Facebook’s Russian (Gangster) Money

Vladimir Putin meets Alisher Usmanov in 2015. Source: Kremlin.ru

Much has been written about how Russia used Facebook to influence U.S. voters in the 2016 election. Few people realize that Facebook was built with the help of Russian money.

Alisher B. Usmanov, an Uzbek-born mining magnate and one of the world’s richest men, poured nearly $900 million into Facebook before it went public in 2012. For a time, he was one of the social media giant’s biggest investors.

CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg said at the time that Facebook carried out “extensive due diligence” on this investment. That means the company would have had to have known that that its biggest outside investor was a man viewed in business, diplomatic, and intelligence circles as a gangster.

Such information wasn’t hard to come by. In 2007, two years before Usmanov invested in Facebook, Craig Murray, a controversial former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, denounced the metals tycoon as a “vicious thug, criminal, racketeer, heroin trafficker and accused rapist.” Murray made these charges in a blog post on his website (see copy here), that was subsequently removed under legal threat from the UK firm Schillings. Similar allegations were made a few days later on the floor of the European Parliament.

Facebook’s crack due diligence team clearly didn’t see Usmanov as a risk. But Megafon, a Russian mobile phone company in which Usmanov had invested, did. Take a look at this disclosure in Megafon’s initial public offering in 2012:

Gafur Rakhimov was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2012. “Rakhimov is one of the leaders of Uzbek organized crime with a specialty in the organized production of drugs in the countries of Central Asia. He has operated major international drug syndicates involving the trafficking of heroin,” the Treasury Department stated.

Rakhimov, a man Usmanov has known for years, is a heroin kingpin. Sorry, an alleged heroin kingpin.

Usmanov’s ties to Rakhimov were no secret. The Observer of London reported in 1998 that Usmanov “admitted that he had known Rakhimov for 20 years, and had met him regularly in Tashkent and London, but denied that they have a business relationship and that Rakhimov was involved in drugs.” In 2007, Usmanov gave The Guardian another explanation of his Rakhimov ties. “I only knew him since he was a neighbor of my parents,” he said.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who defected and was famously poisoned with radioactive polonium, did some digging into Gafur Rakhimov. This is from a file made public during an official UK inquiry into Litvinenko’s death.

Komsomol was a Soviet Communist youth league. (When the Soviet union fell, former Komsomol bosses like Mikhail Khodorkovsky used their connections to acquire ex-Soviet assets.) The Solntsevo gang is Moscow’s most powerful organized crime group. (Usmanov has long denied any ties to organized crime groups.)

Litnvinenko goes on to note that Usmanov has connections with three former KGB officers, one of whom “saved” Usmanov from a “violent confrontation with Chechnian crime bosses.”

Testimony given in a German criminal case in 2007 identified Usmanov as a representative of the Solnestsevo Mafia.

Even so, Usmanov shrewdly assessed that, in the West, even a reputed gangster can buy respectability. “Putin’s Kremlin had accurately calculated that the way to gain acceptance in British society was through the country’s greatest love, its national sport,” Catherine Belton writes in her excellent book, Putin’s People. In 2007, Usmanov did just that by acquiring a large stake in London’s Arsenal football club.

If buying a football club was a ticket into British society, investing in a Silicon Valley unicorn like Facebook may have been a way for Usmanov to gain respectability in the United States.

Usmanov told Forbes that he got a call in 2009 from his associate, Yuri Milner, who asked him whether he had ever heard of Facebook.

“No,” Usmanov replied. “[But] my nephews know it.”

Milner ran Digital Sky Technologies (DST) Global, an investment firm backed with Usmanov’s money.

Born in Moscow, Milner attended the Wharton School of Business in the 1990s. After a stint at the World Bank, he returned to Russia to work at Bank Menatep, which was founded by former Komsomol boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Milner ran Menatep’s investment banking division, Alliance-Menatep, and rose to the position of deputy chairman.

Menatep rang alarm bells at the CIA in the 1990s because the bank was said to be “one of the main conduits for the transfer of Communist Party wealth abroad,” Belton wrote in Putin’s People. A leaked CIA report obtained by The Washington Times in 1994 stated that senior Moscow officials believed that Menatep was “controlled by one of the most powerful crime clans in Moscow.”

The bank collapsed in 1998 and Milner began investing in Russian Internet companies. Milner founded Digital Sky Technologies in 2005.

Usmanov acquired a large stake in DST in 2008 and helped finance investments in major Internet companies in Russia, including VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. “Usmanov is interpreted as a person who, on the Kremlin’s instructions, buys up various Russian [Internet] properties,” a Russian executive told The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe.

In 2008, Milner came calling in Silicon Valley looking for a place to invest Usmanov’s money. Goldman Sachs introduced him to Mark Zuckerberg and a deal was struck.

“We were not asking for board seats and even assigned our voting rights to Mark, which sent a strong message that we are not seeking any influence over Facebook’s operations,” Milner told Forbes. “We started to invest in Facebook in 2009 and continued through 2011.”

Milner and Zuckerberg in 2009.

It was an offer than would have been hard for Zuckerberg to refuse. Milner’s offer valued Facebook at $10 billion, above what other investors were willing to pay at the time. And Milner demanded little in return, something he has pointed to when reporters started to question Russia’s investment in Facebook. “If this had all been an influence operation,” Milner wrote later, “we would surely have sought some control over the companies.”

Milner sold off all of his firm’s Facebook holdings after the IPO. Usmanov also invested his own money in Facebook, and it remains unclear whether he has completely closed his position. (A 2014 Bloomberg article noted Usmanov made a “gradual reduction” in his Facebook holdings.)

Perhaps Usmanov’s Facebook investment was just a shrewd, well-researched bet. In 2017, however, new information surfaced that suggested there were other factors at play.

The Paradise Papers, a secret trove of documents leaked from an offshore law firm, revealed that Kremlin cash was financing Usmanov’s investments.

