skills he developed a decade earlier while working undercover for the FBI. He never considered that another man involved in the transaction would be running a sting of his own. If this is true, Flaviu and his informant adversary were playing opposites sides of a mysterious spy game.
Flaviu says he was not trying to complete an arms deal, but was quietly collecting evidence about the arms network for the CIA.
And he had the phone calls he said would prove it.
BORN IN ROMANIA, Flaviu Georgescu first came to the United States in 1996, settling in Las Vegas after finding work at a gym owned by his cousin that catered to the Romanian community in Nevada.
Flaviu eventually started working as an all-around fixer for wealthy Romanians and other Eastern Europeans visiting Las Vegas. Whatever they wanted, Flaviu could procure: Bugatti sports cars, Gulfstream jets, bodyguards, drivers, exclusive shopping experiences.
In 2000, while serving a wealthy client, Flaviu needed to ship a car to Switzerland. A friend told him of a Romanian in Los Angeles with the same last name as his. “He has really great prices,” the friend told Flaviu. That Romanian was Andi Georgescu, an international wheeler-dealer who runs a shipping company based in Southern California. (Despite their shared last name, Flaviu and Andi are not related.)
Through his Eastern European clients, Flaviu began to learn about criminal activity in Las Vegas, including how organized crime outfits were moving money in and out of the United States. Alarmed, he went to the local office of the FBI. “I grow up [under] Communism, and at that time there was no crimes,” Flaviu recalled later in trial testimony. Flaviu said he believed in the type of iron justice he saw as a boy living under communism. He told the FBI he had information about Eastern European organized crime, giving the bureau names of people to investigate. He said he wanted to help, and according to Flaviu’s telling of the story, an FBI agent gave him his business card. “Call back when you have more information,” the agent told him.
One week later, Flaviu called. “I put everything together, how they work, how they organize, how they move the money,” Flaviu recounted. He continued to provide intelligence to the FBI, never asking for money or favors. At one point, the FBI insisted on paying Flaviu and gave him a $500 check. “I was so proud about that check, I put it in frame and I hold it,” he said. “I never cash that check because it was the only thing which, for myself, it was like I did something, and I’m on this side.”
He was, in his view, one of the good guys.
In 2003, Flaviu’s secret work was revealed when the FBI arrested a man and seized money; Flaviu was the only witness to his crime. “He was not stupid. I was the only one over there,” Flaviu said.
According to Flaviu, a hit was put out on him. So he disappeared. By 2006, Flaviu, now a U.S. citizen, had moved back to Romania, where he scratched out a living selling GPS ankle monitoring devices for use by Romanian law enforcement.
In 2011, out of nowhere, Flaviu received a call from a friend with a familiar name: Andi Georgescu.
Andi said he knew a Colombian looking to purchase weapons. “It’s a lot of money we can make,” Flaviu remembered Andi telling him. Flaviu and Andi spoke several more times. Flaviu decided the situation represented a “direct threat” to the United States, and he recalled the U.S. government’s counterterrorism motto: If you see something, say something. “I was thinking I make a, you know, a difference,” Flaviu said.
So he called the CIA.
“Someone contacted me from Miami,” Flaviu told the CIA employee who answered the tip line, according to a recording of the call. “They have some clients from Colombia, and they are interested to buy some equipment — anything, like, from grenades, ammunition, everything.”
In two phone calls, each with a different CIA employee, Flaviu went into detail about the weapons deal. He said Andi had introduced him to the Colombians, who wanted grenades and ammunition. He suspected the men might be criminals and that they should investigate.
“Let me work for you,” Flaviu told the CIA, adding: “I’ll provide you all the information, because in my opinion, you don’t have to stop anything right now.”
“I appreciate you bringing this information to our attention, and I’ll certainly tread carefully, as we say, as far as how we discuss this issue here at the agency,” the CIA agent, whose name is redacted, said to Flaviu.
What neither Flaviu nor possibly the CIA knew was that the Colombians were undercover informants working for another U.S. government agency.
THE MAIN COLOMBIAN looking to purchase arms was a stout, shaven-headed man who went by the name Juan. His real name was Alex Diaz, and the 66-year-old had plenty of experience with crime. He emigrated from Colombia to the United States in 1967 and settled in Miami, where he had seven children. Juan landed a job at Sky Chefs, which provided catering services to American Airlines at Miami International Airport, a hub for American flights to and from Latin America.
