By its nature, an intelligence service is antithetical to the transparency and accountability that are hallmarks of a democracy. When the Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1947, diplomat Dean Acheson wrote, “I had the gravest forebodings about this organization and warned the president that as set up neither he, the National Security Council, nor anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it.”
Acheson’s prophecy came true long ago. In recent years, we have read reports of an intelligence agency that operates above the law, engaging in kidnappings and torture that defy U.S. values. A former agency official justified the CIA’s actions to us this way: “We’re the agency of last resort.”
In our new book, we recount how that agency operates by chronicling how a CIA team, led by a case officer nicknamed “Mad Dog,” recruited three Swiss citizens who were central figures in the nuclear trafficking network run by A.Q. Khan, a rogue Pakistani scientist.
Khan and his accomplices helped Pakistan build its nuclear arsenal and then sold the same dangerous technology to some of the world’s most dangerous regimes ― Iran, North Korea and Libya.
The CIA tracked Khan for nearly 30 years. In the end, the agency used a family of Swiss businessmen to penetrate Khan’s network and paid them $10 million for their services. Friedrich Tinner had been selling nuclear components to Khan since the 1970s and brought his two sons, Marco and Urs, into the business. The Tinners delivered for the CIA, providing evidence that helped shut down Khan in late 2003.
President George W. Bush called the episode a major intelligence victory and hailed the CIA for shutting down the world’s worst private proliferation network. But that was not the end of the story.
When other governments discovered that elements of Khan’s network in their own backyards, they started their own investigations. For their part, the Swiss launched a probe of the Tinners in early 2004. Strangely, when the Swiss asked the Americans for help, instead they got a massive campaign by the CIA and senior Bush administration officials to kill the inquiry.
The professed American goal was to stop the exposure of their Swiss spies and protect vague ongoing intelligence operations. But the pressure was also intended to stop the Swiss from prosecuting six CIA agents who had recruited the Tinners and searched Tinner properties in Switzerland, both violations of the law in a country of noted neutrality.
This was not an isolated episode. At the same time U.S. officials were pressuring Germany not to prosecute 13 CIA agents who had detained a German citizen for five months because he had the same name as an al-Qaeda member. The German, Khaled el-Masri, later said he was kidnapped and taken to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan where he was tortured, sodomized and drugged. The German government agreed to drop its inquiry.
An Italian counterterrorism prosecutor, Armando Spataro, was not so easily deterred. He overcame pressure from Washington and Rome and brought charges against a CIA base chief and 22 other Americans, almost all CIA operatives, for the 2003 kidnapping of a Muslim cleric on the streets of Milan. All of them were tried in absentia and convicted in 2009.
The Swiss proved more compliant. In February 2008, after four years of intense U.S. pressure, the government in Bern destroyed 1.9 tons of evidence seized from the Tinners, including blueprints for nuclear warheads. It also forbade prosecutors from investigating the suspected violations by the CIA operatives.
Back at agency headquarters, there was probably a sigh of relief. But there was consternation among the Swiss federal police. After concluding the shredding, smashing and incineration of the evidence, Kurt Senn, the Swiss inspector who had led the Tinner investigation, told his colleagues: “This is a very sad day for me today. I thought I lived in a democracy. Yet in a real democracy, the political decisions are kept away from the police investigations. This Switzerland is a banana republic now.”
Late last month, signs emerged that the Tinner case may be resurrected. A dogged Swiss magistrate, Andreas Mueller, took over the investigation a month after the evidence was destroyed. He reconstructed the case from bits and pieces scrounged from around the world. Then, on Dec. 23, Mueller announced that he has recommended to the attorney general that the Tinners be charged with selling nuclear weapons technology to Libya.
Charging the CIA agents was beyond Mueller’s legal reach, but putting the Tinners on trial would expose the way the agency operates and restore a measure of the control that Acheson so wisely predicted we would need in a democratic world. It is also the only way to prove that spreading nuclear weapons is a crime that doesn’t pay.
By Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz
Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz are the authors of “Fallout: The True Story of the CIA’s War on Nuclear Trafficking.” ― Ed.
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)