WITHOUT FANFARE the genial President of Switzerland stepped to a podium in Bern last May and read a statement confirming rumors that had swirled through the capital for months. The government, he acknowledged, had indeed destroyed a huge trove of computer files and other material documenting the business dealings of a family of Swiss engineers suspected of helping smuggle nuclear technology to Libya and Iran. The files were of particular interest not only to Swiss prosecutors but to international atomic inspectors working to unwind the activities of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani bomb pioneer-turned-nuclear black marketeer. The Swiss engineers, Friedrich Tinner and his two sons, were accused of having deep associations with Dr. Khan, acting as middlemen in his dealings with rogue nations seeking nuclear equipment and expertise.
The Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, took no questions. But he asserted that the fileswhich included an array of plans for nuclear arms and technologies, among them a highly sophisticated Pakistani bomb designhad been destroyed so that they would never fall into terrorist hands. Behind that official explanation, though, is a far more intriguing tale of spies, moles and the compromises that governments make in the name of national security. 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. Over four years, several of these officials said, operatives of the C.I.A. paid the Tinners as much as $10 million, some of it delivered in a suitcase stuffed with cash. In return, the Tinners delivered a flow of secret information that helped end Libya’s bomb program, reveal Iran’s atomic labors and, ultimately, undo Dr. Khan’s nuclear black market. In addition, American and European officials said, the Tinners played an important role in a clandestine American operation to funnel sabotaged nuclear equipment to Libya and Iran, a major but little-known element of the efforts to slow their nuclear progress. The relationship with the Tinners “was very significant,” said Gary S. Samore, who ran the National Security Council’s nonproliferation office when the operation began. “That’s where we got the first indications that Iran had acquired centrifuges,” which enrich uranium for nuclear fuel.
Read it all in the New York Times. And, of course, far be it from the Times to hold the lid on American secret operations. Here's the deal:
An inventor and mechanical engineer, Friedrich Tinner got his start in Swiss companies that make vacuum technology, mazes of pipes, pumps and valves used in many industries. Mr. Tinner received United States patents for his innovative vacuum valves. By definition, his devices were so-called dual-use products with peacetime or wartime applications. Governments often feel torn between promoting such goods as commercial boons and blocking them as security risks. As recounted in books and articles and reports by nuclear experts, Mr. Tinner worked with Dr. Khan for three decades, beginning in the mid-1970s. His expertise in vacuum technology aided Dr. Khan’s development of atomic centrifuges, which produced fuel for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, now variously estimated at 50 to 100 warheads.
Yet while Mr. Tinner repeatedly drew the attention of European authorities, who questioned the export of potentially dangerous technology, he never faced charges. Mr. Tinner’s involvement with Dr. Khan deepened beginning in the late 1990s, when, joined by his sons, he helped supply centrifuges for Libya’s secret bomb program.
In 2000, American officials said, Urs Tinner was recruited by the C.I.A., and American officials were elated. Spy satellites can be fooled. Documents can lie. Electronic taps can mislead. But a well-placed mole can work quietly behind the scenes to get at the truth.
For instance, the United States had gathered circumstantial evidence that Iran wanted an atom bomb. Suddenly it had a direct view into clandestine Iranian procurement of centrifuges and other important nuclear items.
This is all very sad, and precisely why the peace movement, dear friends, can and should never be localized. War is a global business with unsavory players in every nook and cranny. There is always more cloak and dagger intrigue going on behind the scenes than any self-righteous group of ordinary citizens can possibly know at any given moment in time. There will be a war of massive scale, so devastating, so wicked, so awful in its reach that finally mankind will be defeated in its pursuits for domination. Only then will peace be possible. I personally despise this notion, but I fearfully suspect it is also the truest statement to be written about the mind of man in these dangerous times. Thus, I support my own government to do its military best to stop this next war, by any means necessary. Because this next war will not be cheered by victors.