Inside a Terror Trial
How a Manhattan jury reached its verdict in the government’s case against international arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar
The Thursday before Thanksgiving 2008 was the first truly cold morning of the fall. The sky was clear, but the short walk from the subway to the federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan felt like miles. In part, the wind was to blame. But the chill was also emotional: 12 jurors were about to hand down their verdict in a terrorism case they had been hearing for the previous three weeks.
The case was one of the most significant in the U.S. government’s battle against terrorism. It pitted the United States against Monzer al-Kassar, one of the world’s most successful—the prosecutors would say notorious—arms dealers. Whether it established any significant legal precedents would be left for the appellate lawyers to debate. But its outcome would certainly set the tone for the new Obama administration’s undercover strategies.
I was a member of the jury, and I kept a daily journal, recording my own reactions to the lawyers, the witnesses, and the unfolding drama. Throughout the trial, the jurors heeded the judge’s admonitions not to discuss the case. But when it was over, I reconvened the jurors to ask them about their recollections. This is our story.
The potential jurors squirm on the uncomfortable wooden benches. As in every other jury pool I’ve sat through—five over the last 25 years—we whisper to one another about which supposed hardship or affiliation will get us excused. The judge, Jed Rakoff, a 65-year-old Clinton appointee, has explained that the case before us might take as long as five weeks, and few in the pool want to spend that much time serving.
When asked, I tell the lawyers that I’m a publisher and writer. They don’t ask what I write about, and I don’t volunteer that I once wrote a New York magazine cover story about a medical-malpractice case on which I was a juror, or that I did a script for the TV show Law & Order. The judge asks if I have any problem with Muslims. I say no, and then wait to see whether the defense will exercise its preemptive right to bump this Manhattan Jew off the jury. They don’t, and I’m on.
Opening arguments start on Day Two. The prosecutor, an assistant U.S. attorney in his mid-thirties named Brendan McGuire, goes first. He’s about six foot five and trim. He faces the jury box, looks down at his notes, and begins without preamble: Monzer al-Kassar and his codefendant, Luis Felipe Moreno Godoy, are accused of four counts of conspiracy and one count of money laundering. They illegally conspired to sell millions of dollars’ worth of advanced weapons, including surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), to a terrorist group, the Colombia-based FARC. They are accused, too, of conspiring to kill American citizens and employees. The government, McGuire assures us, will prove these charges through the use of undercover audio and video recordings made by confidential sources whom the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) hired to pose as buyers from the FARC. In short, this was a sting.
Each of the defendants has his own attorney. Al-Kassar is represented by Ira Lee Sorkin: well dressed, white-haired, apparently in his early sixties, comfortable in his role. (And yes, he’s the same guy who will go on to represent Bernie Madoff.) Sorkin’s opening argument is simple—and has us dropping our jaws. For he claims that while the DEA thought it was snaring al-Kassar in its sting, al-Kassar was actually working with Spanish intelligence to snare the supposed FARC terrorists. In short, a double sting!
Al-Kassar’s codefendant, Moreno, is his longtime assistant and accountant. Representing him is Roger Stavis, who appears to be in his early fifties and has the most intense glare that many on the jury have ever seen. He reinforces the double-sting view of the case: “It was a game of cat and mouse on both sides.” But he also hammers at another point: the government’s prosecution bases itself on the efforts of paid informants. With an undisguised sneer, he reminds us that these informants are bad guys—drug dealers, convicted criminals, liars. And they’ve been paid millions of dollars by the U.S. government to entrap these legitimate businessmen.
The prosecution begins its case, and the story unfolds fitfully. It is told principally through the testimony of the DEA case agent, John Archer. Agent Archer (as everyone refers to him) helped plan and execute the sting against al-Kassar. Why al-Kassar was targeted, we don’t know. Agent Archer appears to be in his mid-thirties and looks like a small-college cornerback. He explains that the DEA employed three confidential sources (CSs)—Carlos, Luis, and Samir—in this sting. Samir, a Palestinian, was used to get to al-Kassar and gain his trust. Carlos and Luis pretended to be FARC terrorists in the market for advanced weapons—Strella surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), AK-47 assault rifles, Dragunov sniper rifles, Makarov handguns, and millions of rounds of ammunition.
