In November 1991, a federal grand jury in Philadelphia indicted 10 Americans, seven South Africans and three South African arms manufacturers on charges of smuggling more than $50 million in weapons, munitions and other military technology in and out of South Africa over an 11-year period, in violation of an arms embargo in place against South Africa because of its apartheid policy. Some of the weapons ultimately ended up in the hands of the Iraqi military.
The indictment charged that a myriad of schemes were operated by International Signal and Control Group (ISC) of Lancaster, Pennsylvania from 1978 through 1989. The prosecution said the overall magnitude of the scheme, of which these activities were a part, totaled $1.4 billion—at the time, the largest crime of its kind.
Among the Americans charged was 46-year-old Thomas Jasin, who had worked at ISC and oversaw the development of its Striker anti-tank missile. The indictment against Jasin alleged that he orchestrated one part of the overall conspiracy: the importation of unarmed Striker missiles into the U.S. for performance testing and the exportation of the missiles back to South Africa.
Jasin was the only defendant to go on trial. He contended that he believed that what he was doing was legal. He testified that ISC founder James Guerin, who pled guilty and got 15 years in prison, had told him the South Africa deals had “Washington approval.”
Jasin testified that he had met with CIA agents and got the impression that though ISC was acting covertly, its actions were legal.
He also testified that South African producers shipped incomplete missile dummies to Italy, where an Italian company added components to them before they were imported into the United States. Because the Italian company added components, and, thus, financial value, to the missile dummies, Jasin testified that under a “value added” theory, the proper country of origin for the missile dummies was Italy.
In December 1992, a jury convicted Jasin of conspiring to circumvent the South African arms embargo.
Free on bond, Jasin filed and lost numerous appeals over the next six years. In July 1998, U.S. District Court Judge Jan DuBois rejected the prosecution’s demand that Jasin be sentenced to five years in prison and imposed a sentence of two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. DuBois said he was convinced that Jasin believed his actions were lawful because Guerin had told Jasin that the South Africa deals had “Washington approval.”
“Although it’s a close call, I cut it in favor of the defendant,” said DuBois. “There’s sufficient evidence to grant a (lesser sentence) on the grounds there was a good-faith belief...that what he was doing was lawful."
At the time, prosecutors said no other convicted federal defendant had remained free for so long between conviction and sentencing. Through the efforts of further, though ultimately unsuccessful appeals, Jasin did not enter prison until December 12, 2000.
In August 2001, Jasin filed another motion seeking to overturn his conviction, arguing that his trial attorney—who had never tried a federal criminal case—had failed to call several witnesses who Jasin said would have bolstered his claim that he was acting legally.
The motion said that these witnesses would have testified that the value-added concept was a proper interpretation of the governing regulations and that sufficient value was added to the missile dummies to render them Italian in origin.
The motion noted that on August 6, 1992 Jasin sent a memorandum to his lawyer saying, “I want to have expert witnesses on the value added. An ATF (U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) expert would be very good and a (U.S. Department of State) expert. A… military missile expert could explain the value and function of the…modifications.” In the memorandum, Jasin asked his lawyer to interview several others whom he believed would corroborate his good faith.
Furthermore, the motion said that before trial, Jasin gave his lawyer a list of more than two dozen witnesses whom he believed would testify favorably about his good faith belief that what he was doing was legal. He also faulted his lawyer for failing to interview and call Guerin as a witness, citing a letter Guerin had written to the court in which he said he had “implied” to Jasin that ISC had “Washington’s ‘blessings’” for the shipments of missile components. Guerin’s letter questioned the government's efforts to prosecute Jasin, saying, “Frankly, I have been somewhat mystified as to why charges have been brought against him at all.”
The motion was rejected by a federal district judge, but in September 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial.
The Appeals Court said that Jasin had established that his trial counsel's failure to call the witnesses resulted in an unfair trial. The lawyer had only called Jasin as a witness, and the court held that he could have called other witnesses that would have explained Jasin’s good-faith belief that the importation of Striker missile dummies was legal under a value-added theory.
The Court particularly faulted Jasin’s lawyer for failing to interview and call Guerin, whose testimony “would have called into doubt [Jasin’s] involvement in any illegal activity at all.”
In September 2003, Jasin was released from prison and federal prosecutors dismissed the case.
Jasin was hired by NASA in 2005 to direct the agency’s Robotic Lunar Exploration Program. In 2008, NASA gave Jasin its Outstanding Leadership Medal. In 2010, Jasin received the NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal and in 2015, NASA awarded Jasin, who holds the nation's highest security clearances, its Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal.
– Maurice Possley