How a Fake CIA Spy Fooled Everyone and Swindled Millions
The inside story of a former DEA spokesman who got government officials and defense contractors to believe he was a Gulf War hero working on a top secret task force.
Garrison Courtney talked a great game.
In his real life, he was a middle-aged former government flack with a broken marriage and a pile of unpaid bills. But when he tried to work his smooth-talk magic on an unsuspecting company executive, he was someone else altogether.
Then, he was a Gulf War veteran with hundreds of kills under his belt who could vividly recall choking on the thick black smoke of Iraq’s oil fields. He was a CIA operative who might just let you in on the secret that a foreign government had tried to poison him.
He was a patriot who needed help. He wanted these companies to put him on their payroll and give him “cover,” so he would look like an ordinary citizen and not a globe-trotting spy. The companies, of course, would be rewarded for their help, with fat government contracts.
He couldn’t give them too much information about his work; it was highly classified, after all. But there were secret task forces with shadowy sounding names—Alpha-214 and FirstNet—that were maybe supporting special ops in Africa.
There were some real-looking CIA and Pentagon documents. There were briefings by bona fide government and military officials. There were rendezvous in secure rooms known as SCIFs, where corporate executives were patted down and relieved of their phones.
At least a dozen firms, including several successful defense contractors, bought into Courtney’s wild stories, ultimately paying him more than $4 million.
They had no idea that Courtney never saw action in the military, or that his breathing problems were from fighting fires in his native Montana. That there was no Alpha-214 or FirstNet, and that the documents were forgeries. That Courtney was no CIA agent but a con man who had just pulled off a mind-boggling swindle.
‘LIKE A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE’
Courtney’s scheme—as outlined in court documents unsealed after he pleaded guilty this summer—succeeded because he made sophisticated people believe a narrative that, in retrospect, sounds like it was crafted by an amateur spy novelist.
He accomplished this, in part, by using public officials in the law-enforcement, military, and intelligence worlds as what federal prosecutors described as “unwitting props.”
The pawns included a former high-ranking Navy officer, someone in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and at least two officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration, where Courtney had been a spokesperson in the mid-2000s.
The criminal case documents don’t name those drawn into Courtney’s web of lies, but a related civil lawsuit reveals one of the public officials was Eileen K. Preisser, a senior Air Force liaison to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
Another name to emerge: retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael Lee, who was a top military executive at the the precursor to the NGA before landing jobs at a series of well-known defense contractors, including one that also hired Courtney.
The general’s firm fell victim to the scam—even though Lee had been warned by a contractor at a rival company that Courtney could not be trusted. Correspondence examined by The Daily Beast shows the rival contractor also tipped off authorities in 2013 and then watched in horror as nothing happened for years.
“It’s a fantastical story, but it’s all true,” said the contractor, who we are calling K.B. “I’ve been telling this story for years, and everybody thought I just fucking made it up.”
What Courtney pulled off—not just under the nose of government officials, but with their help—left seasoned investigators in awe. Wayne McElrath has spent his entire career chasing criminals, but the intricacy of Courtney’s fraud, as described in court documents, blew him away.
“The number of variables he was controlling for was astonishing,” said McElrath, the former director of forensic investigations for the Government Accountability Office. “I’m sitting here in amazement. After 26 years in law enforcement, I've never seen anything with this level of sophistication. It literally sounds like a Hollywood movie.”
‘HE’S FUCKING GOOD’
Back in 2012, a few years after leaving the DEA, Courtney was helming his own consulting firm with the ultra-bland name of Optimized Performance Inc.—described in his email signature as a “service-disabled-veteran-owned small business.”
K.B., who was then working for a Blackwater-type company in the D.C. area, was introduced to Courtney through a mutual friend, and he hired him on a freelance basis, hoping he could bring in more federal work. And why not? Courtney had worked at the highest levels of a government agency, held an official security clearance, and had already been vetted thoroughly by the U.S. government.