Al-Kassar is a Syrian by birth but a longtime resident of Marbella, Spain. He operated his business from a hilltop mansion on the Costa del Sol; the local press referred to him as the Prince of Marbella. Archer testifies that after months of effort, Samir was finally able to make contact with al-Kassar, gain his trust, and set up a meeting with the supposed FARC representatives.
Archer explains that Carlos and Luis traveled to Marbella and met with al-Kassar and Moreno. There they provided al-Kassar with a list of weapons that they wanted and gave him an “End User Certificate” stamped by the national police of Nicaragua. An End User Certificate is essential to get weapons legally released from one country and allowed into another. It is a single sheet of paper, adorned with official signatures and government stamps, that lists the exact weapons to be purchased, their quantity, and a deadline for the transaction.
According to Archer, Carlos made it clear to al-Kassar that the weapons weren’t going to Nicaragua (the authorized buyer) but to the FARC via Surinam. Moreover, the weapons would be paid for through the sale of cocaine. Using Archer to explain their significance, the prosecutor—it is McGuire’s cocounsel and boss, Boyd Johnson, whose previous case was the call-girl investigation of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer—introduces exhibits, which then get entered into evidence: lists of weapons, copies of e-mails, bank statements, and cargo-ship specifications. And without playing them or soliciting testimony about their contents, Johnson also introduces audiotapes and videotapes that Carlos surreptitiously recorded.
Through Agent Archer’s testimony, we follow the cash. Between January and June of 2007, more than $400,000 of DEA money was wired from a Manhattan bank to al-Kassar-controlled accounts in Lebanon. Archer is careful to establish the New York origin of the money; it’s crucial if the U.S. attorney for the Southern District hopes to establish jurisdiction and make the case for money laundering.
Now it’s the defense’s turn to cross-examine Archer. As the questioning proceeds, he looks younger—and his gelled hair more frazzled—by the hour. Defense attorney Sorkin focuses on an obvious chink in the DEA agent’s past: in a previous posting in Las Vegas, Archer was suspended for three days without pay for destroying evidence. Archer seems vulnerable to Sorkin’s implication: if he destroyed evidence once, why should we believe that he wouldn’t do it again?
Toward the end of the first week, the government calls a key witness, the confidential source Carlos. Carlos looks to be in his late thirties, with a trim goatee and thinning hair. Though he says he speaks fluent English, he testifies in Spanish. The sequential translation makes the proceedings even more laborious.
Carlos says he is Guatemalan, had two years of college, and joined the Guatemalan army. While working in army intelligence, he got involved with a Colombian friend who was a drug dealer. After the Colombian friend got himself killed, Carlos traveled to Mexico to contact the Colombian’s drug connection, but was kidnapped and held for ransom by the Mexican army. Carlos testifies that while in captivity, he swore that if he got out alive, he would switch sides and work “for the good guys.” The ransom was paid, Carlos was released, and he volunteered to become a DEA confidential source. Over the past ten years, Carlos has worked for the DEA, earning more than $1.4 million—including a one-time $500,000 bonus.
Carlos speaks quietly, looks at the jury, and identifies the dozens of hours of audiotapes and videotapes that he has recorded. He tells us that he used a recording device hidden in his shoulder bag. Slowly—everything moves slowly in this trial—the tapes, their transcripts, and their translations are entered into evidence. Even before we get the gist of what they contain, three things become obvious: the quality of the audio is pretty awful; the quality of the video is worse; and Carlos was one gutsy guy to go into al-Kassar’s compound and make the recordings.
Each juror receives a black three-ring binder, eight inches thick, containing 900 pages of the tapes’ transcripts and translations. And we sit in the jury box hour after hour watching the videotapes—often showing skewed pictures of the participants’ legs, or bouncing along as they move from place to place. After every five-minute segment, the prosecutor asks Carlos to put what we’ve just heard in context.
The tapes provide dozens of snippets about the emerging transaction. There is little that one might call a coherent narrative, nothing that will make the jury’s deliberation clear-cut. But I sense something else from the tapes: al-Kassar seems to be getting suspicious of Carlos. He speaks more guardedly and skeptically about the expected payments and arrangements. And he is obviously growing frustrated with Carlos’s inability to deliver a promised, more up-to-date End User Certificate. It’s clear that the defense will have a real opportunity to poke holes.
