Venezuela Holds American Ship for Arms Trafficking

FORBES | SEPTEMBER 7, 2012

The Venezuelan government has seized a U.S. flagged ship and detained its captain for more than a week.

Since August 29 the ship Ocean Atlas has been at port in Maracaibo, Venezuela, where it docked to unload a cargo of equipment. Yet after four hours in port, the ship was boarded and searched by armed security personel, and the captain was detained on suspicion of trafficking in arms or drugs. The captain has been identified as Jeffrey Michael Raider, 45, of Texas.

The rest of the crew of 15 Americans has remained on board under guard. According to a well-placed source arrest warrants have been issued for all of the crewmembers, who are to be taken off the ship for questioning.

Incredibly, my Forbes colleague Jeff Bercovici has been in touch over email with one of the crewmen, Russell Macomber, who has managed to post updates to his Facebook account while under detention.

In a sardonic tone, Macomber even relayed that when Venezuelan authorities raided the Ocean Atlas they stole cartons of cigarettes, ate the crew’s ice cream and let their dogs defecate on the deck. Macomber writes that he would like nothing more than an airdrop of Budweiser. (Read Jeff’s post and Macomber’s account here.)

Officials at the ship’s operator, Intermarine, did not immediately respond to Forbes’ requests for information. Nor did officials at American Maritime Officers, which is believed to have provided the crew for the ship. A spokeswoman at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington said she would look into the incident.

A spokesman for the Seafarers Union confirmed the seizure to Forbes and said, “The SIU is working feverishly to help resolve this situation and to ensure the safety of all mariners aboard the Ocean Atlas. We are staying in touch with the crew and will continue doing so.”

A U.S. Embassy official in Caracas also confirmed the incident to Reuters earlier today.

The seizure of the ship could become an international incident if not resolved soon. A month ago Venezuela detained a U.S. citizen entering from Colombia. President Hugo Chavez accused the man of being a mercenary and part of an “imperial” plot to oust him. So far there has been no public comment from Chavez about the Ocean Atlas detention.

The 12-year-old Ocean Atlas is one of a very small number of U.S.-flagged heavy-lift vessels. Its cranes can lift 400 tons and its giant holds are ideal for hauling hauls boats, generators, and oilfield equipment. It often moves cargoes under contract with the U.S. government or for projects financed by the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which requires U.S. flagged ships to carry any cargoes it has financed.

A decade ago the ship carried oilfield equipment to Iraq. And according to a backgrounder on Globalsecurity.org, it also made a special trip to Libya:

The Department of State requested that the vessel be quietly diverted to Libya, where under special security cover, the vessel was loaded in its entirety with equipment from Libya’s nuclear and other WMD programs arsenal. They included specialized centrifuges used in the processing of uranium to weapons grade, equipment from a uranium conversion facility, and Libya’s five SCUD-C long-range missiles. The cargo was discharged at an undisclosed U.S. East Coast port. The Libyan cargo move was truly a spur-of-the-moment operation.

The ship became the first U.S. vessel to dock in Libya in 20 years.

So was Ocean Atlas carrying weapons this time, on another top secret U.S. mission? No, says Macomber; nothing but three rifles in case they needed to ward off pirates.

Documents reveal China’s role in shipments of nukes to Iran

WikiLeaks releases State Department reports.

Washington Times

More than 250,000 classified State Department reports made public on Sunday reveal that China was urged to stop shipments through Beijing of missiles from North Korea to Iran, and that Saudi Arabia‘s monarch urged the United States to attack Iran‘s nuclear facilities.

The Obama administration sought to minimize the diplomatic fallout from the disclosures on the Internet site WikiLeaks that provide a vivid inside look at U.S. diplomatic and intelligence reports, some as recent as February.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs condemned the release of the documents. “By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information,” he said. “It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions.”

The cables “could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world,” he said in a statement.

Diplomatic cables are long-standing reflections of the day-to-day activities of State Department officials abroad who are required to report back regularly to headquarters on various issues as part of their duties. Similar reports have been leaked in the past, but the scale of the current disclosures is unprecedented.

On the North KoreaIran missile trade, a 2007 report labeled “secret” said the Bush administration demanded that China block shipments of missile parts to Iran from North Korea, in violation of U.N. sanctions.

