Transcript

292:

The Arms Trader
Transcript

Originally aired 07.08.2005

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/292

Prologue.

Ira Glass

In a sense, the job our government got after 9/11 was nearly impossible. They wanted to stop terrorists before they attacked. But how can you find somebody and stop them and lock them up for something before they actually do it, before they blow up a subway car or take down a building or commit a crime?

Dr. William Banks

There's a dilemma, then, for the government, particularly if you've got a group of individuals who you've been surveilling for some time who look like the they fit some profile of would-be terrorists, but they're in the country lawfully and they've committed no crime. On what basis do you take them off the street?

Ira Glass

This is William Banks, the head of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University, which did a study looking at the terrorism cases that the Justice Department has prosecuted since 9/11. And he says that what the government decided to do about this dilemma was simply prosecute people that it found suspicious with any charges that it can make stick. At least it would get them off the street.

Dr. William Banks

And that meant arresting, detaining, for a variety of different reasons-- what you might call the kitchen-sink approach, throw it all and see what sticks. And that's not very pretty and it's not very efficient.

Ira Glass

Take one of the best known cases, one that you may have heard of, the Lackawanna Six. These are six young American men, Muslims, who lived outside Buffalo in the town of Lackawanna Back before September 11, they went to Pakistan and Afghanistan for religious instruction. In Afghanistan, they were taken to an Al-Qaeda training camp. Osama bin Laden was there, they met him. After 10 days, one of the guys didn't like what he was seeing and hearing and he left early. Three other guys also left early. They came back to the United States.

Dr. William Banks

When they returned, there was an anonymous tip given to the FBI, and FBI began serious surveillance of them. And they were in that classic dilemma that I just described: were they a sleeper cell waiting for instructions from somewhere else to carry out a terrorist attack in the United States, or are they just curious young men who happened to travel and simply made a mistake and come back to resume their lives in Buffalo?

Ira Glass

Dozens of FBI agents had them on 24-hour surveillance and they did nothing illegal. So eventually the authorities just couldn't wait any longer and hauled them in. Attending the terrorist camp was material support of terrorism and thus illegal by itself. The men plead guilty, got 8-10 years each. And we still don't know if they were, in fact, a sleeper cell. We don't know if they were terrorists. And this is difficult. Because these cases are all about getting people before they do anything bad, in most of these cases we never find out if the people were really connected to terrorism.

Today on our radio program, we have the story of another one of the biggest cases that the Justice Department's had on the War on Terror, one of the few that's actually gone to trial. Again, they went after a guy who had not done anything wrong, and they convicted him. On WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. This story takes place in the world of international illegal arms sales and the world of wiretaps and informants and prosecutors. You'll be hearing FBI surveillance tape, you'll hear from the man who got put away, and you'll hear from the U.S. attorney who led the team that put him away. Petra Bartosiewicz has the story, which we're devoting our whole show to today.

Act One.

Petra Bartosiewicz

What you're about to hear is a victory speech almost four years in the making. It's April 23 of this year and the US Attorney is giving a press conference on the steps of the federal courthouse in Newark announcing the conviction of Hemant Lakhani.

Christopher Christie

Good morning. My name is Christopher Christie, I'm the United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey. The jury has spoken, and Hemant Lakhani is not a women's clothing salesman. He's been found guilty on all counts for attempting to lend material support to terrorists, money laundering, smuggling, illegal brokering of weapons. Today is a triumph for the Justice Department and the war against terror. I don't know that anyone can say that the state of New Jersey and this country is not a safer place without Hemant Lakhani trotting around the globe attempting to broker arms deals.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Later, the very same day, in the Passaic County lockup sits the convicted terrorist sympathizer Hemant Lakhani.

Hemant Lakhani

(CRYING).

Petra Bartosiewicz

Oh, I'm sorry.

Hemant Lakhani is a liar, a shameless braggart, a snob. He's amoral, selfish, and he's greedy. But the thing is, if you hear his story, it's hard to believe that on his own he would have ever succeeded in buying or delivering a missile to a terrorist group. In fact, he's an amazingly incompetent illegal arms trader. And it's not at all clear that the world or New Jersey are any safer with him off the streets.

Hemant Lakhani

How is Mrs. Lakhani?

Petra Bartosiewicz

She's OK, I'm going to talk to her later.

That's me comforting him, telling him I'm sorry, that his wife is going to be OK. The truth is, I'm not sure I'm exactly sorry, and I don't really know if his wife is going to be OK. But when an old man is sitting next to you crying like that reminiscing about their life together, what else are you going to say?

Hemant Lakhani

By putting me away for 100 years or 5 years or 50 years, what do you think they're doing? Do you think that terrorism is going to stop? I have nothing to do with terrorism. I'm not Muslim, I'm not a part of Al-Qaeda or Hamas or Hamas anything. And what am I going to get from America? What have I got against America? Why?

Petra Bartosiewicz

Hemant Lakhani is 70-years-old. He is Indian, but he's a British citizen who lived in London for decades. And all his life, he's made his living by being a salesman of one sort or another. Clothing, rice, oil, armored personnel carriers-- more on that later-- and lately, it seems, an illegal shoulder-fired missile. So how did a salesman, a guy with no criminal history whatsoever, become a target in the War on Terror? Bad timing has a lot to do with it. As it happened, the US Attorney who sent him to prison, Christopher Christie, was nominated to his job by President Bush on September 10, 2001. His office has this huge conference room with giant windows facing lower Manhattan.

Christopher Christie

We're sitting in my conference room doing this interview, you look out those windows, you have an unobstructed view of of Manhattan. And people sat in this conference room and watched both buildings collapse. And so the atmosphere when I came in a few months later after my confirmation was still one of real crisis and of real sadness, and it was enormously stressful.

