The Fake Taliban and Other Great Diplo-Scams

The United States was just bamboozled by a con artist purporting to be a high-ranking Taliban official. Here are five other unbelievable and embarrassing historical diplomatic frauds.




The scam: The Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor knew how to impress the well-to-do European nobility of the 19th century — particularly those with money to invest in the potentially lucrative new territories opening up in the Americas. “His erect, military bearing carried elegant clothes well on his sturdy but trim frame,” according to historian David Sinclair’s The Land That Never Was. A former officer for the Spanish and Portuguese armies, he returned to England in 1820 announcing that he had been appointed the leader of Poyais, a newly independent South American country.

His Highness the Cazique of Poyais, as MacGregor styled himself, claimed that this new nation possessed untapped resources and a friendly local population — all it needed to flourish was European money and, eventually, settlers. MacGregor quickly began selling land rights in Poyais, even publishing a guidebook that described the country’s rich land and developing institutions. There was only one problem with this investment, however: Poyais was a fiction that existed only in its cazique’s mind.

The unraveling: MacGregor eventually took his scam one step too far. In 1822 and 1823, more than 200 settlers boarded two ships and set sail for Poyais, eager to take up the jobs in the country’s nascent civil service that they had been promised. They found themselves left on an uninhabited jungle shore with no discernible sign of civilization.

When the survivors finally made their way back to Britain, the government charged MacGregor with fraud. But it was too late — he had already fled for Paris, where he was hard at work drafting a constitution for Poyais, which established a republic meant to be “an asylum only for the industrious and honest.”


The scam: No sooner had the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers than Britain attempted to devise a separate peace, meant to get the Turks out of the Great War. In the fall of 1916, an unlikely figure advertised himself as a possible mediator. J.R. Pilling, a businessman who had bankrupted himself in an attempt to construct railroads through the Ottoman Middle East, was lucky enough to win the trust of a friend of David Lloyd George, then the British secretary of war and soon-to-be prime minister.

According to Jonathan Schneer’s The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, British officialdom had its doubts about Pilling from the beginning. Lloyd George “formed rather a low opinion of him”; another British diplomat referred to him as “rather a muddle-headed person.”

Nevertheless, Lloyd George dispatched Pilling to studiously neutral Switzerland to develop contacts with Turkish mediators. Despite the British Foreign Office’s best attempts to convince him to abort his freelance diplomatic assignment, Pilling penned two letters to Mehmet Talat, one of the “Young Turks” who led Turkey during the war.

In May 1917, he relayed exciting news back to Lloyd George: A Turkish intermediary in Switzerland, speaking on behalf of Talat, said that the Ottomans were prepared to withdraw from the war and even relinquish Iraq and Egypt to Britain in a peace deal. On June 9, Pilling declared that he had received a letter from Talat himself, though he would never show an actual copy of it to anyone. As months passed, the specificity and the generosity of the Ottoman “offer” increased. By November, he wrote, “I have arranged for Syria (which includes Palestine) to be entirely ceded to England.”

The unraveling: Pilling’s inability to produce Talat’s letter gradually undermined his standing within British officialdom. On June 16, he was sent back to London, where the government refused to reimburse him for his expenses while in Switzerland. Pilling became increasingly desperate, even writing a letter to the British king, but the tide of events was already moving against him. Chaim Weizmann, the leading Zionist figure in Britain, became aware of Pilling’s actions and concerned that a British-Turkish peace deal would endanger his plans for an independent political state in the region. After Weizmann expressed his concerns to the Foreign Office, a British official suggested that Lloyd George “take steps to get Mr. Pilling to hold his tongue.”


The scam: Robert Hendy-Freegard had the tailored suits and fast cars of a real-life James Bond — he just lacked the actual job. Starting in 1992 and proceeding over the next decade, the former car salesman convinced a dozen people that he was an undercover agent for MI5, the British counterintelligence agency, charged with combating the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In the process, he was able to extort around 1 million pounds from his unwitting victims.

