The sun sets early in Iraq in December. So, it would have been approaching dusk--calm and eerie--when Dale Stoffel climbed into the passenger seat of his black BMW station wagon at Taji military base outside of Baghdad. He would have held his dull, black Heckler & Koch MP-5 submachine gun tight to his body, the way he always did. The trip back to Baghdad was just 15 miles, but it led through what had become, by December 2004, some of the most dangerous terrain in the world--the Sunni suburbs of Baghdad.
At 43 years old, Stoffel, an American businessman and arms dealer, sported a goatee that gave his grin a mischievous appearance. He probably would have been grinning that day. After all, he believed he had just rescued the biggest business deal of his tumultuous career, one that he thought would not only make him millions but would also help to arm the Iraqi military against the insurgents. It was a deal he believed in with all his heart.
Everyone has heard stories of selfless idealists killed in Iraq. Stoffel was not one of those and probably would not have wanted to be seen that way. He was a self-professed man of action, one who was proudly and openly in Iraq to make a fortune. Still, he supported the war and the promise of a new Middle East and was a solid Republican, an enthusiastic backer of George W. Bush, and a donor to the president's campaigns.
There had been obstacles in Stoffel's way: distractions, false starts, broken promises. There had been encounters with con men, hucksters, and thugs. Stoffel--who'd come to Iraq on the strength of his connections with a circle of Washington lobbyists associated with the invasions eminence grise, Ahmed Chalabi--had recently accused the Iraqi government and American employees of U.S. military contractors of corruption in a massive deal involving military equipment. But he believed his friends in Washington had sorted it all out and that he was going to be paid the millions of dollars he felt he was owed. An Army colonel who saw him that day said he appeared "pleased."
Two days later, Stoffel's car was discovered in a grim neighborhood along the Tigris. The hood was crumpled like a paper bag, the windshield a haze of cracks. The dashboard was covered with blood. Stoffel had been shot repeatedly in the head and upper back. His friend and employee, Joe Wemple, had been shot once through the head.
A mysterious insurgent group has claimed credit for Stoffel's killing; another terrorist group celebrated the murder and called him an American spy. His friends, though, aren't convinced that this was just another act of violence by militants in Iraq, and neither, apparently, is the FBI, which is now investigating his death. In the chaos of Iraq, it's likely that no one will ever know for sure why Dale Stoffel was murdered.
What does become clear, from dozens of interviews with people who knew Stoffel and from documents that detail his work, is that Dale Stoffel's life--and death--was a version, in miniature, of the American occupation itself. His personality, with its mix of idealism, ideology, and self-interest, mirrored those of the senior administration staff and young officials who manned the American headquarters in Iraq. Stoffel and these administration officials shared a belief that they were clever enough, tough enough, and committed enough to impose their will on a dangerous land through the use of key Iraqi insiders. But, in the end, their Iraqi friends used them.
Legit side of a shady world
I had known Stoffel for four years, and I liked him. We had first met in 2000 over a Scotch and a rockfish dinner at the Landini Brothers restaurant in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va., a self-consciously quaint shopping district across the Potomac River from D.C. where the elite of the defense contracting world meet after work. Stoffel was smoking Cuban cigars with gusto, practically smacking his lips each time he took a puff. He told good stories--of dinners with defense attaches, of drinking a $1,000 bottle of '61 Lafite Rothschild with a drunken Russian oligarch in Monte Carlo. He was loud and brash and seemed to think himself as a man's man, adventuresome and self-reliant. Stoffel liked to mimic hip-hop lingo; he called me "homeboy." But he also had a subtle intelligence and a chameleon-like ability to shape his personality to his audience and situation.
He must have picked up his swagger somewhere because "he sure wasn't like that in high school," a long-time friend of his told me. Stoffel was raised in suburban Washington, where he became an Eagle Scout, and then in Pittsburgh, where his family moved while he was in high school. Mr. Rogers broadcast his show from the Pittsburgh PBS station where Stoffel's father worked as a technician. His mother was a homemaker.
At 19, Stoffel joined the National Guard, less out of any interest in soldiering, relatives said, than to get money for college. His military records show that he was a heavy weapons specialist with a penchant for complex hardware: His military courses included advanced radar, electronic warfare, and electronic intelligence. Later, shortly after he graduated from Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania with degrees in mathematics and physics, Stoffel was recruited (on the strength of his undergraduate work) to be a civilian analyst in the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in Suitland, Md., studying missile technologies. By his colleagues' accounts, he was very good at his job. In 1987, two years into his tenure at ONI, close associates of Stoffel's remembered, the USS Stark was hit in the Persian Gulf by an Iraqi missile, nearly sinking the ship and killing 37 sailors. Stoffel was a junior member on the team flown to the Middle East to figure out what had happened, but when he studied the missile parts embedded in the wreckage, his associates recalled he discovered that the original Navy assessment, that a lone missile had struck the ship, was wrong. He showed his superiors that parts of two different missiles had stuck into the vessel's metal plates, making it harder for Iraqis to argue that the weapons had been fired accidentally.
Stoffel was also, early on, publicly intolerant of dishonesty, associates of his remember: His first year at ONI, his coworker Jonathan Pollard was arrested for spying on Israel's behalf. Stoffel despised Pollard and told friends and associates for years afterwards that Pollard had been unprincipled, a money-grubber who claimed heartfelt allegiance to Israel only as a way out of trouble.
Civil service money may not have been good enough for Pollard, and, in the long run, it wasn't good enough for Stoffel either. Stoffel left government work in 1989 and joined the staff of a series of defense and intelligence contractors, developing a unique specialty: buying up missiles and other weapons produced in the former Communist bloc countries on contracts for the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies who wanted to analyze them. This work--on the legit side of a shady world--introduced him to a circle of adventuresome arms dealers based in Austria. According to his associates, Stoffel simply loved the swashbuckling, high-living lifestyle. "Dale always thought he was going to be someone big, and important," a close relative said, "but he wasn't one to plan more than a few months in advance. It wasn't as if he planned to be an adventurer; he more or less fell into this line of work. But he loved it; he realized that it suited him." By 1995, Stoffel had become successful enough to start his own company, Miltex, specializing in the same kinds of contracts.
Miltex had a brush with scandal in 1999 when its name appeared in a Human Rights Watch investigation into the arms trade in connection with a missile shipment seized in Bulgaria and presumed to be destined for Africa. Stoffel suggested that other arms dealers might have simply stolen his company's name for use on some documents related to the illegal weapons sale, which happens not infrequently in the shadowy world of arms dealing. Human Rights Watch's report mentioned Stoffel's explanation...