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Operation Shakespeare

The True Story of an Elite International Sting

About The Book

A secret war. A daring sting operation. The great untold national security story of our time: “An impressive and important work…The book has the glamour of a spy novel and the gravity of a meticulously researched exposé” (Christian Science Monitor).

On today’s high-tech battlefields, the most lethal weapons are not the big ones, but rather the ones that are small enough to be smuggled inside a pack of chewing gum. Developed and manufactured in the United States at extraordinary cost, these tiny weapons of war—which can guide missiles, see through walls, and trigger anything from a wireless IED to a nuclear weapon—are what currently give the US its military advantage. Unfortunately, they are increasingly being discovered in the hands of our enemies.

In Operation Shakespeare, Pulitzer Prize finalist John Shiffman tells the true story of an elaborate sting operation launched by an elite Homeland Security team that was created to stop Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea from stealing US military technology. The sting, codenamed Operation Shakespeare, targets an Iranian arms broker who works on behalf of Tehran. Over the course of three years, the American agents go undercover to outwit not only the Iranian, but US defense contractors and bankers willing to put profit over national security. The chase moves around the world, and as the United States tries to bring the Iranian to justice, his own government plots to assassinate him, fearful of what he might reveal.

Tenacious, richly detailed, and boasting unprecedented access to both the Iranian broker and the US agents who caught him, “Operation Shakespeare reads like a spy thriller—but Shiffman’s meticulous reporting leaves no doubt that he is telling nothing less than scary truth” (Daily News, New York).


Operation Shakespeare CHAPTER 1 The Storefront YARDLEY, PENNSYLVANIA
On a mild spring morning in April 2004, a black Mercedes S430 sedan pulled into a low-rise office park. The robin’s-egg blue building stood on a narrow suburban road near the New Jersey state line, thirty minutes from Seth Dvorin’s boyhood home. The driver who stepped out of the Mercedes had a shaved head and an affable face. He wore a white dress shirt tucked into tan slacks that bulged a bit at the waist. In his wallet, the man carried a driver’s license and business cards that identified him as Patrick J. Lynch. He carried a briefcase and walked purposefully inside, past the offices of a dentist and a chiropractor, and unlocked Suite 106. A small sign beside the door declared this the offices of Cross International.

Cross rarely received visitors, but anyone who wandered in the front door would have likely found Lynch seated at one of two desks, busy on the telephone or on a desktop computer. At his elbows were strategically strewn invoices, each topped with the company’s globelike logo and motto, “Cross International—Your Dependable Partner, Serving Your Acquisition, Logistics and Transportation Needs.” The walls were lined with posters of jet fighters and aircraft carriers, and a coffee table by the front door held neatly stacked copies of Jane’s Fighting Ships and other encyclopedias of modern warfare.

A quick check of public records or the Internet would reveal just enough about Cross International to assuage any suspicions—Cross had been in business since the mid-1990s and its state, county, and federal tax and incorporation records were in good order. Although Cross was a fairly generic name, a Google search of “Cross International” usually returned reaffirming hits, links to well-established import-export trade directories. Almost all of these links cited Suite 106 in Yardley and the Cross phone number, 215-496-1372.

The Cross website was understated and featured a standard, American-style business mission statement: “Cross International is a worldwide procurer of military and defense-related items and technology facilitating the needs of various customers throughout the world. Cross seeks to solve the difficulties associated with procurement through their many years of experience in the international logistics and acquisition business. Through a network of relationships, Cross has access to various international inventories that can facilitate many of your defense needs. Cross is an authorized broker for many U.S. and Canadian manufacturers. Cross also provides freight forwarding, brokerage and transportation assistance and guidance relative to the movement of sensitive commodities throughout the world.”

The customers Patrick Lynch hoped to attract would instantly understand what Cross really offered. Cross helped foreign corporations—often no more than state-run front companies—buy sophisticated, American-made military-grade equipment and technology. Cross not only promised to help foreigners find the highest-quality items for the best price, it facilitated the hardest part of any global arms deal: navigating, and, if necessary, circumventing the byzantine U.S. regulations that limit export of military products to certain nations. “Freight forwarding . . . sensitive commodities throughout the world” meant that Cross could smuggle contraband military equipment to banned nations by routing it through ports like Vancouver, Dubai, Amsterdam, or Singapore. The practice, known as “transshipping,” was the primary method of sending contraband to China, Iran, Pakistan, and war-torn countries in Africa.

