Interviews

MARK HIBBS

MARK HIBBS is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgable journalists covering nuclear issues worldwide. Based in Bonn, Mr. Hibbs is the European Editor of "Nucleonics Week," but he is often on the road and has traveled many times to nuclear sites around the former Soviet Union. He has extensively investigated and written about the major seizures of fissile nuclear material in Europe.

This interview was conducted in 1996.


Q: Can you talk about the Munich case, not so much in its specifics, but for kind of what it tells you about how we should look at this whole subject of nuclear smuggling.

HIBBS: The Munich case is the first big case. That's the case that everybody was waiting to see happen. And when it happened, it happened exactly how everybody feared it was going to happen.

It was the Tom Clancy novel coming to life. A bunch of smugglers getting off a passenger jet, landing in a civilian airport, being nabbed by Customs Agents. There were people coming in on the plane who didn't know what was happening.

It was chaos. There were arrests. There were mass SWAT teams getting onto the plane with machine guns. There were Customs people pilfering the luggage that they found. They seized material.

They put it into an armored car. There were Customs Agents, masses of SWAT teams getting on the plane with machine guns, pointing them at people, police cars, gum ball machines lighting up, escorts, people driving off onto the Autobahn and racing down at 150 MPH to a laboratory to do the analysis, total secrecy.

We had a situation where the German government is pointing the finger at Russian government for not being in control.

You have the counter attacks from the Russian officialdom. You have Germany going into an election where, a few weeks after this case, the German people were asked in opinion polls: What is the most important security issue facing post Communist Europe?

And they said: Nuclear smuggling. How many people in Germany thought that nuclear smuggling was their number one threat? Seventy to seventy-five percent of the people polled after this event were convinced that this was security threat to Germany number one.

What we see is a couple of cases that have happened in 1994. We've not seen any cases since. The German press has consistently asked the government: Is there more evidence?

Are there more cases? Is there more material being smuggled? Have you found anything new? And the answer is no, no, no. We haven't found any weapons used for material.

And for that reason, people are now asking the question: Was this a case which was unique? Or was this a case which is the tip of the iceberg? The fact of the matter is that right now we don't know whether this is the tip of the iceberg or whether this is the whole iceberg. We don't know that.

Q: You've covered this for a long time. What do you think -- knowing both what you know about how the case was handled in Germany, and also what you know about the situation in Russia?

HIBBS: I'm fairly confident that the trickling of materials that we've seen happening since 1990 is continuing. But there is reason to believe that there is still a graduation where low-grade materials or worthless materials which are being sold as weapons grade, bomb grade, are being peddled by people who are clearly trying to sell innocent bystanders or other scam operators materials which are worthless.

We've seen cases in the last several months in Germany, again including a case which happened a few weeks ago where an operator got hold of useless nuclear material, a handful of natural uranium, absolutely useless for any nuclear weapons purpose.

And this individual tried to find a client to buy it for a million dollars. The only people he found who were willing to pay a million dollars for useless nuclear material were the German police.

And as soon as he started asking questions, he ran into the arms of law enforcement agents who were on notice from their colleagues in other countries that these people were selling this material.

So, the consistency that we've seen is a consistency of German police very well organized, very well informed who are intercepting nuclear materials. And, for reasons of their success, we're asking the question: Are these people actually contributing to the development or explosion of a nuclear market? Or are they mopping up material which otherwise would be falling into the hands of criminals, foreign countries, dangerous rogue states?

Most of us in the outside world had never been to a Soviet nuclear facility. We were looking at a country that is nine time zones long. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that there are gold mines of dangerous materials all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok which can be seized by desperados to sell all over the world.

When the Cold War was still on, the threat that we faced was perceived as being coming from Soviet nuclear weapons, Chinese nuclear weapons. We were worried about what would happen if a nuclear war started.

Suddenly the Cold War came to an end. The threat of an immediate confrontation with nuclear weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union disappeared almost overnight.

And the people who were concerned about this confrontation, policy makers, journalists, foreign correspondents, experts, think tanks, political experts, advisors, consultants, people who were involved in the business of thinking about security policy.

Suddenly they had their minds focused on another threat. And, in fact, some people in this world found that their professional job security was threatened by the fact that the Cold War came to an end.

And for this reason a hunt was on to find a replacement for the end of the Cold War. Suddenly the world was concerned about rogue states getting their hands on post Cold War nuclear weapons.

And, if you will, a very scary mind set started generating worst-case scenarios that inside a very small number of months or years or even weeks states like Iraq and Iran would suddenly again get their hands on weapons grade material, would put together a quick bomb and threaten the United States.

