Army interpreter 'betrayed Britain to spy for Iran'

Click to follow

An embittered Army interpreter serving in Afghanistan betrayed Britain to become an agent for Iran, a court heard today.

Tehran-born Daniel James was a "Walter Mitty"-style fantasist who believed he had been passed over for promotion and been the victim of racism, a jury was told.

James was in a "unique position" working for General David Richards, who was commander of international forces in Afghanistan, the Old Bailey heard.

He sent coded messages to an Iranian military attache in Kabul and told him "I am at your service", it is alleged.

Mark Dennis QC, prosecuting, told a jury: "During the latter part of 2006, the defendant's loyalty to this country wavered and his loyalties turned to Iran, the country of his birth.

"He turned his back on those with whom he was serving in Afghanistan and sought to become an agent for a foreign power."

The defendant was seeking to provide information to insurgents fighting coalition forces and others "who may yet become involved or who may directly or indirectly support the insurgent elements", Mr Dennis said.

James, 45, of Cliff Road, Brighton, denies communicating information useful to an enemy and a second count of collecting such information on a USB memory stick, both charges under the Official Secrets Act.

He also denies wilful misconduct in public office.

Mr Justice Roderick Evans told jurors that parts of the trial would be heard in secret and that they would have access to documents marked "Nato Confidential", which they would have to treat confidentially.

It is expected to last three to four weeks.

James, a former salsa dance instructor, was driven not by politics or ideology, but a "mixture of elements", Mr Dennis said.

He had been a reservist in the Territorial Army for many years and was called up for service in Afghanistan in early 2006.

"He had become aggrieved and somewhat bitter at his lack of promotion, particularly given his work in Afghanistan," Mr Dennis said.

"He began to complain to others about what he perceived as discrimination against him in the Army - linking racist attitudes to his lack of promotion."

His tour of duty was due to end in spring 2007, Mr Dennis said, and no extension had yet been agreed.

"He had no settled civilian employment and had an uncertain financial future.

"However, a large element that shaped his motivation must have been the character of the man himself.

"He has been described as an extrovert, someone with somewhat grandiose ideas about himself and his own self-importance - something of a Walter Mitty character who would no doubt find his new clandestine role something exciting and special.

"Fortunately, his activities were nipped in the bud by the early discovery of what he was doing."

James was said to have been in contact with Colonel Mohammad Hossein Heydari, an Iranian military assistant based at Tehran's embassy in Kabul.

Emails were sent between them from September until December 2006, and have been recovered, and there were also "many telephone conversations" between the two, whose content was not known, Mr Dennis said.

It was unclear whether James had been accepted as an agent by Heydari or was in the process of trying to do so by sending material of information as samples of what he could potentially provide, the court heard.

The information in the emails was "comparatively limited and of a somewhat imprecise and general nature", Mr Dennis said.

"The concern is not so much the actual damage done by the known disclosure of information, but in the potential damage that could have occurred if his activities had not been curtailed by his early detection and arrest."

One message sent from England to Heydari, on November 2, was transmitted using an email account James had opened the previous day, which he "clearly intended for use in furthering the clandestine relationship", the court heard.

The short message was "plainly in coded form", and included six points of information for Heydari, jurors were told.

One read: "I have taken seven more pictures from those whose job is black." Another apparently gave details of a "military camp".

A third stated: "You remember that I had said someone's sister is in the parliament, I still don't have the address, but someone who knows her for the past 4 years and gives her messages, I have (his) full details."

Mr Dennis said: "The defendant clearly believed that the information that he was giving to Heydari would be useful to him and that Heydari would be pleased to receive it."

The court heard the message, signed "Esmail, the interpreter", after James's given Iranian name, concluded: "Many thanks. Any other work that you may have, I am at your service."

Mr Dennis said: "The defendant should not have been in the service of either Colonel Heydari or the state of Iran.

"The defendant was, in fact, serving with the British Army as part of the international peace-keeping force supporting the Afghan government and in armed conflict with the various insurgent elements fighting in Afghanistan.

"The defendant was in the service of the British Army and this country, the United Kingdom."

James, who holds dual Iranian and British nationality, was born Esmail Mohammed Beigi Gamasai and came to Britain in his early teens.

He settled in Brighton, becoming a British citizen in 1986, and changing his name by deed poll to Daniel James in 1997.

James was married in 1982 but divorced six years later. He worked as a casino croupier, in nightclub security and as a dance instructor.

By 2006 he owned four flats in Brighton, financed by separate mortgages, the jury was told.

He joined the Territorial Army in August 1987 and by 2006 he was attached to the 30th Battalion, Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, and held the rank of corporal.

James received his call-up for a tour of duty in Afghanistan in March 2006, due to expire in April 2007.

At the time the British Army, as part of a the 37-nation International Security Assistance Force, was facing the "growing concern" of insurgent activity, including suicide and car bombings as well as armed conflict.

When James arrived he was put to use as an interpreter because of his knowledge of Dari, an Afghan language and Farsi, his native tongue.

He first worked on a training programme for Afghan officers before moving in May 2006 to work for General Richards, who had just taken over as overall commander of the ISAF, based in Kabul.

"This assignment gave the defendant a very trusted and sensitive position," said Mr Dennis.

"He was to be available for daily contact with General Richards, as required, and would attend meetings with the general when his services as an interpreter were required."

James would translate speeches and other documents for his boss but did not handle sensitive military information, the court heard.

But he was present at the general's main office and at various functions with high-ranking ISAF and Afghan officials.

Mr Dennis said James "would have been in a unique position to overhear and glean a good deal of operational or strategic information if he chose to do so" and could put this forward "when offering his services to a foreign power".

He was described by many as "friendly, helpful and good company" and he set up salsa dancing classes and occasionally gave Spanish lessons.

Mr Dennis said: "He has been described as a very flamboyant person, outgoing, extrovert but also as something of an oddball in many ways."

James seemed "obsequious" to senior officers while "arrogant" towards others, revelling in his position close to the general, the court heard.

"He liked to be the centre of attention and many felt that he had an exaggerated sense of self-importance," said Mr Dennis.

In addition, his sense of military discipline "left much to be desired", in particular his casualness of dress, lateness for appointments, and habit of walking off or disappearing when away from base.

He rarely expressed political views but when he did he seemed to show "feelings towards Iran" and was less favourable to the Americans - although on at least two occasions he boasted that the CIA had tried to recruit him, Mr Dennis said.

As the year progressed he seemed to change, coming into conflict with other soldiers and complaining that he should have been promoted and suggesting "that his lack of preferment was rooted in racism".

"By the autumn, it would appear that he was finally turning against the Army of which he had been part, in his TA capacity, for over 18 years," Mr Dennis said.

It was unclear how James first met Heydari although it may have been in August 2006 when he accompanied the general to a meeting at the Iranian embassy.

On September 17, the attache sent an "enigmatic" message referring to "problems at friends wedding".

Jurors were told about further email exchanges, including when James was on holiday in Cuba, and in Brighton. In one, he apparently referred to the need for coded communication, the court heard.

The message, on November 15, read: "If one day I write to you and say weather is very cold, I mean time does not allow me to be in contact with you at those times, til such time that is safe."

James went back to Afghanistan, returning to England in December to take a Farsi language course and again emailing Heydari from Brighton, the court heard.

Again urging Heydari to take care, jurors were told, he said: "Always write little and like this."

He confirmed he was due to return to Kabul and said: "I have a very good present for you as well."

CCTV footage showed James sending the message from an internet cafe in Brighton.

Mr Dennis said the nature of "the present" was not known, but that the same day, James flew to Amsterdam for one night, returning the next day.

On December 18, two days after the message, Heydari wrote to say: "Thank you for your present."

When he was arrested, James was found to have "to the considerable alarm of ISAF" a USB device with two "Nato Confidential" documents stored on it.

The documents, known as Situation Reports, provided a daily update on military operations in Afghanistan, movements of troops and personnel, fuel and munitions, communications and knowledge of insurgent activity, the court heard.

"These are reports which are obviously sensitive and would be of value and use to hostile forces - the insurgents and those helping or supporting the insurgents.

"The reports are provided only to those in ISAF who 'need to know'. The defendant was undoubtedly not one such person - indeed, there was no legitimate way in which the defendant could, or should have come into possession of such items."

It was not known whether any of these documents were passed on to Heydari, Mr Dennis said.

"However, the value of these documents to anyone trying to sell himself as an agent to a foreign power, or to continue promoting himself as such, trying to show how close he was to sensitive information, is all too clear."

James was arrested on December 18 at 11.15 at RAF Brize Norton while awaiting his return flight to Kabul.

The court heard he made no comment when told he was under arrest on suspicion of espionage, but later told a police officer: "The ADC might have set me up, he hates me... Captain Simon Briggs."

In his room at the base in Kabul, police found a computer disc containing seven photographs of the "highly sensitive" Predator unmanned spy plane - apparently taken unofficially in a restricted area of Kandahar air base.

The disc also contained a military document called "Forward Air Control Tactics Manual" which contained data about US, UK and Nato aircraft systems.

James had "no legitimate reason" to acquire either, the court was told.

In police interview, he said he had enjoyed his time training Afghan officers but in his current work was treated "like a f***ing foreigner".

He also complained of his lack of promotion, racist officers he said had stood in his way, and that he had had enough of the Army.

Asked about what ISAF and Nato were doing in Afghanistan, he said: "I don't give a f***."

He denied knowing Heydari and claimed he had not used an internet cafe for two to three years, and also denied he had unlawfully provided anyone with information, claiming he must have been set up.

Mr Dennis said: "The defendant, as a trusted interpreter for General Richards in his position as Commander of ISAF, was in a unique and privileged position.

"He had access to areas and information that no other soldier of corporal rank, whether in the TA or the regular Army, would have, due to his working alongside the general.

"As General Richards himself puts it, the defendant's 'value' as a hostile intelligence agent to a third party with aims contrary to that of ISAF and the government of Afghanistan cannot be under estimated."