“Operation swordfish”: How to steal a government slush fund

Published 17 years ago -  - 17y ago 31

What really happens to secret government slush funds?

Historically “Operation Swordfish” was a government sting operation, set up to ensnare drug dealers in the late 1980s. Using funds illegally obtained from asset seizures, this undercover operation by the FBI and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) actually created dummy corporation fronts to get into the drug business. Eventually government agents and others were caught skimming the slush fund and stealing the money for themselves.

The premise of Swordfish the movie is that the slush fund created by this operation has grown to a whopping $9.5 billion.

Stan (Hugh Jackman) is a convicted computer hacker who is first seen driving golf balls near a tin shack in Midland, Texas. Enticed by a girl called Ginger (Halle Berry) wearing a skin tight red dress and spike heels – and $100,000, Stan goes to meet her boss Gabriel (John Travolta), a mysterious, wealthy character who wants him to hack into the slush fund and liberate the money for his own purposes.

Gabriel, Ginger tells him, “exists in a world beyond your world.” She calls him “a calculating machine.” She adds — “he takes what he wants, when he wants. Then he disappears.”

Stan desperately needs the money to pay for a lawyer and get his daughter back from his ex-wife, who’s married to “the porn king of Southern California,” living the LA life-style of the rich and decadent. In other words, Stan’s really motivated – and besides he’s a cyber-hero.

The back story is that the NSA (National Security Agency) has listed Stan as “the most dangerous hacker in America” — after he hacked into the FBI’s notorious Carnivore software (a real-life program, by the way, which devours Americans’ e-mails, faxes and other communication without regard for privacy, propriety or even legality).

Stan unleashed a virus into the Feds’ system which set the Carnivore program back two years, according to Roberts (Don Cheadle), a government agent who helped send Stan to prison. Now Roberts is suddenly interested in Stan’s reemergence on the scene.

After passing through an L.A. private club disco inferno, Stan meets Gabriel who gives him his first test: break into a Department of Defense computer with restricted access. After all he did get $100,000, but Stan has to do it under certain conditions. With a time limit. With a gun to his head. And with a girl’s head embedded on his lap. That’s the Hollywood version of hacking under pressure.

Gabriel tells him, “What if I told you I’d give you ten million dollars to access seven different networks?” Stan, who plays the hacker as rock star, sits in front of seven computer monitors, typing code furiously, as the hip hop soundtrack pounds out a number that repeats “5,000 watts of funking” over and over.

Ginger explains Operation Swordfish like this — “In the early 1980s, DEA set up a network of dummy corporations with $400 million.” With these DEA accounts earning interest, the DEA slush fund is now worth $9.5 billion. All he has to do he’s told is “pop the firewall [bust through the computer security] and get the money.”

Stan tells him, “You need a bank as the backbone of the network,” and Gabriel points to the bank across the street – the scene of a hostage crisis to top all hostage crises extrapolated to the Nth degree.

Swordfish is lots of fun. Great car chases. Great explosions. Great devastation of the material world. All the action movie stuff you would expect from a Joel Silver production. Also director Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds) directs a fast-moving script by Skip Woods. Computer geek types will love the arcane references to worms, viruses, crypto and other delicacies of computer nerd life.

Travolta himself has fun with his character, bending and stretching his hit man persona from Pulp Fiction. He plays a scammer, but he insists that his job is to protect our freedoms – just like Iran-Contra gangsters General Richard Secord and Colonel Oliver North. Travolta’s character claims he’s just doing his part in protecting the American Way of Life. Think sub-contracting terrorism in terms of national security, and you’ll understand the mindset.

Travolta’s character Gabriel proclaims, “I will sacrifice lives to protect this country. Including my own.” He implies that stealing from secret government slush funds is as good a way to “protect freedom” as any.

When asked by Stan the Hacker, “How do you justify this?” referring to the incredible mayhem and carnage he’s just witnessed, Gabriel the unrepentant spook answers, “To preserve our way of life.

Gabriel, the scammer-terrorist is a hero – at least in his own mind. He even deconstructs Dog Day Afternoon saying, “Audiences love happy endings.”

When Gabriel gets double-crossed by a senator involved in these murky black ops, he tells him, “Thomas Jefferson once shot a man on the White House lawn for treason.”

