The New York Post published an article titled; “The CIA, Siberia and the $5M bar bill” on August 17, 2009 that details a CIA operation to buy Russian helicopters that was launched from El Paso. The author, Sharon Weinnberger, details an escapade right out of a cloak and dagger novel, drunken characters and unprepared operatives.
According to Weinberger, a charter crew was detained by Russian authorities in Petropavlosk on December 4, 2001 for entering Russia without the proper documentation. Weinberger writes that the Boeing 737 departed Biggs Army Airfield on December 2, carrying a crew plus 16 American citizens traveling on tourist visas.
The New York Post piece gets its information from court documents. The article states that the operatives were traveling to a Siberian helicopter manufacturing plant to buy two Russian helicopters for $3.2 million. The Post article states that the purchase was at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency. The helicopters were destined to be used in Afghanistan, according to the article.
Jeffrey Stayton was the chief of the Aviation Division at the US Army Test and Evaluation Command and “an expert in Russian copters”. Along with Stayton, a group of Maverick Aviation personnel, six people alleged to be CIA operatives and “Army personnel and contractors from El Paso with experience modifying Russian aircraft for use by the US military” were on the plane to the Russian factory when it was initially detained, the article states.
In “an interview, the pilot, Fred Sorenson, said he thought the visas they had ordered would arrive by FedEx by the time the plane landed”, but it turned out that there were no visas waiting for the travelers. The team was released the next day, after the visas arrived, according to the Post article.
The travelers were unprepared for the freezing conditions, “but the Army personnel from El Paso also seemed woefully unprepared”, writes the author, adding that none of the El Pasoan’s “had ever been to Russia before — some had never left Texas”.
Because of a delay in the delivery of the helicopters, the El Paso Army members were “told to act like tourists on a winter gateway to Siberia”. But the “tourists”, apparently did not enjoy their time in Siberia and several members began drinking and bragging about their CIA work, the article states. The author points out that the Army warrant officer in charge of the El Paso team, Brian Patterson, “was drinking heavily”.
The El Paso team went so far as to threaten to shoot down the charter crew if they left Siberia before the mission was completed. The charter crew, fed up with the problems, nonetheless left for Japan, leaving the El Paso and the Maverick teams in Siberia.
The piece goes on to state that the Army Criminal Investigative Division investigated the operation due to some unusual expenses, one of them being a $5 million credit card transaction to an El Paso bar named the “Cockpit Lounge”. According to the author, this transaction was part of how the operation was funded.
In the end, the helicopters made it to Afghanistan and two members of the operation were convicted of fraud.