Category: Spooks

On Red Sparrows

“There is a colossal institute of co-opted Soviet girls,” an ex-KGB man told a room full of U.S. senators. “There were many, many co-opted Soviet girls with different appearance, different talents.”

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that day in 1970 was a KGB defector named Yuri Krotkov, testifying under the alias of George Karlin.

Krotkov, a Soviet screenwriter, playwright and radio correspondent who defected in 1963, called these women “swallows” because like the birds, they are “gentle” and “soft.”

Testimony of George Karlin

Krotkov said he “recommended” — procured, one might say — “swallows” for the KGB. “The swallows are clever girls,” Krotkov continued, “they want all sorts of jobs with foreigners, they dream about them, even if it is risky, because they hope, they would marry them, maybe they would go abroad.”

One of his swallows became a mistress to Sukarno, the president of Indonesia. Another was used to seduce Maurice Dejean the French ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1955 to 1964.

The goal, Krotkov said, was to use these “swallows” to get these foreigners to do something for the KGB.

Today, these sorts of women are better known as “sparrows,” after the best-selling 2013 book Red Sparrow by former CIA officer Jason Matthews (highly recommended, and the way) and film starring Jennifer Lawrence.

The closest thing we have to a real-life “swallow” or a “sparrow” these days is Maria Butina, the redheaded Russian graduate student who went to prison for acting as a clandestine Russian foreign agent. According to the Justice Department, Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government, Alexander Torshin.

Prosecutors initially accused Butina of offering sex in exchange for a job. That allegation was soon withdrawn, with prosecutors saying they had misread a text.

During her time in the United States, Butina did have affairs well-connected older men, such as Paul Erickson, who was well connected in Republican circles. With help from Erickson, Butina infiltrated the National Rifle Association, met with Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA annual meeting, and came very close to a meeting with President Trump. You can read more about that here.

Another man who had a romantic affair with Butina was Patrick Byrne, then the chief executive of Overtstock.com. You can read what Byrne told me about his relationship with Butina and the FBI here.

Maria Butina and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne.

A few months ago, I met with Byrne at a hotel in downtown San Diego and he told me a story that, I think, reveals a lot about Maria Butina.

Byrne wrote part of the story last month on his blog, Deep Capture, but his account leaves out what I view as the most revealing part.

In the spring 2018, Byrne was visiting Washington, D.C. when he got a message from Butina. She somehow knew that he was in town and asked to come by his hotel room. Butina had received a master’s degree in international relations from American University and she wanted to show him her diploma. She arrived and after a while pulled out her cellphone and showed him a picture of her transcript.

“…. Then she swiped the screen. I was staring at a subpoena she had received from the Senate Intelligence Committee a few weeks earlier. She told me about being questioned by Senate Intel, about how the forces of the [U.S. government] were closing in on her.”

Missing from that account is something Butina told Byrne in that hotel room. According to Byrne, Butina told him that the Senate Intelligence Committee had spent “about a third of their time” asking about him, Patrick Byrne. “They have a stack of every message, every text, every email we every wrote,” Byrne said Butina told him.

It was the last time Byrne saw Butina. A few weeks later she was arrested on charges of being an unregistered foreign agent. Butina pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. She was released last month and returned home to Russia where she was welcomed as a hero.

There’s a good reason why Byrne left out the part about the Senate Intelligence Committee asking about him: It wasn’t true.

I checked with Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll. Butina’s Senate testimony isn’t public but he had a copy and he reviewed it at my request. “No reference to Patrick after a pretty close skim,” he emailed me.

I relayed this to Byrne:

According to Byrne, he told her to go home to Russia. She told him she couldn’t. If she did, she would serve 15 years in prison. As Butina’s heroic welcoming in Moscow shows, this, too, was a lie. He told her to the FBI. She said that, as a Russian, she couldn’t.

Some will no doubt say that perhaps Byrne was lying. I don’t think so. When he told me this story, he seemed to believe it. Even so, he encouraged me to go check this account with Driscoll. That’s not something a liar would do.

