Book review

'Operation Shakespeare': The international arms sting that shows how bad guys get big guns

John Shiffman chronicles the U.S.'s secret war against powers that try to put sophisticated technologies into enemy hands

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It took a variety of sophisticated parts to build the surface-to-air missile that reportedly shot down a Malaysian jet July 17 over eastern Ukraine. In “Operation Shakespeare: The True Story of an Elite International Sting,” John Shiffman writes in exacting detail about American government agencies that battle to keep these types of sophisticated technologies out of enemy hands.

By John Shiffman
Simon & Schuster ($28)

As the title states, this is not a work of fiction but a factual account. Yet Mr. Shiffman, an investigative journalist with Reuters, mixes his superb reporting with a breathless thriller narrative. The differing styles can be jarring to the reader.

Sections of color and “character” description end abruptly and are followed by long stretches of pure information. Quotes are inserted somewhat randomly. In the exciting opening gambit an undercover agent, Darius, appears on page one “sleep-deprived and adrenaline-fueled” at the airport in Tbilisi, Georgia. But it will be nearly 170 pages before the next “scene” at the airport takes place.

These complaints are minor, however, considering the amount of material that Mr. Shiffman juggles. His subject is complicated and troubling on many levels.

His theory in “Operation Shakespeare” is that arms and military technology proliferation is the most destabilizing factor in geopolitics and a greater danger to U.S. national security than terrorism. He states that there are “vast shadow networks of procurement agents deployed by the Iranian, Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani governments.” These agents seek things such as avionics, night vision goggles, sonar and radar.

Another item on their wish list is the gyroscope, which is the size of a poker chip. A gyroscope can orient a compass, help play an iPhone game or, more importantly, steer an intercontinental ballistic missile. Another dual-use product manufactured by an Arizona company is a microchip that functions as a timing device in an IED (improvised explosive device). Even more chilling, a triggered spark gap, which can crush a kidney stone, can also help detonate a nuclear weapon.

Mr. Shiffman says that some of America’s best-known corporations have received stiff fines for exporting sensitive technologies. There are also laws designed to prevent foreign students from working on certain projects without a license from the State Department. “But some scientists chafe at attempts to limit academic freedom,” Mr. Shiffman says, and free trade often trumps security threats in the global economy.

Most major U.S. corporations and research universities now employ compliance officers who try to enforce export laws, which range from the Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917 to today’s prohibited entities list, Shield America program, and Export Enforcement Coordination Center.

There are a bewildering array of government agencies in the field of counter-proliferation including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), and Homeland Security. According to Mr. Shiffman, their investigations are “crapshoots: time intensive, expensive and far from certain.”

In “Operation Shakespeare” he writes about a specific investigation that worked. While much of the book is dense reading, when Mr. Shiffman relates details about this sting, his story flies.

At the Tbilisi airport, Darius, a Homeland Security agent posing as an arms dealer meets his target, Amir Ardebili, also known as Alex Dave. Mr. Ardebili is an independent contractor from Shiraz, Iran, who has been negotiating online with Darius’ fake company to smuggle American technology, such as missile guidance components.

Legendary Pictures, the Hollywood producer, bought the rights to Mr. Shiffman’s book and it’s easy to see how entertaining certain parts would be on screen. There is a large team of American agents with Darius, each with a distinctive personality, and lots of interesting scenery in the pro-American country of Georgia, including the George W. Bush Highway.

Mr. Shiffman also adds nice specific touches, such as when the Iranian brings his new friend a tin of the pistachios, the city of Shiraz’s specialty.

While truth is definitely slower than fiction, there is suspense in the book and plenty of spy novel details, such as intrigue at the Dubai Air Show and a Gulfstream jet making a “ghost landing.”

Although some people may prefer to wait for the faster-paced film treatment of “Operation Shakespeare,” many will find Mr. Shiffman’s book to be a fascinating read.

Margie Romero is communications manager at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

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