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Identity Fraud

Tinker, Tailor, Poet, Spy?

He's Played the Part of an Ex-CIA Agent for Years Now. It's a Convincing Act

The Washington Post
February 15, 2001
By Vernon Loeb and Bill Miller

Sitting on the patio outside a luxury Austrian hotel, John Macnamara listened intently as a man he knew as "George Mearah" spun an incredible story: The British spy service was behind the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, and for $ 15 million, he could get access to the intelligence documents that would prove it.

It was April 22, 1998, nearly eight months after that horrific car crash in a Paris tunnel. A onetime supervisor at Scotland Yard, Macnamara had been investigating the deaths for his boss, Mohamed Fayed, whose son had been courting Diana. Fayed -- who openly expressed doubts that the car wreck was an accident -- was offering big money to people who had information, and the meeting with Mearah was set up after middlemen first offered the telltale documents to Macnamara several weeks before.

Macnamara calmly sipped his soda that sunny afternoon, while Mearah kept talking about CIA telexes that would show the U.S. spy agency knew of the murderous plot. Mearah said he used to be in the CIA, had helpful contacts there, and assured Macnamara he could deliver. At one point he wanted $ 20 million for the materials, but now, he said, $ 15 million would do.

"Fifteen million dollars?" Macnamara recalls asking. "There just aren't that many U.S. dollars in Vienna. Have you any idea of the volume of money you're talking about? I'd need a porter to carry the suitcases!"

"Four million," Mearah replied.

They agreed to meet that evening. But unbeknown to Mearah, Macnamara had alerted the FBI, CIA and Austrian authorities. Undercover law enforcement authorities were on the patio that afternoon. And they were at the bar of the Ambassador Hotel that night, where they arrested Mearah on criminal charges.

Soon after that, the truth came out. Instead of negotiating with a renegade CIA operative, Macnamara had been dealing with Oswald LeWinter, a poet and former literature professor who had been posing as an intelligence operative -- with often spectacular success -- for the better part of two decades.

The story LeWinter was peddling would have made Hollywood proud: Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana had been assassinated by British intelligence forces because Buckingham Palace was incensed by the relationship. Speeding and drunk-driving by chauffeur Henri Paul, who also died, weren't to blame, no matter what the French authorities were saying. The CIA hadn't participated in the plot -- but had sent a telex from its Langley headquarters that referred MI6, Britain's spy service, to a Mossad hit squad. LeWinter had proof of it all -- the internal CIA documents obtained directly from CIA agents, even an intelligence report that would reveal Princess Diana was pregnant when she died.

It was all a hoax. To the uninitiated, the documents were ingenious copies. But to anyone who knew anything about the CIA, they were obvious forgeries.

LeWinter, 69, may not be a spy, but he clearly is one of the most brazen confidence men on Earth.

He made his public debut in the late 1980s as a key source in the "October Surprise" hoax -- an allegation that Republicans had tried to delay the release of American hostages in Iran to hurt Jimmy Carter's reelection bid. It became such a serious political issue that a congressional commission was impaneled to lay the matter to rest as a bogus conspiracy.

Unmasked by Congress, LeWinter went on to glory in his fictitious persona as a CIA operative, starring in a prime-time British documentary on the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Much of his allure undoubtedly stems from a Zelig-like quality he has long possessed for befriending important and interesting people, from novelist Saul Bellow to Czech spy Karl Koecher.

"The guy is a chameleon," says Vincent Cannistraro, former operations director at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center. "He can show up and pretend to be anyone."

Columbia University research scholar Gary Sick -- a former National Security Council official who cited LeWinter in his book "October Surprise" before repudiating him as a fraud -- calls his intelligence cons "pernicious."

"He picks a high-profile issue and portrays himself as having inside knowledge, which he almost certainly does not," says Sick. "And as time goes on, he is doing it to get money."

His attempted shakedown of Fayed was both audacious and personally disastrous: He was imprisoned for almost three years in Austria for fraud, getting out just before Christmas. But that's far from the end of the matter.

Fayed, Macnamara and their attorneys in Washington remain incensed by the U.S. government's recent decision not to bring criminal charges against LeWinter or others who worked with him to peddle the fake documents.

Indeed, Mark S. Zaid, one of Fayed's Washington lawyers, wonders whether LeWinter might actually have served the CIA in some capacity that the agency would just as soon forget. How could the government just drop its criminal investigation, he asks, after urging Fayed at one point to meet the document sellers' demand for $ 25,000 -- so the government could get LeWinter and his associates for wire fraud, if nothing else?

"The U.S. government promised [Fayed] protection and then abandoned him -- and has no interest in righting the wrongs that it created," Zaid says. "That's where this case smells." Adds Fayed: "I just can't believe this can happen in the United States. In Austria they locked the guy up . . . because it was black and white."

