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Birth of a Salesman

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August 1, 2010

In a new book about the global war on terror, Amitava Kumar shows how criminal guilt has been sacrificed to the political need to haul in suspects. The result? Through crude character assassination, guilt is essentially fabricated after the arrest.

So, sadly, the dreamers and the haters are not two

groups. They are often one and the same persons.

—Arjun Appadurai, _Fear of Small Numbers_

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The U.S. government’s exhibit 1002 in United States of America v. Hemant Lakhani was a document from the commissary in the Corrections Bureau in Passaic County, New Jersey. It indicated that on March 16, 2005, in the “early afternoon hours the defendant went to the commissary and notwithstanding his medical condition ordered four bags of hot buffalo chips.” That same afternoon, the defendant also purchased one bag of crunchy cheese chips. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stuart Rabner flipped through the rest of the pages of exhibit 1002. On March 21, Rabner told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the defendant had received five bags of hot buffalo chips, five bags of salty peanuts, and five bags of crunchy cheese chips. On March 28, he received one cheese pizza, and again, five bags each of hot buffalo chips, salted peanuts, and crunchy cheese chips—and five apple pies. Turning to another page, Rabner said that on April 8 the defendant had ordered five bags of hot buffalo chips, five bags of salted peanuts, and two bags of crunchy cheese chips. And then on April 11, the food items ordered were five bags of hot buffalo chips, five bags of salted peanuts, three apple pies, two honey buns, and a cheese pizza.

“The defendant’s conduct,” the prosecutor argued, “can indeed be determined to be a contributing factor to the swollen legs that he now complains about and on which basis he seeks an adjournment of this trial. He should not be allowed.”

Hemant Lakhani’s diet was under scrutiny because he had undergone three surgeries in three weeks. The trial had begun in early January, but only ten days later the defendant had needed to be hospitalized. On the morning of January 14, a deputy marshal informed the court that the defendant had been admitted the previous evening at the St. Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey with a variety of problems: a hernia, a congenital heart condition, and renal failure. Speaking on record four days later, Lakhani’s doctor reminded the court that his patient was nearly seventy. He was probably suffering from hypertension. And it was possible that his heart needed surgical treatment. Later that week, Lakhani underwent an angioplasty and a pacemaker was inserted into his body. He was having problems with one of his knees and a rheumatologist had been pressed into service. The court couldn’t meet for three weeks because the defendant had needed time to recuperate.

Henry Klingeman, the defendant’s lawyer, stated that his client had described the jail food as “inedible,” and had complained that he wasn’t given rice, which had “been a staple of his diet for his entire life.” The commissary food was used as a “supplement” and, because he had a “sweet tooth,” he used to order apple pies.

The judge in the case, Katharine Hayden, took a considered view of the medical opinion she had been provided about the defendant. She declared that Lakhani was “ready to go” and commented with some concern that the diet the defendant had chosen was “loaded with salt” and “loaded with sugar.” She noted that Lakhani had more than once refused nutritious meals consisting of salad, bread, beans, apples, cookies, and hard-boiled eggs. With adequate good reason, the appeal to adjourn was denied by the judge.

Judicial trials by their very nature are about acts. They concern themselves with what has actually been done by an individual or group. But the Lakhani trial from the very beginning had seemed to be about who he was rather than what he had done. He had been indicted for providing material aid to terrorists, unlawful brokering, and money laundering, but, because much of the wrongdoing had been at the suggestion of an undercover government agent, the real argument was that he had the immoral nature of someone who might be a terrorist. Even when it came to the slightly farcical matter of his diet, there was no doubt that what was being scrutinized was the defendant’s character. In effect, the prosecution was saying, “Look, this person is irresponsible. He lies. He complains about the food in prison and then tucks away several bags of buffalo chips. You can’t trust him.”

More than four months earlier, when the trial began, FBI agents had brought in a wooden box and put it down heavily in the center of the courtroom. The prosecutors then proceeded to take out of the box a long green steel tube and showed it to the jurors. This object was an SA18 Igla shoulder-fired missile. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rabner told the court that Hemant Lakhani had sold the missile to a man whom he believed was a terrorist. Lakhani had also expressed his willingness to broker the sale of two hundred more such missiles.

