Felix Sater is mad at me. He telephones to say that after I called him a ‘mobster’ in The Spectator, his kids were unable to leave the house. ‘Paul, I am not a mobster. Do I know mobsters? Absolutely, lots of them…I was involved with all five [New York crime] families…I’ve known a lot of unsavory characters in my life…I was never a mobster.’ As one of the characters he’s known is Donald Trump — they were in business together — Sater’s life became public property as soon as Trump announced he was running for president. Since then, the labels stuck on Sater include: violent felon, stock fraudster, money-launderer, FBI informant, spy, double agent, triple agent, the Russian Mafia’s connection to the Trump Organization. But Sater says we’ve got him wrong; he’d like to set the record straight.
First, the Mafia. In a photograph familiar to Trump-Russia obsessives, Trump and Sater are on stage together at the launch of their New York development, Trump SoHo. Sater, in a $2,000 suit, black hair slicked back, grins ear to ear: the picture of the American dream, the immigrant kid made good. He was born in Moscow — his passport stamped ‘Jew’ — and moved to the US when he was seven, to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, ‘Little Odessa’. ‘I knew all the Russian mobsters there. Half my friends, they were their parents…in Brooklyn, everybody has a guy. All arguments wind up with what’s known in Brooklyn as a sitdown. If you don’t have somebody on your side, they’ll eat you alive.’ Sater had his father, Mikhail Sheferovsky, who would years later be convicted of kidnapping and extortion.
A retired US intelligence officer told me once that Sater’s father was an underboss for Russia’s ‘don of dons’, Semion Mogilevich. ‘You fuck with Felix, you’re fucking with dad, which means you’re fucking with Mogilevich, which means you’re fucking with [Vladimir] Putin.’ This was a claim first made in a court brief by lawyers suing Sater. Over the years, the brief has been quoted again and again by journalists, but Sater says there was never any proof to support it. I tell Sater I have spoken to a member of Mogilevich’s organization who says he – Sater — was Mogilevich’s American shammas, or fixer. (In Yiddish, shammas means ‘clerk of a synagogue’.) Bullshit, he says. He never knew Mogilevich; neither did his father. ‘I swear to you on my children, I swear to you on my dead grandmother, I swear to you in front of God.’ His dad was ‘a very, very tough guy’ but this was in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. ‘How the fuck does that bridge the gap to organized crime in Russia? This is local, Brooklyn shit.’
Sater says his father wanted him to get out of Brighton Beach and make something of himself. He did, getting a job with a big Wall Street brokerage house, but it was his family history, he says, that brought it all crashing down. He got into a drunken fight in a bar and — as is an established part of the Sater legend — slashed a man’s face open with the broken stem of a martini glass. He paid the man $50,000 but the police refused to drop the charges. Why? Because of who he was The cops went to his father and said: ‘We got your son. If you don’t start cooperating and give us intel on organized crime, we’ll put him away.’ His father refused; Sater went to jail.
When he got out he was bankrupt and had been stripped of his broker’s license. So he and a friend started a ‘pump and dump’ stock fraud — one that ended up cheating small investors out of tens of millions of dollars. For their market manipulation to work, he had to stop other traders from selling the overpriced shares. They needed muscle for this and went into business with the Mob, friends of Sater’s father, but Italians, not Russians. When the FBI blew open the stock fraud, Sater became a government witness to avoid going back to jail.
He gave up a captain in the Bonanno crime family, ‘Fat’ Frank Coppa, who then rolled on the family’s godfather, who in turn became the ‘first sitting commission godfather to cooperate against the Mob’. That ‘effectively killed’ the Mafia in the United States: no one will observe omerta with the boss ratting people out. The FBI told him: ‘The country owes you a gigantic debt of gratitude’; he had done more to fight the Mafia ‘than 70 years of prosecutions’; he was ‘the greatest cooperator in the history of the fucking FBI’. ‘Some fucking mobster I am, huh?’