The money came from Gazprom Investholding, a subsidiary of the Russian gas giant, Gazprom, which has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. Usmanov was CEO of Gazprom Investholding from 2000 until 2014.

In his censored blog post, Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, wrote that Gazprom Investholding was a main conduit to export Russian corruption:

Alisher Usmanov had risen to chair of Gazprom Investholdings because of his close personal friendship with Putin. He had accessed Putin through Putin’s long time secretary and now chef de cabinet, Piotr Jastrzebski. Usmanov and Jastrzebski were roommates at college. Gazprom Investholdings is the group that handles Gazprom’s interests outside Russia. Usmanov’s role is, in effect, to handle Gazprom’s bribery and sleaze on the international arena, and the use of gas supply cuts as a threat to uncooperative satellite states.

Murray claimed in another 2007 blog post that “It was Usmanov who engineered the 2005 diplomatic reversal in which the United States was kicked out of its airbase in Uzbekistan and Gazprom took over the country’s natural gas assets. Usmanov, as chairman of Gazprom Investholdings paid a bribe of $88 million to Gulnara Karimova [the daughter of Uzbekistan’s president] to secure this.”

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny also has accused Usmanov of bribing Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and prime minister with an $83 million mansion. (Usmanov succesfully sued Navalny for libel.) Navalny’s representatives recently called for the West to sanction Usmanov.

Remember that $880 million Usmanov said he invested in Facebook?

Well, in 2009, Gazprom Investholdings loaned $920 million to Kanton Services Ltd., Usmanov’s British Virgin Islands-registered firm. A large chunk of that money arrived three months before Facebook announced its deal with Milner. (Usmanov has denied using state funds to invest in Facebook.)

Two years later, Kanton took a majority stake in DST USA II. When Facebook went public in 2012, DST USA II sold 25 million shares of Facebook for more than one billion dollars.

Did Usmanov’s influence over Facebook end there?

We can only hope. But consider what happened to VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. In 2014, Usmanov forced the founder of VKontakte, Pavel Durov, to resign. Durov said he believed he was forced out because he refused to cooperate with the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. VKontakte is now a tool of Russian government influence operations, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Interestingly, Volume 5 the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russia noted that VKontakte reached out to the Trump campaign in 2016, asking whether Trump wanted to put a campaign page on the site. The ensuing discussion is heavily redacted, although Usmanov’s name lights up a few footnotes.

Facebook is many times more powerful than VKontakte. Alisher Usmanov should never have been allowed anywhere near it.

Mohdar Abdullah goes missing

Lennart Hultman-Boye, a reporter with Sweden’s largest nightly news show at TV4, contacted me about a post I’d written years ago about the strange case of Mohdar Abdullah.

Abdullah, the former San Diego man who befriended two 9/11 hijackers, now lives in Sweden. He was called as a witness there in an ongoing lawsuit filed by families of 9/11 victims against Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah has so far avoided Swedish police trying to serve him with a legal demand to testify. He did not show up for a hearing two weeks ago.

You see Hultman-Boye’s report here (in Swedish).

Abdullah has admitted helping Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar — two al-Qaida operatives who lived in San Diego in 2000. Abdullah helped the two Saudis obtain state identification, contacting flight schools on their behalf and translating for them. Abdullah knew the pair had extremist leanings and sympathized with them, according to the 9/11 Commission’s final report. After Hazmi left San Diego, Abdullah remained in contact with him.

The question that has frustrated investigators is whether Abdullah knew in advance of the 9/11 attacks.

On the morning of Sept. 10 at the Texaco station where Abdullah worked, an FBI source reporting hearing Abdullah saying something like, “It’s finally going to happen.” That night, Abdullah married a young woman he had met a few months earlier, according to FBI Special Agent Daniel Gonzales.

Ten days after the 9/11 attacks, Abdullah was arrested as a material witness. Prosecutors considered charging him along with Zacarias Moussaoui, who is serving life in prison for conspiring to kill Americans in the 9/11 attacks, but ultimately decided not to.

While he was being held in jail, Abdullah allegedly bragged to fellow inmates that he had advance knowledge of the attacks, but authorities couldn’t substantiate the reports.

Abdullah was subsequently convicted of visa fraud and deported to his native Yemen.

He denied knowing about the attacks in advance.

Also of interest was how Abdullah crossed paths with two men with close ties to the Saudi government who lawyers for the 9/11 families want to talk to. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any connection to the 9/11 hijackers.

The person who gave Abdullah the job of taking care of Hazmi and Midhar in San Diego was a mysterious Saudi-linked figure named Omar al-Baymoumi. Al-Bayoumi helped the al-Qaida operatives find an apartment in San Diego and co-signed the lease. He may even have paid their first month’s rent and security deposit. After the two future hijackers moved in, al-Bayoumi threw a party to welcome them to San Diego.

A 28-page section of the 9/11 Commission’s report that was declassified in 2016 quotes testimony from a former San Diego FBI agent. According to the agent, al-Bayoumi “acted like a Saudi intelligence officer, in my opinion. And if he was involved with the hijackers, which it looks like he was, if he signed leases, if he provided some sort of financing or payment of some sort, then I would say that there’s a clear possibility that there might be a connection between Saudi intelligence and UBL [Osama bin Laden].”

Last year, ProPublica and The New York Times reported that Gonzales had reinterviewed Abdullah in October 2006.

Abdullah told agents about a car trip he took to Los Angeles in June 2000 to drop Mihdhar at the airport before he flew back to Yemen to see his wife and daughter.

They went to the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, California for the evening prayer and met an imam — Fahad al-Thumairy — who also met privately that evening with the hijackers.

Thumairy reportedly led an extremist faction at the mosque, which had been built with funding providing provided by the former Saudi Crown Prince, Abdulaziz, according to the 9/11 Report.

“Thumairy was the primary point of contact for Hazmi and Mihdhar in Los Angeles,” Steven Moore, a former assistant special agent in charge in Los Angeles in a statement given in support of the 9/11 families in their lawsuit. “Thumairy was aware in advance of their arrival and, through the King Fahad Mosque, had already provided a place for them to stay in Los Angeles.”

In a 2012 FBI report, agents noted that there was evidence that Thumairy and al-Baymoumi had been tasked with helping the hijackers by a third man — Mussaed Ahmed al-Jarrah, a mid-level Saudi Foreign Ministry official who was assigned to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1999 and 2000. Yahoo News reported that FBI agents were unable to provde at al-Jarrah knew Hazmi and Midhar were members of al-Qaida.

Exclusive: The Ice Man

An Iraqi died under CIA torture in Abu Ghraib prison.

Why did a Navy SEAL platoon take the blame?

By Seth Hettena

(Copyright @ 2020)

I. A death in Abu Ghraib

Today, March 19, marks the 18th anniversary of the Iraq War, a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 4,400 American servicemen and women. Another 31,000 were wounded

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis also perished in the years since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq. This is a story about one of them, the death of a man named Manadel al-Jamadi. It’s a story I have been reporting on and trying to tell for more than a decade, but it’s also a story that parts of the CIA and the special forces didn’t want to be told.

Manadel al-Jamadi died in 2003 in CIA custody the shower room of Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, a few hours after he was captured by Navy SEALs.

If al-Jamadi’s body had been treated with respect, his name would be lost to history, another casualty in a long and bloody war.

But that’s not what happened. What did happen is a few members of the U.S. Army National Guard decided to have a little fun with his corpse.

In the photos that surfaced in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, you can see al-Jamadi’s corpse packed in ice while the soldiers who were pulling duty as prison guards leered in the background.

Al-Jamadi’s death would be investigated by the Army, the Navy, the CIA, the Department of Justice, and finally Special Counsel John Durham. It was an investigation that led into the darkest parts of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation,” exposing early on how the program led to torture.

Someone had to be held accountable for what happened to the man on ice.

It turned out to be the members of the SEAL platoon that captured him.

One day they were heroes. They next day they were criminals.

And it all started with the word of a thief.

II. Klepto

Jeffrey Hopper was a member of Seal Team Seven’s Foxtrot platoon, a reservist who had returned to active duty after 9/11. But the platoon wanted nothing to do with him.

His fellow teammates accused him of being a thief. They called him “klepto.”

Things would go missing after Hopper’s unit deployed to Iraq. Small stuff at first. A flashlight. An iPod.

One day, a SEAL named Ryan couldn’t find his body armor he wore to keep him safe on the battlefield. The whole camp was searched. No trace of it was found.

Someone happened to notice two small cigarette burns on the body armor Hopper was wearing. 

The thing was Hopper didn’t smoke. Ryan did.

Someone tugged on the velcro straps on Hopper armor. There, in black marker, was Ryan’s name written on the inside.

Stealing someone’s body armor is the kind of thing that will get you kicked out of the SEALs. Which was exactly what was about to happen to Hopper in May 2004 when he met with the commanding officer of SEAL Team Seven back at SEAL headquarters in Coronado, California.

But before Hopper could be stripped of his Navy SEAL Trident, he told his CO he had something to say. He had seen members of his unit sadistically punch, kick and twist the testicles of defenseless prisoners.

Hopper couldn’t have timed his revelations any better. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal had just exploded in the press. President Bush went on Arab television to apologize.

“There will be investigations,” Bush said. “People will be brought to justice.”

There was one prisoner whose beating Hopper said had personally witnessed.

It was the ice man in the Abu Ghraib photos, Manadel al-Jamadi.

Part III. Lions Led by Dogs

There comes a point in every military career where a commander has to stand up for his men.

If he is worth his salt, a commander accepts responsibility for the actions of those under his command.  If a ship runs aground, the captain is responsible, even if he or she happened to be asleep at the time.

“When things go wrong in your command,” General Bruce D. Clark once said, “start wading for the reason in increasing larger concentric circles around your own desk.”

Alex Krongard

Hopper’s commanding officer, Alex Krongard, certainly couldn’t ignore what Hopper had told him, but he had good reason to be skeptical.

Hopper, after all, was about to get kicked out of the SEALs.  Didn’t Foxtrot platoon deserve the benefit of the doubt?

Foxtrot platoon had completed 120 successful missions in Iraq, capturing 365 people and killing about a dozen.  They weren’t trigger happy. They were highly-trained professional soldiers.

Krongard could have done some checking of his own. He might have learned that things tended to disappear around Hopper. He might have learned that there were doubts about Hopper’s story.

But then again, Alex Krongard had his career to consider. The Abu Ghraib scandal was going to wreck careers. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had offered to resign. If Krongard stood by his men, who were connected to it however indirectly, some of that stink might land on him.

And Alex Krongard had a promising career ahead of him.

There’s a story about the Krongard family that might help explain what Alex did next.

Krongard was the son of Alvin “Buzzy” Krongard, a former chairman of the Baltimore investment firm Alex, Brown & Co., whom CIA Director George Tenet had picked for the No. 3 job at the spy agency.

Buzzy Krongard left the CIA in the fall of 2004 and took a seat on the advisory board of Blackwater, the military contracting giant founded by Erik Prince. Prince got to know Buzzy through Alex, who trained at Blackwater as a Navy SEAL.

Alex’s uncle, Howard “Cookie” Krongard, was the inspector general for the State Department. And the State Department had awarded Blackwater contracts worth more than a billion dollars to keep its personnel safe in Iraq.

In 2007, Blackwater personnel shot and killed 14 unarmed civilians in Nisour Square, a traffic circle in Baghdad, and wounded 18 more. Democrats in Congress held hearings and accused Howard Krongard of blocking State Department investigations into Blackwater.

Questioned about his brother’s role in the company, Howard Krongard testified that he had checked with Buzzy and he reported that his brother had nothing to do with Blackwater. After a recess, Howard Krongard sheepishly admitted that his brother did have a role with Blackwater. He recused himself from all State Department matters related to the company. His brother, Buzzy, resigned from Blackwater.

So what did Alex Krongard do when faced with Hopper’s allegations? He forwarded them up the chain of command for further investigation.

Krongard would be promoted all the way up to rear admiral. His men felt like they were being hung out to dry.

As one SEAL who served under Krongard told me, they were lions led by dogs.

Part IV. Kill or Capture

A dozen members of Foxtrot platoon would be accused in one way or another of prisoner abuse.

Navy prosecutors started rounding up suspects and threatened them with prison if they didn’t talk. One member of the platoon was led away in handcuffs from his wedding rehearsal dinner

Dan Cerrillo was one of the accused. He spent 12 years on active duty in the SEALs. He was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery and a Purple Heart.

He faced a slew of charges in the al-Jamadi case and was found not guilty of all of them except taking an unauthorized photo and making a false official statement.

Cerrillo quit in disgust over the way he and his teammates were treated during the al-Jamadi case. Even after all the Navy did to him, he continues to help prepare young men who want to become SEALs.

Cerrillo was Foxtrot Platoon’s breacher. His main job was to sprint up to a door and blast it open with an explosive charge, storm inside and take the prisoner into custody. And he did it in the dead of night while wearing 60 pounds of gear, including a helmet, body armor with two ceramic plates, an M4 rifle, a 9mm pistol, grenades, a knife and a radio.

That’s what he was wearing after midnight on November 4, 2003, when Foxtrot platoon set out to find al-Jamadi on a joint CIA-special forces mission.

The CIA’s sources had identified al-Jamadi as a group cell leader of the Abu Abdullah terrorist group that had blown up the Baghdad offices of the Red Cross in October 2003, killing 12. The explosion left a crater six feet deep and shattered windows a mile away, and it was one of five blasts that rocked Baghdad within a 45-minute span that morning.

The CIA’s sources also said al-Jamadi had two tons of high explosives at his disposal to cause even more havoc and bloodshed.

Foxtrot platoon usually went on “capture or kill” missions. The objective was to bring suspects back alive so they could be questioned and future attacks could be thwarted.

The al-Jamadi mission was “killl or capture.” If he put up a fight, the SEALs were told to put him down.

Part V. Turning Steel

Al-Jamadi lived in Al Mahmudiyah, a short, dangerous drive south of Baghdad. Al Mahmudiyah marked the upper boundary of an area known as the Triangle of Death, a hotbed of the insurgency.

Based on the intelligence, Cerrilo and his partner, Jay, who was the unit’s other breacher, built C-3 double-tamped charges, which contained a few hundred grains of explosive encased in rubber. Just enough to blow the lock open without hurting anyone on the SEAL team or anyone inside.

Jay and Cerrillo took turns alternating as lead breacher, the one who actually set the explosive charge. This mission, it was Jay’s turn.

According to the CIA’s sources, al-Jamadi lived on the third floor, at the far right end of enclosed hallway behind a wooden door.

“This is not the house!” the platoon leader called out “This is not the house! Reset! Reset!”

The assault team ran up to the third floor and then held back while Jay ran down the hallway to the right, prepping his breaching charge as he went. Eight, nine seconds passed while he slapped the charge on the door and backed off.

“Turning steel,” Jay said into his headset. That was the signal that the charge was about to go off.


Jay flew inside the apartment and the rest of the primary breach team followed and grabbed the man inside. 

It was the wrong man.

“This is not the house!” the platoon leader called out “This is not the house! Reset! Reset!”

The platoon leader pointed Cerrillo to a door at the other end of the hallway. “It’s that one right there!”

Cerrillo ran up to the door and got his breaching charge ready. Right as he was about to attach it he heard a faint noise, “rrrrrt” — the squeak of a door opening or the creak of a floorboard.

He attached the charge, backed up two steps and then saw a little flash of light as the door opened less than an inch and shut again. 

The hair on the back of Cerillo’s neck stood up. 

Part VI. “I was hitting him anywhere I could, and he was hitting me.”

I’ll let Cerrillo tell what happened next.

“I paused for a split-second, and then sprang up into door and hit is as hard as I could. The first thing I did was to grab hold of the guy standing behind it and try to take him to the ground.

“It was al-Jamadi, all right. He was about eight inches taller than me, but under the circumstances he seemed like a giant.

“There wasn’t enough room to bring him down in the tight hallway, with my teammates pushing to get past me. I slammed him against the wall and we tumbled into the kitchen, just to the right of the doorway. We crashed together onto the wooden kitchen table.

“I was hitting him anywhere I could, and he was hitting me. His hands were up under my face. So we were like that, fighting for a moment on top of the kitchen table, and then it broke beneath us and we crashed together onto the floor.

“He landed half on top of me. I bench-pressed him up off of me and slammed him back down and got on top of him and started pounding away. I was trying to hit him as hard as I could, but I only connected a couple of times. I hit him in the eye and in the jaw, but I was hitting the cement floor of the apartment with my gloved hands just as often. My hands were raw and swollen the next day, and they still bear the scars today. He had his hands on my neck. He must have been hitting me, too. The next day, I had a fat lip and I was sore.

“At that moment, all I could think about was shooting this fucking guy. Shoot him. Shoot him. But I couldn’t grab my gun. The shattered kitchen table was in the way and I just kept slapping the wood when I reached for my pistol. I was on my knees, with his hands on my neck, and I tried to stand up. There was an oven door handle and I grabbed hold of it to pull myself up. It was a heavy steel stove, and when I pulled on it, the thing toppled over.”

The stove landed on al-Jamadi’s head. The fight was over.

Winded from the fight, Cerrillo cuffed al-Jamadi and got him up and brought him over to the doorway.

For a long time after that, whenever Cerrillo saw the photos of al-Jamadi or thought about him, he believed that he had killed him.

Then he learned the CIA had.

Part VII. “I’m Manadel”

Al-Jamadi’s wife and kids were all in the living room. Watching. One of his children was crying. His wife was seated, wearing a little black and white kaffiyeh and a blue dishdasha. Nobody said anything.

Then, al-Jamadi turned to Cerrillo and, in perfect English, told him, “Don’t beat me in front of my kids, OK.”

“I’m not going to beat you here in front of your kids,” Cerrillo told him. “You fuck up, I’m going to beat your ass when we get outside.”

“Ok. Ok.”

“Do not fuck around,” Cerrilo told him. “We’re leaving. You’re coming with us.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

“You know why we’re here,” Cerrillo told him.

He didn’t say anything after that.

It was someone’s job to mark time during the operation. Now, the unit heard the elapsed time announced over their headsets. Three minutes had passed since they arrived at the apartment building.

The lieutenant who led Foxtrot platoon, Lt. Drew, searched the apartment. In the apartment hallway, he found a gun. Cerrillo had probably knocked it out of al-Jamadi’s hands when he slammed into the door. Lt. Drew also found a knife in the kitchen, a big bronze dagger.

“Who’s this guy?” Lt. Drew asked Cerrillo.

“This is him,” Cerrillo repled.

“Well, how do you know?” Lt. Drew asked. “We gotta make sure.”

Cerrillo turned to al-Jamadi.

“Hey, fucker. Is your name Mohammed?” Cerrillo asked.

“No I’m Manadel,” he replied.

Cerrilo turned back to his platoon leader.

“I told you. It’s fucking him!”

Part VIII. Stuck on a Cul-de-Sac in the Triangle of Death

The SEALs were instructed to bring al-Jamadi outside so the CIA’s source could identify him.

Cerrillo led al-Jamadi out and put a sandbag over his head.

Out in the hallway, al-Jamadi started acting up. He started kicking like a mule. He was doing everything he could to make things difficult. It was like trying to get a drunk out of a bar. So Cerrillo gave him a couple of open hand shots hard to the back of his head, just as he had warned him he would.

He marched al-Jamadi to the CIA vehicle, pulled back his hood and shined a light in his face. The tinted window on the black Suburban rolled down.

Inside, the source confirmed they had right guy. Brandon, a nerdy agency case officer, gave the thumbs-up.

Cerrillo loaded al-Jamadi into one of the Humvees. The way the SEALs got detainees into the Humvee was by leaning their chests over the tailgate and then lifting their legs up so they basically did a somersault into the Humvee.

The SEALs had practiced the maneuver on themselves and they say that, while it didn’t feel great, it didn’t hurt. It was the fastest way to get a detainee loaded and they were all about getting out there as soon as possible. This maneuver would later become one of the allegations of “prisoner abuse.”

The SEALs couldn’t leave right away. One of the CIA vehicles had taken a wrong turn on the way to the target and had gotten lost. So they waited.

“Five minutes,” the timekeeper called.

Not good. The mission was taking too long.

Lights started coming on in the apartments above and around them. They started seeing heads popping up in windows and over the rooftops. Pilots in a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter that was taking part in the mission started seeing men running between buildings.

They were just sitting there, stuck on a cul-de-sac in the Triangle of Death.

Finally, the lost CIA vehicle found them. Just in time, too, because they the clatter of small-arms fire as the convoy roared off.

Jeff Hopper would claim that he saw al-Jamadi being beaten in the back of the Humvee. That night, however, he was riding in a different vehicle.

The convoy stopped to regroup at the 82nd Airborne base about a mile away. The SEALs were in good spirits. They had just captured the leader of a terrorist cell that blew up the Red Cross.

Someone pulled out a camera and snapped a few group photos to memorialize the moment. The photos would later become evidence in criminal proceedings.

Then they were off again, back to the SEAL base at Baghdad International Airport.

Part. IX The Romper Room

Cerrillo and the rest of the unit went to bed.

For al-Jamadi, the suffering was about to begin.

He taken to an area on base the SEALs sarcastically referred to as the “Romper Room.”

There, he was doused with cold water and interrogated by CIA and Naval Special Warfare personnel.

Two SEALs were present for the entire two-hour interrogation in the Romper Room. Their on-scene commander wanted them there, as one put it, to ensure that nothing got out of hand and no one died on the SEAL base.

In the Romper Room, a CIA officer used a mix of force, threats and humiliation to try to get al-Jamadi to talk.

According to one of the SEALs, the CIA officer pressed his forearm into al-Jamadi’s chest or pushed down hard on his shoulders during the interrogation.

“I’m going to barbecue you,” the CIA officer screamed at al-Jamadi

At another point, al-Jamadi was made to stand against the wall. His arms were stretched out away from him, and someone threatened to hit his hand with a hammer, though no one did. 

After about an hour, al-Jamadi had been stripped down to his underwear. Those who saw him couldn’t help but notice the healed “scars from hell” on his body. They reminded one person of the scars on John Rambo, the damaged Vietnam vet played by Sylvester Stallone in the movie First Blood.

“I’m going to barbecue you!” the CIA officer screamed at al-Jamadi.

At one point, according to one witness in the room, the interpreter translated al-Jamadi as saying “I’m dying, I’m dying.”

“You’ll be wishing you were dying,” the CIA officer replied.

Part X. “Palestinian hanging”

The prosecution of the SEALs took place in a military courtroom on the 32nd Street Navy base in San Diego. I covered the case for The Associated Press.

Inside the courtroom, the proceedings were full of secrets.

Every so often, a military judge would clear journalists from the courtroom to discuss classified matters. The only civilians who stayed behind were a pair of young CIA attorneys. When the day’s proceedings wrapped up, they would rush off to a classified phone to report back to Langley.

The biggest mystery of all was how al-Jamadi had died. It was clear there was something the government didn’t want the public to know.

All we were told is that he was found dead in the shower room at Abu Ghraib prison. The CIA had taken him there after leaving The Romper Room. He was a “ghost detainee.” He was being held off-the-books in the prison.

One day, a defense attorney for a Navy SEAL lieutenant was interviewing a witness when he asked a question that got my attention:

“What position was Jamadi in when he died?”

One of the CIA attorneys in the courtroom leapt out of his seat.

“That’s classified!” he shouted.

It took me a while, but I found out the position al-Jamadi was in when he died.

The answer was in a pile of documents a lawyer let me read in his musty, wood-paneled office in the suburbs of San Diego.

First, al-Jamadi’s arms were handcuffed behind his back.

Per the CIA’s instructions, he was made to kneel. A chain was attached from the handcuffs to a barred window above the prisoner’s head in the Abu Ghraib shower room.

If he tried to lean forward, his arms would be wrenched painfully back up over his head.

This position is known as a “Palestinian hanging,” named for its alleged use by Israel in the Palestinian territories.

A “Palestinian hanging.”
Rama / CC BY-SA 2.0 FR (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)

During the interrogation, an Army guard who saw what was going on said he was surprised that his hyperextended arms didn’t “pop out of their sockets.”

An autopsy ruled the death the result of blunt force trauma and compromised respiration.

But Michael Baden, a medical examiner who consults in many high-profile cases, reviewed the autopsy at the request of defense attorneys for one of the SEALs. Blunt force injuries were insufficient to kill al-Jamadi because he was alive and well when he entered the prison.

“Asphyxia is what he died from—as in a crucifixion,” he told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer.

One of the grim facts of crucifixion is that its victims are slowly strangled to death.

Part XI. The New Sheriff

This was a glimpse into the CIA’s interrogation program when the gloves were still off, before the revelations of Abu Ghraib set in motion a chain of events that led the agency to shut down the program.  

Americans weren’t supposed to hang prisoners by their shoulders. President Bush was assuring the world that America didn’t use torture.

Someone at the CIA hadn’t gotten the message. I suspected that some people in the agency were following a different set of rules.

It turned out I was right.  The confirmation for that came from an unlikely source – the man who waterboarded Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the principal architect of 9/11, 183 times.

James Mitchell

James Mitchell was a former Air Force psychologist who helped design the CIA’s interrogation protocols. He later revealed that, in the program’s early days, techniques were employed that went way beyond what the Department of Justice or the agency had authorized.

This might sound strange coming from the man who advocated waterboarding detainees, which makes subjects feel like they’re drowning. But Mitchell drew the line at causing physical harm. Waterboarding, he wrote, “is scary and uncomfortable but not painful.”

Some in the CIA disagreed with Mitchell. They wanted to inflict pain.

“There was this other view,” Mitchell testified, “that what you do is you essentially hurt the person until they tell you what you want to know, and then you hurt them a little bit more.”

One of the main proponents of this “other view” was a veteran CIA officer named Charlie Wise.

Wise had served with the CIA in Nicaragua where had learned how to inflict pain in ways that didn’t leave any marks. Like making people kneel with a broomstick behind their knees.

Wise had been reprimanded for his role in other troubled interrogation efforts in the 1980s in Beirut, according to The Washington Post.

In his 2016 book, Enhanced Interrogation, Mitchell recounted a harrowing “interrogation” Wise conducted around Christmas 2002 in a secret prison in Poland. The subject was Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspected mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole.

…the chief interrogator stood al-Nashiri up and cinched his elbows together behind his back with a leather strap until they touched. Then the chief interrogator and one of the newly minted interrogators started lifting al-Nashiri’s arms behind him, toward the ceiling. Al-Nashiri bent over and screamed. I knew this had not been approved.

James Mitchell, Enhanced Interrogation

Just like the guards in the Abu Ghraib shower room, Mitchell wrote that he believed the prisoner’s arms were going to pop out of their sockets.

Mitchell doesn’t name Wise in his book, but media reports identified him as the man Mitchell calls the new sheriff.

That was the first thing Mitchell heard arrived at the secret prison in Poland. “There is a new sheriff in town,” Wise had told him. “I’m calling the shots now. Wise told Mitchell he had decided to “start over from square one” and employ techniques he had used in Latin America during the 1980s.

Mitchell complained about Wise to CIA leadership and ultimately told his account to the agency’s inspector general.  Wise left the agency in the summer of 2003 and died shortly thereafter from a heart attack.

Even with Wise gone, his influence continued to be felt in the spy agency’s nascent interrogation program.

Wise had personally trained a group of five to eight hand-picked interrogators. He had instilled in them his belief that the CIA’s approved techniques didn’t go far enough and taught them the things he believed would do the job.

Mitchell called them Wise’s “acolytes.”

Part XII. Playing Possum

Another mystery in the prosecution of the Navy SEALs was the identities of the CIA personnel who were in the room when al-Jamadi died.

One evening, while I was covering the al-Jamadi case for the AP, I met a source in a hotel room in San Diego who allowed me to look through a cache of military documents.

One document prepared by Army investigators identified the CIA interrogator who was questioning al-Jamadi.

Mark Swanner

His name was Mark B. Swanner. He was a polygraph examiner at the CIA.

Swanner was the guy in the “Romper Room” who had threatened to smash al-Jamadi’s hands with a hammer and told him he was going to barbecue him.

The Senate’s investigation into the CIA’s torture program found that agency-trained interrogators “included individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.” 

In its response, the CIA conceded that a shortage of people willing and able participants in the interrogation program was “a huge challenge.”

Was Swanner one of Charlie Wise’s “acolytes?” He sure acted like it.

While he was interrogating al-Jamadi in Abu Ghraib, Swanner had acted like it was a completely normal thing to watch someone dangle from their wrists.

When Army MPs were summoned into the shower room to reposition al-Jamadi, the guards were stunned to see the prisoner in such a contorted position, but Swanner seemed almost blasé.

“He was kind of calm,” Tony Diaz, one of the MPs on the scene later recalled. “He was sitting down the whole time. He was like ‘Yeah, you know, he just don’t want to cooperate. I think you should lift him a little higher.’”

Swanner said the Iraqi was faking injury – “playing possum,” as he put it.

The guards released the shackles, lowered al-Jamadi, and removed the nylon bag on his head.

Blood gushed from his mouth “as if a faucet had been turned on,” one guard recalled. “After we found out he was dead, they were nervous,” Army Specialist Dennis E. Stevanus said of the CIA interrogator and translator. “They didn’t know what the hell to do.”

“No one’s ever died on me before when I interrogated them,” said the CIA translator in the room with Swanner, a heavyset Lebanese-Christian called Clint.

The next day, al-Jamadi’s corpse was spirited out of Abu Ghraib on a stretcher with an IV stuck in his arm to make it appear that he was still alive.

Swanner no longer works at the spy agency. He has never commented on the al-Jamadi case. In photos I found on Facebook (under an alias), he seems to be living a happy retirement from the agency.

Part XIII. Bull Durham

John Helgerson, the CIA Inspector General, sent investigators to Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado in the spring of 2004 to interview SEALs about al-Jamadi’s death.

“We know you didn’t kill him,” one of Helgerson’s investigators told Dan Cerrillo. “We just need to know what injuries you caused so we can eliminate them.”

The CIA Inspector General’s office forwarded its findings to the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia. The case sat dormant for years.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 400px-John_H._Durham.jpg
John Durham

Finally, John Durham got the case. In June of 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he had accepted Durham’s recommendation to conduct full criminal investigations for two deaths in custody.

One was Gul Rahman, a suspected Afghan militant who froze to death in 2002 in the Salt Pit, a, frigid, secret CIA prison in a former brick factory north of Kabul. 

The other was Manadel al-Jamadi.

The al-Jamadi remains the only known case where you can put a CIA officer in the room with a prisoner who died in a position the world recognizes as torture.

It has taken years of media reports, a lawsuit, and United Nations inquiry to pry out even the most basic facts about Durham’s investigation into CIA interrogations.

Durham and his team of prosecutors and FBI agents interviewed 96 witnesses. Those summoned to testify before a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia included Dan Cerrillo and others from Foxtrot platoon, including Jeff Hopper. Mark Swanner testified. So did his boss David Martine, the former chief of the CIA’s Detention Elicitation Cell in Iraq, who was accused of destroying evidence – the hood covering al-Jamadi’s head.  Even the Abu Ghraib guards who took photos of detainees were called in to testify.

Little more than a year later, AG Holder announced that Durham had closed his investigation without filing any criminal charges.  

AUSA John Durham has now completed his investigations, and the Department has decided not to initiate criminal charges in these matters. In reaching this determination, Mr. Durham considered all potentially applicable substantive criminal statutes as well as the statutes of limitations and jurisdictional provisions that govern prosecutions under those statutes. Mr. Durham and his team reviewed a tremendous volume of information pertaining to the detainees. That review included both information and matters that were not examined during the Department’s prior reviews. Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths, the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.

With that decision, John Durham ensured that the only people who were charged with a crime in connection with al-Jamadi’s death were the ones who didn’t kill him: The men of SEAL Team Seven’s Foxtrot Platoon.

The decision was strongly criticized. Later, the Justice Department said Durham’s review was limited to whether any prosecutable offenses were committed and did not include “the broader questions regarding the propriety” of the conduct.

Durham laid out his reasoning in a report submitted to Holder’s chief of staff in 2012. Those reports have never been made publicly available.

Durham refused to speak to outside investigators. “Durham would not even return our phone calls,” Daniel Jones, the former Senate investigator who compiled the more than 6,000-page report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs, told me. “He refused to speak to us.”

“It makes you wonder now about Durham,” Jones continued. “What was going on? Why did he refuse to speak with the Senate investigators? And how did he come to the conclusion he did, given the CIA records the Senate reviewed?”

The Department of Justice has spent years fighting to Durham’s reports secret. Charlie Savage, a reporter at The New York Times, filed in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to bring them to light.  The newspaper lost the battle to make the reports public.

Interestingly, Durham noted in a court filing in the New York Times lawsuit that disclosing the names of covert personnel involved in the interrogation program, “could subject them to harassment or embarrassment as well as undue public attention,” according to the judge’s ruling the case.  

No one seemed too concerned about harassing or embarrassing the SEALs who faced charges in the case.

These days, John Durham is investigating a subject near and dear to Donald Trump: the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. Trump liked to call him “Bull Durham.”

“You have Bull Durham, who is supposed to be the toughest,” Trump said. “I’ve never met him. Never spoke to him. But he’s supposed to be the smartest and the best.”

Someday, Durham will reveal the findings of his investigation of the investigators.

The question we’re left with when does is this: Was the FBI’s investigation of a presidential campaign a bigger crime than crucifying an Iraqi prisoner to death?

Investigators probed Trump’s 40-year-old ties to Russian Mobster

A former New York City Mob underboss says that investigators questioned him in recent years about Trump’s ties to a Russian Mobster who purchased five condos in Trump Tower in the 1980s.

Michael Franzese, who left the Mafia after a stint in prison and became a born-again Christian, made the disclosure in a YouTube video posted to his channel on February 8.

In the video, Franzese says he was questioned — although he wouldn’t say by whom — “during the Mueller investigation.” Franzese says investigators wanted to know about his former business partner, a convicted Russian Mobster named David Bogatin.

In the 1980s, Franzese was a capo in the Colombo crime family when he partnered with Bogatin in a massive gasoline tax scam that generated as much as $9 million in cash, per week, according to Franzese’s 1996 testimony before the Senate.

David Bogatin

Franzese revealed in his YouTube video that he had been a silent partner with Bogatin when Bogatin purchased the Trump Tower condos for $5.3 million in 1984. Franzese said Bogatin paid for the condos in cash.

“As a result of that, I got questioned — I’m not gonna tell you by who — during the Mueller investigation because it came out that my friend David was the front guy buying them at that time,” Franzese said.

David Bogatin, center

“They came to me and they tried to establish a Trump connection with Russia as a result of him selling those condos to me and David Bogatin,” he continued.

Franzese said the investigators wanted to know why Trump took cash for the apartments. He says he did not know the answer.

I emailed both Franseze and the Department of Justice to to see if I could find out more. If I get a response, I’ll update this post here.

In his YouTube video, Franzese claimed that Bogatin had a family member in the KGB. This is unlikely given that Bogatin was Jewish. Jews were usually targets of Soviet intelligence, not employees.

Jacob Bogatin

What is certain is that Bogatin had a brother, Jacob, who got indicted in 2002 in a massive stock fraud along with Russian Mob boss Semion Mogilevich.

Mogilevich remains a fugitive and, as a result, Jacob Bogatin, his co-defendant, was never brought to trial.

Last I checked, both Jacob and David Bogatin continue to live in the United States.

Franzese also doesn’t mention some other facts I uncovered while reporting my book: First, it was Trump who convinced Bogatin to invest in Trump Tower. And second, Trump insisted on attending the condo signing.

But if Franzese is telling the truth about the investigators who questioned him about Bogatin and the Trump Tower condos, it’s a sign that, nearly 40 years later, Trump’s shady dealings with Russian Mobsters still haunt him.

Jeffrey Epstein, Leon Black, and Russia

Leon Black, wearing sunglasses, watches the 2016 U.S. Open tennis tournament with Jared Kushner

Leon Black, co-founder of the private equity giant Apollo Global Management, has agreed to step down from his duties as CEO after an independent review found he had paid $148 million to the convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein over a period of four years.

The New York Times notes that Black’s millions bankrolled Epstein after he pleaded guilty in 2008 to a prostitution charge involving a teenage girl. Black’s payments to Epstein were made between 2013 and 2017.

Why would a sophisticated man like Leon Black, a billionaire with a reputation to protect, associate with and pay millions to Epstein?

The independent report commissioned by Apollo from the law firm, Dechert, provides an answer:

Black viewed Epstein as a confirmed bachelor with eclectic tastes, who often employed attractive women. However, Black did not believe that any of the women in Epstein’s employ were underage. Black has no recollection of ever seeing Epstein with an underage woman at any time.

“A confirmed bachelor with eclectic tastes.” OK, sure. And Hannibal Lecter is a erudite psychiatrist with unusual appetites.

The Dechert report notes that Black trusted Epstein and confided in him on “personal matters.” Epstein had intimate knowledge of Black’s personal finances. Black regularly visited Epstein to discuss business or meet “well known businessmen, political figures, diplomats, scientists and celebrities” who gathered at Epstein’s enormous New York townhouse.

For the conspiracy-minded, the connections between the two men are interesting in light of reports that Epstein collected dirt on powerful men and had cameras in his house monitoring private moments.

And let’s not forget Epstein’s ties to intelligence services. Alex Acosta, Trump’s former labor secretary who led the prosecution of Epstein in Florida said he had been told “Epstein ‘belonged to intelligence’ and to leave it alone,” according to Vicky Ward’s report in The Daily Beast.

No one has yet noted something I pointed out more than a year ago, namely, Black’s numerous ties to Russia, Donald Trump, and Russian money.

Both Black and Trump were friends of Epstein’s at different times. Black also socialized with Trump and Jared Kushner, as the photo at the top shows. Apollo loaned $187 million to Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm.

Volume 5 of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia report establishes that Leon Black accompanied Trump during his 1996 visit to Moscow to pursue real estate deals.

Trump’s trip to Moscow was organized by investor Bennett LeBow, who was trying to get Trump to develop a site he owned in Moscow. Not only did he serve up a site for Trump, LeBow lined up financing from Apollo Group, a then six-year-old private equity firm.

Black, drink in hand, and Trump in Moscow in 1996.

Black told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he did not recall any compromising behavior during the trip. He also did not recall the event in the photograph above.

Black did recall going to a concert with Trump, followed by a “discotheque.” Black later added that he and Trump “might have been in a strip club together.”

Moscow strip clubs were well-known as a potential source of kompromat or blackmail.

For years in Russia there were a number of Russian government officials or others who were exposed in these strip clubs doing not very nice things that their wives, if they have wives, probably didn’t know about. I think most of us appreciated that there was that risk in these types of clubs.

Peter O’Brien, CFO of the Russian-government controlled oil firm Rosneft, as quoted in Vol. 5 of the Senate intelligence committee’ Russia report.

It’s worth noting that the Moscow trip was not part of Dechert’s investigation into Black’s dealings with Epstein. The report says it reviewed documents dating back to 1998.

In 2011, Black was back in Russia, this time for a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Black committed to help Russia set up a $10 billion sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF).

It was a privilege to help the fund, Black told Reuters, and described Russia’s “strong political leadership” as an advantage for investors at a time of global economic and financial difficulty. Black was named to the advisory board of the RDIF in 2011.

Four years later, after Russia invaded Crimea, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on the RDIF. `

Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the RDIF, makes numerous appearances in the Mueller Report. After Trump’s election, it was Dmitriev who wrote received an email that read, “Putin has won.” It was also Dmitirev who met in the Seychelles island with Erik Prince after Trump’s election.

Black also knows many Russian oligarchs. He met with the notorious aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska in Russia and the United States prior to Deripaska being sanctioned by the United States in 2018. Black knows Allen Vine, whom Black described as “consigliere” to the Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov, who was sanctioned by the United States in 2018.

And he does business with Vladimir Potanin, one of the world’s richest men. Unlike Deripaska and Kerimov, Potanin has not been sanctioned the U.S. government.

Potanin is a large investor in U.S. companies, including Apollo Global. In a 2014 court filing in her divorce, Potanin’s wife, Natalia, listed Apollo Global Management LLC as one of the companies in which her husband has had a financial interest.

Why did Black have such close connections to Russia? Did Epstein, who had an intimate knowledge of Black’s personal affairs, know the answer?