PROFITS OF WAR -- INSIDE THE SECRET U.S.-ISRAELI ARMS NETWORK
20. Means of War
IN OCTOBER 1989, a couple of weeks after my confrontation with Shamir, Avi Pazner suggested I take a leave of absence. I welcomed the idea. It had been a hectic year, during which I could have been killed or arrested at any moment. I needed a break.
I asked Ora if she'd like to vacation for a couple of weeks in Sydney, a city I had fallen in love with on earlier visits. I promised to show her and Shira the opera house and take them out on a ferry across the harbor. Ora said she thought it was a wonderful idea.
The day before we were to leave, the phone rang. It was the travel agent through whom government employees like myself made arrangements. Our reservations on the computer had inexplicably disappeared, but the difficulty had been overcome, and the tickets would be waiting for us. Later that evening there was another call.
"Ari? It's Leon Siff. Remember me?"
How could I forget Leon Siff, the famous Sri Lankan dancer?
"Hey, this is just a contact call. You promised to look in on me some time. I'm still waiting. I'd like you to see my Friends of the Universe operation."
Leon's sense of timing was extraordinary. I suspected it was some type of operation, and my curiosity was piqued. I told him I would call him back.
I expected Ora to be pretty upset if I went to Los Angeles and let her and Shira find their own way to Sydney, but to my surprise she didn't mind at all.
"I'm not interested in what your friend has to show you, but that doesn't matter. You go see him, and Shira and I will meet up with you later."
So we left it at that. I changed the routing of my flight to Sydney, to go via Los Angeles.
I arrived in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 28, after spending two days with John de Laroque in southern France. Leon Siff was waiting. He was delighted to see me. And even though I had booked into a hotel, he would hear nothing of it -- I was to be his guest at his home. The house in Hollywood had the same address as on his card for the Friends of the Universe.
"It'll be my pleasure to show you around for a few days," he said.
"That's fine, but I'm leaving on Tuesday."
Mock horror spread over his face. "You can't leave on Tuesday. I've arranged a party in your honor."
He was so insistent that I relented again and agreed to spend the whole week there. I called Ora. Again she surprised me, quickly agreeing to wait a few more days in Israel and then meet me in Sydney the following Monday.
Leon drove me around Los Angeles, taking me to Venice Beach where the homeless were sleeping. He talked about land he hoped to buy in Sri Lanka for his organization.
I was still waiting for the pitch.
On Tuesday evening Leon's friends arrived, a mixed bunch of pseudo-intellectuals and hippies of all ages who gathered in the front room. I strolled among them, the guest of honor, a little bemused by the purpose of the gathering. Suddenly a face I recognized stood out in the crowd. I was taken aback. It was my old friend Joseph O'Toole, the man who had arranged for me and Richard St. Francis to meet Lettner at Kennedy Airport several months earlier. Something was seriously wrong.
As O'Toole approached to say hello, I turned on Leon Siff. "How do you two know each other?" I asked as casually as my voice would allow.
"Oh, I heard you were in town and dropped by to say hello," said O'Toole. I had an uneasy feeling. Siff and O'Toole were obviously acquaintances. O'Toole brought the conversation around to the three C-130s.
"My company had that deal all set up," he said. "We were going to be the go-between for Israel and Iran, but you guys cut us out. You wanted to deal through Sri Lanka without involving us."
I didn't remind him that the Iranians had never heard of his associate Lettner. I didn't remind him of anything. I just didn't want to talk to the man.
Later I hit Leon Siff with one big question: "What the hell's going on?"
He shrugged and said he didn't know what I was talking about. I knew a showdown of some sort was coming. My instincts told me that if something was going to happen, it might as well happen here.
Three days later, on Friday, November 3, 1989, the day before I was due to leave, I was taking a shower in Siff's bathroom. It was noon. Allowing for time differences, I would be in Sydney on Monday. I was looking forward to it. Suddenly the bathroom door swung open. Through the steam I saw a group of people in blue uniforms -- with guns, all pointing at me.
A man in a suit stepped forward.
"What's going on?" I demanded.
"Please step out of the shower and get dressed," he said. They kept their guns on me as I walked past them. There was a woman among them. I was later to learn her name was Elaine Banar, a case manager for the strategic unit of the U.S. Customs Service, and in charge of the arrest.
