In Nuclear Net’s Undoing, A Web Of Shadowy Deals
William J Broad & David E Sanger, NYT, Aug 24, 2008
The president of Switzerland stepped to a podium in Bern last May and read a statement confirming rumors that had swirled through the capital for months. The government, he acknowledged, had indeed destroyed a huge trove of computer files and other material documenting the business dealings of a family of Swiss engineers suspected of helping smuggle nuclear technology to Libya and Iran. The files were of particular interest not only to Swiss prosecutors but to international atomic inspectors working to unwind the activities of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani bomb pioneer-turned-nuclear black marketeer. The Swiss engineers, Friedrich Tinner and his two sons, were accused of having deep associations with Dr. Khan, acting as middlemen in his dealings with rogue nations seeking nuclear equipment and expertise. The Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, took no questions. But he asserted that the files — which included an array of plans for nuclear arms and technologies, among them a highly sophisticated Pakistani bomb design — had been destroyed so that they would never fall into terrorist hands. Behind that official explanation, though, is a far more intriguing tale of spies, moles and the compromises that governments make in the name of national security. The United States had urged that the files be destroyed, according to interviews with five current and former Bush administration officials. The purpose, the officials said, was less to thwart terrorists than to hide evidence of a clandestine relationship between the Tinners and the CIA.
Over four years, several of these officials said, operatives of the CIA paid the Tinners as much as $10 million, some of it delivered in a suitcase stuffed with cash. In return, the Tinners delivered a flow of secret information that helped end Libya’s bomb program, reveal Iran’s atomic labors and, ultimately, undo Dr. Khan’s nuclear black market. In addition, American and European officials said, the Tinners played an important role in a clandestine American operation to funnel sabotaged nuclear equipment to Libya and Iran, a major but little-known element of the efforts to slow their nuclear progress. The relationship with the Tinners “was very significant,” said Gary S. Samore, who ran the National Security Council’s nonproliferation office when the operation began. “That’s where we got the first indications that Iran had acquired centrifuges,” which enrich uranium for nuclear fuel. Yet even as American officials describe the relationship as a major intelligence coup, compromises were made. Officials say the CIA feared that a trial would not just reveal the Tinners’ relationship with the United States — and perhaps raise questions about American dealings with atomic smugglers — but would also imperil efforts to recruit new spies at a time of grave concern over Iran’s nuclear program. Destruction of the files, CIA officials suspected, would undermine the case and could set their informants free. “We were very happy they were destroyed,” a senior intelligence official in Washington said of the files.
But in Europe, there is much consternation. Analysts studying Dr. Khan’s network worry that by destroying the files to prevent their spread, the Swiss government may have obscured the investigative trail. It is unclear who among Dr. Khan’s customers — a list that is known to include Iran, Libya and North Korea but that may extend further — got the illicit material, much of it contained in easily transmitted electronic designs. The West’s most important questions about the Khan network have been consistently deflected by President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, who resigned last Monday. He refused to account for the bomb designs that got away or to let American investigators question Dr. Khan, perhaps the only man to know who else received the atomic blueprints. President Bush, eager for Pakistan’s aid against terrorism, never pressed Mr. Musharraf for answers. “Maybe that labyrinth held clues to another client or another rogue state,” said a European official angered at the destruction. The Swiss judge in charge of the Tinner case, Andreas Müller, is not terribly happy either. He said he had no warning of the planned destruction and is now trying to determine what, if anything, remains of the case against Friedrich Tinner and his sons, Urs and Marco. […]