It was the mid-1980s, and Miami was the capital of the cocaine boom. “I figured out a way to transport the drugs from Colombia to the United States,” Juan later explained in court testimony.
Over a seven-year period, Juan helped move 3,000 kilos of marijuana and 4,000 kilos of cocaine into the United States. But it didn’t last. The DEA arrested Juan, and he rolled over. “I cooperated immediately with the authorities,” Juan said. He pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. In exchange for his cooperation with the DEA, Juan served only three years and, upon his release, just three months of probation.
“It was reduced at the request of the DEA so that I could continue collaborating with them,” Juan recalled. The caterer-turned-drug trafficker suddenly had a new career: government informant.
Juan has worked hundreds of cases with the DEA, IRS, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and with local police agencies. He’s been on the government payroll for cases that took him to Panama, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Spain, England, the Cayman Islands, Denmark, Montenegro, Romania, and Greece.
He became a veteran undercover informant who in more than 20 years of working with the DEA had earned $4.9 million in compensation and expense reimbursements.
Working with the DEA in 2011, Juan started down a trail that would lead him to Flaviu. Through another government informant, Juan was introduced to Andi. Soon, the two met up in Fort Lauderdale. According to Juan, they discussed a contact Andi had in Hong Kong who could launder money. The DEA was intrigued with Andi and his extensive international social network. Agents assigned Juan to get closer so they could learn more about Andi’s connections.
Juan eventually asked Andi if he knew anyone who sold weapons. It wasn’t a simple arms deal. Working off DEA instructions, Juan told Andi that he represented FARC, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Juan wanted anti-aircraft missiles, AK-47s, and just about anything else that could kill or maim U.S. military personnel operating in Colombia. In March 2012, the DEA sent Andi a list of weapons FARC purportedly wanted to purchase.
This wasn’t the first time the DEA had posed as FARC members in the market for arms. In fact, for a decade now, the DEA has exploited a 2006 change to the Patriot Act that established narcoterrorism as a crime, giving the DEA broad authority to investigate criminals anywhere in the world who allegedly operate at the nexus between drugs and terrorism. The change was part of a larger effort by President George W. Bush’s administration to fold the drug war into the newest war — the war on terror. In 2002, the Bush administration began airing public-service announcements that linked drugs to terrorism. One proclaimed: “Drug money supports terror. If you buy drugs, you might too.”
“Drugs undermine the health of our citizens; they destroy the souls of our children. And the drug trade supports terrorist networks,” Bush said in a speech five months after the 9/11 attacks. “When people purchase drugs, they put money in the hands of those who want to hurt America, hurt our allies. Drugs attack everything that is the best about this country, and I intend to do something about them.”
For the DEA and its longtime rivalry with the FBI, the shift was ironic. In the 1980s, as the drug war reached its apex, the FBI received concurrent jurisdiction over narcotics with the DEA, and the FBI became a big player in the drug war. Two decades later, with the drug war declining as the hunt for terrorists reached a fever pitch, the DEA muscled into the FBI’s expanded counterterrorism enterprise.
Narcoterrorism has meant more money for the DEA. For 2017, Congress allocated $472 million in the DEA budget to international enforcement — up from $287 million in 2006, just as the DEA received authorization to investigate narcoterrorism.
There’s plenty of debate about how much the global drug trade funds terrorism. The 9/11 Commission found “no persuasive evidence” that al Qaeda funded itself from the drug sales. The Islamic State has been funded by oil revenue and extortion rackets, not drugs. FARC is an exception — in 2013 Colombia’s police chief said the terrorist organization controlled 60 percent of the nation’s drug trade — which is likely why DEA stings often involve undercover informants posing as FARC representatives. But these DEA stings usually follow the FBI’s controversial counterterrorism sting playbook: undercover informants or agents play the part of the terrorists, raising questions about whether links to terrorism were manufactured to justify the investigation. The DEA’s narcoterrorism operations rely almost exclusively on sting operations. And when arrests are made, narcoterrorism defendants are extradited to the United States and prosecuted in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, even when evidence in the cases showed no link to drug sales or terrorist activity in the United States.