As I made my way to the bedroom, Leon Siff didn't protest. He didn't say a word. He just stood and watched.
They confiscated my briefcase, which contained all my papers, address book, passport, money, and credit cards. Then they let me dress, pulled my arms behind me, and clicked on handcuffs. I glared at Siff.
"Thanks, Leon," I said.
I turned to my captors. "What are you arresting me for?"
The answer shocked me. Conspiracy to sell three U.S.-built C-130s to Iran in contravention of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act. The evidence against me, I was told, emerged from that meeting with Lettner in the Kennedy Airport coffee shop.
They led me out to a car, and I was pushed into the front seat. Elaine Banar sat in the rear. There were cars behind and cars in front, all filled with special agents. The man at the wheel of the car I was in, Special Agent Staudinger, said into the radio, "We need to start an extradition hearing to New York's Southern District for an extremely violent and dangerous criminal we've just captured."
Later, in the federal magistrate's court in Los Angeles, I acted as my own attorney and made a deal with the judge waiving my extradition to New York in return for a quick transfer there -- I had heard horror stories of three-month prison bus trips from Los Angeles to New York.
The magistrate ordered that I be flown to the Southern District of New York within ten days. Then they took me, with chains around my feet and hands, to the Metropolitan Detention Center where I was to spend the next three days. International calls were not permitted and I had no address book, so all I could do was make a collect call to Leon Siff. He refused to admit having any part in my arrest and said he was looking for a lawyer for me.
He told me that Ann Magori had phoned from Israel -- I'd left Leon's number as a way to contact me -- and was on her way to see me. Ann was a real estate agent whom Ora and I had met while hunting for an apartment. A close relationship had developed among the three of us, and Ann was planning to join us on our vacation in Australia. She was an American-born orthodox woman. But why was she coming to Los Angeles instead of Ora?
"What about my wife?" I asked Siff.
He didn't know whether Ora had even been told about my arrest.
I was visited at the detention center by the lawyer Siff had found. He introduced himself as Harry Weiss. He was still looking into my case, he said, but he was confident of striking a deal. It was necessary, however, for me to go to New York first.
When Ann Magori arrived, she visited me in jail and told me, "There's something very wrong. I've been talking all day to Leon Siff, and I think he and his friends are all involved with the American government. Just be careful."
At around 3:00 A.M. November 9, a Thursday, I was chained and taken out to a bus filled with other prisoners. It was a nightmare scene from the Dark Ages in which grey-faced men shuffled along to the rattle of their chains. Many of them were hardened criminals. There were to be no special privileges for a man who had done nothing more than serve his government to the best of his ability. Indeed, the opposite was true.
We were driven to an airfield, herded off the bus, and told to form a line. A circle of U.S. marshals with shotguns surrounded us, illuminated by distant lighting. And there we waited for an hour until an old 737, painted completely white, landed. It was now about four or five in the morning, but because they had taken my watch I couldn't be sure.
Struggling up the steps in our chains, we made our way onto the aircraft, a special Bureau of Prisons flight that transported prisoners around the U.S. The in-flight service was nothing to speak of. One of the prisoners asked for water and when told there was none on board complained this was unconstitutional. He demanded the name of the marshal who had refused him. The marshal told him to wait for a moment. A few seconds later he came from the rear of the plane with three others, who then began to slap the unfortunate prisoner around and call him a smartass.
The plane landed to offload some prisoners, and others were brought on, this time some women too. Then it would land at another place, and the same procedure would be played out. Men and women came out of the toilet with their clothing stained, finding it difficult to manipulate their chains in the cramped space. Our only refreshments as we hopscotched east across the U.S. were a sweet drink, a chocolate bar, and an apple.
At 10:00 P.M. we landed at Oklahoma City. My name was called along with others, and we were herded off, to be met by more shotgun-wielding marshals. I was taken to El Reno Federal Penitentiary and led down metal stairs to an underground cellblock. You could almost touch the sides of the cell with your arms spread out. On one side was a metal bunkbed. Someone had spilled sugar on it, and it was crawling with cockroaches. The concrete floor was wet. In a corner was an aluminum toilet with a sink attached. The toilet worked, but the sink didn't.
They kept me there for two days, in what I later learned were among the worst prison conditions in the U.S. It was illegal to hold anyone that long without allowing them out for exercise, but they didn't care. I had been marked as dangerous, and that was that.
