Coming up 20 years ago (June 16, 2002), Prince Albert II of Monaco designated me his intelligence adviser, a role that would evolve during a five-year period into my establishing the Monaco Intelligence Service, which I customized and directed for Albert as he transitioned from hereditary prince to ruling monarch.
Albert wanted his spymaster to be as invisible as possible.
Thus, operating out of offices on Marylebone High Street in London (and Caffe Caldesi around the corner), my deputy and I carefully honed our first targets, which included the curious case of a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who introduced New Russians to Monaco in 1992.
We codenamed him MING.
It was Albert’s mother, the former Hollywood star Grace Kelly who, as Princess Grace, began the tradition of entertaining U.S. servicemen who passed through the principality or were based nearby.
MING was one such invitee, seconded in 1971 by the U.S. Air Force Academy to the French Ecole de l’Air in Marseille, and eventually invited to a palace function. MING took a liking to Monaco, and when he retired from military service two decades later, he found his way back as coordinator of a Russian trade delegation that in 1992 arrived in Monaco for the specific purpose of opening business ties.
Most interesting: An obscure Russian politician from St. Petersburg named Vladimir Putin was part of that delegation, whose visit marked the entry of New Russians into the postage-stamp-sized principality.
Soon after the delegation departed, MING went into business with Victor Pastor, a member of one of Monaco’s most prominent families, best known as “The Prince’s Builder” due to their long-time construction monopoly. Together, MING and Victor created an entity called Pastor International, whose function (we discovered through the spy network I assembled in Washington DC) was to launder — through Monaco — Russian criminal money derived from illegal arms deals.
Through our Dataveillant (a computer intelligence specialist) we identified MING’s address. In fact, we discovered several residences: in Monaco, London, Austin, and Malibu — property wholly owned by MING and his German girlfriend, conservatively valued at $10 million.
Yet MING retired from the U.S. Air Force earning $60,000 per year.
As my own specialty was deep-cover penetration (stings), I endeavored to insert myself into MING’s existence with a view toward learning from him directly how he managed to enrich himself. Providing logistical support, my deputy quickly uncovered MING’s telephone numbers and pinpointed his precise whereabouts in September 2002: Malibu.
Thus, utilizing pretext as a business consultant with mutual contacts in Monaco, I cold-called MING and invited him to meet me for drinks in Montecito, where I was vacationing.
Next day, we faced one another by the fireplace inside the Biltmore’s lounge bar.
To get somebody talking, it is important to establish common bonds and not address the target subject.
Walt Perry, a sting-undercover specialist for the IRS, taught me: “Your target must look at you and think 1) this guy is genuine, 2) I trust this guy, and 3) I like this guy. You cannot establish rapport by asking questions, but by listening. The target will eventually get round to telling you what you want to know.”
Almost immediately, I discovered MING and I had a common bond (always important in Sting U). We had both known Carroll Quigley, a legendary professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. MING had attended Georgetown U and taken his Western Civilization course. I got to know Dr. Quigley in the mid 1970s while a student at nearby American University. He took me under his wing for an education on the shadow power elite.
Over martinis, MING (who drank three) suggested he and I collaborate on a book about Professor Quigley, who transcended this earthly plane in 1977. (“I thought he was God,” said MING.) He invited me to visit his Malibu beach house to discuss this further. When we adjourned, MING insisted on giving me a bear hug and proclaimed our meeting a “serendipitous event, designed by the stars.”
I sensed he was lonely. And now — as my mentor, CIA legend Clair George, would say — he had become my “new best friend.”
Two days later, I arrived at MING’s house on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the Point Dume section of Malibu: A compound with main house and guesthouse, sealed from the road by high walls and security-coded gate.
MING proudly boasted of being one of the first persons to introduce New Russians to Monaco. He told me he had served as an officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency and had been seconded to the White House as a Soviet specialist when Ronald Reagan was president. In the late 1980s, said MING, he was transferred to Germany and engaged in “the supervision of high-tech, super-secret reconnaissance of the Soviet Union.” He added that he knew President Putin personally.
We already knew that MING was posted to a U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, West Germany, during the timeframe (1986-90) Mr. Putin operated 200 miles away in Dresden, East Germany, as a KGB officer whose job was to identify and recruit spies who possessed top secret intelligence.
MING told me he “retired broke.” He told me that Pastor International was sold prior to Russia’s financial collapse in 1998 and that the sale enabled him to earn a small fortune — explaining, perhaps, how his $4 million house came to be furnished with extremely valuable Ming Dynasty antiques (hence our codename for him).
This was a lie.
We already knew from documents filed with Monaco’s economic registry that Pastor International was not “sold” prior to 1998 but liquidated (without profit) in June 2001.
I observed MING to be a shy, timid man, seemingly devoid of the business drive or acumen necessary to make millions of dollars. He now aspired to write screenplays. MING told me he liked to keep a low profile, and I inferred a guilt complex when he said he could not watch the movie “Saving Private Ryan” all the way through because it “makes me too weepy.”
Upon my return to London, we intensified our investigation of MING, turning up details of his full military service record. MING’s Monaco apartment, we discovered, had been purchased in 1997 for 26.5 million French francs ($4.5 million) in cash.
Soon after, my deputy and I briefed Prince Albert on MING, among other topics. After presenting the facts, I peppered my own hypothesis with these questions:
Who paid for the MING-organized Russian trade delegation conference in Monaco in 1992? Not MING, who supposedly “retired broke.” The Russians paid.
Why would the Russians subsidize MING or even trust him — he, an admitted former DIA officer and Reagan White House Soviet specialist? And how did the Russians even know him?
Was it possible that at some stage of his military intelligence career — say, in Germany —t he KGB recruited MING? By creating business opportunities for MING in Monaco, were the Russians helping him “legitimize” possible earnings from espionage?
Also, would the Russians view his contacts in the principality as a conduit for transforming Monaco into their own money laundering and espionage hub, as we already knew to be their intention?
Was it possible Vladimir Putin personally recruited MING?
Fascinated, the prince authorized me to further ingratiate myself into MING’s existence with two possible objectives: 1) Turn MING and entice him to reveal his Russian money laundering contacts; 2) Furnish our dossier to the FBI.
Two weeks later, in London, MING invited me to his Kensington home followed by dinner at Julie’s, a nearby restaurant he favored. This home, like the one in Malibu, was large and plush and furnished with pricey oriental antiques, including some, he said, he had “purchased last week in Napa,” dating from the Ming Dynasty.
On this occasion, MING told me he had served in Borfink, Germany, in the mid-to-late 1980s, supervising super-secret U-2 and SR-71 reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union. He added that he had traveled with the Reagan White House to Iceland and Malta for summits with the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev.
His adult daughter joined us, at one point referring to MING as “my dad, the double agent.” An awkward silence ensued.
MING and his girlfriend had big plans the month ahead: Paris (the five-star Hotel Meurice) and Gleneagles (the ultra-luxurious resort in Scotland). When I off-handedly mentioned Felix Bloch, the alleged State Department traitor, MING could not look me in the eye. He paid for dinner with his exclusive black American Express card.
Upon his return from his extravagant travels, MING met me again in London, this time in the Library Bar of the Lanesborough Hotel, joined by my deputy, who I introduced as a business associate.
Over Plymouth Gin martinis, MING told us he had just arrived from Oslo, where he’d enjoyed a “one-on-one” dinner with President Putin at the Russian Embassy.
MING told me he and Mr. Putin drank two bottles of vodka between them and “ate the best caviar I’ve ever had.”
Said MING: “I have known Putin for 10 years — I knew him when he was a nobody.”
I asked MING if he had conveyed his unique relationship with the president of Russia to someone in the U.S. government, given his background. He shook his head.
“Maybe you could open a back channel?” I suggested.
