This article first appeared in The Village Voice.
Stuffed Elephants and a .357
Portland--Richard Brenneke flashes a grin, picks a hollow-point shell up off the kitchen table, and slowly begins to load his .357 Magnum revolver. We don't expect any trouble--outside his neat, five-room wooden bungalow, the suburban hills are as quiet as the rainy Northwest woods. It's just something to do with his hands as he talks. Ann Daniel Brenneke, his wife of more that 20 years, is sitting a few feet away on the living room sofa, watching reruns of the detective sitcom Sledgehammer on the VCR. The sofa is covered with brightly colored miniature stuffed animals--pigs, a horse, lots of elephants.
I ask about the stuffed animals. It's late at night and he's been working hard on his autobiography, but for a man whose weak heart has sent him in and out of the hospital seven times over the last two years, Brenneke shows remarkable stamina.
"We have probably got 40 elephants," Brenneke says. "There's a whole wall of them running down the couch, and the ones in the other room. Each one represents a gift that Ann and I have given each other," often on his return from a mission overseas, Brenneke explains. "Some go back to the 1970s."
"There's The Enforcer...He's purple' he's a big elephant, and he's got a Don King hairdo...The little guy that is called Tutu has got a little tutu on," Brenneke continues. "Squeaky, who is a little yellow elephant, has talked [to me] so much for so many years and has traveled around the world with me God knows how many times, that she lost her squeaker. You used to be able to shake her and she'd squeak. She's the matriarch of the family." Brenneke smiles. "That's personal, that's Ann and me. And it means something to us."
Despite his .357 Magnum with the dum-dum bullets, the owlish Richard Brenneke looks and acts as if he would be more at home in Disneyworld than in the world of spies, mercenaries, arms merchants, and drug smugglers that populate the October Surprise scandal. But he has been, in fact, a key source for many of the stories about the alleged Republican deal to delay the release of 52 American hostages until after the 1980 election. Brenneke was the first to say that the Israelis were selling tons of weapons illegally to Iran in the mid-1980s; he was the first to say the vice-president George Bush's office acted as the covert administrative headquarters for a U.S./Israeli armsfor-drugs smuggling operation in Central America; he was the first to claim firsthand knowledge that Bush's then national security adviser, former CIA official Donald Gregg, had been coordinating a mulitinational contrasupply network; and Brenneke was the first person to say there had been a series of October 1980 meetings in Paris between then Reagan campaign chair William Casey and Iranian representatives to finalize the Republican hostage deal.
In short, Brenneke claims he has jetted around the world with Squeaky the GOP mascot in his lap for over two decades while working as a freelance contractor for American and Israeli intelligence agencies--laundering money, programming and running military intelligence computer systems, and smuggling guns and drugs. All in the name of the American way of life. A patriot's duty.
Unfortunately, the very thing that makes Brenneke a credible witness--his career as a covert gunrunner and money launderer --causes problems for Congressional investigators of the October Surprise. For like every other whistleblower in the case, from ABC Nightline's Jamshid Hashemi, an Iranian-born arms merchant, to William Northrop, and American-born former member of Israeli military intelligence and arms dealer, Richard Brenneke is a refugee from a mysterious, threatening, and often flaky world, one in which lying has long been standard procedure. These are not the sorts of witnesses of which airtight court cases are made.
The CIA says Brenneke is a liar, as does the White House; three years ago, the government went so far as to try (unsuccessfully) to convict Brenneke for perjury. Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry's Iran-contra investigators refused to use Brenneke's testimony--after exhaustively interviewing him for months in 1988--when Senate staffer Jack Blum decided he was an unreliable witness. Even former Jimmy Carter national security aide and October Surprise expert Gary Sick says he would not use Brenneke as a primary source of information.
And yet, Brenneke's allegations won't go away. Last week, Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh cut a deal with Alan Fiers, former CIA supervisor for Central America. In exchange for being allowed to plead guilty to two misdemeanors, Fiers has testified that top officials of the agency knew about the arms sales to Iran and the diversion of the profits to the contras much earlier than previously acknowledged, and that he was ordered to lie to Congress about it.