When the Gulf War put an end to Saddam Hussein's capabilities, his threat was replaced by another threat which postulated that Saddam and others who were adversaries of the United States government would again find themselves in the possession of weapons grade material from the former Soviet Union.

Regardless of the fact that the United States emerged victorious at the end of the Gulf War, six months later people were already postulating that Saddam Hussein or the ayatollahs in Iran would very soon have their hands on weapons grade material.

The history of five years of exploring and covering this topic have shown that in all of the cases we have not documented any single case of bomb grade material from the Russian inventory or any other inventory getting into the hands of a party, a group of terrorists, a rogue state, a country which wants to make a nuclear bomb.

The scenario that Iraq and Iran would actively exploit this market, seize quickly inventories of plutonium and weapons grade uranium in the former Soviet Union, put it to quick use and make a nuclear weapon .... Six years after the end of the Cold War that hasn't happened.

Q: You've said what you have reported and uncovered about German motivations. At the same time, talk about what the reality is from your reporting in the former Soviet Union.

HIBBS: Trying to find out about what is really going on with Russian nuclear material is a very bizarre experience.

I recently had the chance to give a briefing to Russian journalists and experts about what I had learned about the origin of the material which had been seized in Germany.

And I expressed in a technical presentation to the experts -- there were about 50 of them -- in an afternoon in Moscow several months ago what could be said about the origin of the material.

And, in fact, I explained to them that there was plenty of circumstantial evidence that suggested that the materials that had been seized in Western Europe of a critical nature, the plutonium, the weapons grade uranium, had come from inventories in Russia.

But that there was absolutely no proof that the material was Russia's because Western governments and their experts had no fingerprint that absolutely, positively, categorically identified the material as being from a Russian facility.

And that was the message that I came to Moscow with. I explained to the journalists and the experts that this, in my knowledge, was the state of affairs. What happened after that was that, within one or two days, the Russian media was reporting that I had found out that the material could not have been Russian. That was simply a fabrication on the part of the German ....

Q: I saw that headline: American expert says it can't be Russian.

HIBBS: On the other side of the fence, there were others that said: Hibbs knows it's Russian. But the Russian government won't say that. And the truth is somewhere between. At least it was then.

Then there's the second case where I attended a symposium in Germany where the Russians had come to Germany before an expert group, not before the journalists, but before an expert group, to explain to them how this material could never have come from Germany.

And, in fact, in some of the formal papers they presented, they accused the German government of actually taking the raw material, putting it on the plane, sending it to Russia and having it come back.

And, so, the paranoia was ... was extraordinary.

Q: So, how do you explain it? As that? As paranoia? As defensiveness?

HIBBS: Nuclear materials in the Cold War period as well as in the post Cold War period are simply materials which have enormous prestige. And if you can't control your nuclear materials, then it means you can't control your country.

Not only do the Russians not want us to know where this material is from, the countries in the West have a definite interest in making sure that this traffic is stopped. The Western countries likewise are not inclined at all to tell those of us in the world that don't have security clearances where this material is coming from.

They may very well know, or may have very strong reasons to believe where this material's coming from, and they don't want us to know this. The technical report on the Munich case, which is 75 pages long, is still officially classified.

Q: Why don't Western countries want us to know where the material's coming from? Where's the logic?

HIBBS: They looked at what happened when the German government pointed the finger at Russia and said: You guys exported this. And what happened then was that the Russian government foamed at the mouth, clammed up, slammed the ... the door on all kinds of programs in the West.

And that's a paradox. Because when the German government made the statements that the material was Russian, they didn't know that. They accused Russia of not being in control of the material.

They said the material was Russian. At the time they said it, they didn't know it. Now they may know that. But now they're not willing to say.

Q: So, politics is constantly mixed up in this entire question?

HIBBS: The capability of the Russian state, of the Russian super ministries, to behave in a paranoid manner should not be underestimated five years after the Cold War is over.

Last year, I attended an experts' seminar in Munich where I and 50 others who followed these cases extensively were briefed for two solid days by experts from the Atomic Energy Ministry in Moscow who were trying to explain to us how it was impossible that materials of this kind, weapons grade uranium and plutonium, could have been stolen, smuggled or diverted from their inventories.

They went even farther. They made the accusation that parties in Germany who were evil or were hostile to Russia had actually taken the plutonium from a German plant, put it on a Lufthansa plane, flew it to Russia, somehow kept it on the plane and flew it back to Munich to smear Russian interests, to ... to cut down the Russian State, to destroy the credibility of Russian nuclear industry.

And these were not spokesmen of Russian interests talking to journalists. These were experts, high-level experts, chemists and physicists from the Atomic Energy Ministry in Moscow, who came to Germany to try to explain or convince me that it was the Germans who had taken the material and flown it round-trip back to me.