The defense lawyers begin their cross-examination—first Sorkin, then Stavis. They spend several hours asking Carlos about his income, both as a paid informant for the DEA and as a home-building contractor. Carlos admits that the DEA has been paying him, including reimbursement for travel expenses. Sorkin elicits the fact that Carlos has made just $100,000 or so over the past four years from his construction business. “Only about $25,000 a year, isn’t that correct? Nowhere near as lucrative as being a DEA informant, correct?” Carlos, who understands English, glares at the defense attorney but waits for the interpreter’s official translation before responding, “But my life wouldn’t always be in danger.”
The cross-examination highlights bits of information that will form the defense’s two thrusts. The first builds on Agent Archer’s destruction of evidence in Las Vegas. The defense brings out that Carlos had physical control of the recording equipment throughout the undercover taping. Why, the defense wants to know, did Carlos not record all the conversations with the defendants? Carlos is unequivocal: because the DEA instructed when not to record the conversations—at the first meeting, when it feared that al-Kassar’s bodyguards would search him; and toward the end of the operation, when . . . well, Carlos doesn’t know why.
The second thrust is al-Kassar’s suspicion of the alleged FARC representatives and his cooperation with Spanish intelligence. Clearly, from the outset, al-Kassar had doubts about Carlos and Luis. During their first trip to Marbella, he took steps to verify their bona fides. When Carlos and Luis wanted to change flight plans, al-Kassar offered to take care of the travel details, but he also had one of his assistants make photocopies of their passports. The implication to the jury was that al-Kassar wanted to check out the two men with his Spanish intelligence contacts.
Reasonable doubt. That’s all the defense lawyers have to establish. Missing evidence; suspicion by al-Kassar; and a handoff to Spanish intelligence.
Samir’s testimony follows Carlos’s. Samir, a Palestinian, is another DEA confidential informant. At 71, he looks like everyone’s favorite uncle. Looks are deceiving: he is an admitted heroin smuggler who has spent two terms in American prisons. Plus, he was a member of the PLO and of the terrorist group Black September.
Samir’s DEA assignment to make contact with al-Kassar took him months, but al-Kassar came to trust him far more than he did Carlos or Luis. That is clear from the undercover audiotapes that Samir made. Al-Kassar speaks with Samir in Arabic, and both the tone and substance of the conversations are far different from al-Kassar’s conversations with Carlos or Luis. It becomes clear that al-Kassar has serious doubts about the two supposed FARC representatives, but we don’t hear any testimony suggesting that he thinks they’re undercover agents; instead, he repeatedly complains to Samir that they’re flakes! Samir plays his role beautifully: he repeatedly falls back on his shared Arabic connection to al-Kassar, assuring the wealthy man that, on his honor, the two men are for real and will deliver the money for the transaction.
Samir closes with a statement claiming that he told al-Kassar that the weapons for the FARC would be used to kill Americans. In response, maintains Samir, al-Kassar said that if the weapons weren’t for killing Americans and their allies, he wouldn’t do the deal. Unfortunately for the prosecution, Samir didn’t record this conversation. The defense’s cross-examination of Samir is either ineffectual or unmemorable, and by the end of the second week, the prosecution has rested its case.
The judge welcomes us back at the start of the third week with the reminder that the defense is under no obligation to present any witnesses or evidence. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
But the defense chooses to present witnesses, and the testimony comes in the form of two videotaped court depositions and two recorded telephone calls. The depositions represent the defense’s much-promised “exoneration” by two Spanish intelligence officials, the more senior of whom gives his testimony behind a screen to protect his identity. Both testify that al-Kassar has helped Spanish intelligence in the past. And indeed, al-Kassar had told the chief inspector (the less senior of the two officials) about this deal. But the chief inspector also testifies that al-Kassar had repeatedly told him that the sale was to the Nicaraguan government—and thus legitimate. And he claims that al-Kassar never brought up the FARC, SAMs, or drug money.