Last May, former president Jimmy Carter told the Voice that he suspected that Donald Gregg, who had moved from the CIA to the NSC during Carter's term, had leaked sensitive details of Carter administration negotiations for the release of the hostages to the Reagan/Bush camp. Fiers worked closely with both Donald Gregg and his aide, former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez; at the very least, Fier's testimony would seem to confirm that the agency, from top to bottom, supported illegal covert warfare and conspired to hide it from the American people. To do that, they would have had a need for many a contract pilot and money launderer like Richard Brenneke. And, once again, Brenneke was the first to point a finger at Gregg.
Brenneke says there is a paper trail--that he can prove much of what he has said, and that proof is what he's holding for his book. He did not show that paper to me. Until he publishes, then, it's a question of whom you choose to believe: the White House, Donald Gregg, and the CIA, or a middle-class former math professor turned money launderer named Richard Brenneke. It's a question of credibility.
"It does not serve my interest to make these statements," Brenneke freely admitted in a 1988 interview with former CIA agent Frank Snepp, then of ABC News. "As a matter of fact, what it does is to cost me possibly some friendships which I'll be sorry to lose. It certainly is not going to make me a very welcomed individual in the Republican party, and you're talking to a Republican voter here who voted for Ronald Reagan. And yet, I think these statements have to be made."
The Reluctant Witness
From the very beginning--which, in Brenneke's case, came sometime in the fall of 1988--Brenneke has told several slightly variant versions of his October Surprise story. In both his sworn testimony and his interviews with the press, it is hard to pinpoint dates, the true identities of individuals involved, and the exact nature of the sources of his information. In August 1988, when Brenneke met Barbara Honegger, author of October Surprise, the first book on the secret U.S. deals with the Ayatollah, he told the former Reagan staffer turned investigative reporter two slightly different versions of a story about Republicans in Paris in 1980.
At first, Brenneke to Honegger that he had heard about meetings between the Reagan campaign and the Ayatollah secondhand. But he later changed his story, claiming he had personally attended one such meeting--along with William Casey and Donald Gregg.
"I guess I've been a rather reluctant witness all the way through this at times," Brenneke offers, as we continue to sit and talk through the night. He says that his story has changed over time because two court cases forced Brenneke to reveal new and more complete information after his initial disclosures (see entries for April 21, 1986 and September 23, 1988 in the accompanying chronology.) "If you go clear back to the beginning, [Brenneke's arms-for-Iranian Jews channel] was blown because I was mad at the agency and the intent was to stop there...I've been trying to keep the peace with the CIA."
"The reason [his story] changes is that he's trying to protect himself," Barbara Honegger contends. "He wants the public to know as much about this as he can, but he's trying to protect himself."
"I think that most of those [covert] guys who go into that line of work have a different regard for the truth than the honest individual or the writer interested in empirical truth," says Jane Hunter, editor of Israeli Foreign Affairs. Hunter has interviewed Brenneke many times. In other words, Brenneke is more believable as a spy because he lies a little bit.
Jack Blum, former staff investigator for Senator Kerry's probe into the drugs, guns, and contras network in 1988, distrusted Brenneke so completely that he recommended Brenneke be prosecuted for perjury in 1988. Yet Blum, who considers Brenneke a world-class con man, finds his stories about the international underworld of organized crime, governmental dirty tricks, and weapons brokerage strangely compelling.
"The problem is this," Jack Blum asserted in a recent telephone interview. "Much of what Brenneke talks about is true. He talks about what's going on in a timely way. He talked about a variety of events that had a certain importance to them. The elements of it that are not true are: his role, his relationships, and his ability to be a witness to [the events he describes], because he's picked [the story] up from other people."
The White House, predictably, sees Brenneke's lies as proof that he is an unreliable source. Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater once got so fed up with Brenneke's stories that he told reporters Brenneke had been indicted for arms trafficking in New York. It wasn't true. Brenneke's credibility soared.
In the course of an ongoing investigation into the allegations concerning a secret Republican October Surprise deal in 1980, the Voice found it impossible, despite a number of circumstantial verifications, to document with absolute certainty Brenneke's alleged personal connections with Donald Gregg, his alleged October 1980 trip to Paris, or the identity of Brenneke's putative CIA controller, known as "Bob Kerritt." (The CIA denies that it ever employed anyone named Bob Kerritt, and when Brenneke was asked to verify Kerritt's identity, he just laughed.)
"What you'll find out is that a lot of information Brenneke gives you will turn out to be right," says national security reporter Snepp, who interviewed Brenneke many times for ABC News. "The problem is placing him in a situation to have known it firsthand...That being the case, you can treat him as a sort of guide through the wilderness, as opposed to a primary source. Documenting his involvement in the events he describes or claims to have been involved in is well-nigh impossible, and for a reporter not to be able to do that is the kiss of death."
Blum and Snepp both point to the possibility that Richard Brenneke may be an expert at laundering information as well as money. He may be a freelance, covert "cut-out," a voice box connected to an intelligence underworld pipeline, leaking potentially explosive news stories to the media while distancing highly placed "Deep Throats" from contact with reporters or government agents.
"One possibility is that his function in life is to provide cover for real stories," Blum admits.
The theory that Brenneke is an intelligence middleman, a pilot for hire to smugglers, a money launderer, and a sometime contract agent to various U.S. and foreign enforcement agencies, suggest the following scenario. Brenneke, a low-level covert jack-of-all-trades, did his bit in the 1980s while Americans and their allies created a multinational covert warfare network of arms dealers, money launderers, drug smugglers, cutthroat mercenaries, and professional spooks that stretched from Portland to Pakistan to Paris to Panama.
Brenneke's credibility does appear shaky to most Americans when contrasted with that of his opponents. One of the most striking things that all the CIA luminaries caught up in today's agency scandals have in common--from Donald Gregg and Robert Gates to Clair George and even George Bush--is an Ivy League background. They are part of an elite that has been taught from an early age that it is part of the duty of the American political class to extend U.S. influence to every corner of the world, by whatever means. Their license to spook has a pedigree that goes back generations in American culture.
Brenneke, with his Roman Catholic education and his clothcoat conservatism, just doesn't fit the mold. And neither do the majority of the freelance reporters, independent TV news producers, private investigators without portfolio, and other purveyors of international intelligence gossip who have flocked to Brenneke and his stories like bees to honey. For every careful reporter like Frontline's Bob Parry there are half a dozen Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theorists.
It can be difficult for major news media to pick up a story relying on covert privateers who seem to feel they have a license to operate above the law, but can't produce their paperwork. Those dedicating their lives to unraveling the secrets of the October Surprise Israeli/Iranian/American scandals of the 1980s should keep in mind that no one has yet resolved the matter of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's assassination--which has generated a number of vehemently debated conspiracy theories through the years.
Too Hip To Be Square
Born December 5, 1941, in Winnemucca, Nevada, to devout Catholic parents, Brenneke grew up in Spokane, Washington. He graduated from Jesuit High School in Portland in 1960, where his father started a real estate business. That summer he received pilot's training in Prince George, British Columbia.
After marrying Ann Clare Daniel, he attended the Seattle University, receiving a B.A. in philosophy in 1964. Then the young couple moved to Canada, where Brenneke received an M.A. in Mathematical Theory/Symbolic Logic from the University of Toronto in 1966.
Brenneke taught math theory and philosophy at St. John's College in Jamaica, Queens, from the fall of 1966 through spring 1968. While teaching at the Jesuit-run St. John's, Brenneke approached the Central Intelligence Agency for a job. He went through a lengthy application process. "[I had] a very intense feeling of patriotism," Brenneke explains, "and a very, very strong feeling that American ideals, the American Dream, had a right to be shared with other people. You know, it sounds very corny today, but the was the '60s, and...you only had two choices. You could become very much anti-everything and drop out...or you could decide that the American ideal was really worth doing something about. I was obviously disappointed in the end, but that certainly is where I started."
A true believer, Brenneke placed the same kind of faith and trust in his government that his Jesuit instructors had taught him to have for the Catholic church. The Church's fervent anticommunist teachings seemed to rhyme with Cold War idealism: being a soldier for Freedom was not to unlike being a soldier for the Pope.
Brenneke says he was offered a job as a computer analyst at CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia, but that wasn't what he was looking for. He wanted to escape from books--and from hierarchies and offices and suburbia. "I took one look at that building [in Langley] and realized the biggest thing in my life would be how close to that building I got to park my car, and I wouldn't be able to live with that," Brenneke says. "I've known ever since I was a youngster that I couldn't live with a large corporation, and that's basically what that was."
In 1968, Brenneke and his wife and young son, Johann, returned to Portland, where Brenneke went to work for financier Robert W. Pollock, an early and unscrupulous player in the international money markets. Pollock offered clients a quick return on their investment, offshore financial privacy, and maximum tax advantages.
Brenneke explained that Pollock's company, United Financial Group, incorporated a couple of offshore mutual funds in Luxembourg and situated the funds' operations in Panama, a notorious tax haven for slick, go-go market bankers--and money launderers. Brenneke's role? Opening investment accounts in foreign countries and installing the computer programs that would track them.
Brenneke was more ambitious than that, however. He had finally managed to bootstrap his way inside the international financial underworld, the shadowy side of today's global marketplace. Here, in the interstices between nation-states and their regulatory apparatuses, financial buccaneers like Robert Vesco and Bernie Cornfeld were making fortunes. Brenneke liked it in the shade. He was tired of having money problems; he could resolve those problems if he had his own bank.
"Within the first six months that I was there I talked Bob Pollock into opening a bank in Panama--actually building a structure," Brenneke recounted. The U.S. Investment Bank was born. "I showed him how to turn his cash flow into a profit center."
In 1969, Brenneke set up a similar bank in Beirut for Pollock. Brenneke now says that he used the banks to conduct currency arbitrage and to launder money for organized crime families in New York, and that this operation is what prompted the CIA's Bob Kerrit to contact him. The CIA asked Brenneke to feed them information about Brenneke's customers. This unsubstantiated claim would make sense, because during the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was intense government interest in the activities of organized crime: the CIA had only recently enlisted the strikingly patriotic wiseguys in their efforts to kill Fidel Castro.
Brenneke also says that he first contacted members of the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, while working at Pollock's Beirut bank. He promised to provide them with information about the bank's clients as well. "That's a new twist on the story he told me," contends Jack Blum, former chief investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who quizzed Brenneke about the Pollock operation in 1988. "He never mentioned organized crime. That was where he said he got approached by [the CIA] because something about he was in a position, because they owned a bank, to monitor weapons deals...You break your neck to verify some part of his story, and come back and he adds to it and modifies it and leaves you completely crazy. After a while you begin to lose all patience with that."
Brenneke says he became disenchanted with Pollock, so he went to the Securities and Exchange Commission and turned over 50 pounds of documentation exposing the Pollock companies to federal investigators. In 1972, the government shut down Pollock's company--he was eventually ordered to repay $66 million to more than 20,000 overseas investors.
Brenneke told the Voice that he quickly set up his own company, the International Fund for Mergers and Acquisitions (IFMA), which offered similar offshore financial services. Brenneke says that, in a remarkable fit of chutzpah, he went back to some of his old New York customers and convinced several to invest in his new operation. Remember, according to his own story, he had just turned in Pollock to the feds for fraud, and then recruited many of the bank's old clients in a new company--while he continued to sell information about their financial secrets to the CIA and the Mossad. If this story is indeed true, the remarkable thing about Brenneke is that he is still alive.
Dancing with Dr. D
After a year of two at this dangerous game, Brenneke says he got bored, and the mildmannered, insatiable adventurer says he took some time off to fly in Vietnam and Thailand for Air America, the infamous CIA proprietary that transported weapons and heroin throughout Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle. He did this, he says, with his friend and convicted bank fraud artist, Heinrich Rupp.
This story is classic Brenneke. Just try to verify it.
Colonel William Northrop of Israeli intelligence says Brenneke flew for Air America, but Jack Blum says that he checked with the Air America alumni association and they had never heard of Brenneke. Checking the paper trail, one finds that Brenneke has documentation showing that he once owned an "Air America" company based in Oregon, but Brenneke admits that the name was just a joke--the company had no relationship to the CIA, or to the infamous covert U.S. air force.
Brenneke also says that during this period, he flew with Rupp, in and out of Europe, carrying gold shipments.
