Research: Commentary

Book Review: Arms and the Dudes

Washington Independent Review of Books, June 22, 2015 | Article

By Colby Goodman

Since the Bush administration’s push to secure Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, many accounts have emerged about the U.S. government’s questionable use and oversight of private contractors in the war effort. Some of the books, like Halliburton’s Army, describe the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars by inflated billing; others consider the unprecedented use of private security companies, as in Corporate Warriors.

But perhaps the most surprising story is how three inexperienced young potheads from Miami Beach became the sole suppliers of ammunition to the Afghan army and police in early 2007.

When the New York Times revealed the story in March 2008, some in the defense community thought it must be an April Fools’ Day trick. How could 21-year-old ninth-grade dropout Efraim Diveroli and former masseuse David Packouz have really won the $300 million Pentagon contract?

Few were surprised, though, when allegations emerged that their company, AEY Inc., was shipping old, unreliable ammunition to the Afghan army, potentially compromising the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Much of the ammunition was coming from Albanian stockpiles donated by China decades ago. Worse, AEY also employed known arms traffickers to help secure deals with foreign governments in Albania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Guy Lawson wrote about the young men’s conviction for lying to the U.S. government about shipping Chinese-origin ammunition, among other fraud charges, for Rolling Stone magazine in March 2011. But he knew there was much more to the story. In his new book, Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History, Lawson provides a thrilling account of the stoners’ quick ascent into the gunrunning world and their eventual fall from the Defense Department’s graces. Lawson drew largely on lengthy interviews with the young men, court records, and records secured through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Reminiscent of the movie "Lord of War," the book explores how Diveroli’s lust for money changed his personality and led him to purposely mislead the U.S. government. In an effort to fit into his image of a sophisticated arms broker, Diveroli purchased a metal suitcase.

Diveroli also used several phrases to sound like a gunrunner. Lifting straight from the movie, he would say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a weapon.” He also developed his own catch phrases: “You can f**k almost everybody once and get away with it”; “if you see a crack in the door, kick the f***er open”; and “once a gunrunner always a gunrunner.”

Lawson’s investigation reveals the many lapses in the Pentagon’s contract award to and oversight of AEY Inc. To quickly ship arms to Afghanistan, for instance, Congress allowed the Defense Department to throw out arms procurement regulations and create new, less stringent standards by approving several new authorities to train and equip security forces.

The Pentagon’s contract officers, who were frequently poorly trained and overworked, often conducted little investigation into companies such as AEY and apparently favored a lower price over experience. The Pentagon also failed to check AEY’s subcontractors, which could have prevented U.S. funds from going to known arms traffickers and being overcharged for the bullets.

Lawson shows that the overwhelming majority of the Soviet-type ammunition AEY Inc. shipped to Afghanistan actually was of useable quality. In fact, U.S. military officials in Afghanistan initially fought the Defense Criminal Investigative Services’ efforts to end the contract with AEY because of the “operational necessity” of having enough ammunition to effectively engage extremists. AEY also received messages from U.S. officials in Albania indicating it wasn’t a problem to supply Chinese ammunition to Afghanistan.

While the book leaves out a couple important Defense Department changes to arms procurement regulations for foreign-sourced ammunition implemented following the AEY case, including the checking of subcontractors, Lawson rightly points out that the department is still using authorities that exempt it from tested Pentagon procurement regulations.

This includes the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund, which, according to Security Assistance Monitor, the Pentagon used to provide over $4.7 billion to train and equip security forces in fiscal year 2014. In last year’s major defense bill, Congress also allowed the Defense Department to waive procurement regulations for arms transfers to Iraq.

Lawson’s Arms and the Dudes provides valuable insights into the Pentagon’s failures to keep watch over private contractors engaged in arms transfers to Afghanistan and Iraq. As such, it fits nicely on the bookshelf alongside other pieces documenting the Bush administration’s poor planning and management of its war efforts of the last decade.

Even though the author’s sources of information are unclear in places, he uses compelling prose to provide a rare window into the gunrunning and arms-procurement world — and, even better, a gripping read.

CIP in the Press