Swiss President Pascal Couchepin announced May 23 that his government destroyed files associated with a case against Swiss nationals suspected of involvement in the illicit nuclear trafficking network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. The destruction of the documents, collected by Swiss authorities in 2004 as evidence against Urs Tinner as well as his brother Marco and their father Friedrich, might harm the criminal prosecution of their suspected activities. The documents included digital copies of a design for an advanced nuclear weapon believed to be of Pakistani origin. This design may have been shared with other members of the Khan network or with Khan’s suspected customers, such as Iran and North Korea.
Swiss authorities allege that the Tinners were involved in the establishment and operation of a machining facility in Malaysia that produced centrifuge components for a planned secret Libyan uranium-enrichment facility.
Libya intended to use the facility to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons but publicly abandoned this goal in December 2003. In October 2003, Western intelligence agencies intercepted a shipment of centrifuge components bound for Libya and said to be manufactured by the Malaysian machining facility. (See ACT, July/August 2004. )
In addition to Libya, the Khan network allegedly provided nuclear assistance to Iran and North Korea.
According to Couchepin, the Swiss cabinet decided Nov. 14, 2007, to destroy the documents, including paper and digital files, for security purposes to prevent them from falling “into the hands of a terrorist organization.” He indicated that the documents included nuclear weapons designs, blueprints for gas centrifuges for enriching uranium, and plans for “guided missile delivery systems.” The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) oversaw the destruction of the files at Bern’s request.
A diplomatic source familiar with the investigation questioned the rationale provided by the Swiss government for destroying the files, telling Arms Control Today June 19, “If the Swiss can safeguard billions in hundreds of thousands of numbered accounts, they can guard a few CDs.” The diplomat suspected that the destruction of the documents was intended to “erase evidence of Tinner collusion” with Western intelligence agencies.
Indeed, in August 2007 the Swiss government blocked an investigation into potential espionage collaboration between the Tinners and a foreign government. Couchepin stated May 23 that Bern canceled an investigation against the Tinners for “illegal actions for a foreign country” and “illegal intelligence work against a foreign country.” This statement appears to confirm suspicions that the Tinners assisted the CIA in its work to prevent Libya from fully developing its uranium-enrichment program.
As a result of such suspicions, some Swiss lawmakers have requested an investigation into the destruction of the files. The Swiss Green party, one of the largest opposition parties represented in the Swiss National Council, has called for the creation of a parliamentary committee to carry out such an investigation.
The impact of the destruction of the documents related to the Tinner case is unclear. A Swiss federal criminal court denied bail to Urs and Marco Tinner May 30 while the investigation continued due to a potential flight risk. Swiss authorities released Friedrich Tinner in 2006.
Meanwhile, Khan, who remains under house arrest in Pakistan, is seeking to benefit from the destruction of the documents.
Kyodo News quoted Khan May 28 as stating that the documents the Swiss destroyed would have gone “a long way” to proving that he is innocent of claims that he sold nuclear technology to countries such as Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Khan claimed that Western suppliers were actually behind the proliferation.
Khan confessed to engaging in such illicit activities in 2004 but now claims that his confession was coerced by the Pakistani government. The Guardian quoted Khan May 30 as stating that his 2004 confession “was not of [his] own free will.”
Pakistan continues to refuse the IAEA access to Khan. The agency has carried out investigations into the Khan network following Libya’s admission of nuclear inspectors in 2003.
Advanced Warhead Design Among Documents
A June 16 report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) alleged that the documents the Swiss destroyed included designs for a Pakistani nuclear weapon. The design was in electronic form and was reportedly also found on computers associated with the Khan network in Bangkok and “several other cities around the world.”
The design is not the first that was said to be discovered during investigations into the Khan networks operations. In 2003 the IAEA discovered a 1960s-pedigree, Chinese-origin nuclear weapons design in Libya after that country agreed to give up its nuclear program and submit to international inspections.
The new design, however, is reportedly more advanced, using a more powerful but more compact design. Such a design would be valuable to a state seeking the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon via ballistic missile and might considerably shorten the time to develop such a warhead.
Although countries such as Iran and North Korea, which may be seeking just such a capability, received assistance from the Khan network, it is uncertain whether they received the advanced weapons design.
Responding to questions about the design, national security adviser Stephen Hadley stated June 15 that, in regard to the Khan network, Washington was concerned with the possibility that the network shared both enrichment- and weapons-related technology with its clients. He added that such concern was one of the reasons the United States “rolled up the network” several years ago.
Islamabad denied claims that the Tinners had access to Pakistani nuclear weapons designs. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry issued a press release June 20 stating “no foreigner has any access to Pakistan’s nuclear designs.” It added that it already shared “all relevant information” regarding the Khan case with the IAEA.
David Albright, former UN weapons inspector and president of ISIS, warned that Khan may be released before these proliferation concerns are resolved. Albright told CNN June 16 that it is “imperative” that the United States and the IAEA interview Khan.