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Iraq's Acquisition of Gas Centrifuge Technology

Part III: Treason and Wrap-up

In the early 1990s, Karl Heinz Schaab was investigated for violating export control laws. He was convicted of illegally exporting centrifuge rotors to Iraq in 1993, a minor conviction at the time. In late 1995, after receiving new information about Schaab's activities with Iraq, the German government re-opened its criminal investigation of him.

Following the defection of Hussein Kamel in August 1995, Iraq decided to reveal extensive information about its entire nuclear weapons program. A key new revelation was the extent of assistance by Schaab and his colleagues. When the senior Iraqi gas centrifuge expert, Adel, was asked why Iraq decided to reveal so much new information about Schaab, he explained that he thought Schaab was in jail and already exposed. Some Germans who knew Adel have questioned his reason, believing instead that Adel was ordered by top Iraqi leadership to expose Schaab. Adel and the other members of the Iraqi gas centrifuge program had been highly committed to protecting their German sources of assistance.

In July 1996, Schaab, who had become aware that he was likely to be charged with treason, fled to Brazil. In December 1996, he was arrested in Brazil where he was held pending a decision from the Brazilian courts about his extradition. In March 1998, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled in Schaab's favor and he was freed.

Despite winning his case, Schaab was unhappy in Brazil and wanted to return to Germany. He retained the services of a new German defense lawyer, Michael Rietz, who recommended that he return to Germany and voluntarily turn himself in with the intention of pleading guilty to at least some of the charges. Rietz believed that he could convince the court to give Schaab a relatively short prison sentence as a result. Schaab returned to Germany on September 24, 1996 and was arrested the same day. After serving a few months in prison, he was freed pending trial.

In February 1999, the government filed treason charges against Schaab. The charges were as follows:

  • Having disclosed a national secret to a foreign power or one of its middlemen, he caused the threat of a "severe impairment" of the external security of the Federal Republic of Germany. The treason took place in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Iraq. In many of these acts, the defendant acted together with the now deceased Bruno Stemmler.
  • Having violated a regulation of the German Foreign Trade Law, the defendant compromised the security of the Federal Republic of Germany, perturbed the peaceful cohabitation of nations, and considerably harmed the international relations of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The prosecutor viewed Schaab as committing a wide range of acts of treason. He believed that the charge of treason applied not only to overtly classified documents but also to a range of classified information and components that Schaab provided.

In June 1999, the court, with the agreement of the prosecutor, limited the charges to Schaab's supply of classified documents to Iraq for the supercritical centrifuge. The court viewed these documents as state secrets whose unauthorized release constitutes treason.

The charges were limited in part because of weaknesses in German law. Schaab had acted solely for financial reasons and did not intend to betray his country such as traditional communist or East German spies. According to Rietz, Schaab's case was the first one of its kind, and the law was not written with this particular situation in mind.

In making its treason case for the supercritical centrifuge documents, the prosecutors faced another problem. Almost all the individual designs and documents of the supercritical centrifuge were marked VS-Nur Fuer Dienstgebrauch (classified-official use only) or unclassified. However, the prosecutors argued successfully in the end that together these documents carried a much higher level of classification, namely VS-Vertraulich (classified-confidential).

The court established that Schaab was fully aware of the classification rules at MAN. He had received authorization to handle secret centrifuge information in 1972, giving him access to all centrifuge information in his department that was stored in a safe. Until 1980, he also managed his department's filing of classified information and accepted the delivery of classified components.

The court ruled that the documents had to be kept secret because they would enable Iraq to develop devices to make weapon-grade uranium, which could be used in nuclear weapons. The delivery of documents for the supercritical gas centrifuge created the real threat that Iraq would succeed in manufacturing weapons-grade uranium. Many of the parts were also directly usable in the subcritical centrifuge that was the main focus of Iraq's program.

The court stated that the development of weapons of mass destruction by a dictatorial regime, such as Iraq, which has made provisions for the manufacture of long-distance ballistic missiles, strengthens this regime's potential threat of attack. The court ruled that in this eventuality, and the resulting shift of the balance of powers, countries such as Germany would be severely impaired in their capability to defend themselves against attacks and disturbances from outside, ruled the court.

Before returning to Germany, Schaab had decided to plead guilty with the goal of receiving minimum time in jail. Because he had served 15 months in a Brazilian jail, he and Rietz reasoned that a guilty plea could lead to a decision by the court not to incarcerate him further beyond his initial three-month imprisonment after he returned from Brazil.

This strategy worked and Schaab did not serve another day in prison. He was sentenced to five years in prison. However, his time was reduced for prior time spent in Brazilian jail, which was weighted at three times that spent in German jail because of the extreme oppressive conditions of his imprisonment. In addition, the German legal tradition of not serving the last one third of a sentence meant that Schaab left the court a free man.

However, he had to pay a total of 80,000 Deutsche Marks (DM) in fines and other fees. He did not have to pay the roughly 100,000 DM the German government spent trying to extradite him from Brazil.

The court decided on such a lenient prison sentence because it determined that this case did not warrant a judgement of severe treason under the law. In principle, the court believed that the high potential risk posed by supplying the treasonous material speaks for the assumption of an exceptionally severe case. For Iraq, the technical value of the material disclosed by the defendant was considerable. This held true, even though the documents themselves delivered by the defendant did not provide adequate knowledge for the development and manufacture of a gas centrifuge for the production of weapon-grade uranium.

Further, Schaab had often assisted the Iraqis in an on-going business endeavor aimed as supporting the Iraqi gas centrifuge project. The court also held this against Schaab.

However, several important circumstances spoke in favor of the defendant. The court accepted that Stemmler, and not Schaab, originated the plan to sell the drawings and documents. In addition, Schaab acted in a period of time when his company was suffering economically, and the defendant had not previously been convicted of a major offense. As mentioned above, his conviction of selling Iraq carbon fiber rotors was viewed as minor.

Also in his favor, Schaab confessed to the deed, which helped the prosecution reconstruct the extent of his assistance to Iraq, and he regretted his actions. He even surrendered himself to the proceedings despite a refusal of extradition. In addition, he was deemed particularly sensitive to confinement in prison because of his age and impaired health.

There was speculation that another reason for the lenient sentence was to save further embarrassment to MAN, other German companies, and ultimately the German government. Rietz had vowed to fight the charges if the sentence was not reduced. The resulting long and public court fight could have revealed substantially more information about weak security procedures at MAN and elsewhere, possibly revealed other embarrassing information, and perhaps led to the release of sensitive or secret information.

Nonetheless, few doubt that Schaab has suffered enormously for his crimes. He experienced financial troubles when his actions became publicly known. His business on the whole has failed. He continues to suffer public humiliation.

Rationalization and Self-Delusion

Because Stemmler and Busse died before Kamel defected, they were never brought to justice. If they had lived, they would likely have been charged, perhaps also with treason.

During numerous interviews in the early 1990s with one of the authors, Stemmler claimed that he broke no laws. He admitted repeatedly that he provided centrifuge assistance but he denied the information was classified. However, it is clear that he certainly did provide classified information and documents. Because Stemmler is dead, he can no longer defend himself from allegations that he broke the law. Nonetheless, his stated justifications for his actions provide insight into his actions.

Stemmler said he felt justified cooperating with Iraq. When he first became involved with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the United States seemed to be supporting Iraq, and had done so throughout its protracted war with Iran. After the war ended, Iraq, then considered a friend of the West, was involved in a massive rebuilding program. Stemmler said he "never had the impression that Iraq was against the United States."

In addition, the Iraqis told him that their "only desire [was] to make nuclear fuel" for civil purposes. In interviews, Stemmler often said that an Iraqi centrifuge cascade using these centrifuges could have produced only low-enriched uranium, not the highly enriched material needed for an atomic bomb. In reality these centrifuges can produce HEU when hooked in a cascade. When confronted by this seeming inconsistency, Stemmler shrugged.

He often expressed skepticism of Iraq's ability to operate centrifuges or build a centrifuge plant, implying that his assistance did not matter. For example, Stemmler said it is a "long distance from design to a practical machine."

Even in interviews, though, Stemmler was inconsistent in evaluating his own contribution to the Iraqi program. At times he tried to minimize the importance of his assistance. He said that he did not provide the most modern specifications. In some cases, he said, he tried to give them minimal information that was not usable for their specific machine. At other times, he said he believed he had helped to improve the Iraqi centrifuge design.

Stemmler and the other Germans were all successful scientists, technicians, or businessmen. They did not start their cooperation with Iraq intending to break any laws. It is doubtful that they wanted to help Iraq build nuclear weapons.

But they all desperately needed money for themselves or their companies. In addition, Iraq was subtle in its recruitment methods, trying to encourage the Germans to believe that the assistance was somehow legitimate or deserved. Certainly, Iraq never said the assistance was to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, this group of well-respected Germans did break the law. They lied to their own government about their activities. Several knowingly provided classified information to Iraq, which is now viewed as treason in Germany.

At the same time, several tried to deny knowing what Iraq intended to do with their assistance. But all of them must have realized at some point the true purpose of their assistance. Instead of stopping their assistance, they concocted various arguments to rationalize their actions. The arguments, several mentioned above, included:

  • The assistance was intended only for a university program involved in research and teaching;
  • The centrifuges would have been for the production of only low enriched uranium for civil reactors and not for nuclear weapons;
  • Iraq could never have successfully have built a gas centrifuge, so the assistance did not matter;
  • The specific centrifuges supplied could not have made weapon-grade uranium;
  • Iraq was a bulwark against Iranian fundamentalism, even though the Iraqi regime was acknowledged as odious;
  • The German government knew about the business but did not care. Why should the suppliers?

At some point, these centrifuge experts appear to have lost the ability to reflect honestly about their efforts. Finally, they started to lie to themselves.

The German export control system was so weak in the late 1980s, that lying was easy to do. The official investigation that started in 1989 did little to discourage their activities. In fact, it may have inadvertently made them feel invulnerable or immune to police action. Given the huge financial payments Iraq was providing, they had little incentive to stop. Iraq assisted in their self-delusion by not mentioning the true purpose of the items. The Iraqis tried to create a structure where suppliers would provide what they wanted, but never put the supplier in a position to ask the hard questions about the true purpose of their items.

Another factor that served to insulate these Germans was the resistance of their colleagues to reveal their activities to authorities. Germans, among others, are raised to view tattling as morally objectionable. However, this resistance against tattling is perhaps greater in Germany because of the legacy of the Nazi times and widespread disapproval of the Stasi use of informers.

Still, these mitigating factors do not fully explain their actions. Rietz, Hinze's and Schaab's lawyer, says that certainly some people will simply knowingly violate laws for financial gain. But most will not. He says that Iraq made the first steps toward these illegal actions both easy and lucrative. The weak German, Austrian, and Swiss export control systems eased the Iraqi task considerably.

By the time the participants understood the true purpose of their assistance, they were deeply involved. Retreating at that point would have been difficult and risky for most people. Rietz recommends that the time to reflect and stop would have been early in the process. "Once the train leaves the station," he said, "it is hard to get off."

Risks Ahead

Prior to the Allied bombing campaign in January 1991, Iraq never succeeded in producing significant amounts of enriched uranium in its gas centrifuge program. It did run single machine tests for many months in 1990 and accomplished a considerable amount in creating an infrastructure to build and operate centrifuges. Inspectors believe that in early 1991 the Iraqi centrifuge team was close to the point at which it could build and operate a centrifuge with confidence. For more on the program's accomplishments, click here.

Iraq acquired, and still possesses, a remarkable amount of classified and sensitive information about gas centrifuges. It gained considerable experience in gas centrifuges and has had over a decade to ponder its weaknesses and strengths.

Iraq poses a risk in that its centrifuge information could pass to irresponsible agents or other nations, some of which may be seeking nuclear weapons. Even advanced nations would find Iraq's centrifuge information useful to their civil nuclear programs. Few countries have information about 3-meter Urenco centrifuges.

The most frightening risk is that Iraq will reconstitute its centrifuge program to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. It would find reconstitution relatively easy to do, although its chances of success would depend on foreign procurement and international intervention.

All information contained in this web product is (C) Copyright ISIS, 2003