Bernd Schmidbauer is head of German Intelligence. The sting operations
conducted to determine if any Russian fissile nuclear material was reaching
the black market earned him criticism from both the Russians and his own
countrymen for endangering civilians by allowing plutonium to be transported
aboard a passenger jet. To this date, almost all of the major seizures of
weapons-grade materials in Europe have resulted from the network of
undercover buyers that he set up. The Russians accuse Schmidbauer of
creating an artificial market for nuclear-bomb materials, to which
Schmidbauer has responded that the cases he has been involved in are "only
the tip of the iceberg" of the underground trade that is going on.
This interview was conducted in 1996.
Q: In the United States many government officials called the
security of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union one of the most
serious national security issues that we face. Do you agree with that point of
SCHMIDBAUER: I think that in this regard we have a similar point of
view. Taking into account the recent activities of both Senators Nunn and
Lugar, I concur fully. Their analysis and evaluation concur fully with ours,
which we have recently submitted in a report of the intelligence service
regarding the threat of nuclear smuggling. I regard the problem in a similar
Q: You mentioned that you know more now about the networks. Talk to
me more about what kinds of networks you have seen develop.
SCHMIDBAUER: At the beginning, the level of organization of such
traders or groups or individuals was not very high. In the past year the level
of organization became better and better. That means that this sector became
more professionalized, that connections exist, practically around the world. A
network existed in Europe from Spain to France to the Federal Republic of
Germany to Poland to Byelorussia to Ukraine to the Czech Republic to Bulgaria -
all countries were involved in one form or another. The fact that individuals
were responsible was demonstrated in several cases. We suddenly found in the
former Soviet Union the same names being repeated as the people behind the
scenes, and we now know much more than we did in 1994 about the ways and means
of nuclear smuggling.
There are convicted criminals. We sentenced the criminals at the trial in
Munich to long prison sentences and surrounding these people were others,
details about them have become known. And as the recent events in Germany with
regard to highly enriched uranium have shown, we are dealing with known
individuals behind the scenes. Perhaps similar materials have been delivered.
The evidence is getting clearer where the centers of this smuggling are
located. This is becoming clearer, without it being mentioned in public.
In the meantime it's becoming ever clearer that intelligence services must
fulfill a vital role and not merely to coordinate these cases at the national
level with the police. Rather it will become an international responsibility to
exchange knowledge and information, to piece together parts of the mosaic at
the national level in order to gain a complete overview. Indeed to get an idea
of who has the authority over such materials, be it in the civilian or military
spheres of the former Soviet Union. Who maintains the logistic network?
Through which countries do the transit routes run? Who are the buyers at
present and which buyers are interested in which materials from which
radioactive sources? And this is a challenge on the international level, not
merely a national one.
Q: So have you given the Russians a sample of the material that was
seized in Munich?
SCHMIDBAUER: We have offered it. We've negotiated for many months
concerning the ways and means of returning it, the security for the return, all
this was initiated by us. I assume that the Russians will pick it up in the
next few weeks. We do not have any indications when the Russians want to pick
it up. We have it sitting here all packed up in the necessary containers and
ready to be picked up. We expect it, because we think that it's good if the
Russians can also analyze this material. Perhaps we will then get some
indications as to the exact location of origin. For us it's relatively clear
concerning its origins.
Q: I have seen the letter that was sent by some of the Russians, to
the German authorities last February. Is that letter in your opinion
SCHMIDBAUER: Yes, with certainty. We have received many letters
concerning the material, but it looked as if one hand does not know what the
other hand is doing. We have received different stories from different places
about various sources. People were used as messengers who referred us time and
again to the location of the material. It was discussed - and I stand
personally by it - on August 27, that we were ready to return the samples. The
offer was made four, five times that Russian specialists can come and do their
research with us in Karlsruhe. This was also in the memorandum. Everything else
is simply a smoke-screen that has no realistic basis in fact.
We have had questions in Parliament, when will Germany, the Federal government
finally send the samples to Moscow. That was never a topic of discussion, but
rather we have always offered. And we see today that this material has been
laying packed up in Germany, ready for transport by a shipping firm, but the
receiving party is not ready to accept the material. I would've had nothing
against it if the material in its entirety had been sent back. That was also
discussed in order to return it to its place of origin so that it doesn't have
to be counted in the total amount of nuclear material in the European Union.
Q: And when and if the material finally is examined by the Russians,
what do you think they are going to find?
