For decades, spies and intelligence agents have been working around the clock trying all sorts of high-tech ways to steal the private, top-secret military information of countries seen as potential enemies.
But for one young man from Malaysia, gaining access to top US military secrets was a simple matter of illicit gifts and sex parties.
By infiltrating the circle of top officers, 300-pound Leonard Glenn Francis, famously known as Fat Leonard, was able to “move carriers like paper ships in the water”, to use his words in a recent podcast with Wall Street Journal reporter Tom Wright.
Francis began his career of corrupting US military officers when he was invited to a July 4 celebration held by the US embassy in Malaysia where he met with officers and attaches. Soon after, he received his first contract to supply food for the USS San Bernardino, a tank landing ship which had seen action in the Vietnam War.
But prior to his involvement with the US Navy, he had led a troubled life as a young adult.
In the podcast, he detailed how the lack of guidance from his parents landed him in trouble when the police found a gun, foreign currency, and a bullet-proof vest in his house.
He was thrown into jail, where he said he saw other prisoners being tortured. After two weeks he was brought to trial where he faced the death sentence. His mother came all the way from England to appeal before the judge.
He also spoke of how, growing up in Penang in the 1960s, he learnt the dirty secrets of the port business, paying bribes to the captains of merchant ships.
He would go on to hone these skills to entice navy officers and win himself husbandry contracts through his Singapore-based company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia.
Now under house arrest in San Diego, Francis pled guilty in 2015 to charges of bribery and fraud. Scores of other navy officials were also investigated and likewise pled guilty to their involvement in bribery as well as giving classified information to Leonard including ship movements, submarine details and ballistic missile plans.
His fortune came on the back of America’s “Forever War” and the war against terrorism, as military spending shot up, allowing for even bigger leaks from the corrupt ecosystem.
“You don’t need to overcharge them, they’ll just give you money for free. If anybody has a defence contract, you’re good for life.
“The military overall, whether the navy, the marine corps, air force, every branch – there’s no one that does due diligence fiscally because it’s not their money. It’s Uncle Sam’s money,” he said in the podcast with Wright.
The US Navy, particularly the Seventh Fleet which operates in the Pacific had relied on his company to supply food, fuel and security. His relationship and networking with authorities in Southeast Asia was key to his business success with the US Navy.
The Seventh Fleet oversees the movement of 60 ships and submarines, 150 aircraft and 20,000 sailors.
Francis partnered with an Indonesian firm to provide supplies to the US Navy which started to visit Bali as Subic Bay in the Philippines closed down.
“When the ships came back in those days, we made a very good profit out of the port visits. We did everything for them, from the food to the fuel, to the transportation, to the force protection,” he said, adding that he had had to bribe local politicians and authorities.
Between 2006 and 2013, officers of one particular aircraft, the USS Blue Ridge, were enticed with meals, feasts, liquors, cash, vacations, Cuban cigars, furniture and luxury watches in addition to prostitutes.
Francis, who is currently awaiting his sentence, admitted that he had the commanding officers “in his pocket”, as well as a network of informants. The top-ranking officials involved included former lieutenant commander Edmond A Aruffo and former navy director of intelligence operations, Rear Admiral Bruce Franklin Loveless, the latter of whom has admitted to overcharging the navy by up to US$2.5 million for port services in Japan.