July 27, 2005
Nuclear Underground: U.S. Foils Nuclear Smuggling Plot
BY Stephen Talbot
FRONTLINE/World reporter Mark Schapiro tracks down Humayun Khan by phone.
Last night we made a little history. For the first time, a story developed entirely on the FRONTLINE/World Web site was broadcast on television. The story, "Nuclear Underground," about what U.S. officials are calling one of the biggest cases of nuclear smuggling they've ever uncovered, aired on PBS's The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.
Breaking the conventional rules of TV news production, the story began as a series of investigations on the FRONTLINE/World Web site and grew into a television special report. (Click on the video button above to watch the report.)
Reported by Mark Schapiro, "Nuclear Underground" started as a collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and Mother Jones magazine that developed into a four-part Web series on our site.
We have always tried to provide visitors with a dynamic online experience, offering high-quality streaming video of all our broadcast stories. What's exciting now is that with this nuclear blackmarket story -- and with our new Rough Cut series of weekly Web videos -- we are originating stories online. Our Web site is rapidly becoming the place where we develop and shape our broadcast stories.
The "Nuclear Underground" unravels a plot by a Pakistani businessman, Humayun Khan, to import nuclear weapons triggers from a U.S. manufacturer, PerkinElmer in Salem, Massachusetts, via a middleman in South Africa, Asher Karni. Commerce Department officials in Washington tell FRONTLINE/World correspondent Mark Schapiro that they are continuing to pursue leads in the case, including who the ultimate recipient of the nuclear triggers was supposed to be -- the Pakistan military? Al Qaeda or other terrorists? Another country?
The story began unfolding on the FRONTLINE/World Web site last March with video clips and an article, "The Middleman," which appeared online and later in print in the May/June issue of Mother Jones magazine. In Cape Town, South Africa, CIR editorial director Mark Schapiro uncovered the story of Asher Karni, an Israeli businessman and admitted middleman in an international scheme to export 200 triggered spark gaps to Pakistan. Triggered spark gaps are a dual-use technology that can be used both to power sophisticated medical equipment and to detonate nuclear weapons.
In April, Schapiro continued his investigation of the case with a 16-minute video, "The Double Life of Asher Karni," filmed and produced by FRONTLINE/World's Cassandra Herrman. Currently being held in a federal detention center, Karni is due to be sentenced on August 4.
In May, our Web site published key email communications in the federal government's indictment of Karni, and in June we presented a "radio story" in which Web visitors can listen to the telephone interview between Schapiro and Karni's client in Islamabad, Humayun Khan. The NewsHour version is a distillation and culmination of these earlier reports, including new interviews with U.S. Commerce Department officials tracking the case.
We will continue to pursue this Nuclear Underground investigation as we try to uncover more about the ultimate destination of these nuclear triggers.
Meanwhile, we like this track we're on -- bringing you our latest, ongoing investigations on the Web, nurturing them online, and finally presenting them to a large television audience on FRONTLINE/World or on programs like The NewsHour. We will continue to breakdown the barriers between broadcast and online media.
I wonder what Marshall McLuhan would have made of all this?
STORY UPDATE -- August 5, 2005: As expected, Asher Karni appeared in a federal court in Washington, DC, this week and was sentenced to three years in prison. During the sentencing, veteran prosecutor Jay I. Bratt told the court how Karni had sold black-listed nuclear components to Pakistan and India on at least 17 other occassions and that he'd also tried to carry on trafficking while in U.S. custody. In summing up Karni's case, Bratt said it was perhaps the most serious threat to national security that he had encountered.