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miami - a nuclear smuggling scenario

toasting the deal

In March 1995, US Customs agents in Miami launched a two-year undercover investigation reaching into high-level official circles in Russia, Bulgaria and Lithuania. It would become the first credible case of a scenario to smuggle tactical nuclear weapons into the United States.

It began when an ethnic Russian from Lithuania, with known links to the Russian mafia, offered to ship luxury vehicles stolen in Florida back to former Soviet bloc countries. Unknown to him, he was talking to an undercover cop posing as a member of a Colombian drug cartel.

Darichev & PogrebevskijTo the surprise of the agents who were secretly taping the conversations, the Lithuanian, Alexandr Pogrebevskij, soon upped the ante. He offered to procure Soviet-made military weapons and brought in his partner, Alexander Darichev, who had the contacts in Russia who could broker a deal for arms. Darichev, a veteran of the Lithuanian military and also an ethnic Russian, opened a briefcase filled with shiny brochures from a company in Bulgaria called Armimex which was licensed to manufacture Soviet weapons. It had everything from automatic rifles to shoulder-to-air missiles that could shoot down jet planes. The undercover U.S.agents said they would go for the missiles.

Project 2

Then came the bombshell. If that missile deal went through, asked the Lithuanians, was there interest in small nuclear devices? The undercover cops said they would be very interested. They nicknamed this new deal "Project 2" and agreed to put it off until the missile deal was concluded.

US Customs set up a front company called Phoenix International and proceeded with a plan to buy 40 "Stinger-type" Russian missiles. By now, the meetings were frequent and the negotiations sophisticated. From the beginning, the Lithuanians emphasized that the deal had to look legitimate. So they set up super secret accounts in off-shore companies to handle the money -- they had a document from a company on the Isle of Mann rumored by confidential sources to have connections to international arms dealers.

Then they managed to get an authentic end-user certificate from the Lithuanian minister of defense saying that the missiles were intended for the military forces of the Republic of Lithuania. The arms company Armimex could only sell these kinds of weapons to a government. (But of course, the undercover cops' story was that the real end user in this sting operation was to be a Colombian cartel that wanted the missiles to shoot down U.S. DEA helicopters.)

All this made U.S. Customs suspicious that the two Lithuanians had contacts reaching into high government offices (read the interview with U.S. Customs official Michael Turner). In a meeting in London, wiretapped by Scotland Yard, Darichev made calls to a man named Valerii Donitzovich at a mysterious scientific institute in St. Petersburg. Donitzovich said he had contacts with then Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev. Grachev was described to FRONTLINE by one top U.S. law enforcement official as being "bigtime corrupt."

"Jupiter Z" -- as the institute was called -- was part of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, Section of Geopolitics and Security, and is known for its ties to former military and KGB officials. This scientific technical center was suspected by U.S. Customs to be the shadow broker for the missiles and the nukes.

Suspicions and Obstacles

From the beginning of this two year odyssey, the undercover cops and the Lithuanians were suspicious of each other. Could the Lithuanians really deliver the weapons? Were the agents working for a drug cartel? Fears heightened when the customs agents intercepted a letter from Jupiter Z to Darichev warning Darichev that the men he was dealing with might be FBI or CIA agents. But the two sides continued to deal, and a $50,000 downpayment was made.

In the meantime, for more than a year this case was the subject of high-level meetings in Washington involving all the agencies concerned with a possible nuclear smuggling incident -- the FBI, the CIA, NSC, State, DOD and DOE. With the support of their bosses at Treasury, U.S. Customs in Miami wanted to continue the investigation to find out who in Russia was really involved (read the interview with agent Keith Praeger.) But there was substantial skepticism from some quarters and resistance to expanding the investigation. U.S. agents are not permitted to go undercover overseas without the signoff of other intelligence agencies. And if they notified the Russian or Lithuanian governments, possible co-conspirators in the Russian or Lithuanaian military would just cover their tracks.

Even more important, according to confidential sources, is the fact that U.S. national security policy prohibits any sting operation that might bring nuclear devices or material onto American soil. So, in the end, Washington pressured Miami to wrap up their case.

After one final video-taped undercover meeting in 1997 at the Hampton Inn in Miami, agents arrested and indicted Pogrebevskij and Darichev. The U.S. District Court indictment also named "Jupiter Z" and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences for "conspiring to locate and negotiate the source of weapons of mass destruction."

After the arrest, Darichev cooperated with the U.S. Attorney and made monitored calls to Armimex confirming that 40 shoulder-to-air missiles were indeed waiting to be shipped to Phoenix Arms International. The Justice Department also determined that the Lithuanian end-user certificate actually had been signed by a former minister of defense who has since stepped down.

Alexander Darichev and Alexandr Pogrebevskij were convicted on charges of smuggling, money laundering and conspiracy. They are each serving 48 months in a federal penitentiary.

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