Illegal Gulf War Booty Almost Slipped By CIA
In the fall of 1991, two wooden crates arrived at CIA headquarters from the Persian Gulf on an Air Force cargo plane. The flight manifest said they contained “radio equipment” destined for a lower-echelon worker in the spy agency’s Latin America department.
It was not radio equipment.
Inside those boxes and others in the shipment were enough guns and ammunition to invade a small island.
But they contained something much greater--an embarrassing postscript to the Gulf War. It seems that a cocky ex-general and a sticky-fingered gunsmith had tried to sneak guns home, and with a flimsy lie they had almost snookered their employer, the Central Intelligence Agency.
For five years this episode has remained untold, even while it dragged on into a federal court case.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms helped investigate the affair but released only a sketchy 11 pages from its files. The agency refused to release other records, contending that they are “CIA classified files.” But much is on the public record--including the CIA’s internal report--at U.S. District Court in Alexandria, where the story reached its climax with the ex-general’s indictment and acquittal.
The story begins a world away, in the Middle East.
Fleeing Iraqis had left the Gulf War wastelands littered with weapons. Abandoned guns and grenade launchers, mortar shells and bullets turned the desert into a paradise for souvenir hunters.
The U.S. government claimed title to the spoils, however. Anyone else was forbidden by order of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and federal gun laws.
The CIA wanted some of that war booty. Here was a gold mine to supply America’s secret friends while checking out arms-making by its enemies.
The agency assigned scavengers to pick through the pile. Among them were retired Army Brig. Gen. Charles Getz, a CIA freelancer; Wayne Osentoski, a top CIA ordnance expert; Osentoski’s assistant; and a logistics man usually assigned to Latin America operations.
The four accomplished their mission. But Getz also wanted guns for his own purposes.
The weapons in question, 54 in all, were powerful and exotic. The inventory included Soviet pistols, AK47 machine guns and grenade launchers; British submachine guns; Iraqi pistols; Belgian, British, German and Egyptian rifles; plus a 60-millimeter Chinese mortar; and an 84-millimeter Swedish training rocket. There was even a Hungarian copy of a Walther PPK, the sidearm favored by fictitious British superspy James Bond.
Also in the haul were 1,800 rounds of ammunition.
Getz is the central character in this saga; he has said he only wanted guns to give them away, as gifts.
“This Getz is a blowhard . . . and he was trying to impress a lot of people,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael Rich, who prosecuted Getz. “And he was one of these guys we call a ‘barrel sucker’ "--a gun lover.
Rich spent 30 years in the Marines. Like Getz, he rose to brigadier general. “There are a lot of barrel suckers around,” Rich said. “A good number . . . are Army, Navy, Marine Corps. They’re just a big fraternity of barrel suckers.”
The West Point yearbook for the Class of 1959 sized up Getz: “Studies were never any trouble for him because he never let little things worry him. With his winning ways, Charlie is headed for much success in later years.”
In Vietnam, Getz earned a Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for bravery. The citation reports that as a battalion commander he left the protection of a helicopter to sprint through gunfire, kill three enemy soldiers, plunge into an enemy tunnel to pluck out one more--then led two platoons to wipe out an enemy camp.
In 1980 he made general, the first in his class.
Then he took a VCR from a Navy exchange in the Philippines without paying for it.
“You abused your position,” Gen. Max Thurman blasted Getz in a Nov. 20, 1985, letter of reprimand. Thurman was Army vice chief of staff, second man from the top. He called Getz “reprehensible.”
Getz shot back a three-page excuse: The VCR was a lemon; he had pricier models on layaway; he needed it for work; he had returned it when his tour ended. He also suggested his Filipino accusers were crooks.
Thurman let the reprimand stand.
Promotion unlikely, Getz left the Army in 1988 and became an independent contractor for the CIA.
The second key player in the scheme was Wayne Osentoski.
A skilled gunsmith and shooter, Osentoski had worked for 10 years at the Connecticut Army National Guard in Windsor Locks, Conn., as a gun repairman. Weekends he competed on the Guard’s marksmanship team, winning accolades for his prowess.
CIA records say that before Osentoski was hired in 1981, a lie- detector test revealed he had pocketed weapons parts, tools and “several thousand” rounds of ammunition from the Guard.
Osentoski, since retired from the agency, disputes the CIA’s interpretation of his test results. He pilfered no parts, he said in an interview from West Virginia, where he lives. “I said I had them legally in my possession, and turned them in before I left.”
As for poaching weapons in the Persian Gulf, Osentoski said, “We didn’t do anything that hadn’t been done a million times before.”
Osentoski evaluated the weapons and, with his helper, packed the boxes. The logistics man arranged for shipping, obtaining a cargo number for the two boxes of “radio equipment” from his unwitting supervisor.
On Sept. 14, 1991, the weapons flew out of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. When they reached CIA handlers, the two crates aroused a buzz of questions.
The scheme was already unraveling.