The story begins in March 1998. Douglas Marvin, a Washington lawyer working for Fayed, listens in astonishment to a call from Hollywood attorney Keith Fleer. Fleer says he is in contact with certain "principals" who have CIA documents showing that MI6 assassinated Dodi and Diana at the behest of Buckingham Palace.

Over the next three weeks, Fleer and one of his associates in the deal, George Williamson, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, negotiated by phone with Marvin and Macnamara, Fayed's chief of security, about how much the documents would cost, who would turn them over, where the transfer would take place and how Fayed's people would verify that they were authentic.

Fleer made it clear that the "principals" would not turn the documents over in the United States, first suggesting that the transfer take place in international waters off the coast of Mexico. When Fayed refused, he suggested Europe. Fleer also said the "principals" had three documents and the ability to "procure" a CIA investigative report on the crash from others at the agency for a "seven-figure" amount.

"They will be able to show that the palace was aware of the desired assassination," Fleer told Macnamara in a recorded April 2 conversation, according to transcripts Fayed turned over to prosecutors.

"What is the actual risk to your people -- are they serving intelligence people or are they retired or what?" Macnamara asked.

"They are not retired," Fleer said.

"Oh, so they are serving," Macnamara said.

Less than two weeks later, after Fleer asked that $ 25,000 in expense money be wired to a firm in New Mexico, Fayed's representatives went to the FBI, the CIA and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington. Prosecutors authorized a sting and expressed no objection to the $ 25,000 payment, hoping the transaction could be used to bring wire fraud charges, according to Fayed's attorneys.

"What they want to do is meet in Vienna, a week from tomorrow," Fleer told Macnamara on April 14, the same day Williamson picked up the $ 25,000 in New Mexico.

Six days later -- two days before the parties were scheduled to meet in Vienna -- Williamson told Macnamara that a CIA officer would show him one of the documents for authentication.

"But what will the document be, George?" Macnamara asked, according to the transcript.

"One of the telexes," Williamson said.

"What telex? Now this is dealing with the assassination of Dodi and Diana?" Macnamara said.

"Yes, yes, yes, yes," Williamson said.

"And it does involve the British intelligence, doesn't it?"

"The answer is yes, best not talk too much on the phone," Williamson said.

Fleer's attorneys say their client was acting only as a transactional entertainment lawyer and never vouched for either the authenticity of the documents or the "principals," explaining to Macnamara that he would have a chance to authenticate the documents before any money was paid.

Williamson said in an interview that he was merely passing on a tip about the involvement of MI6 in the deaths of Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana that he'd picked up from LeWinter, whom he had known over the years and considered a credible intelligence source.

On the day of the climactic meeting in Vienna, Macnamara waited in a cafe outside the Ambassador Hotel in central Vienna. At 2:30, a man wearing an overcoat, sports jacket and sweater approached him and said he was a former CIA officer named "George Mearah."

The man spoke for half an hour in great detail: There had been a meeting in London between an MI6 man, Spelding, and a CIA man, Harrison. Spelding asked Harrison for help in assassinating Dodi Fayed. Harrison cabled back to Langley, but all the CIA was willing to do was put MI6 in contact with an Israeli Mossad "K Team" -- a hit squad -- in Geneva.

When he was finished, "Mearah" gave Macnamara a number to call at 5 p.m. to arrange another meeting in which a document could be authenticated. Austrian authorities immediately traced the number to the Bamberg Hotel in Vienna's red-light district, where Oswald LeWinter was registered.

Macnamara and "Mearah" -- LeWinter -- met again at 6:30, this time in the AmbassadorHotel's bar, where Austrian authorities arrested the bogus secret agent. As they wrestled him out of the bar, LeWinter screamed that he and other CIA operatives would kill Macnamara and Fayed. A short while later, authorities searched LeWinter's hotel room and found a pile of forged CIA documents, $ 10,000 in cash and a gas pistol with 25 rounds of ammunition.

The supposed CIA documents included a memo from the Directorate of Operations' Domestic Collection Division -- a unit that hasn't existed for 20 years.

Who is Oswald LeWinter? This is not an easy question. Born in Vienna and raised in Brooklyn by Jewish immigrant parents who ran an upholstery store, LeWinter early on displayed on uncanny knack for befriending -- those who know him best might say manipulating -- those he met.

The FBI says his masquerading dates back to at least 1953, when he was arrested for illegally wearing a Marine Corps uniform -- a federal offense -- to hitch a ride on a Coast Guard plane to Florida.

As a New York college student and aspiring poet in the 1950s, he became friends with novelist Saul Bellow, according to someone who knew him well earlier in his life but does not want to be identified.