To attract the right kind of customer, Lynch had embedded certain terms and phrases in the company website’s metadata, the invisible keywords that search engines like Google use to link search terms to websites. In the webpage’s metadata header, he had typed: “Laser, tanks, infrared, night vision, night targeting system, tandem warhead, reactive armor, grenade launcher, forward looking infrared, F-14, assault rifle, M4 carbine, M24 sniper rifle, M240 machine gun, unmanned aerial vehicle, sonar, radar, electronic combat systems, military cryptology, kinetic energy weapon systems.”

On an average day, Patrick Lynch received a handful of fresh foreign queries for American-made military equipment and sophisticated electronics. Each query usually contained dozens of RFQs, or requests for price quotes. The RFQs often arrived in the form of an Excel spreadsheet with product or part numbers. Like any arms broker, Lynch would turn to the Internet, Google each product, figure out what it was and who made it, how much it cost, how long it took to manufacture, how it might be shipped, what export regulations applied, and what the profit margin might be. Discreet research could be intense and time-consuming.

With so many sales variables, it was not uncommon for negotiations to stretch across months. One recent successful transaction had lingered for nearly a year. It involved a Japanese client who sought something called an AN/PEQ-2. Lynch looked it up and found that an AN/PEQ-2 is an Infrared Target Pointer/Illuminator/Aiming Laser, and is deployed by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The device, made in New Hampshire, is a waterproof, rifle-mounted spotting laser that can project a red dot on a target miles away. The man who emailed Cross sought five of them, priced at $1,200 each. He asked if the aiming laser could be exported to Japan, and a Cross employee told him that it could not, as this would violate U.S. export law. So the man supplied Cross with an address in California for delivery. Lynch and his Cross colleagues replied that the law still requires them to certify the name of the end user, or final recipient. No problem, the Japanese buyer assured them. He promised to come up with a company name, and made a date to meet Lynch and other Cross executives in Los Angeles.

Only when he was arrested did the Japanese man learn Lynch’s true identity—an undercover agent for Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Cross International was an undercover HSI company.

With its technical superiority, the U.S. military has created an unrivaled and formidable military machine, a superpower. With superior night vision and targeting software, the U.S. Army owns the night. With undetectable submarines and massive aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy dominates every ocean, above and below the surface. With stealth fighters and bombers, the U.S. Air Force rules the skies.

The American advantage is so pronounced that on many battlefields the greatest threat to U.S. soldiers, sailors, and pilots is an enemy firing back with American-made weapons and technology. These tiny weapons of modern war—precision microchips, missile-guiding gyroscopes, night vision scopes, radar-cloaking material—can alter the balance of power. The most valuable military components are often the smallest state-of-the-art devices, most no larger than a stick of chewing gum, but nonetheless lethal, capable of guiding missiles, jamming radar, pinpointing submarines, and triggering countless weapons, from wireless IEDs to nuclear explosions.

To maintain its strategic and tactical advantages, the U.S. government long ago adopted a matrix of laws and regulations restricting the sale of sensitive technology and munitions overseas. But in a global economy fed by the speed and anonymity of Internet communication and cheap international shipping, it is growing increasingly difficult to enforce smuggling laws. Worse, an outdated and needlessly bureaucratic regulatory scheme—one filled with inherent conflicts of interest—has hamstrung law enforcement. As a result, America’s technical advantage is evaporating.

Throughout history, the practice of war has evolved at the pace of technology, from ancient metal body armor to medieval armadas to atomic weapons. The nations with the most advanced technology usually win the wars and enjoy the spoils, political and economic dominance. “Tools, or weapons, if only the right ones can be discovered, form 99 percent of victory,” the British general and military historian J. F. C. Fuller said in 1919. “Strategy, command, leadership, courage, discipline, supply, organization and all the moral and physical paraphernalia of war are nothing to a high superiority of weapons.”

