an interview with FRONTLINE/World co-producer William
Kistner in March 2001, Sarkis Soghanalian, one of the world's
most accomplished arms salesmen, gave his unapologetic and seasoned
views on the international arms trade and U.S. policy. A veteran
of many Cold War arms deals, Soghanalian has seen wars, rebel
movements and ideological conflicts become U.S. priorities and
then fade into history. He speaks frankly about his role in
helping the United States pursue its interests. He is confident
that every deal has been undertaken with the approval of the
STARTING OUT IN THE LEBANESE
brought you into this business?
I'm from Lebanon, and my family came to Lebanon from what is
now called Turkey in 1939 or 1940, but at the time it was Syria.
And the education was not at a very high level. But we had to
find work. I went to work with the French army. I skipped school
in 1944 and worked with a tank division. So I grew up with it,
adapted to it from childhood and kept going.
been in your blood since you were young.
Being an Armenian, you are raised fighting to survive. Since
we survived the Turkish massacres, a genocide like that of the
Jews and others, we were the first generation with such a background.
So you can say it was in my blood and in my dreams. As a young
man you like nothing more than weapons. Women were secondary,
as at that age we didn't know anything about that.
me how things have changed since the Cold War. First of all,
explain how you got involved with weapons in Lebanon at the
time of the crisis there and take me through how things have
changed since then.
In 1973, when I got the first batch of the weapons, we were
all pro-Western and pro-American. I was appointed to obtain
all the American weapons we could. The Lebanese army was equipped
only with American weapons, but they eventually ended up with
a [nongovernment] militia. Before that, I had been getting most
of the weapons from the Eastern Bloc [Communist/pro Soviet Union], Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary
and those countries.
difficult was it to get weapons from the Eastern Bloc?
No problem. They have a political channel you first go through.
At the time, the Russians [Soviet Union] had a lot of say because
they were the father of the whole Eastern Bloc, and the Russians
didn't want to get involved in it. They didn't want to have
their hands caught in the cookie jar. So they recommended that
I go through Bulgaria. And I started there but then went through
the kinds of guns you were getting at that time.
Oh, well, there was no limit to the type of the weapons that
I could get, but what we could use was most important. It was
mainly infantry weapons, rifles and machine guns and things
like that and a large quantity of ammunition. Then we came to
company weapons like mortars and heavy machine guns and things
like that. We could get whatever we wanted. Because the relationship
was built and the trust was there. They [Eastern Bloc countries]
knew me and my background, that I was working closely with the
U.S. government, and therefore they didn't have any fear. And
they wanted to keep the relationship open at that time because
they benefited. The dollars were coming as cash from Lebanese
banks and they wanted the foreign currency. It was a big opportunity
for them also. ... They were not there on the market to help me
or you or anybody. They were there to help themselves to get
their hands on cash. For them, there were only two markets open
to them: one was the Lebanese illegal arm trade. The second
one was the Libyan channel, which Libya used to help other nations,
terrorists, individuals and so on.
UNITED STATES WAS AWARE OF EVERYTHING
went from selling arms transferred from Eastern Bloc [Communist] countries
to Lebanon, and then to Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries?
Well, before I went to Iraq there were other places I was asked
to assess, like Mauritania, the Polisario forces that they were
fighting there. Nicaragua, Ecuador, Argentina. And then finally
Iraq. We used to help the countries whose way of thinking was
pro-Western. At that time it [Iraq] was pro-American, of course.
Europeans didn't have an interest in them, so we had to keep
those nations alive for their struggle.
closely did you work with the American government on this?
I don't like to explore of the possibilities of what department
of this or that, but very, very close, very close.
when you were arranging sales of weapons to Argentina during
the Falklands War [the United States opposed Argentina and supported
Britain during Falklands War], how did the Americans react to
The Americans knew what I was doing, every minute, every hour.
If I drank a glass of water, they were aware of it and what
kind of water it was. I don't try to prevent the Americans from
knowing what I am doing. You go to a country. You have your
way of contact, you have your meetings, you explain why you
are there. You consider yourself one of them, and they are one
of you. This is how we operated. And when the answer is negative,
of course, you go somewhere else for a different cause. ...
LISTEN WITH YOUR MOUTH AND YOU TALK WITH YOUR EARS
do you know, if you're selling to someone one day, it might
not be all different a week later?
If you're a professional, you get a feeling for the side you
are helping; you develop your feelings and then they can tell
you how far you can go. An arms deal is a long-term thing; it's
not like last night and tomorrow morning. There are months and
months when you've got to be patient. You have to get into that
emotion and see how you can maneuver it.
does it work? Can you take me through the mechanics? How do
you establish a deal that you can have confidence in when you're
dealing with so many different actors and interests?
It's a difficult task. You have to spend some time educating
the person in your ways. I'm not a government and I do not go
there and say I represent such-and-such government. I represent
myself, like a mercenary. If you die, you die; you know there
are no two ways about it. But you have to be very careful that
you do not abuse the customer's trust in you. If you do, your
deal is gone and you are not welcome and the whole thing is
gone. Because you are not one of them. You are just coming in.
They have to trust your reputation. Because in the arms business,
there's only two ways of doing business: either through a middleman
or government-to-government. The reason they choose us is because
they think it's safer and because they don't have to go through
all the bureaucratic paperwork. All we do is, we comply with
the rules, we comply with the system of arms sales through a
proper channel. If you comply with the system, you go ahead.
I never go to a country if I'm not accepted by its government.
I don't want to be chased around from one hotel to the other.
If I am invited, I will go and see what their problem is. When
you come back, you brief the governments concerned.
you ever been personally threatened or felt that your family
was at risk?
Well, it's not a family business. I have a son, and he has never
been involved. He doesn't even want to know about it. And I
don't even talk to him about my business because you have to
safeguard your family and keep them away from the danger. ...
you say it could be very dangerous what do you mean?
Leaking out the information and things like that, because this
business runs on individuals and individuals alone. Not by several
employees. Amateurs like to talk a lot. They like to talk to
the opponent to impress him and say a little bit more than [they
the business is built on trust?
Mainly on trust, yes, and secrecy. ...You listen with your mouth
and you talk with your ears. But then you don't blame anyone
who said something wrong.
you ever sold weapons where the U.S. government hasn't known
No, no, no, I haven't.
When you owe your loyalty to somebody, you are like a team.
You have to let your teammate know about what's going on. Lately,
I made a shipment to Peru and I didn't see where it ended up.
They said it ended up in Colombia and this and that. When we
deliver weapons, we require many documents, especially the first
time I'm doing business with a country. And, of course, the
U.S. government is advised even before we sign a contract with
the client. ...
do you consider them your teammates?
... Most of my trade has been with the U.S. blessing. Without
it, you could not succeed. You would be all alone in the field.
But now it's a new administration with new people. The old teammates
are not there. They get old, they retire and things like that,
but we still have some friends. Not as many as before, but documents
are there and they speak for you.
DEAL GONE BAD
mentioned the Peruvian deal, when 10,000 AK-47s you sold to
the Peruvian government ended up with FARC leftist guerillas
in Colombia. I'm curious what you think went wrong. You checked
it out. What happened?
We checked it out. I went there. In the business, this kind
of thing always goes through the intelligence channel. I met
the chief of the intelligence and I was convinced that it was
a genuine and plain deal. But after you deliver the goods, you
don't have any control. Technically, they should not make a
further shipment without letting you know. That's ethical. But
it turned out that Fujimori's government was not the way that
it should be. It turned out to be corrupt and doing business
for its own interest. ...
I was told it got into the wrong hands. I don't know whose hands
they were, Colombians or Ecuadorians or drug dealers, we don't
know. They didn't give me a chance to go and investigate and
find out what went wrong. All we know was that there was a coup
and Montesinos [the Peruvian intelligence chief] was under arrest.
He fled the country. And another one went to Japan, and there
are all the rumors that you see in the newspapers. ...
They [the Peruvians] bought 50,000 AK-47s, and they have another
huge list that I negotiated with Montesinos. He was considered
the strongest man in the country, and unfortunately they couldn't
last. They couldn't operate. We told them, no more air shipments,
bring a ship to pick it up. It wasn't much more difficult to
transport by ship because it was more than 40 or 50 tons.
did the guns come from?
The guns came from East Germany to Jordan, became surplus and
were sold as surplus at a surplus price. You see, they look
at us like we were selling contraband weapons. If you sell contraband
weapons, the target is the black market. The black market price
is exaggerated, inflated. But when you see equipment sold below
its value from government to government, you know there's no
contraband involved in it. That's the way we look at it. That's
what we did with Peru. ...
how much did those rifles cost?
The price was $55 a rifle, and then with packing and handling
it was another $10. Plus transportation was $10. It was a Mickey
Mouse thing: $75 a rifle. You don't go from Jordan all the way
to Peru to sell a contraband $75 rifle. ...
I asked for certain documents which they brought to me, which
said that the goods were unloaded at the airport and were received
by the Peruvian military and the paperwork says it was to their
satisfaction. And then we made the second delivery. I don't
see where we made a mistake. ...
An end-user certificate is separate, and the end-user certificate
was there. We checked with their military. Their military said,
yes, it's our shipment, and beside that, the United States intervened,
and they made a double-check on it. Because Jordan and [the]
United States have a really close relationship. It's not worth
it to jeopardize that relationship for a lousy 10,000 rifles.
you think the United States was fooled?
I don't know. I don't want to sit here and defend an employee
that has not done his job properly. We got the okay. We went
explained a little bit about how you arrange arms deals legally.
How difficult is it to do an illegal arms deal?
Each transaction has its own benefit. Sometimes you want to
do something even if it's not legal, and you must consider:
where are the costs and what are the benefits? Is this transaction
worth it? ... When there was an embargo on Iraq, we kept supplying
weapons to Iraq. In order to save U.S. face, we didn't do any
operations from the United States. We thought we'd do it through
Europe, and there was a special purpose since this involvement
was not subject to discussion. We satisfied Saddam's interest
because it was in our interest. But when Kuwait happened, we
all pulled back. If I keep helping you, and you take advantage
of my help, and the purpose is something not in my interest,
I will change my colors right away. This is what happened in
1991, when the United States got involved against Saddam. Two
months earlier, everything was a sweet and nice relationship.
... Yesterday's friend became today's enemy. ...
My job was to support the Iraqi forces so that they could fight
against our [United States' and Sarkis'] common enemy, which
at the time was [the Iranian Ayatollah] Khomeini.
He had hostages. He was financing terrorist movements all over
the world, Hezbollah and all those guys. So we had to fight
them. But it didn't mean we would keep helping Saddam if he
did something against our interest or Western interests. That's
what happened. Too bad for him.
It surprised me in that we [the United States] had a very, very
strong and loyal friend like King Hussein of Jordan. This problem
[Iraq's invasion of Kuwait] could have been solved by him amicably.
But we [the United States] ignored this friend. We went in through
the back door, and look at the situation there today. We are
unwelcome, we lost a country which we put through a lot of suffering,
and he won. Where are we today? The same guy [Saddam Hussein]
is still there. And we don't know how to handle it. We don't
know what they have, what they don't have. This man is going
to stay there until the last day of his life, and we're not
going to win him over politically. It's a mess. I get concerned
only when there's a threat against American life.
somebody like Saddam turns against you after you have supplied
him with weapons, how does that make you feel?
It makes me feel bad. We didn't give him those weapons to fight
U.S. forces. The weapons were given to him to fight the common
enemy at that time. Which he did. There was no need to have
direct confrontation with him and endanger American troops.
We can and should get rid of him and bring a new government
to power. So many people died in vain. Saddam is no different
from before. You see we are educated people. America is not
China. America is not Africa, where we go and bust into peoples'
homes and kill them. We know the value of life and civilization.
It's not our cup of tea to go there. I'm not talking only about
Saddam. We got there, we should have gotten rid of him, but
we did not. What have we accomplished?
BY THE U.S. GOVERNMENT?
were convicted in 1991 for conspiracy on a weapons deal to Iraq.
And now this recent conviction for wire fraud. Do you feel betrayed
by the U.S. government?
Let me give you an example of the first charge they brought.
I was charged on conspiracy with Hughes helicopter executives.
... Fine, so I'm conspiring with them. And yet, when the two others
went in front of another judge, they got acquitted. So what
am I conspiring to do if they went home free? I was convicted.
Of course, that stays on your record saying you're a felon.
I was convicted for six and a half years. But I did not serve
six and a half years. When they needed me, the U.S. government
that is, they immediately came and got me out. When I came over
here last time to visit my family for Christmas, they said I
had a $3 million [fraud] in this and that. That wasn't the case.
The case was [the] Peruvian deal. They didn't come and tell
me, "you shipped weapons to Peru and this and that." And the
$3 million charge was dropped. Why was it dropped? Because I
was helping the secret service. ... I'm chasing people doing wrong
on behalf of the U.S. government. And chasing them around and
with the knowledge of the U.S. government. But what am I doing
U.S. government relies on your knowledge.
