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interview with michael turner

He is Director of Strategic Investigations for the U.S. Customs Service in Washington D.C. His office is responsible for investigating smuggling incidents involving weapons of  mass destruction. U.S. Customs is part of the Treasury Department.

Pogrebezskij and Darichev, how did you first get onto these two guys?

Our investigations started with an undercover operation that we had been conducting that was looking at trafficking in stolen vehicles. Our undercover operation was approached by these individuals, originally to work with us to acquire vehicles stolen from the United States to be exported to Eastern Europe. ...

What kind of cars were they looking for?

Mostly high-end luxury vehicles, Lexus type, also SUVs, that type of stuff.

So, what did we sell them?

There was quite a bit of information that we were able to corroborate that showed that they had the means in place to be able to do the transaction that they said they could. 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 missiles.

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.

Did they?

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 guys?

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 documentation. ...

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 States?

Yes.

Is that the first case of that kind that you've had to deal with in your tenure here?

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 smuggling?

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 international terrorism.

Have you noticed an increase in their interest since the end of the Cold War?

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 them?

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 there?

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.

Why not?

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.


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