I think Butina told Byrne a well-crafted lie. Since her testimony was sealed, she knew whatever she told Byrne about would be impossible to verify. Also, it’s no secret that Byrne saw himself at the center of various intrigues. Thus, it was a lie that he would be likely to accept without much fuss.

The question is why. Why would Butina lie to Byrne? Why was she using him and what for? Had someone told her to make this approach Byrne? Did she hope to provoke a reaction? Did she know that Byrne was talking to the FBI?

I wrote Butina several letters in prison to see if she was willing to talk about this. She never responded. As often happens with intelligence-related matters, we are left with more questions than answers.

But it’s a revealing glimpse into the world of woman who was much more than a foreign grad student. A “sparrow” or a “swallow” was a beautiful seductress. Maria Butina was using her brains as well as her body.

Who Is Harry Sargeant III?

As a young journalist, I was taught to write what’s known in the trade as a “nut graf,” a brief summary of what my story was all about.

I regret to inform you that it is beyond my abilities to write a sentence or two that sums up Harry Sargeant III, whose name has surfaced in the congressional impeachment inquiry into Trump and Ukraine.

The best I can do is tell you that it would include the following: Ukraine, President Trump, Rudy Giuliani, CIA, a sex tape, straw donors, prostitutes in a golf cart, “war profiteering,” the CIA, the Jordanian royal family, and overseas bribery allegations.

“Bad news”

Sargeant’s name was mentioned several times in the just-released testimony of Fiona Hill, President Trump’s former top advisor on Russia:

Hill goes on to say she learned that Sergeant was “bad news” after speaking with her colleagues in some organization whose name has been redacted, presumably because it’s related to intelligence or national security. And Sargeant had something to do with Hill’s feeling that the current Ukraine mess is her “worst nightmare.”

Q. Dr. Hill, you sajd in the last segment of your testimony that we’re now living your worst nightmare. Can you unpack that a little bit for us? What do you mean by that?

A Well, I was extremely concerned that whatever it was that Mr. Giuliani was doing might not be legal , especially after, you know, people had raised with me these two gentlemen, Parnas and Fruman. And also they’d mentioned this third individual who, I mean, I guess is actually on the list of names that you had because I didn’t recognize all the others of, Harry Sargeant and when I’d spoken to my colleagues who, you know, were based in Florida, including our director for the Western Hemisphere, and he’d mentioned that these people were notorious and that, you know, they’d been involved in all kinds of strange things in Venezuela and, you know, kind of were just well-known for not being aboveboard. And so my early assumption was that it was pushing particular individuals’ business interests.

Sargeant rarely speaks to reporters, but in a press release he put out last month, the former fighter pilot, oil billionaire, and GOP fundraiser, insisted that he “conducts no business of any kind in the Ukraine and has not visited Ukraine, even as a tourist, in well over a decade.”

Regular meetings with President Trump?

Sargeant was responding to was a report by The Associated Press that placed him inside a plot to install new management at the top of Ukraine’s massive state gas company, Naftogaz, and then steer lucrative contracts to companies controlled by Trump allies.

Also involved in the plan were Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, two of Rudy Giuliani’s clients who were helping him dig up dirt in Ukraine on Joe Biden and his family. Parnas and Fruman were indicted in Manhattan on campaign-finance violations.

“In early March,” the AP wrote, “Fruman, Parnas and Sargeant were touting a plan to replace Naftogaz CEO Andriy Kobolyev with another senior executive at the company, Andrew Favorov, according to two individuals who spoke to the AP as well as a memorandum about the meeting that was later submitted to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, formerly known as Kiev.”

“Sargeant told Favorov that he regularly meets with Trump at Mar-a-Lago and that the gas-sales plan had the president’s full support, according to the two people who said Favorov recounted the discussion to them,” the AP wrote.