In the fifth century BC, Athens became a superpower in part by developing a fleet of sophisticated and expensive warships, triremes powered by oars. The nimble galley ships, built with pegs and rods, rather than nails and screws, dominated the Mediterranean Sea—so much so that following a victory against the Persians in 480 BC, Themistocles urged his fellow Athenians to preserve this advantage by preemptively burning the enemy’s dockyards. His idea was rejected as immoral, and, sure enough, decades later, the Persians struck back by secretly bankrolling a proxy navy led by the Athenians’ archrivals, the Spartans. “While it lasted, the age of the trireme anticipated issues facing today’s nuclear world,” Bard College classics professor James Romm has written. “Then as now, a single advanced weapon loomed so large that nations tried to strip it away with surgical strikes.”

In the late fifteenth century, the advent of the mobile cannon triggered the rise of a European military machine that would grow to dominate global affairs for nearly five hundred years. Consider that at the outset of the artillery age, Europe controlled just 15 percent of the world’s landmass. “But by the early sixteenth century, Europe would emerge as the richest, most dynamic and most powerful region on the planet,” military historian Max Boot writes in War Made New. “In the years ahead, its explorers, merchants, preachers, settlers, sailors and soldiers would subdue much of the rest of mankind, controlling 35 percent of the earth’s landmass by 1800 and a staggering 84 percent by 1914.”

This technology revolution began in 1494, at the height of the Renaissance, when the French invaded the Italian city-states of Naples, Venice, and Florence. France sent 27,000 traditional soldiers to Italy, primarily a mix of archers and cavalrymen in armor, carrying lances and swords. But France also deployed dozens of newfangled mobile cannons. Though gunpowder had arrived in Europe a few hundred years earlier and some had developed rudimentary cannons, the French improved the technology dramatically. They developed a cannon with significantly more explosive force and crafted iron ordnance that could travel farther and faster than standard stone cannonballs. As important, the French cast the cannon from bronze, a lighter metal, which allowed the artillery to be mounted on raised wooden carriages and, thus, for the first time, be wheeled by horses rather than dragged by oxen. When the French forces invaded, the Italian armies took traditional positions in castles built of stone. The new cannons obliterated the castles. Many years later, a Florentine politician, Francesco Guicciardini, reflected on the profound changes wrought by the new weapon. “[Previously] when war broke out, the sides were so evenly balanced, the military methods so slow and the artillery so primitive, that the capture of a castle took up almost a whole campaign.” The introduction of modern, mobile, powerful artillery turned “everything upside down,” he wrote. “Wars became sudden and violent . . . cities were reduced with great speed, in a matter of days and hours rather than months.”

England soon surpassed France in cannon technology, and beginning with the 1588 battle against the Spanish Armada, grew to dominate the seas, and therefore much of the world. As England built its empire, Britain sought to protect its technological advantage. In 1610, the British made it illegal to export ordnance, gunmetal, and iron ore without a government license. Other European nations adopted similar, rudimentary export controls. Milan forbade the emigration of skilled arms workers. Tuscany banned the export of munitions, powder, and metal to the Barbary Muslims.

In early U.S. history, trade and tariff policy rarely addressed counter-proliferation. Presidents imposed exceptions during war—Lincoln’s blockade of the Confederate states—but until World War I the United States, largely neutral in foreign affairs, promoted free trade. Indeed, for three years preceding America’s entry into the war in 1917, U.S. nonmilitary exports continued to flow to Germany. The Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 formed the basis for an export-control framework that survives to this day, and the government published a list of thousands of embargoed foreign companies and individuals, a forerunner to the current prohibited entities lists. Under the regime, American shippers were required to obtain a government license before exporting products to a person or business on the list.

Following World War I, a series of Senate hearings fanned suspicions that U.S. munitions manufacturers had helped push the nation into war. The backlash spurred postwar export controls on munitions to certain countries, and by 1935, reflecting the American return toward isolationism, Congress adopted the Neutrality Act, which forbade the United States from trading with any nation at war with another. One provision created a National Munitions Control Board to license exports. United States policy shifted abruptly again at the outbreak of World War II, from neutrality to support for the Allies. In 1940, the United States banned aviation fuel and machine tools to the Japanese, and even before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt imposed a complete ban on military items to Japan. By 1941, the ban extended to trade with Germany and Italy. This did not, however, prevent several major American corporations from continuing to do business with the Nazis or their proxies, according to documents unearthed decades later by journalist Charles Higham. In his book Trading with the Enemy, he writes that at the height of the war Standard Oil smuggled fuel to the enemy through Switzerland, and, with authorization from Detroit, a Ford factory in France built trucks for the Nazis. But these acts were overshadowed by the tremendous technological advances during the war, from the development of the atomic bomb to radar. The United States won the decisive battle of Midway in part because American ships carried rudimentary radar that could detect incoming enemy planes from miles away, while the Japanese largely relied on scout planes and spotters.