The long con began in October 1992, when he befriended a group of students in the western English county of Shropshire. Although he was working as a barman, he intimated that his real job was more romantic: He was charged by Scotland Yard with rooting out IRA students at the local university, he told them. By playing on their fears that IRA hit squads were closing in, Hendy-Freegard controlled their movements and convinced them and their parents to hand over money. He also enlisted their help in strange espionage “missions” and tests of their loyalty, including sleeping on park benches during the winter and surviving on just bread and Mars bars for a week.

The unraveling: In the end, Hendy-Freegard was undone by greed. The mother of one of his victims, Kimberley Adams, agreed to give him an additional $10,000 — but only if she could hand over the money personally and see her daughter first. Hendy-Freegard accompanied Kimberley Adams to Heathrow Airport, where he was arrested by the real Scotland Yard.

In his initial trial in 2005, Hendy-Freegard was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison. In 2007, however, he successfully challenged the kidnapping charge, arguing that he never forcibly restrained any of his victims, which reduced his sentence to nine years.


The scam: In the mid-1980s, Israeli and U.S. officials met with an Iranian arms dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar, to discuss selling arms to the Islamic Republic, still in the throes of revolutionary fervor and in the middle of a bloody war with Iraq, in exchange for the release of seven American hostages held in Lebanon by Iran’s allies.

The offer would evolve into the Iran-Contra scandal, whereby Israel would sell advanced weapons to Iran, and the United States would resupply Israel and pocket the money from the sale — which it would then plow into the anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, known as the Contras.

The arms-for-hostages deal would have been problematic even had it gone as planned. But a large part of the reason it didn’t was Ghorbanifar, who brokered the transfer of weapons between the United States and Iran. During a critical trip to the Islamic Republic by Robert McFarlane, then President Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor, Ghorbanifar antagonized U.S. officials by promising to set up meetings with senior Iranian leadership figures, including Mir Hossein Mousavi and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and then failing to deliver. The final straw came when Ghorbanifar tried to convince McFarlane to return home with only two of the four hostages that he had promised to help release. McFarlane declined, flying back to Washington without consummating the deal.

The unraveling: The CIA had doubts about Ghorbanifar since the early 1980s, when it issued a “Fabricator Notice” that warned government officials that he “should be regarded as an intelligence fabricator and a nuisance.” These doubts spread as the Iran-Contra deal failed to secure the release of all the U.S. hostages. CIA Director William Casey ordered that Ghorbanifar undergo a polygraph test, which he failed; nevertheless, the legendarily aggressive director continued to rely on his services.

The affair did not manage to completely sink Ghorbanifar’s reputation in Washington. In December 2001, Michael Ledeen, Ghorbanifar’s ally during the Iran-Contra affair and currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, reportedly organized a meeting between him and Pentagon officials to discuss Iranian involvement in Afghanistan. Another meeting was held in June 2002. If anything came out of the meeting, Ghorbanifar is keeping quiet this time.


The scam: U.S. President George W. Bush, in his January 2003 State of the Union address, said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The statement was the product of a long line of shaky information, failed vetting procedures, and wishful thinking.

The evidence that Saddam’s regime was trying to purchase “yellowcake,” a uranium powder that can be used to construct a nuclear weapon, from Niger was primarily based on a series of documents that purported to detail negotiations between Nigerien and Iraqi officials over the delivery of the uranium. The documents were originally passed to the U.S. government by the Italian intelligence services, but British intelligence would later support their conclusions, saying that separate evidence confirmed the deal.

The unraveling: In February 2002, the CIA sent Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador to Niger, to investigate the claims. After interviewing Nigerien officials and businessmen involved in the production of the country’s uranium, Wilson determined that the document’s assertions were “bogus and unrealistic.” In March 2003, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that the documents were likely forged. By whom remains a matter of debate — the New Yorker‘s Seymour Hersh even reported that a source told him the phony documents had been prepared by retired CIA officials, who were hoping to embarrass the Iraq hawks by getting them to regurgitate flawed intelligence.

The backtracking from U.S. officials began in July 2003, when CIA Director George Tenet said that the claim “should never have been included in the text written for the president. This was a mistake.”

Bush, however, is less apologetic. “The single sentence in my five-thousand-word speech was not a major point in the case against Saddam,” he wrote in his memoir, Decision Points. “Yet those sixteen words became a political controversy and a massive distraction.”

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