When the logistics man returned to the United States in August, he learned his supervisor had been arrested for misusing public funds by getting a kickback on a private recreational vehicle when he bought two agency cars.
Unnerved, the logistics man confessed to a CIA security officer that two guns in a shipment for a “General Getz” were actually for him. He said he no longer wanted the guns.
Two days later, CIA in-house detectives opened their investigation. They spent more than a year untangling a knot of deceit in which stories changed or didn’t match.
From the conflicting accounts, it seems Getz wanted at least the 12-gauge East German shotgun for himself. Prosecutors later identified 15 weapons as Getz’s intended cache. Osentoski was to get at least a German rifle, an Egyptian semiautomatic rifle and a pistol. The logistics officer had his eye on an Italian shotgun and a rifle, while Osentoski’s aide hoped to get a rifle, a pistol, a tank periscope, a weapon sight, M-16 magazines and six road spikes.
But what of the rest?
For about half the weapons, the agency was never able to learn the reason they were collected or who was to get them. Osentoski variously claimed they were for Getz, or other CIA departments, maybe the CIA Historical Exhibit.
Some witnesses told interrogators they had been told Getz wanted the weapons for various officers, for an Army sniper school, as a “thank you” for helpful troops from Ft. Bragg, N.C.
The story Getz told most often, and which helped win his acquittal, was that he planned to donate most of the guns to the U.S. Army Ranger Museum. Sometimes he placed the museum at Ft. Bragg, other times at Ft. Benning, Ga.
The location didn’t matter, because no such museum exists.
But Army Col. David Grange, who was married to one of Getz’s daughters, showed government investigators a display of Ranger mementos--the so-called “museum” at Ft. Benning.
He said the donation idea germinated shortly after the war ended. The two men met in Kuwait City. Grange was about to take over the 75th Rangers and Getz suggested the “museum” might need Iraqi weapons. Grange is now a brigadier general at the Pentagon; through a spokesman, he declined to be interviewed.
On Aug. 30, 1990, shortly after Schwarzkopf took charge of Operation Desert Shield, he issued General Order No. 1 forbidding anyone, military or civilian, from taking enemy weapons as keepsakes.
But Getz’s gift list, it appears, included top brass.
Investigators linked Getz to Maj. James Guest, the head of Special Forces whose younger brother, Robert, was deputy commanding general of Operation Desert Storm. When they first interviewed James Guest, he claimed ignorance of questionable shipments by Getz, whom he had known some 30 years.
Then he remembered a call from Robert, who said he was “shipping guns for Getz” and would James like Getz to get him a war trophy?
In a later sworn statement, James Guest said he spoke directly to Getz. “I made a fleeting remark to him, in passing, that if he were able to bring back trophies, I’d like to have one.”
James Guest, 58, retired to Toccoa, Ga., where he is part owner of a ceramic-coating company.
“What Charlie was going to do before they put the clamp on the weapons . . . ,” said the one-time leader of the Green Berets, without completing the sentence. “I guess everybody in the United States was wanting one for these museums--and that’s what he intended to do.”
Robert Guest runs an Army school at Ft. Lee, Va. He would not talk about the case. “I’ve done lots of things since then,” he said. “I’m just not willing to discuss something that was in the courts.”
When the matter was handed to federal prosecutors, they cast Getz as the mastermind and Osentoski as an eager opportunist. A federal grand jury charged both men with conspiracy, stealing government property, illegally transporting weapons across state lines, illegally importing weapons into the United States, lying to CIA investigators and bringing machine guns, a mortar and a rocket launcher into the United States.
In a plea bargain, Osentoski pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor--stealing two rifles valued at less than $100. He paid a $1,000 fine but kept his federal gun license.
Today, Osentoski, 54, lives in Kearneysville, W.Va., and works as quality-control manager in an ammunition-recycling plant. “You know, we’re not the choir boys,” he said of his dozen years in the spy game.
He’s lost touch with Charlie Getz, he said.
Just 37 miles away in the village of Round Hill, Getz makes his home in a brick- and stone-trimmed ranch house 3 miles down a dirt road below the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Getz won’t say who employs him now, and he declined to tell his side of the story one more time. “The case was closed, and I want to leave it that way,” he said.
U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. spared Getz two years in federal prison, maybe four.
In his April 20, 1994, verdict acquitting Getz in a bench trial, Bryan called the case “extremely close.” After chiding Getz for his behavior and conflicting testimony, Bryan concluded, “I can’t say beyond a reasonable doubt I am convinced he had criminal intent.
“I think he probably did, but probably is not enough.”
Asked recently to explain his ruling to a reporter, Bryan said he couldn’t recall the case.
“Even if I did,” the judge said, “I wouldn’t discuss it with you.”
As for Osentoski’s aide and the logistics man, they escaped criminal charges. They were both reprimanded by the CIA, but the agency continues to employs them.
And the guns? The CIA spokesman said the guns were destroyed.