Lessons not yet learned in Tinner nuclear case

The CIA worked to clean up the mess but made things worse, a report has found Keystone

A United States think-tank has found that Swiss authorities and the US government bungled the case of a Swiss family accused of aiding a nuclear weapons ring.

This content was published on December 22, 2010 minutes
Tim Neville,

A report released this week by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security says the Swiss, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the suspects-turned-spies themselves thwarted efforts to limit nuclear weapon know-how.

On Thursday, a Swiss federal judge is expected to announce whether three members of the Tinner family should go to court for illegally supplying centrifuge components to the Libyans as part of a clandestine nuclear arms programme.

The Tinners, a father and two sons, have maintained their innocence and say their work as spies for the CIA blew the cover off Libya’s now-abandoned atomic ambitions and toppled the ring, run by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

Officials say Khan’s network also supplied Iran and North Korea with parts and plans for building a nuclear bomb before it collapsed in 2003 and 2004.

The Institute for Science and International Security released a 30-page report that offers details into the shadowy world of arms smuggling, how the Tinners worked, and the confusion that arises when Swiss justice authorities and US intelligence agencies refuse to work together on such a colossal case.

David Albright, one of the report’s authors, says the Swiss “overreacted” in shredding evidence, that the CIA was “counterproductive” and that the Tinners may have wrongly expected the CIA would come to their rescue.

“Everyone has made this far more chaotic than it needs to be,” Albright, told “This case exemplifies what happens when things don’t go well.”

Service versus guilt

Albright has studied the Tinner case for years, approached CIA officials, the White House, Swiss prosecutors and government officials from all over the world to write several reports on the family’s dealings and to write a book about Khan’s network.

The Tinner family had played a key role in helping Khan establish Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme since the mid-1970s. Fast forward a few decades and the Tinners are being investigated for covertly manufacturing parts for centrifuges needed to enrich radio-active material into weapons grade explosives.

“They knew what they were doing and they only stopped because they got caught,” Albright said. The CIA most likely “forced” the Tinners to flip on Khan and to work for them, the report states. Urs Tinner confirmed on Swiss television that the CIA did indeed approach him.

“There’s no doubt the Tinners provided a valuable service to the CIA but that doesn’t alleviate guilt,” Albright said. “The Swiss are right to investigate them.”

Albright’s report, co-authored by Paul Brannan, explains how the Tinners developed ways of tricking companies – including at least one on Swiss soil – into making parts for the machines without the manufacturer knowing exactly what was being built.

The family purchased hundreds of thousands of aluminum forms from Singapore, made them into components in Malaysia and Switzerland, shipped them to Turkey for assembly and then on to Dubai, where the family controlled another company—a false end-user. From there the parts were secretly shipped to Libya.

The ring collapsed in 2003 when the Tinners say they tipped off the CIA about a shipment of parts bound for Libya that were then seized, forcing Libya to acknowledge and then dismantle its nuclear programme.

Plea bargain

In the years that followed, the report finds that US efforts to protect the Tinners from prosecution without divulging details on CIA activities in Switzerland were handled poorly. Often the efforts backfired, resulting in more secret information being released. That was the case when Swiss officials secretly decided to shred sensitive documents related to the investigation, a move that brought about a blistering parliamentary report into the matter last summer.

At one point Swiss authorities were even considering opening investigations into undercover CIA agents working on Swiss soil but some of the biggest names in American politics – FBI director Robert Mueller, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – appealed to Swiss authorities not to go that route.

“The CIA likely believed they had little choice but to work secretly in Switzerland against Khan’s agents without consulting the Swiss,” the report states, adding that “the Swiss domestic intelligence was ill-prepared to help the CIA.”

It concludes that Swiss authorities, the CIA and the Tinners should all hope for a plea bargain if the case does go to court.

“The CIA isn’t going to jump in and save the Tinners publicly,” Albright said. But the Tinners have already served much of any possible sentence.

A plea bargain would likely please the US, since no more information about its operatives would come out.

For its part, the Swiss “have little interest in being perceived as not supporting the busting of the Khan network,” the report states, especially since the country prior to 2004 “demonstrated little willingness” to stop the Tinners or other Khan agents in Switzerland.

“For decades these guys felt pretty secure in Switzerland while they were doing pretty horrible things,” Albright said.

“I’m not sure that the Swiss have paid enough attention to the failures of the past. The steps being taken aren’t robust enough to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The lessons haven’t been learned well enough.”

In brief

In 2004 the International Atomic Energy Agency supplied the Swiss authorities with a list of two companies and 15 individuals suspected of dealing in nuclear material with Iran and Libya.

Swiss engineer Urs Tinner, who is suspected of helping Libya obtain nuclear weapons technology, was arrested in Germany in October 2004. He was extradited to Switzerland in 2005.

His father Friedrich and brother Marco were also arrested by the Swiss authorities on suspicion of breaking the law on war materials by illegally exporting nuclear bomb-making equipment to Libya.

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