Feature

The New Virology

From Stuxnet to biobombs, the future of war by other means.

Largely unseen by the world, two dangerous germs homed in on their targets in the spring and early summer of 2009. One was made by man to infect computers. The other was made by nature, and could infect man.

The man-made virus could invade a computer running Windows, replicate itself, wreck an industrial process, hide from human operators, and evade anti-virus programs. The natural pathogen could invade human cells, hijack them to replicate billions of copies of itself, and evade the body's immune system.

The man-made weapon was Stuxnet, a mysterious piece of computer malware that first appeared in 2009 and was identified more than a year later by Ralph Langner, a Hamburg-based computer security expert, as a worm designed to sabotage Iran's nuclear-enrichment facilities. The natural pathogen was the swine flu virus, which first appeared in Mexico City in March 2009 and touched off a global pandemic.

In the physical world, they have nothing in common. Stuxnet is computer code, bits of binary electronic data. The swine flu virus is a biological organism, a unique remix of genes from older influenza viruses. But they share one fundamental characteristic: They spread themselves and attack before their targets know what is happening. And in that way, they offer a glimpse of a rapidly evolving class of dangerous threats that former U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig once described as instruments of "nonexplosive warfare."

When Danzig first raised the concept in 1998, an Internet bubble was mushrooming, terrorist cult Aum Shinrikyo had attacked the Tokyo subway with sarin gas, and there were fresh disclosures about the vast, illicit biological-weapons program built by the Soviet Union. What has happened since then? Cyberattacks have grown in intensity and sophistication. The technology for manipulating biological organisms is advancing rapidly. But these potentially anonymous weapons continue to perplex and confound our thinking about the future of war and terrorism.

Both cyber and bio threats are embedded in great leaps of technological progress that we would not want to give up, enabling rapid communications, dramatic productivity gains, new drugs and vaccines, richer harvests, and more. But both can also be used to harm and destroy. And both pose a particularly difficult strategic quandary: A hallmark of cyber and bio attacks is their ability to defy deterrence and elude defenses.

Think of it this way: The most sophisticated cyberattacks, like Stuxnet, rarely leave clear fingerprints; bioweapons, too, are famously difficult to trace back to a perpetrator. But the concept of deterrence depends on the threat of certain retaliation that would cause a rational attacker to think twice. So if the attacker can't be found, then the certainty of retaliation dissolves, and deterrence might not be possible.

What would a president of the United States say to the country if thousands of people were dying from a disease or trapped in a massive blackout and he did not know who caused it? A ballistic missile leaves a trajectory that can indicate its origins. An airline hijacker might be caught on video or leave behind a ticket or other telltale clue to his identity. When someone is shot with a weapon, the bullet and firearm can be traced. Not so for many cyber and bio threats.

Moreover, as Danzig pointed out, armies are of little use against such dangers, and neither the production nor delivery of such weapons requires large, expensive systems. They are accessible to small groups or individuals, and can hide under the radar.

So how to think about this? Recently, the Pentagon commissioned one of its most prestigious research advisory groups, JASON, to study the science of cybersecurity. One of the panel's recommendations for dealing with threats: Draw lessons from biology and the functioning of the human body's immune system. When it sees a dangerous pathogen, part of the immune system is adaptive and can resist the invader even if it has never seen the agent before. What computers might need to counter this new warfare is something similar, a "learning algorithm" that would allow them to adapt and resist when a bug like Stuxnet comes sneaking around -- as it surely will.

ON FEB. 8, 2000, Joshua Lederberg, one of the founders of American microbiology and a Nobel Prize laureate, spoke at a Rand Corp. conference on bioterrorism and homeland defense in Santa Monica, California. Lederberg, a geneticist who had been concerned for years about the United States' vulnerability to the use of biological agents in war and terrorism, told the group there would be no warning of such an attack, no big boom to alert everyone.

"We perhaps put too much stress on an acute incident, an explosion, a compelling notice that something really awful has happened," Lederberg said. "No shrewd user" of a biological weapon "is going to give you that opportunity," he warned. "The 'incident' will be people accumulating illness, disease, death."

Within two years, it happened. In the fall of 2001, at least five envelopes containing anthrax bacteria were mailed to two senators in Washington and media organizations in New York City and Boca Raton, Florida. At least 22 people contracted anthrax as a result; five died. Ten thousand people were given antibiotics as a precaution. With just five envelopes, 35 postal facilities and commercial mailrooms were contaminated. The bacteria were found in seven buildings on Capitol Hill. The U.S. Postal Service closed two heavily contaminated processing centers; one in Washington did not open for two years, and one in New Jersey did not open for four years. More than 1.8 million letters, packages, and magazines were stuck in quarantine at the two centers, which cost roughly $200 million to clean up.

