By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
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Couples said the gunrunning mission had been going on for four years, there were 50 IRA volunteers involved, and it was financed with millions of dollars, Browne recalls. He also spoke of America's involvement in the peace process. "He said that Clinton told the IRA they could "do what they had to do' as long as they didn't embarrass him," Browne recalls. "And he said when I come to Northern Ireland I would get an official apology from the IRA."
Asked recently if he was aware of Couples's possible involvement in the gunrunning mission, FBI agent Mark Hastbacka, who led the probe into the Florida Four, says only that the investigation was continuing and adds, "I have no reason not to believe Browne."
In the midst of their gunrunning debacle, Browne and Smyth bought tickets for an August 4 flight to Belfast. She said they planned to wed there, even though both were still legally married to other people. ("Idiots," Browne repeats.) The trip never happened, though. A dozen agencies, including the FBI, the ATF, Scotland Yard, and the Irish Garda, were then busy investigating them. In July Claxton's guns, hidden in packages of toys and electronic equipment, had been intercepted in New York, England, and Ireland. Browne and Smyth, investigators determined, had bought a total of 123 firearms. On the morning of July 26, 1999, FBI and ATF agents rousted Smyth and Browne from bed in the Weston condo. "We'd been partying that day, as normal, and they woke us up at five in the morning," she recalls. "Guns, banging, you know, the FBI does everything in full force. Anthony got up, because I was fast asleep. Then they drove me to the FBI building in Miami."
That same morning FBI agents arrested Claxton at the Buccaneer Motel. He would soon admit to Hastbacka that he was working for the IRA and that the guns were to be used against British soldiers and police when the peace agreement failed. "You didn't get all of us," he told the FBI. Inside his room agents found revolutionary pamphlets and primers on topics like assassination and creating false identities. They also discovered a photograph of a naked young woman: Idoia Elorriaga.
When news of the arrest broke, the White House began its campaign of damage control. "We strongly condemn any effort to enhance the capacity for violence in Northern Ireland," said Mike Hammer, spokesman for the National Security Council, on July 28. "We call upon Irish Republican leaders to disavow any links to these events."
Hard-line Ulster Unionists weren't so diplomatic. They called for the ouster of Republicans from the Northern Ireland government, saying the Florida arrests proved the IRA was flouting the peace accord. IRA leaders eventually issued a vague denial, saying their Army Council had not "sanctioned" the mission.
Browne, then in custody, refused to cooperate with the feds. She wouldn't testify against her codefendants and never blabbed to authorities about Cahill or Couples, even though she says agents told her that she could receive immunity from prosecution if she did so. Several factors kept her from cooperating, including fear for her family in Ireland, hope for the success of the peace process, a sense of loyalty to Smyth (who she says bought guns investigators never knew about), and behind-the-scenes efforts by Noraid, which she claims tried to coerce her into keeping quiet.
Noraid deposited hundreds of dollars into her prison commissary account at the Miami federal detention center in an effort, she now says, to buy her silence; a representative of the local Noraid branch named Caprice Sinclair served as her "sponsor" and often spoke with her on the phone. Browne contends Sinclair, a housewife from Fort Lauderdale, told her that Sinn Fein's Cahill was filling up "buckets" of money in Belfast for the Florida Four. Jim Panaro, who heads Noraid in South Florida, would later boast in newspaper reports that his group had raised $100,000 locally for the defendants. "Caprice said I would have no money worries when I got out of prison and not to worry about losing my Mercedes," says Browne. "That was all a lie. They kept telling me not to plea, not to plea. They were obstructing my justice."
Noraid urged her not to cooperate with the feds because of the damage she could do to Claxton and the IRA, Browne believes. "They wanted to protect their precious Conor," she fumes. Noraid hired and paid Fort Lauderdale attorney Fred Haddad to represent Claxton. Sinclair admits that she told Browne to keep quiet and not to plead guilty but says she did so because she believed Browne would be found not guilty at trial. Sinclair also says she made it clear the decision was ultimately Browne's, and the Noraid representative claims she can't remember mentioning Cahill. "I never tried to coerce her," Sinclair insists.
Browne says she was also concerned about the peace process. "What about the children of Ireland? For the first time in hundreds of years, they could have peace," Browne says. "And then a girl from the south of Ireland that doesn't give a shit is going to come out and say, "Sorry guys, but the Good Friday Agreement is a fraud'? President Clinton had [former U.S. senator George] Mitchell over there, and I was going to blow all that out of the water?"