Why Did Hillary Send Mueller to Moscow with Uranium in 2009?
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Exactly why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered FBI Director Robert Mueller to make a secret airplane trip to Russia on Sept. 21, 2009, to return a sample of uranium that had been seized in a CIA sting operation in the Republic of Georgia nearly four years earlier remains so shrouded in mystery, the cable revealed by WikiLeaks exposing the clandestine mission demands further investigation.
Particularly troubling in Clinton’s diplomatic cable of Aug. 17, 2009, detailing Mueller’s clandestine mission is the detail that appropriate arrangements “need to be made to ensure the transfer of the material is conducted at the airport, plane-side, upon the arrival of the Director’s [Mueller’s] aircraft.”
Why after flying from Washington, D.C., to Moscow would Mueller need to transfer on the tarmac to a “responsible Russian law enforcement authority” a 10-gram sample of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) seized in the Georgia sting, instead of arranging a formal transfer of the HEU at a Russian government agency, where Mueller could engage in substantive discussion over the incident with Russian authorities?
Yet, Clinton’s State Department cable clearly states, “We require that the transfer of this material be conducted at the airport, on the tarmac near by the plane, upon arrival of the director’s aircraft.”
The cable also makes clear that Russian government authorities had expressed “reluctance to act so far,” as if Russia was so uninterested in retrieving this small sample of purloined HEU that Russia “did not respond” to suggestions made by United States government that Russian authorities should pick up the sample in the United States.
On Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007, at 12:44 a.m. GMT, Associated Press Desmond Butler was the first to report on the CIA sting and theft of HEU in the Republic of Georgia that had actually occurred a year earlier, in January 2006.
“Republic of Georgia authorities, aided by the CIA, set up a sting operation last summer that led to the arrest of a Russian man who tried to sell a small amount of nuclear-bomb grade uranium in a plastic bag in his jacket pocket, U.S. and Georgian officials said,” the AP reported.
The AP further acknowledged the FBI and the U.S. Department of Energy had provided details of the investigation to the AP, along with Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.
“Authorities say they do not know how the man acquired the nuclear material or if his claims of access to much larger quantities were true,” the AP report continued. “He and three Georgian accomplices are in Georgian custody and not cooperating with investigators.”
The AP report also included the following details about the 2007 sting operation:
- “The sting was set up after Georgian authorities uncovered extensive smuggling networks while investigating criminal groups operating in the breakaway republics, Merabishvili said.
- “‘When we sent buyers, the channels through Abkhazia and South Ossetia began to expand and we started seeing a huge flow of materials,” he said. “Sometimes it was low-grade enriched materials, but this was the first instance of highly enriched material.’
- “According to his account, during an investigation in South Ossetia, a Georgian undercover agent posing as a rich foreign buyer made contact with the Russian seller in North Ossetia, which is part of Russia.
- “After the Russian offered to sell the sample, the agent rebuffed requests that the transaction occur in North Ossetia, insisting the Russian come to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
- “At a meeting in Tbilisi, the man pulled out from his pocket a plastic bag containing the material. Uranium has a low level of radioactive emission and can be transported more safely than other radioactive materials.
- “The man was arrested and sentenced to eight to 10 years in prison on smuggling charges. His accomplices were sentenced on lesser charges.”
- Russian authorities took a sample of the material but failed to offer any assistance despite requests for help from the Georgians, Merabishvili said.
The AP further noted the CIA “declined to comment on the case, while FBI spokesman Richard Kolko confirmed that the FBI was involved in the investigation and called it a success, but would not provide details.”
In a second report dated Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007, 8:32 p.m. GMT, the Associated Press reported that officials from the Russian government-owned energy giant, Rosatom, and Russian Federal Security Service agents attended an interrogation of the detained suspect, identified as Oleg Khinsagov, a resident of Vladikavkav in North Ossetia, a region of Russia that borders Georgia, “and were given a small sample of the nuclear material, the Rosatom official said, according to Interfax.”
If Russia had a sample of the stolen HEU in question in 2007, why were Secretary of State Clinton and FBI Director Mueller so determined to have Mueller fly to Russia in a secret mission in September 2009 to deliver Russia a sample of the purloined HEU that Russia already possessed?
In January 2007, the AP was puzzled at why the incident had gone unreported for a year.
“Anton Khlopkov, deputy director of Moscow’s PIR Center, which specializes in nonproliferation issues, noted that the quantity seized was reported to be small a fraction of what was needed to make a nuclear weapon. He also said it was not certain if it came from Russia,” the AP noted.
“‘Why was this information released now? It looks like an attempt, by Georgia or the United States, to build up an image of Russia as a nuclear market,’ Khlopkov said. ‘Georgia wants to get political capital out of this.’”
The New York Times, reporting on the incident for the first time in the Late Edition on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007, indicated the Russian, Oleg Khinsagov, “had come to meet a buyer who he believed would pay him $1 million and deliver the material to a Muslim man from ‘a serious organization,’ the authorities say.”
The New York Times also reported a confidential memorandum from the Russian intelligence service, the F.S.B., to the Georgian government said “a detailed analysis had been unable to pinpoint the material’s origins, though it did not rule out the Russian provenance. It also estimated that the uranium had been processed more than a decade ago.”
Again, if the Russian government in 2007 had already examined a sample of the 2006 HEU from the CIA sting operation in the Republic of Georgia and determined its origin, why did Secretary Clinton and FBI Director Mueller need to fly secretly a 10-gram sample to transfer to Russian authorities on the tarmac in Moscow?
Here is the New York Times account of the 2006 incident:
- The man trying to sell the uranium, Georgian officials say, was Oleg Khinsagov, a shabbily dressed 50-year-old trader who specialized in fish and sausages.
- Eventually he came into contact with four Georgians who were already under government surveillance. The four men went to North Ossetia, a neighboring region within Russia, and arranged to smuggle the uranium into Georgia. It was at that point that the Georgian authorities set their trap.
- They arranged for a Georgian operative who speaks fluent Turkish to meet with the middlemen and tell them he represented a Muslim man from ”a serious organization.” Mr. Khinsagov and several of his cohort entered Georgia in late January 2006, and on Feb. 1 they were arrested in a two-room apartment on the eighth floor of a crumbling Soviet-style building in a lower-class district of Tbilisi.
- ”We got that 100 grams and put it into a box and were very afraid,” said Mr. Merabishvili, the interior minister. Where the smuggler got the uranium and whether he actually had more remains unclear.
- The Georgians called for help from American diplomats, who sent in experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Energy, American officials say. Mr. Merabishvili said the Americans shocked them by taking the uranium and simply putting it ”in their pocket.” Uranium in that form emits little radiation and presents little or no danger to its handlers.
- When it was analyzed at the Energy Department’s laboratory in the Pacific Northwest, it was found to have a U-235 purity of 89.451 percent, ”suitable for certain types of research reactors, as a source material for medical isotope production, and for military purposes including nuclear weapons.”
Again, in 2009, why Mueller’s clandestine flight to Moscow to deliver the 10-gram uranium sample, when a Department of Energy laboratory report was available to the Obama administration to fax or cable to Moscow?