Transcript

387:

Arms Trader 2009
Transcript

Originally aired 08.07.2009

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/387

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK. I think we all can agree, this sounds really, really bad. Four guys from Newburgh, New York plant explosives at a synagogue and a Jewish community center in the Bronx. And they're arrested-- this is three months ago, they were arrested in May. They also, it turns out, had plans to fire Stinger surface-to-air missiles at military planes.

Aziz Huq

On the face of it, this case looks like a pretty shocking criminal act.

Ira Glass

Aziz Huq writes about the government's legal strategy in the war on terror. He's also the lawyer defending prisoners in a couple of these kinds of cases. And he says that, when you dig into the details of this particular case, it starts to look different.

Aziz Huq

Basically, what you have here is the most recent in a series of cases in which a alleged terrorism conspiracy is initiated, and pushed along, by a government informant. An older man, somebody in his 40s, who's wealthy coming to a mosque--

Ira Glass

This is the informant?

Aziz Huq

This is an informant. Coming to a mosque, finding people who are on the periphery of crime, and encouraging them and walking them toward somewhat an act of terrorist violence.

Ira Glass

And so the informant in this case, when he came upon these men, did they have this plan to attack the synagogue?

Aziz Huq

As far as anyone can tell, no.

Ira Glass

In other words, he wasn't stumbling upon an active terror cell?

Aziz Huq

Well, no. What we know is that, on the one hand, here you have a case where a group of people have done something, clearly reprehensible, clearly criminal. On the other hand, it's not clear whether absent this tremendous amount of money and time that is coming out of the government's coffers, there would have been any crime in the first place.

Ira Glass

The plastic explosives used in the bombing were actually provided by the government, through the informant, and they were fakes. The Stinger missile came through the informant, and it was incapable of firing. And the informant also drove them to the bombing. The perpetrators, meanwhile, are described in press accounts as sad sack petty criminals, whose previous crimes were snatching purses and trying to sell drugs to undercover cops, that kind of thing.

One is described as being addicted to crack and coke for years. Another took medication for schizophrenia and was reported to keep bottles of his own urine in his apartment. None of them seem to have ties to any known terrorist organizations. And this case is not unique. It comes out of a strategy that our government developed after September 11. The government wanted, understandably, to stop terrorists before they attacked. But, of course-- think about that for a second. What a difficult job. How can you find somebody and stop them and lock them up for something before they actually do it?

Well, what the government decided to do was go after people who seemed like they might someday get involved in a terrorist conspiracy. With any charges that it could make stick. At least it would get those people off the street. And sometimes that meant sending in an informant, to nudge suspicious people into doing something, like what those men in Newburgh did. Well, today on our program we have the amazing story of one of the first cases after 9/11 that did this.

The justice department went after a guy who hadn't done anything wrong. An informant helped him commit a crime, and they convicted him.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. This is a story that takes place in the world of international illegal arms sales. The world of wiretaps, and informants, and prosecutors. You are going to be hearing FBI surveillance tape. You'll hear from the man who got put away, and from the US Attorney who led the team that put him away. Petra Bartosiewicz has the story, which we are devoting our whole show to today. This originally ran on our program in 2005, right after the trial.

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.

Christoper 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 lending material support, attempting to lend material support to terrorists, money laundering, smuggling, illegal brokering of weapons.

Today is a triumph for the Justice Department in 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

[MAN CRYING]

Petra Bartosiewicz

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 they think they are going to do? They think that terrorism is going to stop? I have nothing to do with terrorism. I am not Muslim. I am not a part of Al Qaeda, or Hamas or of Hamas or anything. And what do I want against 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 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. And 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've got 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-- 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 preventive 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 open 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'd had no success-- he was wanted in, I believe, at least two or three judicial districts. And he was already indicted. All we needed to do was 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 then 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 awhile, he tracked down Lee, who, by then, had returned to the US and asked him if he could do DEA cases in the states. And they started working together again on drug cases. Lee also recommended him to the FBI, to use an informant on terrorism cases.

