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The Strange Case of the Plutonium Smuggled from Moscow

Munich, Feb. 8 (RFE/RL) - In a quiet room in the German capital, Bonn, a commission appointed by the federal parliament is trying to unravel what a novelist might call "The Strange Case of the Plutonium Smuggled from Moscow." The commission has been working since May last year and there is no indication how long it will take to learn all the facts.

At the heart of the enquiry is Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND. The question is, did the intelligence service instigate the smuggling of the weapons-grade plutonium from Moscow to Munich in August 1994? If it did, what was the reason behind the operation?

The chiefs of the intelligence service emphatically reject the allegation. But some of the evidence heard by the commission on this and other issues is contradictory. It led the Munich newspaper "Suddeutsche Zeitung" to ask in an editorial (January 22): "Will truth ever emerge?" It answered its own question by saying: "probably not."

The incident itself is not in doubt. In fact, at the time it won headlines. On August 10, 1994, two Spaniards and a Colombian were arrested at Munich airport as they left a German airliner (Lufthansa) arriving from Moscow. In their baggage, police found 363.4 grams of plutonium. The men were later given prison terms of three to five years.

That much is uncontested. But two weeks ago the parliamentary commission confronted the chief of the foreign intelligence service, Konrad Porzner, with evidence that some of his agents had offered contradictory reports about the location of the plutonium.

In reports before the airport arrests they spoke about plans to bring the plutonium from Russia. But later some of the same people suggested it might have been already stored in Germany. Porzner told the commission he had noticed the different statements but offered no explanation.

It is an important issue because there exists a direct order preventing the intelligence service from obtaining plutonium from abroad. It would be a serious matter if it could be shown the intelligence agency had ignored this order.

The curious affair is linked to Germany's persistent fear that weapons-grade nuclear material is being stolen from Russian laboratories and possibly sold to international terrorists. During 1993 and 1994, this concern was at its height, with frequent reports of stolen nuclear material being offered for sale.

It was by no means all rumor. EURATOM has files on 33 known cases concerning the proposed sale of nuclear materials. Of these 29 were found in Germany. The sales activity appears to have diminished over the last year, but there are still occasional incidents.

The affair became a scandal eight months after the arrests, in April 1995. Germany's best-known news magazine "Der Spiegel," which has a long history of controversial stories, published a report casting doubts on the official version. It claimed to have information that the foreign intelligence service had instigated the operation so it could put pressure on Moscow to be more vigilant in stopping the alleged theft of nuclear material from its laboratories.

If that was the goal, it may be claimed to have been successful. The arrests were followed by high-level exchanges between Bonn and Moscow. German chancellor Helmut Kohl protested to Russian President Boris Yeltsin about the apparently lax controls in Russia. Russia eventually agreed to exchange information about nuclear supplies and accepted tighter co-operation in fighting nuclear smuggling.

But the intelligence agency denies it was at the center of the affair. Both the chief of the foreign intelligence service, Porzner, and the government official responsible for the intelligence services, Bernd Schmidbauer, told the parliamentary commission the service was only peripherally involved in the operation. They said that the operation was controlled by the criminal investigation office in Munich.

The "Spiegel" report offered another version. It said the German intelligence chief in Spain, Peter Fischer-Hollweg, was responsible for spreading the word through the Madrid underground that there was a buyer in Munich for plutonium smuggled from Russia. It named an agent of the Spanish intelligence service as allegedly involved. "Der Spiegel" gives only a secondary role to the Munich authorities.

Its version gets some support from the Spanish agent, a former policeman, Rafael Ferraras, who had the code-name "Rafa." In his evidence to the parliamentary commission in December, Ferraras declared that he had been paid by the foreign intelligence service in Madrid and had acted as a contact man. He told the commission that German agents had enticed potential smugglers by offering large sums of money.

According to Ferraras, the German agents offered millions of dollars to anyone who could produce four kilograms of bomb-grade plutonium. He said the two Spaniards and the Colombian rose to the bait and in July 1994 offered a small sample of what they could provide. After that the deal went ahead.

The trouble with this is that Ferraras said quite the opposite when he gave evidence at the trial of the three men arrested at the airport. At that time he denied that German agents had instigated the affair.

One of the side issues of the investigation is a suggestion that Ferraras was paid to lie to the court. The commission asked the chief of the foreign intelligence service, Porzner, about the charge. He denied that pressure or inducements had been made to Ferraras. But he acknowledged that Ferraras had signed a document pledging to remain silent about all details of the smuggling affair. He defended this by saying it was routine in intelligence work.

Porzner and Schmidbauer say the foreign intelligence service had a very minor role in the whole affair. They say that its agents in Spain picked up information in July 1994 that there was stolen plutonium in Munich and a group was loking for buyers. Porzner and Schmidbauer say this information was passed to the Munich criminal authorities the next day. Afterwards, the criminal authorities asked for certain technical help and this was provided, but it was only technical assistance.

Porzner told the commission on January 19 this year that neither he personally nor the intelligence had "any decision-making authority" in the enquiry, had "given no advice" and, in fact, had not been asked for any.

Schmidbauer told "Der Spiegel" last year he would "put his hand in the fire" to guarantee that the intelligence service did not instigate the affair. He told the parliamentary commission that such allegations were "absurd."

Most of the attention until now has been focussed on the foreign intelligence service and less to the role of the Munich criminal investigation office. This may now change because the provincial parliament in Bavaria has now begun its own hearings. Among those required to give evidence is the Bavarian interior minister Guenther Beckstein. He has already given his version of events to the commission of the federal parliament but may be questioned more closely by his own parliament.

In December Beckstein said in an interview with "Der Spiegel" that that relations the Munich criminal investigation office and the foreign intelligence service -- which is based in Munich -- are not as good as they were.

Responsible German newspapers have treated the whole affair with great care, reporting the investigation by the federal parliamentary commission but not taking sides.

But in their editorials some have questioned whether all sides are telling the whole truth. Munich's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" is not the only one to doubt if all the facts will ever be told to the public.