Down the nuclear rabbit hole


Seven years after the U.S. government proclaimed victory over the rogue Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, the seeds of catastrophe he sowed are still sprouting worldwide. Iran’s march toward an atomic bomb? We have Khan’s nuclear trafficking network to thank. North Korea’s continuing development of nuclear weapons? Again, Khan’s doing.

Despite putting the world’s most dangerous weapons in the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes, not one participant in Khan’s network is in jail today. Even the mastermind himself, too powerful for his own government to imprison, was allowed the comfort of house arrest, and now even that has ended. Instead of a strong message of deterrence, shutting down the atomic bazaar resulted in an unseemly mercy for its perpetrators and a new form of cyber proliferation.

By its nature, nuclear trafficking crosses borders. Combating this danger requires international cooperation. Yet at every turn in tracking the Khan network from Pakistan to Iran, North Korea and Libya, national interests trumped counter-proliferation objectives. Decisions by policymakers and intelligence officials in several nations created a calculus in which selling the means to wipe out a city carried less risk of severe punishment than robbing the neighborhood convenience store.


The worst scofflaw was our own Central Intelligence Agency, aided and abetted by senior officials in the George W. Bush administration. Together, they advocated obstructionism masquerading as prudence, blocking prosecutions and orchestrating the destruction of evidence detailing the full extent of the damage to our security by the Khan network.

Khan’s indulgent treatment is well known. Less attention has been paid to the leniency granted his collaborators. None spent more than 4 1/2 years in prison; most served far less. The logistics chief, B.S.A. Tahir, was arrested by Malaysian authorities in late 2003, but he was never charged and walked free in June 2008. Tahir might have helped put a number of his associates behind bars, but the Malaysians refused to let him testify in Germany and South Africa. Similarly, German and South African prosecutors squabbled over evidence and witnesses, leading to light or suspended sentences for four ring members in those countries.

But the most flagrant effort to undermine prosecutions was a four-year campaign by the U.S. government to kill a Swiss investigation of the network. Interviews and previously undisclosed documents we reviewed in writing our new book provided a chilling portrait of American bullying at the highest levels to block a criminal inquiry of three Swiss citizens who were part of Khan’s global enterprise: engineer Friedrich Tinner and his sons, Marco and Urs. The Americans stonewalled Swiss requests for help and then pressured them into destroying a staggering quantity of evidence.

Senior CIA and Bush administration officials argued that stopping the Tinner inquiry and destroying the evidence was necessary to protect U.S. intelligence operations and keep nuclear information away from terrorists. But our research uncovered more sinister motives.

For one, according to confidential documents, the CIA had paid the Tinners huge sums and wanted to protect their role in bringing down Khan. The CIA also wanted to stop Swiss plans, documented in a parliamentary commission report, to prosecute six of its officers who violated Swiss law by recruiting the Tinners and improperly searching their homes and offices. More important, preserving Bush’s claim that shutting down Khan was a major intelligence victory meant suppressing the disclosure of the real volume of nuclear secrets the network had put on the open market — much of it after the CIA penetrated the ring.

In February 2008, documents show, the Swiss succumbed to U.S. pressure and destroyed a huge cache of evidence seized from the Tinners. Among the material shredded, crushed and incinerated under CIA supervision were plans for two nuclear warheads from Pakistan’s arsenal, blueprints for uranium enrichment plants and producing nuclear weapons, and decades of records detailing network transactions.


For the last 2 1/2 years, a dogged Swiss magistrate has been reassembling fragments of the evidence case, and he recently recommended charging the Tinners. But the case against the CIA agents has gone up in smoke, as has the road map to outposts in the Khan network that remain undiscovered today.

The destruction was not only wrong, it was too late. Long before the Swiss seized the cache from the Tinners, the warhead plans and other designs had been transferred to digital formats, easily sent to any computer. Copies were found in Thailand, Malaysia and South Africa; no one is sure where else they may have gone in what we regard as the world’s first example of cyber proliferation.

The lesson here is clear: Leaders must set aside national interests and work cooperatively to stay ahead of nuclear traffickers. United Nations’ efforts on this front have yielded poor results. What’s needed is a new multilateral legal regime that puts trafficking in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons on a par with crimes against humanity. This won’t be easy, but blind adherence to narrow national objectives increases the risk to all of us.

Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz are the authors of “The Man From Pakistan: The True Story of the World’s Most Dangerous Nuclear Smuggler” and the forthcoming book “Fallout: The True Story of the CIA’s Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking.”