The two phone calls were from al-Kassar to the chief inspector just before al-Kassar’s arrest at the Madrid airport. The chief inspector recorded them, though we don’t know why. But the recordings are different from all the others we’ve heard: al-Kassar sounds terrified. He and the official speak very circumspectly. It’s unclear whether they are observing security protocols or conspiring. Al-Kassar senses that something may be wrong—either that his clients are not who they appear to be or that he’s under surveillance. The chief inspector is even more suspicious of the weapons buyers. “I know how these gringo assholes operate,” he says. “Whenever they take that hostile attitude, it means they’re gearing up to do something evil. Do you know what I’m saying?” It sounds, in fact, as though the chief inspector suspects—or knows—that the so-called FARC weapons buyers are working for the Americans.
Al-Kassar presses for a face-to-face meeting. But the chief inspector demurs. In response, al-Kassar says that if they’re straight, they’ll all make money. If they’re not, everyone will get arrested. On that enigmatic note, the defense rests.
Summations begin. Johnson, the assistant U.S. attorney, goes first. He speaks for about an hour and a half, interspersing his presentation with excerpts from the videotapes and transcripts. He tells us the same story that his colleague McGuire told us during his opening argument. Only this time, he refers to evidence we’re now familiar with. It is an extremely competent presentation. But is it believable?
After lunch, the first of the defense attorneys, Roger Stavis, gives his summation. He is surprisingly low-key and effective. He stresses, as he did at the trial’s outset, that this was a cat-and-mouse game, with each side alternately playing both the cat and the mouse. Not surprisingly, he attacks the paid informants and the DEA agents. He reminds us that Agent Archer destroyed evidence in the Las Vegas case and that the CSs mysteriously chose not to record conversations in this one. But Stavis spends most of his time emphasizing snippets of the conversation with the Spanish chief inspector. Stavis says that al-Kassar was on his way to Madrid not to meet with Carlos and his long-promised FARC boss, as the prosecution has alleged. Rather, al-Kassar was in Madrid to meet with the chief inspector’s boss, the Spanish intelligence commissioner, and to turn over his briefcase full of evidence. If the jury believes that al-Kassar was on his way to meet with Carlos and the FARC chief in order to get paid, then we’ll probably convict him. If we accept Stavis’s interpretation, there will be reasonable doubt, and we will have to acquit.
The next day, Sorkin gives us his summation. He opens with a line from Hamlet—“The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”—and tells us, again, that we’ve been watching a government sting operation compounded by the defendants’ own sting operation inside it. It is the crux of the entire defense, and Sorkin spends almost two hours flitting back and forth among dates, events, recorded calls, and bits of testimony. He does an effective job not just of confusing us but also of raising a handful of unanswered questions that have nagged us throughout the trial. Most important: Why did the government informants stop tape-recording phone conversations with al-Kassar and Moreno a full month before their arrest?
As in all federal criminal cases, the prosecution has the last word before the judge’s charge and our deliberation. McGuire gives us an extremely well-delivered and cogent rebuttal. This case, he says, was all about greed. Al-Kassar stood to make a $3 million profit from the $11 million sale. However many times he might have served Spanish intelligence in the past, they had no bearing on his activities here. He was in it for the money, and he was perfectly comfortable if Americans got killed as a result.
The judge then gives us his instructions. He explains that there are four conspiracy charges against each of the defendants, plus a money-laundering charge. The most serious charge is conspiracy to acquire and export antiaircraft missiles. (Interestingly, the attempted sale need not be to a terrorist group; the implication of the law, which was written following 9/11, is that any effort to acquire or sell SAMs is unacceptable and suggests terrorist associations.) There is a charge of conspiracy to provide material support (the other weapons) to a terrorist group. And there are two charges of conspiracy to kill American citizens and employees.
We retire to the jury room, and the relief is palpable. For three weeks, we’ve been frustrated by our inability to talk with one another about the case. One of us suggests that we figure out where we agree and disagree and then try to come to a consensus. “This is a deliberation, not a negotiation,” objects another. “It is not a matter of compromise.” And with those words, we have our grounding.
We spend an hour trying to reconstruct a chronology. Who talked with whom? Was the conversation recorded? Which documents fit where? It’s not easy, even though we’ve lived with the case eight hours a day for three weeks. The re-creation of the chronology was, for some of us, an attempt to avoid the inevitable: understanding the charges and then fitting the evidence to the charges.
We take our first tentative step in that direction by clarifying the definition of a conspiracy. For a conspiracy to exist, there must be at least two people—not including government informants—who participate. They must agree to do something unlawful and take some overt action to further that plan. What a CS says to al-Kassar or Moreno is irrelevant; it’s what the defendants do or say that must be evaluated. And al-Kassar and Moreno don’t have to succeed in carrying out their unlawful plan to be guilty of conspiracy.