My only reprieve was that they allowed me to use the phone, and I called Leon Siff collect.
"I don't want to talk to you," he said. "You're a criminal. Your friend Ann is here, she'd like to talk to you."
Her words cut me dead: "I hope you rot in jail."
I got through to Harry Weiss and asked him to connect me on a three-way line with Ora in Israel. I knew that government agents would be listening in, but at least Ora would confirm that I had been working for Israel.
When Ora came on the line, my hopes collapsed. "I don't know how I can help you, Ari," she said.
"You can help by coming here instantly and finding me a lawyer. And by telling them who I am."
"I can't do it. I've been talking to people in the government and I can't come. I can't leave. I can't do anything."
"My God, Ora. Have they gotten to you, too?"
She didn't answer. I hung up.
My world was shaken. For more than a decade I'd dealt with the slimiest, least trustworthy people on earth, who had made me cynical far beyond my years. And, of course, my marriage to Ora had been built on a foundation of distrust from the start. She had been helping the Americans. And I had certainly done my share of betraying her trust by sleeping around. Still, somewhere in my deepest soul, I wanted to believe that husband and wife were there for each other in a crisis. When her distant voice told me it wasn't so, my heart sank.
In the next hour or so, as I sat on the bed in my cell, I realized how profoundly alone I was.
On that second day I was presented with a cellmate. Although he was wearing prison khakis like the rest of us, he was tanned, clean-shaven, and, unlike any other prisoner, wearing a watch. Almost immediately he began to tell me his sob story of how he owned copper mines and the "federal government bastards" had come down heavily on him for taxes and thrown him into this jail. Suddenly he asked, "And why are you here?"
I guessed that the man was wired, so I shrugged and said nothing. I lay back on my bed and decided to wait it out.
He got nowhere with me. And I could see that the stench of that dank cell and my silence were getting to him. Suddenly he yelled to a guard, "You mother-fucking bastards, why are you keeping me here?"
The guards understood the cue. Shortly afterwards they came and took him away -- I believe to freedom.
I finally arrived in New York after 12 days, not the ten that had been ordered. I knew they were trying to break me down, trying to get me to confess to a "crime" of which I knew I was innocent. It was a frightening experience, to be away from your country, your family, your friends. And I began to wonder just who were my friends. I also wondered about Ora; had they really brainwashed her about me? Had they threatened her and Shira? Or did she already know what was going to happen before I left Israel? After all, she had worked for Israeli intelligence. And she had been strangely agreeable about all my last-minute changes in travel plans. Had Ora betrayed me? I didn't want to believe that one. I forced that thought from my mind -- or at least tried to.
In the prison van from the airport to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan I sat next to a Latino man who had been flown from Miami to Oklahoma and from there to New York.
"Comrade criminal," he said, "the machine we call society has just spit you out ... it's just spit you out."
At the correctional center I was segregated from the rest of those who had arrived with me. Everyone else was given brown jumpsuits. I was ordered to put on an orange uniform. I had been classified as dangerous. They were really determined to break me.
Two days later during a brief court hearing I asked the magistrate why I was classified as dangerous. The assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Baruch Weiss, immediately exclaimed: "That was a mistake, your honor."
One for me. I was declassified to the status of regular prisoner.
The lawyer Harry Weiss had found to represent me, Don Sonterelli, came up with a fascinating proposition. He and his partner, he said, had flown in specially from Taiwan to see me, and they wanted to hear about my North Korean adventures. I told them that was quite irrelevant to the charge I suspected they were going to throw at me -- of arms dealing -- and asked why they were so interested. They said they had another client who knew about C-130 aircraft in North Korea and Vietnam. I told them I wouldn't discuss it further.
"Look, it's very simple," Sonterelli persisted. "You pay our fee before you're indicted, then all you have to do is plead guilty and home you go. We'll be able to work out a deal with the prosecutor."
"Oh yes," I said. "And what is your fee?"
"I'll make no deals," I said.
They were urging me to admit to a crime I hadn't committed. I was going to fight this all the way. They said goodbye, leaving me fully aware of the long fight that lay ahead.
That wasn't the only approach made to me behind the scenes. Leonard Joy, of the Legal Aid Society of New York, visited me one day in the holding pen after a bail hearing and offered his services "on the house" to plead me guilty and get me a deal to go back to Israel. I asked him how he knew about the case, and his mumbling reply left me unsatisfied. I thanked him for his interest in my welfare and bade him goodbye.
Next I was sitting in a common area at MCC when I was told an attorney was there to see me. I went down to the attorney conference room, and a very well-known lawyer shook my hand and introduced himself.
"You, you have come to see me?" I asked. "Are you looking after my welfare also?"
He half-smiled and said he was representing the Israeli government. He explained that I should plead guilty and go home to Israel. I politely told him no.
A second lawyer acting for the Israeli government then visited and asked me about the funds that were tucked away in the East Bloc. He pressed so hard that I told him if he didn't back off, I'd tell the world about Robert Maxwell's involvement.
Still, he pressed. "You'll be a young, retired, well-to-do man," he said.
This really made me angry. They wanted to send me to live in "Jerusalem, Alabama," somewhere out in the boonies, and never be heard from again. Use me, betray me, spit me out. How could I trust these guys? If I did what they asked, I'd probably be dead in a couple of months, like Amiram Nir. I sent this second Israeli lawyer packing.
Then Michael Foster, a special agent of the FBI and the chief investigator for Iran-contra Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, came to see me in jail. He asked about Robert McFarlane. I offered him a deal -- get my case dismissed, and I'd give him McFarlane on a platter. He asked me to tell him what I knew first. I said no. He said he'd get back to me, but when he did, he wasn't willing to meet my terms.
The one deal I was willing to make was with the prosecutor, Baruch Weiss. I signed an agreement with him that I would talk to him without a lawyer present on the condition that I be granted immunity on anything we talked about. I agreed to this for one simple reason: I wanted everyone I'd ever worked with to know that I was willing to blow them all into the public eye. I assumed that Weiss, with whom I spent approximately 40 hours in presumably taped conversations, would pass the message on to those who needed to know it. And he did.
At one point I talked to Maxwell and Davies from jail, arranged by Weiss's office, and asked for their help. Both of them told me, "You're history."
My phone conversation with Nick Davies, monitored by the authorities, was most illuminating.
"Nick," I said, "why don't you tell them the truth?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said. "I'm only a journalist."
After that, Baruch Weiss told me that all contact with Maxwell's Mirror group should go through its attorney, David Zornow.
That name rang some bells. Zornow had prosecuted Oliver North as part of Lawrence Walsh's team. This time he was representing some interesting -- and interested -- clients: Maxwell, Davies, and John Tower. As time was to prove, he did a good job. Although he did not appear, he was able to negotiate with the prosecution to ensure that their names did not come out in open court.
I tried phoning Ora again to convince her to help me, but the call only made me angrier. She wasn't coming to America.
I was unable to hire a lawyer, because foreign currency control authorities in Israel, against Israeli law that makes exceptions for citizens in legal trouble abroad, would not allow my mother to transfer money from Israel. Yet the prosecutor objected in court to the judge's suggestion of a court-appointed attorney, because I was not indigent.
On January 18, 1990, after 75 days in jail, Baruch Weiss finally told me what would be in my indictment. The magistrate assigned me an attorney pursuant to the Criminal justice Act. It was to be the start of a friendship. Although Thomas F.X. Dunn, a New York-born, Irish-Catholic lawyer, possessed little knowledge of the Middle East, Israel, or the international intelligence scene, he was willing to learn.
It was quite plain to me that Israel was as much to blame for my arrest as the U.S., and with Tom Dunn, who had no connections to Israel, I felt that I was in good hands.
One day Dunn broke some news to me. The U.S. attorney was going to indict Joseph O'Toole and Richard St. Francis, the man who had brought the mysterious Lettner to Kennedy Airport.
"But that's impossible," I said. "O'Toole works for the U.S. government. He was the one who set me up at the airport." I could not understand why he was being indicted.
Tom was not acquainted with the details of my case -- he didn't even know what a C-130 was at first. But he asked me to fill him in. When he heard about the roles of O'Toole and St. Francis, he agreed things were looking very odd.
My hope of getting bail was disappearing. The prosecutor wanted property worth at least $130,000 as security, and it had to be located in the United States. I couldn't bring cash into the country because the Israeli government continued not to allow it.
