UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The CIA persuaded Switzerland to destroy millions of pages of evidence showing how a Pakistani scientist helped Iran, Libya and North Korea acquire sensitive nuclear technology, according to a new book.
“Fallout” by Americans Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz tells the story of the illicit nuclear procurement network created by Abdul Qadeer Khan, a metallurgist who is widely considered the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
In 2004, Khan admitted to selling Iran, North Korea and Libya uranium enrichment technology that can be used to produce fuel for civilian reactors or atomic weapons. Khan’s movements have been curtailed since his public confession.
Analysts and U.N. officials have said that Khan’s illicit network, which specialized in helping countries skirt international sanctions, created the greatest nuclear proliferation crisis of the atomic age.
“Fallout” is the second book on the Khan network by Frantz and Collins, a husband-and-wife team of investigative journalists.
They say the United States pressured the Swiss government to destroy evidence that could have helped U.N. investigators determine the full extent of Khan’s black marketeering and say they did it to cover up CIA mistakes that had enabled Khan’s network to flourish.
The CIA, the authors say, tracked Khan’s activities for years thanks to a Swiss family, the Tinners, involved in the supply of nuclear technology which was a key element in Khan’s network. Members of the family were recruited by the CIA.
Through the Tinners, the CIA successfully infiltrated the Khan network, but Washington failed to act quickly enough to stop it spreading “the world’s most dangerous technology to the world’s most dangerous regimes,” Frantz told Reuters.
The CIA tried to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program while monitoring Khan, but it appears the Iranians discovered the problems with equipment that had been tampered with and repaired it, the authors write.
A Swiss investigator who worked on the Khan case was quoted by the authors as saying that Washington had wanted the evidence collected in raids on the Tinners’ home and offices, including computer files, hard drives, disks and documents, to be destroyed in order to “hide their own stupidity.”
“They are responsible for the spread of this dangerous technology,” the investigator said. “You cannot stop it now. The Tinners were free. They were computer freaks, living in different countries, and duplicating all those files.”
Among the files confiscated from the Tinners, Collins and Frantz say, were elements of a Chinese design for a nuclear weapon that had been scanned and could therefore have been copied and disseminated around the world.
Investigators from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also identified possible elements of designs for two other more sophisticated Pakistani nuclear weapons among the materials they were allowed to see.
In addition to the discovery of more than 300 schematics for two types of Pakistani atomic weapons in the Tinners’ possession, hard drives belonging to the family were found in Thailand, Malaysia and South Africa, showing that classified information useful in making bombs had traveled the globe.
CIA spokesman George Little dismissed the idea that the CIA had bungled its handling of the Khan network.
“The disruption of the A.Q. Khan network was a genuine intelligence success, one in which the CIA played a key role,” he said. “The agency’s commitment to our counterproliferation mission is unwavering.”
A spokesman for the Swiss Justice Ministry said his government had done nothing to undermine the IAEA investigation of the Khan network.
“The Federal Council always took the information needs of the IAEA into account,” spokesman Guido Balmer said.
He referred to a May 2008 statement by the Swiss Federal Council, which said Switzerland had destroyed the “dangerous” evidence — two tons of paperwork, dozens of computers, hard drives and disks — “for security reasons and in accordance with our duties under international law.”
The Vienna-based IAEA declined to comment. (Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and Emma Thomasson in Zurich; Editing by David Storey)