After the attack, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service set up a task force to investigate who had done it. In the seven years that followed, more than 10,000 witnesses were interviewed, 5,750 grand jury subpoenas issued, and 6,000 items of evidence collected. In 2007, the FBI determined that the anthrax originated from a batch created and maintained by Bruce E. Ivins, a researcher at the U.S. Army's biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Aware that he was under investigation, Ivins committed suicide in July 2008, leaving open the issue of his possible role and motives. There is still some uncertainty about the FBI's microbial forensics, now under review by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences. Regardless, the investigation showed how hard it is to crack such a case.

Amy E. Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, has attempted to investigate and analyze how decision-makers would react to a future biological attack. "The pressures to finger the bad guy are going to be tremendous," Smithson told me. Last year, Smithson assembled three teams of people for simulations of how high-level decision-makers might react. The groups were told they were playing the National Security Council, sitting in the White House Situation Room during the opening of a hypothetical G-8 summit in San Francisco, when a detector signaled the presence of a pathogen, Burkholderia pseudomallei, a bacterium that causes the disease melioidosis, which can be lethal if inhaled. The teams had been given several briefings on microbial forensics and the available intelligence, but still found themselves unsure how to untangle the evidence and how to respond.

Was the pathogen intended to harm the world leaders, or was it just a dispersal into the air, intended to shock? "They were massively frustrated at what microbial forensics and intelligence didn't tell them," Smithson said. "The effort to pinpoint a perpetrator is bound to confound, and the detection systems are not likely to deliver as much data as fast or as clearly as the policymakers want."

So, the conundrum is clear: As Danzig put it a decade ago, "With nonexplosive weapons it may be difficult to tell if an incident is an act of war, the deed of a small terrorist group, a simple crime, or a natural occurrence."

COULD SUCH AN ATTACK REALLY HAPPEN? In the field of biology, much of the debate has centered on the capabilities and intentions of terrorists. While some diseases occur easily in nature and are highly contagious, others require sophisticated processing for use as a weapon, probably well beyond the capability of today's terrorist groups, which in the last decade have preferred explosive weapons -- truck bombs, duffel bags filled with dynamite, exploding airplanes, and old-fashioned guns. By contrast, if the FBI is correct, the anthrax letters were sent by a skilled worker in a sophisticated, well-funded American military laboratory, not someone working out of a safe house or a cave in the Hindu Kush.

New alarms about bioterrorism were sounded in December 2008 by a congressionally mandated commission on weapons of mass destruction, headed by former Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent. Their report, "World at Risk," concluded that "terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon." No terrorist group currently has the ability to carry out a mass-casualty attack using pathogens, the panel reported -- weaponizing pathogens and disseminating them in the air is extremely difficult. But, they warned, "the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists." A group of U.S. scientists, however, responded that the commission had exaggerated the threat and that fears of bioterrorism were diverting resources from urgent public health needs for naturally occurring diseases, which have caused far more deaths.

One thing is certain: The technology for probing and manipulating life at the genetic level is accelerating. Advances in sequencing -- plotting the genetic blueprint of an organism -- have been particularly rapid, leading to great benefits in public health, medicine, and other fields. When swine flu was discovered in two children in Southern California in April 2009, sequencing helped identify it rather quickly as a new type of influenza with genes from pigs as well as birds and humans. That was critical information for launching a response to a looming pandemic. The machines for sequencing, once the size of a mainframe computer, are becoming smaller and cheaper every year.

The obvious question is whether states or terrorists could exploit this technology for malevolent ends. The worry has come up most recently with the rise of synthetic biology, a relatively new field using engineering techniques to create new biological parts, devices, or systems, or redesign existing ones. A U.S. presidential commission concluded last year that synthetic biology should be watched for risks, but did not see the need for more controls. Yet. The panel said that no one had so far created synthetic life, only modified existing, natural hosts. But the inquiry itself highlighted the rapid pace of change in manipulating biology. Will rogue scientists eventually learn how to use the same techniques for evil?

HOSTILE CYBERATTACKS have long since left the realm of the theoretical. The Pentagon has said it is hit by "myriad" attacks every day on its 15,000 separate computer networks around the world. Dennis Blair, at the time the director of national intelligence, told Congress in February 2010 that the United States' critical infrastructure -- power grids, information networks, and the like -- is "severely threatened." He didn't provide statistics but added, "Malicious cyberactivity is occurring on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication."

Cyberattacks come in different flavors, whether exploitations to steal money or data; disruptions, such as distributed denial-of-service attacks aimed at overloading or paralyzing a website; or thefts, of data or as espionage. Some of the most sophisticated cyberattacks are multistage, in which a piece of malware penetrates a computer to use it as a platform for attacking yet another machine. These can be among the most difficult to trace, and Stuxnet is the most impressive example yet seen. The authors of a dossier produced by Symantec, the anti-virus company, found that Stuxnet is "an incredibly large and complex threat." It knew where it was going and how to get there.

The creator of Stuxnet is still unknown, but with the sophistication of the code and the heavy amount of insider knowledge required, all signs point to a state or group of states. The New York Times reported in January that it might have been the result of a collaboration between the United States and Israel, the goal likely being to sabotage Iran's industrial centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium. It could slow the machines down or speed them up -- enough to cause subtle, but crippling, mechanical failures.

What's clear so far is that Stuxnet was written to attack an industrial control system, such as those used for gas pipelines and power plants. At first it was probably brought into a network on a removable flash drive, but once inside, it had the capability to replicate itself over and over again, each time carrying the payload that would be used to do the dirty work. The worm was designed for stealth. Injected into a computer or network, Stuxnet could sidestep anti-virus programs found on Windows computers, conceal itself on removable drives so the user would not know they were infected, and hide from the operators of the industrial equipment. Langner, the Hamburg computer security expert, said Stuxnet works like a sophisticated bank robbery. "During the heist, the observation camera is fed with unsuspicious footage, keeping the guards happy," he wrote.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which has closely monitored the Iranian nuclear effort, reported that in late 2009 or early 2010, Iran decommissioned and replaced about 1,000 centrifuges in its uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. If the goal of Stuxnet was to "set back Iran's progress" while making detection of the malware difficult, an ISIS report stated, "it may have succeeded, at least for a while."

But there are risks of blowback. Langner warns that such malware can proliferate in unexpected ways: "Stuxnet's attack code, available on the Internet, provides an excellent blueprint and jump-start for developing a new generation of cyber warfare weapons." He added, "Unlike bombs, missiles, and guns, cyber weapons can be copied. The proliferation of cyber weapons cannot be controlled. Stuxnet-inspired weapons and weapon technology will soon be in the hands of rogue nation states, terrorists, organized crime, and legions of leisure hackers."

Industrial control systems that were the target of Stuxnet are spread throughout the world and vulnerable to such attacks. In one 11-year-old Australian case, a disenchanted employee of the company that set up the control system at a sewage plant later decided to sabotage it. From his laptop, the worker ordered it to spill 211,337 gallons of raw sewage, and the control system obeyed -- polluting parks, rivers, and the grounds of a hotel, killing marine life and turning a creek's water black.

But that attack was rare in another way: It was easy enough to identify the attacker. Stuxnet has been spotted on computer networks for nearly two years, but the world's top computer security experts have yet to pinpoint exactly who created it, or why.

WHAT CAN BE DONE to prevent catastrophe from nonexplosive warfare? The old arms-control remedies of the Atomic Age may not work. States like China and Russia now encourage groups of freelance hackers to do their dirty work, allowing plausible deniability. It is not clear that treaties could do much to stop them. According to Langner, "such treaties won't be countersigned by rogue nation states, terrorists, organized crime, and hackers. Yet all of these will be able to possess and use such weapons soon."

A major lesson can be drawn from the 1972 global treaty banning germ warfare, which lacked an effective enforcement mechanism from the start and failed to prevent the Soviet Union, South Africa, and Iraq from working on clandestine programs. There are suspicions that Iran, North Korea, and Syria might be harboring germ-warfare research today. The biological-weapons treaty has only 163 signatories, compared with 189 for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and 188 for the Chemical Weapons Convention. Two successive U.S. administrations have concluded that biotechnology advances are occurring so swiftly that they probably cannot be policed through an updated legal enforcement protocol in the treaty.

Instead, President Barack Obama in 2009 called for taking alternative measures to avoid risk, such as helping other countries fight infectious disease while keeping an eye out for misuse of biology. Additional attempts are being made in the United States to improve monitoring of research by scientists, companies, and government, but much of it is still voluntary; this is not going to stop a dedicated rogue actor.

As for cyberattacks? Whatever the evidence for possible secret U.S. involvement in using cyberweapons for offensive assaults, it seems probable there will be retaliatory action. And other countries are almost certain to say: If the U.S. program includes offensive operations, why should we refrain? A new arms race beckons.

And in this new arms race, there is no road map for disarmament or deterrence. In a shadowy, unaccountable world, we have not yet learned how to name the bad guys -- never mind stop them.

ILLUSTRATION BY MATTHEW RICHARDSON FOR FP

Feature

Teodorin's World

Playboy bunnies. $2 million Bugattis. Bags full of cash. Meet the world's richest minister of agriculture and forestry.

View a slide show of the surreal playboy life of Teodorin Obiang.

The owner of the estate at 3620 Sweetwater Mesa Road, which sits high above Malibu, California, calls himself a prince, and he certainly lives like one. A long, tree-lined driveway runs from the estate's main gate past a motor court with fountains and down to a 15,000-square-foot mansion with eight bathrooms and an equal number of fireplaces. The grounds overlook the Pacific Ocean, complete with swimming pool, tennis court, four-hole golf course, and Hollywood stars Mel Gibson, Britney Spears, and Kelsey Grammer for neighbors.