The trial was taking place in a courthouse that would have been sitting in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers if they had still been there. At one point in the trial, the prosecutors played the videotape that was recorded by a secret camera during the final meeting between the defendant Lakhani and an FBI informant named Muhammad Habib Rehman. The meeting had taken place in a suite booked by Rehman in the Wyndham Hotel in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Strategically, the room overlooked the runways of the Newark International Airport. Lakhani had entered the room and discovered that the missile, which he had last seen in Russia, had indeed made it to the United States. Here are some lines from the grainy black and white videotape played for the jury:

Lakhani: This thing is now in front of us.

Rehman: And also the airport is in front of us.

Lakhani: Yes, if we strike fifty at one time simultaneously, it will fuck their mother… It will shake them. Then they will run. Where will they run?

And:

Rehman: Boss, look at this now… Just see how many aircraft are parked there.

Lakhani: It will fuck their mother if one or two fall down… If it happens ten or fifteen places simultaneously at the same time, say Sunday morning at 10 o’clock… The people will be scared to death that how this could have happened. They will realize that you people are wide awake, alive, and vibrant. They will know that you people are not yet dead… What will happen… In this case, the magnitude will be very big. It means if fifteen planes come down at the same time, they will be shaken. It will fuck their mother. They will be wondering from where it came, how it came. That will be something.

The government prosecutor paused to ask the FBI informant Rehman, who was at that time on the witness stand, to take note of the gesture Lakhani had made with his hands to indicate how badly the Americans would be shaken. After that, Rehman explained how he had left the hotel room and had given to the FBI agents outside the room the wire that he was wearing on his body. On the government’s videotape, half a dozen FBI agents can be seen entering the hotel room and arresting a stunned and docile Lakhani.

The investigation that ended with Lakhani᾿s arrest on August 12, 2003, had begun in the weeks immediately following the attacks of September 11. The informant Habib Rehman had been in touch with an Indian gangster living in Dubai. The Indian man, whose name was Abdul Qayyum, had been a part of the gang responsible for the Bombay blasts in 1993. He was now in exile. The informant Rehman first heard of Lakhani in a long distance phone conversation with Qayyum in Dubai. And it was Qayyum who told Lakhani about Rehman, repeating to Lakhani what Rehman had said about himself, that he was a powerful man in America. When Lakhani contacted Rehman, he told him that he was a businessman dealing in groceries, textile, oil, and weapons. They were talking in Hindi and, according to Rehman, the term Lakhani had used for the last trade was “mara-mari,” which means “killing.” This happened during their first phone conversation and later that day Rehman got in touch with his FBI handlers.

The FBI soon provided Rehman with a tape recorder to begin recording his conversations with Lakhani. Rehman told Lakhani that he was a representative of a Somalian organization called the Ogaden National Liberation Front and—although this isn’t true of the actual group that has that name—that this was a terrorist group with links to al Qaeda. This group needed weapons. “The main thing,” Rehman told Lakhani, “is anti-aircraft guns and missiles.” Lakhani responded by asking how many were needed, and Rehman said that probably twenty to fifty missiles, but more of the anti-aircraft guns, maybe two to three hundred. Lakhani said, “You will get whatever quantity you ask.”

Rehman had told the FBI agents that Lakhani was a main weapons trafficker living in London and supplying arms to Pakistani and Indian criminals and extremists, as well as terrorists in Nepal and the United Arab Emirates. He had also told them that Lakhani sold weapons to the Ukrainian government. He informed the special agent investigating the case that Lakhani was worth $300 to $400 million dollars.