Sargeant conceded that he did attend a March 2019 dinner with Favorov, Fruman, and Parnas “to offer his views on the global oil and gas industry.” He denies discussing taking part in any venture in Ukraine. “Attending a single, informal dinner in Houston does not place Mr. Sargeant at the center of any Naftogaz or Ukrainian business plan,” Sargeant’s release states.

And what about his regular meetings with Trump at Mar-a-Lago?

Sargeant concludes his statement with a non-denial denial: “Mr. Sargeant is not a member of Mar-a-Lago and has never met there with Donald Trump since Mr. Trump has been President.”

The Sex Tape

But Ukraine is only the beginning of the intrigues that surround Sargeant, whose life is like something ripped from the pages of a spy novel.

Sargeant currently embroiled in a court case in London that involves “video material of a sexual nature” featuring Sargeant and a “successful businesswoman in a heavily regulated industry that is reputation sensitive,” according to court filings obtained by The Financial Times.

Sargeant has sued his brother, Daniel, for unlawfully obtaining sensitive photos and videos that were stored on a corporate server belonging to Sargeant Marine, a large family-owned asphalt company.

The explicit video found its way into the hands of Daniel Hall, who ran a business tracking down assets for wealthy clients. Hall obtained the sex tape as part of an effort to try and force Sargeant to pay a $28.8 million court judgement he owed to one of his former business partners.

Sargeant Marine’s name surfaced in Brazil’s “Car Wash” for allegedly paying bribes to local government officials, but Harry Sargeant says he had nothing to do with that. He was ousted from the business several years earlier amid a vicious dispute that spawned 14 lawsuits around the country He settled the case and walked away in 2015 with $56 million.

Straw Donors and Prostitutes in a Golf Cart

Harry Sargeant is also a major GOP donor and fund-raiser. Or he used to be.

Sargeant, who is close friends with former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, donated more than $1.5 million for Florida politicians and the state Republican Party, according to campaign finance records. Sargeant raised more than $500,000 for the 2008 Republican presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. John McCain.

After he was elected governor in 2006, Crist asked Sargeant to become finance chair at the Florida Republican Party.

Sargeant resigned from the post in 2009 shortly before one of his employees was indicted for making a $5,000 illegal “straw donation” to Crist and $50,000 in illegal donations to three candidates running for president: McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton.

The employee, Ala’a al-Ali, a citizen of both Jordan and the Dominican Republic, was a sales coordinator for Sargeant Marine. He remains a fugitive.

Allegations surfaced about a notorious 2009 men-only party in the Bahamas attended by Sargeant and Crist.

One former GOP official who attended the event testified that he saw a golf cart full of women driven by one of Sargeant’s employees at the event.

“I specifically saw a golf cart with young ladies drive by, the extent of why they were there I did not specifically know,” said the official, Delmar Johnson. “But I could presume they were prostitutes.”

The testimony came in the criminal case against former Florida GOP Party Chairman Jim Greer.

The Jordanian Royal Family

So far this story has mentioned Ukraine, Venezuela and Brazil, but there’s another country where Sargeant has major financial interests: Jordan.

Sargeant had deep ties to the Hashemite Kingdom. In 2007, Sargeant introduced his friend, then-Florida Governor Crist, to the King of Jordan.

Jordan was critical to valuable contracts Sargeant was awarded to supply fuel and oil to with the U.S. military. Not long after U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, Sargeant emerged quickly set up a business and won a lucrative contract to provide oil, and later, jet fuel, to coalition troops in Iraq. Sargeant hired Marty Martin, formerly a senior CIA operative who ran Alec Station, the unit that hunted Osama bin Laden, for his oil business.

In 2008, not long after he introduced Crist to the King of Jordan, Sargeant was sued by Mohammed Al-Saleh, a member of the Jordanian royal family who is yet another of Sargeant’s disgruntled former business partners.

Al-Saleh, the brother-in-law of the King of Jordan, said he made the whole venture possible by arranging for the Jordanian government to issue a letter authorizing the transport of oil across Jordan.