“If you met him, you’d think, ‘Wow, that guy’s great,’” K.B. told The Daily Beast. “He knows everybody, he’s smart... I’m a former intelligence officer and I’m a pretty good judge of character and you know what, he’s fucking good. He introduced me to a lot of senior government executives. He legit knows people.”
At meetings, Courtney trotted out impressive contacts, such as Mike Braun, a former DEA special operations chief, K.B. said. There was talk of lucrative contracts supporting the DEA’s now-disbanded FAST program, or “Foreign-Deployed Advisory Support Teams,” which took down drug traffickers and terror suspects abroad in military-style operations.
Garrison Courtney (8:53:58 AM): Just left you a message. DEA is trying to allocate $3 million to you
K.B. (8:56:33 AM): Scope is logistics?
Garrison Courtney (8:57:20 AM): Logistics in the form of moving FAST teams back and forth from quantico to Afghanistan
Courtney name-dropped high-ranking officers within the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and was also dialed-in with a willing network of contracting officers there, according to emails seen by The Daily Beast.
“Hey Garrison, how are you?” a senior USACE contract specialist wrote to Courtney in 2012. “I was wondering how you felt our meeting went? I have to apologize that I was not as vocal as I would have liked to be. I simply wrestled with making sure that I didn't cause any conflict of interest. It was nice seeing you again. You are crazy and I love it!”
‘AN IDEA MAN’
“Sometimes I think I trained him too well as an actor,” said Krystina Thiel, who was Courtney’s drama teacher at Great Falls High School in Montana.
Courtney was a military brat, born in the Philippines while his dad, Glen, was stationed there with the Air Force. But he was raised in Great Falls with his four siblings, all of whom have names that start with the letter G.
He was a diligent student, appearing on honor rolls in elementary school. By high school, his ambition was apparent: He worked as a student aide, excelled on the debate team, played in the jazz band, served on the yearbook staff, competed on the drama team, and was named student body president.
Courtney adored the spotlight and loved performing. Thiel remembered him as “affable and easy to like, yet not sincere.” He “never really showed his true self to anyone,” she said.
“Garrison was always an ‘idea’ man,” the drama teacher continued. “In high school, he was your typical class clown who had millions of thoughts, plans, and schemes in his brain. He always looked for an angle—ways to be truant and not get caught, manipulate systems and people, and create stories about his life.”
Thiel said that Courtney was so good at manipulation, she once gave him a little life advice.
“I remember telling him that he needed to use his powers for good, not evil,” she said.
‘HE IMPROVISED EVERYTHING’
The 1994 Great Falls High School yearbook contains a quote from Courtney that now seems ironic: “It’s hard to be focused now when you have to worry about the future.”
But back then, his future did look bright. He joined the Army National Guard to pay for college—“I liked the haircut,” he joked in an interview for the yearbook—and enrolled at Montana State University-Northern, where he edited the campus newspaper. He soon transferred to the University of Montana to pursue studies in broadcast journalism.
His UM roommate, Bill Foley, told the Daily Beast he was a campus comedian who did near-perfect impressions.
“I would come home to my dorm room and every day he would have a new outgoing answering machine message for me,” Foley told The Daily Beast. “Whether it was Kermit the Frog or Arnold Schwarzenegger, they were always funny.”
A 1998 article from the Montana Kaimin, UM’s student newspaper, said Courtney was also a radio DJ and “part-time model” and claimed to be a third-degree blackbelt in Shaolin Chin-na kung fu. He said he was teaching the martial art to fellow students—for free—to give them “the skills needed to handle real-life threats and hazardous situations.”
Foley, who now works as a sportswriter in Butte, concedes it was hard to know what was real and what was bluster with Courtney.
Did he really book a string of stand-up gigs one summer and then cancel them all because he was asked to join the UM football team? Did he really make the team, then get cut because he failed his physical? And when he said he wasn’t able to rebook those canceled performances, was that true? Foley isn’t quite sure.
“I never really had a serious conversation with Garrison because he never turned it off,” Foley said. “It was like living with Robin Williams during a Letterman appearance.”
But sometimes Courtney would surprise him.
“Next thing you know, he says he’s going to be a cheerleader,” Foley said. “I thought he was full of shit, but the next home game comes and he’s down there on the field with the cheerleaders, in full uniform... He did so many things that didn’t seem realistic, but he sold it to you.”
‘A LIAR FROM DAY ONE’
After Courtney graduated from UM in 2000, his charm offensive continued, now as a weatherman for KPAX-TV, the CBS affiliate in Missoula. The Missoula Independent named him 2000’s best forecaster, and he was the “celebrity cameo” at a local ballet performance of Cinderella.
Then it was off to the CBS station in Eugene, Oregon, where a former colleague remembers him as “more interested in being funny than doing the weather.” At KVAL, Courtney was on a one-year contract requiring that he clear any changes to his appearance with management. So it was a shock when he showed up to work one day with white-blonde hair.
“He said it was some charity thing... but anyone in TV knows if you change your appearance, they can fire you,” the former co-worker said. “[The news director] didn’t know about it until he was already on the air. When she found out, she came out and said, ‘You go home and do not come back until you look like you did before.’”
A station manager who worked with Courtney said he remembered him as “a good-natured, big lug kind of a guy.”
“When I heard about the [case], I thought, ‘That guy pulled this off?’ It just didn’t seem possible,” the station manager said. “My impression wouldn’t have been that he was diabolical or clever enough to dupe anybody out of $4 million.”
Another former colleague, however, remembered Courtney as “a bullshit artist, no question there. He was a liar from day one.”
“He liked talking about himself a lot, that’s for sure,” the colleague said. “He told me one time that he was in the Army, as a weather observer, that he went out to do readings and blow something up. I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound right to me. The guys who are doing weather readings aren't usually blowing stuff up.”
Following a couple of years in TV news, Courtney took a job as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. He was, in a way, following in the footsteps of his father, who worked for the U.S. Border Patrol as an intelligence analyst after retiring from the Air Force in 1992.
Courtney’s wife also worked for INS and by 2004, the they had relocated to Washington, where Courtney took a job as a communications staffer for Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL) before quitting in 2005 to become a spokesman for the DEA.
It’s not clear why Courtney left the DEA in 2009, but by then, he and his wife had a little boy who was almost 3 years old. Courtney’s online resume says he then worked for less than a year as a producer for TMZ.
Around 2010, Courtney struck out on his own with Optimized Performance, lining up contractors doing business with Uncle Sam as clients. Barely two years later, he admitted in court documents, he embarked on his high-stakes shell game.
Leveraging his government know-how and contacts, Courtney approached executives at more than a dozen defense companies and convinced them he was part of a hush-hush task force. Sometimes it was Alpha-214, other times First Net.
The program, he told them, has been established by high-ranking government officials including the president, the director of national intelligence, and the administrator of the DEA. And for him to carry out his secret operations, he needed “commercial cover”—a plausible-sounded civilian job. It had to look really legit, or his cover would be blown and someone could get killed. And that, conveniently, meant that Courtney would need to be on the payroll, collecting a paycheck.
He sometimes included a second man—supposedly also from the CIA— in the deal. The man, who worked with Courtney at cybersecurity contractor Blue Canopy, recently posted a message online that said Courtney “absolutely ruined his life.”
To prevent the kind of free communication that could expose the scam, Courtney created fake non-disclosure agreements forbidding any discussion of the task forces, their supposed activities, or even Courtney’s name.
Despite those precautions, Courtney’s own operational security wasn’t particularly buttoned-up. On at least one occasion, K.B.said, he saw Courtney walking around with classified documents that weren’t properly protected.
“I was like, ‘You need to get that wrapped up right now, dude,” he said he told Courtney. “That’s a problem.”
Courtney told the victims that they had been selected by the CIA to go undercover as part of the classified programs, and he provided them with forged documents saying so. He assuaged any concerns his victims might have had by providing fake “immunity from prosecution” papers, purportedly signed by the attorney general.