With his short, stocky build, slicked-back hair, and Coke-bottle glasses, the prince hardly presents an image of royal elegance. But his wardrobe was picked from the racks of Versace, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana, and he spared no expense on himself, from the $30 million in cash he paid for the estate to what Senate investigators later reported were vast sums for household furnishings: $59,850 for rugs, $58,000 for a home theater, even $1,734.17 for a pair of wine glasses. When he arrived back home -- usually in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce or one of his other several dozen cars -- his employees were instructed to stand in a receiving line to greet the prince. And then they lined up to do the same when he left.

The prince, though, was a phony, a descendant of rulers but not of royals. His full name is Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue -- Teodorin to friends -- and he is the son of the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, a country about the size of Maryland on the western coast of Africa. A postage stamp of a country with a population of a mere 650,000 souls, Equatorial Guinea would be of little international consequence if it didn't have one thing: oil, and plenty of it. The country is sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest producer of oil after Nigeria and Angola, pumping around 346,000 barrels per day, and is both a major supplier to and reliable supporter of the United States. Over the past 15 years, ExxonMobil, Hess Corp., and other American firms have collectively invested several billion dollars in Equatorial Guinea, which exports more of its crude to the U.S. market than any other country.

Energy revenues have flowed into the pockets of the country's elite, but virtually none has trickled down to the poor majority; since the oil boom began, the country has rocketed to one of the world's highest per capita incomes -- and one of its lowest standards of living. Nearly four-fifths of its people live in abject poverty; child mortality has increased to the point that today some 15 percent of Equatorial Guinea's children die before reaching age 5, making it one of the deadliest places on the planet to be young.

Teodorin's 68-year-old father, Brig. Gen. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, seized power in a 1979 coup and has made apparent his intent to hand over power to a chosen successor. Obiang has sired an unknown number of children with multiple women, but 41-year-old Teodorin is his clear favorite and is being groomed to take over. That's a scary prospect both for the long-suffering citizens of his country and for U.S. foreign policy. As a former U.S. intelligence official familiar with Teodorin put it to me, "He's an unstable, reckless idiot."

He's also, according to thousands of pages of documents I've reviewed from multiple federal and congressional investigations of the Obiangs over the last decade, fantastically corrupt. As the minister of agriculture and forestry in his father's government, Teodorin holds sway over the country's second-largest industry. Investigators have documented how he has run his ministry like a business, operating several logging companies alongside the agency meant to regulate them. Documents from a secret joint investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency quote sources alleging that Teodorin supplemented his modest ministerial salary of $5,000 per month with a "large 'revolutionary tax' on timber" that he ordered international logging firms to pay "in cash or through checks" to a forestry company he owned. Investigators suspect a large chunk of his assets was derived from "extortion, theft of public funds, or other corrupt conduct," stated a 2007 Justice report detailing the probe, which I first reported on for the Harper's website in 2009. Teodorin has not only assembled a vast fortune, he's routed much of it into the United States; a detailed report last year by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that he used shell companies to evade money-laundering laws and funnel more than $100 million into the United States.

All those millions purchased Teodorin a lavish and debauched lifestyle, according to allegations in a series of previously unreported civil lawsuits filed against him by a dozen former employees at the Malibu estate. They claim they were cheated out of salaries, overtime wages, and work-related expenses for items ranging from gasoline to toilet paper, while being forced to support a tawdry setup straight out of the movie The Hangover: There were drug "binges," as one ICE document claimed, escort service girls, Playboy bunnies, and even a tiger. "I never witnessed him perform anything that looked like work," reads a legal filing on behalf of Dragan Deletic, one of Teodorin's former drivers. "His days consisted entirely of sleeping, shopping and partying." (Without responding to specifics, a Los Angeles lawyer for Teodorin, Kevin Fisher, dismissed the charges as "salacious" and "extreme," adding, "The allegations have not been verified and the people making them are not subject to perjury, so I don't give a great deal of credence to them.")

After years of wrangling, most of the cases have now been settled, and the employees signed agreements that prevent them from speaking about Teodorin. But prior to that I interviewed several plaintiffs and their attorney, Jim McDermott, and read the case filings. I also reviewed thousands of pages of U.S. and foreign investigations that involve Teodorin. They are incredibly damning.

The larger issue raised by all this is why the U.S. government -- after going to the effort to produce this mound of information pointing to Teodorin's flagrant corruption and apparent misuse of the U.S. banking system -- has been unwilling to do anything about it. "I'm surprised that he's still allowed in the country based on all of the information contained in the Senate report and uncovered by other investigators and reporters," said Linda Candler, a former Justice Department prosecutor who specialized in international criminal investigations. Indeed, legal experts say that Teodorin shouldn't have been allowed to enter the United States since 2004, when President George W. Bush issued Proclamation 7750, which bars corrupt foreign officials from receiving U.S. visas. "No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves," said Bush's successor Barack Obama, whose administration pledged to "vigorously" enforce 7750. "We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly and to isolate those who don't."

And yet no formal action against Teodorin has been taken, despite an investigation whose stated goal, according to one of the Justice Department documents, was to shut down the flow of money into the United States "obtained through kleptocracy" by the Obiangs. Why? U.S. officials declined to discuss the ongoing cases on the record or speak harshly about Equatorial Guinea; it certainly appears to be the familiar story of a U.S. government unwilling to offend an important oil partner -- the same coddling that has produced such stellar results in the past with Saudi Arabia and other energy-rich, democracy-poor Middle East allies. The Obama administration last year did help block UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, from accepting $3 million from Obiang to endow a science prize in his name -- but only after a public outcry raised by media reports calling attention to a prize the United States had previously been willing to overlook. Otherwise the administration has said little publicly about Equatorial Guinea's awful record of corruption and human rights violations, and it has failed to impose sanctions against Teodorin or the state he is set to inherit. As of late 2010, years after the Justice Department probe began, investigators were still seeking to identify expert witnesses who could tell them about the early days of the Obiang regime.

To date, the only substantial actions taken against the Obiang clan in the United States have been prompted by the efforts of McDermott, the plaintiffs' attorney, and Superior Court judges in California. "In our system of international politics, there's a lot of ass-kissing, especially if there's oil involved," McDermott told me. "But in the cases that have gone to judgment thus far, the buck has stopped with our state court, which doesn't give special treatment to anyone, including Teodorin. That's the beauty of the rule of law."

BUT IN EQUATORIAL GUINEA, THE OBIANGS ARE THE LAW. The only former Spanish colony in sub-Saharan Africa, Equatorial Guinea gained independence in 1968. The country's first ruler was Francisco Macias Nguema, a crackpot dictator who named himself the "Implacable Apostle of Freedom" and "The Sole Miracle of Equatorial Guinea." In 1979, by which time his regime had murdered as many as 50,000 of his opponents -- real and imagined -- the Sole Miracle was overthrown and executed by his nephew, Obiang père. Teodoro was then only 37 years old, but he was already skilled in the art of dictatorship after running Macias's National Guard and Black Beach prison, a notorious torture chamber for political prisoners. Over the past three decades, Obiang has been thrice "elected" in sham ballots, most recently in 2009 when he won 95.4 percent of the vote (a record low; he peaked with 97.85 percent in 1996).

The United States historically had little interest in Equatorial Guinea and closed its embassy there in 1995 after the Obiang regime issued threats against Ambassador John Bennett, who had lodged protests over human rights conditions. But in an unfortunate twist, American companies soon discovered vast reserves of oil and gas in the waters off Equatorial Guinea, and successive U.S. governments have been slowly but steadily backtracking ever since. The key step came in 2003, when after an intense lobbying campaign by the oil industry, Bush approved the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea's capital. (The embassy formally reopened three years later.) "With the increased U.S. investment presence, relations between the U.S. and the Government of Equatorial Guinea have been characterized as positive and constructive," notes the State Department's country profile. Relations may be good, but the official U.S. assessment of the country is much less rosy. The State Department's most recent global human rights report cited abuses in Equatorial Guinea including "torture of detainees and prisoners by security forces; life-threatening conditions in prisons [and] arbitrary arrest." Freedom House's 2011 "Freedom in the World" survey put the country in its "worst of the worst" category for governments that violate political rights and civil liberties, along with North Korea, Sudan, and Turkmenistan.

Equatorial Guinea's economy depends almost entirely on oil, which generated revenues last year of well over $4 billion, giving it a per capita annual income of $37,900, on par with Belgium. "The oil has been for us like the manna that the Jews ate in the desert," Obiang has said. It certainly has been for him. Obiang placed eighth on a 2006 list by Forbes of the world's richest leaders, with a personal fortune estimated at $600 million. His population hasn't fared so well. Human Rights Watch reports that one in three of Obiang's impoverished subjects dies before age 40.

Obiang's corruption is hardly unique among oil-rich dictators. French authorities have uncovered 39 properties in France and 70 French bank accounts held by the family of President Omar Bongo, who ruled Gabon for 41 years until his death in 2009. (Soon thereafter, his son, Ali Bongo, took power.) Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the leader of Congo-Brazzaville, has bought a variety of French properties with tens of millions of dollars in oil revenues funneled out of his country. "All the leaders of the world have castles and palaces in France, whether they are from the Gulf, Europe, or Africa," Sassou-Nguesso recently said by way of explanation. In Central Asia, fantastically rich new ruling families have exploited energy wealth with great panache too, from throwing birthday parties featuring Elton John to doling out luxury villas to friends and family.

But Obiang watchers say the scale of his regime's looting appears to be approaching the sort of baroque levels reached before by historic crooks like Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, America's closest friend in Africa during the Cold War, and Nigerian Gen. Sani Abacha, who funneled several billion dollars into Swiss accounts before dying in 1998 of undetermined causes, reportedly in the company of two teenage prostitutes. Many African regimes have degenerated into kleptocracy, but Equatorial Guinea's corruption is so entrenched, scholar Geoffrey Wood has written, that it "is one of the few African countries that 'can be correctly classified as a criminal state.'"

A few members of Congress have criticized Obiang -- Michigan Sen. Carl Levin once compared him to Saddam Hussein -- and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has twice investigated the regime, in its report on Teodorin last year and in 2004, when it found that Obiang personally controlled as much as $700 million in state funds deposited at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., overwhelmingly by U.S. oil companies. The Senate panel said Riggs opened multiple accounts for Obiang and helped the president stash his wealth in offshore shell corporations; it was eventually hit with a huge fine for this and similar dealings with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and for violating the Bank Secrecy Act.

But in general, the U.S. government has preferred to look the other way since the oil boom hit, aside from the criticism contained in the pro forma annual State Department human rights reports and milquetoast appeals for better behavior. "We've raised our strong concerns about the country's poor human rights record consistently in meetings with officials from EG up to the highest level," a State Department official told me by email.

To ensure that Equatorial Guinea stays within the reasonable limits of Washington's good graces, Obiang has hired a team of American lobbyists and PR specialists, among them Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Bill Clinton and now a Washington lobbyist who has also represented the 2009 Honduran coup plotters and, briefly, Laurent Gbagbo, the human-rights-abusing leader of the Ivory Coast who refused to step down after losing elections late last year. "I've kidded him he'd do better to win by 51 percent than 98 percent," Davis told the New York Times about Obiang -- the type of sage advice for which Equatorial Guinea pays him a cool $1 million a year. The government also retains Qorvis Communications, which for $15,000 per month emails out a steady stream of news releases highlighting all manner of heartwarming news about Equatorial Guinea, from the Obiang government's alleged support for animal conservation to native daughter Matinga Ragatz being named Michigan's "Teacher of the Year." Teodorin separately pays the firm $55,000 per month to help polish his image, lobbying disclosure reports say.

Early one evening this past summer, I met two of Teodorin's PR handlers from Qorvis, Matt J. Lauer and Seth Pietras, at a bar in Washington. The two men unknotted their ties in unison after slipping onto a couch and ordering drinks. Allegations of human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea are highly exaggerated, they said, citing as evidence their experience during a trip to the country. "We could walk around at night and talk with people and no one interfered with us," said Lauer. "No one is saying there are no problems, but it's not North Korea." They were similarly miffed about Teodorin's reputation as a high-rolling kleptocrat, saying that officials from a number of energy-rich countries also live lavishly, while their client was unfairly singled out. Pietras noted that Bush had reportedly been a drinker and partier as a younger man before becoming more serious. Teodorin, he offered, "is at the point where he's thinking about his legacy."

IF SO, THEN SOME SERIOUS SOUL-SEARCHING IS IN ORDER. In the fall of 1991, Teodorin, then 22, arrived on the posh Malibu campus of Pepperdine University to enroll in an English-as-a-second-language course. Walter International, a Houston-based energy firm that then had a stake in Equatorial Guinea's as-yet-untapped offshore fields, financed Teodorin's studies. Walter also agreed to pick up Teodorin's living expenses, which proved to be a costly mistake. Tuition was a mere $3,400 and included boarding at Pepperdine, but Teodorin deemed the dormitory unsuitable and shuttled between two off-campus residences: a rental home in Malibu and a suite at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. He rarely attended class, instead spending much of his time shopping in Beverly Hills. Teodorin dropped out of the program after five months; Walter International's tab came to about $50,000. The aggrieved firm complained to Ambassador Bennett, and the story later came out in public.

Teodorin traveled the world in subsequent years but returned frequently to the Los Angeles area. In 2001, he bought a $6.5 million home on Antelo Road in Bel Air, across from actress Farrah Fawcett. He never moved in, however, lamenting to a real estate agent that in retrospect the house was too contemporary for his taste.

Teodorin dreamed of being a hip-hop mogul and for a time owned and operated a label whose name was derived from his initials: TNO Entertainment. TNO's most significant project appears to have been a flop titled No Better Than This by Won-G -- a fitting collaboration given that the rapper, whose real name is Wondge Bruny, has described his father as a former military official under "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the Haitian dictator deposed in 1986.

Teodorin continued to burn through cash during these years. He lived for a time at a Paris hotel off the Champs-Élysées; a French TV crew captured him on a shopping spree during which, it reported, he bought more than 30 suits in a single day. In 2004, he bought two estates worth a combined $7 million in Cape Town. But he and his family generally stayed off the radar screen in the United States -- until the Riggs scandal broke.

Lesser kleptocrats might have turned tail and fled, but not Teodorin. He employed two lawyers to set up shell companies and associated bank accounts that he controlled but on which his name never appeared, according to the 2010 Senate report. It found that the companies were merely vehicles for him to receive and spend funds wired from abroad.

