New Solomon book: FBI captured Russians accepting nuclear kickbacks during Obama years
First excerpts from 'Fallout: Nuclear Bribes, Russian Spies and the Washington Lies that Enriched the Clinton and Biden Dynasties' by John Solomon and Seamus Bruner. These excerpts come from Chapter 6, 'Putin and the Pastor: A Nuclear Bribery Plot Exposed.'
The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook
As a crisply dressed Doug Campbell stepped into the elevator on the eleventh floor of the Pentagon City-Ritz Carlton, he could feel his heart pounding. At least the sudden rush of adrenaline helped clear his bleary eyes and the sensation of fatigue he had felt all morning after a sleepless night in his hotel room.
It was October 2010 and the Florida businessman had been working for the FBI as an undercover operative inside Putin's nuclear giant Rosatom for about two years. That particular morning was set for a "drop," a consequential assignment in which Campbell was supposed to capture on video members of Russia's nuclear monopoly accepting cash bribes. It was either going to be a seminal moment that advanced the FBI's counterintelligence case against Russia or blow Campbell's carefully crafted cover.
As the elevator descended, Campbell could feel sweat beading in the palm of his right hand, which clenched "the football," the moniker that he and his FBI handlers had given to his trusty steel-enforced briefcase. Black on the sides with numerical locks on the top, the briefcase was his portable office on the far-flung journeys he had taken across the globe. It was also the repository for whatever secrets he was carrying for the U.S. government at the moment. As such, it seldom left his sight.
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A few moments before Campbell stepped onto the elevator, FBI Special Agent Tim Taylor and his counterintelligence team had left Campbell's room to retreat to the back of the swanky hotel. It was a beautiful, crisp October day, and the agents had squirreled away behind the Ritz in an unmarked black SUV loaded with sophisticated surveillance equipment to monitor Campbell's meeting with the Russians. He was to regather with them after the drop was completed.
Thanks to Taylor and his fellow counterintelligence agents, the morning had already been surreal. Campbell gazed in wonder as the agents spread rubber-banded piles of hundred-dollar bills across his hotel bed. The agents counted the stacks until they were certain that they had all $50,000. Then they removed his laptop and folders from the briefcase to clear room for the cash. The bills were placed in the body of the briefcase, filling all but a few inches.
From the lid, Taylor had removed one of three pens Campbell usually kept tucked in the storage pouches. In its place, he had put a sophisticated wireless camera shaped like a pen. The device was equipped with a 180-degree eye designed to capture all the sights and sounds as soon as the Russian targets opened the briefcase.
Taylor was a tall, slender, and youthful agent working his first major Russian counterintelligence case. He had a young family that he adored, and he also shared with Campbell a deep Christian faith. Occasionally, the two would pray together before assignments. When it came time to assign Campbell an operative code name, Taylor whimsically chose to call him "The Pastor." The agent would joke that Campbell reminded him of those preachers on TV with the crisp suits, southern drawls, and photographic recitations of Bible verses. On weekends, that was Campbell's life. He loved church and worshipping Christ in the congregation of friends that he shared back home.
Doug Campbell appeared to friends, family, and Florida colleagues as a globetrotting business consultant who successfully dabbled in agriculture products, nuclear fuel, and other commodities. Never one to settle down, he seemed every inch the model of an ambitious corporate climber, married to his job by day and to his church life on weekends. But the silver-haired businessman harbored a secret for more than three decades that even his closest friends did not detect: His frequent international travels were cover for work as an operative for the United States government.
Campbell had worked undercover for the CIA and FBI for more than thirty years. Campbell's dangerous work took him into meetings with members of Russian organized crime in the United States, and in Western Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and other regions around the world. Early on, the job was simple. On trips overseas, Campbell would collect information about foreign leaders and businesses who were trying to spread cash in the form of bribes to win more business inside the United States. He would report back to his handlers, who would use the information to make Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prosecutions against violators, both foreign and American.
But starting in mid-2005, the feds had a more targeted assignment for Campbell. They wanted him to penetrate Vladimir Putin's burgeoning uranium sales empire. Putin was gobbling up uranium supplies across Eastern Europe, and U.S. officials suspected that he was looking to build a monopoly that could dominate the global uranium market, much as Moscow dominated natural gas sales in Europe. For a country lacking a robust, diverse economy, energy was Putin's geopolitical weapon. It kept the West at bay, and nearby neighbors from the former Soviet empire dependent on him.
Campbell's assignment began in Kazakhstan in 2005, around the time that former President Bill Clinton and his top aides were also focusing on the rugged, uranium-rich former Soviet republic. (As Campbell would later learn, the Clinton connection was much more than a coincidence.) Eventually, the Russians engineered a deal to get their hands on the Kazakhs' yellowcake uranium supply, as well as a large share of America's uranium in the transaction that would become known as the Uranium One scandal.
By 2008, Campbell had made a strong connection with a South African nuclear executive named Rod Fisk, who had begun working with Russians to grow their uranium market in the United States. Fisk had become a top executive at an American trucking company that moved enriched uranium around the United States, including some of the nuclear fuel the Russians had sold under the Megatons to Megawatts program created after the fall of the U.S.S.R.
The growing ties to Rosatom figures like Fisk convinced the FBI in 2008 that it was time to sign Campbell to a nondisclosure agreement barring him from publicly discussing his mission. (This gag order would eventually be lifted in 2017 by the Trump Justice Department after it was publicly revealed that he was being muzzled.) A team was set up to handle Campbell, including Taylor, the bureau's young counterintelligence agent, and David Gadren, a more experienced criminal investigator with the Energy Department's office of inspector general who was steeped in the ins and outs of nuclear energy.