Walking a tightrope of duplicity, Courtney also persuaded U.S. government officials they had been chosen to be part of Alpha-214 or FirstNet—then provided phony talking points for meetings he arranged with the victim companies.
The company execs left the sit-downs with confidence that Courtney was the real thing, while, according to prosecutors, the officials never suspected they were being used to legitimize a scam.
Courtney tried to “corruptly influence” one of the government officials, a civilian employee of the U.S. military who was detailed to an intelligence agency, by convincing two of the companies to hire the official’s thoroughly unqualified adult child.
It wasn’t only government workers who were seduced. Courtney also convinced at least two private citizens that they had been selected to participate in the covert programs: a pediatric anesthetist with a side gig as a writer and video producer, and a consultant for private companies doing business with the federal government. Courtney had one pose as a Pentagon official in meetings, and had the other pretend to be a CIA contracting officer.
In perhaps his most audacious feat, Courtney completed the circle by getting a position as a private contractor at the National Institutes of Health Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC). Courtney told NITAAC officials that the CIA specifically chose the agency to handle contracts for the secret task forces. As a result, Courtney was able to steer contracts to the companies employing him as part of his “CIA cover.”
And what a cover it was. Using an array of aliases, Courtney created a backstory for himself that was brimming with derring-do. He claimed to be a Gulf War veteran, although it was actually his father—who died of a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 57—who served in that conflict.
Among his more fantastic tales: a “hostile foreign intelligence service” tried to poison him with ricin during a spy mission. In reality, the closest Courtney ever came to working for the CIA was in 2006, when he interviewed for a job and received a conditional offer that lapsed while he remained at the DEA.
He told company officials they were under surveillance by foreign intelligence agencies and ordered them to lock down their social media accounts and switch up their routes to work. Foreign spies were out to harm them, Courtney claimed, and he recommended that some start carrying guns.
For K.B., the first inkling that something was amiss came in the fall of 2012 as he was putting together a business plan for a cybersecurity startup focusing on national security issues. K.B., who was still on the payroll at his defense contractor job, asked Courtney to review the documents for his new venture.
After a month or so, Courtney texted with good news. He said he wanted to introduce K.B. to Curtin Winsor Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, whom Courtney claimed to know from the Freemasons, where he had been active for years. (The Daily Beast has seen the texts and emails between Courtney and K.B.)
Winsor was selling his family business in West Virginia for close to $200 million, Courtney claimed, and needed to move the money into an appropriate investment for tax purposes. The ambassador, Courtney said, really liked K.B.’s pitch deck, and wanted to sink $1 million into the startup.
Courtney offered to help K.B. pull together the documents and corporate registrations required to do business with the federal government, and asked for K.B.’s personal info, including his Social Security number, as well as the details of the company’s leadership.
“I [then] got on the phone and had what I thought was a phone call with the ambassador,” K.B. told The Daily Beast.
Three days later, Courtney texted K.B. with a link to an obituary for Curtin Winsor III, the ambassador's son, who had died suddenly of a heart attack, but insisted the elder Winsor still planned to go ahead with the investment deal. Soon after, K.B. received an email from a Gmail account in the ambassador’s name, and over the next few weeks, he and his new investor hammered out an agreement via email.
Despite the progress, K.B. had a nagging feeling about the situation. Instead of offering a $1 million equity investment, the ambassador wanted to give K.B. a $10 million loan at a 1 percent interest rate, which didn’t make sense for someone looking for a tax shelter.
Plus, K.B. and the ambassador had not yet met in person. Winsor explained that he believed in Courtney, and since Freemason rules forbade him to give money directly to other members, he figured he would do the “next best thing” and invest in one of his friends.
Still perplexed but eager to get his company off the ground, K.B. brought the offer to his lawyers. They did their due diligence, running background checks on Winsor, and found nothing problematic. By the end of December, K.B. had a signed agreement.
“I was like, ‘OK, that’s cool—I think I just got my company funded,” he recalled.
But endless delays ensued, along with increasingly convoluted excuses: the ambassador’s wife was in the hospital with dehydration; a wire transfer had been flagged as suspicious by the Department of Homeland Security; the bank president had frozen the funds because he believed the ambassador, who was on the board, had misappropriated money.
