A Byte Out of History: The Lasting Legacy of Operation Illwind
A look back 25 years to our role in a major investigation of defense procurement fraud.
A Byte Out of History
The Lasting Legacy of Operation Illwind
Twenty-five years ago today, a major multi-agency investigation into defense procurement fraud—later codenamed Operation Illwind, a likely reference to an old English proverb—was announced to the world via a one-page press statement.
By the time the dust had settled several years later, the case revealed that some Defense Department employees had taken bribes from businesses in exchange for inside information on procurement bids that helped some of the nation’s largest military contractors win lucrative weapons systems deals.
More than 60 contractors, consultants, and government officials were ultimately prosecuted—including a high-ranking Pentagon assistant secretary and a deputy assistant secretary of the Navy. As a monetary measure of the significance of the crimes, the case resulted in a total of $622 million worth of fines, recoveries, restitutions, and forfeitures.
The investigation began, as many cases of fraud and abuse do, when an honest individual refused to take part in criminal activity and instead contacted authorities. In 1986, a Virginia defense contractor was approached by a military consultant who said he could obtain proprietary bid information from a competitor in exchange for cash. The contractor did the right thing and reported the conversation to the FBI and the Naval Investigative Service (NIS)—now called the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS.
Illwind Investigators: In their Own Words
The contractor agreed to cooperate and to let us monitor phone conversions he had with the consultant. After collecting enough information to determine what the consultant was up to, we confronted the man—and he agreed to cooperate as well. We soon had enough probable cause for the case’s first court-authorized electronic surveillance, or wiretap, and over time developed probable cause for others.
That enabled the FBI and its partners in the case—including NIS, the Defense Criminal Intelligence Service, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Division—to execute more than three dozen search warrants in D.C. and 12 states on June 14, 1988. These searches of the offices of defense contractors, consultants, and government officials yielded a mountain of evidence, including financial documents.
A slew of indictments followed, and many of the defendants—faced with overwhelming evidence, including recorded telephone conversations where they had discussed their crimes—simply pled guilty.
The legacy of Operation Illwind is significant. The scandal so shocked the nation that just five months after the case became public, new rules governing federal procurement were put into place. The Procurement Integrity Act, amended in 1996, remains the law of the land.
The multi-agency investigation was also groundbreaking for the Bureau, especially in its use of court-authorized electronic surveillance—one of the first times we had used this tool so extensively in a white-collar crime investigation. A quarter century later, the case remains the largest and most successful investigation of defense procurement fraud in U.S. history.
Building on lessons learned from the case, the FBI continues to work with its partners to investigate defense procurement fraud and other government scams through our public corruption program, which addresses the FBI’s number one criminal priority. Using sophisticated and traditional investigative techniques, we remain committed to exposing procurement fraud not only in the Washington, D.C. area, but also around the nation—including, more recently, in places like California, Florida, and Utah.