“I’ve changed my identity so many times I don’t even know my own identity any more,” he continues, implying that undercover agents who have been sheep-dipped (had their identities changes) are doing it all for God and Country.

Interestingly enough, Swordfish has been universally dissed. Mainstream critics have actually confessed that they didn’t “understand” the movie.

Poor old Roger Ebert was apparently so confused by the movie that he actually wrote, “I defy anyone in the audience to explain the exact loyalties and motives of the leading characters.”

Poor Stephanie Zacharek of Salon bemoans the car chases and explosions. Her pissy review proclaims “a supposedly sophisticated shocker turns out like every other action thriller we’ve seen in the past three years – only more annoying.”

Poor Stephen Hunter, writing for the Washington Post, doesn’t get it either. He confesses in his snide and sniveling review that “a hacker must do something I didn’t understand: design a worm., whatever the hell that is, so he can insert it in a super-powerful government system, at the bank and order the system to deposit several billion dollars in certain offshore accounts.

And poor LA Times reviewer Kenneth Turan writes that “whatever interest the film creates is squandered via the smug showy amorality that runs through it.” Welcome to the Real World, Pal…

David McClintick wrote a book called “Swordfish: A True Story of Ambition, Savagery and Betrayal” about the operation. A 60 Minutes piece in 1993 disclosed the DEA’s nasty habit of using informants (chumps) in their undercover investigations and then throwing them to the wolves.

In a recent interview, former Iran Contra insider Al Martin recalls that “we got involved in the real Operation Swordfish at the time, back in the 1980s. It was a drug interdiction program in which there was an awful lot of cash missing. Toward the end, when there was a big investigation of Swordfish in 1991-92, it brought down a lot of FBI agents, when investigators found FBI agents’ private safes stuffed with cash. This is what brought down the powerful and infamous Broward County [Florida] sheriff Nick Navarro. It ended his political hopes. The guy second in command Cacciatore made a deal with the Feds. The Feds went in and there was $800,000 in cash in Navarro’s safe that he couldn’t account for. That’s what busted that entire cabal in Broward County.”

“At the end the GAO reported that there was $3.6 billion missing,” Al Martin continues, “but who knows what was really taken. The DEA set up fraudulent fronts to sting and entrap. That’s all Swordfish was – a giant sting and entrapment scheme, but it involved the DEA, the FBI, and the IRS. It wasn’t just the DEA involved. When some DEA agents and FBI agents were caught skimming the money, my friend got involved.

Swordfish was an all cash deal, another typical sting and entrapment operation that got out of hand. Greed got involved. The CIA got involved. The CIA did all they could to protect their own narcotics traffickers. The CIA sometimes even set up DEA agents into these stings just to control them later on. The IRS CID [Criminal Investigation Division] got involved particularly in Fort Lauderdale. It also took down the mayor of Miami Beach.”

Al Martin, author of The Conspirators: Secrets of an Iran Contra Insider  says, “Everybody wanted a piece of the fraud. This was very late in the game. Operation Swordfish was in the late ‘80s, and everyone knew that the salad days were coming to an end. They looked at Operation Swordfish and said, ‘Hey this might be the last great opportunity for everyone to line their pockets,’ so everybody jumped on the bandwagon. It was originally an FBI operation. That’s what forced Tommy Cash, the head of the Miami DEA office, to retire. It forced a lot of people out. Out of all the people that were exposed and forced out, the government never recovered one dime of the money, which they in turn had stolen from others. They scammed it from drug dealers. The government people then scammed it from the government itself. The slush fund was created by monies taken from drug dealers that was later not accounted for by different agencies.”

When told that the Travolta character rationalized his scamming the slush fund money, Al says, “That’s what they’re doing. They’re protecting the American Way of Life. People probably thought that was humorous, but they don’t understand how right he is.

It’s probably safe to say that the American people don’t know just how right the Travolta character is because the American Way of Life Is Fraud. That’s the way everything works in this country. That’s what it’s all about. It’s what keeps the country moving – fraud, corruption, graft – whatever you want to call it. And stealing that which someone else has already stolen from somebody else is certainly the American Way.”

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