K.B. (9:53:51 AM): Did u talk to curt today or just leave a vm?
Garrison Courtney (9:54:14 AM): Talked to him
K.B. (9:54:44 AM): What are your thoughts
Garrison Courtney (9:55:43 AM): He's just slow. Lots on his plate. Sounded a little depressed. He got pulled into board issues at Georgetown bank that they were focusing in this week. They tried to screw his sons family in benefits etc
By this time, K.B. said, he had resigned from his day job in anticipation of striking out on his own. The money still hadn’t hit his account, and K.B. was growing more and more anxious. That’s when he learned another disaster had struck.
On Feb. 5, Courtney sent K.B. a text saying that the ambassador’s wife had died after being removed from a ventilator. The next day, there was a follow-up email from the supposedly grieving widower.
I apologize for the continued delays. I didn't expect the circumstances as they are. I am running behind today as I didn't get home until late. We are planning a service in Puerto Rico for Ann, as that is where she is from. I am meeting with the mortuary shortly and will advise as to the schedule from that point. Again, I really apologize for the delay. The word surreal comes to mind right now.
After sitting with the news for a week or so, K.B. searched online for the ambassador’s contact info, and called the number for Curtin and Ann Winsor in McLean, Virginia. An older woman answered the phone.
“Is this Ann Winsor?” K.B. asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Ma'am, I heard you were dead,” said K.B.
The ambassador wasn’t home—he was at a Masons meeting—but soon called K.B. to find out what in the world was going on. K.B. learned that Curt Winsor had no idea who he was, had never heard of his company, and wasn’t behind that Gmail account. He certainly hadn’t ever promised to loan K.B. $10 million.
The real Winsor did, however, know Garrison Courtney. He said he had been kicked out of the Masons the year before for unexplained reasons.
It’s not entirely clear why Courtney had allegedly concocted this ruse, though K.B. suspected it was part of some plan to secretly acquire equity in his new company. “And who knows what he was going to do with it from there,” he said.
Motive aside, the episode provided a fascinating glimpse into how Courtney spun those around him—how when one scenario fell apart, there was always a new one.
K.B. was still on the phone with the real Ambassador Winsor when, by pure coincidence, Courtney began texting him. He had bad news: Winsor was pulling out of the investment. Not to worry, though, another wealthy investor he knew from the Masons lodge was lined up and ready to go.
Garrison Courtney (9:08:28 AM): Call me. Jack wants to meet you. He's going to take his family to see curt. Said if curt doesn't take action he will lend, but will want to be board chairman when he leaves Caci in December. We need to coordinate through his scheduler
By now, K.B. said, he knew none of this was the slightest bit true and confronted Courtney. “I told him, ‘You're a liar, you're a fraud, and you're busted. I went to the [Fairfax, VA] police, and gave them all the emails and documents and everything I had.”
‘THIS GUY IS BAD NEWS’
K.B. waited patiently for a call from investigators, but it never came. He said the cops, who did not respond to a request for comment, decided that since he had not actually lost any money, they would not refer the case to prosecutors. But K.B. felt he still had a duty to report Courtney’s behavior to the government.
Aware that Courtney still held a security clearance, K.B. sent an urgent email to the facility security officer at Defense Group Inc. (DGI), a data analytics contractor that supports operations by the FBI and the Defense Department, where Courtney’s and his company now had a contract.
“My concerns are that if he will lie and potentially defraud my company, what would he do with access to classified information,” K.B. wrote. DGI’s security chief promised to look into it, but he never heard from them again. (The security officer K.B. contacted has since died and DGI’s new owner did not respond to a request for comment.)
K.B. also emailed the Pentagon’s inspector general, flagging Courtney’s “unethical” and “erratic” behavior and access to classified information. He said his alert was met with silence.