SCHMIDBAUER: I think Russia knows quite well who are the men behind the
scenes, concerning Munich. There are existing requests for legal assistance in
this regard by the Russians from the Federal government. These are being dealt
with, and the names that are very well known to us come to the fore as being
behind the Munich affair. I assume that this material would only be used as the
final piece of evidence to demonstrate where this material came from, and who
was involved on the Russian side. This was also known to us. We had the
criminals and we had the opportunity to carry out the corresponding research
and to solve the case with our Russian partners, who were at that time quite
willing to cooperate. I assume that in the final analysis, the Russians know
exactly who and where this material was taken from.
Q: One of the things that I don't understand is for example when the
request for legal assistance and investigative assistance comes from one
Russian organization to the German government, another Russian organization,
Minatom, denies altogether that a letter exists.
SCHMIDBAUER: Yes, but that was the problem. The representative of
Minatom, the spokesperson, said on German television that the material came
from Germany, that we had transported it by plane to Moscow and then
transported it back, an idiotic concept. But by this example you can see how
earnestly Minatom has tried to get behind the true story. Minatom has, however,
admitted that there have been cases, which are being evaluated here also.
Minatom has admitted that problems did exist, but it appeared to me that
Minatom was the last Russian bureaucratic structure that was not willing to
exchange information at all.
Q: And in the request for assistance, one of the things they asked
is that the names of these five names and their photographs be shown to Mr. T,
who is sitting in prison. Was that done? Did he provide any more information
about the nature of his Russian connections?
SCHMIDBAUER: I believe that was only the tip of the iceberg. There were
many more connections, more information that we have exchanged. We gave the
Russian side all the information we had concerning the Munich affair, the
Tengen affair and the Landshut affair. From the completed analysis to the
personal connections. We even had a second meeting in Bonn to sum up and to
take account of the progress made. I believe the time was simply not yet right.
Plus, officials could have been involved in these affairs and then you cannot
expect that everything will be revealed. So long as it's not clear whether
officials were involved, the exchange of information will be difficult. That
must improve, that will improve, I am convinced of this.
Q: To your knowledge, is anyone in jail in Russia in connection with
any of theses cases, Munich, Tengen, Landshut, Prague?
SCHMIDBAUER: Or other cases. I believe that there have been arrests,
yes. I assume there have been arrests. I assume there will be a trial that will
serve to uncover the affair from the Russian side.
Q: We tracked down a trader who lives in Obninsk. He is one of the
five people who was named in the letter. And it turns out that he has admitted
to us and to others that he was involved in smuggling the highly enriched
uranium in Lanshut, in Prague. But he is sitting in Obninsk. He told us he has
signed an agreement with FSB which says he can stay free if he doesn't
SCHMIDBAUER: That is correct. This is also our information. The man's
surname begins with the letter K. His name comes up frequently, yes.
Q: In a variety of different cases?
Q: But he is still not in jail to your knowledge?
SCHMIDBAUER: I believe so, yes.
Q: So how do you explain that when you've said to me since we have
been talking today - that there are authorities who are very aware of these
same names and who the people are?
SCHMIDBAUER: I believe that the time is not yet ready for us all to
understand what is threatening us all. It's not just a threat to us or to the
United States, but rather a threat to Russia herself. And it's a question of
point of view. I think the basic point of view is still, at present, that one
tends to negate, push aside, keep quiet, not see that it is a problem.
We hardly receive any information, with reference to the actual situation on
the ground. That will take awhile. This is what I call open cooperation - what
is understood in reality by the word cooperation and not under the guise of a
myth, where one says everything is functioning very well, everything is better.
No this is wrong. Rather problems exist with increasing frequency, as I
maintain. And as we have seen in the last year those responsible in the former
Soviet Union run free, and are not being prosecuted.
Q: And none of these people who have been convicted have given any
information about, if there is anymore of this vagabond material still...
SCHMIDBAUER: Yes, there are leads from individuals who say that there
is further material. But a lead is one thing, proof is another. And therefore
it is fortunate if occasionally such proof is found. We have many leads
concerning vagabond material. Around 30% of the cases in total is secured;
therefore we have 70% of the vagabond material that we do not secure, that
finds itself somewhere or has reached buyers. This is a problem. We, in our
report, refer exactly to this point, that if you refer to the total amount of
material that is vagabonding in the various countries, only a small quantity
has been secured.
You must assume that the person who supplies you with samples and larger
amounts has access to still further supplies - unless, of course, access is
stopped. I assume that in the old cases, it was always possible to get access
to larger amounts of material, to the amount that was stored.
Whoever in the military sphere has access to fissile material, who brings
small pieces, he can also bring larger ones, as we have seen in the last few
days, material offered in the kilogram range. Besides, the analyses
accompanying the offered material are improving. In the past this was not the
case, when one transported radioactive material without any analysis, in trunks
of cars that were found in parking lots. Pellets of practically worthless
material. Today on the market there is material with an analysis - a clean one
or a falsified one. The smugglers, the traders know exactly what is demanded.
