Al Fayed and the CIA conman

In a plot that would make Le Carre blink, the Harrods boss has seemingly foiled a scam and caught a fugitive

WHATEVER you think of Mohamed Al Fayed - the deception about his past, the scabrous language, the weakness for conspiracy theories - the man has an undeniable talent for getting in on the action. Last week he popped up again - this time as a friend and ally of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

The bare bones of the story are straightforward: Mr Fayed was approached by a man claiming to have proof confirming the Harrods owner's darkest suspicion: that the car crash in which Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed died was murder.

The man wanted to sell the proof for pounds 10m. This was a sting. The documents are 99.9 per cent certain to be forgeries. Oswald LeWinter, the 67-year- old American made the offer, turned out to be a renegade agent the CIA has long wanted to bring down.

Mr LeWinter is, by many accounts, the most formidable confidence man in the world today, and last week, at a meeting in Vienna with Mr Fayed's security officer, John McNamara, he was arrested on fraud charges and carted off screaming to jail.

THE CIA immediately descended on Vienna in force. First, to make sure Mr LeWinter was properly bagged, then to debrief a man who has helped journalists who believe the CIA is implicated in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. The other reasons the CIA was in Vienna were to make sure that the man led to it by Mr Fayed did not slip through its grasp as a result of Austria's known laxness in high-profile espionage cases, as well as Mr LeWinter's possible connections with East Europe's organised crime.

"LeWinter is an example of a brilliant mind gone to the bad," former CIA counter-terrorist expert Vincent Cannistraro said in a conversation about the man two years ago. "His father was a professor at Columbia University. He grew up in a New York City suburb with all the privileges. It is amazing how far he has fallen."

Beyond this, however, facts about Mr LeWinter are hard to come by. When I dealt with him in 1996 - spending a week with him at his Mojave Desert home in California - for a Channel 4 documentary that never made it into production, the psychological warfare he waged against me left me uncertain about almost everything concerning him.

Spy buffs know Mr LeWinter as a former CIA operative. A Vienna tabloid last week quoted Rodney Stich, author of Disavow - a CIA Saga of Betrayal, as saying that Mr LeWinter worked for more than 30 years for the CIA under the codename "Razine"; he was recruited in the Sixties, during the Vietnam war, as a college professor, and acted first as an informer on students.

Mr LeWinter told me he had become involved with the CIA while a college professor. "I was invited to go on a lecture tour to eastern Europe, to talk about Shakespeare," he said. "The CIA approached me. I became one of their fish." He claimed he had become a deputy director of the agency under the late James Angleton, its legendarily paranoid counter-espionage expert. But a former Washington DC police intelligence chief pointed out flaws in his account of his CIA career that cast serious doubt on this and other claims.

His personal life is also hard to pin down. He told me he had married an heiress to the Humble Oil fortune with whom he had two sons - one now a successful executive, the other a beach bum - but the marriage had foundered and in the Eighties he married a German woman, an executive at the German software firm SAP. They have a daughter.

He told me that from 1979 he worked for the CIA at Itac, the Brussels- based intelligence coordinating arm of Nato. In theEighties he was arrested and convicted of drug dealing in Germany. His admission that he served a prison term in Germany - for moving amphetamines from Libya to the US - is qualified by his insistence that the operation was one of Oliver North's secret missions. It was after this miscarriage of justice, he said, that he became a renegade.

In 1995 Mr LeWinter appeared in The Double Maltese Cross, a documentary which argued that the Libyans had nothing to do with bombing Pan Am 103, which was done by Syrian drug dealers doubling as CIA sources. This film was financed by Tiny Rowland. It was meant to open the 1995 London Film Festival, but it was dropped at the last minute. It was shown in the House of Commons under the auspices of the Labour MP Tam Dalyell. In it Mr LeWinter was identified as a former CIA agent.

Shortly after The Double Maltese Cross faded from the news Mr LeWinter rang me, introduced himself, said he had a document that might be of interest, and agreed a meeting at Frankfurt airport. He turned out to be a squat, barrel-chested man with straggly grey hair sticking out of a baseball cap. He was in his sixties and constantly perspired. He was suffering, he said, from Epstein-Barr Syndrome, an immune deficiency disease. He spoke with a tough-guy New York accent. He championed the cause of Israel. Later, this advocacy metamorphosed into hints that he was an agent for the Mossad. He was the best-informed person I have ever met on intelligence matters. His views on everything from geopolitics to literature were sophisticated.

