In January 2000, a German engineer living in South Africa met with a friend and business partner to hatch a deal. Gerhard Wisser, a 61-year-old broker, visited his friend's pipe factory outside Johannesburg to see if he wanted to make a bid on a manufacturing project. According to what Wisser later told investigators, his friend, Johan Meyer, pointed to a foot-and-a-half tall stack of documents and said, "That is the beast. I will make an offer."
"The beast" was machinery to assist with the enrichment of uranium. It was just one part of a much larger operation. Its goal: to provide the fuel enabling Libya to produce its own nuclear bombs.
To men like Wisser and Meyer, it was just another business project.
Wisser and Meyer's deal illustrates the increasingly white-collar nature of the nuclear bomb business. The popular image of desperate terrorists smuggling enriched uranium across borders may not be the most serious nuclear threat to the world. Instead, the people helping to make the bombs are often successful businessmen made even richer through illicit deals for making the machines to enrich uranium and build bombs. They may live in suburbs and belong to country clubs. And their ability to operate under the guise of "legitimate" business makes catching up with them far more difficult.
Wisser sent word back to his business connection in Switzerland: His partner would take the job. It would cost $2.5 million between the two of them. Wisser's Swiss connection was the intermediary for a man in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His name was Abdul Qadeer Khan.
A.Q. Khan was the architect of an audacious global trafficking network in sophisticated technology that supplied nuclear know-how and uranium enrichment equipment to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Manufacturers and businesses from as many as 30 countries participated in the enterprise. "The beast," according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, was intended to become part of a uranium enrichment facility enabling Libya to produce as many as several nuclear bombs a year.
Gerhard Wisser and his partner, Johan Meyer, owner of the factory called Tradefin Engineering, had become part of the global network created by Khan to build nuclear weapons. Their job was to construct the inner plumbing—pipes, valves and the like—for the processing of uranium hexafluoride, a gas that is the precursor to enriched, weapons-grade, uranium.
Khan assembled a network of businesses able to dodge international export controls by secretly obtaining the technology for nuclear enrichment from multiple locales. In some instances, the job was made easier by the fact that much of the technology needed to enrich uranium and build nuclear bombs has a civilian use as well—in everything from navigation to medicine to energy production—making exports far more difficult to control (and penalties, for mere export violations, far less than those for illegally building a nuclear bomb).
A global network of manufacturers, linked together by Khan according to their specialties, turned their otherwise legitimate businesses into contractors for enriching uranium. Most of them, unlike Gerhard Wisser and Johan Meyer, have yet to be prosecuted; some critics say one reason has been the United States' reluctance to cooperate on international investigations.
Khan operated his international sales network undetected for more than a decade. There is only one international body with the authority to monitor and prevent the trafficking of nuclear technology—the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—and it wasn't looking for operations such as Khan's.
Instead, until recently, both the United States and the IAEA have focused on the smuggling of uranium by criminals or terrorists. The U.S. poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a program aimed at providing former Soviet nuclear scientists with employment to keep them out of the black market.
But while the world looked to block the traffic in enriched uranium, A.Q. Khan, with the help of men like Wisser and Meyer, set out to help countries enrich their own.
"You have a situation where what you and I would view as respectable businessmen are going about selling the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons," says David Albright, a former nuclear inspector in Iraq and now president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
The most significant threat of nuclear proliferation today, says Albright, "comes not from smugglers with pocketfuls of uranium, but from people typically who are very successful businessmen who just want more…. You'd probably be sitting down at the country club and making a deal, or walking into someone's office and making a deal in some luxurious conference room."
Tradefin is housed inside a huge warehouse in a cluster of small factories called Vanderbiljpark about 30 miles south of Johannesburg. It shares a dusty street alongside tile, tire and paint manufacturers. Inside is a complex of rusting tanks, lathes and rumbling conveyor belts. From the looks of it, Tradefin might as well be producing ball bearings. Gerhard Wisser told German investigators that the factory was producing a water-purification facility.
But when South Africa's Crimes Against the State police raided Tradefin in 2004, they found 11 shipping containers packed with machinery—fully labeled for reassembly in Libya. IAEA inspectors would later confirm that the machines were capable of capturing and transporting uranium gas after it's been enriched in thousands of whirling centrifuges, the final stage before it's capable of being used for a nuclear bomb. They also found a promotional videotape from A.Q. Khan's laboratory back in Pakistan that advertised Khan's ability to build the world's "finest uranium enrichment plants."
Tradefin did not produce the most sensitive technology offered by A.Q. Khan to the Libyans; that was provided by factories in Malaysia and elsewhere. But it manufactured the connecting tissue—the mechanical valves and pipes—for the complex circulatory system of transformations necessary to convert uranium from its natural state in dirt into uranium hexafluoride gas and back into highly enriched, potentially explosive material for a bomb.
It's just these kinds of enterprises, doing work that looks commonplace on the surface, that make cracking down on proliferators a particular challenge, says Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's Deputy General of Safeguards, and the agency's chief nuclear inspector in Iran and Libya, "There are tens of thousands of ... these kinds of workshops ... doing the same kind of job that Tradefin was doing," Heinonen says.
In September 2007, seven years after "the beast" was born at Tradefin, Gerhard Wisser pleaded guilty to making and trafficking in nuclear weapons parts ordered by A.Q. Khan in violation of South Africa's laws against nuclear proliferation. Last February, Wisser's chief engineer, Daniel Geiges, who was supervisor of the Tradefin project, confessed to similar charges. Tradefin's owner, Johan Meyer, the man who had turned that one and a half foot stack of documents into an actual, functioning "beast", had confessed to multiple charges of violating South Africa's anti-proliferation laws in 2005, and had assisted with the investigation into his former colleagues' activities on behalf of A.Q. Khan. None will serve time in jail; all were given suspended sentences and forced to pay fines that, cumulatively, amount to more than $3 million.