In 2006, Teodorin used one of the firms, Sweetwater Malibu LLC, to purchase the Malibu estate, which is among the largest homes in the private gated community of Serra Retreat. When it came to spending habits, Teodorin wasn't to be outdone by his Hollywood-star neighbors. He owned at least three dozen luxury cars, including seven Ferraris, five Bentleys, four Rolls-Royces, two Lamborghinis, two Mercedes-Benzes, two Porsches, two Maybachs, and an Aston Martin, with a collective insured value of around $10 million, according to the Senate investigation. There were far too many cars to keep at the estate, so Teodorin rented storage space in the garage of the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard and had his drivers fetch the one he wanted for an outing, a choice that sometimes depended on his attire. "I'm wearing blue shoes, so get me the blue Rolls today," he once told Benito Giacalone, a former driver.

His favorite was a blue Bugatti Veyron, a car that can reach speeds of more than 250 miles per hour and sells new for about $2 million. One night, Teodorin parked his toy near the entrance of L'Ermitage, a favorite hangout where he'd gone for drinks. When he saw gawkers stop to admire it, he sent Giacalone back to Malibu by cab so Giacalone could drive back his second Bugatti to park next to it.

Teodorin's household staff included drivers, housekeepers, caretakers, estate managers, executive assistants, chefs, landscaping crews, and two security teams with off-duty and retired cops, and guards from Equatorial Guinea. One security unit was based at the estate while a second, called the "chase team," tailed Teodorin on his late-night excursions into Malibu and beyond. Legal filings depict the "prince" as a nocturnal creature who generally slumbered until afternoon and sometimes as late as 9 p.m.

He dated a series of women, among them the rapper Eve, whom he designated as president, treasurer, and chief financial officer of his Sweet Pink shell company, according to the 2010 Senate report. An Equatorial Guinean logging company owned by Teodorin transferred $60,000 into Sweet Pink's corporate account, but the Union Bank of California, where it was housed, shut it down a month later, in October 2005, because it deemed any funds sent from Equatorial Guinea to be potentially of criminal origins. In 2005, Teodorin reportedly threw a party for Eve aboard the Tatoosh, a 303-foot yacht that he rented for $700,000 from its owner, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. An account in the New York Daily News said she later cooled on him, perhaps after hearing that his father was an accused cannibal who had eaten his political rivals. Other companions included Tamala Jones, who appeared in such movies as Booty Call and Confessions of a Call Girl, and Lindsey Evans, named Miss Louisiana Teen USA in 2008 and Playboy Playmate of the Month in October 2009.

The guest list at Teodorin's mansion invariably included an assortment of high-heeled, miniskirt-clad women procured from escort agencies, according to my interviews with former employees. Giacalone noted in his legal filings that his unofficial duties included accompanying his boss's girlfriends on elaborate shopping sprees. He also said the Dolce & Gabbana store on Rodeo Drive periodically dispatched a sales associate and tailor to Teodorin's estate in a van packed with racks of merchandise for his viewing and would close off its second-floor showroom when his girlfriends came in to shop. Giacalone said he escorted one who racked up about $80,000 in purchases, including bronze and red dresses that cost nearly $7,000 apiece. Giacalone claims Teodorin gave him the embarrassing task of paying the tab from a Nike shoebox filled with shrink-wrapped bills.

Thanks to his diplomatic passport, Teodorin routinely carried as much as $1 million in cash into the country, the ICE documents allege. Several ex-employees said he had a bag the size of a small suitcase that was forever stuffed with stacks of fresh $100 bills. Teodorin traveled on a Gulfstream V, which he bought in 2006 through a British Virgin Islands-registered shell called Ebony Shine International, Ltd. "He used it like a taxi," Giacalone said. "He'd fly alone or use it to pick up one passenger. Once he sent it from Rio to Los Angeles to bring back his barber." And Teodorin didn't travel light. He bought a 15-seat cargo van and had the seats taken out to fit his collection of Louis Vuitton luggage.

Records compiled by FlightAware, a firm that tracks private and commercial air traffic, show that Teodorin's ministerial duties took him to such vital destinations as Las Vegas, where a July 2009 bill for the presidential suite at the Four Seasons -- made out to "Prince Teodoro Nguema Obiang" -- showed a rate of $5,000 per night; to Miami, where he docked one of his two Nor-Tech 5000 speedboats; and to Palm Beach. International destinations included Bermuda, Nice, and Paris.

His fall 2009 monthlong jaunt to Maui stands out for debauched luxury, according to an account by Giacolone. Teodorin flew on the Gulfstream V and chartered a second jet for a group of household employees. He also brought along a few escort girls and shipped several sports cars and one of the Nor-Tech speedboats, painted in gaudy orange, purple, and yellow. The leaded fuel it ran on wasn't sold on the island, so it was flown in, at a cost of $600 per barrel, the former driver claimed. But the holiday was marred when the Nor-Tech capsized into the Pacific following a brief excursion. "I still have not be[en] able to confirm where the guy is from, but money is not a problem," one bemused local wrote on an online boating forum, thehulltruth.com. "Yesterday, when it was time to drive the boat, the prince showed up at the ramp in his Bugatti.… Between the car, the boat, the royal aides (including four absolutely stunning foxes) with him, they were quite an image at the tiny ramp."