"This is their way of keeping you in jail," said Tom.
On Thursday, February 1, 1990, I was indicted and then taken back to jail. O'Toole and St. Francis, it turned out, had been arrested before me, in April 1989, although I had not known this, and released on bail, but they were not indicted until March 1990.
The charges were not lengthy. In essence, they claimed that St. Francis, O'Toole, and I had conspired to defraud the United States, to cover up illegal dealings, and to try to sell three planes to Iran in violation of federal laws.
They claimed we were acting as intermediaries between an Israeli seller and an Iranian buyer to sell three C-130 military cargo aircraft; that we conspired to obtain a false letter of intent from a Brazilian company stating that it would be the recipient of the planes; and that we intended to conceal from the Department of State's Office of Munitions Control that the ultimate destination was Iran, not Brazil.
We could each get up to five years in jail and a fine of $250,000, depending on the determination of the degree of sophistication of the aircraft.
My trial did not begin until more than eleven months after my arrest, one of the most frustrating experiences in my life. I was locked up in jail, trying to explain a very complicated situation to a court-appointed lawyer who, though he meant well, was having a hard time understanding me.
With some reason. For one thing, the Israeli government was denying it had ever heard of me, most particularly that I had ever worked for it.
Dunn wanted witnesses, people who would show that I was working for the Israeli government and with the knowledge of the U.S. government. This turned out to be impossible. No one I had worked with would even talk to us, much less confirm anything. Dunn spent months trying to get my employment records from Israel. Originally, he was stonewalled. Four letters of recommendation from my superiors that had been sent by my mother and given to the prosecutor were described by the Israeli government as forgeries. But after Robert Parry, who was working for Newsweek at the time, confirmed their authenticity with the signatories, the Israeli government changed its story. Now it claimed I had worked for the government, but only as a low-level Farsi translator. According to the government's scenario, I had apparently gone into business for myself, illegally selling arms.
Since the Israelis were now saying I had been a translator, there had to be some records. Of course, I knew the records would have to be forged, since I hadn't been a translator, but I hoped there might be some clue in whatever they came up with. It was only in the middle of my trial that the "records" arrived, and I discovered then that somewhere, somehow, I still had at least one, anonymous friend at my old office.
But before that pleasant surprise, Dunn finally reached the one and only person who was to be a witness for me at the trial. In the many conversations we had, trying to decide who could show that I was involved in high-level Israeli government activities, I remembered Raji Samghabadi, the Time magazine reporter. After all, I had told him all about the Iran-contra affair long before the information ever appeared anywhere. That ought to have some effect on the jury.
Samghabadi was not eager to be a witness for me. He was on medical leave from Time, suffering from a terrible case of frayed nerves, and he considered me one of the causes of his nervous condition. But, faced with the prospect of a subpoena if he did not agree, he said he would testify.
The trial began on October 17 in the United States District Courthouse in lower Manhattan, before District Judge Louis Stanton. I sat next to the straight-laced Connecticut businessman Richard St. Francis. O'Toole's case had been severed from ours, at our request, because he had cooperated with the government in setting me up. Later he was accused, falsely, of illegally trying to sell Stinger missiles from Israel to an unidentified nation. The few friends I had left in the Israeli government helped set him up, forcing the U.S. to indict him. So now O'Toole and I were even.
As I listened to the prosecutor, Baruch Weiss, outline the charges against St. Francis and me, describing in great detail the one conversation at Kennedy Airport that included me, I wondered how much longer I would remain behind bars.
Not long, it turned out. Four days into the trial, most of which was spent describing the government's investigation and beginning a review of the transcripts of the conversations, Judge Stanton ordered me released on $30,000 bail. He had finally read the complete transcript of the supposedly damning conversations taped by Lettner (the undercover Customs agent is actually named John Lisica, but I continue to think of him as Lettner) and said he did not find it particularly incriminating. I was out of jail, after 11 months and three weeks.
The bulk of the government's case against me was the tape of the Kennedy Airport conversation. Although my own memory of it was no longer crystal clear, I knew I had tried to be truthful, and it was clear, I thought, to anyone reviewing the transcript, that I was acting officially.
Weiss, of course, having been advised by Shamir's office, insisted I was only a former military translator out to make a personal profit. "It was a business," he said.