By the late 1950s he had moved to California; he finished his BA at the University of California at Berkeley, received a master's at San Francisco State, got married and moved back to New York. He worked on a Ph.D. at Columbia, edited a book called "Shakespeare in Europe," for which he achieved some acclaim, and won various awards for poetry, according to Contemporary Authors, an authoritative reference journal. By 1965, Contemporary Authors reports, he was working as a professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

But he lost his job at Marist in a dispute with his superior in the late 1960s, recalled the person who knew him well, and wound up working for a discount travel broker in New York City.

LeWinter was arrested in London in 1971 after authorities caught him with a New York City police detective's badge and papers suggesting he was a diplomat. One certificate proclaimed he was the Honorable Dr. Oswald LeWinter, ambassador extraordinary, who should be afforded diplomatic privileges because he was with the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta. British authorities jailed LeWinter briefly before deciding not to pursue charges.

By the early 1980s, LeWinter was divorced, working as a University of Maryland professor teaching psychology to American military personnel in Germany.

"I knew him for about five minutes when he told me he was a CIA officer," said one U.S. government official, who befriended him at the time and remains in contact with him to this day, playing the part of LeWinter's confessor.

The official, now back in the United States, calls LeWinter "a total fraud" but considers him relatively harmless -- "if you don't believe anything he tells you."

Not long after, LeWinter bought a big house in Wurzburg with his new German wife, the official recalls. In 1984, LeWinter was arrested by German authorities and extradited to Newark, N.J., where he pleaded guilty of taking part of a $ 100 million scheme to smuggle into the United States a chemical used in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine. Bellow wrote a letter to the judge on LeWinter's behalf, vouching for his earlier literary gifts.

Imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, LeWinter met and befriended Koecher, a Czech spy caught working as a translator for the CIA whom U.S. authorities eventually traded for Soviet Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky. Koecher obviously left a big impression on LeWinter: As he prepared to shake Fayed down years later in Vienna, Koecher was on hand -- lured to Vienna by his former prison mate. Koecher, who booked LeWinter's room at the Bamberg, later denied any involvement in the plot and said he left before LeWinter even met with Macnamara.

After serving two years of a six-year sentence -- LeWinter now claims he was planted in prison by the CIA to debrief Koecher -- LeWinter returned to Germany, married another German woman and set himself up as a psychoanalyst.

His cons were soon to reach new and dangerous proportions.

In 1988, LeWinter, using the alias "Razine," emerged as a key source for at least two authors and numerous journalists in the "October Surprise" hoax that morphed into a political scandal. The plot line was straight out of Hollywood: Members of the Reagan campaign in 1980 allegedly cut a deal with Iranian officials to delay the release of U.S. hostages in Iran until after the presidential election -- thus preventing an "October Surprise" by the Carter administration to bolster its election chances.

LeWinter presented himself as a CIA operative who provided security during a meeting in Paris that involved William Casey, soon to become CIA director; vice presidential candidate George Bush; and CIA official Donald Gregg.

A congressional task force concluded in 1993 that the whole thing was a hoax. While reluctant to be interviewed under oath, LeWinter told the commission's chief attorney, former federal prosecutor E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., that his "October Surprise" allegations "had been a complete fabrication."

"LeWinter stated that he began to construct the story during his incarceration in 1986-87 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, where he was serving a sentence for federal drug conspiracy charges," the commission reported. "He said he felt he had been wrongly treated by the federal government and wanted to extract revenge. LeWinter stated that his idea of extracting revenge became a preoccupation, and that he started researching and investigation. . . . He even began to study Farsi, reading Persian poetry, to sharpen his language skills."

"A renowned Czechoslovak spy" -- Koecher -- "was housed just a few cells away," the commission said. "From conversations with him, LeWinter obtained added texture and background for the story that was developing in his head."

No sooner had he been unmasked by Barcella, however, than LeWinter popped up again as a longtime CIA officer in a 1995 British documentary on the bombing of Pan Am 103 called "The Maltese Double Cross," which exonerated two Libyan intelligence officers -- one of whom finally was convicted in the Netherlands earlier this month.

The documentary, which aired on Britain's Channel 4, presented LeWinter as an officer who served in the CIA from 1968 to 1985. LeWinter helped bolster the documentary's thesis that U.S. and British authorities engaged in a coverup after the bombing and may have known about it in advance and failed to intervene. The U.S. government denounced the documentary and LeWinter's claim to be a CIA agent.

LeWinter surfaced again in 1997 offering evidence about the Kennedy assassination. The final report of the congressionally established Assassination Records Review Board states that a researcher contacted the panel to determine whether LeWinter was the CIA's deputy director of counterespionage, as he was claiming at the time.

"FBI and CIA files indicate that LeWinter is a well-known fabricator with an interest in intelligence and law enforcement activities who frequently makes claims related to sensational or unusual news events," the panel reported. "The records that the Review Board examined did not show that Oswald LeWinter was ever employed by or worked for the CIA in any capacity."

