Operation Shakespeare (a book review)

Operation Shakespeare

Officially, this book is sub-titled “The True Story of an Elite International Sting”.  Though calling it “Elite” might be pushing it a little far (Simon and Schuster’s marketing department apparently thought they were not pushing it), Operation Shakespeare, by John Shiffman, nevertheless tells a fascinating tale of modern-day weapons and technology smuggling and the long, often bureaucratic game U.S. law enforcement plays in their efforts to stop it.

Specifically, the book tells the story of a mysterious Iranian arms broker only known as Alex Dave and the efforts by Homeland Security agents to lure him out of Iran to take him down for smuggling U.S. military products and money laundering.  More broadly, however, the author uses the events in the book to illustrate the overall state of affairs when it comes to reigning in such illegal activity.  From complicated international law, such as running an operation in a foreign country and negotiating extradition, to the range of specific evidence needed to build an effective case, to the political ramifications of an actual arrest.  Operations often take years to put together, only to dissolve suddenly at the stroke of a diplomat’s pen.

Such operations are also dangerous when it comes to meetings and arrests, as it is almost impossible to know what the other side is thinking.  U.S. agents don’t know if they’ve been made and what the consequences are if their cover is blown, or if the arms broker is simply a violent person.  There are many risks, physical and financial, just to take down one target.

Early in the book the author takes the time to introduce readers to each major player in the sting, giving backgrounds and motivations for their career choices.  There are agents in the U.S., a former arms broker in England, and a storefront cover in Eastern Europe run by an aging veteran agent.  The details of these people and places brought up at the beginning bring a lot more interest to the operation itself when it finally picks up and moves into the end game.  It’s a well structured narrative that builds up nicely as it moves along, taking the reader through the setup and execution of the sting.  Even though it’s a non-fiction book, it moves with the pace of a contemporary spy thriller.   That’s both good and bad.  Good in that there isn’t a dull moment.  The bad part I’ll get to in a moment (it’s not that bad).

Along the way the author gets into recent history of U.S. companies found guilty of violating export laws, moving sensitive information overseas, and money laundering.  It’s a surprisingly extensive list that includes major government defense contractors.  Of course, what was the punishment for these companies?  Fines and new defense contracts.  For the banks laundering money, well … you probably already know how many were arrested for that.

This brings me to the downside of John Shiffman’s narrative.

WARNING: A FEW SPOILERS

I got the feeling that the author wanted to draw some conclusions regarding how the U.S. justice system treats individuals vs. companies, how politics can play a role, and if the reward is worth the risk.  But he never quite did.  For example, he offers a lengthy section regarding ITT NV (International Telephone & Telegraph – Night Vision, a subsidiary of ITT).  For over 30 years, starting in the late 1970s, ITT NV had contracts with the U.S. government to make night vision technology.  During the same period they routinely broke export laws and sent technical data and other classified/sensitive information to several countries overseas, including to China.  Criminal charges were brought.  What was the punishment?  A fine, part of which the company had to use to develop NEW NIGHT VISION TECHNOLOGY.  Huh?  Oh, and no one was arrested. Yet when the Iranian in this book was taken down, they threw the weight of the law at him and put him in prison.  There’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to spoil everything.

Stopping the smuggling of U.S. military tech is important.  Many of us have relatives in the military and we’d like to keep them safe.  But in the end, are low-level foreign brokers worth the time and risk put forth by these U.S. agents?  Are they actually tackling the real problem?  If all you do is fine American companies for their wrongdoing and then let them get on with business, does that really keep them from breaking U.S. laws when it comes to exporting, smuggling, and money laundering?  What’s their incentive to stop?  Morals?

I thought the author would take the information he delivered in the book and give the reader his perspective on it.  But he pulled back and I wish he wouldn’t have.  I would like to know what he thought about it all.  Instead he kept the feel of a thriller going right through the end.

A minor complaint, though, for this excellent read.

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