MING changed the subject and said he planned to spend Thanksgiving weekend in St. Petersburg and Moscow, where he would again meet with Mr. Putin. He then added this very alarming (to my ears) addendum to his itinerary: In mid-December he planned to visit Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the U.S. President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
Soon thereafter, in Monaco, we brought Prince Albert up to scratch on where we were with MING. By then we had reason to believe that notorious personalities in the Russian criminal underworld had, between 1996 and 2001, laundered $800 million through MING’s Monaco company, Pastor International. Much of these funds — generated by illegal arms sales — had been invested in real estate in France, Spain and Switzerland, with significant amounts plunged into hotels throughout Europe and Asia.
A key figure in such dealings was a Russian named Viktor Bout, aka “The Bill Gates of Arms Dealing.”
Through his private airline Air Cess (we called it “Air Cesspool”), Mr. Bout supplied the Taliban in Afghanistan with an airfleet composed of five Soviet-made Antonov 12s. Pastor International in Monaco allegedly laundered the funds paid to Mr. Bout by the Taliban.
In February 2001, a federal prosecutor in Belgium, under pressure from the U.S. government, had issued an arrest warrant alleging Mr. Bout’s money laundering from illegal arms deals.
In addition, the Russian SVR learned from one of its spies that the French DST (domestic intelligence) was investigating MING for money laundering violations on behalf of Russian clients.
Consequently, MING and Victor Pastor dissolved Pastor International and destroyed the company’s documentation.
MING went into hibernation as a wannabe screenwriter in California, and Victor Pastor, perhaps from stress, died in 2002 at age 65 from an MRSA blood infection while undergoing cancer treatment at Princess Grace Hospital in Monaco.
Because of MING’s self-proclaimed connection to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, I proposed to Prince Albert — and he concurred — that I convey our intelligence to the FBI.
I spent the Christmas period in Southern California and took the opportunity to meet again with MING. He brought his girlfriend and elderly mother to Montecito, and we dined at a table adjacent to local comedian/TV star Carol Burnett in Lucky’s.
MING confided more details about himself, allowing me to assemble additional pieces of the puzzle in advance of meeting with FBI officials. My daughter (then 9), sitting opposite MING, drew a face with horns under which she wrote “The Devil.” MING insisted on viewing his “portrait.”
I was embarrassed when she turned her drawing around. MING studied it, and said quietly, “Yes, that’s me.”
On Feb. 25, 2003, at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., I briefed Dave Szady, assistant director for counterintelligence, and his deputy, Tim Bereznay, on MING. As a result, an investigation was opened at the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, which held jurisdiction due to MING’s residence in Malibu.
Knowing how the FBI operates (slowly) from a decade of undercover counterintelligence, I decided to involve congressional oversight. Thus, when U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia (a ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence), visited Monaco in August, I briefed him on MING and arranged for him to tour Monaco’s palace and meet Prince Albert.
Back in London soon after, I met with my MI6 liaison contact. The FBI, he told me, had contacted the agency through the bureau’s London embassy legat and asked for permission to speak with me (I was on British soil, standard procedure) with reference to MING.
“They’re out of their minds,” I told him, “I handed it to them on a silver platter. Five months on, nothing. I may have to deal with MING myself.
Don’t worry,” I added, “I won’t kill him.”
“Good,” he replied dryly. “It would tend to raise your profile.”
The FBI apparently discovered that MING had made a series of wire transfers to his bank in the United States, each transfer just under $10,000, the threshold at which banks (at that time) were compelled to report a wire transfer to government monitors — an obvious attempt at evading notice. MING had also been observed collecting large amounts of cash in Switzerland and delivering it to Monaco, in violation of French Customs statutes.
“It is clear that MING is engaged in criminal wrongdoing,” was the quote played back to me by MI6.
Next was dinner with MING at Orient Fusion in London’s West End. Full of himself in his low-key way, he said, “I’m departing tomorrow for the Middle East,” implying he would undertake a super secret mission for the U.S. government. “Back Sunday, out again Tuesday, back to the Middle East.”
