Interviews

Bernd Schmidbauer

Bernd Schmidbauer is head of German Intelligence. The sting operations that he 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 view?

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 fashion, yes.

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 legitimate?

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 talk.

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?

SCHMIDBAUER: Yes.

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.

SCHMIDBAUER: Yeah.

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 you saw?

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?

SCHMIDBAUER: Yes.

Q: Can you tell me?

SCHMIDBAUER: No.

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 happens.

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 three.

Maps  ·  Timeline  ·  Interviews  ·  FAQS  ·  Links  ·  Readings
Reactions  ·  Tapes and Transcripts  ·  Explore FRONTLINE

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS