Monday, June 9, 2008

Afghan Heroin Suspect Was U.S. Asset, He Says

June 8, 2008

In August 2004, in a hotel room overlooking the Persian Gulf, an Afghan mujahedeen commander met with two Americans to talk about the Taliban, the heroin trade and the possibility of helping the United States by revealing what he knew about the complex political situation back home.

The commander’s name was Haji Bashir Noorzai. The Americans he spoke with in the bustling desert emirate of Dubai were federal contract agents who, court papers say, told him they were on a special project to track the “financial support” of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan.

After discussions spanning three days, the agents told Mr. Noorzai they wanted him to come to the United States to continue discussions, and promised that he would not be arrested. He might have had a reason to believe them: his lawyer says he had worked with the United States before, helping combat the Taliban.

What happened next was either a betrayal or an act of covert justice, depending on who is asked. When Mr. Noorzai arrived in the United States in mid-2005, he was picked up at the airport and whisked off to an Embassy Suites hotel where two weeks later, after much questioning, he was arrested, accused of shipping heroin to New York.

This week, after three years in jail, Mr. Noorzai, 45, will finally have a chance to answer that charge at a federal drug trial in New York. The trial, scheduled to open Wednesday, is likely to be part Steve Coll, part Robert Stone: as much a spy tale as a dissection of United States policy, which some say favored befriending suspected drug smugglers, at least temporarily, if they could help in the fight against terrorism.

Mr. Noorzai has pleaded not guilty to charges that he smuggled heroin into New York and denies any involvement in drug trafficking. His lawyers are expected to argue that he was duped at his meetings in Dubai in 2004. The government contends not only that he dealt drugs — he was once described as the Asian counterpart to Pablo Escobar, the Colombian cocaine king — but that the agents who offered him free passage were not allowed to do so.

Before his arrest in April 2005, Mr. Noorzai was a wealthy leader of the so-called Noorzai tribe, a transnational clan with a million members in southern Afghanistan and the Baluchistan Province of Pakistan. He spent his time mainly in Quetta, Pakistan, with three wives and 13 children, but maintained other homes in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates.

In 1982, court papers say, he led a thousand-strong army in the Afghan war against the Soviets and, eight years later, according to his lawyer, agreed to track down missing Stinger missiles provided to the Afghan resistance by the C.I.A. In 1996, the government says, Mr. Noorzai disarmed his forces and threw his support behind the Taliban, which had just stormed into Kabul.

His lawyer, Ivan Fisher, has argued that Mr. Noorzai’s cooperation with the United States was frequent and extensive, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and a later detention by American forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Fisher says Mr. Noorzai was freed after he agreed to work for the United States.

Mr. Fisher says Mr. Noorzai followed through on his promise. In 2002, for instance, Mr. Fisher said, Mr. Noorzai handed over 15 truckloads of weapons, including some 400 antiaircraft missiles, that the Taliban had hidden on tribal land. He also acted as a liaison between the Taliban and the United States, helping to persuade a former foreign minister for the Taliban, Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, to meet with the Americans, his lawyer said.

At the same time, he was a major player in the Afghan drug trade, officials of the Drug Enforcement Administration say, controlling vast poppy fields that supplied a large share of the world’s heroin. As an early backer of the Taliban, he gave the group explosives, weapons and manpower in exchange for their protection of his opium crops, his heroin labs and smuggling routes, officials say.

In June 2004, the State Department placed Mr. Noorzai’s name on a list of the most wanted drug lords in the world. Two months later, the two contractors contacted Mr. Noorzai (at least in part through Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, court papers say) and arranged a series of meetings, from Aug. 7 to Aug. 9, 2004, at the hotel in Dubai. They told him they were working for the F.B.I. and the Department of Defense.

The contractors, whom court papers identify only as Mike and Brian, told Mr. Noorzai that they were studying financial networks supporting terrorists in Afghanistan. According to a transcript of the first day’s conversation, which was taped by the agents, Mike told Mr. Noorzai that “the goal of this project is not to arrest anybody, apprehend anybody, secretly follow anyone.”

In fact, Mike said, Mr. Noorzai should “come to the United States for a couple weeks as we have discussed,” later adding: “It’s like a little vacation. For probably two weeks and back to Dubai.”

After another meeting in Peshawar, Pakistan, that year, the discussions seemed to fizzle out. But then, in March 2005, court papers say, Mike and Brian got back in touch with Mr. Noorzai and met him again in Dubai. The government says the agents were working for the D.E.A. at this time, but acknowledges that they did not tell Mr. Noorzai.

They arranged for him to travel to New York, but did not tell him that two months earlier, in January 2005, he had been secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in Manhattan.

When he arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport, on April 13, 2005, he was met by Drug Enforcement Administration agents who made small talk while they drove him to an Embassy Suites hotel near ground zero. They debriefed him over 11 days, reading him the Miranda rights every morning. Mr. Noorzai waived his right to a lawyer.

He apparently felt comfortable enough, court papers say, to have called his cousin in Pakistan one day to tell him things were fine. He called his mother that same day, saying he was in New York and working, and had not yet booked a ticket back to Pakistan.

No comments: