This is no political commentary, just a semi-biased first person account of a case most of the media missed earlier this month…Operation Smoking Dragon. The good guys got it right
and no one seemed to care.
Much of my twenty-six year FBI career was spent in various undercover roles. I often joke I never had a mid-life crisis I just became a different UC persona…contract killer, fence, drug dealer, pedophile, degenerate
gambler, international arms merchant. It was a roller coaster ride and when I
retired four years ago I learned how much I missed the adrenaline rush.
Pounding a keyboard with two published books [Enemies Among Us (Fidelis, 2010)
and The Last Undercover (Center Street, 2008] with a third, Targets Down,
releasing next summer doesn’t provide the same thrill as going face-to-face
with those playing for the other side.
The excitement returned a few weeks ago when I spent several days on the witness stand in a Los Angeles federal courtroom re-living an undercover assignment which lasted three years. Following the two week trial,
Yi Qing Chen, 46, of Rosemead, CA was found guilty of five felony counts
including conspiracy to import missile systems designed to destroy aircraft,
conspiracy to distribute drugs, and the importation of counterfeit cigarettes.
Chen’s attempt to smuggle shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles into the
United States was the first guilty verdict in the nation under a 2004
anti-terrorism statute. The conviction carries a minimum mandatory sentence of
25 years in prison. How the FBI got there is an interesting journey.
Immediately after 9/11, the FBI began taking a hard look at how counterfeit cigarettes were being smuggled into the United States. The purpose for such an investigation was twofold: first, the proceeds from the
sale of counterfeit cigarettes at the retail level was just one of the ways
terrorist organizations overseas were being financed; second, the government
was concerned with port security.
In the fall of 2002, while undercover I met an individual the FBI believed to be one of the largest importers of counterfeit cigarettes on the West Coast, if not the United States. A native of China with strong
connections in Asia, he smuggled multiple containers of counterfeit Marlboro
cigarettes through the port of Long Beach every month. My cover story was
convenient: I had a warehouse where I could store his cigarettes, had access to
long haul truck drivers who could transport the cigarettes throughout the
United States, and could occasionally assist him in getting his containers
through customs at the port. All of this made me a desirable commodity.
Our initial target bought the act and soon requested assistance in moving a forty-foot container of counterfeit Marlboros to members of the Russian mob on the East Coast. Within weeks of delivering the cigarettes
to Pennsylvania, the Russians were selling me BMWs stolen off the docks in New
Back on the West Coast I began meeting our initial target’s associates. Soon I became the darling of a Chinese criminal syndicate operating in Los Angeles with its tentacles stretching throughout the world. What started
as cigarettes and evolved into stolen cars blossomed into crystal
methamphetamines, ecstasy, counterfeit postage stamps, clothing and
pharmaceuticals. But bigger things waited down the road.
The case agents (whose names the FBI will not allow me to reveal even though they were in court) were some of the finest FBI agents I worked with during my career. We met regularly to discuss strategy, and they
coordinated with the federal, state, and local agencies touched during our
three-year run…CIA, DIA, RCMP, DEA, ICE, Secret Service, ATF, Postal
Inspectors, local law enforcement, not to mention various FBI field offices and
of course FBI HQ. The Newark office was also running a similar undercover
operation dubbed Royal Charm which was equally successful. More importantly the
case agents worked closely with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles and
two great federal prosecutors, Mark Aveis and Bonnie Hobbs.
As I became more deeply embedded with what we identified as an ever growing Asian criminal syndicate, the scope of the operation expanded. FBI HQ tasked us with obtaining the Supernote, a near perfect counterfeit
version of our $100 bill, being manufactured by North Korea. It is an act of
war to counterfeit another nation’s currency so the actions of the North Korean
government were of great concern to the administration. Once I put out the word
to the multiple targets of the investigation, five different types of
counterfeit $100 bills manufactured throughout the world surfaced. The goal
however was to obtain the North Korean Supernote and eventually two different
targets provided us with the much-coveted bill. I eventually purchased $2
million in Supernotes and negotiated to be their exclusive distributor in the
US. Even the Supernote aspect of the case received little media scrutiny until
David Rose wrote an article in 2009 for Vanity Fair, North Korea’s Dollar
In addition to the Supernotes, the targets delivered multiple kilos of crystal meth and thousands of ecstasy pills taken in payment for the services I was providing. The methamphetamines were manufactured in
China and the DEA lab reported it was some of the highest quality crystal meth
ever analyzed. But even with all the drugs, the Supernotes, and the contraband
we weren’t done.
Although unbelievable if seen on the big screen since you shouldn’t use coincidence to advance plot, the weapons case came about almost by accident. While driving on the 60 Freeway with Chao Tung Wu, a naturalized
U.S. citizen born in China and a major target of the investigation, I mentioned
a person in Alabama seeking automatic weapons for his “PMC” (private military
company). As if on cue and completely by happenstance, a semi-tractor trailer
hauling an Abrams A-1 tank passed. Without hesitation Wu said he could get
“…anything but nuclear weapons.” The game was on. Wu brought in his
co-conspirator, Chen, and over the next year we negotiated with a Chinese general
among others for the weapons. Wu said multiple containers of the QW-2
surface-to-air missiles manufactured in China were available. We could obtain
such weapons with bribes placed to various foreign government officials, some
in China and others in nations who would serve as “end-users” for paperwork
purposes, even though those governments would never receive the weapons. The
final cost was $60 million plus the millions in dollars of bribes to the
various foreign officials. Although the FBI was not prepared to fork over
millions and millions of dollars in the sting, we set out to do what we
intended: prove that with sufficient funds we could have the missiles delivered
to the United States. Both Wu and Chen admitted it, on tape and later in court.
In 2005 a Los Angeles federal grand jury returned thirty-six indictments and between the L.A. investigation and the Newark undercover operation eighty-seven people were arrested. Almost everyone pleaded guilty to
the various counts charged in the indictments. Wu pleaded guilty in 2006 to the
weapons, drug, and counterfeit cigarette charges. The last to go to trial was
Yi Qing Chen.
Chen was arrested in August, 2005 and has been sitting in jail since that day. He pleaded guilty several years ago to the indictment, withdrew his plea (a fact the jury never knew), and fired multiple
court-appointed attorneys causing lengthy delays for the trial. Following his
arrest, an unindicted co-conspirator in China phoned me. When FBI headquarters
learned of the contact they ordered me to quit using my undercover cell phone
fearing the Chinese were was trying to “triangulate me” to kill me so the cases
couldn’t go to court. I guess Chen kept hoping I would either be located by his
associates or die on my own. In any event I outlived his trial and he was
The only article on Chen’s trial was an AP story consisting of a few paragraphs reiterating the press release. With so many in the media willing to criticize the FBI and other law enforcement agencies for every
actual or perceived misstep, this is one I think the good guys got right. I
just thought you might like to know.
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