Fake CIA Spy Almost Scammed His Way Into Immunity
“It is chilling to consider what the defendant could have accomplished,” prosecutors wrote of Garrison Courtney.
The scam was bigger than anyone knew.
A sentencing memo filed in federal court by the Department of Justice reveals for the first time the full extent of fake spy Garrison Courtney’s stunning ruse: In addition to the $4.4 million he personally extracted from his victims over the course of more than four years, he was in line for nearly $4 billion in Army, Navy, and Air Force contracts had the FBI not caught him.
Even more astonishing, before his double-fake cover was blown, Courtney came “dangerously close” to getting a legal sign-off that could have made it impossible for prosecutors to bring him to justice, authorities said in the new filing.
Courtney, who served as a high-level spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration before embarking on his criminal career, pleaded guilty this summer to one count of wire fraud. As The Daily Beast reported, his con was so audacious and complicated—and hoodwinked so many current and former government officials—that seasoned investigators were left slack-jawed.
And in a handwritten jailhouse letter, Courtney claimed that his scheme got so big, he didn’t know how to stop it without exposing himself as a “fraud and failure.”
According to court papers, after he left his DEA job, Courtney crafted a new, entirely fictional persona as a deep-cover CIA operative on a top-secret mission crucial to national security. He approached defense contractors and convinced them to put him on their payrolls so he would look like an ordinary citizen as he went about his supposedly covert activities. Courtney promised the companies lucrative government contracts in return—and in some cases, delivered.
The memo released ahead of his Oct. 27 sentencing includes part of a spreadsheet Courtney maintained to track the federal contracts he was vying for. When investigators disrupted his plot in 2016, Courtney was “seeking to corrupt over $3.7 billion in federal procurements,” prosecutors wrote.
“The government had requirements, he knew the requirements, and he was gonna deliver the requirements,” a person involved in Courtney’s scheme—but who escaped criminal charges by cooperating with investigators—told The Daily Beast, explaining that Courtney specifically targeted companies he knew would qualify for the contracts. “He only needed a little bit more time, and he actually would have delivered. If left alone, he’d probably be a billionaire right now.”
The scam involved authentic-looking CIA documents, on actual agency letterhead, and briefings by real government officials and military officers in secure rooms called SCIFs. Using these sorts of phony documents, Courtney also managed to convince government employees as well as private citizens that they had been selected to go undercover for the CIA.
In a sealed pre-sentencing investigation report, which is footnoted in the prosecutors’ memo, Courtney is quoted as saying, “So many people believed in it and were determined for the ‘program’ to succeed. It seemed to me like the program was actually on the verge of becoming real or legitimate given who was involved and how it was operating.”
Courtney was so convincing, he had a number of unnamed public officials try to halt the FBI’s investigation in the name of national security. One “went so far as to threaten the FBI agents with themselves being prosecuted if they continued their investigation,” according to the memo. The feds say Courtney came “dangerously close” to effectively immunizing himself from prosecution” by getting his bogus program legitimized under national security law. If Courtney had convinced officials to sign off on a so-called Security Classification Guide giving the program actual legal cover, “it is chilling to consider what the defendant could have accomplished,” says the memo.
Since everything was supposedly highly classified, none of his marks were allowed to mention Courtney’s phony program for fear of prosecution. In fact, this apparently remains a problem for investigators.
“Investigators commonly must confront and overcome the code of silence practiced by organized crime, gang members, or corrupt public officials,” says the prosecutors’ memo. “But here, law enforcement was faced with ordinarily law-abiding witnesses and victims who steadfastly refused to speak because of their mistaken belief that they had a legal and patriotic duty to remain silent. In certain instances, the defendant had fooled his victims so thoroughly that years later, despite the active involvement of cleared special agents from the FBI, and investigators from the CIA’s Office of Inspector General and the Intelligence Community Inspector General (who, by statute, have access to all classified information within their areas of responsibility...)... some witnesses still refuse to speak with the prosecution team.”
