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2006-06-02

Why is the U.S. Hampering a Swiss Investigation into A.Q. Khan’s International Nuclear Arms Smuggling Ring?

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The Bush administration is ignoring requests from Swiss officials to hand over information that would help prosecute alleged members of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan’s underground nuclear network. We speak with the spokesperson for the Swiss Attorney General, Hansjurg Mark Wiedmer, former U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, David Albright and Pakistani physicist, Zia Mian of Princeton University. [includes rush transcript]

The Bush administration is being accused of refusing to help out Switzerland’s federal prosecutor try three men at the center of the world’s most notorious nuclear arms smuggling ring.

The case involves a Swiss man and his two sons who are allegedly connected to the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, better known as AQ Khan.

Khan, who is currently under house arrest in Pakistan, helped build Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and then secretly shared the technology with other countries including Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Two years ago President Bush praised the international community for working together to disrupt Khan’s network.

  • President Bush, February 11th, 2004
    "Governments around the world worked closely with us to unravel the Khan network, and to put an end to his criminal enterprise. A. Q. Khan has confessed his crimes, and his top associates are out of business." [Full Transcript]

But behind the scenes, it is a different story.

Over the past year Swiss officials have requested at least four times that the Bush administration share documents and evidence related to Khan’s nuclear black market. But the United States has never responded.

Swiss officials maintain it needs U.S. assistance in order to convict three Swiss men accused of helping AQ Khan set up a secret Malaysian factory to make components for gas centrifuges.

Last week U.S. weapons expert David Albright testified before Congress and said, "I find this lack of cooperation frankly embarrassing to the United States and to those of us who believe that the United States should take the lead in bringing members of the Khan network to justice for arming our enemies with nuclear weapons."

Albright has floated one theory as to why the Bush administration won’t help the Swiss investigators. He says the three Swiss men accused of bring part of AQ Khan’s underground network may have been working for the CIA and being paid by the U.S. government.

The CIA has refused to comment on the allegation but former CIA Director George Tenet acknowledged the Agency had penetrated Khan’s network during a speech at Georgetown University in February 2004.

  • George Tenet, speaking February 5th, 2004
    "Now, as you know from the news coming out of Pakistan, Khan and his network have been dealt a crushing blow, with several of his senior officers in custody. Malaysian authorities have shut down one of the network’s largest plants. His network is now answering to the world for years of nuclear profiteering. What did intelligence have to do with this? First, we discovered the extent of Khan’s hidden network. We tagged the proliferators. We detected the network stretching from Pakistan to Europe to the Middle East to Asia offering its wares to countries like North Korea and Iran. Working with our British colleagues we pieced together the picture of the network, revealing its subsidiaries, scientists, front companies, agents, finances, and manufacturing plants on three continents. Our spies penetrated the network through a series of daring operations over several years. Through this unrelenting effort we confirmed the network was delivering such things as illicit uranium enrichment centrifuges. And as you heard me say on the Libya case, we stopped deliveries of prohibited material. I welcome the President’s Commission looking into proliferation. We have a record and a story to tell and we want to tell it to those willing to listen." [Full transcript]

For more we are joined three guests:

  • Hansjurg Mark Wiedmer, spokesperson for the Swiss Attorney General. He joins us on the line from Bern, Switzerland
  • David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq
  • Zia Mian, scholar and activist on South Asian and disarmament issues at the Centre for Science and Global Security at Princeton University.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Two years ago, President Bush praised the international community for working together to disrupt Khan’s network.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Governments around the world worked closely with us to unravel the Khan network and to put an end to its criminal enterprise. A.Q. Khan has confessed his crimes. And his top associates are out of business.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But behind the scenes, it is a different story. Over the past year, Swiss officials have requested at least four times that the Bush administration share documents and evidence related to Khan’s nuclear black market, but the United States has never responded. Swiss officials maintain they need U.S. assistance in order to convict three Swiss men accused of helping A.Q. Khan, who set up a secret Malaysian factory to make components for gas centrifuges.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, U.S. weapons expert David Albright testified before Congress and said, quote, "I find this lack of cooperation, frankly, embarrassing to the United States and to those of us who believe that the United States should take the lead in bringing members of the Khan network to justice for arming our enemies with nuclear weapons." Albright has floated one theory as to why the Bush administration won’t help the Swiss investigators. He says the three Swiss men accused of being a part of A.Q. Khan’s underground network may have been working for the CIA and being paid by the U.S. government. The CIA has refused to comment on the allegation, but former CIA Director George Tenet acknowledged the agency had penetrated Khan’s network during a speech at Georgetown University in February of 2004.

GEORGE TENET: Now, as you know from the news coming out of Pakistan, Khan and his network have been dealt a crushing blow, and several of his senior officers are in custody. Malaysian authorities have shut down one of the network’s largest plants. His network is now answering to the world for years of nuclear profiteering.

What did intelligence have to do with this? First, we discovered the extent of Khan’s hidden network. We tagged the proliferators. We detected the network, stretching across four continents, offering its wares to countries like North Korea and Iran. Working with our British colleagues, we pieced together the picture of the network, revealing its subsidiaries, its scientists, its front companies, its agents, its finances and manufacturing plants on three continents.

Our spies penetrated the network through a series of daring operations over several years. Through this unrelenting effort, we confirmed the network was delivering such things as illicit uranium enrichment centrifuges. And as you heard me say in the Libya case, we stopped deliveries of prohibited material. I welcome the President’s commission on proliferation. We have a record and a story to tell and we want to tell it to those willing to listen.

AMY GOODMAN: Former CIA Director George Tenet speaking in February of 2004. We’re joined right now by three guests. We’ll start on the phone from Bern, Switzerland, with Hansjurg Mark Wiedmer. He’s a spokesperson for the Swiss Attorney General. We welcome you to Democracy Now! Are you with us?

HANSJURG MARK WIEDMER: I am with us. Are you hearing me?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we can hear you fine. Can you explain what it is that you’ve requested of the United States and who the men are that you’re prosecuting in Switzerland?

HANSJURG MARK WIEDMER: Well, first of all, we never give information or disclose information about people involved in our criminal investigations, but I can confirm that Swiss — the office of the Swiss Attorney General is leading a criminal investigation into any Swiss connection to nuclear proliferation, plans and links to the Khan network.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Switzerland does have an agreement with the United States to cooperate in criminal investigations, does it not?

HANSJURG MARK WIEDMER: There is a contract between Switzerland and the United States, according or regarding the cooperation within criminal cases like that. Also, after 9/11, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the cooperation between Swiss and U.S. officials have been strengthened. So we are really confident that the U.S. authorities will provide us with the information we ask them, because it’s in the best interest, not only for Switzerland, but for the United States, as well, that this criminal investigation can go on into the clarification of the Swiss link to the whole question of — the international question or international prosecution also of the Khan network.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But the reports are indicating that up until now the United States has not responded to your request. Is that unusual, or does that cause concern for you?

HANSJURG MARK WIEDMER: Well, actually you know, the cooperation within the legal framework of the international judicial assistance always takes time. We understand that, and we are also confident that the information that we need will be provided. I think that in the international fight against nuclear proliferation, international cooperation on the level of law enforcement and judicial assistance, it’s necessary, it’s one of the things authorities and government can do to cooperate better to clarify these things. We are aware of the fact that nuclear proliferation, also linked to international terrorism, is one of the big challenges for prosecution and law enforcement in the 21st century. Switzerland is playing its part. We are looking in our criminal investigation into any links to Switzerland or from Switzerland in this international problem. And we are confident that cooperation with U.S. authorities will go on in that matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Hansjurg Mark Wiedmer with us, spokesperson for the Swiss Attorney General. When we come back from our 60-second break, we will also be joined by David Albright, the former UN weapons inspector who testified before Congress last week, talking about why perhaps the U.S. government is not handing information over to the Swiss government to prosecute alleged members of the A.Q. Khan network. We’ll also speak with a Pakistani-born physicist from Princeton University, Zia Mian, about A.Q. Khan.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests on the phone are Hansjurg Mark Wiedmer, spokesperson for the Swiss Attorney General, and David Albright joins us now, former UN weapons inspector. David Albright, you testified before Congress. Can you talk about what you said about this Swiss case and the U.S. government participation or non-cooperation?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, the thrust of the testimony was really just to point out that the Swiss government has been making requests for over a year for cooperation from the United States, and I helped them prepare a request to the State Department, a very senior official, who was very much involved in this case, Robert Joseph, who is Under Secretary. And so far, the U.S. government hasn’t even acknowledged the receipt of these requests, and I know when I made some calls over the last couple of months, my phone calls weren’t returned. And so, I think there’s a problem that, frankly, I don’t understand.

The Swiss have gone to great lengths to narrow their requests, because certainly the U.S. had concerns. Would this information reveal associations between some of the Tinners and our CIA? Because the Tinners did help the CIA in sort of what I’d call the endgame. I think the Tinners saw the writing on the wall. So you worry: will those associations be revealed? Would the Swiss — another problem, would the Swiss see classified nuclear information involving gas centrifuges? And so, in the request, at least that I participated in, there was no request for information about intelligence matters. There was care taken to make sure that what the Swiss were asking to see at one of our national laboratories, namely Oak Ridge, is unclassified. The information they want just from documents, that those documents would be unclassified.