But the tapes supported my defense that I was acting on behalf of my government. For one thing, right at the outset, Lettner tried to entice me by suggesting that, if this deal went through, there would be "a good chance of talking them into taking something else." I replied, "Forget the something else." This is not what Mr. Weiss's businessman would have said.
I also kept insisting that Lettner identify himself and his principal contact in Iran positively (neither of which he ever did), and I demanded the name of someone in Tehran who could verify that he was authorized to make this purchase for the Iranians. He never provided that either.
Also, although a part of the government's charges against us was a conspiracy to prepare and use a fraudulent end-user certificate, I remarked to Lettner, "I understand that you wanted an EUC. I don't know why." Only a government representative, not a private businessman, would be unconcerned about an end-user certificate. I also reminded Lettner the planes could be flown out by Israeli pilots.
Shortly after, the most significant part of the conversation took place. Lettner said, "Let's face it, nobody wants to have any undue publicity or anything coming back directly."
I replied, "I will be open with you about another subject, the people here said go ahead."
Lettner: "I beg your pardon?"
Me: "The people here said go ahead." I was referring to the U.S. government.
Lettner: "Uh huh."
Me: "They'll deny that they said that."
Lettner: "Of course."
Me: "But we would not do anything without some type of agreement."
Lettner: "Uh huh."
Me: "Nobody is going to check it out, no politician in Israel."
Lettner: "Of course not."
Weiss had a hell of a time explaining this to the jury. This was the clearest indication, from the government's own exhibit, that I had explained that my activities were authorized by both the U.S. and the Israeli governments.
One other item gave Weiss a bit of a problem, and let Dunn have some fun in his summation -- my last passports. I did not have all my old passports, but I had three of them, and they showed some of my travels from 1985 to 1989. (My passports were usually canceled before their expiration dates and new ones issued, because I rapidly filled up the visa pages.)
The passports showed constant travels, to France, England, Guatemala, the United States, Israel, El Salvador, Peru, Jamaica, Australia, Paraguay, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Austria, and Chile, with many repeat entries and exits. There must have been 70 or 80 trips to different countries in just a few years, most of them in the Western Hemisphere. As Dunn pointed out to the jury with excruciating detail, this was a rather bizarre itinerary for a low-level Farsi translator. Weiss actually suggested they were all private vacations, which would have made me one of the highest-paid low-level translators in the world.
It was during the prosecution's case that I learned I had a friend back at my old office. After the Israelis had admitted I had been in Military Intelligence, Weiss had asked for my employment records, to introduce them in evidence to bolster the argument that I had been, at most, this low-level translator. When they arrived in an official, sealed package from Israel, Weiss had to introduce the whole thing into evidence, including performance reports and the four letters of recommendation written when I was leaving Military Intelligence, the very letters Weiss had previously said were forgeries. (They had been written before I went over to the Prime Minister's Office, but no one was admitting that.)
The employment records had, as I assumed, been altered. They all said I was a translator, and all but two did not give any unit. But those two were the ones on which my unknown friend had left the entry in. The English translation introduced into evidence said: "Staff Officer, Means of War."
This was something Baruch Weiss could not explain. Means of war -- armaments, military equipment -- this is what I had said all along was my field of work. And "staff officer," that did not sound like a low-level translator.
The letters of recommendation -- another present from my anonymous friend -- were the icing on the cake. The first, from Col. Pesah Melowany, said, in part:
"Mr. Ari Ben-Menashe has served in the Israel Defense Forces External Relations Department in key positions. As such, Mr. Ben-Menashe was responsible for a variety of complex and sensitive assignments which demanded exceptional analytical and executive capabilities. From my acquaintance with him in the Department, I came to know Mr. Ben-Menashe and admire his proficiency and devotion. He fulfills his assignments in a very efficient and reliable manner."
Another, from Col. Arieh Shur, noted:
"During Mr. Ben-Menashe's service in the department, he was in charge of a task which demanded considerable analytical and executive skills. Mr. Ben-Menashe carried out his task with understanding, skill, and determination, managing to adapt himself to changing situations."
The other two were similar, referring to "key positions" and "great responsibility."
The prosecutor's case was finished, and the low-level translator story was dead in the water.
As we took a break before Tom Dunn was to begin my defense, my co-defendant Richard St. Francis, who'd been caught up in this whole mess unwittingly, had finally reached the boiling point and was talking to any reporter who'd listen. He insisted that he'd been set up by TransCapital, the Connecticut company he'd worked for. The reason, he explained with growing impatience, was that he'd been talking publicly about TransCapital's role in the sale of computer hardware abroad.
Finally, court reconvened, and it was our turn. Tom Dunn called our only witness, the Time magazine correspondent Raji Samghabadi. A heavyset, excitable Iranian, Raji was in a state, and the judge had to calm him down several times. When he was asked about his life in Iran, he started to rant about the communists and the fundamentalists, from whom he had, in fact, narrowly escaped. He had even been the subject of a mock execution.
When he was asked to describe his relations with me, he replied, "Prickly, difficult, dangerous, sometimes intolerable, almost intolerable, but I had to do a job." Once, he referred to me as "that bozo." On redirect examination, apropos of nothing, he said to Dunn, "You know, I don't have much respect for your client, by the way." Then, as the judge was asking him to take a moment or two to "just walk around and compose yourself," he shouted:
"Your honor, two million people crippled and killed, and we put that shrimp there in order to cover up for George Bush and Mr. Shamir? I can't tolerate that."
Some witness for the defense.
Weiss spent most of his cross-examination trying to get Raji to admit that he had only my own word for it that I was connected with Israeli intelligence, that I might well have been a low-level translator for all he knew. But when Dunn asked him if I had ever referred to myself as a translator, he blurted out, "A translator does not smoke opium with Iranian cabinet officers." The judge instructed the jury to disregard the remark, but I'm not sure they could.
The bottom line, still and all, was that Raji confirmed under oath that several months before the famous story appeared in Al Shiraa I had told him all about the Iran-contra weapons sales.
Thomas Francis Xavier Dunn, a tall, thin, criminal lawyer with a thick blond moustache, was now ready to address the jury in the most important case of his career. He was confident he had what he needed for his summation. A year earlier he had had nothing, he hardly understood me. Now he had developed a deep and powerful understanding of the intricate web in which he had been placed. He told the jury:
"What we have sitting right here is another victim, an Israeli victim, a victim of a number of different parties, a victim of the U.S. Customs Service, a victim of the United States government, and, in the end, a victim of his own government, the Israelis, who have left him out high and dry.... The Americans are stonewalling, the Israelis are stonewalling, and now this man has been left out in the cold to swing...."
He explained, "Mr. Ari Ben-Menashe had no intent to violate any American laws. He was working for the Israeli government. There was State Department approval [CIA, actually], although no one is going to admit it. And if you remember these political officials with Watergate -- 'We're going to stonewall, we're going to deny'; Irangate -- 'No, we would never do that.' Then they have to admit it eventually. It's the same story here."
Tom asked the jury to reflect on Raji's testimony. "If that man [me] had kept his mouth shut, you and I and everyone else in this country may not know about Iran-contra to this day. You don't think they're [the U.S. government] ticked off about that? You don't think they want the guy to pay?"
Tom went over the passport entries one by one. He went over the letters of recommendation and the efficiency reports word by word.
The jury retired to consider their verdict. What were they making of it all, I wondered, as I sat in the courtroom chatting to journalists and others who had listened in on the case. I could only pray that they realized that the evidence they had heard in my defense had been the truth -- because then the only verdict would have to be not guilty. After two-and-a-half hours, there was a fuss; they were returning ... But no, they simply wanted to have the airport tape replayed to them.
It was only 30 minutes later that they returned to the court. After six weeks of evidence, the moment I had both longed for and feared -- knowing I was innocent but worried that the decision would come down against me -- had arrived. My heart pounded as I tried to read the decision in their faces. I had always believed I could read people well. This time I was failing. I closed my eyes. I wanted to shut out this whole courtroom and disappear into a big black hole.
"Not guilty!" The words reverberated through my mind. My eyes snapped open. They were looking at me, smiling. I sat back in my seat. St. Francis, who had also been found not guilty, was grinning all over his face. You never win federal cases, everyone had told me. You just hoped to receive a lenient sentence.
Tom reached out a hand of congratulations. It was over.
I was innocent. A free man.
It was November 28, 1991 -- ten years to the day since I had been appointed to the secret arms-to-Iran committee.