We start with the alleged conspiracies to sell surface-to-air missiles and provide material support to a terrorist group. The defense has agreed that the FARC was indeed a terrorist group, so we don’t need to argue about that piece of the charge. But is there evidence that either or both of the defendants tried to sell SAMs or provide other material support? It takes us only about 30 minutes to agree that yes, there is. Al-Kassar extolled the virtues of the particular SAMs he could provide in no fewer than four conversations. He emphasized that they were particularly effective in shooting down the types of helicopters that America was using in Colombia. And he provided Carlos with a spec sheet about the missiles.
What did it mean to provide the FARC “material support”? We’re tempted to rely solely on the tape recordings, ignoring the CSs’ testimony or documents. There is a snippet of conversation with al-Kassar seemingly promising to send 1,000 of his own men to help the FARC. And a second recording in which al-Kassar and Moreno explain to the CSs why it’s smarter and easier to fabricate C-4 explosives in Colombia than to ship them from Europe. But in the end, we dive back into the documents: various End User Certificates (including blank forms and forgeries); lists of weapons detailing thousands of assault rifles, grenade launchers, sniper rifles, and pistols; and annotated, handwritten notes detailing prices and profits. The key question is whether al-Kassar and Moreno knew that the weapons were intended for the FARC and not the Nicaraguan police.
We have little doubt that al-Kassar knew exactly whom the weapons were for. What we choose to debate further is whether Moreno knew. Moreno is present but largely silent in the videotapes. What evidence do we have to show that Moreno had actually advanced the scheme? One juror finds transcripts in the binder of a recording in a Marbella café. There, Moreno warns Carlos not to mention the FARC’s activities to the ship captain or owner whom they’re about to meet. Moreover, he wants to talk more about the possibility of transporting FARC-supplied drugs on the voyage back from Colombia. We quickly agree that Moreno wasn’t simply an innocent bystander. He took active steps to see the plan to fruition. He, too, is guilty on these charges.
Several of us say, almost simultaneously, “Let’s look at the defense’s theory and see if it establishes reasonable doubt.” The defense, remember, had two main thrusts, and we take a detour from the specific charges to consider them.
One is government misconduct. Do we think that Agent Archer destroyed evidence? This is easy to deal with. Agent Archer seemed believable and his testimony forthright. Yes, he had previously gotten into trouble for destroying evidence, but there appeared to be mitigating circumstances. And his punishment—three days without pay—suggested that the offense wasn’t very serious.
But why, toward the end of the sting, did Carlos stop recording his conversations with al-Kassar and Moreno? We don’t have a good answer; indeed, we have no answer. Defense attorney Stavis proffered a simple explanation in his closing: the DEA didn’t want any exculpatory evidence that contradicted its theory of the case. What puzzled us was that neither defense attorney ever asked the DEA witnesses why, as Carlos had insisted, they had asked him to stop recording. Did the defense not want us to know? Or did it believe that allowing the insinuation to go unasked and unanswered was more effective? It’s a loose thread, and we decide to brush it aside.
We then take up the defense’s principal theme: that al-Kassar was an asset of Spanish intelligence and conducting his own sting operation on their behalf. We review the chronology: al-Kassar had a total of four conversations with the chief inspector. In the first two, which took place soon after al-Kassar first met the supposed FARC representatives, al-Kassar had told the inspector that the arms deal was legitimate—that the customer was the Nicaraguan police. It seemed clear to us that al-Kassar was telling the inspector just enough to ensure that he would alert the arms dealer to any government surveillance.
The final two conversations took place months later, just after al-Kassar sent Moreno and another associate to Romania, where they would consummate the deal and load a ship with the promised weapons. Several jurors comment on al-Kassar’s frantic tone and on the possibility that the chief inspector is on his payroll. But it’s clear that the inspector isn’t willing—or able—to save his friend or asset. We conclude that al-Kassar has repeatedly lied to the chief inspector about the true nature of the deal and that there’s absolutely no evidence that al-Kassar was working with or on behalf of the Spanish government.