And I can tell you that in my first six months here, I was confronted on a weekly basis with a widow or a child who had lost their family. In my own parish at home we lost two people. In my children's school, there were three parents who were killed. And they look to you now-- you're the US Attorney-- and they look to you to say, are we safe? And so that was the atmosphere when you walked in, and that was the atmosphere under which Lakhani started. You have to place everything that happens in the early parts of Lakhani in that context, that we were intent, as prosecutors-- and I believe the agents felt this way, too-- of making sure it wasn't going to happen again.

We clearly now had a brand new mandate from the President and the Attorney General. And the mandate was prevent a terrorist attack, not solve it after it happens, but prevent it. And I don't think people still understand what a sea change that was for federal law enforcement in this country.

Petra Bartosiewicz

So it's understandable that Christie's interest was piqued when he heard a report from an informant about Hemant Lakhani his very first week on the job.

Christopher Christie

It was in a normal weekly terrorism briefing on the fact that we had this informant who was telling us that there was someone who approached him regarding his willingness to broker missile sales.

Petra Bartosiewicz

That informant is the next important piece of this story. To explain his part in it, we actually have to go back a couple decades to Lahore, Pakistan, to an American Drug Enforcement Administration agent named Charles Lee. Lee was a former seminarian who, sitting on the toilet one day at school, happened to pick up a Reader's Digest and opened it to a New York cop story called "Merchants of Heroin". He was so taken with the story that he quit the seminary the very next day and became a federal agent. He ended up stationed in Lahore. One day, a contact brought this guy to his office named Habib, who said he wanted to work for the US government on drug cases.

Charles Lee

He talked about some people that we were quite interested in. I asked him about a particular individual up in Northwest Frontier that we had had no success with. He was wanted in, I believe, at least two or three judicial districts. And he was already indicted, all we needed to do is get him out, but you couldn't even get the Army to go after these people up there. So Habib said that he could get this person out. I thought, well, nothing could be a better acid test than to try that with Habib to begin with, because if he could do that, he must be able to do just about anything. And here, Habib comes along and in no time flat, delivered this guy right out. Kaboom, we had him. And well, it made a believer out of all of us. This guy obviously could do it. So that started it. So everybody loved Habib then.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Habib turned out to be a great informant. For about a year and a half, he and lee made case after case. Then one day, Habib's cover was suddenly blown. A drug dealer tried to kill him, and Lee swooped in to save him. Within 24 hours, Habib and his family were in the US. But now he had no job and no support. So after a while, he tracked down Lee who, by then, had returned to the US and asked him if he could do DEA cases in the States. Lee tried to discourage him, telling him he'd done enough. But Habib was persistent and they started working together again.

But Lee says Habib wasn't on top of his game because he wasn't on his native turf, and because he was just plain burned out. And that came to light during one investigation where Habib tried to incriminate a guy who, in Lee's words, was not a doper, period. Lee couldn't figure out what Habib's motive was for setting the guy up.

Charles Lee

When that happens, it calls into question this guy's abilities and his veracity and, I mean, it calls everything into question. Asking him about it, he didn't have the answers. And when you don't have the answers in this game, it's good night. So rather than trying to second guess a bunch of that, you just close this guy out. That's the end of him. Unreliable. So Lee dropped Habib and fell out of touch with him, until one day he showed up at his house broke, and once again pleading for Lee's help.

Petra Bartosiewicz

By this time, Lee had retired. Still, he felt guilty for abandoning Habib, who had risked his life for the government and who he considered a friend. So he went ahead and introduced him to the FBI. He figured Habib might be tapped out on drug cases, but maybe he could do some other kinds of informing, like in terrorism investigations. And at the same time, Lee started a rice importing business with him. He thought it would help get Habib on his feet permanently. But pretty soon, he found out Habib had ripped him off. He'd sold the same shipment twice, and Lee had to make good on $25,000 he'd stolen from a customer. And then he found out Habib had ripped other people off, too, had threatened people, said he could get people killed. Lee was floored. He cut off Habib completely. He also typed up a nine-page letter about what he learned and delivered it to Habib's FBI handler.

Charles Lee

I mean, if you find out about it, you better end your relationship with him. It's really, at that point, not even a judgment call.

Petra Bartosiewicz

He never heard back from the FBI, but the FBI did, in fact, deactivate Habib sometime after Lee sent his letter. And then, after 9/11, Habib's experience and language skills suddenly made him a hot property, and different FBI Bureaus were fighting over him. He ended up in the Newark Bureau, which is also the jurisdiction of US Attorney Chris Christie. It's Habib who first spotted Hemant Lakhani and brought him to the attention of the FBI. When Lee heard about the case, he was stunned that the FBI was talking to Habib at all.

Charles Lee

I was surprised. I don't know. It went through my mind, I wonder how they could justify doing that? I wondered if it was a legit case. I'm sure these terrorism cases are exceedingly difficult to make, and exceedingly difficult to break into. And therein lies the temptation to reactivate a guy like Habib. Maybe they took him out and dusted him off and put him back to work.

Petra Bartosiewicz

So here's how Habib ended up at the center of one of the biggest post-9/11 terrorism-related cases. Habib knew an Indian gangster named Abdul Kayum, who also knew Lakhani. Just to clear up a confusing thing about the tape you're about to hear, Habib's full name is Mohammed Habib Rehman, and the government refers to him as Rehman. But his nickname is Hajji, a term of respect for a Muslim who has made the Hajj, the pilgrim's trip to Mecca. So other people call him Hajji. Here's US Attorney Chris Christie.

Christopher Christie

The ties that Lakhani was claiming to have to us to the terrorist whose last name was Kayum was one that was of particular interest to us. The fact that Kayum even knew who Lakhani was-- you know, I don't know what a women's clothing salesman is doing being associated well enough with someone like Kayum to wind up having Kayum be able to recommend him to someone like Rehman.