An example is the case of Jamal Yousef. “This is about capitalism inside the bureaucracy,” Joshua L. Dratel, a lawyer for Yousef, said of the DEA’s move into narcoterrorism stings. “The war on drugs in the United States is waning, so you have to find new markets. Terrorism is the big thing.” A former Syrian military officer, Yousef was a fraud artist who lived in Mexico and was purportedly trying to start a retail business in Honduras. He took out a $200,000 loan from an individual and offered to repay the loan with weapons from Lebanon. He traveled to Lebanon, inspected weapons, but then never delivered, despite keeping the money. When Yousef returned to Mexico, he went to the U.S. Embassy and became an informant, telling the FBI’s legal attaché office about U.S. weapons being stolen by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and sold to Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to court documents, Yousef became an informant in the hopes of making money from his FBI relationship. About two year later, while living in Honduras, Yousef was approached by DEA informants posing as FARC representatives. Yousef claimed he had weapons in a storage facility in Mexico, which was a lie, and agreed to exchange the supposed weapons for over a ton of cocaine. Despite his dubious ability to obtain weapons, and the only connection to terrorism being undercover DEA informants, Yousef was extradited to New York, where he pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorists and received 12 years in prison.
“These cases are a lot like FBI terrorism stings here in the United States,” Dratel said. “Without the DEA, there is no connection to terrorism or the United States.”
While DEA narcoterrorism stings have netted serious arms traffickers — such as Monzer al-Kassar, a Syrian arms dealer linked to the Contras, the Palestinian Liberation Front, the Iraqi insurgency, and others; and Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trafficker known for funneling weapons to conflict zones around the world — many of the DEA targets over the last decade appear to be like Flaviu Georgescu and Jamal Yousef, more hustler than weapons dealer.
The DEA’s sting targets have claimed associations with FARC, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Taliban — but their connections to terrorists are often questionable. In late 2009, for example, federal prosecutors indicted three Malians — Harouna Touré, Oumar Issa, and Idriss Abdelrahman — following a DEA narcoterrorism sting in which the three allegedly conspired to transport cocaine through Africa to support FARC and al Qaeda. Touré, Issa, and Abdelrahman pleaded guilty to material support for terrorists, but received light sentences — Touré and Issa five years and Abdelrahman less than four. U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones said Touré was not an al Qaeda supporter but rather was “motivated primarily, if not entirely, by money.” All three Malians have since been released from prison.
While the DEA declined to discuss specific cases, Russ Baer, a spokesman for the agency, defended narcoterrorism stings as a valuable law enforcement tool. “We go after folks that are drug traffickers, arms traffickers, whatever the case may be,” Baer said. “They are predisposed to criminal acts. All we do is allow the means, to give them opportunity to commit these crimes they would otherwise commit without us. … If you look at these cases, it’s not just one meeting that culminates in an arrest. It’s several meetings, in various countries, with defendants committing overt acts in furtherance of a criminal conspiracy. These defendants have every opportunity to walk away.”
IN A SERIES of recorded phone conversations in March 2014, Andi Georgescu told Juan he found someone in Romania who could facilitate the weapons purchase.
“First we gonna fly to Italy to finalize it, and then we gonna get the stuff and wait for it in Montenegro. That’s all we do. Couple of days,” Andi told Juan on March 19, 2014.
For several weeks, Andi led Juan on, suggesting that all they needed to do was travel to Italy and meet the arms supplier. The deal is solid, he said, but offered few details.
“Andi, buddy, you think everything is pretty good with this guy?” Juan asked on April 4, 2014.
“Yeah, yeah,” Andi replied. “I wouldn’t go otherwise.”
In May 2014, Juan, along with a complement of DEA agents, flew to Rome expecting to meet Andi and his arms supplier. But no one showed up. Juan reached Andi by phone on May 12, and Andi offered an excuse about being stuck in Abu Dhabi and his arms connection being detained somewhere.
“Andi, I made it all the way here from freakin’ Miami to here. From Colombia, actually. Don’t let me down, because it’s going to be stupid,” Juan said.
Andi asked Juan if he was in Rome or Miami.
“What are you talking about? I’m here in fucking Rome, brother,” he said, annoyed. “You need to come to Rome. Come over here, c’mon.”
“Well, you mentioned Miami.”
“Bullshit, I’ve been talking to you the last two days about being in Rome on the 12th,” Juan said.