When weapons grade material is demanded, the analysis corresponds, true or not;
but this also makes clear the level of professionalism has risen. So he who has
access, to naval bases, to this enriched material, who has access to highly
radioactive sources, has access to containers that themselves are made out of
low level enriched uranium, who has this access, has access to larger
quantities of material than that which has been identified and secured.
The Landshut case shows that more material was stored somewhere else and the
logical conclusion is: Where is the rest of the material in such a chain?
Q: Then why then hasn't the public heard more about the more
dangerous cases since 1994?
SCHMIDBAUER: I don't know. I assume that, at present, one is not eager
to have things publicized. I also think that the spectacular aspects were
journalistically overexposed, in all its facets, that have nothing to do with
journalism, that stand in contrast to what is demanded by responsible
reporting. In the one-sided coverage, the guilty party was made into the
victim, and German officials and police were correspondingly given a negative
press. Not that there have been any fewer cases uncovered in 1995 and their
number has been disclosed by us, these 169 cases that we saw in 1995, of these
around 33 can be classified as serious.
Q: In the world?
SCHMIDBAUER: In the world, yes
In the last few years, we have seen ever more clearly that demand exists. To
get into this buyers market is extremely difficult. It means you must
practically make controlled deliveries.
It's no different in the narcotics sphere. You only reach the buyer through
controlled deliveries; therefore cooperation on the international level is
taking place, up to and including the buyer, who can then be identified. For
the intelligence services, it is clear, and I believe this is also true for
information from the U.S., that we see buyers from the Arabic countries in the
Middle East with specific demands for material. There would otherwise not be a
specific supply with the accompanying analyses and information. And every
country will take care now not to pursue these things in the open, they are
followed, observations continue, but it is also clear from which direction
these efforts are coming. And here there are no differences between your
country and our country.
Q: You mentioned someone whose name is K. In fact the trader I tracked
down is not K., it's B., well I tell you know who it is.
SCHMIDBAUER: Yes, I know the names from the papers we have, yeah.
Q: Right. But he is clearly not a boss.
Q: He is some sort of simple guy, who is involved in all these kind
of things. How does anyone ever get to the bosses?
SCHMIDBAUER: This is the problem that we cannot find out from our
side: Who really is guilty, who really has access. We naturally know who has
access to such facilities, who works in such facilities or is related to those
who work in these places. And we see certain official-like channels that work
together. The material does not fly away by itself; it doesn't become
independent. Radioactive material does not roll through the land. Rather people
steal it, people transport it. Organizations want to earn money.
Q: Are you afraid - as US officials are - that former KGB people are
involved in these networks?
SCHMIDBAUER: I assume that former official types are working in these
areas; that is quite clear. Be it in covering up these activities or in the
activities themselves, in the actual commission. I assume that there are
connections in this area, yes.
Q: Can you give me more information about that? The kinds of people
SCHMIDBAUER: No. We did see an intelligence service backdrop. And
admittedly after evaluating the Munich case, I'm thinking primarily that it was
concerned mainly with putting a big black cover over the whole affair. That
there was no way to stand in the background, that was clear, but it was also
clear that officials, former officials whatever had to have been involved,
since corruption was also necessary for the transport. Bribery was necessary,
as was complicity.
Q: To the best of your knowledge, do you think you know where the material
from Munich came from?
Q: Can you tell me?
Q: Why not?
SCHMIDBAUER: Because we are doing this in a partnership, if you
understand the word partnership correctly. That we give everyone the chance to
find out for themselves from what place this material originates. You have
told me you have initiated research in Russia; if this research is successful,
you will find the answer yourself.
Q: One US official described to me what he called the nightmare
scenario. That there is corruption somewhere at the top in a Russian facility
and nothing that anyone is doing, the Germans, the Americans, or the Russians,
who are working on it will be able to stop that sort of deal, if it
SCHMIDBAUER: If nothing happens and we are unable to work together on
this problem, then in the near or long term future, in a few years there will
be countries able to produce weapons of mass destruction. They do not need the
technology for it. If they have the material, they are jumping over several
stages in development and will then be in a position to threaten us all,
including by the associated terrorists, who will be able to use it. And whoever
still needs examples of how this happens, he can look at Japan and the problem
with the Aum cult, where what we considered the worst scenario became reality.
. And that's what it is about, nothing more. To recognize this danger. Those
are the signs that we need worldwide. In all countries, not only in two or
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