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Germany: Report Says 'Plutonium Affair' Case Lacks Evidence

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, 23 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - The German government will attempt this week to close an investigation into allegations that its own Foreign Intelligence Service may have instigated the smuggling of plutonium from Russia in 1994.

Germany's Interior Ministry confirmed earlier this week that the three parties in Helmut Kohl's coalition government have prepared a report saying no evidence of wrongdoing has been uncovered against the intelligence service or the chief political officer responsible for the service, Bernd Schmidbauer.

The 579-page report will be given to the opposition socialist and green parties this week with a recommendation that the investigations by a special committee of the Federal Parliament should be closed.

But the opposition has already indicated it is unwilling to accept this as an end to the investigation. A socialist party spokesman said today it should be considered only as an interim report and the investigation should continue.

For more than two years, the opposition has been demanding, unsuccessfully, that Kohl himself and some of his closest aides testify about what they know of the affair.

The "plutonium affair," as it is known in Germany, has intrigued the country since it first surfaced in August 1994. Commentators have often suggested that, with its mixture of spies, criminals and allegations of behind-the-scene political intrigue. the affair reads like the plot of a political thriller

On August 10, 1994 two Spaniards and a citizen of Colombia arrived in Munich on board a Lufthansa flight from Moscow. Waiting police found them to be in possession of 363 grams of quality plutonium, which was alleged to have been stolen from a research reactor at Obninsk, southwest of Moscow.

At the time, Europe was awash in rumors of widespread smuggling of nuclear material from Russia. There were fears such material could fall into the hands of criminals and terrorists.

Russia was criticized --by Germany among other countries-- for allegedly failing to provide adequate security at its nuclear installations.

In this atmosphere, the seizure of the plutonium at Munich airport was hailed as a major coup by the German security forces. The Foreign Intelligence Service, headquartered in Munich, was publicly praised for its efficiency. At the political level, Germany offered to help Russia improve security at nuclear installations.

But within a few months the euphoria was replaced by doubts. News magazines and some serious newspapers published reports that the whole affair might have been instigated by German intelligence agents based in Spain to improve their service's own image. The suggestion was that the intelligence service needed to show it still had a role to play after communism's collapse.

Other reports suggested that the affair might have been staged to give Chancellor Kohl's government a plausible excuse for putting pressure on the Russian government to improve nuclear security. Some suggested that perhaps the plutonium had never come from Moscow at all, but had been in Munich all the time and was simply produced at the airport at the appropriate moment.

There were more questions when a former Spanish policeman who worked as a freelance agent for German intelligence claimed that the intelligence organization had offered large sums to anyone in the Spanish criminal world who could smuggle Russian plutonium into Germany.

These conflicting stories and the questions they raised led the Federal Parliament to create a special investigating committee in May 1995 to answer public doubts.

In two years of meetings, the parliamentary investigators heard testimony from a colorful parade of witnesses. They included members of the Spanish criminal world, German intelligence agents with cover names, an interpreter for the intelligence service who had at least three cover names and is said to have acted "in an incorrect manner" with some of his translations, and the two Spaniards and the Colombian jailed for smuggling the plutonium.

As one committee member remarked, there was a lot of confusion and contradictions.

Several questions were raised about the role of the chief political officer responsible for the security service, Bernd Schmidbauer, most of whose work takes places in the shadows.

Earlier this year, he was sharply criticized when it became known that he had sidestepped his own service and hired a private investigator to find German hostages held by anti-Government guerrillas in Columbia and paid for their release.

Opposition politicians argued that if anything illegal had taken place, Schmidbauer might have known or been involved. Schmidbauer was questioned for eight hours and denied any wrongdoing.

The head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Konrad Porzner, was questioned for 13 hours and denied any knowledge of illegal actions by his service. The pressure placed on him by the investigation was partly responsible for his resignation several months later.

In the meantime, the two Spaniards and the Colombian jailed for smuggling the plutonium were quietly released before completing their sentences and left Germany.

The parliamentary investigation was suspended in January at the insistence of its government-affiliated members, who constitute a majority of the committee. In nearly two years of hearings it questioned 54 witnesses and eight experts, including members of the intelligence service.

The committee's opposition members claimed that officials in the Chancellor's office were trying to stop the inquiry for political reasons and to end the pressure for Kohl's personal appearance.

The opposition took its complaints to Germany's Constitutional Court, but failed to persuade it that the investigation should continue without a postponement. The opposition says the court's decision left the possibility open of continuing the hearings later. A socialist party spokesman said today that was what the party will now try to do.