Well, we didn't really do a whole lot with them in stolen vehicles because
early on the discussions revolved around whether or not we, the undercover
agents, were interested in acquiring weapons. So, our discussions really
shifted at that point to the type of weapons that they could provide us.|
Who did they think we were?
We were representing ourselves, originally, of course, as purveyors of stolen
vehicles but ultimately we were leading them to believe that we were suppliers
of Colombian drug cartels for weapons.
And, so what did we seek to buy from them?
It was more of what they were willing to offer. When the negotiations became
more concrete, they were willing to offer us shoulder-fired surface-to-air
How do you make the determination in cases like this? How do you make a
determination as to what suspects are credible suspects, that they really could
deliver what they were offering?
That's really a determination that we have to make on a case by case basis, but
in situations like you describe where an offer of supplying us with a given
weapon is made, we progress through a series of discussions, particularly
specifics of the financial transactions that will be involved, specifics about
the sources of the weapons, the shipping arrangements that will be made, that
give us an indication of whether or not the targets are able to give us
specific information that shows that they really are engaged in the type of
activity that they say they are.
And, in this case what kind of activity was that?
Well, in this case, once they indicated that they could supply us with the
surface-to-air missiles, and we began our discussions about prices, quantities,
supplies, they were able to provide us with quite a bit of information showing
their financial structure, the bank accounts that they would be using to accept
our monies, documents from foreign countries that were going to be used to ship
the items to the United States. So, there was quite a bit of information that
we were able to corroborate that showed that they certainly had the means in
place to be able to do the transaction that they said they could.
Ultimately, we didn't accept any delivery of missiles, but they accepted
payment from us for a sample of the missiles and had made shipping arrangements
at the time that we decided to affect their arrest. ...
How did the issue of the nuclear connection come up?
In the preliminary discussions, after they had asked us if we were interested
in weapons, our basic response was, "Well, what are you able to supply us?"
There was quite a bit of discussion, obviously, about the missiles, but they
also indicated that they would be able to supply us with tactical nuclear
weapons, which they said had been stolen from the Soviet Union or Russia.
How did you snare them in? Under what conceivable purpose could anyone want
a tactical nuclear weapon if you're a Colombian drug cartel?
Well, again, I think it partly is a factor of what they had available to be
able to sell, and what they were trying to move on the market. This was a
financial transaction for this group, much as the stolen vehicles that we had
started with was a financial transaction. They were just going to market
anything that they had available ... . So they were the ones that brought up
the availability or potential availability of the nuclear weapons, and we
decided to pursue it.
You were speaking of them as a group of people, though you only really
arrested two guys. Do you have reason to believe that it's more than these two
I think that it's a fair assumption that there was an organization behind them
in Europe, yes.
How would you characterize that organization? Was it just kind of a loose
confederation of individuals or a Russia Mafia kind of group?
I wouldn't characterize it necessarily as a Mafia type group, but I think it
was an organized group of individuals that again were certainly in a position
to smuggle the stolen vehicles that we were talking about into Eastern Europe
and be able to sell them there. And, obviously there was enough of an
organization involved that they were able to get these missiles out of the
country of origin, through the country they were shipping them through and
ultimately intended for delivery to the United States. That's typically more
than two people would have been able to do.
In addition to the two Lithuanian nationals, the Lithuanian Ministry of
Defense and an aspect of the Russian Academy of Sciences are also named in the
indictment. Why are these two organizations included?
The Lithuanian government organizations potentially were involved in providing
false documentation to effect the shipment of the missiles from the original
country of origin into Lithuania. Part of the explanation that this group was
giving for their ability to smuggle these weapons out of Europe was that they
were obtaining false country certifications from Lithuania to demonstrate that
the missiles were supposedly going to stay in Lithuania. ... Typically, just in
general for export licensing, a country that licenses missiles for export, for
example, will only do so under assurances that those missiles are going to go
to an approved end-destination. So, they require this type of documentation to
demonstrate that, yes, you say you're selling these missiles to Lithuania,
here's the government documentation from Lithuania saying that, yes, they are
purchasing them, yes, they are going to stay in their country.
What kind of access to what level of persons would two guys in Miami need in
order to get documents that said this? Would just any old body in Lithuania be
able to produce one of these?
No, it would have to be someone who had enough government connection to be able
to obtain the appropriate forms, the appropriate letterhead. Depending on which
country it is that the original export is occurring from you might have to have
signatures [from] people that actually are in a position to sign that type of
You were confident that they would have been able to bring those nuclear
weapons here, had you been able to take it that far?
We were confident that certainly that they could bring the missiles here
because that transaction was taken almost to fruition. That, in itself,
demonstrated to us the credibility that they certainly had the potential to
deliver nuclear weapons. ...
In your mind, are you satisfied that you actually did stop a ring that could
have potentially brought in a weapon of mass destruction into the United
Is that the first case of that kind that you've had to deal with in your
Certainly the first investigation that the Customs Service has had where we
obtained convictions on individuals that were involved in weapons trafficking
that did include potentially nuclear weapons.
Is it a trend that you fear might rise?
That's difficult to characterize ... I think part of the answer lies in the
fact that if even one violation were able to come to fruition and nuclear
weapons were actually out on the open market, the impact is so devastating, we
have to treat each allegation and each potential case very, very seriously.
What jurisdiction does the U.S. Customs Service have in arms
Customs is responsible for all law enforcement related to the import and export
of merchandise across the nation's borders. Specifically [in terms of] arms
trafficking, we enforce two primary laws: the Arms Export Control Act, which
governs the export [of] typical armaments, munitions, military equipment, and
the provisions of Export Administration regulations, which cover the licensing
and export of items like high performance computers and other types of items
that have both military and civilian application. ...