About a year and a half later, while doing research for a contract, K.B. was scrolling through his contacts on LinkedIn and noticed that Courtney was now working for Blue Canopy. He immediately emailed Mike Lee, the retired general, who was a senior executive there; they volunteered at the same organization and knew each other in passing.
“General Lee, I hope all is well with you,” K.B. wrote. “It recently came to my attention that you have recently hired a former employee of mine. I would like to give you a bit of background on him because he potentially can wreak havoc on your company and reputation. Do you have some time to chat?”
The two spoke by phone, and K.B. said Lee asked him to send any documentation about Courtney’s activities.
The following week, Lee wrote back and said Blue Canopy was treating the matter “with the utmost seriousness,” but pushed back on the allegations. The general insisted that he and his partners had spoken to Courtney, and they had come to a vastly different conclusion. Lee then questioned K.B.’s motives for sounding the alarm, and inaccurately suggested K.B. might even have broken a state shield law by sharing his concern about a former employee with a new employer. “This contact potentially presents us and you, with a significant liability,” Lee wrote.
K.B. was stunned by the response.
Lee was highly respected within the military community, had been a leader at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and had earned the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement, the Defense Superior Service Medal, and a Bronze Star. K.B. fired off an email to him explaining his only agenda was protecting national security—an obligation for anyone with a security clearance.
“I shared information with you based on [Courtney’s] work in the Intelligence Community and the potential for exploitation and compromise by an employee,” K.B. wrote. “You said you wanted the information disclosed to you... What you do with it is up to you.”
“You even told me he had TOP SECRET documents in his notebook,” K.B. added. “In the age of Snowden, we have an obligation to err on the side of caution. What you do with that information is up to you and your security team. The other similarities between my story and your story are too eerie to be coincidence… I hope I am wrong.”
Lee—who appears to match the description of “Public Official F” in Courtney’s charging documents—did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I told law enforcement and anybody that I could, ‘This guy is bad news,’ and nobody believed me,” K.B told The Daily Beast. “All the flags were raised... I did everything that could've ever been expected and the system failed.”
‘STILL KEEPS ME UP AT NIGHT’
On his personal website, Courtney billed himself as a marketing guru helping “people and companies build their personal and professional brand!” Meanwhile, his own life was falling apart.
He had gotten divorced, and later had a second child with another woman. He had once confided in K.B. about his dissatisfaction with the way things had turned out.
Garrison Courtney (6:20:14 PM): It's incredibly frustrating to have two kids with two women and not be married. I feel like a huge loser and never envisioned this is where I would be. Sorry. Just venting. Sometimes I need to or I bottle it up and I apologize of it bothers you that I'm unloading. Just trust and respect you which is as close to a friend as I have right now
His finances were also unraveling. He defaulted on his mortgage and his car loan, and was evicted from his home for not paying rent, according to public records. In March 2014, he filed for bankruptcy; the records show he owed creditors $697,157 while claiming personal assets of just $4,823, about $400 of which was cash.
His obligations included a $25,000 divorce settlement, $2,500 a month in child support—$35,611 of which was in arrears—an $11,245 IRS bill, a $119,051 civil judgment for breach of contract, and hundreds of thousands more dollars in medical bills, car loans, student loans, business loans, lawyers’ fees, and credit card debt.
“Beware of Garrison Courtney,” the website said. “He worked in the US Army and at DEA. He will tell you he worked for the highest levels in those agencies. He will tell you he knows everyone and they all owe him favors. He is a liar, cheat and fraud. He may tell you stories about how he has cancer and is a disabled vet. He may tell you how he traveled the world in secrecy for the Masons. He may tell you he can bring you $100M in DEA and Army contracts.”
It concluded, “He is a schemer, a fraud, a liar. Run before he can think of a plan to get your money.”
The site’s creator? An increasingly frustrated K.B., who was by now desperate to get the word out about Courtney.
“Garrison Courtney is as close as I've ever been to actually ever doing business with a criminal,” said K.B. “It still keeps me up at night, and so I will ring the bell to make sure nobody else gets fucked by him.”
It seems that the site caught the eye of Courtney—who perversely tried to use it as a selling point.