And so the Swiss have bent over backwards to try to narrow their requests to respect the need for the United States to keep certain information secret, and there’s been no response. And it’s just, frankly, mystifying, and I think it’s complicating the Swiss investigation. I find it embarrassing as an American, that, you know, given the stature and the importance this president has put upon crushing the A.Q. Khan network and prosecuting the members of that network, that they simply don’t even have the courtesy to give the Swiss any response at all.

AMY GOODMAN: You testified, David Albright, before Congress, saying, "I find this lack of cooperation, frankly, embarrassing to the United States and those of us who believe the United States should take the lead in bringing members of Khan’s network to justice for arming our enemies with nuclear weapons." You talk about the Tinners. They’re a father and two sons, is that right?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Yes, that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And what more do you know about them?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, one is just that they were very key members of the network, and what they’ve been accused of doing is providing centrifuge parts to the network. Urs Tinner organized the creation of basically a industrial capability in Malaysia to make centrifuge parts for the Libyan program. They were very high-ranking members of this network, years of operation with the network, and so they’ve accused of violating laws providing the, basically, wherewithal to provide nuclear weapons to a terrorist state, namely Libya.

And so, they are very serious charges, and they’re not cooperating with the prosecutors, which is another dimension to this. You’d think if they — for example, we now, we know that they certainly they did — and as I mentioned, they worked with the CIA, but they weren’t heroes. And I asked the State Department official, you know, "Were they key in uncovering the information or revealing information that led to this interception of this ship, the BBC China in October of ’03?" — which was a key, sort of the first step in really rolling up this network, after years of having it under surveillance. And the State Department official said, "No." Actually, he smiled, laughed about it.

And so, I don’t think the Tinners were heroes in this at all, and I found in investigating the illicit nuclear trade that often these traders, smugglers, will actually cooperate with intelligence services, because they know they’re under surveillance, and they’ll give information about their colleagues. They’ll try to protect themselves. And so my understanding is the Tinners did some valuable service for our intelligence service and also for the International Atomic Energy Agency, but it by no means is sufficient to get them an immunity from prosecution, and in essence what the U.S. government is — the signal it’s sending is that it doesn’t want the Swiss to prosecute these three people, and yet they provide no reason for that. And as prosecutors investigate that, I investigated, the Tinners don’t seem to warrant an immunity from prosecution.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, David Albright, given the boasting that has gone on both by President Bush and former CIA Director Tenet about the breakup of this network, how many people have actually been convicted of participating in this network and sent to jail?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, so far, very few. I mean, there’s a Dutch person, Henk Slebos, who was sentenced to less than a year. It’s kind of a slap on the hand. There’s some people under — like the Tinners are in jail. They haven’t been charged yet. I mean, they’re being investigated, and recommendations on charging them will probably be made in June or July. There’s, you know — and then there’s the whole group of people that were held in Pakistan. The last person was released last month. He had been held for a couple of years. Khan’s under house arrest. Sort of the C.E.O. of the operation, Mr. Tahir, is under house arrest in Malaysia. There’s people, a couple of people charged in South Africa who are not — who are out on bail, but — and their court case will happen probably early next year.

AMY GOODMAN: So only one person has served any prison time at this point?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, other than these people who are under house arrest or were held without charges. I mean, whether — it’s not as bleak as what you just said. I mean, but it’s not as good as it should be, and in fact, one of the problems is that in these kind of transnational organized crime networks, we’re still — we’re dealing with national criminal prosecutions, and they’re suffering because they are national, and they haven’t figured out how to really have — in a sense, get these guys when you need information from another country. I mean, this is a problem plaguing all these cases.

And the way to bridge that problem is cooperation, active cooperation, and the system that’s been set up is, you know, the Swiss prosecute the Swiss. The Germans prosecute the Germans. The South Africans prosecute the South Africans or the people who, you know, live there for a long time. But vital is cooperation, and the U.S. is violating that. I mean, in the case of the Swiss. I mean, it’s critical that countries cooperate to overcome these problems inherent in these national prosecutions, and I find it disturbing and perplexing that the United States will not provide the cooperation to the Swiss that they’ve requested.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Albright, former UN weapons inspector. We’re going to go back to Hansjurg Mark Wiedmer in Switzerland, spokesperson for the Swiss Attorney General, but first I want to bring in Professor Zia Mian, Pakistani-born nuclear physicist at Princeton University. This discussion of who A.Q. Khan is, the man who is now under house arrest in his multimillion-dollar mansion in Pakistan. Talk about this network. Talk about the man in the middle.

ZIA MIAN: Well, A.Q. Khan has been a central player in the Pakistani nuclear program for the better part of three decades now, and I think that what we’re seeing with the network and the court cases is the kind of logical unfolding of how Pakistan acquired its nuclear weapons, which was by buying components and skills from abroad starting in the early 1970s, and once it succeeded, to turn that network around and start exporting material.