The next day, following promises to Juan that he’d get someone to meet him in Italy, Andi gave Juan a new name — Flaviu Georgescu — and said Flaviu could meet him in Italy. Juan left several messages with Flaviu. No response. “If no one is coming, tell me … Just be honest with me,” a frustrated Juan said to Andi by phone on May 14, 2014.
On May 16, just hours before Juan was scheduled to leave Rome, he talked to Flaviu on Skype.
“Where are you now?” Juan asked Flaviu.
“Right now I’m in London,” Flaviu said. “And finally I got a guy. He wants to talk to you. He’s from Romania.”
After Juan returned to the United States with his DEA handlers, he spoke on the phone with Flaviu.
“You’re saying that you have the person now … who could take care of the [weapons] list I gave you, right?” Juan asked Flaviu.
“Yeah, he’s the person connected to it. He’s not the middleman. He’s the direct person. It’s his business,” Flaviu said.
Juan wanted to coordinate a meeting between Flaviu’s contact and his FARC people. But given that they’d just been stood up in Italy, they wouldn’t travel again on promises, Juan told Flaviu. “We will not travel until I know you are sitting in either Rome or Montenegro, OK?” Juan said. “It’s very important because of the time and money these people wasted going there.”
For the next six months, Flaviu and Juan spoke by phone, with Flaviu constantly changing the plans. First they were to meet in Eastern Europe. Then Flaviu asked if they could meet in Liverpool. Juan grew increasingly frustrated. “This is — excuse the Spanish word — this is bullshit,” he said angrily in English. Later that day, in a separate call, Juan added: “You guys are not serious. You change every five minutes.”
Flaviu eventually lined up a potential contact for Juan, a Russian who went by the name Gintas. But after talking to Juan, the Russian quickly backed out, apparently suspicious of the deal. Flaviu then told Juan he found another seller, a Romanian.
“Can you come to Romania?” he asked Juan.
On September 24, 2014, Juan met Flaviu for the first time in person, at a Marriott hotel in Bucharest. Flaviu brought Cristian Vintila, an imposing 45-year-old Romanian government official with deep connections to the country’s defense industry.
Flaviu gave Juan a gift at the meeting, a Romanian flag.
Juan looked to Cristian, who sported a buzz cut. “You know, you make me nervous,” he said.
“Don’t be nervous,” Cristian assured him.
“OK, this is for you,” Juan said, handing a package to Flaviu. He then turned to Cristian. “I didn’t know you were coming,” he said, explaining why he didn’t have a gift for him.
“Thank you very much,” Flaviu said, accepting his gift.
“Colombian coffee,” Juan said. “Juan Valdez.”
The three men talked in the hotel bar. Cristian showed Juan catalogues from the Romanian weapons industry. Juan was impressed, but had one problem: They needed an end-user certificate — something stipulating who the recipient of the arms would be.
A few days later, back in the United States, Juan spoke with Flaviu on the phone.
“You have to come to Montenegro to discuss with your friend, because I have everything in my hand,” Flaviu told Juan, suggesting he had found a way to get an end-user certificate.
“With who? The same guy? The last guy or the first guy?” Juan asked, referring to whether the arms transaction would happen through the Russian named Gintas, or through Cristian Vintila, the Romanian.
“No, no, no. Come over there. I have everything ready to go. I have the papers. I have everything. If you want to do it, come over there at least to set up the necessary everything, to discuss everything.”
“How about transportation?” Juan asked.
“Everything. You have to come over there.”
Indeed, Flaviu had everything arranged. Cristian connected them to a Serbian weapons manufacturer, and Flaviu now brought in one more person — Massimo Romagnoli, the former member of the Italian parliament. Massimo had a friend in the Ethiopian Embassy in France who could provide an end-user certificate showing a final sale to Ethiopia. From there, the weapons could be surreptitiously shipped to Colombia, into the hands of the FARC.
Juan agreed to meet Flaviu, Cristian, and Massimo in Montenegro on October 8, 2014. Juan came with two other informants — Diego and Jorge — who were also pretending to be FARC members.
Juan recorded the meeting with a camera disguised as a wristwatch.
Diego asked Flaviu and his colleagues if they could get a Russian-designed surface-to-air missile system known as a “Strela.”
“You can get it, but Strela is — ” Flaviu said, then offered a chuckle. “Yeah, Strela is expensive,” he said. “I know, we shoot that one.”