At that point, Brenneke's Israeli contacts reportedly talked him into going to Central America, where Brenneke helped install or upgrade sophisticated computer software and hardware systems designed to help right-wing governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica monitor the phone bills, electrical bills, and border crossings of their own citizens; that helped pinpoint dissident elements. According to Jane Hunter, these systems were used to compile lists of death squad targets at a time of bloody class warfare.
Did Brenneke, who had never actually fought on the front lines of any Third World brush war, have any compunction about fingering people for the local secret police, knowing their normal methods of operation?
"The rationale that I had was that there were people being arrested as a result of this, but probably most of them deserved to be," Brenneke told the Voice. "Most of the people that were getting shut down were people that liked to use guns as quickly as they'd use words, and I guess my little rationale was...maybe we are doing a better thing by helping these folks eliminate some of the riffraff and the rowdies. Looking back...I realize how stupid that rationalization is."
Snepp says he is satisfied that Brenneke's IFMA was definitely part of "somebody's" covert operation. Snepp contends that Brenneke was plugged into the Israeli intelligence network and was numbered among its hangers-on around the world.
But Iran-contra investigator Jack Blum questions whether Brenneke ever installed any computer systems in Central America. Blum said that Brenneke could not tell him, in 1988, the type of operating system the Central American military intelligence software required, or answer other basic questions about his work in Central America. Blum also said that he could not independently verify that Brenneke had worked for the Israelis at that time. Neither Blum nor the Kerry staff would make documents available to the Voice confirming this version of events. Again, it's a question of whom you believe.
By 1978, Brenneke says that he had turned control of IFMA over to the CIA, although he retained ownership. But he has told two slightly different stories about what happened next.
Brenneke told the Voice last month that in late 1978 and early 1979, before the Shah was deposed, two members of French intelligence, Robert Benes and Bernard Veillot, offered him a job as a pilot delivering food and other supplies to the Iranians.
"It wasn't until 1979 that it changed," Brenneke recalled, "and we started bringing in much more interesting things."
That's putting it mildly. In a sworn deposition Brenneke gave on July 15, 1988, in Texas, he tells a more complete version of the same story. Brenneke was testifying in a lawsuit against the federal government brought by two CIA-connected Texas narcotics officers and contract Customs agents, Gary Howard and Ron Tucker. Howard and Tucker claim that they were encouraged to spend more than $1 million of their own money to set up a sting operation to catch international arms merchant Ian "Dr. Doom" Smalley, who was selling arms to Iran in the early 1980s. They go on to say that after they had amassed the evidence, Customs backed off the case under pressure from other government agencies, repudiated Howard and Tucker, and stuck them with the $1 million tab for the government's goofup.
In his sworn testimony in that case, Brenneke said that his CIA contact referred him in 1979 to French intelligence officers, including Bernard Veillot, and that Brenneke met with Veillot in mid-1980. There Brenneke was offered a job flying arms into Iran. Brenneke says the airlines used were International Air Carriers (which Brenneke says is a CIA proprietary), North African Airways, and Middle East Air Transport.
The flights originated in Frankfurt and Paris, sometimes Vienna, according to Brenneke, and included stops in Tel Aviv and Nice to take on fuel and to load or unload cargo. Brenneke and his compadres carried F-4 aircraft spare parts, rifles, grenades, grenade launcher, and other munitions manufactured in the United State, many of which Brenneke identified as coming from NATO stores in France. The shippers used 727s and DC-8s which, fully loaded, could carry in excess of 100,000 pounds each. They unloaded their cargo in Mirabad Airport in Tehran and in the Iranian coastal city of Ban Ar Abbas.
Brenneke said that in Iran, the fliers dealt directly with the head of the Iranian air force, Colonel Claymores Salashoor. Arranging for the flights in Europe were Bob Kerritt, Brenneke's longtime CIA contact; a Mr. Hoirup, of International Air Carriers, connected with the U.S. military; and others Brenneke identifies as being connected with CIA proprietaries in Switzerland. "The United States government was involved," Brenneke said in his sworn testimony in the Texas case. "The materiel came from U.S. stores. It was not stolen. "The point [was]...the French were tolerated in Iran...The CIA could recruit people to replace their shattered Iranian organization," Brenneke explained. For their part, the Iranians promised to get the Palestine Liberation Organization out of the American compound where the 52 American hostages were being held, in return for these arms. This would theoretically ease the lot of the prisoners."
