Inside File: Nuclear panic to bring in the votes

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RUSSIA may well be leaking weapons-grade nuclear material, as German agents are busy proving at the moment. But a question even members of the German political establishment are increasingly asking themselves is: What evidence exists that anyone is buying? Nasty governments? Iran? Pakistan? If we are to believe what we are told this week, Pakistan, for one, is already bristling with the stuff.

A top official has been sent by Germany to Russia to combat the nuclear smuggling. He is none other than Bernd Schmidbauer, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's chief intelligence adviser. Mr Schmidbauer, incidentally, had very mixed reviews from the British government last year after he struck a deal on bilateral co-operation with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Fellahyan. The deal was reportedly that Iran and Germany would not operate on one another's soil.

Mr Schmidbauer, who for a man in his position is remarkably unshy of publicity, has described the nuclear leaks publicly as 'dramatic'. Panic is seizing the German nation.

But, one German official pointed out: 'The discussion now is about what terrible things might happen, whether everyone will be able to make their own bomb. The discussion should be about who is actually buying this stuff. There is no evidence that anyone is. You say, nasty governments like Iran. But that is only politicians and journalists saying that. Where is the evidence?'

One German observer added: 'There is a panic which is totally artificial. They decided to prove all these possibilities of stuff leaking out. But who bought it? So far, it is only one agent buying it off another.

'If they are private terrorists, why would they choose something so expensive and complicated to use, when they could do it much more easily with things they are used to? There are a thousand other substances where a little goes a long way.

'If, on the other hand, you mean governments like Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, do you really think they build their bombs by buying 500g a week, from people they don't know?'

Mr Kohl faces re-election in October. 'He noticed that people were getting very nervous about the nuclear leaks, and recognised the need to act quickly', one official said. And so he dispatched Mr Schmidbauer to Russia.

But if the seizures are causing unwelcome panic, why is Bonn allowing its agents to carry them out, in a blaze of publicity? 'It has been known for years that there was a possibility of plutonium coming out of Russia. The secret agents needed something new to do. So they tried to find if it was possible to buy it.' This gained its own momentum: 'There is a process, well- known in chemistry for instance, whereby you cannot stop something once you have started it,' one official said.

It is also well known that after the Cold War, intelligence services needed to find a new role to replace their traditional spying on the Soviet Union. Three areas were singled out, and have since been chanted, mantra-like, ad nauseam: terrorism, drugs and nuclear proliferation. The French did very well on the first of these last week, with the arrest of Carlos the Jackal. The Germans have gained points on the third.

The business will also help justify the budgets for all European intelligence services. The following took up one third of the dry statement issued daily by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman last Friday:

'Spokesman said that the latest incidents of plutonium smuggling were a grave cause for concern. They pointed to a need for the utmost vigilance from the international community and for reinforced security measures on the ground. Plutonium smuggling had been one of a range of issues discussed at a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels this morning. All were agreed on the need for a co-ordinated international approach to the problem.'