Petra Bartosiewicz

A word here about Abdul Kayum. He's suspected of a series of bomb attacks in Bombay in 1993. Kayum's name is on terrorist watch lists around the world, and Lakhani's association with him is one of the most incriminating things about this case, and something Lakhani has never been able to explain away. What we do know is that in the fall of 2001, Kayum was sitting in Lakhani's hotel room in Dubai-- a hotel they both regularly stayed at, Lakhani says-- talking business.

At the time, Lakhani's career was in something of a slump. He had been a successful clothing importer, but when that fell apart in the early 1980s, he went into other stuff. He bought a rice business, and later a small Indian airline. But those went under after a while too. He tried to recoup his losses by brokering various other deals. His latest one was an oil refinery deal. At the moment when he was sitting in the hotel room with Kayum, he was looking for oil investors. At some point, Kayum gets a call on his cell phone from Rehman, aka Hajji, who Kayum knows only as a rich businessman.

Hemant Lakhani

So what happened is that Kayum said that Hajji is a very powerful man in America, he's worth, himself, a few hundred million dollars. And maybe he can help you, speak to him. So I said, oh hi, Mr. Hajji, hello. And then he tells me that I believe that you're looking for a financier for a refinery project. So I thought he must be a powerful man.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Of course, he was nothing of the sort. At this point, Rehman was making his living as an FBI informant, and had actually racked up a string of unpaid debts. But Lakhani knew none of this. So Rehman starts to feel Lakhani out to see if he could be of interest to the FBI. He calls him over several months. Henry Klingeman, Lakhani's defense attorney, says at this point, the informant saw Lakhani as his meal ticket.

Henry Klingeman

A meal ticket, dupe, patsy. Rehman is everything Lakhani's not. He's smart, he's savvy.

Petra Bartosiewicz

When Rehman reports back to the FBI, the information looks incredibly promising. He describes Lakhani as a major weapons trafficker to terrorist groups in at least five countries. Again, Henry Klingeman.

Henry Klingeman

I'm looking at a set of handwritten notes prepared by the FBI agent who handled the informant. The notes are dated December 19, 2001, and they include his summary of what the informant said to him about Lakhani, specifically that Lakhani was a main weapons trafficker tied to Pakistani, Indian criminals, Sri Lankan terrorists, Nepal and United Arab Emirates terrorists, that Lakhani is a broker of crude oil from Iraq-- and again, this was during the time of the embargo. Saddam Hussein was still in power and Iraqi oil was embargoed.

That Lakhani was supplying weapons to the Mojahedin, the holy warriors in Kashmir, that he was best friends with the Ukrainian Prime Minister-- no name given-- and that he was worth $300 to $400 million, meaning Lakhani. Lakhani, who lives in a semi-detached London home in a London suburb. Two old cars in the garage. With respect to what weapons Lakhani claimed he could sell, the agent's notes indicate that the informant told the agents that Lakhani could sell large-scale weapons, including missiles, anti-aircraft guns, any type of weapons.

Petra Bartosiewicz

On January 17, 2002, Lakhani and Rehman finally meet for the first time in Newark. Now the investigation kicks into gear. The government surveillance tapes are rolling. They show grainy black and white images of Lakhani sitting across a large table from Rehman. They're in a room at the Gateway Hilton overlooking Newark Airport, and clearly Rehman is now trying to initiate a deal with Lakhani. And just as clearly, Lakhani is eager to oblige. The two men speak in Urdu and Hindi, and the translation sounds sort of like English-language instructional videos. Rehman's translator is the first voice you'll hear.

Rehman's Translator

Actually, the main thing is--

Lakhani's Translator

You mean the guns for fighting?

Rehman's Translator

Yes, the guns, and the anti-aircraft guns.

Lakhani's Translator

Yes, they're available.

Rehman's Translator

Do you have something latest, latest missiles, something sinister, just like Stinger with an effective range of at least 15,000 feet?

Lakhani's Translator

Yes, available.

Rehman's Translator

Give me the details about that one.

Lakhani's Translator

The main thing is the anti-aircraft gun.

Rehman's Translator

Yes, the anti-aircraft gun and anything else you think is important. Ammo?

Lakhani's Translator

In ammo, I can give you whatever you want. Anything you ask for, every gun and everything, as much as you want.

Rehman's Translator

Do these people also have submarines?

Lakhani's Translator

Yes, they're expert in this.

Rehman's Translator

Good.

Henry Klingeman

I mean, this is a guy who promised to sell submarines to the informant if the informant wanted them. That's the kind of thing that ought to make an FBI agent listening to the conversation just take his headphones off and shake his head. Why are we doing this? This guy is promising to sell submarines. It's preposterous. I mean, the one thing he didn't offer was an aircraft carrier or a space shuttle. But if he had asked them for one, I'm sure he could tell you that Lakhani could get you both. Lakhani supposedly told the informant that he-- meaning Lakhani-- has people in the US government. And next to that, it says, obtains weapons, NVG-- which, as we've said, is night vision goggles-- so the obvious implication is that Lakhani has contacts within our own government from whom he obtains weapons, including night vision goggles.

Rehman's Translator

And also get me order for night vision goggles.

Lakhani's Translator

What is that?

Rehman's Translator

That's something for seeing at night.

Lakhani's Translator

Are they buying it?

Rehman's Translator

Yes, they need a lot of them. It is their demand.

Lakhani's Translator

What, sunglasses?

Henry Klingeman

And it's just evident that he has no idea what this guy is talking about. And they had a similar conversation about plutonium. Supposedly, Lakhani bragged to the informant that he could get plutonium in 22-pound bottles. Now, how he came up with an increment, one can only imagine. But in any event, the informant mentions PLU 135, which is plutonium. And again, Lakhani betrays an absolute ignorance about what this guy is talking about.