Inside Rosatom, Fisk took a liking to Campbell and brought him into the inner circle of Tenex, the Rosatom subsidiary that was the Russians' main commercial uranium sales arm. Eventually, Campbell was hired by Tenex's lead executive in the United States, Vadim Mikerin, as a consultant to help Rosatom grow its uranium sales to nuclear utilities inside the U.S.
Barack Obama, a big proponent of nuclear utilities while in the U.S. Senate, was then taking over as president, and the Russians had high hopes for expansion in the American market. That is because President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were pursuing a high-risk diplomatic "reset." The reset was designed to create a more peaceful relationship with Moscow after months of tension brought on by Russia's 2008 military action against the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.
Campbell would soon find out that working for Tenex came with a high cost. Shortly after he signed the consulting deal, Mikerin demanded that Campbell hire a Russian consultant for training on how to write the reports for Moscow. Mikerin gave Campbell the name of the company and where he was instructed to wire $25,000. But weeks later, there was no training and not even the name of a Russian who was to advise him.
Campbell became suspicious and alerted his FBI handlers. Was this Mikerin's backhanded way of demanding kickbacks, or just the Russians being slow and plodding? Campbell and his handlers eventually determined it was the first. In fall 2009, Mikerin approached Campbell again and told him that in order to keep his consulting job, he would have to kick back $25,000 of his monthly $50,000 consulting fee.
The demand thrilled Campbell's FBI handlers. They knew they had criminal conduct. Now they needed to follow the money trail to see how far the scheme went. So, they gave Campbell permission to start making the payments. The Russians had set up an elaborate payment path that laundered kickbacks through a series of shadowy offshore accounts. They called it "the System." The FBI soon discovered through Campbell's undercover work that the same accounts were being used by Moscow for other illegal activities.
For most of his first year with Tenex, Campbell made wire transfers every other month and otherwise kept his head down performing legitimate consulting work, seeking to help Tenex win billions in new nuclear fuel contracts from American utilities. The work was going well, and Russia was scoring some big deals.
In October 2010, Mikerin needed a temporary change in the kickback scheme. Some of his senior bosses from Moscow were coming to visit Tenex's new American headquarters in suburban Maryland, called Tenam. They needed cash for shopping and partying while on the trip, so Mikerin asked that Campbell skip the normal wire transfer and bring the next $50,000 in cash.
Campbell coordinated with the FBI and checked into the Ritz the night before. But he could not sleep. The notion of delivering a briefcase full of cash to a corrupt Russian nuclear official was unnerving. And for the first time during this operation, he felt that his life could legitimately be at risk. So, he tossed and turned all night, rose for breakfast, and waited for the FBI to get him prepped.
Taylor assured Campbell the FBI would have eyes and ears on him the whole time. All he needed to do was stay calm and deliver the cash. The pen camera would do the rest.
As the elevator hit the first floor and the doors opened to the lobby, Campbell took one last deep breath. "Walk slow. Talk slow. Don’t show the nerves. And just get this over with," he told himself. That little voice in his head was all there was to calm him until he could grab a drink.
Campbell walked to the hotel bar, took a table, and waited. Soon, the stout Russian with the pug, emotionless face arrived. The two ordered a morning vodka. Campbell toasted Mikerin with a quick drink — Nah zda-rovh-yeh! They downed their liquor and headed back to Campbell's room. Mikerin seemed nervous, perhaps by the impending arrival of his bosses.
As soon as Campbell keyed the door to his room, he put the briefcase on the small table by the bed. His fingers turned the numbers to the lock and popped open the briefcase. Then he stepped back so Mikerin could peer in.
"It's all there," Campbell told his Russian counterpart.
"Very good," he replied. As he was thumbing quickly through the cash, Campbell peered over his shoulder to check just once that the pen-shaped spy camera was staring right at him. The camera had not moved, and Mikerin seemed blissfully ignorant of its presence. Campbell gave a faint smile. Mission accomplished, he thought.
Mikerin quickly gathered the stashes of cash into his own bag and got ready to leave.
Now the FBI would have its first video evidence that the kickbacks Campbell was paying were going far beyond Mikerin, to Rosatom's top brass back in Moscow. Campbell could not wait to tell Taylor and to get assurance that the camera caught it all.
Soon, Mikerin was out the door and on the elevator. Campbell walked back into the room and slumped into the chair for a moment of relief. He let about ten minutes elapse, then called Taylor on the FBI's burner phone.
The agents came to his room from their stakeout location. They opened the briefcase, pulled out the camera, and confirmed they had perfect footage of Mikerin taking the kickback money.
The case had just made a giant leap forward. Campbell was relieved and increasingly certain that the FBI would be able to take down this group of Russian criminals and, more importantly, stop Putin from amassing more uranium business inside the United States.
He would be sorely disappointed. An undercover mission he hoped was about to end with speedy arrests would instead stretch on for four more frustrating years. The reason for the delay, Campbell would later learn, could be traced to a meeting that had occurred about 4,800 miles away and exactly one year earlier.
To read more of John Solomon's and Seamus Bruner's new book, "Fallout: Nuclear bribes, Russian spies and the Washington Lies that enriched the Clinton and Biden Dynasties," you can buy it on Amazon.