In a complaint filed in Palm Beach Circuit Court, Al-Saleh claimed that Sargeant had “conspired to swindle” him out of one third of the profits from the Iraq jet fuel contracts. Sargeant, who gave Al-Saleh the nickname of “Crazy Mo,” testified that Al-Saleh tried to blackmail him.

A competitor, Supreme Fuels Trading FZE, filed a separate racketeering lawsuit in federal court claiming that the millions of dollars paid to Al-Saleh and other Jordanian officials were “bribes” meant to ensure that Sargeant’s company was the only bidder on the fuel contracts. (Supreme Fuels won a $5 million judgement against Sargeant.)

Sergeant was ordered to pay $28.8 million to Al-Saleh after a nearly three-week trial in 2011 that was “watched by note-taking men who said they worked for the federal government, included allegations of bribery of top Jordanian officials, shadowy work by a former CIA agent and Congressional claims of war-profiteering,” the Palm Beach Post reported.

“War Profiteering”

By 2008, as the U.S. occupation of Iraq wore on, Sargeant’s Florida company, International Oil Trading Co., had earned profits of $210 million off military fuel deliveries in Iraq.

That eye-popping figure and Sargeant’s connection to GOP straw donors attracted the attention of Congressman Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

In 2008, Congressman Waxman accused Sargeant of overcharging by 36 cents a gallon for jet fuel and engaging in a “reprehensible form of war profiteering.”

Between 2004 and 2010, Sargeant’s company won four contracts for the supply of fuel to U.S. troops in Iraq through Jordan valued at $3.1 billion.

An audit by the Defense Department’s Inspector General, initiated at Waxman’s request, found that the Pentagon paid Sargeant’s company “$160 [million] to $204 million (or 6 to 7 percent) more for fuel than could be supported by price or cost analysis.”

That, however, was not the final word. Sargeant sued the Defense Department and emerged with a settlement for $40 million.

Yet another Department of Defense internal investigation concluded “no fraud vulnerabilities were identified” in his company’s contracts to provide jet fuel in Iraq.

One thing is clear from all this: Where Sargeant goes, trouble follows.

John Durham and the Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

The Trump Justice Department has decided to open a criminal investigation into the origins into the FBI’s investigation into the links between the Trump campaign and Russia. Leading this investigation is a veteran federal prosecutor named John Durham.

John Durham

The New York Times reports that Durham wants to interview former officials who ran the CIA in 2016. Some CIA officials have retained criminal lawyers in anticipation of being questioned.

Durham has investigated the CIA before in a case that I know very well.  And the outcome of that investigation tells us a lot about what justice means when it comes to the actions of the U.S. intelligence community.

Charles Graner poses with Al-Jamadi’s corpse in Abu Ghraib prison

In 2009, Durham was tapped to investigate the homicide of an Iraqi prisoner named Manadel al-Jamadi. Al-Jamadi’s corpse appears in the gruesome photos taken by U.S. soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison. Grinning soldiers flash thumbs up over his decomposing body.

Al-Jamadi was a “high-value target,” suspecting of supplying explosives in the October 2003 bombing of a Red Cross facility in Baghdad that killed 12 and a group of Navy SEALs was sent out to go and get him. The SEALs captured al-Jamadi in his home the following month in a nighttime raid.  They had returned to their base. There, the SEAL and CIA team that captured ai-Jamadi took turns punching, kicking and striking him with their rifles after he was detained in a small area in the Navy camp at Baghdad International Airport known as the “Romper Room.”

A CIA interrogator threatened him, saying: “I’m going to barbecue you if you don’t tell me the information.” A government report states that another CIA security guard recalled al-Jamadi saying he was dying. “You’ll be wishing you were dying,” the interrogator replied.

Al-Jamadi was handed over to the CIA. The next day, he was dead.

