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Stung by a Nuclear Sting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was billed at the time as the world’s largest seizure of smuggled plutonium: “A successful strike against the international nuclear mafia,” as Bavarian Interior Minister Guenther Beckstein proudly put it.

At the Munich airport on Aug. 10, 1994, a heavily armed SWAT team nabbed 408 grams of plutonium--the deadly stuff of nuclear reactors and hydrogen bombs--from the hold of a commercial Lufthansa flight, just in from Moscow.

A big seizure and a spectacular one, true. But in the months since the bust, the facts behind the flight of Lufthansa 3369 have come trickling out. And what first appeared to be a coup for Germany’s foreign-intelligence service has turned into a national scandal that raises hard questions about the German spy agency’s role in a post-Cold War world.

That’s because the illicit shipment of plutonium turns out to be largely the result of a sting operation, carried out by agents of the German equivalent of the CIA, an organization usually known by its German initials, the BND.

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And this particular batch of plutonium--a cancer-causing element so toxic that it can cause death in millionths of a gram--made its trip in powder form, wadded in plastic wrap, encased in a screw-top metal container and concealed in an ordinary black suitcase.

These revelations have alarmed Germans, an environmentally sensitive people in any case.

By setting up what operatives called “Operation Hades,” critics here say, the BND endangered the plane’s passengers and crew, as well as residents of at least four nations on the route from Moscow to Munich. Planes do crash, and had this one gone down, the plutonium could have been scattered over a wide area.

Riskier still was the whisking of the plutonium from the airport to a lab for analysis upon its arrival--a three-hour drive on Germany’s no-holds-barred autobahns.

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Germans have also learned following Operation Hades that regulations on the books at the time of the shipment specifically ban this sort of nuclear-sting operation.

The questions being asked: Who authorized these seemingly reckless acts? How did the original plutonium supplier--the big catch in this case--elude authorities? Is the BND out of control?

A parliamentary commission has been studying the affair, and opposition politicians are calling for the heads of BND President Konrad Porzner and federal intelligence coordinator Bernd Schmidbauer. Schmidbauer’s resignation, in particular, would be a coup for the opposition because he is the right-hand man on intelligence matters to his fellow Christian Democrat, Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

“My party believes the decision was made in the chancellor’s office, that is, by Schmidbauer,” says Hermann Bachmaier, the investigating committee’s spokesman from the Social Democratic Party, Germany’s largest opposition group.

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But before the outrage, came waves of excitement and fear. Word that large quantities of plutonium were being hustled around Europe on commercial airliners--sealed in plastic like leftover sandwiches--set off alarms around the world.

Speculation surged through the veins of the international media: Which terrorist group was dealing in plutonium? Which rogue government might be the end buyer? Iraq? Iran? Libya?

In the United States, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh called the seizure evidence of “the biggest long-term threat to the security of the United States.” From Moscow to Los Alamos, N.M., nuclear scientists hastened to study the composition of the plutonium, in hopes of determining where the man who checked in the suitcase had acquired his fantastically toxic merchandise.

German officials were quick to point accusing fingers east to Moscow, where, they alleged, a weakened government was allowing demoralized, underpaid nuclear scientists to peddle their wares to a burgeoning criminal syndicate.

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With Moscow countering indignantly that all of Russia’s plutonium stockpile is in order, the damage done to the countries’ always-delicate relations took months to repair.

And, ironically, it was Schmidbauer whom Bonn ultimately sent to Moscow to repair the damage--the very man now accused of letting Operation Hades go forward in the first place.

Raid on a Garage

The story of the operation starts on May 10, 1994, in the small town of Tengen, in southern Germany. Police raided the garage of a suspected counterfeiter. To their surprise, they found six grams of nearly pure plutonium-239, the isotope used in making weapons.

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The Tengen seizure was but a fraction of the forthcoming Lufthansa plutonium haul. But it still attracted the rapt attention of German law enforcement officials, for it marked a quantum leap in a pattern of low-grade nuclear black-marketeering that had been increasingly visible in Europe since the Berlin Wall fell late in 1989.

Beginning in 1990, police in Germany had begun collecting data on nuclear crimes. In 1991, there were 41 busts, mostly of penny-ante con men trying to palm off radioactive junk as weapons-grade goods. The next year there were 158 such arrests in Germany, and in 1993, there were 241.

The seizure in Tengen marked something different, for it was the first time that the seized material could be made into weapons.

Although it was not within his normal mandate as Germany’s intelligence-services coordinator, Schmidbauer got on the phone to the counterfeiter in his jail cell, trying to extract more information in exchange for a sentencing deal. The counterfeiter eventually let it out that as much as 30 pounds of plutonium might have been boosted from Russian stockpiles and cached in Switzerland.

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This claim seemed to confirm the worst fear of the BND department charged with such post-Cold War topics as organized crime: that a flood of deadly materials pouring into the Federal Republic from the disorderly former Soviet Union was no longer just a sensational theory but a present danger.

‘El Gordo’ Steps In

Meanwhile, at the BND’s busy Madrid office, a top undercover drug agent had reported to the station chief as early as November 1993 that black-marketeers in the Spanish capital were shopping stolen nuclear goods from the former Soviet Union. Would the BND like to investigate?

Until the time of the Tengen seizure, the station chief--a large, dynamic man known as “El Gordo” or “The Fat One"--had said no. The code of conduct that governs German police work, then and now, prohibits attempts to infiltrate nuclear-smuggling rings--except as a last resort--for fear of “artificially creating a market” for stolen nuclear goods.

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But in May, with public and official fears of an international nuclear mafia intensifying, El Gordo changed his mind and told his agent to go ahead.

El Gordo’s main nuclear-smuggling tipster and operative was a Spanish undercover narcotics officer named Rafael Ferreras Fernandez, or “Rafa.” He teamed up for the nuclear case with a mysterious German undercover police officer known only as “Roberto.”

Soon, the pair were making the rounds of Madrid dives where assorted low-lifers hung out, spreading word that they had a contact--a rich German, they said--looking for anyone who could bring him a useful amount of weapons-grade plutonium. Delivery had to be to Munich, they said.

The tip from Rafa and Roberto attracted Javier Bengoechea Arratibel, a former divinity student, now a cement dealer down on his luck. He passed word to some fellow Spanish speakers in the former Soviet Union. Before long, Rafa and Roberto had found their smugglers: Justiniano Torres Benitez, a Colombian who went to Moscow to study medicine and ended up brokering helicopters, and Julio Oroz Eguia, a Spaniard working as an architect in Ukraine.

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A central question pressed by the parliamentary investigators in Bonn today: Doesn’t the behavior by Rafa, Roberto and their BND handler, El Gordo, constitute entrapment? Would Bengoechea, Torres, Oroz or anybody else ever have found their way into the plutonium-smuggling business if German agents hadn’t tempted them with enormous payments?

Whatever the answer to that central question, the police work at issue here was faulty, critics now say, in another key respect: Torres, by all accounts a relative small-fry of the Operation Hades sting, made contact with his plutonium supplier--the big-fish source the BND should have caught--while nobody had him under surveillance.

Torres came away with three grams of weapons-grade plutonium. Not much, but enough to make a good sales sample. Despite extensive follow-up investigation and laboratory analysis, Germany has never been able to learn the identity of the supplier--a crucial piece of information if war is to be waged on nuclear smuggling. All Torres would say, after his arrest, was that the man had been named Konstantin--in Russia, the equivalent of John Smith.

“The whole Russian side of the story is unresolved,” complains Bachmaier, the Social Democratic from the investigative committee.