After the war, U.S. policymakers struggled to contain communism, in part by limiting technology exports to the Soviet Union, while at the same time working to rebuild the European economy, for which free trade was critical. Some Americans viewed the Soviet Union as an untapped market; others took a more cautious view. In a 1946 report to President Truman, White House counselor Clark Clifford advised that the surest way to influence the Soviets was to engage them in trade, though he warned, presciently, that “the United States should avoid premature disclosure of scientific and technological information relating to war matériel.” Truman’s inclination after the war was to embrace free trade. His administration shrank the wartime list of controlled goods and abolished the Trading with the Enemy list. Reflecting the prevailing free trade vision, the Commerce Department assigned just one person to enforce export controls.

The era of free trade did not last long. After the communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and the Soviets detonated their own atomic bomb the following year, Truman was compelled to tighten export controls. New lists were drafted restricting many shipments to the Soviet Union and its satellites. The Commerce Department enforcement staff morphed to fifty. The anticommunist philosophy solidified by 1950, and would shape U.S. export policy for the duration of the Cold War and beyond. President Eisenhower found many Soviet trade restrictions “damned silly”—the data showed that the embargoes carried little practical effect. But anticommunist political currents were too swift to navigate a change in direction.

From this Cold War structure emerged a rubric in which export licensing decisions were made either by the State Department, sensitive first to foreign policy concerns, or by the Commerce Department, a government agency created to promote American business, not restrict it. The Pentagon and other agencies held only advisory roles. Toward the end of the Cold War, the military began to push back. The Pentagon interceded, for example, in 1988 to dissuade State and Commerce from approving a Maryland company’s request to export 500,000 injectors of a nerve gas antidote to the Iraqi army. A short while later, the Pentagon got the White House to block Commerce Department approval of a New Jersey company’s request to supply Iraq with furnaces that could be used to produce missiles and nuclear weapons. Although the United States won a quick victory over Saddam Hussein in 1991, coalition forces were surprised to discover a significant amount of American-made munitions and technology in Iraqi military stocks.

After the war, President George H. W. Bush declared nonproliferation of sensitive and military technology to terrorists and rogue states a priority. But the policy shift—attempting to regulate trade with specific end users instead of whole countries—did not fit well with an export enforcement system designed to fight the Cold War. What’s more, as technology evolved rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s, weapons systems, like everything else, became miniaturized and therefore easier to smuggle—a military computer that once filled a room could now fit on a thumb drive. President Bill Clinton struggled, too, to balance the emerging security threats with the burgeoning global economy. Stymied by a split Congress, Clinton adopted a series of administrative reforms—he granted the Pentagon the power to review dual-use license applications, but he also relaxed restrictions governing satellites and computers. Clinton’s successors each touted “reform,” yet as late as 2013, the government was still struggling to cull the lists of restricted items and focus on the most dangerous.

Robert Gates, who first confronted the issue as a deputy CIA director for Ronald Reagan and again as defense secretary for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, believes that U.S. export policy is so broad—“a byzantine amalgam of authorities, roles and missions scattered around different parts of the federal government”—that it neither promotes commerce nor protects national security. After becoming deputy CIA director, Gates recalled, “it soon became apparent that the length of the list of controlled technologies outstripped our finite intelligence monitoring capabilities.” In many cases, Cold War–era regulations restricted basic, off-the-shelf items—latches, wires, and lug nuts if they could be used in an airplane, for example—from export. “We were wasting our time and resources tracking technologies you could buy at RadioShack,” Gates told a group of business executives in 2010. “Frederick the Great’s famous maxim that ‘he who defends everything defends nothing’ certainly applies to export control.”

Although the Obama administration embarked on an ambitious series of reforms, U.S. export control remains fractured. The State and Commerce departments, now assisted by the Pentagon, still decide which products can be exported where. The Treasury Department maintains its own list of sanctioned countries and individuals—nations, terrorists, and suspected criminals, such as Syria or al Qaeda, to whom nothing can be exported. A separate and equally strained triumvirate shares responsibility for enforcement: Commerce, FBI, and Homeland Security. Commerce’s three-part role—promoting trade, licensing exports, and enforcing the law—creates inherent conflicts of interest. Not surprisingly, the Commerce marketing and licensing divisions dwarf the law enforcement section. Commerce employs perhaps one hundred federal agents nationwide and a token handful overseas. The FBI plays a larger role than Commerce, but Homeland Security deploys the most resources.

