Eli Lake’s New Report and the Inadvertent Conflation of Sources About the Notorious Tinner Family

July 2, 2010

Eli Lake has written an excellent article “Operation Sabotage,” in the current issue of The New Republic. Lake reveals an important method that can play a critical role in delaying and disrupting Iran’s and other country’s secret nuclear programs. ISIS wanted to make one clarification and an additional point. Albright never attributed the information about what the Tinners may or may not have done for the CIA with the role of national laboratories in buying and modifying vacuum pumps for export to Iran and Libya. The magazine has conflated statements made by Albright to Lake with reporting by The New York Times on August 25, 2008. This New York Times report in turn was predated by a story in the German news magazine Focus on November 21, 2005 revealing that seven Pfeiffer pumps sold to national laboratories in 2000 ended up in Iran and Libya and possibly involved the participation of the Tinners in getting them there. According to a senior official close to the IAEA, the one Pfeiffer Vacuum pump that eventually went to Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant got there via a Dubai trading company.

ISIS and Albright do not know whether or not the Tinner family was involved in the transfer of modified vacuum pumps to Iran and Libya via the national laboratories. But such claims require greater scrutiny. As discussed in Peddling Peril, although the Tinner family played an important role in helping the CIA and MI-6 bust the Khan network, their role has often been exaggerated, often with their encouragement. The intent of the Tinners, and some of their sympathesizers, is to try to portray the Tinners in a more positive light in order to prevent their prosecution in Switzerland for a series of proliferation crimes involving Libya. In this endeavor, the U.S. government has played a regrettable part, as detailed in a Swiss Parliamentary report published in early 2009. Like mafia informers, the Tinners are not above the law because of their assistance to the CIA and MI-6. A muddled U.S. intervention in Switzerland ended up causing the release of far more details about the secret, and incidentally illegal, undercover CIA/MI-6 operation in Switzerland, tipped off Iran to sabotaged equipment. It also undermined efforts to put in place legal precedents to prevent future Tinners in a country that has too often in the past side-stepped its responsibilities to prevent dangerous exports. At the same time, it also allowed the Tinners to play several sides against each other, needlessly complicating an investigation that still drags on.

The United States would have been better served by either removing the Tinners from Switzerland after finishing the operation to bust the Khan network or encouraging them to state to the Swiss federal prosecutors that they would plead guilty to the charges and move on with little prospect of jail time or a substantial fine, and few public revelations about a highly sensitive intelligence operation. The latter course of recommending a plea of guilty still remains possible and is in fact the soundest way forward for the Obama administration to help end this unfortunate episode.

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