Q: A lot of Russians I've talked to believe that because that is, in fact, what they have read in their press.

HIBBS: So, when I went to Moscow and I gave a briefing to Russian experts and Russian journalists, and I explained to them that it's possible that the material was Russian. And, in fact, it may even be likely.

But that there is no absolute proof of this claim. Most of the Russian media then went home, got their typewriters out, wrote the stories. And two days later you read in the Russian press that the U. S. expert, Mark Hibbs, had reported that it couldn't be Russian.

And, so, the ... the fear or the shame or the disbelief in Russia that the Russian State is not in control of its nuclear inventories, this fear sits very deep.

And there is a knee-jerk reaction from war veterans, from ex-party members, from people on the shop floor, all the way up to the top of the Russian ministry bureaucracy, who can't accept the prospect that Russian nuclear materials could be out of control.

Q: And why can't they accept that? Psychologically, why can't they accept that?

HIBBS: Having nuclear weapons and having nuclear materials is, to the Russian mind is, part of their culture. It is a demonstration that Russia is powerful. That Russia is a superpower. I had a conversation with a Russian ministerial expert, a very high-level individual, who tried to explain to me how much expertise and how much know-how the Russian nuclear sector has, he told me:

"Mr. Hibbs, the United States excelled in everything in the race ... this primacy between the United States and the Soviet Union with the exception of one thing: "We were better at making uranium and plutonium than you." "There was one thing in the Cold War that we could do better than you -- making plutonium and enriched uranium."

And the entire bureaucracy that is concerned ... concerns itself are involved in the production, preservation, the development of nuclear weapons and energy. Everyone in that culture simply believes that this is Russia's gift to the world.

The Russians are not willing to accept the possibility that this material is nothing but waste. They argue that they spent blood, sweat and tears to produce plutonium and uranium. And, for that reason, it's more valuable than gold.

They are not willing to accept that because this material is so valuable it would be impossible for this material to get out of control.

Q: In an early conversation with one nuclear expert, he said about the period after the War, 'We spent all we had,' which was true at the time. They spent all they had to catch up with the United States in getting the bomb.

HIBBS: I toured uranium mines where the single sole purpose of mining uranium at a depth of over a mile in an activity which caused at least 5,000 recorded deaths from cancer, that the people who worked in this mine and showed me that operation said, 'It's true that it caused enormous suffering. But that shows just how valuable this activity was. What we did was we fueled the first Soviet nuclear weapons.'

And the people who were involved in the activity were intensely proud of the fact that their activity, their energy, their suffering, allowed the Soviet Union to make sure that the West would not invade their country.

Q: After all of these years of such focus on producing highly enriched uranium and plutonium, do they have any idea how much they have and where it is and what condition?

HIBBS: There are very broad, general estimates which top-level people in the Ministry of Atomic Energy in the atomic complex have quoted. But the fact of the matter is, is that, at the plant level where in scores of facilities weapons grade uranium and plutonium were being produced, the operators of these facilities themselves have no idea how much material they have.

They don't even know where it is. They can't say that it's not been lost. There is no system of accounting and control in the former Soviet Union which can assure the world that these quantities of material are not leaking out. It is just mathematically and probablistically impossible for the Russian government to claim with any degree of credibility that they are in control of every gram of plutonium and weapons grade uranium.

Those are the claims that the Russians are making. And those claims are absolutely without any validation.

Q: And they are smart enough to know that they are claimed without validation. Why are they doing it? Why do they insist after three, four, five years of this now to continue to make those claims?

HIBBS: The level of cooperation on a technical level between the Russian government and the government in the United States has reached the degree of comfortableness that both sides, both the United States government and the Russian government, and the Western European governments for that matter, are willing to allow the Russian Bear to continue to generate lies and disinformation that there's no problem.

And while they go after fixing the problem, the rest of us in the world are being fed a palliative of public information to the effect that we're working on it. The system is not perfect. But it's under control.

And we should continue to support the activities of the United States government and the Russian government and other governments to get to the heart of this problem.

The extremely damaging effect of the German case has been learned by all the diplomatic parties concerned.

The German government is more convinced than ever in 1996 than it has ever been convinced before, including at the time that they made the finds, that the materials they've seized are Russian.

And they're not willing to make that claim. They've learned the diplomatic lesson that if they make that claim in public the Russians are going to deprive them of cooperation. And that is not what the German government wants. It is not what the American government wants.

No government wants to be threatened by having their trade relations, their cultural relations, interrupted because some nuclear material of Russian origin is found in an airport or in a locker someplace in a Western country.