But Lee says Habib wasn't on top of his game. 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. 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, that'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.

Petra Bartosiewicz

There were other disappointments. Lee started a rice importing business with Habib. 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 off other people 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'd learned, and delivered it to Habib's FBI handler. Sometime after that the FBI deactivated Habib as one of its informants.

But then, after 9/11, things changed at the FBI. Though the agency had been warned how unreliable Habib could be, his 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 don't know. It went through my mind, I wonder how they can 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 that 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 cases. Habib knew an Indian gangster, a suspected terrorist named Abdul Kayum. Kayum also knew Lakhani. Here's US attorney Chris Christie.

Christopher Christie

The ties that Lakhani was claiming to have to us, to the terrorist whose last 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 with someone like Kayum.

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 Habib, the informant, who Kayum knows only as a rich businessman. Just to clear up a confusing thing about the tape you're about to hear, Habib's full name is Mohamed Habib Rahman, and the government refers to him as Rahman. But his nickname is Haji, a term of respect for a Muslim who has made the Haj, the pilgrim's trip to Mecca. So other people call him Haji.

Hemant Lakhani

So what happened was is that Kayum said that Haji is a very powerful man in America. He's worth himself but a few hundred million dollars. And maybe he can help you. Speak to him. So I say, oh, hi, Mr. Haji, hello. And then he tells me that, I believe that you are 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, Rahman 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 Rahman 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

Meal ticket. Dupe. Patsy. Rahman is everything Lakhani is not. He's smart, he's savvy.

Petra Bartosiewicz

When Rahman 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 Mujahideen, 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 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 Rahman 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 Rahman. They're in a room at the Gateway Hilton, overlooking Newark airport. And clearly, Rahman 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. Rahman's translator is the first voice you'll hear.

Rahman's Translator

Actually, the main thing is-

Lahkani's Translator

You mean the guns for fighting?

Rahman's Translator

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

Lahkani's Translator

Yes, they are available.

Rahman's Translator

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

Lahkani's Translator

Yes, available.

Rahman's Translator

Give me the details about that one.

Lahkani's Translator

The main thing is the anti-aircraft gun.

Rahman's Translator

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

Lahkani's Translator

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

Rahman's Translator

Do these people also have submarines?

Lahkani's Translator

Yes, they are expert in this.

Rahman'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 listing 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 the 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.

Rahman's Translator

And also get me order for night vision goggles.

Lakhani's Translator

What is that?

Rahman's Translator

That's something for seeing at night.

Lakhani's Translator

Are they buying it?

Rahman's Translator

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

Lakhani's Translator

What, sunglasses?

Henry Klingeman

It is 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 that 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 Rahman initially made about Lakhani checked out. Not one of them. Not that 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 is Indian [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. I was the richest man. This was Lakhani in those days. When I used to get down at the airport, there was a red carpet for Lakhani. Red carpet. 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 an [INAUDIBLE], 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 Moammar 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 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 Rahman about who he was. Or maybe Rahman 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.

Christopher Christie

Like if you came to me today, Petra, and said to me, Chris, get me a brochure on the Stinger missile, and see if you can fax it to me. Just because I'm doing this program, and if you could get it for me. You know, I wouldn't know the first place to start. Where do I get a brochure on a Stinger missile? Or on a 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 aboveboard. 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 Rahman 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 Rahman 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, Rahman tells him 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, Rahman says.

If you ask Lakhani 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.

Petra Bartosiewicz

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 are interrupting me. You were interrupting me. Why--

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 are 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? How did he get to you? You were very worldly, you know many people, you've done these deals before. How is it 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 is no object in my life. But he induced me. Somehow he made some kind of magic on me, and I could not say no. Or 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. Five past 10, 5:11, 5:20. Three hundred telephone calls he has made. What about these? What about that?