The Khan network was first exposed in September 2003, when US and British intelligence agents boarded a freighter en route to Libya and found a cargo hold full of centrifuges that were traced back to Pakistan. The leads generated by that intervention laid down a trail which led to some 30 countries—each one of which has different laws governing the export of sensitive technologies to nuclear or "rogue" states. There is no international body that can bring smugglers to justice. If they are to be prosecuted, the cases must be brought by individual countries—but prosecutors may need information and help from other nations.
The discovery of the centrifuges prompted President Bush to declare, in a speech to the National Defense University, that the United States would launch an aggressive effort to cooperate with foreign military and intelligence services to "find the middlemen, the suppliers, and the buyers," and would cooperate with foreign military and intelligence services "to stop the spread of deadly weapons."
But critics say that the United States has not offered as much cooperation as Bush seemed to promise in pursuing the smugglers involved in the A.Q. Khan network. And more than four years later, not one of the members of Khan's vast network is in prison.
Out of the dozens of individuals and businesses in some 30 countries suspected of having links to the Khan network, no one other than the three businessmen in South Africa, and a fourth in the Netherlands (who served four months in prison in 2006) have been brought to justice.
One case against the man widely considered to be Khan's chief liaison in Europe, a German engineer named Gotthard Lerch, collapsed last year after the judge accused prosecutors of misconduct; Lerch is scheduled to be retried this spring. His business partner in South Africa was Gerhard Wisser, who helped him buy prime real estate parcels in Cape Town in addition to engaging in black market nuclear deals dating back to the 1980s, according to a record of Wisser's interrogation by German police.
In late February came another blow to prosecutions of the Khan network: Swiss authorities dropped a part of their criminal case against a family team of engineers, Friedrich Tinner and his sons Urs and Marco, who had allegedly organized, from Switzerland, the shipment of centrifuges from a Malaysian factory to Libya. It was those centrifuges that were found aboard the BBC China, and were ultimately slated to be connected to the equipment manufactured by Tradefin in South Africa.
Friedrich Tinner was released from detention.
David Albright ascribes the troubles with that prosecution at least partly to the U.S. refusal to cooperate with Swiss authorities. Key evidence in that case, he says, is the centrifuges that are now in U.S. custody at the DOE's Oak Ridge nuclear research facility. The agency brought U.S. and international journalists to see the centrifuges shortly after taking control of them in 2005, but repeatedly refused, says Albright, to give the same access to Swiss prosecutors.
"That's been one of the most frustrating things to see," Albright says, "is that there hasn't been a lot of cooperation. The Swiss have been asking for help, but the U.S. is not giving it…. They're not providing help with gathering evidence and understanding that evidence so the Tinners can be prosecuted more effectively."
Albright and others have speculated that the three men were intelligence sources who were promised immunity. Albright claims there's been an ongoing and unresolved "tension between those in the intelligence business, who are more focused on finding things than necessarily stopping them…and people who are engaged in the legal enforcement business of not only stopping people but holding them accountable…. It makes the world more dangerous in the end. It allows people to get away with it."
The Department of Energy refused comment on the case.
The sense of frustration made its way even to South Africa, where Abdul Minty, that country's Minister for Non-Proliferation, told us, "Some countries that we knew were particularly well-placed to assist us [in prosecutions] did not assist us in the way that we expected. I think that this is a disappointment when there is so much emphasis being put globally on weapons of mass destruction and the need to stop proliferation
"The fact that we haven't seen much success there is disappointing … What is important is that those engaged in these types of activities must not get the impression that they can get away with these things, because it is extremely serious."
Ambassador Minty did not specify which countries he was referring to. The indictments of Wisser and his colleague Daniel Geiges list meetings, participating companies, individuals and evidence based in at least four countries: Germany, Switzerland, Malaysia and the United States.
After those 11 containers filled with equipment destined for Libya were confiscated from Tradefin, the U.S. Department of Energy took possession of the entire shipment. William Tobey, deputy administrator for nuclear nonproliferation at the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, submitted an affidavit to the South African court last May asserting that the United States would be unwilling to cooperate with the prosecution, and specifically refused to submit evidence regarding the nuclear nature of the shipment, unless the trial was held in secret, hidden from the public or the press.
The South Africans acceded to the U.S. request and put the trial under seal. But the effort to close the trial was successfully challenged by one of that country's leading newspapers, the Mail & Guardian, and a coalition of free expression organizations. The coalition's success in opening the trial was followed in quick succession by the plea agreements of Gerhard Wisser and Daniel Geiges—whose avoidance of prison time, Albright argues, may be related to the government's subsequent inability to obtain cooperation from the United States in presenting evidence at a public trial.
"I'd rather not discuss that," responded the DOE's William Tobey when called for comment in March.
Meanwhile, A.Q. Khan himself is still a national hero inside Pakistan; he is under so-called "house arrest," confined to his mansion in Rawalpindi. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly refused to make Khan available for questioning by either the IAEA or the United States.
The knowledge and connections that Khan assembled have not gone away. Joseph Cirincione*, whom we interviewed when he was Director of Nuclear Policy at the Center for American Progress, comments: "The global nuclear black market is alive and well, despite claims by both the U.S. administration and Pakistan that the A.Q. Khan network has been smashed. It's just not true. A few people have been arrested but all the suppliers and the expediters are still out there."
As the IAEA's Olli Heinonen explained to us, "If the know-how is there, and the will is there, they don't need any A.Q. Khan. They can do it without him."
* Three months after our interview, Joseph Cirincione became president of the Ploughshares Fund, one of the funders of this project.