“We have identified a large number of shipments beginning late last year [2006] of what are probably ballistic-missile-related items that have transited Beijing, and we would like to share further information on these shipments,” the cable said.

The November 2007 cable from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice instructs the U.S. ambassador in Beijing to “raise at the highest level possible” U.S. concern about continued shipments of ballistic missile parts from Pyongyang to Tehran that transit China.

“We now have information that the goods will be shipped on November 4 and insist on a substantive response from China to this information,” the cable said, citing intelligence reports that “10 air shipments of jet vanes have transited Beijing thus far” and calling for action to “make the Beijing airport a less hospitable transfer point.”

Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong said earlier this month that China has abided by sanctions on North Korea.

Regarding Saudi Arabia‘s King Abudullah‘s urging military action against Iran, an April 2008 cable stated that Saudi Arabia‘s U.S. ambassador “recalled the King‘s frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear weapons program. ‘He told you to cut off the head of the snake.’ ”

Among the disclosures the mass of cables are:

c Iran purchased a cache of 19 BM-25 missiles from North Korea, according to a Feb. 24, 2010, cable, according to the New York Times. The missiles will give Iran the capability to strike capitals throughout Europe.

c China‘s Communist Party Politburo was behind the cyber-attack on Google uncovered last year, according to the New York Times. The cable from Beijing in January reported on a Chinese informant who told the U.S. Embassy of Chinese intelligence’s role in the much-publicized attack. The informant said the attack, which analysts say pilfered valuable trade secrets from Google and other U.S. high-tech companies, was executed by a team of government agents, private security personnel and hackers recruited by the government.

c The U.S. Embassy in Berlin had a network of informants inside the German government that provided details on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to form a government, Der Spiegel reported.

c A cable to U.S. diplomats at the United Nations asked diplomats to continue gathering intelligence, something diplomats frequently do for State’s intelligence branch. It asks them to “include as much of the following information as possible” before reeling off a laundry list that requests “work schedules,” “credit card account numbers” and “frequent flyer account numbers.”

c A cable informing U.S. diplomatic outposts how to handle “walk-in” defectors who offer to spy for the United States.

c A report stated that Yemen’s president covered up U.S. strikes on al Qaeda. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is quoted as saying in a meeting in January of this year with Central Command commander David H. Petraeus, according to a cable sent by the U.S. ambassador, which said the country’s deputy prime minister “joke* that he had just ‘lied’ by telling Parliament” that Yemeni forces were behind the strikes on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

c Arab leaders are quoted in cables calling Iranian leaders “liars” and expressing grave fears of the Iranian nuclear program as well as the country’s penetration throughout the region.

“The metaphor most commonly deployed by Jordanian officials when discussing Iran is of an octopus whose tentacles reach out insidiously to manipulate, foment, and undermine the best laid plans of the West and regional moderates,” stated a cable from Amman, while another report from Cairo said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “has a visceral hatred for the Islamic Republic” and “did not oppose our talking with the Iranians, as long as ‘you don’t believe a word they say.’

The prime minister of the Gulf state of Qatar characterizes his country’s relationship with Iran as one in which “they lie to us, and we lie to them.”

A cable from June of the last year, meanwhile, said that in a meeting with a congressional delegation, [Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak “estimated a window between 6 and 18 months from now in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might still be viable. After that, he said, any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage.”

The document release follows similar large-scale disclosures on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Posted were 243,270 cables from U.S. embassies to the State Department, offering details of secret meetings and often unflattering assessments of host country leaders, as well as 8,017 directives sent by the State Department to its emissaries around the globe. They are as recent as February of this year, and about 90 percent of them are dated 2004 or after.

The State Department cables were provided weeks in advance to the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, France’s Le Monde, and Spain’s El Pais. One-hundred-eighty journalists and researchers from the five newspapers, according to Le Monde, collaborated in their reviewing of the material, and all five released highlights Sunday with promises of more to come.

An Army intelligence analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, is facing charges for disclosing classified information related to the Iraq and Afghanistan reports. He is considered a likely source for the current State Department cables after he reportedly was quoted in an online chat as stating that he had downloaded “260,000 State Department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world,” among other classified documents, from a military computer network.

On Sunday afternoon, the WikiLeaks site was operating intermittently.