Federal law enforcement turf battles are legion, but are exacerbated in the counter-proliferation arena by the clash of cultures between FBI, Commerce, and Homeland Security. The FBI approaches the problem from a counterespionage point of view. Commerce focuses on licensing enforcement. Many Homeland Security agents are former Customs officers with smuggling expertise. Each agency enjoys unique powers. Only FBI agents can deploy Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act wiretaps. Only Commerce agents can issue administrative sanctions. Only Homeland Security agents can search packages at the border without a warrant. The three agencies can’t even agree on military smuggling nomenclature. The FBI calls it “technology transfer.” Commerce calls it “export enforcement.” Homeland Security calls it “counter-proliferation.” A string of twenty-two government audits dating to 2001 have documented poor export coordination, administration, and enforcement. In 2007, the Government Accountability Office placed export controls on its “High Risk List,” a dubious honor reserved for the nation’s most troubled government programs. A 2010 government briefing paper described the current mix of export enforcement agencies as “confusing . . . disjointed and inefficient.” Change is proving difficult. As part of its reform initiative, the Obama administration created a unified export enforcement center, a clearinghouse in which the law enforcement agencies will share information about cases. Even creation of the center became a bureaucratic chore. The grand opening of the coordination center was delayed for nine months as Commerce, FBI, and Homeland Security officials bickered over how they would cooperate.

Every year, American businesses report to the authorities more than nineteen thousand suspicious contacts from foreign buyers, and U.S. agents open approximately 1,800 new counter-proliferation investigations. And every year, U.S. authorities announce about thirty or forty arrests for military technology smuggling, mostly inside the United States. Most of the smugglers are middlemen caught buying or selling American-made military gear for the Chinese, the Pakistanis, the Iranians, or the Russians. Most arrested know little more than the details of their own schemes. Mostly, they are expats out to exploit one or two contacts from the homeland. They cannot provide large-scale portraits of the vast shadow networks of procurement agents deployed by the Iranian, Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani governments. The best U.S. law enforcement targets—foreign procurement agents—are virtually untouchable inside their own countries, and employ the Internet, freight forwarding companies, and express mail services to keep the illicit purchases at arm’s length. As late as 2004, U.S. law enforcement agents had never nabbed an insider—someone living in Iran or China with intimate knowledge of their nation’s military supply network—seized his files, and brought him to justice in the United States. The U.S. agents were constantly on the hunt for such an elusive, high-value target.

Patrick J. Lynch, the undercover agent posing as a Cross International arms broker, was really Patrick J. Lechleitner. Everyone called him P.J.

Lechleitner worked for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which was part of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security. ICE agents were split between an immigration division and an investigations division. The immigration side employed Enforcement and Removal Operations agents, or ERO agents, and the customs side employed Homeland Security Investigations agents, HSI agents. Lechleitner was an HSI agent, one of approximately seven thousand. HSI agents investigated transnational border crimes, primarily serious immigration violations, human trafficking, drug smuggling, and child pornography. A small percentage, perhaps a few hundred, worked arms and technology smuggling cases. Lechleitner was a rookie agent, but HSI had assigned him to counter-proliferation because he held unusual qualifications.

Born in 1972, Lechleitner grew up two hours west of Yardley, in a rural eastern Pennsylvania county called Schuylkill, at the edge of Appalachia. Once a prosperous coal and railroad hub, Schuylkill was already declining by the time Lechleitner entered elementary school. His parents were natives; they shared working-class Irish Catholic roots and had met during high school. Lechleitner was the sixth of seven children. Five of his siblings still live in Schuylkill County.

In high school, Lechleitner held one ambition, joining the Navy. He sought travel and adventure, the kind his father, his uncle, a brother, and a sister had found in the service. His dad had been a rescue and deep-sea diver—trained, as it happened, by Master Sergeant Carl Brashear, the civil rights icon portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the movie Men of Honor. A month after graduating from high school, Lechleitner reported for basic training in Florida.

P.J. Lechleitner’s interests lay in science and history, technology and strategy, and so he sought an assignment in cryptology, the signals intelligence track that includes codes, eavesdropping, and communications, working amidst the military’s deepest secrets. Lechleitner scored well on aptitude tests and got a lucky assignment. The Navy posted him aboard the USS Belknap, the guided missile cruiser in the Mediterranean that hosted the Sixth Fleet’s commander, a three-star admiral.

As a crypto technician, Lechleitner processed the admiral’s communications, which meant he was exposed to almost everything the commander of the Sixth Fleet read—the threat reports, the diplomatic cables, and the political intelligence, things that revealed the true capabilities and limits of American military might. He arrived aboard the ship in 1991, just as groundbreaking advances in computer technology and cell phones were creating unexpected opportunities to collect oceans of intelligence data. In his new job, Lechleitner was stationed at a central collection point and became privy to much of what America’s secret listening devices were picking up in the Mediterranean theater. He received a crash course in geopolitics—how the world really works, why some things happen and some things don’t, why some events are more trivial than they appear to be and others more ominous. There were moments of boredom, to be sure, but few of his six hundred shipmates enjoyed such an interesting job. The vast majority performed rote chores; they might as well as have been working in a factory back in Schuylkill County. Cables to the admiral could arrive at any hour. Given the time difference with Washington, it was not unusual for Lechleitner to conduct an urgent brief at 2 a.m., the admiral standing in his pajamas, the subject matter a Flash message from the White House Situation Room. At age eighteen, Lechleitner was seeing and hearing things classified at the highest levels.

He served five years, mostly in Europe, then returned to central Pennsylvania and enrolled in a local college, planning to become a cop, just like his uncle and other friends. “I liked the rule of law; it fit my personality,” Lechleitner recalled. After a year in college, he ran out of money and dropped out. He moved to northern Virginia, near Pentagon friends with connections. There, he won a job as a police officer in affluent Fairfax County. He patrolled a sector near Dulles International Airport for five years, combining it with classes at George Mason University. By his senior year, Lechleitner grew restless with suburban police work and applied for a slew of federal agent jobs, from U.S. Customs to the FBI. He hoped to find something as interesting as cryptology, something that might require overseas travel.

It turned out he got his pick of agencies. Several moved swiftly to hire him. Here was a seasoned cop with a military background who already held top secret clearances. The National Security Agency struck first and hired him as an internal affairs officer. Lechleitner soon left NSA for a better offer, but the months he spent at the agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, proved invaluable. It exposed Lechleitner to the other side of the secret signals network, the civilian intelligence community. He would become the rare federal agent who could navigate the distinct and often insular worlds of street cops, soldiers, and spies.

The better offer came from Customs—higher salary, more interesting work, sweeter pension. His dad, the Navy vet, didn’t like it, and told him so. His father couldn’t understand why he would give up a presumably cool job at NSA in favor of busting dirtbag drug smugglers at airports. “Why do you want to spend your life searching people’s underwear?” his father asked. Lechleitner shrugged and talked about the differences in benefits. For security reasons, including his own safety, he was not allowed to tell his dad what Customs had in mind.

By the time Lechleitner arrived in Yardley in mid-2003, the undercover storefront was considered a bit of a backwater. Originally created as a vehicle to enforce the Iraqi oil embargo in the mid-1990s, the undercover agents who worked at Cross International had made several contacts, started a few investigations, but had little to show for their efforts. The operation was inconveniently situated in the northern Philadelphia suburbs, and when Lechleitner showed up, only one other agent, a supervisor, was still working there.

At the time, the undercover operation boasted only a handful of active, promising international arms proliferation cases. In addition to the AN/PEQ-2 laser-spotter case, they were targeting a New York aerospace company suspected of shipping military aircraft parts overseas. The agents were also pursuing a relatively minor, five-year-old investigation of an Iranian agricultural commodities broker. The target was assumed to be still living out of reach in Dubai, but a quick records check by the agents would have shown that the woman had recently moved to Southern California. When Lechleitner’s supervisor retired, the pace began to quicken.

Customs merged with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to become Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in 2003, but Lechleitner’s assignment did not change. In addition to working as an undercover HSI agent four or five days a week in Yardley, Lechleitner also spent two or three days a month on an effort called Project Shield America. This was a Homeland Security outreach campaign in which agents visited U.S. defense contractors and high-tech manufacturers to discuss export security. It was impossible to visit every exporter in the region—annually, an estimated 2,600 companies shipped about 400,000 tons of cargo and mail from Philadelphia International Airport, and millions of tons more on an estimated 2,700 cargo ships. To winnow the numbers and identify the American businesses worth approaching for Shield America, Homeland Security agents data-mined government and shipping records, no small matter—in fiscal 2004, local companies filed more than 354,000 Shippers Export Declarations. The agents began by comparing the Pentagon’s list of approved contractors with applications to Commerce and State for export licenses. They paid particular attention to those companies whose export license applications had been denied. The agents also scoured financial intelligence reports supplied by a special HSI unit in New York and foreign-based analyses from the CIA.

Once Lechleitner identified a vulnerable or suspect U.S. company, he made his Shield America visit overtly—as an HSI agent, carrying a badge and gun. He brought with him a twenty-five-page PowerPoint presentation designed to simplify the confusing and complex export rules, win the trust and cooperation of manufacturers, sellers, and exporters, and provide them with a formal method of reporting suspicious foreign contacts. Whenever he visited a business, Lechleitner tried to meet with as many potential sources as possible—corporate executives, export managers, technicians, scientists, engineers, salesmen, brokers, freight forwarders, anyone in the supply chain who might come in contact with foreign customers. If these folks couldn’t understand the rules, how could they be expected to follow them? As important, how could they be expected to help enforce them?

Lechleitner usually began his PowerPoint presentation with a patriotic pitch, laying out the consequences of munitions smuggling. Export enforcement, his opening PowerPoint slide explained, is designed to prevent America’s enemies, including terrorists, from “obtaining arms, weapons systems and controlled technology used to develop weapons of mass destruction.” There are four primary export laws, he explained. The first law, the Arms Export Control Act, and the companion International Traffic in Arms Regulations Act, regulate the export of military weapons, from small arms to missiles, on an ever-changing list maintained by the State Department. The second law, the Export Administration Act, regulates the export of certain “dual-use” commodities, items that have both a civilian and military application. This list is maintained by the Commerce Department, and includes, for example, night vision technology, flame retardant chemicals, and certain types of radar. The third and fourth laws, the Trading with the Enemy and International Emergency Economic Powers acts, prohibit virtually any export, military or commercial, to certain countries, including Iran, Cuba, and Syria. The rules also require an American manufacturer-shipper to create formal internal management protocols, including making a serious effort to determine the end user, or true final recipient of an exported product.

What made a foreign query suspicious? Lechleitner offered four common warning signs: 1. Cash sales. Legitimate dealers will insist on pro forma invoices or letters of credit. 2. Buyers reluctant to name an end user. Legitimate buyers expect to be required to provide end user certificates. 3. Buyers who refuse warranty or installation assistance for complex goods. Legitimate buyers expect the seller to warranty the product and to service it if necessary. 4. Illogical requests. Legitimate buyers tend to make sensible purchases. Undersea companies shouldn’t make inquires about desert gear; clothing companies shouldn’t order microchips.

Near the close of his presentation, Lechleitner explained how American exporters could help him try to catch black market brokers. If you receive a suspicious overseas query, Lechleitner told manufacturers, don’t ignore it or reject it out of hand. Call HSI and let us help you respond, he told them. He always kept that last part tantalizingly vague.

To remind his audience of the stakes—in the wrong hands, their equipment might be used against U.S. troops—Lechleitner ended every presentation with the same image, a photograph of rows of tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery.

His Shield America efforts paid off quickly.

In April 2004, a Philadelphia ship manufacturer called Lechleitner with a tip about a query from Pakistan. The foreign broker’s name set off alarm bells.