Frank Snepp procured documents from Howard and Tucker corroborating this story, including a list of flight numbers and other information from European airports which appear to confirm these flights. The airport logs show a series of departures beginning in June of 1980--some four months before the presidential election--following routes such as Brenneke described.
In the wake of the Shah's fall on January 17, 1979, Brenneke explained that as an added bonus, returning flights to Europe provided an exodus route for Iranian Jews fleeing the fundamentalist takeover. The guns-for-Iranian-Jews network may have been the template on which both the October Surprise deals and the Iran-contra enterprise were later laid.
Brenneke also says that during the period of late 1979 and 1980, while piloting these covert flights, approved by the Carter administration, he had also been working with the George Bush campaign. When I asked in what capacity, he just started laughing.
You Remember Paris
For Richard Brenneke, it started out as one more day in the life of the small-time covert handyman and intelligence entrepreneur. Brenneke's CIA contact, Robert Kerritt, called him asking for a meeting. When they met, Brenneke was thinking as much as a small businessman as he was as a spy. Brenneke's number one concern at that meeting was to build his way from a small and peripheral role in the upcoming operation into a larger, more lucrative, more visible role.
"I think we met in person," Brenneke told the Voice. Kerritt asked Brenneke if he could work as bagman and money launderer, handling the finances for a proposed secret deal with the Iranians for the release of the American hostages in Tehran. Kerritt said $40 million had been earmarked to buy arms and provide hush money to those involved in acquiring and shipping those weapons to the Ayatollah--who would then hold the hostages until Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.
Brenneke says he immediately started working to convince Kerritt that he would have to attend any such negotiations in person. Obviously, the contacts Brenneke could make with Iranian officials and arms merchants would be helpful--perhaps lucrative in the future--and his credibility would be enhanced by appearing as part of the American team.
Brenneke told Kerritt the Iranians would never trust an unknown party to handle the money in any deal they were involved in. "I said, 'Well, Bob, look at it this way,'" Brenneke recounts, savoring the memory. "'Realistically, suppose I told you that I was going to give this guy down the street here half a million dollars--for you. But you're not to worry about it because he'll get the money to you.'" Without a face-to-face meeting in which Brenneke could make his bona fides to the Iranians and learn which banks to send the money through, he would never be able to whip $40 million around the world to a dozen secret, widely scattered recipients.
Brenneke says that Kerritt finally agreed that the Irannans would want to meet the man who would be handling the money. Kerritt provided Brenneke a false passport and tickets to Paris on Pan Am airlines. (Asked if he recalled the name on the passport, Brenneke said no.)
At this point, Brenneke says he was working with Kerritt as part of the covert arms-for-Jewish-refugees air pipeline between Europe and Iran sponsored jointly by French, U.S., and Israeli intelligence services. According to Brenneke, this pipeline had the approval of the Carter administration.
Brenneke can't help smiling as he recalls check-in at the Waldorf-Florida in Paris. It's customary in Europe to show one's papers to the hotel management, which keeps track of international visitors in a register often of interest to local, national, and international police. "Check-in was no big deal," Brenneke explains. "You didn't even have to show your passport." Brenneke wrote an illegible scrawl on a slip of paper for the hotel's clerk selected the largest room--located on the fifth floor--and went upstairs.
Brenneke believes that he checked in on Saturday, October 18, 1980, because he recalls that he "had to get [refreshments] the day before [the meeting] because shops weren't going to be open the following day."
This latest version of Brenneke's October Surprise story conflicts slightly with the previous version in Barbara Honegger's book. Brenneke told Honegger two different stories in 1988, but finally settled on a version which involved two meetings on Sunday, October 19, 1980, both of which may have been attended by George Bush but not by Brenneke. These meetings led to a third meeting in the Waldorf-Florida on October 20, Brenneke told Honegger. This was the meeting Brenneke told her he attended along with Cyrus Hashemi, Manuchar Gorbanifar, Casey, Gregg, Benes, a Mme. Robert of French intelligence, and some Iranians.
(When confronted with the variations in his story, Brenneke told the Voice that he had always been unsure whether the meeting he attended was on October 19 or October 20, 1980. Further conversation on the subject proved unenlightening.)