The document he plonked down on the airport bar looked like a field report from a US Drug Enforcement Administration agent based in Switzerland. It suggested that Mark Thatcher had been involved in an arms-for-drugs deal with a Syrian named Monzer al-Kassar. Mr al-Kassar is known to spy buffs because he was arrested in Spain for supplying weapons to the hijackers of the Achille Lauro cruise ship who murdered the passenger Leon Klinghoffer. Later, however, he was acquitted of all charges in a trial in Madrid.

DURING my week in California waiting for Mr LeWinter to provide corroborating evidence for his document - corroboration which never came - he showed me coded messages he said he had stolen from the CIA, read me selections from a book of poetry he said he was soon to publish, talked of his friendship with Norman Mailer, and claimed he had run for a US relay team in the 1956 Olympics. His genius was to make each story credible even though, as they piled up, the atmosphere became increasingly surreal.

After showing the document about Mark Thatcher and his putative arms- for-drugs deal to the Drugs Enforcement Administration, the FBI via the former Washington DC intelligence chief, and the US District Attorney's office in New York, I concluded it was a fake. After that Mr LeWinter rang me once to complain that the DEA had visited him to ask about the Thatcher document. That was the last time I spoke to him. I had all but put the acutely unpleasant experience of being the target of one of his stings out of my mind when I read that the CIA, with Mr Fayed's help, had finally run him to earth.

According to the Vienna press, Mr Fayed was first approached about three weeks ago by a prominent Beverly Hills lawyer and a reporter from a Hollywood scandal sheet. He was told that there were documents proving that the CIA and MI6 were responsible for the deaths of his son and the Princess. A meeting was arranged between Mr Fayed's security chief, Mr McNamara, and Mr LeWinter, who got a $25,000 advance to cover expenses. Mr LeWinter arrived in Vienna on 20 April and checked into a modest, two-star hotel, the Hotel Stadt Bamberg, not far from the city's red-light district.

The booking at the hotel was made by Karl Koecher, who is well known to the Austrian security forces from his previous career as a Czech agent. Mr Koecher is famous in the spy world for being the man who walked east over the Potsdam Bridge in Berlin in 1985 when, in a Cold War exchange, the Soviet dissident Natan Shcharansky walked west.

Mr LeWinter and Mr McNamara met once, then a second time. As he was dragged out of the hotel where the meeting was held, Mr LeWinter screamed that his five accomplices would make sure that Mr Fayed met the same fate as his son. A search of Mr LeWinter's hotel room turned up a batch of documents, of which four sheets were considered relevant. Two of them were in code. The Austrian fraud squad says they are forgeries.

Mr LeWinter is now said to be co-operating with authorities. He has reportedly named his accomplices. The Austrian authorities managed to keep Mr LeWinter's arrest on 25 April secret until last Tuesday, when Peter Grolig, one of Austria's best crime reporters, broke the story in the Kurier newspaper.

Mr Fayed's spokesman at Harrods declined to comment. "Our Austrian lawyers have put a gag on us," he said.

However, Mr Fayed spent much of last week in Vienna. The man who has for so long been the scourge of much of British life deserves some credit - if only to remind us all that, in an age of buttoned-down global markets, there is still business to be done, and even fortunes made, by operating on the wild side of the commercial life.

Additional reporting from Vienna by Sue Masterman

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
peopleGerman paper published pictures of 18-month-old daughter
Arts and Entertainment
'A voice untroubled by time': Kate Bush
musicKate Bush set to re-enter album charts after first conerts in 35 years
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams' life story will be told in a biography written by a New York Times reporter
arts + ents
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Voices
voices
Sport
Roger Federer is greeted by Michael Jordan following his victory over Marinko Matosevic
tennisRoger Federer gets Michael Jordan's applause following tweener shot in win over Marinko Matosevic
News
peopleJustin Bieber accuses paparazzi of acting 'recklessly' after car crash
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Oppressive atmosphere: the cast of 'Tyrant'
tvIntroducing Tyrant, one of the most hotly anticipated dramas of the year
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Merger and Acquisition Project Manager

    £500 - £550 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £55 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN TAWe are looking to recrui...

    Technical Manager – Heat Pumps

    £40000 Per Annum dependent on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: They ...

    Test Job

    TBC: Test Recruiter for iJobs: Job London (Greater)

    Day In a Page

    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
    Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

    From strung out to playing strings

    Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
    The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
    Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

    Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

    The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
    On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

    On the road to nowhere

    A Routemaster trip to remember
    Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

    Hotel India

    Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
    10 best pencil cases

    Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

    Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
    Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

    Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

    Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
    Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

    Pete Jenson: A Different League

    Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
    This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

    The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

    Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis