Skip to comments.Film Probes German-Iraq Nuclear Link
Posted on 10/13/2002 11:56:50 AM PDT by Brian Mosely
NEW YORK, Oct 13, 2002 (AP Online via COMTEX) -- AP Special Correspondent
A new investigative film traces the roots of the Iraq nuclear crisis to links between German industry and Baghdad's bomb builders, and questions the lenient sentence - probation - handed a German engineer for treason in aiding the project.
The documentary, "Stealing the Fire," also offers a rare close-up look at a "proliferator," the engineer Karl-Heinz Schaab, who emerges on film as a bland, gray, fastidious 68-year-old technician who protests he's "too small to be turned into a scapegoat for the others."
The film, produced and directed by Oscar-winning documentarian John S. Friedman and Eric Nadler, premieres Tuesday at a New York theater.
Blueprints and other documents Schaab and associates brought to Iraq in the late 1980s, along with Schaab's own hands-on skills, were a vital boost to Baghdad's development of gas centrifuges - machines whose ultra-fast spinning "enriches" uranium by separating U-235, the stuff of nuclear bombs, from non-fissionable U-238.
Much of Iraq's nuclear infrastructure was subsequently wrecked by American and allied bombing in the 1991 Gulf War and in 1998. More was destroyed during U.N. inspections inside Iraq in the 1990s, and Baghdad officials deny they are working on atomic weapons today.
But reconnaissance photos released by the Bush administration this week, as it seeks support for a potential war against Iraq, indicate the Iraqis have been rebuilding sites previously used for nuclear development. A newly released U.S. intelligence report says they may have nuclear weapons by 2010.
"Stealing the Fire" looks at the source of these capabilities.
Iraq was failing with other enrichment technologies when German centrifuge experts Bruno Stemmler and Walter Busse, recruited by a German company, H&H Metallform, came to Baghdad in 1988 and sold the Iraqis old designs for centrifuges. The next year they brought Schaab, who provided components, technical reports and, most important, a stolen design for an advanced "supercritical" centrifuge.
The design, classified secret in Germany, was used in enriching nuclear power fuel at the European government consortium Urenco, for which a small Schaab-owned company worked as a subcontractor. The Iraqis paid $62,000 for the key documents.
In an on-film interview, Schaab says that on his last Baghdad visit, in April 1990, he personally helped install Iraq's first test centrifuge. Bomb-making would require thousands of such centrifuges.
A German court eventually - on June 29, 1999 - convicted Schaab of treason and sentenced him to five years' imprisonment and a $32,000 fine, but then suspended the prison term because he previously served 15 months in a Brazilian jail.
He had fled to Brazil in 1995 after U.N. inspectors uncovered documents in Iraq exposing the German connection. At Germany's request the following year, the Brazilians arrested the fugitive engineer, but freed him when a Brazilian court held that his alleged crime was political and he could not be extradited.
In 1998, Schaab returned to Germany anyway, to be with his dying mother and surrender to authorities, apparently assured his cooperation would win him leniency.
The light sentence he received raised questions, however, among nonproliferation specialists. American physicist David Albright, who was on the U.N. inspection team, suggested that the German government wanted to minimize public perception of Schaab's crime.
"I think they wanted the Schaab story to disappear. It was intensely embarrassing," Albright says in "Stealing the Fire."
The film suggests some people wanted Schaab himself to disappear. His lawyers tell the filmmakers that Brazilian authorities had warned them that foreign secret services wanted to kill or kidnap their client, and suggest that the closely timed deaths of associates Stemmler and Busse in the early 1990s may not have been natural, as reported.
"Stealing the Fire" leaves such questions unexplored. But it firmly establishes that German companies, more broadly, supplied technology usable in Baghdad's plans. One high-ranking defector from Iraq's nuclear program says Germany was an "open field" for Iraqi ambitions in the 1980s, particularly for purchases from such companies as chemical giant Degussa and its subsidiary Leybold.
A top Degussa executive retorts that "by the German laws, there were no illegal deliveries" during this pre-Gulf War period.
German export controls, widely regarded as too lax, were toughened after the Gulf War. German industry was not alone, however, in helping develop Iraqi capabilities. In 1985-90, the U.S. Commerce Department, for example, licensed $1.5 billion in sales to Iraq of American technology with potential military uses.
Schaab "of course did it for the money," says his lawyer Michael Rietz. But the centrifuge expert - described by wife Brigitta as "very quiet, very well-behaved; he doesn't smoke, he doesn't drink" - insists he was focused as much on the technological challenge, and not on illegality and international repercussions.
"I stumbled naively into this thing," he says.
Now, what we have here is "the banality of evil." Hitler didn't smoke or drink, either. In fact he was a vegetarian. And when it served his purpose, he had excellent table manners.
Five years imprisonment and a $32K fine for TREASON in German courts? How enlightened of them.
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