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Nuclear smuggling suspect says he helped CIA

A Swiss man suspected of being involved in a nuclear smuggling ring says he gave the CIA information that led to the breakup of a black market nuclear network led by a Pakistani scientist.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Swiss man suspected of being involved in the world's biggest nuclear smuggling ring claims he supplied the CIA with information that led to the breakup of the black market nuclear network led by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

In a documentary airing Thursday on Swiss TV station SF1, Urs Tinner says he tipped off U.S. intelligence about a delivery of centrifuge parts meant for Libya's nuclear weapons program.

The shipment was seized at the Italian port of Taranto in 2003, forcing Libya to admit and eventually renounce its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

The 43-year-old Tinner is suspected, along with his brother Marco and father Friedrich, of supplying Khan's clandestine network with technical know-how and equipment that was used to make gas centrifuges.

Khan — the creator of Pakistan's atomic bomb — sold the centrifuges for secret nuclear weapons programs in countries that included Libya and Iran before his operation was disrupted in 2003.

Tinner was freed by Swiss authorities last month after almost five years in investigative detention and he has yet to be charged.

Echoes earlier book
Tinner's account echoes that of the book "The Nuclear Jihadist," by U.S. investigative reporters Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins. Frantz says, based on interviews with sources in the U.S. intelligence community, Urs Tinner was recruited by the CIA as early as 2000.

A CIA spokesman, George Little, refused to discuss the Tinner case. The agency has said in the past that "the disruption of the A.Q. Khan network was a genuine intelligence success, one in which the CIA played a key role."

In the Swiss documentary, Tinner also claims he sabotaged equipment destined for uranium enrichment facilities so it would malfunction on first use. He does not say which country the sabotaged parts were destined for.

Former Swiss Justice Minister Christoph Blocher told the SF documentary that he traveled to Washington in 2007 — three years after Urs Tinner's arrest — to discuss the case with then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Blocher says he refused a U.S. request to hand over thousands of files of evidence in the case, but the Swiss Cabinet later decided to shred the files after it learned they contained information that could endanger national security, including nuclear warhead designs.

On Thursday, a parliamentary panel criticized the government for destroying the files, saying there was no immediate danger to Switzerland's internal or external security.

The Swiss government also refused to let federal prosecutors investigate whether the Tinners had engaged in espionage for a foreign state, a punishable offense.

Swiss could still file charges
Urs Tinner is waiting to see whether prosecutors will file charges against him for breaking Swiss laws on the export of sensitive material — a crime that carries a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment.

The federal criminal court in Bellinzona on Thursday ordered Marco Tinner released on a bail of $87,000, rejecting an appeal by prosecutors to keep him in prison pending a possible trial.

Swiss weekly NZZ am Sonntag reported last month that prosecutors objected to Marco Tinner's release because of concerns he might still possess sensitive information on the construction of nuclear bombs.

Jeanette Balmer, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor's office in Bern, refused to comment on the newspaper report.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has said its investigation into the Khan network, which operated in 30 countries, showed that some members possessed highly sensitive information. The information was in electronic form, making it easy to disseminate, and the agency was concerned that some of the documents may still be out in circulation.