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Holed Up in a Hotel

Torres and Oroz now packed up their sample and made their first trip to Munich in mid-July. Arriving in the Bavarian capital, they holed up in a hotel room--just as Rafa had instructed--and waited for their rich German buyer.

On July 22, Rafa appeared in Munich, meeting Torres and Oroz and speaking grandly of a $400,000 down payment. He took them to meet his “client,” in fact a state police officer who had been diverted from his usual counter-narcotics work, briefed on nuclear physics and wired for sound. With him was a man presented as his German-Spanish interpreter--in fact, a BND agent.

That raises another question for the German intelligence watchdogs: The German constitution, written in the days when bad memories of the Gestapo were still fresh, strictly prohibits spy agencies like the BND from engaging in police work on German soil. Doesn’t sending a BND agent, disguised as an interpreter, to participate in a nuclear sting in Munich, violate this rule?

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In any case, with hidden tape recorders rolling, the men negotiated their big deal. The undercover police officer offered $276 million for nine pounds of plutonium--about what it would take for a developing country to build a hydrogen bomb. Torres hastened back to Moscow to pick up his plastic-wrapped shipment, which was to have been the first installment.

And, significantly, he once again managed to elude surveillance at precisely the moment that critics contend mattered most--when he met with his supplier to receive the 408 grams of plutonium that made it aboard the plane.

On Aug. 10, Torres called Oroz, who had stayed on in Munich, to tell him he was about to catch his flight. Oroz arranged to meet him at the airport. The German authorities, who listened in on the call, got there first and staked out Gate 109. When the plane wheeled up to the gate, the police moved in, sealing the exits and seizing their plutonium smuggler from among the disembarking passengers.

While startled flight attendants looked on, technicians in protective clothing boarded the plane and checked it for radiation. They found higher-than-normal levels on the right-hand side at Row Four--readings that slid back to normal once that black suitcase was retrieved from the cargo hold, directly underneath.

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Passengers were screened for radiation as they left the plane; none showed any sign of exposure. Plutonium is a weak emitter of radiation; it is far more dangerous as a poison when inhaled. The black suitcase, meanwhile, was rushed for analysis to a laboratory, where scientists noted with dismay the haphazard way the deadly powder had been packed.

“Everything was contaminated,” one was later to testify.

Catching Small Fry

To date, it has been only the little guys who have paid for their involvement--and paid dearly. Torres, Oroz and Bengoechea are all serving prison terms between three and five years for violating Germany’s weapons-control laws.

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Rafa, reported to be feeling heat from organized crime figures, is said to have disappeared into the safety of Germany’s witness-protection program. The defense lawyer who allowed spy chief Schmidbauer to conduct off-the-record plea-bargaining sessions with the Tengen counterfeiter was disbarred.

Even El Gordo, the BND station chief, failed to emerge unscathed: With his cover in Madrid blown by recent investigations and publicity, he is rumored to be moving to Cuba to open a new intelligence post.

But at the highest level of the German intelligence command structure, no one has yet taken any responsibility for the affair. Schmidbauer has steadfastly denied any involvement or advance knowledge, and for his political rivals, there is no smoking gun yet to prove that he ordered up the sting.

“I was not told [about Operation Hades] at any time, nor did I have any influence at all on the decisions taken,” he told parliamentary investigators this month.

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Opponents refuse to believe it. “Either the man was fully informed in August 1994, in which case he has lied to the public, or else he wasn’t fully informed, and then he’s the wrong man for the job,” says Social Democratic parliamentary faction leader Rudolf Scharping.

The committee is expected to make a public report of its findings next month.

As for the source of the plutonium, little hope remains of identifying the mysterious people with access to the bomb ingredient and a demonstrated willingness to sell it when the price is right.

Some fear that, undetected, these suppliers might act again.

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“If German intelligence was able to wave money around and scare this stuff up, then Iraq or North Korea could do the same thing,” says Steven Dolley, research director of the Nuclear Control Institute, a nonproliferation group in Washington.


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