washingtonpost.com
Frontline: The Nuclear Underground

Mark Schapiro
Frontline/World Reporter
Friday, May 6, 2005 11:00 AM

In his report on nuclear proliferation, Mark Schapiro , a Frontline/World reporter and editorial director at the Center for Investigative Reporting, traveled to South Africa to investigate how Israeli businessman Asher Karni ended up in jail for his part in the black market exporting of nuclear triggers to Pakistan. What motives led this man, well-respected in his community in Cape Town, to become a middleman in the nuclear black market? What are the consequences of his activities?

Read Schapiro's investigative report: The Double Life of Asher Karni.

Frontline/World reporter Mark Schapiro was online to discuss his report.

A transcript follows.

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Boston, Mass.: What can you tell us about H. Kahn, the man who imported these nuclear weapons triggers? Is he related to A. Q. Kahn, the man they call the father of the "Islamic bomb"?

Mark Schapiro: Humayun Khan, longtime businessman in Pakistan. His company Pakland an importer into the country, one of its clients the Pak military. From what I know, he has no relation to AQ Khan you are referring to. AQ Khan responsible for the massive proliferation to Libya, Iran, etc....

Humayun Khan ran an import operation that I've been told was in some ways competitive to AQ Khan's enterprise, in sense of supplying a different arm of the Pakistani military.

H Khan, I've been told by solid sources, supplied domestic Pakistani military; AQ Khan had his own independent enterprise going, in which he supplied other countries with nuclear technology.

H Khan, like Karni, was himself a middleman: He imported goods, then sold them. The deal was two middlemen dealing with one another...

H Khan, by the way, in a recent note tells me he would never do a deal "with an Israeli."

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San Francisco, Calif.: What was Asher Karni's motivation for selling nuclear weapons parts to Pakistan? What is it simply greed?

Mark Schapiro: Good and of course central question. As I've never met him, can only speculate. Greed certainly would be a factor. There are several things I do know which offer background. Main thing: He worked for a firm involved in evading international sanctions against South Africa during apartheid. He was quite skilled at importing goods for the SA military while most of world prohibited those sales...Now, he's been exporting goods from SA in defiance of international sanctions. Whatever motivated him in the first instance certainly could have played a role in the current situation.

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Cambridge, Mass.: Didn't the South Africans have a nuclear weapons program of their own back in the apartheid era? Nelson Mandela ended that, right?

Mark Schapiro: Yes, SA had their own nuclear program. In fact, they obtained much of their nuclear technology on the black market, a good deal of it from Israel.

The program was ended by President de Klerk in the late 1980's...a move that was heralded at the time as a gesture toward the winding down of apartheid. Mandela would ultimately be released about two years after the S. Africans shut down their nuclear program...

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Virginia: What about that secret test 1979 conducted by Israel outside of South Africa that the Carter administration ignored for fear of losing the Jewish vote in the 1980 election?

Mark Schapiro: yes, you have a good memory. Indeed, Israel conducted a test of its own nuclear missiles right off the South African shore, off Cape Town. This was supposed to be secret, but word leaked. It was indicative of the very close ties in those days between Israel and South Africa--two countries widely considered (by some, and for vastly different reasons), as pariahs...and did a lot of business together. The Israelis, it now seems clear, certainly helped South Africa obtain very sensitive technology and equipment for its military and its nuclear weapons program. And SA was one of the few African countries with which Israel was able to maintain relations...

During that period, early 80's, Asher Karni was in Israeli military, involved in procurement...

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Why on earth would an Orthodox Jew sell nuclear weapons technology to a country like Pakistan? I just don't understand that.

Mark Schapiro: I asked that question many times while in South Africa. Its a question that, as you can see in my story--on Frontline/World and in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine (May/June issue)--makes many of his friends, colleagues, his rabbi and others extremely uncomfortable...

I don't know the precise answer. But what I can tell you is this is how the business is done. You sit in a room in front of a computer, very much like where we're all sitting right now. And if you know what you're doing, you cruise the websites where people who want to procure particular types of technology speak with one another. If you have a connection for something, you do a deal...on e-mail, and possibly some phone. Its all very modern/clean you might even say. So...one day Karni's selling high tech to the Indians, another day he's selling triggers or oscilloscopes to the Pakistanis....

One can only surmise as to what you tell yourself in the morning. I believe that Karni had to know the nature of what he was selling. He was an expert in military electronic technology...

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New York, N.Y.: Is the U.N. doing anything about this case? Aren't they having some sort of nuclear non-proliferation treaty meeting right now? What really can be done to stop people like Karni and Kahn?

