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October 30, 2008

Black Market Nukes! Part four: The Tinner Circle

Posted by barry

4 719.jpg
[passport of Urs Tinner, picture released by the Malaysian police]

Previously in this series, Friedrich Tinner and his sons Urs and Marco, a family of engineers, were mentioned as part of the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network. The Tinners had a factory in Malaysia producing centrifuge parts [1]. When A.Q. Khan's international activities were exposed in 2003, so were the Tinners, who were based in Switzerland. They were taken into custody there, and expected to (eventually) stand trial. But the Swiss President made a rather shocking announcement on 23 May 2008...

President Pascal Couchepin announced that the 30,000 documents of evidence in the Tinner case had been shredded.

Blueprints for a nuclear bomb

This came as a shock to the Swiss prosecutors. Any kind of successful prosecution of the Tinners was now in jeopardy, to say the least [2].

Couchepin stated that the files were shredded because 'There were detailed construction plans for nuclear weapons, for gas ultracentrifuges to enrich weapons-grade uranium as well as for guided missile delivery systems' in the files and Switzerland, as a non-nuclear state that has signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, should not possess them. The documents had to be destroyed to stop them 'getting into the hands of a terrorist organisation or an unauthorised state', Couchepin said [3].

This despite the fact that Urs Tinner's blueprints for a nuclear bomb had already been copied, and in fact existed in digital form and were on the A.Q. Khan network's computers in Dubai [4]. Who knows whose hands they were/are already in?

Cash-stuffed suitcases

It seems more likely that the real explanation for the destruction of the documents and the scuppering of the trial is that the Swiss authorities decided to do the C.I.A. a favour. The C.I.A. had an interest in the Tinner trial not proceeding. According to the New York Times: '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 C.I.A.' [5].

The C.I.A. had apparently paid the Tinners about $10 million in cash-stuffed suitcases, and for this, 'the Tinners delivered a flow of secret information that helped... ultimately, undo Dr. Khan's nuclear black market' [6].

Before the Tinner files were shredded, the Swiss justice minister, Christoph Blocher, flew to Washington to meet with Alberto Gonzales, then the U.S. Attorney General. This was July 2007. Blocher also met FBI Director Robert Mueller and Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence [7], and because these two had domestic jurisdiction in the U.S., it implies that there were U.S. citizens implicated in the Tinner files [8]. Maybe those are names that the C.I.A. did not want revealed. The files themselves were shredded in November 2007, six months before the Swiss President's announcement [9].

While the Tinners may have been C.I.A. agents, this 'rescue' from justice of operators in the nuclear black market seems far from unusual. It seems like they're all getting away with it. Let's look at some others.

The Tinner Circle

The Tinners supplied nuclear hardware to BSA Tahir, who was A.Q. Khan's man in Dubai. The companies EKA and ETI Elektroteknik were also supplying Tahir in Dubai. EKA is owned by the Turkish businessman Selim Alguadis, and ETI Elektroteknik is owned by two more Turks, Gunes Cire and Hank Slebos. In part two, I wrote about the interception of the ship the BBC China in the Suez Canal, en route from Dubai to Libya with centrifuges on board, and that's what got everybody caught. But both EKA and ETI Elektroteknik continue to operate in Turkey today, and Alguadis and Cire were never convicted of anything. Slebos got four months [10].

There was also the Turkish-American businessman Zeki Bilmen, with a company in New Jersey, Giza Technologies. Bilmen supplied nuclear hardware [11] to Asher Karni, an Israeli operating in South Africa, who then sold to India, Israel and Pakistan [12]. When a local anonymous tip-off led to Karni's arrest in December 2003 [13], Bilmen was never charged. Giza Technologies continues to operate in the U.S. and according to FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds (subject of part one), Giza have 'many shipments going out, coming in, all day long. To places like Dubai, Spain, South Africa, Turkey. They have branches in all these places. Yep, they're sailing along very smoothly' [14]. Luke Ryland, a blogger on the Edmonds case, has pointed out that 'Bilmen was also heard organizing the transfer of nuclear technology on wiretaps translated by Sibel' [15], meaning that the F.B.I. gathered evidence on Bilmen in the past, yet nothing was done to stop him.

Back to Tahir's suppliers. Another was the British businessman Peter Griffin, who was based in Dubai. A 'four-year investigation' by Britain's Revenue and Customs into Griffin was 'quietly dropped' earlier this year [16].