Petra Bartosiewicz

None of the claims that Rehman initially made about the Lakhani checked out, not one of them. Not the supposed arms deals or the nuclear material or the personal wealth. Though it's very possible that the source of this bad information was Lakhani himself. Klingeman describes his client as a name dropper who associated himself with real events and real people, but actually had nothing to do with them. To be sure, his bragging is boundless. Here's a small sample, taken, mind you, from just one conversation.

Hemant Lakhani

The richest man in London as an Indian is concerned, I was the richest man. This was Lakhani in those days. And when I used to get done at the airport, there was a red carpet for Lakhani. Red carpet. Nothing, not blue or green, a red carpet was given to me. Why? Because I was the most important man. I became very friendly with the Royal Family, and it's a fact. And they used to love me. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] is the [UNINTELLIGIBLE], you know that. I know him very well, believe me.

Petra Bartosiewicz

He claimed to have lunch with Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street. Said he knew Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, the President of Congo. When I first visited him in prison, I asked him if he really knew all these people. He told me, you want to meet Tony Blair? Give me 48 hours and he'll be in your house.

So it's quite possible that Lakhani lied to Rehman about who he was, or maybe Rehman exaggerated. Understandably, this isn't something the government wants to contemplate. Here's US Attorney Chris Christie.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Did you ever feel at any point in the investigation that he oversold Lakhani even a little bit on some of those things that didn't seem to pan out, like his $300 to $400 million net worth, that he was a major arms trafficker in numerous countries?

Christopher Christie

You know, listen. I'm not going to sit around and second guess it. What was done was done, and I think ultimately the jury decided that question.

Petra Bartosiewicz

For Christie, it was enough that Lakhani knew Kayum, and that he had done at least one arms deal before he met the informant. That was enough experience in the arms trade to be suspicious.

Hemant Lakhani

Like if you came to me today, Petra, and said to me, Chris, give me a brochure on the Stinger missile and see if you could fax it to me. Just because I'm doing this program, and if you could get it for me. I wouldn't know the first place to start. Where do I get a brochure on Stinger missile or on an Igla missile. I would have no idea where to start. I don't know if you'd have an idea of where to start. Lakhani knew.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Actually, if you Google the word Stinger, missile, and brochure, you can find a Stinger sales brochure in a few seconds. And the one arms deal the government knew Lakhani was part of went like this. As an assistant to another broker, Lakhani had helped arrange the sale of some armored personnel carriers to Angola for use by the President of Angola. Proper paperwork was filed with various governments. Everything was above board. It was all perfectly legal. If you push Christie, he'll admit that at the end of the day, Lakhani wasn't exactly a criminal mastermind or even a very good salesman, but he was the suspect they had. They couldn't predict where the next attack on America might come from, so they'd investigate Lakhani as aggressively as possible to see where he might lead them and who he might lead them to.

So they begin to ratchet up the case. The informant Rehman tells Lakhani he wants to order 200 missiles. But first, Lakhani has to prove he can deliver. He needs to get just one, a sample, and he needs to ship it to Newark. There's talk of hundreds of thousands in profits and a half million dollar bonus. Then Rehman tells Lakhani that he represents a Somali terrorist group called the Ogaden Liberation Front-- a real organization, by the way, but not a terrorist one. And at a certain point well into the deal, Rehman tells the group wants to start Jihad in America, and throws in a reference to Al-Qaeda for good measure. Lakhani, usually talkative on any subject, seems to have no reaction to this news. "Boss, you have no idea how much money there is in this business", Rehman says.

If you ask Lekhani why he did it, he can't really explain. He says it wasn't ideological or political, and he claims he didn't need the money. The best answer he came up with when my producer, Sarah Koenig, and I interviewed him was, well, voodoo. And a lot of long distance phone calls.

Petra Bartosiewicz

By the second meeting, you had already agreed to try to get this stuff for him. Why did you do that?

Hemant Lakhani

Well, I told you it was a mistake.

Sarah Koenig

To say it's a mistake, it seems to be understating the activity. It's more than a mistake. It's a serious decision to enter into something that's potentially--

Hemant Lakhani

You're interrupting me.

Petra Bartosiewicz

It's a legitimate question. There's a guy who you have some doubts about, he's asking you for things that you know are illegal, basically. You have other priorities with your oil deal, you're trying to get financing, why do you bother to go forward with this guy?

Hemant Lakhani

Well, it happened. He induced me. You can call it inducing. He induced me, that's all I can tell you. I have no other reply.

Petra Bartosiewicz

What does that mean, exactly, to you, though? How did he get to you? You are very worldy, you know many people, you've done these deals before, how is that he is able to convince you?

Hemant Lakhani

He induced me, that's all I can tell you. He induced me. Nothing more. I was not greedy, I was not looking for extra money or big money or small money, because money isn't an object in my life. But he induced me. Somehow he made some kind of magic on me and I could say no. Whatever happened, I don't know. And he used to bother me like nobody's business. He would bother me 10 times a day. Sometimes-- I can show you the transcript-- call number one, call number two, call number three, call number four, call number five. 10:05, 5:11, 5:20. 300 telephone calls he has made. What about these, what about that?

Sarah Koenig

He just annoyed you into it?

Hemant Lakhani

Not annoyed, but he would not leave me alone.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Did you ever get suspicious that he was so persistent?

Hemant Lakhani

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

Did you want him to like you?

Hemant Lakhani

Well, I don't think anybody who dislikes me in my life. Nobody has disliked me.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Klingeman, his attorney, says Lakhani didn't seem at all bothered by the phone calls and attention. In fact, he says, his reaction was just the opposite. Fundamentally, what drove him was a desire to be part of something. He had failed in business and, to a great extent, he had failed in life. He's an old man. And this was his chance to be part of something. He enjoyed the flattery and the attention of the informant and he enjoyed the phone calls, he enjoyed the globetrotting, and I think that more than anything else is what drove him.