Yasmin Ahmed was well known to American law enforcement. For more than a decade, Ahmed and her husband had been smuggling munitions to embargoed countries in the Middle East, including Pakistan and Iran. Their company, Neaz Trading, kept offices in Dubai and Karachi. In 2001 and 2002, they smuggled $200,000 worth of military radar from Connecticut. They skirted U.S. regulations by falsifying export documents, claiming the radar was destined for the Bangladesh air force. When U.S. undercover agents in Connecticut got wind of the scheme, they planted transmitters inside one of the shipping containers, and traced the radar to Pakistan, not Bangladesh. Posing as American brokers, the undercover agents then lured Ahmed to New York City with the promise of future deals. She was arrested moments after stepping into a limousine the agents had waiting for her at the airport. Nearly simultaneously, the agents discovered that Ahmed and her husband were also conspiring with an American broker in Florida to smuggle parts for the M109 self-propelled howitzer cannon and the M113 armored personnel carrier to Dubai. Although the shipment had already departed the Port of Charleston, South Carolina, and was moving across the Atlantic, the HSI agents were able to intervene before the ship reached the Middle East. Ahmed pleaded guilty to smuggling charges, served nine months, paid a $50,000 fine, and was deported to Karachi. Now, less than a year later, she was back in business, shopping for more contraband American-made military equipment.

The balls on this woman, Lechleitner thought. Finally, a righteous case.

Lechleitner paid a visit to the Pennsylvania shipping company manager who’d received the new query from Ahmed. While there was always a risk that the company manager was working with the bad guys and could blow Cross’s cover, Lechleitner decided the man seemed trustworthy enough to take into his confidence. He thanked him and handed up a HSI-written script to email to Ahmed in Pakistan:

“Thank you again for your request for parts. I must apologize for the delay in responding but due to an unexpected increase in business I am unable to fulfill your request for parts at this time. However, we have worked with a company in the past on similar matters and they would be able to assist you in obtaining the requested parts. The company is Cross International, located at 1790 Yardley-Langhorne Road, Suite 106, Yardley, PA 19067. I have already advised my contact at Cross, Patrick Lynch, of your request and they are currently working on pricing and availability. Feel free to contact Patrick at Thank you again for your business and I look forward to working with you in the future.”

The ruse worked. Ahmed replied to Cross within twenty-four hours. In short order, she and Lechleitner were negotiating for all manner of electronics and munitions.

During this week in April 2004, Lechleitner and his colleagues received another equally intriguing Shield America tip. This one came from an aircraft manufacturer south of Philadelphia. A first-generation American, he told Lechleitner that he was offended by the clumsy nature of the inquiry. This email had arrived from someone calling himself Alex Dave. The man claimed to be based in Dubai. But a quick Google search revealed that Alex Dave’s email address was linked to phone number 98-711-2351809. “98” was the country code for Iran.

Lechleitner gave the aircraft factory owner the same script, referring Alex Dave’s business to Cross International. Within days, the American undercover agent and the Iranian broker were emailing directly, and Alex Dave was sending Cross International a flurry of requests. To begin, the Iranian sought prices for American jet parts and radioisotopes.

About The Author

John Shiffman is an investigative reporter for Reuters. He worked as a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer from 2003 to 2011, where he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of Operation Shakespeare and with former FBI agent Robert Wittman, he coauthored Priceless, a New York Times bestseller published in nine languages. He is a lawyer and lives near Washington, DC.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 25, 2015)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451655162

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Raves and Reviews

“Vivid . . . An impressive and important work . . . Shiffman illuminates the network of smugglers, brokers, governments, and corporations that facilitates the illegal sale and shipment of sensitive American military technologies to foreign enemies. . . . The book has the glamour of a spy novel and the gravity of a meticulously researched exposé.”

– Christian Science Monitor

“Heart-pounding . . . So mesmerizing I couldn’t put it down . . . This book stuns.”

– Providence Journal

“A riveting new book, Operation Shakespeare, tells the thrilling inside story of how an elite team of Homeland Security operatives snatched an Iranian arms dealer from the shadows in a triumph of American justice. . . . Operation Shakespeare reads like a spy thriller—but Shiffman’s meticulous reporting leaves no doubt that he is telling nothing less than scary truth.”

– New York Daily News

“John Shiffman’s Operation Shakespeare reads like a spy novel, but this meticulously reported book has the added virtue of being completely true. Shiffman has uncovered one of the great undercover stings in recent U.S. history, a Homeland Security operation aimed at protecting U.S. troops from an Iranian arms dealer. This is must-reading for anyone who loves foreign intrigue—a welcome covert operation where the U.S. agents are the good guys.”

– Andrea Mitchell

“A tale that seems almost ready-made for Hollywood . . . A cross between a great detective story and an intricate spy yarn from John le Carré, with a cast of burly American agents, slippery international arms dealers, and an Iranian agent.”

– Philadelphia Inquirer

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