Rehman and Lakhani had over two-hundred conversations over the next twenty-two months. They also met half a dozen times during this time, and these meetings were secretly recorded too. There were one hundred and fifty four tapes of these conversations, and the transcripts of these tapes, duly translated, filled three three-ring binders that were given to the members of the jury. It was to these transcripts that the jurors would turn when the prosecutor asked the witness to look at the lines, for instance, when Lakhani (unconsciously taking a leaf out of Ambrose Bierce, who had commented “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”) said to Rehman, “Now they know where Afghanistan is. Bin Laden taught them where Afghanistan is.” But Klingeman, Lakhani’s lawyer, read those conversations differently. As far as Lakhani was concerned, it was mere talk. Pointing to a transcript of a conversation on January 7, 2002, Klingeman asked Rehman, “He spends a good deal of time telling you what he’s about, what he does?” When Rehman had asked him whether he had an office in Ukraine, Lakhani had said that he did. In the courtroom, Klingeman questioned Rehman about having ever come across any evidence, “any stationery, any letterhead, any mail, any indication at all” that Lakhani actually had an office in Ukraine. If Lakhani was really a businessman, why did he not even have a business card? In fact, he didn’t have an office in London either. The faxes he sent Rehman were from different numbers, often from a friend’s office. Had Rehman ever heard about an employee or staff that Lakhani employed? Did he ever supply a company name? To all these questions, Rehman answered in the negative.

Klingeman: And I take it you never visited him in London?

Rehman: No, sir.

Klingeman: Have you seen pictures of his home, his home in [the] North London suburb of Hendon?

Rehman: Later on I saw in the newspaper.

Klingeman: So you realize it’s a modest suburban single family home?

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Klingeman: And when he met with you the very first time… you brought him the very expensive scotch, right?

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Klingeman: That’s right. Johnny Walker Blue?

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Klingeman: Did Mr. Lakhani ever reciprocate with any gifts of his own to you?

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Klingeman: That is right. Sweets?

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Klingeman: Homemade treats?

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Lakhani’s lawyer had begun the cross-examination by asking the FBI informant whether, at any time during the nearly twenty-two months that he had known Lakhani, the latter had delivered any missiles, nuclear material, armored vehicles, bullets, or anything that related to military hardware. The answer was no. But, quite apart from this mode of legal inquiry, like the government’s lawyer before him, Klingeman was interested in presenting to the members of the jury a portrait of a person. He asked Rehman whether he had observed how Lakhani used to dress. Hadn’t Lakhani told him that he was in the clothing trade all his life? Did he dress well? Had Rehman noticed the torn sleeves, the stains, the frayed cuffs? The FBI agents who had guided the investigation were sitting in the gallery. The question was in reality addressed to them. Why had they believed the informant’s report that Lakhani had deep pockets? The FBI had given Lakhani an initial $30,000 through the informant; an additional $55,000 was needed to purchase the missile. When Rehman said to Lakhani that the latter could put some of his own money into the deal, Lakhani had replied, “I can’t arrange that kind of money.” But Rehman was insistent. And Lakhani had pleaded with him, “No, I can’t. Believe me. I am telling the truth. Now you see, it is all paper transaction. You see in my shop you will find only small amount of cash and nothing else.” Even if this didn’t arouse the government’s suspicion about Lakhani, we’re still left with the question of why they had gone on believing the defendant’s claims when he had said that everything was readily available and yet delivered nothing. Had they been taken in by his boasting? Did they want to be taken in by his boasting?

The house in London that Lakhani had owned at the time of his arrest was soon put up for sale. It is now owned by a Jewish couple who run a small gas supply company. When the police arrived at the house after Lakhani’s arrest, they found a fifteen-year-old BMW parked in the driveway; now, a black van with a gas cylinder painted on it stands in front of the garage. The new owners have painted the gray walls of the house white and they have installed a modish wooden door in the front. The elegant new door looks almost out of place. The house is close to the Hendon Central tube station and the neighborhood is a fairly mixed one, with a solid presence of immigrants from Eastern Europe and South Asia. It is difficult to stand in front of the house and believe, as Lakhani had claimed in his conversations with Rehman, that he was a friend of the Libyan dictator, Moammar Gaddafi. Ditto the royal family in Dubai, the former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, and the Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos. Lakhani had told Rehman that he had lunched with Tony Blair. “In all of the time that you spent with him at these meetings,” Klingeman asked Rehman, “did he ever take a phone call from any of those folks?” Rehman replied, “I don’t recall.” Klingeman, deadpanning, “You don’t recall whether he’d got a call from Tony Blair in the middle of talking to you?” And Rehman, “I don’t think so.”

