Commentary: CIA needs sunlight and Tinners' case might shine some on it

The Sacramento BeeJanuary 10, 2011 

By its nature, an intelligence service is antithetical to the transparency and accountability that are hallmarks of a democracy. When the Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1947, the diplomat Dean Acheson wrote, "I had the gravest forebodings about this organization and warned the President that as set up neither he, the National Security Council, nor anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it."

Acheson's prophecy came true long ago. In recent years, we have read reports of an intelligence agency that operates above the law, engaging in kidnappings and torture that defy U.S. values. A former agency official justified the CIA's actions to us this way: "We're the agency of last resort."

In our new book, we recount how that agency operates by chronicling how a CIA team, led by a case officer nicknamed "Mad Dog," recruited three Swiss citizens who were central figures in the nuclear trafficking network run by A.Q. Khan, a rogue Pakistani scientist.

Khan and his accomplices helped Pakistan build its nuclear arsenal and then sold the same dangerous technology to some of the world's most dangerous regimes – Iran, North Korea and Libya.

The CIA tracked Khan for nearly 30 years. In the end, the agency used a family of Swiss businessmen to penetrate Khan's network and paid them $10 million for their services. Friedrich Tinner had been selling nuclear components to Khan since the 1970s and brought his two sons, Marco and Urs, into the business. The Tinners delivered for the CIA, providing evidence that helped shut down Khan in late 2003.

President George W. Bush called the episode a major intelligence victory and hailed the CIA for shutting down the world's worst private proliferation network. But that was not the end of the story.

When other governments discovered that elements of Khan's network in their own backyards, they started their own investigations. For their part, the Swiss launched a probe of the Tinners in early 2004. Strangely, when the Swiss asked the Americans for help, instead they got a massive campaign by the CIA and senior Bush administration officials to kill the inquiry.

The professed American goal was to stop the exposure of their Swiss spies and protect vague ongoing intelligence operations. But the pressure was also intended to stop the Swiss from prosecuting six CIA agents who had recruited the Tinners and searched Tinner properties in Switzerland, both violations of the law in a country of noted neutrality.

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