“How many?” Cristian asked Diego.
“Ten, twenty,” Diego responded.
“That one is an expensive item,” Flaviu added.
“It’s OK,” said Jorge, the third undercover informant. “I think we can afford it.”
Two months later, Juan met them again in Montenegro. Flaviu and Cristian were there for the meeting.
At this point, the DEA decided it had enough evidence to move in for the arrest. Local police descended on the hotel in Podgorica, with DEA agents arriving soon after to interrogate the men they’d been tracking for months. The “arms deal” had been foiled.
THIS IS NOT a classic terrorism case,” Albert Dayan, Flaviu’s lawyer, told reporters following the arraignment hearing. Dayan had previously represented Viktor Bout, the so-called “merchant of death,” who had been caught in another DEA sting.
Flaviu, Cristian, and Massimo were extradited to the United States in February 2015 to face charges of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist group and conspiring to kill U.S. government officials. (Andi Georgescu never faced any charges.)
The three defendants were held at New York City’s Manhattan Detention Complex to await trial. Cristian and Massimo were placed together in the same cell. Massimo often sat in the cell and cried. Soon, he and Cristian realized that their best chance for freedom was to turn against Flaviu. They signed a cooperation agreement with the government. “We decided together, while we were staying together in the same cell, to tell the truth,” Cristian later testified.
Both men agreed to plead guilty to the charges against them in exchange for lighter sentences. In return, they agreed to testify at trial that Flaviu was the main player in the arms deal. Flaviu found himself the sole defendant on trial for the arms deal he had years earlier reported to the CIA.
In his opening statements, Flaviu’s lawyer argued that his client was an “American hero” who had volunteered to investigate an arms-trafficking ring out of a sense of patriotic duty.
Central to this argument were the CIA calls Flaviu made. Those calls, his lawyer argued, gave the case “built-in reasonable doubt.” Flaviu also had a history of cooperating with law enforcement without compensation. His contacts with the CIA, in which he said the agency had indirectly given him permission to gather more information about the arms traffickers, led to his decision to meet with them and connect them to the plot, his lawyer argued. The CIA declined to comment on Georgescu’s calls to the agency.
Juan, the DEA informant, conceded at trial that Flaviu never solicited money. There was never an explicit arrangement for Flaviu to be paid anything as part of the deal, an odd move for an international arms dealer. In fact, Flaviu repeatedly declined offers of money. In recorded phone conversations, Andi told Flaviu to ask Juan to reimburse his expenses, something Juan later testified that Flaviu never did.
Juan, on the other hand, was paid $276,000 for his work on the bogus arms deal.
The prosecution in turn argued that Flaviu was “a deal maker, a broker in it for the influence, the connections, the money.” They played for the jury audio clips of Flaviu’s conversations with the informants, including one in which Flaviu described the United States as being “built on bullshit.”
Flaviu took the stand in his trial, repeating his claim that he had been working on behalf of the government and had told the CIA precisely what he would do to help gather information. In a recording of his CIA call played by his lawyer, Flaviu told the CIA official: “If you want to find more, you have to allow me to continue the deal to see the end-user certification, the middlemen, the everything, and I can provide you with more, more, and more information, because in this moment we get stuck, you know, it’s just a small deal.”
Explaining this statement in his testimony, Flaviu said he intended to give “a framework about what kind of intel I can get” to the CIA.
In their arguments, prosecutors dismissed Flaviu’s CIA calls as an attempted cover for the arms transaction, claiming that he had cynically manipulated the government using knowledge from his past work with the FBI. Flaviu’s claims to have been working for the government were implausible, they argued, since he did not attempt to contact them again after his initial phone calls.
On May 26, after a two-week trial, Flaviu was convicted on charges of conspiring to kill officers and employees of the United States and providing material support to a terrorist organization. Flaviu remained silent as the verdict came down, his eyes cast to the courtroom floor.
A request by The Intercept to interview Flaviu was declined by the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. Another attempt, after Flaviu was moved to a new facility, was stymied when the prison refused to notarize a form granting his permission for the interview. Later, he expressed concern, through his wife, that giving an interview prior to sentencing might result in a harsher punishment.
He will be sentenced this week, on December 2. He faces the possibility of life imprisonment.