Petra Bartosiewicz

He just annoyed you into it?

Hemant Lakhani

Not annoyed, but, you know, he would not leave me alone.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Did you ever get suspicious that he was so persistent?

Hemant Lakhani

Yes.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Did you want him to like you?

Hemant Lakhani

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

Henry Klingeman

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 globe trotting. And I think that, more than anything else, is what drove him.

Here was someone coming the 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 seemed 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

This is 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'm 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's weirdly candid about what he thought his first meeting with Rahman 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'll be doing this? How did this happen?

Rahman'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 were 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.

Rahman's Translator

Wow.

Lakhani's Translator

Is it your favorite one?

Rahman's Translator

Yes, I like it very much.

Lakhani's Translator

Yes, it is balushahi.

Rahman's Translator

This is my favorite.

Lakhani's Translator

Kusum told me you would like it.

Rahman's Translator

Yes, I like it most.

Lakhani's Translator

Believe me, Kusum said you would like balushahi.

Rahman's Translator

Yes.

Lakhani's Translator

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

Rahman'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.

Rahman's Translator

That's what I told you.

Lakhani's Translator

So she was right.

Rahman's Translator

Will you eat some?

Lakhani's Translator

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

Rahman'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. You're thinking, like, this inane idiot is 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 is 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.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

It's This 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 Mohamed Habib Rahman. Again here's Petra Bartosiewicz.

Petra Bartosiewicz

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

Lakhani's Translator

How many do you want?

Rahman'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 Rahman the deal is nearly done, in fact, there is no deal. Month after month after month, he puts Rahman off and Rahman, 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 is 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, 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 that just goes on and on and on.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Lakhani's one, and possibly only, weapons contact was the Ukrainian state controlled arms manufacturer. A company called Uker Spitz Export. This was the company the Lakhani got the armored personnel carriers from in the Angola deal. He showed Rahman 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 the 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 was that the American government had spirited the phony missile onto an airplane. They eventually delivered it to Rahman'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

[LAUGHTER]

Hemant Lakhani

Yes. That's why I said, that's it. I see the box lying exactly in the middle of the sofa. The big one. Not the two side one, but the middle one. I said. "He's a guest of you?" Like-- 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. Haji." That's what I told him. And then he wanted to open it. And I said, no, don't open it, because I'm scared. But I don't know how do you 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.

Rahman's Translator

Please sit down.

Lakhani's Translator

This box, how it arrive here?

Rahman'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.

Rahman'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 weapon sales faux pas even your mother wouldn't make. Earlier in 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 Shantilal Lakhani.

But here's my favorite. Rahman is first here.

Rahman's Translator

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

Lakhani's Translator

What does it mean?

Rahman's Translator

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

Lakhani's Translator

Why not?

Rahman's Translator

Because.

Lakhani's Translator

It can be caught?

Rahman's Translator

It can be tracked from the serial number.

Lakhani's Translator

It is good that you have told me.

Rahman's Translator

Look here, I have removed it.

Lakhani's Translator

So you don't need it?

Rahman's Translator

Right.

Petra Bartosiewicz

What's also clear, though, is that Lakhani knows perfectly well what Rahman 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.

Rahman's Translator

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

Lakhani's Translator

They will be badly shaken.

Rahman's Translator

What will happen to their economy?

Lakhani's Translator

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

Rahman's Translator

You mean different airports at the same time?

Lakhani's Translator

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 say, "Look, I only know JFK airport. I don't know, I've never traveled within American. So I can't tell you anything." He said, "No, no. 10 airport. And what is the best time?" I said, "The best time is-- the busiest time is either 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.

Rahman'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.

Rahman's Translator

What is the busiest day for flights?

Lakhani's Translator

Monday.

Rahman's Translator

Monday?

Lakhani's Translator

Yes, Monday or Friday.

Petra Bartosiewicz

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

Hemant Lakhani

He does.