“After learning the hard way about anonymous smear tactics that were directed against him, Garrison Courtney has helped multiple high-profile athletes, officials and senior business leaders with their reputation management issues,” says one of his many online bios.
Even as K.B. was being ignored, Courtney’s fake-spy scheme was beginning to develop cracks. As time went by, several of the executives began asking why they hadn’t been reimbursed yet by the CIA, according to federal court filings. Courtney responded by accusing the execs of leaking supposedly classified information, threatening that they could be prosecuted or have their security clearances revoked. When one of them told Courtney he thought he might be a fraud, Courtney accused him of being an Iranian spy.
After one company began to lean more heavily on Courtney in 2015 for repayment, he came up with a last-ditch plan. (Although it is not named in criminal filings for Courtney, the company is identified in a related civil case as Blue Canopy).
According to the civil suit, Courtney began to negotiate a loan from Capefirst Funding, a Virginia-based finance company, by claiming that the U.S. government was about to seize Blue Canopy for alleged criminal violations by senior executives at the company.
Blue Canopy, of course, was the firm tied to Gen. Lee, who had brushed off K.B.’s warnings that Courtney was a bad actor. Now, after Blue Canopy had defended him, he was smearing it so that he could get his hands on a massive sum through a convoluted financial transaction, the lawsuit alleges.
He allegedly told CapeFirst that the seizure couldn’t take place until the feds paid the company $1.95 million for its work on Alpha-214. If Capefirst settled the outstanding bill, he explained, the federal government would subsequently pay the firm $2.5 million via a government contract awarded to a third party, Westfields Holdings LLC.
To sell this idea, Courtney needed to look like he really was a secret agent working on a top-level project. The lawsuit says that he—along with a government official identified in civil court documents as Eileen Preisser, the Air Force liaison to the NGA—held meetings with Westfields and the finance executives inside an NGA SCIF in Springfield, Virginia.
The contract, which Courtney allegedly printed up to look like an official Pentagon document, was signed at the Arlington offices of Riverside Research, a not-for-profit think tank and government contractor. Courtney didn’t allow the executives to keep a copy because, he claimed, the company didn’t have the appropriate “facility clearance” to safely store classified documents. The suit says Courtney reassured the executive that he’d keep the contract in a locked safe which adhered to proper security protocols. Needless to say, they were all fake.
On Nov. 5, 2015, Capefirst wired the money to an escrow account maintained by a lawyer hired by Courtney. Through a series of transfers, Courtney was able to make it appear to Blue Canopy that the company had actually been paid by the U.S. government. But the $2.5 million payday Courtney promised Capefirst never came, prosecutors said in court filings.
At some point that year, the government finally opened an investigation into Courtney. K.B. sat for hours of interviews and turned over his entire text and email histories with Courtney. It would take, among others, the FBI, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the inspector general of the CIA the better part of five years to finally nail Courtney.
K.B. called his FBI contact every few months, hoping the investigation would this time bear fruit.
“Just keep checking the news,” the agent told him.
Incredibly—or perhaps predictably—Courtney allegedly continued his scam even after he was released pending sentencing.
When he was charged, Courtney told the court he was working for Huntington Ingalls Industries, the country’s largest military shipbuilder, in Tampa, Florida. This was true. However, as prosecutors charged in a motion filed this month, he left out that he was employed under the alias “Baer Pierson.”
As it turns out, the feds say, Courtney had given Huntington Ingalls the same line about being deep undercover for the CIA. He was a “burned Agency asset,” Courtney insisted, and his cover had inadvertently been blown during a botched FBI investigation, prosecutors wrote.
Given his continuing involvement with classified government programs, Courtney allegedly told Huntington Ingalls, having him on board could result in a big contract from the intelligence community. In November, prosecutors allege, Courtney held a bogus classified briefing, trotted out the requisite fake NDAs, and swore company executives to secrecy.
This spring, prosecutors informed Huntington Ingalls about the charges Courtney was facing, and he resigned before the company could fire him. The promised contract reportedly never materialized—and Huntington Ingalls became the 14th company the government says was scammed by Courtney.