A group of Navy SEALs was being prosecuted for abusing al-Jamadi – but, critically, not for killing him. Exactly how al-Jamadi died was shrouded in mystery and the CIA was working very hard to keep it that way. A team of young CIA lawyers sat with us journalists during the courtroom proceedings in a San Diego Navy base. When one of the SEALs’ defense lawyers asked a curious question – “what position was al-Jamadi in when he died?” – a CIA lawyer stood up and objected. “That’s classified,” he said.

Back then, when I working for The Associated Press, I found out that al-Jamadi had died in the shower room at Abu Ghraib a position known as a “Palestinian hanging” – a position that human rights groups condemn as torture.

His arms, which were handcuffed behind his back, were attached by a chain to the wall behind him. If he tried to sit or lie down his arms would be wrenched up painfully behind his back. And that’s how he died, with his arms wrenched behind his back. One Army guard, Sgt. Jeffery Frost, told investigators he was surprised al-Jamadi’s arms “didn’t pop out of their sockets.”

This was a crucifixion. “Asphyxia is what he died from — as in a crucifixion,” said the military pathologist who ruled the case a homicide.

Mark Swanner

There were only two people in the room with al-Jamadi when he died, a CIA interrogator and a translator. The interrogator’s name, I found out later, was Mark B. Swanner.

Swanner told guards that al-Jamadi was “playing possum” — faking it — and then watched as guards struggled to get him on his feet. But the guards realized it was useless.

“After we found out he was dead, they were nervous,” Spc. Dennis E. Stevanus said of the CIA interrogator and translator. “They didn’t know what the hell to do.” Blood was cleaned up. Evidence was disposed of and al-Jamadi was spirited out of the prison with an IV attached to his lifeless arm to make it appear that he was still alive.

But years later, all that had come of it was that a bunch of Navy SEALs were spending their life savings hiring defense attorneys. Of the 10 who were accused, nine ended up with nonjudicial punishment. A SEAL officer was acquitted at trial.

As for Swanner, nothing was happening to him. The CIA’s Inspector General referred the case to the Justice Department, but nothing happened. Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote a big story about Swanner. Still nothing.

Enter Durham.

In August 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder directed Durham to review roughly a dozen cases of alleged abuse against “war on terror” suspects that had gone dormant. He narrowed the cases down to two: Al-Jamadi and an Afghani named Gul Rahman.

Durham convened a grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia and began calling witnesses. TIME magazine obtained a subpoena signed by Durham that stated “the grand jury is conducting an investigation of possible violations of federal criminal laws involving War Crimes (18 USC/2441), Torture (18 USC 243OA) and related federal offenses.”

Once again, the Navy SEALs who captured al-Jamadi were called up to testify. One SEAL called me after he received a subpoena. He was angry and upset that he had to go through the whole ordeal all over again. I put him in touch with a DC attorney I knew who agreed to help him out.  

Three years went by. In 2012, Holder announced that “based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths, the department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The word “admissible” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.

Durham had looked at whether Swanner had used “unauthorized” interrogation techniques. “The approach taken in the inquiry was not to prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the justice department’s Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees,” the Guardian wrote.

In other words, CIA officers were immune from prosecution as long as they stayed within the guidelines of the dubious “Torture Memo” drafted in 2002 by John Yoo that was withdrawn, reinstated, and ultimately rescinded by President Obama. Although Yoo’s memo only applied to one high-level al Qaida suspect, the CIA treated it as a generalized authorization to use the “enhanced” techniques on detainees held at black sites.

According to Yoo’s memo, placing a prisoner on the floor with legs extended and arms raised above his head was authorized as a “stress position.” Yoo said such a position “falls far below the threshold of severe physical pain” that would constitute torture.

The legal reasoning here, as applied to Swanner, appears to have been equally tortured, for it implies that although al-Jamadi was crucified to death he didn’t experience severe physical pain.

When Durham’s decision was announced, the CIA breathed a sigh of relief; human rights advocates called it a scandal. “Continuing impunity threatens to undermine the universally recognized prohibition on torture and other abusive treatment,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The question is whether John Durham will find a way to do what he failed to in the al-Jamadi case: prosecute CIA officials for daring to investigate a presidential campaign that, as the Muller Report found, welcomed offers of Russian assistance.

