After an Iranian arms dealer uses shadowy international procurement channels to purchase microchips made in Arizona, a roadside bomb kills a young American lieutenant on patrol in Iraq. To most observers, the two incidents appear unrelated. But the microchip made in Arizona was a key part of the bomb's precision triggering device; an American product had helped to kill an American soldier.
This was not an isolated episode. In Operation Shakespeare: the True Story of an Elite International Sting, journalist John 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. His story centers on the efforts of an undercover Homeland Security squad to complete a sting operation that will ensnare an Iranian arms dealer. The book has the glamour of a spy novel and the gravity of a meticulously researched exposé. It's an impressive and important work.
Implementing a sting overseas is a logistical nightmare; countless bureaucratic, diplomatic, and political obstacles threaten the operation at every stage. At one point, Justice Department officials nearly expose the entire affair to the media before agents can pursue the dozens of leads a seized laptop has generated. Later, a missing signature on a single form almost jeopardizes the extradition of an arms dealer from Georgia.
The American government's control over the export of military technologies depends on a shaky patchwork of separate agencies that often fail to share information with one another. The items on lists of products banned for export change constantly, and compliance is largely self-enforced. Roughly 19,000 suspicious contacts from foreign buyers are reported annually in America, but only 30 to 40 arrests for smuggling military technology are typically announced.
The miniaturization of many component devices has been a boon to smugglers. A vital component that helps guide an international ballistic missile system is no larger than a poker chip. But the same part also has civilian applications, which makes it difficult to determine why a foreign buyer wants the product. Arms dealers typically use a practice called transshipment to deceive export authorities. By routing goods through Dubai, Singapore, and certain former Soviet republics, they can obscure a final destination in Iran or Iraq. Front companies, false names, and forged documents are all standard business procedure. The Internet also helps dealers to conduct sales with so many intermediaries that the final buyer is effectively obscured.
The result of these tactics is that everything from night vision goggles to electronic combat systems are frequently sold to foreign buyers likely to deploy them in battle against Americans. The deeper conflict that Shiffman pinpoints is between a free market ethos that values all paying customers and the military's need to preserve its advantage in combat by restricting the sale of technologies that confer its superiority. Major international banks like Credit Suisse and Barclay's have been implicated in money laundering schemes related to arms trafficking, and some American companies are facing fines for failing to comply with export laws.
The agents Shiffman interviews are bold and effective; they often work undercover, floating between digital and physical realms and traveling around the world as they pursue major targets. The book presents a vivid case study on how agents working within a vast bureaucracy can remain nimble and creative. But as long as American defense contractors can knowingly sell the same weapons to the United States government and its enemies and receive only a financial penalty when caught, American factories and labs will continue to stock the arsenals aimed at American troops.
Nick Romeo is a Monitor contributor.