CIA Super Spy, or Super Con?

Big time financier and politico Imaad Zuberi, facing serious prison time over illegal campaign contributions, aims to prove he was a major CIA asset.

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In the long and colorful annals of international con men, swindlers and scalawags, a handful stand out for using their hitherto unknown connections to the CIA to “gray mail” government prosecutors into dropping charges or shaving years off long prison terms.

Now comes Imaad Zuberi, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan who is facing 12 years in prison and an $18 million fine on charges related to illegally funneling foreign money into U.S. campaign coffers, both Democrats and Republicans, without the recipients’ knowledge, sometimes on false pretenses, and siphoning off huge sums for himself (which he allegedly failed to report on his tax returns). 

A review of confidential case information by SpyTalk strongly suggests that Zuberi may indeed have carried out extremely sensitive operations against major U.S. adversaries for the CIA over the past 15 years.

According to federal charges filed on Jan. 5,  the smooth talking financier was an influence-peddler extraordinaire, with clients in Bahrain, Turkey, Libya, Pakistan, Ukraine and Sri Lanka, for whom he failed to register as a foreign agent. Zuberi also “rubbed elbows,'' according to The Daily Beast, with the notorious Dmytro Firtash, the pro-Kremlin operative and onetime Ukrainian gas baron whom Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani engaged in an effort to gather dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Giuliani in turn chose rightwing journalist and impresario John Solomon to spread disinformation about the Bidens’ alleged corruption.

Solomon popped up again last week when the journalist, formerly a respected investigative reporter for the Associated Press and Washington Post,  published a story saying that Zuberi “enjoyed a long and complex relationship with U.S. intelligence.” Citing “multiple current and former U.S. officials,” Solomon wrote on his own independent web site that Zuberi’s defense team had assembled “a 78-page secret filing to the trial judge laying out his entire history with U.S. intelligence and security agencies” that could complicate his appeal, expected to be filed within days. A redacted court document unsealed by U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips made a cryptic reference to sensitive material protected from public disclosure by the Classified Information Protection Act (CIPA), enacted in 1980 to blunt threats by CIA-connected defendants to reveal embarrassing secrets if they are brought to trial. 

The assertion that Zuberi had a “long and complex relationship with U.S. intelligence” was bolstered March 8 when Robert Eatinger, a former acting CIA general counsel, joined the defense team appealing his sentence. Eatinger, who founded the SpyLaw Consulting firm in Virginia after his CIA retirement in 2015,  tells SpyTalk that Zuberi’s “legal team was looking for someone with CIPA experience.” 

And there’s reason to believe Eatinger’s CIA ties and expertise in dealing with top secret information will be very useful to the defendant.

According to SpyTalk’s own information, Zuberi’s legal dossier shows that that he has been a witting asset or agent of the CIA since at least 2004, and that he acquired extremely sensitive political and military information on major U.S. adversaries and their senior leaderships for the agency until he came under investigation in a federal probe of illegal contributions to the Trump inaugural committee.

Among his CIA contributions, according to a  source who demanded anonymity in exchange for sharing details of the court-sealed document, Zuberi: 

  • collected the personal, coded cell phone numbers and email addresses of senior officials in a handful of U.S. adversary countries;

  • acquired “highly specialized” military and intelligence design and software materials from a major U.S. adversary;

  • accepted a CIA assignment to acquire an adversary nation’s sensitive surveillance  equipment for transfer to blacklisted countries;

  • employed the children and relatives of an adversary nation’s leadership in one of his companies, where they would be “accessible” to the CIA for recruitment pitches; and

  • paid off foreign politicians on the CIA’s behalf to sabotage a major adversary’s foreign oil project

In a brief phone interview on Friday, Zuberi declined to say anything publicly about the operations “because the information is classified.” 

A CIA spokesperson referred SpyTalk to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.

But one of Zuberi’s lawyers, David Warrington, told John Solomon that Zuberi's new appeal “will bring to light information about his client's relationship with the U.S. government.”

"It's obvious from the public docket, there has been significant government participation in this case, and hopefully through the appeals process more of the actual facts will come to light," Warrington said. 

Lives at stake?

“Prosecutors said some involved in the case had expressed safety concerns about their identities being released,” Politico’s senior legal affairs correspondent Josh Gerstein reported last month. “...It’s unclear what information is at stake, but Zuberi appears to have sought to invoke his cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies and diplomats as grounds for leniency. His defense team last year said he deserved credit for what it called his ‘remarkable and extensive assistance to the country [that] spanned over a decade.’”

At  least one prominent retired CIA official, former operations chief José Rodriguez, is said to have appealed to his old employer to help Zuberi. Through a representative, he declined to speak with SpyTalk.

Their connection may have begun in anti-drug operations. In the 1990s, while Rodriguez was CIA chief of station in Mexico and later head of the agency’s Latin America division,  Zuberi was in California helping the Drug Enforcement Administration in some capacity, as well as aiding the Los Angeles County Police Department’s investigations into local Islamist extremists, court papers say. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, meanwhile, Rodriguez was appointed head of the CIA’s counter terror center, and in 2004 ascended to the top of the clandestine service, directing the agency’s controversial clandestine renditions and “enhanced interrogation” program.  

Zuberi’s undercover work had also expanded beyond L.A., Sheriff R. Doyle Campbell suggested in a character-reference letter to Judge Phillips. Campbell cited Zuberi’s “strong support for this community and this nation" and called the India-born, New York-raised Pakistani American millionaire businessman “a very valuable asset to the law enforcement community and to the country." 

Years later, at the same time Zuberi was allegedly working with the CIA, he was also hobnobbing with and funneling huge campaign donations to prominent Washington politicians, both Democrats and Republicans—another issue that could prove embarrassing to the spy agency and complicate the outcome of his case. 

“He lived a lavish, jet-setting lifestyle, staying at fine hotels and hosting lawmakers and diplomats at four-star restaurants. Foreign ambassadors turned to Zuberi to get face time in Congress. A CIA officer called him the ‘best connected person I know,’ marveling at the depth of his Rolodex,” The Associated Press reported last Nov.

“He was a charming networker and an inveterate name dropper. His Facebook account was filled with pictures of him next to the powerful and famous: having dinner with Hillary Clinton and Robert De Niro and rubbing shoulders with Trump’s then-chief of staff Reince Priebus outside Mar-A-Lago,” the A.P. reported.

Zuberi was a major donor to the Hillary Clinton campaign but switched loyalties to Trump after the New York real estate tycoon’s unexpected election victory.

In Oct. 2019, Zuberi pleaded guilty to “falsifying records to conceal his work as a foreign agent while lobbying high-level U.S. government officials,” according to the Justice Department announcement. “Zuberi engaged in lobbying efforts that earned him millions of dollars, most of which was pilfered from his clients.” It said Zuberi has agreed to plead guilty to those charges at a later date, pursuant to a plea agreement.”

Double-crossed?

Zuberi’s lawyers claim that they initially worked out a deal with the Justice Department that would have let him off “with a relatively modest $1 million fine and no prison time,” according to court documents Solomon says he had access to. 

A source close to the case tells SpyTalk that prosecutors “double crossed” the wheeler dealer when he refused to cooperate fully with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russia-Trump collusion.  Zuberi, the source says, had nothing to tell Mueller about Trump’s associates and Russia.