The New York Times reported earlier this week that Pascal Couchepin, the president of Switzerland, publicly confirmed that his government had deliberately destroyed computer files and other documentation of dealings of the Tinners, a family of Swiss engineers with suspected ties to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist responsible for Pakistan's nuclear weapon program and for developing a large nuclear black market that provided nuclear materials to a number of countries around the world.
Friedrich Tinner and his two sons, Urs and Marco, are suspected of having acted as middlemen in Khan's dealings with nations seeking nuclear technology, such as Libya and Iran. The reason for the destruction of evidence, according to Couchepin, was to prevent nuclear technology included in the documents, including plans for nuclear weapons, from ever falling into the hands of terrorists.
But five current and former officials of the Bush administration told the Times that the U.S. had requested that the files be destroyed "to hide evidence of a clandestine relationship between the Tinners and the C.I.A."
"Over four years, several of these officials said," reported the Times, "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."
According to Gary S. Samore, head of the National Security Council nonproliferation office at the time of the alleged operation, it was from this "very significant" relationship with the Tinners that "we got the first indications that Iran had acquired centrifuges" to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel.
The Times continues, "Officials say the C.I.A. feared that a trial would not just reveal the Tinners' relationship with the United States--and perhaps raise questions about American dealings with atomic smugglers--but would also imperil efforts to recruit new spies at a time of grave concern over Iran's nuclear program. Destruction of the files, C.I.A. officials suspected, would undermine the case and could set their informants free.
"'We were very happy they were destroyed," a senior intelligence official in Washington said of the files.
Officials told the Times that Urs Tinner was recruited by the C.I.A. in 2000. He then persuaded his father and brother to join him as moles.
The files were of interest to both Swiss prosecutors and international atomic inspectors investigating Khan's network.
"The destroyed evidence," the Times added, "decades of records of the Tinners' activities, included not only bomb and centrifuge plans but also documents linking the family to the C.I.A., officials said. One contract, a European intelligence official said, described a C.I.A. front company's agreement to pay the smugglers $1 million for black-market secrets. The front company listed an address three blocks from the White House."
Of course, the destruction of evidence--obstruction of justice normally considered a crime--helps to ensure that the precise nature of the C.I.A.'s dealings with Khan's network remain unknown. The Swiss government's ostensible explanation for the destruction of the documents is less than convincing. The files, which might have been very useful to investigators seeking to understand the full extent and nature of the illicit nuclear network, could have been turned over to the International Atomic Energy Agency for safekeeping. And while there are indications to support the official explanation that the Tinners were being used by the C.I.A. to disrupt the Khan network, there are reasons to doubt the veracity of this story.
The Netherlands was prepared to arrest Khan in 1975, and again in 1986, but were requested by the C.I.A. to allow him to continue his activities, according to former Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers, though the C.I.A. denies this. "The man was followd for almost ten years," said Lubbers, "and obviously he was a serious problem. But again I was told that the secret services could handle it more effectively. The Hague did not have the final say in the matter. Washington did."
Anwar Iqbal, a reporter for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper said Lubbers' assertion might be correct. "The U.S. knew Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons," he said, "but couldn't care less because it was not going to be used against them. It was a deterrent against India and possibly the Soviets."
"By September 10 2005, this story had taken yet another new twist," writes Dr. Ludwig De Braeckeleer, who has a PhD in nuclear physics and has worked for the Department of Energy. "The Amsterdam court, which sentenced Abdul Qadeer Khan to four years in prison in 1983, has lost Khan's legal files. The court's vice-president, Judge Anita Leeser, suspects the CIA had a hand in the documents' disappearance. 'Something is not right, we just don't lose things like that,' she told Dutch news show NOVA. "I find it bewildering that people lose files with a political goal, especially if it is on request of the CIA."
The Yirmeyahu Review has previously reported in an analysis that the U.S. had "turned a blind eye to Pakistan's efforts to develop a nuclear weapons program, which eventually became successful under the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, A.Q. Khan, who had long been under the eye of intelligence agencies suspicious of his proliferation activities.
In what was to become a major international scandal, it became known publicly that A.Q. Khan had organized a huge international nuclear black market, supplying materials and plans to countries such as North Korea, Iran, and Libya. Pakistan's nuclear program was under the control of the military, and as many analysts observed, Musharraf's denials that Khan's ring had received official sanction strained credulity.