But even then, the subterfuge wasn’t over.
Once Courtney’s plea agreement made headlines, a senior executive at Huntington Ingalls became alarmed by additional details revealed in the filing. The exec called General Service Administration officials to demand a classified briefing—inside a SCIF—to assess the legitimacy of the secret program Courtney said he had been part of.
That weekend, a Huntington Ingalls attorney’s cell phone rang. The man on the other end identified himself as Devon Azzamoria from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
Azzamoria said he was calling to arrange a meeting for company executives to be “read in” to a classified program. Don’t forget about the NDAs, Azzamoria reminded the lawyer—not a word of this was to be uttered to anyone. The covert gathering would take place “in McLean,” the caller said, using insider shorthand for CIA headquarters.
It didn’t take investigators long to figure out that “Azzamoria” probably wasn’t who he said he was. No one by that name works at ODNI, for starters, and the call didn’t come from a number associated with ODNI. Instead, investigators say, the number was traced back to an internet address assigned to Garrison Courtney’s Florida home.
“Courtney’s brazen actions in continuing to perpetrate his fraud, even after pleading guilty and being admonished by this Court, show that there are no conditions short of detention that can protect the community pending sentencing,” prosecutors said in an Aug. 11 motion that seeks to put him behind bars until his sentencing.
In a response motion, Courtney argued that his actions didn’t constitute fraud because he failed to get any money out of the company. He prepared to contest the government’s attempt to revoke his bond, then suddenly changed his mind. As a result, he was taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals Service on Wednesday, pending an Oct. 23 sentencing in which he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.
And his legal problems may not end there. Capefirst Funding, which fronted Courtney $1.95 million to pay Blue Canopy, has sued the Jacobs Engineering Group, which acquired Blue Canopy in 2017, to claw back its money. Last month, a federal judge ruled that Jacobs was not liable for the loss, and that Capefirst would have to sue Courtney for the funds.
When The Daily Beast reached out to Courtney, via his personal email, his court-appointed lawyer, Stuart Sears, replied on his behalf.
“I represent Mr. Courtney and I understand that you recently contacted him to see if he was interested in discussing his side of the case,” Sears wrote. “On my advice, he has decided to decline your offer but we appreciate you giving him the opportunity.”
‘IT CAUGHT UP WITH HIM’
Given his government experience, Courtney knew all too well how to get lost within the endless layers of bureaucracy that exist on the federal level. Even though information-sharing has improved since the 9/11 attacks, there are still myriad gaps to exploit.
“Federal agencies don't talk to each other,” said McElrath, the former federal investigator, who now works as an adviser to the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.
“In the off-chance they did, he backstopped that—he had so-and-so who, if someone called, they would say that yes, he’s part of this task force. And that person thought he was part of the task force because he presented them with a fake document that said he was.”
Cedric Leighton, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer who helped develop plausible cover identities for covert operators during his military career, said Courtney’s fraud was remarkable for the large sums involved and the depth of the deception.
“It’s the first case I’m familiar with of a person actually going to such lengths to manipulate companies in this way,” he said.
Back in Montana, Courtney’s high school drama teacher recalled the moment she learned that her former pupil had not taken the advice she gave about how to use his talents.
“As I was routinely reading my daily dose of the news, I happened upon the article about Garrison,” she said. “Truthfully, my heart started beating faster as I read the details of his scam. I let the information process, then I came to the conclusion that while I would have never predicted this as Garrison's future, I definitely wasn't shocked.”
K.B., meanwhile, has finally been vindicated.
He didn’t lose much to Courtney, save a few thousand bucks in legal fees he still hated paying. He’s doing well now, and his company is making money. But while he’s far luckier than others who crossed paths with Courtney, K.B. didn’t get away unscathed.
“I lost the respect of employees, customers, and way too much time,” he said. “[Courtney] is very good. He is a professional con man... I’m glad it caught up with him. It’s just too bad nothing happened until people lost four-and-a-half million dollars.”