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Nuclear Families

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This is such an interesting article;I don’t know quite what to think of it.

The 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.

Read the rest. As far as I can understand, the CIA flipped a Swiss family that was acting as a conduit for nuclear know how and equipment to reach Libya and Iran. This family (a father and two sons) were part of the Khan nuclear smuggling network. When they ran short on funds, they decided to cooperate with the CIA and send faulty equipment to the Libyans and the Iranians. Swiss prosecutors assembled a large amount of evidence on the family, and planned to prosecute. The US government was extremely reluctant to have the details of the relationship out in the open (the files also contained sensitive data about how to construct parts of a nuclear weapons operation), and heavily pressured the Swiss government to either turn over the files or destroy them. The Swiss, apparently, have decided on the latter.

I guess… um… good job? You hate to see the destruction of evidence (both from a legal and a historical perspective), but I can’t argue with the purpose behind the CIA’s activity, or with its desire to keep elements of that relationship secret. Moreover, there should certainly be some incentive for members of nuclear smuggling networks to cooperate with authorities. It’s probably good that the Tinner family isn’t prosecuted; future cooperative individuals might be dissuaded if they knew that cooperation would produce a paper trail that might lead to home country prosecution. The ideal outcome would perhaps have been for the Swiss to grant some form of immunity, and to have kept the documents under lock and key after they had been examined by nuclear weapons inspectors.

All that said, this really does fit in the Bush administration approach to non-proliferation, which is based on the principle of unilateral action (intelligence and military operations combined with intimidation). I suspect it’s not accidental that the administration prefers destruction of the information to transfer of it to the relevant non-proliferation organizations. While that approach may pay some dividends at some times, it’s not a good long term strategy; international non-proliferation efforts have a remarkable record of success in the last forty years.

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