Lakhani met Rehman for the first time at the Hilton in downtown Newark on January 22, 2002. Rehman was wearing a wire and the meeting was secretly being videotaped. During this conversation, Lakhani was cheerful and optimistic. He told Rehman that arms trading allowed for a lot of profit. He said, “In this business you can make 300 percent.” Lakhani was carrying a brochure of an arms-seller in Ukraine, and because there was a picture of a submarine among the weapons shown in the brochure, Rehman asked whether the company manufactured them. Lakhani said that the company had expertise in making submarines and that he could arrange a sale if Rehman needed them. At that time Rehman was working as an informant in another case where he had heard talk of anti-aircraft guns and missiles, and so, instead of submarines, he asked for a missile, adding “something sinister, just like Stinger.” But unlike what he had told Lakhani earlier, it wasn’t twenty to fifty missiles that Rehman needed; in court, one would do just fine as evidence and that is what the FBI paid for, giving Lakhani over $86,000, both through a bank transfer and through the informal system of brokerage called _hawala_.

More than a year passed, and there was no missile. Lakhani was unable to find a seller. It was not until mid-January 2003 that the Russian Federation’s Federal Security Services, formerly the KGB, got wind that Lakhani was looking to buy an Igla missile. According to the Russians, Lakhani had contacted a dubious company in Cyprus named Laberia, which was owned by a Russian and an Israeli. When the FBI got in touch with the Russians about what Lakhani was trying to do on their soil, they sent two undercover officers to him posing as illegal arms dealers named Aleksey and Vladimir. The Russians were cooperating with the FBI, but Vladimir complained to his supervisor on tape, saying Lakhani “fucking drove me nuts, the bitch.” (The supervisor was assisting in the removal of the wire from Vladimir’s body when this conversation took place and it became a part of the government’s transcript. Vladimir says that Lakhani was “such a tedious guy overall, much of this has become incomprehensible to me even more.” When asked about this statement in court, the supervisor said that what Vladimir was really saying was that Lakhani was “an impulsive and aggressive individual, not more, not less. That meant that it was a very dangerous individual who was trying to obtain a missile in a way that should never be done.”) On July 14, 2003, the Russians arranged for Lakhani and Rehman to inspect the missile in St. Petersburg. The trip had been paid for by Rehman. The missile that the two men saw had been filled with sand instead of explosives, but when Lakhani picked up the launcher by the wrong end and swung it around, the Russian agents stuck to their roles and ducked for cover. The missile container was shipped to the United States without the dud weapon in it. And later, it was not Lakhani but the FBI that brought the dummy missile to the United States and displayed it in the New Jersey courtroom on the first day of the trial. In Russia, Lakhani had kept telling the undercover Russian agents that he was prepared to give them bank checks for the missile. But they wanted cash, even though a bank check is easier to trace, because the agents wanted to behave like authentic criminals. It was actually Lakhani who didn’t really have a clue about how real criminals behave. So, as payment, he gave Vladimir a promissory note written on a slip of paper, which was shown to the members of the jury as government exhibit 53: “I Hemant Shantilal Lakhani hereby promise to pay Mr. Vladimir the sum of 70,000 (seventy thousand dollars) for the supply of goods and parts, and I will release this sum upon receiving the necessary shipping documents in St. Petersburg.”

It is perhaps understandable then that Lakhani appeared taken aback when, on the day of his arrest, he stepped into the hotel room where Rehman was waiting for him and saw, sitting on a small sofa, the missile container that he had last seen in St. Petersburg. Lakhani pointed to the container and said, “This box… How it arrive here?… I never thought it would be sitting here as your guest.” And Rehman responded, “Boss, what did I tell you? I told you you can smuggle anything into America. Didn’t I tell you? The stuff is right in front of you.” To which, Lakhani could only say, “I can’t believe what we have done.”