It may be that investigating a presidential candidate carries greater risks than crucifying a man to death.

The pee tape

Someday, we may find ourselves staring in amazement at our computer screens as a man who resembles the 45th president performs unspeakable acts with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room.

But Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and fixer, thinks that day will never come. And he’s in a good position to know one way or another.

The public first learned of the possible existence of what came to be known as the pee tape from the Steele dossier. Former British MI6 officer Christopher Steele reported that prostitutes had performed a “golden shower” urination show for Trump in the Moscow Ritz where he was staying during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. This had been recorded by Russian intelligence for purposes of blackmailing Trump.

But this claim about a pee tape wasn’t news to Cohen. Thanks to a newly released transcript from the House intelligence committee, we now know that Cohen first heard about the pee tape shortly after Trump returned from Russia.

Trump denied it, but he asked Cohen to find out where the rumors were coming from.

Testifying under oath, Cohen says he spoke to many people about the tape, including one unnamed caller who demanded $20 million.

Another person who called Cohen about the tape was Harvey Levin of the gossip site TMZ, who also had heard about the existence of the tape. (TMZ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

In the end, Cohen concluded that the pee tape didn’t exist for a very practical reason. If prostitutes had urinated on the bed in the Moscow Ritz, where did Trump sleep that night?

The tape had acquired a life of its own, Cohen said, much like the claim that he had attended secret meetings with Russians in Prague, which also appeared in the dossier. Cohen said under oath that all the allegations concerning him in the dossier are false.

But, Cohen also relates an interesting anecdote about the dossier. After it was published January 10, 2017 by Buzzfeed, Trump called Cohen at home.

In other words, Trump seemed very concerned. He appeared unsure whether the allegations in the dossier regarding Cohen were true or not.

So let me make sure I got this right. This is the same dossier with the golden showers allegations that Trump scoffs at. If those claims, which appear in the very front of the dossier, were false, would he really need to see Cohen’s passport in the middle of the night?

In other words, if there’s a huge lie on page one of the dossier, you don’t need to scrutinize pages two, three, four, and five, especially not in the middle of the night. It can wait until morning.

Perhaps Trump was just panicking, but it seems quite possible that something in the dossier hit the mark to cause such panic for Cohen to go rushing back to Trump Tower waving his passport. Whether that’s the pee tape or not, we don’t know.

Steele, unlike Cohen and Levin, Steele, was passing along more than a rumor about the pee tape. He claimed to have confirmed the incident with three separate sources:

  • “Source D,” described as having “been present.”
  • “Source E,” a “senior/western member of the staff at the hotel,” who was aware of the golden showers incident at the time it occurred in 2013.
  • “Source F,” a female staffer at the hotel who confirmed the story.

I remain unconvinced. It could be Steele was the victim of a Russian disinformation effort. As I wrote in Trump/Russia, this kind of tawdry material in reports compiled by former spooks was not out of the ordinary:

What people failed to realize was that sordid allegations like the one in Steele’s report were a dirty secret of the world of private investigations. Several people familiar with this world told me that reports by companies like Kroll, K2, Mintz Group, IGI, and others were often littered with tawdry allegations. “Yes, sex stuff comes up a lot and it’s often nonsense,” a DC attorney who often hires private investigators told me. One veteran opposition researcher told me he has seen the same thing so often that he has detected a pattern: when the subject of the investigation was connected to Latin America, drugs were involved; when the connection was Russia or Eastern Europe, then it was usually sex. “Every single one of their reports has something like that,” the opposition researcher said. “That’s what they pitch the client to keep them on the hook. They then spend months trying to confirm it.”

Then again, maybe Steele got it right and one day we may find ourselves staring in amazement at our computer screens as a man who resembles the 45th president performs unspeakable acts with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room.