Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuke Bust Implicates Officials

BERLIN -- When police arrested three men and charged them with trying to smuggle nearly a pound of weapons-grade plutonium into Germany at Munich airport in August 1994, it was touted as both a nifty bit of detective work and a cautionary tale illuminating the threat of nuclear proliferation.

The culprits were convicted and sent to prison. The German government proudly struck a tough-on-crime pose. The specter of bomb-making material flooding the West from former Soviet republics loomed large in imaginations from Washington to Warsaw.

But in the 18 months since the Munich arrests, the case has grown more and more curious. Vague suggestions that an undercover sting operation may have created an artificial demand for radioactive material have blossomed into allegations of skulduggery, including assertions that the chancellery and Federal Intelligence Service -- the German CIA -- orchestrated the bust for political gain.

"Was the plutonium smuggling staged? Or was there a real offer of fissile plutonium, which had to be removed from the market in order to prevent something worse from happening?" the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper asked recently. "These are the decisive questions occupying Bonn."

A special parliamentary commission has been investigating the tangled affair since last summer, and the chairman expects the inquiry to last "up to two years." One commission member accused Chancellor Helmut Kohl's lieutenants of "shrouding the proceedings in fog." Kohl has thus far eluded all attempts to ensnare him in the controversy, although he is expected to testify sometime this spring.

Much of the investigation has focused on two prominent figures in Kohl's government. Bernd Schmidbauer, Kohl's intelligence coordinator, testified before the commission last month. He was preceded by Konrad Porzner, president of the Federal Intelligence Service. Both have adamantly denied any wrongdoing.

"I'd put my hand in fire to guarantee that the [intelligence service] did not act as a solicitor of illegal nuclear material," Schmidbauer told Der Spiegel magazine last year. To the commission, Schmidbauer added recently: "The allegation that I staged the smuggling is absurd."

Undermining government denials, however, was a Foreign Ministry memo, leaked and published last month, that declared, "The problem is ... that our intelligence service not only uncovered [the plutonium smuggling] but also very much brought it about."