During the cross-examination, Klingeman drew Rehman’s attention to Lakhani’s plain mystification or wonderment about the missile sitting in the hotel room. Lakhani had asked Rehman, “How did you bring it here?” To which Rehman replied that his men had taken care of the situation, and then he said that Lakhani had made a mistake, sending the missile to Baltimore instead of Newark. Lakhani had said lamely, “I don’t know the names of the ports here.”

When Rehman began opening the missile container, Lakhani protested fearfully, “No, don’t open it. No. No. No, don’t.” But Rehman proceeded to take the missile out. Lakhani had forgotten to include the manual; neither he nor Rehman knew anything about the weapon. It was at this point that one gets a very clear sense of the man whom the U.S. government had been presenting as a sophisticated arms dealer. Here is the detail of the conversation from the courtroom about what transpired minutes before Lakhani’s arrest in the hotel room in New Jersey:

Klingeman: You tell Mr. Lakhani that the missile has a serial number on it, right?

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Klingeman: And he asks you a question. “What does it mean?”

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Klingeman: And you said, “This is the serial number.” And you pointed as we could observe on the video. And then you say, “We don’t need it.”

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Klingeman: And he asks you another question, “Why not?” And you say, “Because…” And then the light bulb goes off, and Mr. Lakhani said, “It can be caught.” Right? And you say, “In America, when it comes here, we don’t need the serial number.”

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Klingeman: And he says, “It is good that you told me.”

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Like Lakhani, the informant Habib Rehman was a failed businessman. During the trial, Rabner, the government attorney, asked Rehman about the work he had been doing in the United States when he wasn’t assisting the FBI or the DEA. And Rehman had replied, “In the beginning I started floral business. And after that, I did a jewelry business. After that, I did grocery import business. And which includes rice and spices.” The question had been intended to preemptively bring into the open a possible weakness in the government’s case. Rehman had not only failed in business, he had also had civil lawsuits filed against him because of his bad trade dealings. This was more serious than the defendant’s fondness for buffalo chips; Rehman’s past suggested that he was an unscrupulous business partner. Rabner must have been aware that Klingeman was going to grill the informant on his business practices and raise the suspicion that Lakhani had been lured into crime. So, he asked Rehman if, during 2002, a New York businessman had invested $30,000 in a rice-importing business with him. The answer was yes. Was the investor pleased with him? Rehman said no. Rabner asked Rehman if he was able to return the money. Again, no. In response to the question whether he had paid back any part of the money, Rehman said, “Until now, I have paid him $2,500.” Then, Rabner asked Rehman if, at an earlier time, in 1999, he had gone into a rice-importing business and how long that business had lasted. A few months, Rehman replied. Rabner asked, “And on what terms had the business ended?” “On bad terms,” Rehman replied.

During cross-examination, Rehman was asked by the defense lawyer whether it would be right to say that he had earned between $450,000 and $470,000 as an informant. The answer was yes.

And, like a schoolteacher gently urging a pupil to make greater, more self-incriminatory confessions, Rabner inquired if there were other businesses that had ended with lawsuits and Rehman said yes. Then, Rehman was asked if these civil lawsuits had ended with judgments going against him and the amount of money that he needed to pay. The answer he gave was “Yes, sir… Approximately $120,000.”

Muhammad Habib Rehman was born in Faisalabad, Pakistan, and received a high school education. His father and siblings dealt in gems. Some members of his family were drug smugglers and as a young man Rehman would travel to places like Dubai to collect the money owed to his uncles for the hashish they had sent out. Later, he began to help with the smuggling but took care to inform the customs officials, who paid him $80,000 over a period of several years. He had embarked on the career of an informant. At the end of the nineteen eighties, Rehman began to assist American DEA officials working in Pakistan. (One of them was a man in Minnesota, Charles Lee, who, sometime later, would enter into a rice-importing business with Rehman and complain of being defrauded by him. During the Lakhani trial, Lee testified for the defense against Rehman.) That work was going well but one day, suddenly, Rehman was summoned to the American embassy and informed that his business associates were about to kill him. Within twenty-four hours, the U.S. government moved Rehman and his family from Pakistan to America. He has never returned.