Next we address the money-laundering charge. This is perhaps the easiest of the purported crimes to assess. We quickly conclude that Moreno and al-Kassar accepted money that they believed to be the proceeds of drug sales. The defendants took precautions for hiding the incoming wire transfers. They told Carlos and Luis how to disguise the transfers. And they discussed the difficulty—but possible necessity—of taking part of the payment in cash.
Finally, we tackle the first two—and most difficult—counts: conspiracy to kill American citizens and employees. We spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out why there are two counts, and realize that it’s the legal approach to covering all bases: army advisors or DEA agents who aren’t American citizens. The real difficulty, however, is trying to determine whether American citizens or employees were the targets of the conspiracy. We’re not content simply to infer that the SAMs or AK-47s or RPGs would wind up used by the FARC to kill Americans; we want evidence of al-Kassar’s overt affirmation of intent.
We spend two hours looking for quotations from al-Kassar and Moreno specifically referring to killing Americans. There is no recording that says, “Let’s kill Americans,” or “I’m glad that the FARC will use these weapons to kill Americans.” But bits and pieces are clear enough for us to come to a tentative conclusion. We take a vote on the two counts, and it’s nine to three in favor of “guilty.” The three jurors aren’t saying that they think al-Kassar or Moreno is innocent; they’re still unsure.
One of the jurors points out that, consciously or not, we have not relied on any of the confidential sources’ spoken testimony. What they said to us was powerful and underscored the existence of a conspiracy to kill Americans. But—though we never say it aloud—in excluding that testimony and relying instead on the 900 pages of recorded conversations, we don’t have to decide whether we believe them.
Another juror suggests that we break for the day and sleep on our decisions. I’m glad she suggests it, and most of the jurors seem equally relieved.
We reconvene on Thursday, the week before Thanksgiving. For once, I get there early. I dive back in to the transcript, adding yellow Post-it notes at key pieces of testimony from al-Kassar and Moreno.
Surprisingly, when the jury reconvenes, we start again at the beginning, reviewing each charge. Obviously, some of the jurors still have doubts. But the deliberations proceed swiftly through the charges of material support, surface-to-air missile sale, and money laundering. For these, the debate is quick and the votes the same: guilty on all charges for both men.
The judge’s instructions to us, defining very specifically what the charge of “killing Americans” means, then dominate the conversation. So slowly, very deliberately, I go through the statements that I have highlighted with the Post-it notes. I consciously take a low-key approach in presenting the evidence. I say, “Page 324, line 7,” and read al-Kassar’s words. “Page 473, line 2,” and read again. They are only fragments of sentences, often interrupted by a CS. But to jurors who have been living with this trial for eight hours a day—attuned to rhythms of speech and half-sentences—the cumulative effect is palpable.
I see heads nodding in agreement—including those who had been most uncertain the day before. But I don’t push for a decision. I’m hoping others will do that, and soon it happens. We take a vote, and everyone’s hands rise in agreement. Al-Kassar and Moreno are guilty on all counts.
We send a message to the judge that we have reached a verdict. But it takes about 20 minutes to assemble the lawyers and defendants and the journalists who are covering the trial. So we wait, anxious to get this over with.
We walk into the courtroom, as we have done so many times, and stand in the jury box, waiting for the judge’s deputy to say, “Please be seated.” But this time, I see something unusual: al-Kassar’s lips are moving. He’s not talking to anyone in the courtroom. I’m sure he is praying.
Judge Rakoff asks the jury foreman to stand, and the clerk reads the charges. After each charge, our foreman says, “Guilty.” Al-Kassar’s and Moreno’s families are in the courtroom, and they are crying. Al-Kassar and Moreno are stoic but look pale. We’re polled individually about whether we agree with the verdict. The judge thanks us, and we’re excused.
Later, a reporter tells me that I was the only juror looking at the defendants, not the judge, during the foreman’s reading of the verdicts. He asks me why. I tell him that we were passing judgment on these men and that it would affect their lives and the lives of their families. The least I could do was look the guilty in the eye.
In the jury room, several of us agree to speak with the defense lawyers and the press. But in the end, I’m the only one who does, and I agree to speak only on condition of anonymity. Why I insist on the condition, I’m not sure. But a short time later, after I learn the fate of three witnesses who were to testify against al-Kassar in another trial, I’m glad that I did. It turns out that one of the spectators in the courtroom throughout the trial was Lisa Klinghoffer, a daughter of Leon Klinghoffer, the wheelchair-bound man executed by Palestinian terrorists—because he was Jewish—when they hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. Al-Kassar had been tried in Spain for providing weapons to those hijackers and for conspiracy to murder. But he was acquitted—after two witnesses against him were killed and a third refused to testify after his child was kidnapped.
During the three months between the verdict and al-Kassar’s sentencing, I contact each of the lawyers in the case, along with the DEA. No one will talk to me. I’m not really surprised: the guilty verdicts will be appealed. And another al-Kassar associate will be tried as part of the conspiracy.
I also go through the legal record and learn details kept away from the jury. The judge deemed three arguments inappropriate for us to consider. The defense, not surprisingly, wanted to introduce evidence of al-Kassar’s previous work for Spanish and other intelligence services. They wanted to argue that al-Kassar’s work saved American and allied lives. But American intelligence agencies wouldn’t declassify the files or allow testimony. And the judge concluded that such activities by al-Kassar—however laudable—had no bearing on this particular case.
In turn, the government wanted to introduce evidence of alleged drug-dealing activity by al-Kassar or Moreno. And more significantly, they wanted to introduce evidence of al-Kassar’s involvement with the Achille Lauro hijacking and the Klinghoffer murder. But here, too, Judge Rakoff ruled the episodes irrelevant to the case.
Soon after the case ended, my 17-year-old son was listening to my description of the sting. He went to his room and brought back a copy of the novel he had just finished, Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules, based in part on a fictionalized version of the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “merchant of death.” In the author’s note, Silva writes that in 2008, two years after the al-Kassar sting, the DEA snagged Bout in an almost identical operation. He is still sitting in a Thai jail cell, awaiting extradition to the United States.
On February 24, three months after the verdict, I head to the federal courthouse for al-Kassar’s and Moreno’s sentencing. Reporters, a sketch artist for Reuters, the DEA team, and a large contingent of Klinghoffer family members and friends crowd the courtroom.
Judge Rakoff conducts the proceedings more slowly than he did the trial. Each lawyer presents arguments in favor of, or opposed to, the government’s 29-page sentencing recommendation. But the judge seems to be two steps ahead of them and adds a dollop of common sense to an often-byzantine process. After two hours of minor haggling, each defendant is given the opportunity to address the court. Al-Kassar goes first. He stands, turns around, and stares at me. He says he sees that there is a juror present. Our eyes meet and I feel short of breath. He turns back to the judge and says that if the jury had been able to hear about all the good work he had done for Spanish intelligence and all the lives that he had saved—including American lives—he would never have been convicted.
Finally, Judge Rakoff announces the sentence. Al-Kassar will serve 30 years in a maximum-security prison and will forfeit all assets, including the Marbella mansion. Moreno will serve 25 years. Both, says the judge, will be treated as ongoing threats to the United States. In his closing remarks, the judge says that al-Kassar is “a very sophisticated person, a very complicated person.” And it is “a tragedy that a person of his intelligence has spent so much of his life in activities that certainly were not calculated to advance the human race.”
I leave the courtroom, hoping not to return again for many years. As I walk past the lobby newsstand, I notice a headline in that day’s newspaper. More troops are headed to Afghanistan; no surprise there. But the juxtaposition of what just transpired upstairs and our foreign-based efforts to prevent future attacks on America makes me pause. At that moment, I understand that I have participated in something extraordinary. The sting and prosecution of Monzer al-Kassar was a remarkably effective operation in the war on terrorism.
Why the United States would want to take al-Kassar out of circulation is clear. Whatever information al-Kassar had provided to Spanish or allied intelligence services paled in comparison with the direct and indirect harm he inflicted. In addition to his legal arms deals, al-Kassar had sold weapons—illegally and with apparent impunity—to African warlords, Iraqi insurgents, the PLO, and all sides in the Balkan conflict.
But a question still nags at me: Who exactly initiated the al-Kassar sting? Who in the U.S. government had the vision to say, “Let’s take this guy out before he can do more harm”? I talked with high-level CIA and counterterrorism sources, who offered lots of reasonable speculation but few real insights. My search for a hero—or at least a protagonist—has failed. For now, I resign myself to not knowing. Perhaps some things are better left a secret.
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