“A mystery trip?” asked his daughter. “Baghdad?”
“No,” said MING grinning smarmily. “Close.”
He then made another reference to PFIAB, hinting that the president’s intelligence advisory board charged him to undertake such secret missions — a ludicrous notion as PFIAB was not chartered for operational activity.
MING also mentioned that he’d just purchased a ski lodge in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada.
Next day I telephoned the FBI Special Agent in charge of overseeing the Los Angeles field office investigation and briefed him on my dinner with MING.
“You’re way ahead of us,” he said.
Honestly, it did not take much to be way ahead of the FBI.
A week later, the D.C. special agent-in-charge phoned me back. “To avoid headquarters interference, I can’t deal directly with you,” he said. “You have to deal with the L.A. field office.”
Typical feebie protocol.
One week after that, I sat with Special Agents Teniko and William in a suite at the Montecito Inn. There was, said Mr. Teniko, tremendous interest in MING. Would I be willing to cultivate him further on their behalf to develop a money laundering case?
I replied that I would further cultivate MING, not on their behalf, but in my role as the prince’s spymaster and, in the spirit of liaison partnership, share our findings with the FBI.
Next, I flew to Washington and updated Sen. Chambliss, a close confidant of President George W. Bush. The senator had become seriously concerned about MING’s purported connection to PFIAB.
A month later, MING phoned me from LAX and said, “I’m flying to Washington for a PFIAB meeting.”
“You’re a member?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he replied. “I’ll be at the Hay-Adams (a five-star hotel overlooking the White House).”
It wasn’t difficult for me to determine that MING did NOT sit on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, even though member names were supposed to be shielded from public view. It was even easier to identify all staff members on PFIAB. MING was neither on the board nor a staff member. Which, for the second time, made him a liar.
Yet PFIAB would indeed convene its annual meeting on Dec. 17 and 18 — and, we discovered, MING was truly booked into the Hay-Adams.
So what was going on?
My theory: From his days in the military, MING probably knew a current PFIAB board member or staffer. He would wine and dine this individual and glean all that he could about whatever PFIAB discussed.
If MING was spying for the Russians, PFIAB was his target.
I tried my best to awaken the FBI, but the agency remained in deep slumber — and MING pulled off his gig without a hitch.
Soon after, FBI Special Agent Teniko in Los Angeles telephoned me in an excited state to announce that she’d found a document connecting MING to Pastor International.
Hmm. This was 14 months after I had provided the bureau with our dossier. If they would have asked me then, I could have provided them with an officially stamped document from Monaco’s economic registry linking the two. Or they could have consulted the internet (at that time).
“Good work,” I replied.
Not long after, Prince Albert and I were hosted by a distinguished group of Washingtonians in the private dining room of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss ordered steak, creamed spinach and au gratin potatoes all round.
Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and soon to become CIA director, told us that The New York Times was providing better intelligence than CIA. “And I’m giving (Robert) Mueller two more years to get counterterrorism right at the FBI,” he added.
I felt like saying “good (expletive) luck.”
Near dinner’s end, Mr. Goss asked if there was anything he could do for us. I’d stayed quiet through most of the dinner in deference to the prince and our esteemed hosts. But when Porter Goss asked this question, I quickly stepped in.
“Can you put pressure on the FBI to get moving on the MING case?”
Porter replied, “Consider it done.” (Later, at a congressional hearing, true to his word, Mr. Goss handed a note to the FBI’s Tim Bereznay asking about MING, which, knowing how D.C. operates, would have the effect of sending a shockwave up Mr. Bereznay’s spine.)
While in Washington, I phoned a new FBI special agent in Los Angeles who’d been tasked with MING. No further developments, he said, which meant they’d done nothing more in two months.
So I made a courtesy call on the special agent-in-charge, and he requested that I re-engage MING by email (despite having earlier said I could take instructions only from the Los Angeles field office).
“Anything new for us?” he asked.