That is part one of the Felix Sater story according to Felix Sater. His second life, as an international spy, is even more fantastic. He left the US before the stock fraud was discovered. ‘I said, I can’t be involved in this shit. I can’t be involved with these people. This is beneath me. These wise guys, they can’t even spell.’ Instead, he went to work in Russia and says that his contacts in Moscow were such that he was approached by an intelligence officer in the US embassy. They needed his help. His key contact was a general in the GRU, Russian military intelligence, through whom he went to Afghanistan to meet the Northern Alliance. This was 1998, but Osama bin Laden had been on America’s ‘most-wanted’ list since the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
Sater says he obtained a source ‘right from inside’ bin Laden’s cave. ‘I had more intel coming in than all of Langley…this Jewish kid from Brooklyn…are you kidding?’ In 1998, he says, he put together a ‘kill squad’ to get bin Laden, mercenaries who had been in the Soviet spetsnaz, or special forces. This is something he says he rarely speaks about; the details have never been published. The most important revelation, he says, is that the CIA missed the chance to take out the leader of al-Qaeda before 9/11. Sater and his mercenaries, he says, ‘marched’ on bin Laden’s base at Tora Bora. There were ‘hundreds of terrorists’ there; Sater had only 50 men. As the US bounty on bin Laden’s head was $5 million, that was only $100,000 for each of them. They said: ‘Are you crazy? We’re going to walk in there for a hundred grand each? Half of us are going to get killed.’ Sater says he told the CIA he needed $50 million to get the job done, $1 million for each of his men, or their families if they died. The CIA refused and bin Laden remained undisturbed. ‘We knew which cave he was in, we knew where he was.’ It angers him to this day.
‘I did what I did out of patriotism. I knew that Osama bin Laden had really bad intentions and wanted to kill Americans. I kept my mouth shut for 20 years; I never told anybody; I never did this for fame and glory; I didn’t do this for money. When everyone says I did this shit because I was trying to stay out of jail, that’s so insulting.’ The former spy who had spoken about Sater being linked to Mogilevich told me he thought it was ridiculous that a ‘bridge and tunnel stock scammer’ could get any valuable intelligence on bin Laden or anything else: Felix Sater, superspy. But a few weeks ago, a judge released Sater’s sentencing report from the Justice Department and — incredibly — it backs up many of the stories he tells.
Filed under seal in 2009, the letter from the US attorney in the Eastern District of New York gives an extraordinary list of the ‘highly sensitive information’ Sater provided ‘to combat terrorists and rogue states’. It says Sater gave details of al-Qaeda’s financing and the numbers for bin Laden’s satellite phones. He also told the CIA about a plot to kill President Bush. He even came up with information on North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In the US, the letter says, Sater helped catch some of the country’s ‘most elusive and dangerous criminals’. He was ‘one of the best cooperators we worked with. There was nothing he wouldn’t do.’ The prosecutors said he should not serve a day in jail for the stock fraud.
To some, this is evidence only that Sater has managed to con everyone: the prosecutors, the Justice Department, the FBI and the CIA. Even as he was doing all these things for his country, Sater was also being sued by a former employee who claimed in court that his company, Bayrock, was ‘covertly Mob-owned’ and that Trump SoHo was a ‘monument to spectacularly corrupt money-laundering’. One of his investors accused Sater of threatening to ‘cut off his legs and electrocute his balls’. But the civil action was dismissed and the investor withdrew his statement. They’re friends now, Sater says. ‘I’ll give you his number, call him.’
Trump once said that he wouldn’t recognize Sater ‘if he were sitting in the room right now’. Sater still sounds hurt about this. He had an office ‘three doors down’ from Trump’s for a decade. ‘And he doesn’t know me? Come on.’ He was still trying to make money for Trump — and himself — right into the 2016 election campaign, putting together a deal for a Trump Tower Moscow. If he’d succeeded, Europe’s tallest building would have been in Red Square, with Trump’s name on it.
Sater wrote to his friend, and Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen: ‘I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected…our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it.’ Trump seemed to lie about all this in his first press conference in the White House, in January 2017, stating that he had ‘stayed away’ from any deals in Russia. Sater says ‘80 percent’ of his evidence to the Mueller inquiry was about the Moscow deal: ‘They wanted to know every single detail, thought and action.’ But he says that Putin could not have blackmailed Trump over it. Out of ‘all of the shit’ Trump has said and done, this wasn’t the thing to make him ‘the fucking Manchurian Candidate’.
Sater’s disbelieving critics compare him to Whitey Bulger, the Boston gangster who used his status as an FBI informant to carry on committing crimes. He replies: ‘Whitey Bulger didn’t help the US government track down North Korean nuclear weapons. Whitey fucking Bulger didn’t go into Afghanistan to kill Osama bin Laden.’ The FBI told him he was the only person they knew who could ‘get to an African strongman, a Coney Island mobster and a Swiss banker literally all in one day. I’m a unique individual.’
Sater is, as he says, ‘a brilliant salesman’ — and what he is selling now is himself. ‘The first thing I learned about being a great salesman is that a great salesman never lies, ever.’ He will happily speak about himself for hours. To be fair, his life story is remarkable, whichever version of it you choose to believe. He ends on an almost plaintive note. ‘Seriously, did I fucking deserve to be decimated for years in the press?’ No one knew the full truth about what he did until his sentencing report came out a few weeks ago. ‘But now that it did come out, don’t you think I deserve a little bit of fucking redemption? Just a little bit?’
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent. This article is in The Spectator’s October 2019 US edition.