AMERICA HAS BEEN ONE LONG PARTY FOR TEODORIN, but his days of wine and roses might finally be coming to an end. He still owns the Malibu estate; Lauer at Qorvis insists there is no information suggesting he is barred from the United States and that he came on a visit last spring. (Qorvis declined to reply to questions about the claims of corruption and money-laundering by U.S. investigators or the allegations from the former employees suing Teodorin.) But the 2010 Senate report disclosed reams of the family's sensitive banking information, which has surely reduced his ability to move money into the country. Meanwhile, new lawsuits keep sprouting up -- there are four still outstanding -- and the charges grow ever more lurid, with one former employee alleging full frontal nudity by Teodorin. "He is a guest in our country who clearly does not think that the rules apply to him," McDermott argues.

Perhaps all this helps explain why Teodorin is seldom in Los Angeles these days, spending far more time in Equatorial Guinea. It may not be Malibu, but he owns a huge beachfront estate there with a swimming pool set on a patio dotted with marble statues imported from Italy. Better yet, there are no investigators or financial regulators to worry about. Through a holding company called Abayak and other assorted business vehicles, Teodorin's father reportedly has a stake in all key economic sectors. Gabriel, Teodorin's younger brother, controls the oil sector from a post at the Ministry of Mines and Energy. His cousin runs the treasury department and oversees the budget, and another relative heads the military cabinet.

Nor does Teodorin need to fret about nosy reporters, because there is no independent radio or television in Equatorial Guinea. In 2009, the Information Ministry dismissed four journalists at a state broadcaster for "lack of enthusiasm" about the government's "merits." A few years earlier, an announcer on Radio Asonga -- owned by Teodorin -- declared that President Obiang was "in permanent contact with the Almighty" and has the authority to "kill without anyone calling him to account."

Washington's accommodation of Obiang stands in marked contrast to its harsher treatment of global thugs who aren't lucky enough to be sitting atop vast energy reserves. And the relationship between the United States and Equatorial Guinea is as oily as they come. In June 2000, with American oil company executives starting to call Equatorial Guinea the "Kuwait of Africa," the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government agency, approved $173 million in loan guarantees to build an American-owned methanol plant in Equatorial Guinea, at the time its largest program ever in sub-Saharan Africa. Five months later, Rep. William Jefferson led the first-ever congressional delegation to Equatorial Guinea and was presented with a key to Malabo. (Jefferson was sentenced to prison in 2009 after being convicted on multiple counts, including conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Prosecutors charged that he took bribes in exchange for promoting deals in Africa, including oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea.)

In September 2005, the Obiang regime tortured dozens of detainees it had accused of having links to an alleged coup attempt the year before, according to credible human rights groups. Yet the following April, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Obiang in Washington and called him a "good friend" of the United States. In September 2009, two months before Equatorial Guinea held its sham presidential election, a smiling Obama posed for a photo with Obiang during a reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, marking a minor PR coup for the regime.

American business ties have meanwhile deepened and expanded. In February 2010, Equatorial Guinea quietly awarded a $250 million contract to Virginia-based private security firm Military Professional Resources Initiative (MPRI) to provide coastal monitoring, a deal that required State Department approval. "Granting a license to MPRI is consistent with our foreign policy goal of ensuring maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea," a State Department official told me in an email, adding that the license came with training that "includes an important human rights component and anti-trafficking provision and we believe this training is a strong tool for tangible improvement in human rights and transparency."

Several other countries, however, appear to be going after Equatorial Guinea's leaders with more vigor. A Spanish court is investigating a complaint charging that 11 of Obiang's relatives and associates used $26.5 million in laundered money to buy houses and chalets in Madrid and the Canary Islands. A 2007 French police inquiry uncovered tens of millions of dollars' worth of assets belonging to the Obiang gang, including luxury cars owned by Teodorin worth a combined $6.3 million. Late last year, a French court ruled that a related corruption case brought by human rights groups against the Obiangs and several other African ruling families could proceed.

After years of allowing him to run amok in the United States and otherwise enabling him, the U.S. government may soon find that it needs to deal far more directly with Teodorin in the future. In a clear sign of his political ascendancy, his doting father named him vice president of the ruling party last July. Furthermore, a well-placed source told me that government officials in Equatorial Guinea have already informed American oil company executives that Teodorin will be the country's next leader. Given the size of his country's oil reserves, he's going to have leverage -- and cash -- for a long time to come.

Note to the Obama administration: If you think he was hard to manage as the Prince of Malibu, just wait until Teodorin becomes the King of Equatorial Guinea.

PAINTING BY ANDREA VENTURA FOR FP