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Con man and fake spy who once worked for DEA, DHS gets seven years in prison

"Courtney — along with his five aliases — will now spend the next seven years in federal prison," said the U.S. attorney.
Former DEA and DHS spokeperson Garrison Courtney enters guilty plea in U.S. District Court, in Alexandria, Va., on June 11, 2020.
Former DEA and DHS spokeperson Garrison Courtney enters guilty plea in U.S. District Court, in Alexandria, Va., on June 11, 2020.Art Lien

WASHINGTON — As the court documents tell it, the pitch was practically irresistible. And all but unverifiable.

Garrison Kenneth Courtney, once fairly well known in national security circles as a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, told companies he was working as a CIA operative under non-official cover, prosecutors say. If they would do their patriotic duty and hire him, they would be compensated handsomely with no-bid secret intelligence contracts.

Courtney played his part well. He held meetings in special facilities designed for classified information. He searched his contacts for surveillance devices, gave them fake classified documents, and brought actual military and intelligence officials to presentations, using them as unwitting props to bolster his fraud, prosecutors say.

From 2012 to 2016, the scheme netted him $4.4 million, according to court records. But on Wednesday, the bill came due. Having pleaded guilty to wire fraud, Courtney was sentenced to 7 years in federal prison during a court hearing in Alexandria, Va. He faced up to 20 years.

"Courtney — along with his five aliases — will now spend the next seven years in federal prison for his deceitful and felonious criminal conduct," said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. "Courtney's brazen and salacious fraud was centered on the lie that he was involved in a highly-classified intelligence program, and that he was a covert CIA officer engaged in significant national security work. In fact, Courtney never worked for the CIA, the supposed classified program did not exist, and Courtney invented the elaborate lie to cheat his victims out of over $4.4 million."

A resident of Tampa, Florida, Courtney studied broadcast journalism at the University of Montana, and once worked as a reporter and weather presenter for CBS affiliates in several states before transitioning to government public affairs work, according to a now defunct LinkedIn profile. He worked as a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security for three years and then as chief spokesman for the DEA from 2005 to 2009.

Garrison Courtney in a C-SPAN broadcast on July 20, 2004.C-SPAN

The case shows how an ingenious con man was able to exploit the weaknesses of a military intelligence industrial complex that runs on secrecy and profit motive.

Courtney knew the companies he targeted, mainly shadowy intelligence contractors, couldn't just call the main number at CIA headquarters in Langley and verify his employment. And Courtney gave them reasons not to question his story, records show.

He bolstered his bona fides by convincing actual military and intelligence officials that he was working on a secret intelligence task force. Those public officials would then accompany him to presentations to companies, court records say. On occasion the officials would scold corporate executives for supposedly leaking classified information, lending a further air of legitimacy to the fake program, prosecutors say.

Some of those same officials gave Courtney access to special rooms inside government buildings where highly classified information can safely be reviewed and discussed. His use of these "Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities," known as SCIFs, made it less likely that his story would be questioned.

Perhaps Courtney would have made a good CIA operative, because he built an elaborate and believable backstory for himself, prosecutors say. He claimed he had served in the U.S. Army during the Gulf War, had hundreds of confirmed kills while in combat, sustained lung injuries from smoke caused by fires set to Iraq's oil fields, and that a hostile foreign intelligence service had attempted to assassinate him by poisoning him with ricin.

He even provided the companies a fake letter from the U.S. Attorney General, purporting to grant them immunity from prosecution in connection with their participation in the classified program, court records say.

Courtney wasn't able to steer contracts to all of his clients, and eventually, court records say, some companies began to question why they were not receiving the promised remuneration.

In one case, Courtney convinced a company to send him $1.9 million by telling officials the U.S. government was going to seize it if they didn't pay. He then had that money disbursed to another of his clients, court records say.

But in other cases, dissatisfied partners kept pressing, and hired lawyers.

Court records don't say how the government began to unravel the scheme, but Courtney is the only person to have been charged.

In a statement, Courtney's lawyer Stuart Sears said, "What you saw in court today was a sincerely remorseful human being who took responsibility for his conduct. While there are many explanations for what Mr. Courtney did, he has offered no excuses. He has a long history of service to his country and I expect that, upon his release from prison, he will once again be a law-abiding and contributing member of society."