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The Talented Mr. Luft
Prominent DC oil specialist charged with working as Chinese, Iranian agent
I first met Gal Luft back in December 2011, after he testified before a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. As lawmakers sought to understand changing energy markets and their impact on U.S. national security, I had listened to the slender, dark-haired Luft warn them of OPEC’s control of global oil prices and the need for renewable fuels to break the cartel’s energy monopoly. Recognizing a good potential source, I walked up to Luft after the hearing and gave him my card.
Luft, now 57 and a citizen of both the United States and Israel, is the co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Maryland-based think tank that focuses on the link between energy and security. With advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University in international economics, strategic studies and Middle East studies, he also has served as an advisor to the United States Energy Security Council, an advisory group co-founded by former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and onetime Ronald Reagan National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, and whose members include former NSA Director Keith B. Alexander, cabinet secretaries, retired generals, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, a Nobel laureate and several retired oil company executives.
In other words, he’s long been considered a high level, trustworthy expert in the field.
So I was taken aback Monday when the Justice Department unsealed an indictment against Luft, charging him with a number of serious crimes, including acting as a secret agent for China and Iran. A former CIA director may have been involved.
“He subverted foreign agent registration laws in the United States to seek to promote Chinese policies by acting through a former high-ranking U.S. Government official,” the indictment said of Luft. “He acted as a broker in deals for dangerous weapons and Iranian oil; and he told multiple lies about his crimes to law enforcement,” Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.
He also allegedly attempted to sell "aerial bombs and rockets" to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and "strike" drones to Kenya, according to the indictment. “Federal officials say he attempted to bypass US sanctions on Iranian oil by directing an associate to say that the oil was Brazilian,” the BBC reported.
Luft is now on the lam.
The Justice Department said Luft had been indicted on November 1, 2022, and arrested on February 17, 2023, by authorities in Cyprus acting on an Interpol warrant. After his release on bail, Luft fled while awaiting extradition and remains a fugitive, the statement said. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 100 years in prison.
Woolsey, who serves on the board of Luft’s think tank, is said to be the “Individual-1” named in the indictment. According to the government, Luft and an unidentified co-conspirator (“CC-1”) first reached out to Woolsey in the summer of 2016, when he was a national security adviser to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. They engaged him in a written dialogue that “included information that was favorable to China,” the indictment says, and then circulated it to Chinese newspapers, a U.S. journalist and academics. An Op-ed Woolsey wrote for the South China Morning Post just after the 2016 election “includes word-for-word a line that the indictment claims Gal Luft…had written for ‘Individual-1,’ the former gov't official and Trump advisor,” national security journalist Seth Hettena noted on Twitter.
“Shortly after the 2016 election,” the indictment goes on to say, “LUFT and CC-1 also discussed possible roles Individual-1 might have in the incoming U.S. administration and discussed Individual-1 taking a ‘silent trip’ to China.”
“Individual-1,” was not named or accused of any wrongdoing in the indictment.
It’s not the first time Woolsey has turned up in bad odor. While serving as a campaign adviser to Trump, the former CIA chief “pitched a $10 million contract to two Turkish businessmen to help discredit a controversial U.S.-based cleric,” according to a 2017 Reuters investigation. The cleric was identified as Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric and fierce critic of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan living in exile in Pennsylvania.
At the time, Woolsey was also serving on the board of a private intelligence company owned by incoming Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. At one point Woolsey walked into a meeting where the disgraced former general, now a far-right pro-Trump political activist, was weighing a plan proposed by Turkish agents to clandestinely remove Gulen from the U.S. Woolsey blew a whistle on the scheme to then-FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Luft, meanwhile, claims he was arrested in Cyprus to prevent him from testifying before the GOP-led House Oversight committee, which is investigating payments that the Biden family allegedly received from individuals linked to Chinese intelligence. In a July 5 video interview with the New York Post, Luft also said that back in March 2019 he had offered the FBI evidence to substantiate his claims, but the Bureau failed to follow up on them. He added that he fled Cyprus after his arrest and release on bail because he feared he couldn’t receive a fair trial in New York.
“I, who volunteered to inform the U.S. government about a potential security breach and about compromising information about a man vying to be the next president, am now being hunted by the very same people who I informed—and may have to live on the run for the rest of my life,” he said. “I warned the government about potential risk to the integrity of the 2020 elections . . . Ask yourself, who is the real criminal in this story?”
Two Top Democrats on the House Oversight Committee dismissed Luft’s claim. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), called Luft “an apparent con man who, while a fugitive from justice, attempted to fortify his defense by laundering unfounded and potentially false allegations through Congress.”
With Luft now on the run, his current whereabouts are a mystery. I suspect he’s in his native Israel, where he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces.
Israel has a mixed record when it comes to extraditing accused criminals to other countries. While Israeli law confers automatic citizenship on any Jew who wants it and prohibits the extradition of its citizens, the government has always reserved the discretion to block Jews with a criminal past from permanently settling in the country.
In 1970, for example, the Jewish American gangster Meyer Lansky fled to Israel to escape U.S. federal tax evasion charges. But in 1972, Israel deported Lansky back to the United States, where he was tried and acquitted on the tax charges.
That same year, however, Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, a wealthy French Jewish businessman, emigrated to Israel to elude French charges that he had embezzled $60 million. He won election to Israel’s Knesset, which gave him parliamentary immunity from extradition. But even after his immunity expired with his failure to win re-election in 1981, Flatto-Sharon was never extradited to France.
If Luft in fact is back in Israel, I wouldn’t be surprised if the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to extract a price from the Biden administration for returning him. Netanyahu has never been one to let a moment of leverage pass by unrewarded.
My guess: Netanyahu will ask Biden to include Israel in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which allows the citizens of participating countries to enter the United States for 90 days without a visa. Publicly, U.S. officials say Israel has been excluded from the program because it doesn’t offer reciprocal privileges to Arab Americans. Privately, they say U.S.intelligence officials also fear Israel will take advantage of the program to insert more spies into this country.
Wherever Luft may be hiding out, this won’t be the last we hear of him. For Republicans trying to portray both Biden and his Justice Department as corrupt, Luft’s indictment provides welcome ammunition. Already, GOP lawmakers are spreading conspiracy theories about it. “I don’t trust the DOJ or the FBI,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said on Fox News. “They are trying to silence our witnesses.”
For Biden’s supporters, such accusations are simply more evidence of the lengths Republicans will go to smear the president.
For journalists, the indictment of Gal Luft provides a cautionary lesson about reporting from the Swamp: the respected think-tank expert you’re quoting one day may be a serious criminal the next—or even at the same time.
SpyTalk Editor-in-chief Jeff Stein contributed to this story.
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