Henry Klingeman

Here was someone coming to Mr. Lakhani, a sad sack, Willy Loman of a character and saying, you're a big boss, you're a big man, you have connections. Help me. And Mr. Lakhani has never heard this from anyone before.

Petra Bartosiewicz

But was Lakhani just a sad sack? It's true, a lot of the business deals Lakhani bragged about seem like complete fabrications. But some of them were real. And his wife, Kusum, showed me photos proving that he moved in some pretty fancy circles.

Kusum Lakhani

This is a photo of prince of Abu Dhabi who came to play polo with Prince Charles, and we visited the grounds. Prince Charles is shaking hands with my husband, and I am standing by on the side.

Petra Bartosiewicz

But then again, there are so many odd moments in the FBI tapes, moments where Lakhani just seems out of his element. One minute he'd be talking about weapons systems, the next he'd be offering a diamond deal or scrap metal, anything. Here's an exchange where Lakhani is weirdly candid about what he thought his first meeting with Rehman was going to be about. Lakhani is speaking first here.

Lakhani's Translator

When you first met me, did you have any idea that you will be doing this? How did this happen?

Rehman's Translator

Yes, I was looking for a serious person. After meeting with you, I felt that this could also be done.

Lakhani's Translator

OK, to be honest, my idea was this: you told me there are so many Mexican people and they eat a lot of mangoes. Do you remember the mangoes from India? It was my idea to import mangoes from India. I'm telling the truth.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Mangoes. And then, without missing a beat, Lakhani goes right back to discussing weapons. Then there's this exchange about Indian sweets. To me, he seems like an insecure man here, desperate to please. Again, Lakhani speaks first and he mentions Kusum, his wife.

Lakhani's Translator

Eat the sweets I brought for you, they are very high class. Try this one.

Rehman's Translator

Wow.

Lakhani's Translator

Is it your favorite one?

Rehman's Translator

Yes, I like it very much.

Lakhani's Translator

Yes, it is balushahi.

Rehman's Translator

This is my favorite.

Lakhani's Translator

Kusum told me you would like it.

Rehman's Translator

Yes, I like it most.

Lakhani's Translator

Believe me, Kusum said you would like balushahi.

Rehman's Translator

Yes.

Lakhani's Translator

She was saying this sweet is very good, even I did not know it.

Rehman's Translator

Really, it is very delicious.

Lakhani's Translator

Kusum was saying so. I will call her right now and tell her that you like balushahi.

Rehman's Translator

Haha, that's what I told you.

Lakhani's Translator

So she was right.

Rehman's Translator

Will you eat some?

Lakhani's Translator

Yes, definitely. Kusum was saying you will like it. Is it true?

Rehman's Translator

Yes.

Lakhani's Translator

Oh, this is very tasty.

Petra Bartosiewicz

But ask US Attorney Chris Christie about it, and it turns out he reads the scene completely differently.

Christopher Christie

I absolutely agree with your description of him in that way, but I take something completely different from it. I don't think that he's this inane guy, which is what I'm getting from you. This is an idiot sitting there talking about the sweets he got and why doesn't he get to the missile deal already? But the fact of the matter is Lakhani's trying to be a nice guy, a good guy. He's trying to get on this guy's good side no matter what he has to do to do it because he wants to make the deal.

This is the conduct of a person who's a salesman. I don't care what you're selling, whether it's a used car, women's clothing, or a missile. The deal is to get a customer who's willing to buy, and who buys from you. And he thinks, this guy could go to somebody else if he gets frustrated with me so I'm going to try to keep him close. And that's the way I view that interaction.

Ira Glass

Coming up, in the words of the old saying, keep your friends close, keep your shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile closer. Our story about Hemant Lakhani continues in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

This is American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today, we're devoting our whole show to the story of the government prosecution of Hemant Lakhani on terrorism-related charges. For nearly two years, Lakhani spoke with government informant Mohammed Habib Rehman. Again, here's Petra Bartosiewicz.

Petra Bartosiewicz

It did seem Lakhani would say anything to please Rehman. Whatever item Rehman requested, anti-aircraft weapons, landmines, radioactive suitcase bombs, his answer was always the same: it is available. Here's Lakhani in the second meeting promising to get Rehman Russian-made Igla missiles, the surface-to-air, shoulder-fired kind.

Lakhani's Translator

How many do you want?

Rehman's Translator

About 200.

Lakhani's Translator

It will be done. It will be arranged immediately. I will go there on Sunday. The delivery will be ready on Monday.

Petra Bartosiewicz

He says this on April 25, 2002, that he'll deliver on Monday. But the truth is Lakhani can't deliver on Monday and he can't deliver for the next year. Lakhani's problem isn't just that he can't deliver the missile, it's that he can't actually acquire one. So even though he's promising Rehman the deal is nearly done, in fact there is no deal. Month after month after month, he puts Rehman off and Rehman, understandably, is getting impatient. Here's Lakhani's attorney, Henry Klingeman, again.

Henry Klingeman

In terms of the chronology, between January, 2002 and August of 2003, there's a pattern. And there's no point in going conversation by conversation because the conversations are all the same. The informant says, what's happening? Lakhani says the deal is done. The informant says, well, where's the missile? Lakhani says, it'll be here any day. And the missile never shows up and the informant calls back two days later and says, well, what's happening? Lakhani says, the deal is done. The informant says, well, where's the missile? Lakhani says, it will be here any day. And then it just goes on and on and on.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Lakhani's one, and possibly only, weapons contact with the Ukrainian state-controlled arms manufacturer, a company called Uker Spitz Export. This was the company that Lakhani got the armored personnel carriers from in the Angola deal. He showed Rehman their weapons brochures, but to buy missiles from them, he'd need special government paperwork, which he didn't have. So he started asking around in some shadier corners of the former Soviet republics. Apparently, he wasn't so subtle about it because soon enough, the FSB, the Russian Security Service, caught wind of it and started tracking Lakhani. Here's Chris Christie.