Petra Bartosiewicz

He does, OK. And you're looking at airplanes. And he's saying when is 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 am buying this for the purpose of shooting civil airlines.

Petra Bartosiewicz

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

Hemant Lakhani

Not at all. Well I thought he was joking.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Sitting in jail, Lakhani went on to say that he had thought the weapons were to be used in Africa, in some 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, Rahman 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 Rahman 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, Lakhani was only willing, not ready. And certainly not able. Here's Lakhani's lawyer Henry Klingeman.

Harry 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, 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 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 the 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

But did he try for 22 months and then get one? After offering all this-- millions of dollars. And he couldn't get a missile? No, he wasn't going to never get no missile. And they knew he wasn't going to get one, either. That's why they bought it. And set it right there in his lap. They just-- from day one, I just can't understand it. They came in and they sit down and they say, 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. Just go 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 tried to make themselves heard. Voices started to rise so 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 Virginia. 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, the man not guilty. Now, ain't nobody going to 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 said, oh, what the hell? He don't mean nothing to me, the man guilty.

But I know it was wrong. It wasn't right for them to do that 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

I, uh-- 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'd 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 or may not be capable of getting involved in Jihad, whoever they are. On the streets of Ramallah, on 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's 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 of that policy.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Ask Christy 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.

Petra Bartosiewicz

You're saying that he is 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. But 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 Lekhani. Lakhani would have done next.

So the question is, confronted with those realities, as an American law enforcement, what do we do? Do we ignore it, because we say, eh, 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, yeah, if I could get a missile and I'd sell it to whoever if 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, you know, 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. 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. But what's so hard to figure out is whether the government's methods are actually working.

In 2005, President Bush said that over 400 people had 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 an 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.

Ira Glass

Petra Bartosiewicz. She's writing a book about terrorism trials since 9/11 called The Best Terrorists We Could Find. Her story was first broadcast in 2005.

Act Three.

Aziz Huq

These are the cases that are propelling public debate, right? These are the cases where you have the Attorney General, the Mayor of New York, standing up and, if not thumping the table, then saying in a loud and declarative voice, there continues to be a significant, domestic terrorism threat in the United States.

Ira Glass

Is there any kind of sense that the new administration, the Obama administration, is going to discourage these kind of cases. Or are they just chugging right along with this?

Aziz Huq

The Obama administration hasn't changed, I think, as much as its supporters either hoped or thought it would. I think it's very unlikely that we will see significant change under the Holder Justice Department.

Ira Glass

If you were to redirect the way all that Justice Department force is being applied, what would you do? Where would you send them?

Aziz Huq

I think that the way that informants are used in the United States is, at the end of the day, counterproductive. The FBI and state and local law enforcement, have been using informants for decades. Take that very successful tactic that's been used in the drug context, been used in the organized crime context, transplant it into the terrorism context, and what happens?

Well, you start sending out your informants. Those informants are under considerable pressure to find conspiracies. And it's just not easy. It's not easy to do that in the way that it's straightforward to do in the organized crime context, and the drug context. There just aren't as many terrorists as there are drug runners or mafia kingpins in the United States, right?

Ira Glass

And, in addition, if you are actually part of a sleeper cell, why are you going to talk to this bozo who drives up in his Mercedes, and seems like he looks just like a government informant? I know in the Newburgh case, the assistant Imam of one the mosques told the press, we all just, we thought the guy in the nice car, we assumed he was a government informant.

Aziz Huq

The use of informants, as we see from the Lakhani case, as we see from the Newburgh case, is not going to target the smart terrorist. It's going to target individuals who are marginal, who are vulnerable to suggestion. It's going to target, quite frankly, people who are a little dim.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Seth Lind is our production manager. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Laura Bellows and Aaron Scott. Our music consultant each week is Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for a program, by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who usually calls me by one of these names: "Meal ticket, dupe, patsy." I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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