Then there was Gerhard Wisser, a German based in South Africa. Ryland describes him in his blog as a man 'who supplied the pipes required for centrifuges. According to prosecutors, he was the South African "conduit" to the Tahir-Tinner ring. He was "given 18 years -- not in prison, but of nighttime house arrest in his mansion in a luxury neighborhood in Johannesburg"' [17].

A.Q. Khan himself was just put under house arrest. What is it about black market nuclear technology dealing that makes it so easy to operate with relative impunity?

Well, in the Tinners's case it was their status as C.I.A. assets... or was it?

C.I.A. or not C.I.A.?

Let's go back to the interception of the BBC China in the Suez Canal. The way the New York Times tells the story, 'according to accounts from American officials', the C.I.A. had 'penetrated' the factory in Malaysia where the centrifuges were made, spy satellites 'tracked the shipment' to Dubai where it was transferred to the BBC China, and then (only?) when the ship was in the Suez Canal 'the order went out from Washington' to intercept it [18]. Gordon Corera tells it differently in his book Shopping for Bombs: 'A close-knit team working between America's CIA and Britain's Intelligence Service received a tip-off in mid-September that a consignment of important goods had arrived at the bustling hub of Dubai's free-trade zone where they would be loaded onto a tramp steamer' [19]. Corera also wrote that the joint investigation had been 'contacted' in the spring of 2003 'by one of the network's customers who wanted to talk' [20].

If we believe the New York Times/'American officials' version, the C.I.A. 'penetrated' what could only be the Tinners's centrifuge factory in Malaysia, so it's likely the Tinners were helping the C.I.A. on the inside. And furthermore, according to the New York Times the Tinners had helped sabotage nuclear equipment bound for states attempting to create a bomb, so that their scientists would waste time on something that wouldn't work [21]. This would certainly tie in with the thinking behind Operation Merlin, the alleged C.I.A. operation in February 2000 to feed deliberately flawed nuclear warhead blueprints to Iran, which didn't turn out to be such a good idea, because apparently the flaws were easily identifiable and the rest of the information was damned useful [22].

But in the Corera version of the interception of the BBC China, the tip-off does not seem to originate with the Tinners, but rather from someone whose knowledge seems to come from what's happening on the ground in Dubai, telling the C.I.A. and British Intelligence that 'important goods' had arrived. Neither could the Tinners be described as 'customers' of the network, so they are unlikely candidates for that spring 2003 contact. So is it possible the BBC China could have been intercepted without the Tinners having ever helped the C.I.A.? Were the Tinners really C.I.A. agents, or did the U.S. government as represented by Alberto Gonzales have other reasons to ensure that the Tinners were never tried in Switzerland?

For what it's worth, David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, told the Guardian that Urs Tinner was recruited by the C.I.A. around 1999-2000 [23], and he also told Joe Lauria of The Sunday Times that the Tinners definitely worked for the C.I.A. [24].

Maybe they were all working for the C.I.A.?

You'll recall from part three that Sibel Edmonds accused Marc Grossman of the U.S. State Department of participating in the black market nuke network. Could he have been working for the C.I.A.? Analysts of this case do not think it likely. Basically, if you look at what Grossman is accused of, in those circumstances the C.I.A. would have the daunting task of making sure all the American nuclear secrets stolen from all the American nuclear facilities by all the Turkish and Israeli agents were full of deliberate mistakes. It would be a madcap-Operation-Merlin-times-a-thousand, when it would be easier just to prevent the foreign agents getting access to the secrets to begin with. It's more likely that the man-who-is-allegedly-Grossman would have been investigated by the C.I.A., as he was by Sibel Edmonds's team in the F.B.I. The Sunday Times spoke to an ex-C.I.A. agent who worked on nuclear proliferation, who confirmed that 'the Turks had acquired nuclear secrets from the United States and shared the information with Pakistan and Israel' [25]. And there was no mention of doctored information.

And if it's a sting operation, exactly how many more entities will have nuclear secrets and technology in their hands before the C.I.A. makes its move on the sellers?! We have to assume in our sanity that there is no sting operation, that the man-who-is-allegedly-Grossman and other U.S. officials (who Sibel Edmonds will name in part five) have their own agenda, and are too powerful for the F.B.I. or C.I.A. to stop.

However, that does not mean the C.I.A.'s role in the nuclear black market has been clear-cut. It has emerged that the agency has known about A.Q. Khan's activities since the 1970s! An ex-Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Ruud Lubbers, revealed in August 2005 that the Dutch were aware of Khan's actions when he began stealing secrets from URENCO, but they let him proceed because the C.I.A. told them they wanted to monitor his activities [26]. Well done, everyone. Pakistan has become a nuclear power as a result.