In fact, I did have something new — and, because it dealt with a U.S. citizen, I conveyed it to him on Prince Albert’s behalf: Our investigation of MING, which had led to Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, then led to one Richard Chichakli, Mr. Bout’s American representative, who was based in Texas.
As I result, I engineered a sting in which my operative engaged Mr. Chichakli on the basis that maybe his boss, Mr. Bout, wanted to write a book. Mr. Bout did not want to write a book. But what came out of their meeting in Richardson, Texas was enough to excite the FBI — and soon thereafter they were hot on Mr. Chichakli’s trail.
Mr. Chichakli later fled the United States, eventually returned, was tried and sentenced to prison for, among other things, money laundering and wire fraud conspiracy.
Viktor Bout was extradited from Thailand, sentenced to 25 years in prison for peddling arms to terrorist groups — and currently resides at the high-security U.S. Penitentiary, Marion in Illinois.
A whole year had passed.
It was time for another PFIAB meeting in Washington, D.C., and MING flew there. I emailed a notice of this to a special agent at the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.
Two days later, to be certain my message had gotten through to headquarters, I phoned the FBI special agent-in-charge. No, he had not heard a thing from L.A.
So, again, MING pulled off his gig without a hitch.
When next I met with FBI agents, they informed me that MING recently visited Sharm El-Sheikh, an Egyptian resort on the Sinai peninsula. They also confirmed that MING once possessed a credit card in the name of Pastor International. And they discovered that his Ming Dynasty antiques cost between $100,000 and $150,000 per piece and were usually purchased from a shop inside the Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Francisco.
Furthermore, I was informed, President Bush had decided to disband PFIAB, effective immediately.
Six PFIAB members had stayed at the Hay-Adams, where MING had a room in December 2003. Special agents were now checking to see which of them overlapped with MING at the Willard Hotel in November 2004.
It was gratifying to see the FBI tightly focused on MING’s case — even though 22 months had elapsed since I’d brought him to their attention.
In January 2005, MING initiated (from out of blue) an extraordinary email exchange with me:
MING: “I have pretty much dropped out of everything for the moment. (There is) no interest in the suggestions of an old military guy like me now. After 23 years in the military, that’s enough.”
I wrote back: “Now wait a second, old soldiers are not really supposed to fade away …”
To which he replied: “I KNOW. BUT THIS ONE IS DONE.”
To which I replied: “Either your caps key is stuck or you really mean it.”
MING responded: “I REALLY MEAN IT.”
Two possibilities: Either MING had figured out I was playing him and wanted to hold up a white flag — “I’m done, leave me alone” — or he assumed his email was being monitored and he wanted those monitoring him to know he was done.
My memo to the FBI: “MING continues to travel almost non-stop. On the heels of scuba diving in the Maldives in early autumn, he took an unexplained trip deep inside Russia followed by a visit to Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, late autumn then spent Christmas in the British Virgin Isles. He arrived in Malibu in early January and pretends, in email to me, to be there still, though he is currently in Whistler, Canada.”
In return, the FBI told me about its latest stance on MING: Agents intended to transfer his case to the IRS because they’d requested information on MING and Pastor International from Monaco through official channels and “it never came.”
“Yes,” I said. “That is precisely why Prince Albert asked me to create an UNOFFICIAL intelligence service — to cut through that kind of official red tape.”
MING, they told me, had been keeping a low profile in Malibu and seemed very spooked.
Back in Washington, soon after, I lunched at Café Milano with Tyler Drumheller, CIA European division chief, with whom I had been dealing as Prince Albert’s spymaster. Mr. Drumheller told me he had shown our MING dossier to Mike Sulick, the new associate director of operations and who, said Mr. Drumheller, “is a great resource on Russia.”
Mr. Sulick, he told me, assessed that the Russians had indeed recruited MING.
What happened next?
I do not know other than MING disappeared from my radar screen.
(Sometimes, in the intel biz, it is better not to know …)
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast experience in investigative journalism. He welcomes questions or comments at email@example.com.