Christopher Christie

At some point, Russian law enforcement-- the FSB contacted the FBI to let them know that they knew Lakhani was contacting legitimate sources in the old Soviet Union in an attempt to buy these missiles. Well, I know at that point for me, the light bulb really went on and I said, this guy's for real. He knew the right people to call.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Still, Lakhani couldn't seem to get one. Months passed. The US government had given Lakhani a buyer, but they were getting tired of waiting for him to drum up a seller. If only he'd find a missile, their case could be done. So they get him a missile. They cook up a plan with the Russians. FSB agents posing as arms dealers sell Lakhani a dummy missile, real in every respect except that it had no munitions. Even an expert would have been fooled. Lakhani falls for it. He even watches the missile being loaded onto a ship in Saint Petersburg that he thinks will carry it to the US. What he didn't know is that the American government had spirited the phony missile onto an airplane. They eventually delivered it to Rehman's hotel room in Newark, in full view of the hidden FBI camera. When Lakhani saw it there, he was shocked. Not that it had arrived in New Jersey, but that it was luxuriating in a suite at the Gateway Hilton.

Petra Bartosiewicz

What were you expecting when you went to the hotel?

Hemant Lakhani

I was expecting to discuss everything, that's all. I never thought that the missile would be sitting on the sofa.

Petra Bartosiewicz

[LAUGHING]

Hemant Lakhani

Yeah, that's it. I see the box lying exactly in the middle of the sofa, the big one. Not the two side ones, but the middle one. I said, he is a guest of you? And I'm surprised, I told him, how did it come? He said, Lakhani, I told you. In America you can smuggle anything. So I said, you are a very powerful man, Mr. Hajji. That's what I told him. And then he wanted to open it. I said, no, don't open it because I'm scared because I don't know how to even open. Which is right side or wrong side? I don't know nothing about it.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Here's the video of that moment. Lakhani speaks first.

Lakhani's Translator

That is so wonderful. Allah fulfilled your wish. The stuff arrived here. What a big thing.

Rehman's Translator

Please sit down.

Lakhani's Translator

This box, how it arrive here?

Rehman's Translator

Yes, it is here. Boss, what did I tell you? I told you that you can smuggle anything into America. Didn't I tell you?

Lakhani's Translator

Yes, the same box.

Rehman's Translator

That's right, the same box.

Lakhani's Translator

Yes, I raise my hands. I can't believe what we have done.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Realizing the deal is almost finished, Lakhani becomes so delighted, he leans over the box holding the missile, puts both his hands over his head, and shakes them around as if he's trying to amuse a newborn baby. A few things seem clear here. First of all, he doesn't know the first thing about how this missile works, not even which end is the shooting end. And it seems obvious he's never done anything like this before. He makes a few illegal weapons sale faux pas even your mother wouldn't make. Earlier the deal, he'd offered to pay for the missile with a personal check. Later, he hand-wrote an IOU for it to a Russian agent using his full name, Hemant Shantalil Lakhani. But here's my favorite. Rehman is first here.

Rehman's Translator

Boss, here is another thing. It has a serial number.

Lakhani's Translator

What does it mean?

Rehman's Translator

This is the serial number, and we don't need it.

Lakhani's Translator

Why not?

Rehman's Translator

Because.

Lakhani's Translator

It can be caught.

Rehman's Translator

It can be tracked from the serial number.

Lakhani's Translator

It is good that you've told me.

Rehman's Translator

Look here, I have removed it.

Lakhani's Translator

So you don't need it?

Rehman's Translator

Right.

Petra Bartosiewicz

What's also clear, though, is that Lakhani knows perfectly well what Rehman wants to do with the missile. They've pulled the curtain back from the hotel window and are holding up the missile as they survey the airplanes parked on the tarmac at Newark Airport.

Rehman's Translator

Boss, from here, if four, five, or six planes fall, what will happen?

Lakhani's Translator

They will be badly shaken.

Rehman's Translator

What will happen to their economy?

Lakhani's Translator

If it happens 10 or 15 places simultaneously at the same time--

Rehman's Translator

You mean different airports at the same time?

Lakhani's Translator

The same time is very important. They will think the war has started.

Hemant Lakhani

So he's putting on my shoulder and he says, look, now from here you can see the airport and we can shoot. And he asks me, how many airports? I said, look, I only know JFK, that's all. I don't know, I've never dealt within America, so I can't tell you anything. He says, no no, 10 airport. And what is the best time? I said, the best time is the busiest time is either on Monday or Friday. That's all I told him. Which is the busiest time, not the best time. Busiest time.

Petra Bartosiewicz

To do what?

Hemant Lakhani

To shoot.

Lakhani's Translator

Say, Sunday morning at 10 o'clock?

Rehman's Translator

Like Sunday morning.

Lakhani's Translator

In the morning, around 10:00 or 10:15 or 10:20 when all are still sleeping or whatever.

Rehman's Translator

What is the busiest day for flights?

Lakhani's Translator

Monday.

Rehman's Translator

Monday?

Lakhani's Translator

Yes, Monday or Friday.

Sarah Koenig

You've got a missile on your shoulder-- or he does, I don't know.

Hemant Lakhani

He does.

Sarah Koenig

He does, OK. And you're looking at airplanes and he's saying, when's the busiest time? And he's talking clearly about shooting down a commercial airplane.

Hemant Lakhani

Who started this? September 17, he said that I'm buying this for the purpose of shooting civilian airlines.

Sarah Koenig

What did you think of this purpose? Did you think that was a good idea?

Hemant Lakhani

Not at all. I thought he was joking.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Sitting in jail, Lakhani went on to say that he thought the weapons were to be used in Africa in tribal skirmishes in Kenya or Nigeria or wherever, but even his own lawyer told us he didn't buy that one. The tape of this last meeting on August 12, 2003 just peters out. That's because at a certain point, Rehman leaves the room and six federal agents come in and arrest Lakhani. Once he understands the meetings are on tape, he pretty much confesses, saying something like, I'm sorry. You know everything. But even then, Lakhani still didn't quite comprehend what was happening.

Kusum told me when she visited her husband in jail right after his arrest, he asked her where everyone else was, why Rehman wasn't sharing a cell with him. And that's when she told him. There is no one else. You're it. She said Lakhani was dumbfounded. He'd bought a fake missile from a fake arms dealer and delivered it to a fake terrorist. Every part of the crime had been supplied to him by the US government.

That was almost two years ago. Lakhani's case went to trial in January this year. The only defense available to him was entrapment, that if the government hadn't set him up, he would have never supplied a missile to a terrorist group or anyone else. At trial, the state would have to prove that Lakhani was ready and willing to do the deal, or that he was able to actually get the missile. Lakhani's lawyer told jurors that although he may be loathsome and an idiot, of the requirements, was only willing. Not ready, and certainly not able. Here's Lakhani's lawyer, Henry Klingeman.

Henry Klingeman

The entrapment defense is designed for people who are morally guilty, to be legally not guilty. In terms of a legal defense, this was a great defense on September 10 when cooler heads might have prevailed, because he was clearly entrapped.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Unfortunately for Lakhani, it was well past September 11, and what jurors saw was a man talking enthusiastically about shooting down airplanes. But the government's best weapon at the trial was the weapon itself. On the first day, FBI agents carried in a wooden box shaped like a coffin and set it down with a thud in front of the jury. Then the prosecutor opened the box and piece by piece it took out the missile, a long, green steel tube. Donna, a bank executive, was one of the jurors. She asked that we not use her last name.

Donna

I am known as juror number six from the Lakhani trial that took place in Newark, New Jersey. I listened very intently to both sides of the argument and day number one, I hadn't passed judgment. I was just very focused on making sure I took as many notes and not to let my emotions sway. Because as soon as I started to hear the bad things being said about America and Americans-- and I'm very patriotic-- they upset me. When I saw the missile being brought into the courtroom, they took it out and they passed it by the jurors, I cringed. Every time I saw the box, I cringed.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Donna soon found the evidence overwhelming. So did everybody else. Everybody except one person.

Gussie Burnett

My name is Gussie Burnett, I'm 65 years old, I work for Newark Public Schools and I'm a librarian.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Burnett, juror number nine, was the lone holdout.

Gussie Burnett

As far as I'm concerned, it was entrapment if he didn't actually do anything.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Some of the other jurors seem to think that Lakhani actually could have done this, that he could have gotten that missile if he tried long enough.

Gussie Burnett

Did he try for 22 months and then get one, after offering all these millions of dollars and he couldn't get a missile? No, he wasn't gonna never get no missile. And they knew he wasn't gonna get one either, that's why they bought it and set it right there in his lap. From day one, I just can't understand it. They came in and they sit down and they says, this man's guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty. They didn't even think about it. Hey, wait a minute. Let's analyze these things, let's do them one by one.

Petra Bartosiewicz

For a few hours, Burnett held her ground. It didn't go so well.

Donna

So I say, he's guilty, someone says, he's not guilty. And I say, he's guilty because look at page 48. And then someone else would say, well look at page 52. So everyone trying to make themselves heard, voices started to rise so you could be heard over the crowd. The juror who felt that he was not guilty I think felt overwhelmed by probably a good six, seven, eight jurors talking loudly at the same time, that actually turned into screaming to be heard. It was probably very intimidating for her.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Because it was all directed at her.

Donna

Correct, because she was the only one that thought that he was not guilty.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Pretty soon, Burnett changed her vote.

Gussie Burnett

This is how that happened. I just closed on a house in January, and everybody in the jury room knew it because the court was closed down on April 25, so I could go close on the house. So when we came back, I think we started deliberating on a Wednesday. And we got to one count, and I said to the man, not guilty and there ain't nobody gonna change my mind. And the jury foreman said if I didn't go along with them, I wouldn't see the inside of my house until December. So I saw, what the hell. He don't mean nothing to me. This man guilty. But I know it was wrong. It wasn't right for me to do the man like that. It wasn't right. But it's over now.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Are you saying you regret your decision to find him guilty?

Gussie Burnett

Yeah. Yeah, I really do. Because as far as I'm concerned, the man was entrapped. I should have held out.

Petra Bartosiewicz

So the only person who bought Lakhani's defense caved in the jury room. It took just over seven hours. The jury found him guilty. In the end, the government spent almost two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars trapping a man who didn't seem to have any connection to any real terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Chris Christie says it's his main regret about the case, that Lakhani didn't lead them to any other suspects. We asked Christie if maybe the problem wasn't that Lakhani refused to talk but that he simply didn't know anything. I guess it's possible, Christie said. Even so, he's happy with the outcome because it proves that law enforcement is meeting its new mandate.

Christopher Christie

What Lakhani is emblematic of in the war on terrorism is, in the biggest way, the new American approach to law enforcement in the area of terrorism. We're going to try to catch people before they act.

Petra Bartosiewicz

But this very policy, as good as it sounds, is what worries people like Henry Klingeman.

