The Death of The Merchant of War

In late summer 1995, a fax arrived at my office. The written invitation came by mail a week later. Sarkis Soghanalian, the international arms dealers, had been released from an American prison and had set up shop in Paris. He was hosting his coming out party. A larger than life character, he wanted the world to know he was back in business. He also wanted to thank his friends and family who had stood by him through that awful ordeal. I was included because I had kept in touch with him throughout his prison term, bringing journalists to interview him. I knew if the media was watching, the authorities would be less reticent to try something sinister.

Sarkis with his assistant, Veronique Paquier, at the Paris air show.

I supported Sarkis, not because I was a friend, but because I had watched American intelligence officials over the years use men like Sarkis and Ed Wilson, the arms dealer who supplied Muammar Gaddafi, and then discredit them as convicted felons to undermine the information they had on U.S. actions. Men like Sarkis were no boy scouts, but I felt that if they were in prison for what they had done, then many American politicians and intelligence officers should be in there with them.

When Sarkis threw a party to reintroduce himself to society, it was not a small intimate affair. Sarkis entertained the people who had not abandoned him while he was in prison at his apartment on the Champs-Elysees with balconies overlooking Rond-Point and at nightclubs and restaurants in Paris on the days leading up to the big event.

On Monday, September 11, 1995, Sarkis threw a Gala Soiree at the Chateau de Versailles honoring his friend, Shimon Perez, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Like every visit with Sarkis, the festivities had intrigue. After walking across the cobblestone courtyard, I entered the palace and was escorted by Chanel models to my boxed seat overlooking the Versailles Royal Opera House stage. Zubin Mehta conducted the Israel philharmonic. Sarah Chang, dressed in the powder blue gown that matched the velvet curtain, was the featured soloist. American Ambassador Pamela Harriman sat in the audience.

From left: Sarkis, his wife, and myself and Susan Trento

After the concert I walked through the Hall of Mirrors to the Hall of Battles for dinner. I was diverted, I later learned, from my place at the head table to another table far away from the guests of honor. Over dinner Israeli MOSSAD officers questioned me about Sarkis and his relationship with Shimon Peres. They did not understand why Saddam Hussein’s arms supplier was hosting a dinner honoring the Foreign Minister of Israel. They did not know that they were friends.

One officer talked about the car bomb that had exploded outside a Jewish community center in July 1994, killing 85 people, in Argentina. They did not hide their contempt for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who, with Shimon Peres, had won the peace prize the year before for their work on the Oslo Accords. One even said that he deserved to die. It was quite chilling, especially from men who were supposed to provide security for Israeli officials. Two months later, Yigal Amir, a right-wing Israeli radical who opposed the Oslo Accords, assassinated Rabin after he spoke at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

Sarkis was nothing like any movie version of an arms dealer. No writer was talented enough to create him. He began life by avenging the death of his father. He killed the man who killed his father in Lebanon with a machine gun. He armed the Christians during the Lebanese civil war and welcomed the U.S. Marines when they came ashore.

Over several decades Soghanalian took me into the bizarre world of arms dealing. He was a key source on a range of major stories. I introduced him to many other reporters and the result was the most realistic journalism ever done on the arms trade – an inside look at how American foreign policy really works. He did it because Sarkis loved the attention and used to say in his Turkish accent, “Joe, I do it because it is good for business.”

He was a brilliant man who outsmarted the governments who used him again and again. He made himself a target of the CIA and, because he dealt in huge amounts of money, he was a constant target for shakedowns by public officials who wanted a piece of the action.

The gap between who Sarkis really was and the media was never closed.  He hated the CIA because he found the Agency largely incompetent. He would have been furious at his New York Times obituary, which had him working with the CIA. He never did. His case officers came from the Defense Intelligence Agency and White House. He made the CIA nervous because he repeatedly ran into their less than stellar arms buying operations and exposed and embarrassed them.

One episode involved the Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile. The Chinese government asked Soghanalian to represent the missile which was capable of sinking the largest US ships. He discovered that the CIA had hired a company called Vector Microwave to buy a sample missile. What the CIA seemed not to know was that the American with whom they went into business was actually already selling the missile system to places like Iran. When Sarkis discovered in 1997 that Iran had amassed hundreds of an upgraded version of the missile, he asked me to bring in US naval intelligence so the United States could develop a defense against the missile. I stepped out of my reporter role and brought in the Navy through a source. When Soghanalian offered to get a copy of the missile, the Office of Naval Intelligence was forced to drop it because of the CIA’s fear their source would be exposed.

Still Sarkis agreed to try and help and even kept talking to the Navy about trying to get them a copy of the missile through Jordan. When terrorists attacked the USS Cole, Sarkis revealed to me that it was not a simple bomb that blew a forty foot hole in the ship’s hull but the warhead of a C-802 missile. That information remains highly classified to this day.

Flying over the Iran/Iraq front in a Russian helicopter, shortly after this photo was taken the helicopter crash landed.