During cross-examination, Rehman was asked by the defense lawyer whether it would be right to say that he had earned between $450,000 and $470,000 as an informant. The answer was yes. During the Lakhani investigation, Rehman was being paid $6,000 every month. But there were financial difficulties. Rehman’s son had fallen sick and he had needed to purchase health insurance, but when applying for it he had lied about the medical condition and was then sued by the insurance company. The cost of the medical treatment had come to around $500,000. Weeks before the trial began, the FBI came and asked him about his insurance fraud, and as a result Rehman quickly reached an agreement with the hospital to pay $25,000. Speaking on oath in the courtroom, Rehman said in response to the barrage of questions directed at him about his insurance application, “I accept I lied.”

When the court assembled again a few days later, there were further revelations about outstanding cases against Rehman in New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and even Kansas. The amounts of payment that Rehman needed to make ranged from $70,080.55 to $1,440.24. He hadn’t made any of those payments. Although Rehman had entered the United States in 1996 and had begun earning an income, he hadn’t filed his federal income tax returns in 1997. Nor did he file them in 1998 and 1999. His returns for the years 2001, 2002, and 2003 were all submitted in October 2004 after the FBI, anticipating Rehman’s participation in the Lakhani trial, instructed him to do so. Yet, at the time he was testifying in court, Rehman still owed around $7,000 to the IRS.

Trouble with money notwithstanding, Rehman said he wasn’t doing the work of an informant for the money. (In this respect too, he was like the man he helped put away for life. Lakhani told me when I met him in prison that his lawyer had been wrong to “parade” him as “a pauper.” In his view, it was not him but Rehman who had wanted to make money. “I’m a very honest person, you can see inside,” Lakhani said, clutching at the collar of his cream-colored prison shirt. And then, he said that he had a platinum credit card from British Airways, as if this was what explained the difference between him and Rehman. He raised his voice and said twice, still talking of British Airways, “They used to keep their plane waiting for me.”) When Lakhani’s lawyer asked Rehman what he had meant when he had said that his work “earned respect,” Rehman shot back, “What do you think, sir, this work is not good work?… To stop a crime or any bad thing is the biggest respect in the world.”

Klingeman: Well, when you say respect you’re presumably talking about the way others view you, correct?

Rehman: I—when I speak respect I mean that in the eyes of the world what they see.

Klingeman: Right, how others view you?

Rehman: Yes, sir.

Klingeman: But the fact is you don’t tell anybody that you’re an informant, do you?

Rehman: No, I don’t tell.

Klingeman: Of course not. Do you put down on applications, for example, where it says occupation, informant?

Rehman: No, sir.

Klingeman: Do you go to parties and talk to people about what you do for a living and tell them that you’re an informant?

Rehman: No, sir.

Klingeman: So again, who shows you respect for what you do?

Rehman: Whenever you see any crime behind it there’s an informant and when someone is arrested. And when any time someone stops the crime behind it there’s an informant. And the whole world respects him. That—when I say respect that’s what I mean.

I was struck by this exchange, mostly because it showed the informant as the mirror image of the defendant: a man of small means, beset with difficulties, projecting himself onto a grand stage. Each one was a failed man in many ways, a failed man, with more than a touch of desperation, dreaming of success. Both were immigrants, afraid of their perceived worthlessness, worried at the ways in which each plan they had devised had proved ineffectual. Each one tried to impress the other about how he was at home in the West. The two had their origins in enemy countries divided by a border; not once did they talk of their own religious difference or say anything bad about the other’s faith or religion. The two men were worried about their families and both were committed to the cheap art of the hustle. Each believed in making a deal. Each was lying for a cause, if dreaming of a better life can be described as a cause. I wonder whether at any time during their association as business partners, there had been a moment when one of them had seen himself in the other, and whether this recognition had made him flinch.

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