Technology

The Family That Mined the Pentagon’s Data for Profit

While the two sat for lunch, Botha delivered Posey a shopping list of technical data and manuals for Newport Aeronautical to procure. The South African would ultimately order documents related to a range of components, including power units for the C-130 transport aircraft and, an old favorite, General Electric jet engines. Some of the items were on the US Munitions List—technology, weapons, and information whose export is strictly controlled, especially to a pariah nation like South Africa.

Posey later insisted on dealing with the South African military through intermediate companies. “I can’t deal with anybody on a surface level. I have to stay subsurface so I am protected from scrutiny,” he told Botha. When Botha asked what he meant by “protected from scrutiny,” Posey replied, “You know, protected from scrutiny of the FBI.”

It was far too late for that. The FBI had heard and watched it all.

Ibbotson was listening when Posey told Roberta that the deal stood to make Newport Aeronautical $98,000 (equivalent to about $260,000 today), and he was listening when Posey roped in Edward James Bush, an English-born aerospace consultant, to act as a courier for the manuals and then launder the proceeds through his Canadian bank account. The two had already worked together, Bush said later. The year before, Posey had supplied him with technical manuals for F-4 and F-5 fighters, destined for Iran’s air force.

In early February 1987, a team of FBI agents followed Posey and Bush as they scrambled to print and pack the South African documents. Bush planned to travel to South Africa through Argentina, where Posey wanted him to drop off some other technical manuals on space and missile systems for the Argentine Air Force.

As the men organized and packed the documents in Newport Aeronautical’s office, the FBI listened in on the office bug. “This is not just some routine job. You are violating the export laws,” Bush said, according to Ibbotson. “Fucking A,” Posey replied, and he and Bush carried on with their plan.

On the afternoon of February 7, Bush checked three white boxes and a blue suitcase for his journey and entered the boarding area at Los Angeles International Airport. There he was arrested by the FBI and US Customs Service agents. Around the same time, in Costa Mesa, the FBI raided the Newport Aeronautical office and Posey’s house. As Posey, Roberta, and their 2-year-old son returned home, they found unmarked FBI vehicles and more than a dozen agents crawling through their belongings—including the dictionary codebook that Posey used to communicate with Van Vuuring.

Posey’s brother Robert, who was also a Newport Aeronautical employee, gamely fielded questions from reporters. “It’s not like we’re really trying to hide anything,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “If we were shipping guns or missiles, that would be one thing, but these are books!”

In March, according to the Los Angeles Times, Posey became the first person to be indicted under the Anti-Apartheid Act. He was also charged, as was Bush, with conspiring to violate the Arms Export Control Act. Vorster, the South African naval attaché, was mentioned (but not charged) in the indictment and reportedly left the country in a hurry. Reached in retirement in South Africa via email, Vorster told WIRED: “I had no personal contact with these gentlemen, and I certainly never met them.” Bush quickly pleaded guilty to violating the Arms Export Control Act and cooperated with the FBI. Posey, however, wanted his day in court.

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