Worse yet “is the emotional and reputational damage [Courtney] wrought on his victims,” prosecutors wrote in their filing. “One victim notes that he/she gave up a solid position and career to assume what he/she was led to believe would be an important role assisting the government in the defendant’s bogus program. Former colleagues hold that victim at arm’s length, and the victim has lost job opportunities.”
Courtney’s former sidekick, who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition that his name not be used, is an ex-military intelligence officer. The two worked together at cybersecurity contractor Blue Canopy, one of the companies that gave Courtney the “commercial cover” he claimed to need. The ex-coworker said his involvement with Courtney ultimately cost him his life’s savings, his marriage, and his honor.
“The FBI agreed not to put my name out there, so I thought I could walk away from this and try to create some semblance of a life,” the coworker said. “All I ever wanted to be was an intelligence officer, and I was really good.”
It all came crashing down in 2016 when, prosecutors say, law enforcement began “actively probing” Courtney’s bona fides. In a conversation secretly recorded by the highest-ranking intelligence official in the U.S. Air Force, Courtney brazenly lied about the origins of the program, which he called, among other things, Alpha-214 and FirstNet.
“In 2013, it was, I can’t remember if it was 15th or 18th of December... when all the Snowden fallout happened, basically the industry just got nailed,” Courtney told the official. “They were losing... about 3 trillion... So they had the White House meeting... There was a group of about 15 people that were told, ‘You’re in the private sector now. We need you to coordinate with the private sector to get stuff aligned.’ In about 2016 January, which is now, then the government will start to work with you in order to set up the portfolio or program so that we can start putting the proper protocols in place.”
Courtney insisted to the official, identified in the filing as a lieutenant general, that any questions about the veracity of the program were simply a result of “miscommunication” between departing Pentagon officials and their successors.
The FBI raided Courtney’s Florida home a few months later.
“Courtney’s extraordinary capacity to deceive and manipulate others, and his brazen use of the powers of our government, reveal that he is in need of a substantial period of incapacitation,” prosecutors wrote.
This past June, Courtney took a deal and agreed to plead guilty. While out on bail, he got a job at Pizza Hut to try and pay his bills, according to a companion filing submitted by Courtney’s lawyer. But Courtney continued to perpetuate his swindle even after his guilty plea, and Courtney was soon remanded to jail to await his sentencing.
In the filing, defense attorney Stuart Sears pointed out that Courtney was battling “significant financial problems” when he committed his crimes, but that he used the money to support his family and take care of things like medical bills, not to “support a lavish lifestyle.” This, argued Sears, should be taken into consideration by the judge determining his punishment. He is asking for a sentence of 37 months.
In a handwritten letter to U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady from his jail cell, Courtney explained that “what started with a simple lie grew into something I could no longer control or stop without admitting to being a fraud and failure.”
In the note, which covered four pages of lined notebook paper, Courtney said he regrets “causing others to become less trusting of the government they interact with.” He admitted that “reputations have been tarnished,” companies have “suffered real financial losses,” and government resources were wasted on the “web” of lies he spun.
He went on to promise to use his time in prison to better himself.
“As I said in the beginning, it is an over-whelming (sic) feeling entering a jail cell and knowing it will be my home for the foreseeable future,” Courtney wrote. “I will spend the time in jail building back the trust I have lost with my family and others. I will serve my time with dignity and honorably.”
He mentioned his (actual) military service, the graduate degree he earned from George Mason University, and his “five wonderful boys.” He also promised to be a model inmate, noting that he has “already started this process.”
“I will do whatever it takes to prove to my children that they can still be proud of their dad,” Courtney continued. “Being seperated (sic) from them and knowing that I will not be there to help raise them has been emotionally devastating for them and myself. But, this is my fault and my fault alone and my path to redemption will be making sure they know that and strive to not make the same mistakes I have.”