Based on the experience they have with me, that I can produce
the intelligence information they need, which is in their own
interest and not to my interest.
why would they charge you?
They try to get you when your back is turned. Somebody doesn't
like the color of your eyes. ... I went to court, I plead guilty
to wire fraud. I plead guilty to wire fraud with the involvement
of a person that I really don't know. I wouldn't know him if
I saw him on the street. So they say you have to testify against
him. I didn't know the guy. ...
you still consider the U.S. government your friend?
Yes, the government is my friend, but there are some individuals
in that government who are not my friend.
your role in the Iran-Contra affair.
I was asked officially to go and help them [Iran] and do the
same thing that we were doing for Iraq. I refused. I said I
can't. Iran is like riding two horses in a horse race. You can't
do that. Either you are with this person or country, or you
are with the other country. They wanted me to supply weapons
to Iran in order to get money for them to buy weapons to fight
the Sandinistas [in Nicaragua]. It could be done but I didn't
do it. I don't do this kind of stuff.
There is no need to mention names. But I was asked.
By government officials, not by the president. ...
DANGER OF CONTRABAND DEALS
your opinion, why do dealers engage in contraband weapons?
Well it is [a somewhat] profitable business. But selling contraband
weapons in Africa is not a large-volume, long-term business.
It's a one-shot deal. If you have built yourself a good reputation,
you don't want to get involved in this kind of business. I'd
rather do my job and keep my reputation rather than go and mess
myself up because I can make money. It's nice to have money
but it's not everything, believe me. Once you have it, you don't
know what to do with it and you create problem for yourself.
why do they do it?
It's their first time and they're weak people. All the weapons
that went into Lebanon during the civil war, everything was
sold out from Lebanon and into Yugoslavia as contraband. ...
Do you know how many arms manufacturers or dealers have been
killed during this last 20 years? Very valuable people. Why?
Sometimes they are eager to make extra money. And because it's
a profession in which you can't make everybody happy. You only
make one side happy, like walking on a double-edged knife. One
person can easily come and hurt you.
United Nations has imposed sanctions in some areas of Africa,
West Africa, Sierra Leone. It seems that they are regularly
violated, and there are still a lot of arms coming in and out.
you stop guns from coming in?
If you want to, there is a possibility, yes.
Enforce the control of weapons shipments. If you catch a nation
making illegal shipment, all you have to do is go to the United
Nations and impose sanctions on them for so much money, and
they will stop doing it. They won't do it because every weapon
has a stamp. You can track it down. ... For example, Iranians
are buying from China. If you impose sanction on them, then
Chinese will obey it. You will see that China will be the most
dangerous supplier of weapons to the free world.
so than Russia or the Eastern Bloc?
Russia doesn't have very modern weapons, other than surplus
old-fashioned weapons. But the Chinese have good technology
now because they steal it from everywhere. And they will be
the biggest danger to countries like the United States and its
allies. They have very, very modern weapons. ...
who are the operators now supplying weapons to Africa?
... The operators are ex-military officers and agents. They
don't take it by ship, and they don't take it by trucks because
there's no roads. They parachute it. And there are now many,
many transporters available in the Eastern Bloc countries, mainly
in Ukraine. ...
If you want to stop that, all you have to do is apply the same
rules and regulations that you have on all other European aircraft,
pollution systems, crews, navigational equipment and all that.
Automatically, you would be grounding all these aircraft everywhere.
They wouldn't be able to fly. Because they do not comply with
IATA [International Air Transport Association] regulations.
If they complied with IATA regulations, Russian aircraft would
cost five times today's value. ... No one is concerned about it.
... They could do it within two hours. All you would have to do
is call the insurance company ... and they would pull the insurance
away immediately. No one would give you the rights to fly under
European air traffic control. When you want to fly somewhere,
you call Euro control and they give you a route, timing, altitude,
a radio frequency. When you don't have that you're blind. You're
finished. They can do that very easily. ...
TRUST AN AK-47
what about AK-47s? There are something like 70 million.
They are all over the world, and they are the most popular weapon.
It's just like if learning to fly, you buy a Cessna first. It's
the same with Russian equipment. Once they start to know how
to fly they will change it. ... It's a toy rifle, you know, but
unfortunately it's most combat-proven rifle. ... It's cheap and
the ammunition is cheap.
how do you compete with the AK-47 market?
You don't. As they say, don't fight them, join them. ... I'd rather
give that weapon to them as a gift and make legal sales, so
it puts me in a position in which if they want to buy something
bigger, I can make my profit and compensate for the previous
delivery. [The AK-47] is not a weapon with which you can dream
to become a millionaire. ... It's a cheap weapon. ... Go to Lebanon
and you can you buy it everywhere. Go to Yemen, the world's
biggest stock is in Yemen ... maybe 10 to 12 million rifles.
going to happen to those guns [AK-47s in Yemen]?
Someone will get their hands on them and start a war. Populations
are growing, and the demand is increasing. ... Imagine, the AK-47
today is in Saudi Arabia, where it's not supposed to be because
it's not a pro-Russian country. And every house has at least
two AK-47s. Kuwait the same way, also Qatar. They're going everywhere.
Today, a rifle is a common item among Arabs; they all like to
own one. When a son is born, the father goes and buys a rifle
for when he becomes a man. It's a symbolic thing.
THE END USER OF SMALL ARMS
you can be sure that the guns will stay where they are supposed
Some people don't care. Some people do care, people like me,
they don't make the sale, and I have stopped many sales. Like
in Peru, for example, I stopped it, and in Lebanon we stopped
it. In many places. But for the ones that are still friendly,
we have a way of knowing. We rely a lot on the U.S. Embassy
advisors, because they have good information and they know darn
well if the weapon is going to stay in the country or not. That
is important in our business, to at least be sure that the weapons
are going to stay there. But you find that a weapon here and
one weapon there is stolen. Even in America, they kill people
in colleges, in high school. How can you control them?
you see any trends in controlling the small-arms trade?
I don't see anything new unless the government makes some changes
in the system of controls. There's a million ways you can stop
it. If you activate the weapon electronically, you can only
fire the weapon assigned to you; it does not fire without your
fingerprint, your thumb on that weapon.
can the United States stop the international trade in weapons?
If they can't stop it at home, what influence could they have
to stop weapons in Europe? ... Weapons moving outside the United
States, arms trafficking, is not as damaging as it is here domestically.
There is more damage here than in Europe. I never heard that
kids have stolen pistols and made a massacre in a schoolyard
MERCHANT OF DEATH?
have been called "the merchant of death." How do you respond
They can say whatever they want. They call the president of
any country names. What happens? He resigns. He stays in power,
he stays in. I'm not a complex person. I know deep in my heart
I'm not doing anything wrong. Alfred Nobel was called "the merchant
of death" when he first made gunpowder, and then they named
it the Nobel Prize. You can't educate everyone. So that name
doesn't bother me a bit.
your biggest accomplishment?
I helped a lot of countries keep their independence. ... I never
lost a war. I helped Lebanon. They at least kept their republic.
I squeezed Khomeini and helped my country's cause. There are
other countries whose names I don't want to mention. I helped
my country Armenia when they needed me. That's all I can say.
relevant to this article:
Colombia Arms Deal and the Perils of Blowback
This Washington Post opinion and commentary piece
details the dangers of "blowback," the unforeseen results
of the U.S. government's cooperation with people such
as Soghanalian. It describes Soghanalian's work with the
United States in the past, and how he also armed leftist
rebels in Colombia -- the same rebels the Bush administration
has budgeted $700 million to defeat. (Washington Post,
March 3, 2002)
Soghanalian, Arms Dealer to Iraq
The transcript of a 1991 60 Minutes program on
Soghanalian was entered into the Congressional Record
with this preface: "The revelations and allegations made
by Mr. Soghanalian are, and must be, extremely disturbing
to every American. They are disturbing to Mr. Soghanalian.
He gives a first-hand description of official and unofficial
American involvement in the enormous buildup of arms to
Dealer Implicates Peru Spy Chief in Smuggling Ring
The Los Angeles Times profiles Soghanalian and
describes his account of a deal gone bad, in which he
shipped 10,000 AK-47s to Peru. Those guns ended up with
FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerillas
in Colombia. Soghanalian says he was duped by the Peruvian
spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos. (Los Angeles Times,
November 1, 2000)
Sold to Peru End Up in Colombia
The New York Times supports Soghanalian's claims that
the sale was approved by the CIA. It attributes the approval
to lack of follow-up and to close relations between the
CIA and Montesinos. (The New York Times, November