Mark Schapiro: Right now in New York, the parties to the Non Proliferation Treaty are meeting. These are countries that have agreed to certain restrictions on their use of nuclear related technology, preventing exports to certain countries, requiring inspections of nuke power plants, etc....

Very important meeting going on.

And what is happening around technology. So far, focus has been on Iran and North Korea.

But issues surrounding the Karni case are equally troubling in many ways, and not thus far addressed. Central tension there is how freely technology like triggers can be sent around the world. The system now is haphazard, a patchwork. Very inefficient. Experts have told me its more like a couple of "gentlemen's agreements."

Reason: Great tension between impulse of commerce--to sell as many goods as possible, be they nuclear triggers or whatever--and international security.

Striking: One thing Bush and Kerry agreed on was threat from nuclear proliferation. But little has been done by administration to tighten the regulations governing exports of nuclear related technology.

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Berkeley, Calif.: How does an investigative reporter like yourself find out about someone like Asher Karni? Also, you mentioned that none of this would have come out without the help of an anonymous source in South Africa. Any idea who that whistle blower is? And where can I see your story?

Mark Schapiro: I found out about the story in just the usual: sniffing around, talking to people. And when I heard about triggers with just two uses, medical and nuclear, I thought it would be an interesting way to explore issues around dual use technology. And he being a Jew selling to Pakistan added another level of mystery (I'm Jewish by the way, full disclosure).

Story appears in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine, the May/June issue. Also, its on the web site of Frontline/World: www.pbs.org/frontlineworld .

The whistle blower: Mystery remains, though I have my suspicions. Key thing there is, due to the haphazard nature of the system governing dual use exports, the case might never have come to light had it not been for the whistle blower. In other words, it wasn't the system that caught him, as much as the tipster. Suggests strengthening of the system could be necessary...who knows how many other such deals happening where there is no tipster?

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San Francisco, Calif.: What was Asher Karni's motivation for selling nuclear weapons parts to Pakistan? What is it simply greed?

Mark Schapiro: Good and of course central question. As I've never met him, can only speculate. Greed certainly would be a factor. There are several things I do know which offer background. Main thing: He worked for a firm involved in evading international sanctions against South Africa during apartheid. He was quite skilled at importing goods for the SA military while most of world prohibited those sales...Now, he's been exporting goods from SA in defiance of international sanctions. Whatever motivated him in the first instance certainly could have played a role in the current situation.

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Mark Schapiro: Also, to Berkeley. You can also access my story by going to link at the top of the discussion page...MS

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Mark Schapiro: In response to my own question: What else does Asher Karni's story tell us besides being what I found to be a great mystery tale....?

The fact is: Most nuclear related commerce is not conducted through illicit deals at borders, or through espionage or the image of under the table deals. They are conducted through straight ahead business deals: invoices, payments, etc. Its business. and this fact I don't think yet reflected in the regime that has emerged to ostensibly govern and control the traffic in nuke technology.

Also, many efforts to tighten controls over the sale of this sophisticated technology have been beaten back, several times over last five years, by the industry itself....There are major interests behind keeping the system as it is. As dangerous as it might be...

So I think Asher Karni's story provides us a glimpse into some of the weaknesses of the current non-proliferation system. Many want that to be on the table in NPT negotiations now in NYC...We'll see...

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Boston, Mass.: Has there been any response to your story in South Africa or Pakistan?

Mark Schapiro: in South Africa, many newspapers and magazines have picked it up, distributed widely. Main thing here is that South African police, government are not happy at all about this situation, as country emerges as a sort of depot for nuclear deals.

The new government is quite aware of SA's history as a sanctions buster, that was how it kept going during apartheid. And now do not want it to emerge as a place through which international. sanctions can be busted. So they've been active in going after cases like Karni and others related to nuke tech in South Africa.

As to Pakistan, the way its being played in the press is that Karni case is one sided...because he also sold military goods to India, the country's nemesis. And they're saying Pakistan singled out unfairly.

HKhan denies it was him, he says he'd never do business with an Israeli. But little evidence submitted yet to support that position....

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Silver Spring, Md.: Somewhat off-topic but several spy scandals involved people who gave classified info to Israel or for the benefit of Israel. What does the U.S. government do when an ally spies on us?

Mark Schapiro: yes, I think there's a case now involving someone providing classified info to Israel. It gets messy of course, as Jonathan Pollard showed. I think the US is quite serious about matter of spying, whether for friends or enemies, so answer is they send people to prison for long periods of time...Not a wise career move....

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Mark Schapiro: Thank you all. Interesting speaking with you.....Mark

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