Soghanalian was a charming rogue who loved a good time and had total contempt for most of the ministers and politicians with whom he had to deal. Before he would agree to take me and my CNN crew into Iraq in February 1984, he insisted we spend a week with him in Geneva largely meeting people who wanted to sell weapons to Saddam Hussein through Sarkis.  In the evenings we would retreat to a Euro-trash hangout called Griffins.

I flew to the front of the Iran-Iraq war with Sarkis on a Russian helicopter. The battlefield was immense.  We transferred to a smaller helicopter and flew close to the marshes Saddam had order flooded. I could see the bodies fallen in the gas attacks. I remember a tough interview with Sarkis where I asked him about how he felt supplying weapons that killed so many. His on camera response was tougher than my question and upset the US government. It was an eye opening experience.

Sarkis and I used each other. I was looking for great stories and he wanted access to the world media. When George H.W. Bush feared Soghanalian would reveal embarrassing details of his relationship with him, a number of Reagan aides and even Richard Nixon, the Justice Department went to extraordinary lengths to destroy the arms dealer’s credibility by convicting him of a crime.  It succeeded. He was sentenced to six years for shipping illegal weapons to Iraq. The conviction was a joke. I was on Soghanalian’s plane when he ferried US intelligence officers into Iraq, supposedly when he was shipping missiles to Saddam in the 727’s cargo compartment.

Soghanalian was not stupid. The problem for his enemies was Soghanalian always had something to buy his way out of trouble. The first Bush Administration tried to keep him from the media by moving him from prison to prison. I tracked him down in the Dufeniak Springs county jail in northern Florida and brought George Lardner from The Washington Post with me to visit him. Sarkis told Lardner the bizarre role Richard Nixon played in a deal to sell the Iraqi Army $400 million dollars worth of military uniforms.

Spiro Agnew had a friend who was going to make the uniforms in Tennessee. But President Nixon’s former aide, John Brennan, used his old boss to go into business with the then Romania dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who made the uniforms for a much cheaper price.  The uniforms were so poorly made that Saddam refused to pay for them and Brennan and his partners, including former Attorney General John Mitchell, sued Soghanalian. The lawsuit discovery was a tour guide into the greed of these Nixon cohorts. Soghanalian won the case.

When Soghanalian was moved into yet another Florida prison, I brought in a British TV crew for the show Dispatches. The arms dealer detailed how Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark was involved in a deal to sell unlicensed and illegal US night vision equipment to Saddam through a British company called United Scientific.

When the Clinton Administration took over, Sarkis provided the US Secret Service with the means to stop a $100 bill counterfeiting operation Hezbollah was running in Lebanon. At the time, Sarkis was in the same prison as Manuel Noreiga. Each day the Secret Service would pick Sarkis up, and they put together a plan to destroy the counterfeiting ring.  In return he was released from prison and began operating out of a beautiful apartment in Paris. The French government provided him several watchers and Sarkis thrived.

The CIA still went after Soghanalian. A very strange American with ties to George W. Bush offered him weapons financing. Instead of taking the bait, Soghanalian contacted the FBI in Miami and told them about the approach. The Bush associate, in fact, was involved in a prime loan fraud scheme.

In one of his many moments of candor, he told me that no arms dealer can operate successfully without working with a major power. In Soghanalian’s case, it was largely the United States and France that backed his secret operations – rarely at the same time.  During the Iran-Iraq War, Israel supplied weapons to Iran as Sarkis and the United States supplied Iraq. They deliberately fueled a war that killed a million people and kept two dangerous countries busy killing each other for a decade.

I was with him in Paris when the Saudi Royal family met at the Scribe Hotel to try and figure out how to deal with Osama bin Laden’s threats. They voted to fund bin Laden if he agreed to stay out of Saudi Arabia and conduct no operations there.  Bin Laden prompted the meeting by sending death threats to the King on his personal fax machine. Sarkis predicted correctly that bin Laden would give the United States fits and the Royal family would always support him.

Sarkis Soghanalian with Peruvian reporter Angel Perez, who broke the story that broke down the government.

When George W. Bush decided to arrest Soghanalian once again, the old arms dealer revealed to the National Security News Service that he was behind an arms deal involving the CIA’s most important asset in Latin America, the then head of Peru’s intelligence service who had been supplying small arms to Colombia’s Marxist FARC insurgency. I tried to get The New York Times to do the story. They were not interested. I turned the story, instead, over to La Republica in Lima. They flew their star reporter from Peru to interview Sarkis. The story resulted in the collapse of the Peruvian government and serious questions about how little the CIA knew about its own paid “assets.”

I am posting the documentary I did for CNN in 1984 –Merchants of War – about international arms dealers.  In the coming weeks we will post the last television interview Soghanalian did with dcbureau.org.

Later this year we will post the story of Soghanalian’s last secret: His role as an undercover witness for the FBI that targeted in a criminal probe one of the most powerful men in the US government.

The legendary arms dealer – the man the Reagan Administration used to arm Saddam Hussein in his bloody war against Iran – died on October 5 at age 82 in Miami.

You can learn more about Sarkis Soghanalian in the book, Prelude to Terror, available on Amazon.