When you look at the breadth of things--chemical and biological weapons,
conventional arms, nuclear arms--what's the demand, what do you see in terms of
what people are looking to bring into the country?
Well, we're really looking at two issues when we look at nuclear, chemical and
biological weapons. One is the import of those types of things ... for use in
domestic acts of terrorism. We're also interested in the export of
technologies which can be used to develop and deploy those types of weapons
overseas. So, really, we're looking at terrorists that would acquire those
types of materials for use in terrorist acts and we're also concerned about
countries that are trying to develop nuclear, chemical, biological programs
both to destabilize the regions that they're in as well as to support
Have you noticed an increase in their interest since the end of the Cold
Yes, absolutely, only because our focus prior to the end of the Cold War was at
the Soviet Union and its acquisition of high technology and other items to
build their military infrastructure. Once the Soviet Union dissolved, the
focus shifted [from] that military build-up to the build-up by third world
countries, rogue states, terrorist organizations that were trying to acquire
materials and technologies to build up their own military and WMD [weapons of
mass destruction] programs.
You're protecting America at the borders, but obviously as Customs,
particularly in instances of weapons of mass destruction, you're also
interested in stopping it from crossing out of Russia in the first place. The
Customs Service is making some efforts in that area; can you describe
Customs believes that trying to prevent international trafficking in nuclear
weapons really starts at the borders of the countries that are the sources of
those weapons and the countries that those weapons might transit to en route to
the United States, so we have adopted a concept of the first line of defense
being at those countries' borders. And what we're doing to try to help those
countries build their import/export control and the import and export
enforcement capabilities, to provide training and technical assistance and
equipment to their customs services and law enforcement agencies to help them
police their own borders. To help them to detect nuclear materials that are
being smuggled out of their country and seize them there so that we can prevent
them from getting out on the world market.
What countries are you working with?
We're working with a number of countries, certainly Russia is one of the
primary ones. Also, the other countries in the former Soviet Union. Countries
in Eastern Europe typically would be transit countries for merchandising
leaving the countries of the former Soviet Union. There are a number of
countries that we work with there, as well as other country groups in Asia,
Africa, all over the world.
How is the customs situation in the former Soviet Union?
When [the Soviet Union] no longer existed and all these new countries were
formed, those countries didn't have even the laws in place to be able to
provide for import/export control. They had to build their customs services
and their police organizations from the ground up. Many of them were very,
very in need of technical expertise, the simplest types of enforcement
equipment, uniforms, those types of things. So, it's been a real challenge for
Customs, the other law enforcement agencies, [and] the State Department to help
those countries build up their enforcement infrastructures to get them to a
level where they can police their borders.
How worried should the American public be about the threat of nuclear
weapons coming into the United States from the former Soviet Union?
I think there's really two parts to the answer to that question. The first has
to do with how likely it is that nuclear materials are going to be smuggled out
of Russia and find their way to the United States. And, I think that our
assessment is that the likelihood of that occurring is relatively low. Most of
the cases that have been documented even in the media in the last 10 years of
nuclear trafficking in Europe have involved relatively low level types of
nuclear materials, nothing that was really weapons grade, and trafficking by
individuals that weren't involved in organized or sophisticated trafficking,
they had just come by these materials through their access in their employment
in Russia or through whatever means, and were just trying to peddle to them to
whoever they could ... , and they came to the attention of European law
enforcement. So, we think that the overall likelihood is relatively low. There
are a number of things that the U.S. Customs Service is doing to detect the
importation of nuclear materials at our nation's borders so if it did occur,
we're confident that we'd be able to intercept it.
The second part of that answer, though, has to do with how devastating a true
incident of nuclear smuggling could be because there is only one reason that
someone would try to smuggle nuclear materials into the United States and
that's for terrorist purposes. And so because of the tremendous impact that
could occur should we actually have a documented instance of nuclear smuggling,
our response and our vigilance is very, very high. But, I think that as a
rule, the American public can be relatively confident that the likelihood of it
happening is very low and the likelihood of our being able to intercept it
should it occur is very high.
You said these were low level employees of companies in Russia, civilians I
imagine, not military?
Yeah, civilian technicians in laboratories, things like that. As I say, there
[are] a number of cases that have been documented in the media.
Does any of the analysis that the Customs department has done say that the
threat of this is maybe getting worse because of the economic crisis over
Well, we really don't do that type of analysis, per se. I think in general the
feeling in the law enforcement community is, because of the breakdown of the
legal systems in Russia and the other countries in the former Soviet Union,
that there's a general increase in ... just about every type of criminal
conduct one could imagine, from narcotics trafficking to financial scams to
trafficking in armaments. So, I think overall the potential for criminal
activity in those countries is increasing. When it comes to the question of
nuclear smuggling, we haven't seen any solid indications of organized criminal
involvement in that type of activity.
I think primarily because of the relatively high risk versus the ability to
actually market the goods. Really, there are very few groups and countries that
would be interested and potentially involved in trying to illegally acquire
nuclear materials, and so the chances of an organized criminal group in Russia
or one of the other countries of the former Soviet Union having access to
weapons grade material, having the contacts with one of the groups or countries
that would be able to actually be interested in acquiring it, there's just too
much that has to be invested and too much at risk for the potential pay out, I
think, for real interested organized criminal involvement.
So, it's just not worth it?
In the end, I don't think so, there are far more profitable criminal types of
activity that those groups can get involved in with much less risk.