But I think that the fact that A.Q. Khan is sitting in a mansion in Islamabad should have come as no surprise to anyone. I mean, he’s been closely tied to every Pakistani government since he became involved in Pakistan’s nuclear program and has been treated and projected as a national hero, so there wasn’t much that the government was going to do to somebody that they had built up like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Professor Mian, about his relationship with the Pakistani government?

ZIA MIAN: Well, A.Q. Khan has had a relationship with the leaders of Pakistan from the very beginning of his role. He was close to the head, to the founder of the Pakistani nuclear program politically, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of prime minister — previous prime minister Benazir Bhutto. He’s been close to all the generals that have actually had day-to-day control over Pakistan’s nuclear program ever since it was started. And so, you know, he certainly, in the chain of command, his bosses were the chiefs of the Pakistan army, and less so, the Pakistani political leadership, because the military are the real power brokers in Pakistan, even when we have civilian governments. And so that was who he reported to, and that was the people who told him what to do.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the extent of his responsibility for proliferation of nuclear technology to other countries around the world?

ZIA MIAN: In terms of proliferation, I mean, one has to understand that what A.Q. Khan did through his network in sharing nuclear centrifuge technology and other things, including the design of a nuclear weapon, with Libya and Iran and North Korea, and, you know, he may have tried to sell it to several other countries also, is not new in the scheme of things, as far as proliferation goes. It’s almost now axiomatic that countries that acquire nuclear weapons use those capabilities to strengthen and build strategic relationships.

The United States helped Britain and France with their nuclear weapons programs. The Soviet Union helped China with its nuclear program. The Chinese helped Pakistan with their nuclear program, and the Pakistanis, once they had a nuclear capability, looked for countries that they had strategic relationships or wanted to strengthen their strategic relationships and said, "Look, we have the ultimate weapon. Here is proof of our commitment to you. We will share this with you." So it’s not new in the behavior of nuclear weapons states to do this kind of thing.

AMY GOODMAN: David Albright, can you put what is going on with the whole A.Q. Khan network in the context of the latest headlines, which is the U.S. putting pressure on Iran?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Without Khan’s help, we probably wouldn’t be having this crisis with Iran now. I mean, Iranian scientists and technicians are capable, but they wouldn’t have been able to pull together a centrifuge program on their own, and Khan’s assistance was vital, along with the assistance from certain European companies that were associated or were working with Khan. And so, I think that we’re facing this crisis now with Iran largely because Khan and his associates helped Iran put together a gas centrifuge program.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Hansjurg Mark Wiedmer, spokesperson for the Swiss Attorney General. What are you demanding now of the U.S. government?

HANSJURG MARK WIEDMER: Well, as it is an ongoing criminal investigation, I couldn’t go into the details of this criminal investigation. One of the goals of the investigation is to determine the role that the people involved in our investigation played. And as it shows and as I heard in the declarations of the other people on the network right now, it’s really an international task to look into these details. These are international matters. I also think that the threat that comes out of nuclear proliferation is not a threat that concerns only one nation. Not only Switzerland, not only the United States, it’s a world political problem.

And I think that the cooperation will be necessary. I think that the information that the United States authorities can provide us with can help us to determine the role of the people in our investigation, but also, you know, we’ve been cooperating with other countries so far. This investigation has a big importance in Switzerland. We are into looking into any implication of the people here, and also we want to put them on trial and let a judge decide what has been done, what’s punishable under Swiss laws, and by doing so, I think we are contributing also to the safety of the people, not only in Switzerland or the United States, but worldwide.

AMY GOODMAN: And your reaction to David Albright’s speculation around the issue of these men, the father and two sons, the Tinners, being involved with the CIA, which is why the U.S. government is protecting them?

HANSJURG MARK WIEDMER: Well, first of all, I couldn’t really hear the declaration of Mr. Albright, due to technical problems on the telephone line, but that’s not a problem by itself, because I couldn’t comment on that. But the only thing I can say, it’s a criminal investigation here. We are into prosecution. Intelligence or also speculation about any intelligence involvement doesn’t play any role in our criminal investigation. We are not the authority to look into this, so this is purely a criminal investigation. We want to — there is probable cause for criminal actions. We are looking into that. We want to try to establish a case to bring charges to the people involved and to let a judge or a tribunal in Switzerland decide if criminal actions have been done by these people with implications not only for Switzerland, but worldwide.

AMY GOODMAN: Hansjurg Mark Wiedmer, I want to thank you very much for being with us, spokesperson for the Swiss Attorney General; Professor Zia Mian at Princeton University, nuclear physicist with the Center for Science and Global Security; and David Albright, former UN Weapons inspector. We want to thank you all for being with us.

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