Within two months of LeWinter's arrest in Vienna, Fayed became concerned that U.S. authorities were losing interest in pursuing charges against LeWinter and the others. Attorney Terrence O'Donnell, who worked with David E. Kendall at Williams & Connolly representing Fayed, expressed his client's dismay and sense of "lost momentum" in a June 1998 letter to a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office.

In the letter, O'Donnell, former general counsel at the Pentagon, said: "There is no innocent middle ground here. . . . If they believed [the evidence] was not genuine, then, of course, they were participants in an elaborate fraud. If instead, they believed the 'evidence' to be genuine, then they were participating in the theft or trafficking of government property."

O'Donnell and Kendall finally filed a civil fraud suit in July 1999 in Los Angeles against LeWinter, Fleer, Williamson and another man. But a judge dismissed the suit in October 1999, ruling there was no fraud because Fleer, in his conversations with Macnamara, hadn't guaranteed the authenticity of either the documents or the "principals" and had negotiated an arrangement in which Fayed could authenticate the documents before he paid for them.

Despite the setback, Fayed's attorneys continued to push for criminal charges -- and the U.S. Attorney's Office assured them the probe was ongoing. "Your client, Mr. Al-Fayed, certainly appears to have been the victim of criminal activity," U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis said in a December 1999 letter to Kendall.

But finally, in a meeting with Kendall last summer, prosecutors changed their position. LeWinter, they explained, was the prime mover in the scam and was already in jail. All the others, interviewed by FBI agents, asserted a belief that the documents might have been real.

Which leaves Fayed wondering if there was some truth behind the scam after all. He called LeWinter "a gangster, a crook," but said he now believes much of his story. Otherwise, he says, the United States would have taken action to prosecute the men. "They know they have covered up," he said.

There is no doubt that both the CIA and the FBI sank considerable resources into the Fayed case, sending investigators to Vienna to watch the meeting between Macnamara and the man with the CIA "documents." In response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Zaid on Fayed's behalf, the FBI acknowledged having 1,500 pages of documents on the probe.

But U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials say their reasons for abandoning the case are far less mysterious than either Fayed or Zaid imagines.

One senior CIA official scoffs at the notion that the agency has anything to hide. "We had to take these allegations seriously," says the official. "Once we determined the documents were forgeries, there was no reason to be there anymore."

Indeed, the CIA went out of its way to disavow any relationship with LeWinter in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Fayed's attorneys to obtain classified CIA documents pertaining to Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana.

"Although the FOIA does not require an agency to provide you with information, only records, the Agency, as a matter of its discretion, will advise you now that the CIA has never had any manner of employment, operational or contractual relationship with Oswald LeWinter whatsoever."

The probe officially ended in September 2000, when U.S. Attorney Lewis sent a one-paragraph letter to Kendall. "Although we appreciate your tireless resolve on behalf of your client, Mr. Al-Fayed, there is, in our view, insufficient credible evidence to mount a criminal prosecution here."

LeWinter walked out of jail in Austria two days before Christmas, a free man. In an e-mail exchange last week, a correspondent identifying himself as LeWinter remains unapologetic about the Fayed case, insisting that he was not responsible for the forgeries.

"I received the copies of the documents from the leader of the operation the night before I was arrested," he writes.

He has nothing more to say about whom this "leader" might be, dismissing skepticism about his own CIA credentials. "I have been bona fided by a handful of people who KNOW," he writes. "Among them is a former Italian senator, a former German minister who had oversight powers and verified things via BND archives, and a number of former French and British intelligence officers. What may be obvious to you is not as obvious as you think."

Indeed, the 32 months he spent in an Austrian prison became yet another covert operation. "I was in touch with many old boys all over Europe running an investigation from inside the prison," he writes. "The results will be published as a novel, 'After the First Death.' It is the way I have chosen to tell what I discovered."

But LeWinter is not altogether unrepentant. He acknowledges hurting his children, "whom I love," with some of the stories he has told, and the price he says he's paid has been quite high.

"I am existing below the poverty level and I am seriously ill," he writes. "I'm not crying on your shoulder. Like Faulkner says in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 'I shall prevail.' But unlike Thomas More, I have no energy left to palaver with doubters. I'm grateful if I make it from morning until evening. I'm writing. I bear you no ill will. I've been maligned for a long time for the things I did but mostly for what I didn't do."

He will tell all, he promises, in an autobiography titled "For the Honor of Lying."

Asked about the meaning of the title, LeWinter says he lied for a cause. "I was honored for lying but damned for telling the truth," he writes. "I had the dubious honor of lying in the service of national security. You can believe that or not."

Copyright The Washington Post. Posted with permission.