Henry Klingeman

You could probably go to the Middle East and collar a random person on the street and ask them what they think of America and ask them what they would do if they were given the ability to send missiles to the United States, and you could probably find millions of people, sadly, who would say, I would do it in a heartbeat. You wouldn't even have to pay me and I would do it. Now, on the government's theory, we'd arrest all those people because they are willing to participate in this type of activity. And we'd say, well, we stopped them before they were able to actually do it. But those people may not be capable of getting involved in Jihad, whoever they are on the streets of Ramallah or the streets of Kabul or wherever.

But Mr. Lakhani was not in that position and was not inclined to do this type of thing. He was all too willing to do it when asked, but he was never going to do it until he was asked. And no one was going to ask him, because no real terrorist would ever go to Mr. Lakhani and ask him for anything. So if the government is going to go out and apprehend people before they even think about this stuff, or maybe after they think about it before they ever do anything about it, then we might as well put barbed wire around the entire Middle East, because that's really the logical conclusion on that policy.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Ask Christie about this and he says what might have been in Lakhani's case, whether he could have ever gotten the missile, isn't even relevant.

Sarah Koenig

You're saying that he's a person who facilitates terrorist activity. But actually, he's a person who potentially might have facilitated. I mean, the fact is there actually wasn't a terrorist group, there wasn't a missile, he didn't do this deal. So is the question-- I guess you see him as someone who really would have been approached by a terrorist. I'm not sure where the evidence is for that. How do you make that argument, really? It seems like it's all speculation to say, he might have turned into a bad guy.

Christopher Christie

No, I disagree with you. He was a bad guy. Once you find someone who is that, basically, amoral, then whether or not he was actually able to do it, that debate-- which I have one opinion of and the defense has another opinion of and maybe you have a slightly different opinion-- who cares? I mean, at the end, who cares? I don't have a crystal ball and I don't know, if this had fallen apart, what Hemant Lakhani would have done next. So the question is, confronted with those realities as American law enforcement, what we do? Do we ignore it because we say, maybe he could, maybe he couldn't? Let's see, let's see if he does.

I'm just not willing to take that chance, and I think most Americans would say the same thing. Hemant Lakhani was willing to sell missiles to a person he believed to be a terrorist, who expressly said he was going to use them to kill innocent people. And so there are good people and bad people. Bad people do bad things. Bad people have to be punished. These are simple truths. Bad people must be punished.

And so, he's not just a guy with four beers in him at the corner bar who says, if I could get a missile and I'd sell it to whoever if I could make a buck, that's not who we're talking about here. So let's not minimize him either. He's not Osama bin Laden, but let's not make him Elmer Fudd either. All I know is that he's not the kind of guy I want coming through Newark Airport. He's not the kind of guy I want in this country. That's the kind of guy I want in federal prison, and so that's where he's going to go. And at the end, that's the success of the Lakhani case.

Petra Bartosiewicz

In Washington, the Lakhani case is seen as one of the most successful prosecutions in the War on Terror. It was one of three cases the Justice Department cited in testimony before Congress when the Patriot Act came up for renewal as an example of proactive, preemptive prosecution, which is basically designed to catch terrorists and the people who give them money and help before they actually do anything. Here's then-US Attorney General, John Ashcroft, giving a talk at the American Enterprise Institute a week after Lakhani's arrest. The title of his speech was "Securing Our Liberty: How America is Winning the War on Terror".

John Ashcroft

Hemant Lakhani is an alleged arms dealer in Great Britain who is charged with attempting to sell shoulder-fired missiles to terrorists for use against American targets. The Lakhani investigation would not have been possible had American, Russian, and other foreign intelligence and law enforcement agencies not been able to coordinate and communicate the intelligence they had gained from various investigative tools.

Petra Bartosiewicz

But what's so hard to figure out is whether the government's methods are actually working. President Bush said recently that 400 people have been charged with terrorism-related crimes since the September 11 attacks, and that in over half of those cases, the defendants were convicted or pled guilty. But a recent investigation by the Washington Post, which spent six months examining almost every case, found that in reality, only 39 people, not 200, had been convicted of terrorism or national security-related crimes. And only 14 were connected to Al-Qaeda. Lakhani was counted as one of those 14.

Most of the cases involve people who maybe were suspects in terrorism investigations. But when the evidence didn't pan out, they were charged with some low-level offense, like overstaying a visa, and given a short prison sentence or just deported. In other words, the Patriot Act is good at generating a lot of cases like the Lakhani case, turning up suspicious people who may or may not have anything to do with terrorism. To be fair, these are the leads the government has, so these are the leads they pursue. And for now, most people seem to be fine with that because they're scared. Even Donna, the juror, who knew the Lakhani missile sale was all a fake set up by the government was still terrified by it.

Donna

Let's put it this way. I'm starting to look at colleges with my daughter. She's a junior in high school. I tell her, wherever we look, we're driving. I won't fly. Because now I realize how easy it is to take down a commercial airliner. You hear about suicide bombers and people that just don't care. Hopefully, my mind will change later on, but that box being wheeled into the courtroom is still too fresh in my mind. And you sit there and you think about innocent passengers losing their life and I won't fly.

Petra Bartosiewicz

So has the Lakhani case make you feel more secure or more afraid?

Donna

In some respects, it makes me feel more afraid because now I'm really aware of people out there that try to do harm. I feel secure with the FBI looking out for us, but unfortunately they're not going to be able to stop every terrorist or every accomplice trying to help terrorism.

Petra Bartosiewicz

That's the thing about the Lakhani case. Knowing its whole history makes you feel simultaneously comforted and afraid.

Ira Glass

Hemant Lakhani will be sentenced this summer. He's 70, there's a good chance he'll spend the rest of his life in prison. Petra Bartosiewicz is a reporter in New York City.

Our program is produced by Sarah Koenig and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder, Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Laura Bellows.

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Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org. You know, you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

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WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who usually calls me by one of these names:

Henry Klingeman

Meal ticket, dupe, patsy.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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