I think the answer to why the C.I.A. can nab some people whenever, some people sometimes, and some people never, is because they can only do what they're allowed to do. As Gourlay, Calvert and Lauria wrote in The Sunday Times: 'The wider nuclear network has been monitored for many years by a joint Anglo-American intelligence effort. But rather than shut it down, investigations by law enforcement bodies such as the FBI and Britain's Revenue & Customs have been aborted to preserve diplomatic relations' [27] [28].

'Diplomatic relations' has it just about right, and in the final part of this series I'll look at the role of foreign lobbying groups in Washington DC in the nuclear black market. I'll also publish Sibel Edmonds's 'list' of who's involved.

Notes:

[1] William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, 'In Nuclear Net's Undoing, a Web of Shadowy Deals', New York Times, 24 August 2008, page 2.

[2] '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.'
William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, 'In Nuclear Net's Undoing, a Web of Shadowy Deals', New York Times, 24 August 2008, page 1.

[3] & [4] Ian Traynor, 'Nuclear bomb blueprints for sale on world black market, experts fear', The Guardian, 31 May 2008.

[5] & [6] William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, 'In Nuclear Net's Undoing, a Web of Shadowy Deals', New York Times, 24 August 2008, page 1.

[7] William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, 'In Nuclear Net's Undoing, a Web of Shadowy Deals', New York Times, 24 August 2008, page 3.

[8] Luke Ryland, 'NY Times confirms US involvement in Nuclear Black Market', 5 September 2008.

[9] William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, 'In Nuclear Net's Undoing, a Web of Shadowy Deals', New York Times, 24 August 2008, page 4.

[10] Luke Ryland, 'NY Times does it again: More 'Judy Miller' tapdancing', 26 August 2008.

[11] Luke Ryland, 'NY Times confirms US involvement in Nuclear Black Market', 5 September 2008.

[12] & [13] Watch the online PBS video from April 2005, 'The Double Life of Asher Karni', or read the transcript.

[14] Interview with FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds by Christopher Deliso, August 2005.

[15] Luke Ryland, 'NY Times confirms US involvement in Nuclear Black Market', 5 September 2008.

[16] Jonathan Calvert, Chris Gourlay & Joe Lauria, 'Inquiry into "nuclear Mr Fix-it" dropped', The Sunday Times, 13 January 2008.

[17] Luke Ryland, 'NY Times does it again: More 'Judy Miller' tapdancing', 26 August 2008.

[18] William J. Broad, Davie E. Sanger & Raymond Bonner, 'A Tale of Nuclear Proliferation: How Pakistani Built His Network', New York Times, 12 February 2004, page 1.

[19] & [20] Gordon Corera, Shopping for Bombs, Oxford University Press, page ix.

[21] William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, 'In Nuclear Net's Undoing, a Web of Shadowy Deals', New York Times, 24 August 2008, page 1.

[22] Wikipedia page on Operation Merlin.

[23] Ian Traynor, 'Nuclear bomb blueprints for sale on world black market, experts fear', The Guardian, 31 May 2008.

[24] Joe Lauria interview on Antiwar Radio, 8 August 2008. Mp3.

[25] Chris Gourlay, Jonathan Calvert & Joe Lauria, 'For sale: West's deadly nuclear secrets', The Sunday Times, 6 January 2008.

[26] Wikipedia page on A.Q. Khan.

[27] Chris Gourlay, Jonathan Calvert & Joe Lauria, 'For sale: West's deadly nuclear secrets', The Sunday Times, 6 January 2008.

[28] Update: Journalist and author Robert Parry points out in an interview for antiwar.com on 9 September 2009 (mp3) that for Pakistan 'as part of their help in coordinating with the Afghan rebels [against the Soviet Union], the Reagan administration turned a blind eye to their developing a nuclear bomb' (55 minutes into interview).

Further reading:
Black Market Nukes! Part one: Found in Translation
Black Market Nukes! Part two: The Path of Khan
Black Market Nukes! Part three: Couldn't You Keep That To Yourself?
Zeitgeist: North Korea is "not" a terrorist
Sue Deaunym: Nuclear Attacks in US



Posted by barry at October 30, 2008 4:42 PM



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Comments

You should check out William Langewiesche's article from the Atlantic Monthly. It's superbly informative.

Online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200511/aq-khan

Posted by: Jen at November 3, 2008 1:05 PM










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