I attended a meeting of experts on nuclear control in the United States in 1995. At this meeting, there were several experts from the control organ of the Russian Federation, GosAtomNadzor, that is, if you will, the nuclear control agency for the Russian government.

Its experts fly around the world. They visit the United States under invitations from Western governments and Washington to attend seminars, to exchange information. And they have technical meetings. They talk about problems.

And, in the public session of all these meetings, there is never any reference to the fact that this organization in Russia has no money. It has no access to military facilities. It is being attacked viciously by experts in the Ministry of Atomic Energy, by experts in the Ministry of Defense.

It is losing its experts because they can't pay salaries. And it has no data base at this present time to conduct an inventory of nuclear material in any single nuclear facility in the Russian Federation.

They don't have control of nuclear materials. And that's the situation where the 'emperor has no clothes.'

Q: Does Gosatomnadzor or anyone have any idea of how many sites in the former Soviet Union possess nuclear materials?

HIBBS: Very soon after the Cold War came to an end there was a window of opportunity where Gosatomnadzor got access to a certain amount of information fairly quickly.

And thanks to this window of opportunity, Gosatomnadzor learned from the Russian ministries involved that there are on the territory of the former Soviet Union somewhere between 900 and 950 individual locations where nuclear materials, plutonium, uranium, are stored.

And if you consider the fact that Gosatomnadzor has a score or several scores of workers, inspectors, who are trying to bone up on how to learn how to do inventories, make an accounting. There's no way that a handful of inspectors at a bureaucracy which is not loved by the ministries which are subject to its inspections can get its hands on the entire gamut of materials over this huge empire where nearly a thousand individual locations are hosting materials which are dangerous.

Q: And this ministry that you are talking about, the Ministry of Atomic Energy, describe for me its size, its power. How many people does it employ?

HIBBS: The Ministry of Atomic Energy is an empire unto itself. It employs nearly a million people. It has a hundred thousand technical experts, engineers, chemists and physicists. It has probably somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand experts whose knowledge would be very useful to any state or group which is trying to make a nuclear bomb or develop an indigenous nuclear energy infrastructure.

It has limited funds. And the Minister in charge, Mr. Mikhailov, has taken over the Ministry and is pursuing a policy of taking the limited funds he has and sprinkling these funds over the entire gamut of activities that are under his control to make sure that this army of one million people at his command remains intact.

As a result of this policy, Minatom is grinding to a halt. And it's creating a potential that in the longer term people will leave this complex and they will go elsewhere.

The Atomic Ministry complex is used to living by its own rules. And when Boris Yeltsin two years ago appointed Gosatomnadzor to police its nuclear materials inventories, the control organization that was appointed was immediately attacked by the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy in an unholy alliance with the Ministry of Defense to strip away all the rights that this body had to police and control weapons nuclear materials.

The official statement that you hear from people in this agency is that we are grateful that we are not able to control this activity because, at the time they told us we couldn't do it, it wasn't certain what our responses in this area were.

Basically that's poppycock.

What's happened since is that Gosatomnadzor has been stripped away of this capability. They are constantly under pressure for interfering with the smooth functioning of the atomic complex.

They're interfering with the economic competitiveness of Mr. Mikhailov's empire. And they are in the position of having to beg the Russian government to come up with surplus funds to pay inspectors a hundred dollars a month.

That is the fact. They are not in the position of controlling the materials which the decree of Boris Yeltsin two years ago ordained that this Ministry was supposed to be in charge of.

Q: My impression is that at least in the beginning in '93, '94, when these cases started to happen, FSB, the intelligence services, were taking seriously the possibility that material was being stolen if not smuggled. And then suddenly everything got shut up. Now what I've been told is that's because Mr. Mikhailov and Minatom were not interested in Russia itself acknowledging that it had a problem.

HIBBS: Mikhailov and the ex-KGB are at war over how to police nuclear materials in the Russian complex. Mikhailov is extremely unhappy about the KGB spies going into the complex, finding weak points out and trying to sting nuclear materials.

There are documented cases of intelligence agents of the former KGB going in to the Russian atomic complex and trying to sting nuclear materials out of the complex. Why are they doing this? They're trying to make sure that the claims that Mikhailov and his colleagues are making that the Ministry is secure is valid.

And what we're seeing is a bureaucratic battle going on between FSB and the Russian Ministry over how to police the complex.

And the fact that the ex-KGB is going in there is an indication that, on some level of authority, the leaders of that organization who are responsible to make sure that nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons materials and know-how doesn't get lost are not satisfied with the claims that Minatom is making that everything's under control.

Minatom continues to make the claim that everything is under control. And the ex-KGB simply doesn't buy it.

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