As Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III continues his inquiries into potential Russian interference in the 2016 elections, conspiracy theorists are coming up with wild claims to undermine his credibility. Since any theory, no matter how bizarre, appears to be fair game, it is perhaps not surprising that a 10-year-old FBI counter-nuclear smuggling operation involving Mueller’s former work as FBI Director has been cast as collusion with the Russians, or accuses him of being a bagman in a Clinton-inspired plot to sell America’s uranium assets to Russia, undermining national security.
Conspiracy theorists claim that then-FBI Director Mueller provided radioactive material, originally seized in Tiblisi, Georgia, to the Russians in some sort of criminal exchange. They are basing their claims on a State Department cable posted by WikiLeaks. The cable indicates that Mueller planned to deliver a 10-gram sample of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to a Russian intelligence agency. This, of course, caused these same people to claim this as evidence of collusion with the Russians, similar to what Mueller is investigating in his new role as special prosecutor.
As one Twitter user put it: “Need an investigator for the investigator. Mueller is a crook too. Just like @HillaryClinton and @BarackObama”
But Mueller’s actions were not only legitimate, but necessary international cooperation to fight against nuclear smugglers who might attempt to sell stolen nuclear material to terrorists.
Here’s what really happened.
As often happens in nuclear smuggling cases, Georgian officials initially transferred the material to the FBI, so the Bureau could conduct a nuclear forensic examination of the material to attempt to determine from where the material had been stolen. Given the location of the seizure, it was highly likely that control of the material was lost during the chaotic period after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Therefore, Russian authorities would want, and the United States and Georgia would need, for Russian scientists to compare the sample to materials from their facilities to attempt to identify the source of the theft. There is precedent for this action; international nuclear forensic cooperation is a common way to attempt to resolve attribution questions, as supported by the International Technical Working Group (ITWG)—a multi-national, informal organization of laboratory scientists, law enforcement personnel, and regulatory officials dedicated to dealing with nuclear security threats.
Conspiracy theorists immediately latched onto Mueller’s use of a noncommercial aircraft. But, they are not considering the three advantages of this method of travel: first, it would simplify the shipment procedures and avoid any paperwork difficulties with commercial shipment; second, it would preserve the chain of custody (necessary in FBI cases involving criminal activity) by allowing the FBI to be in control of the material throughout the entire flight; and finally, that it would preserve the secrecy of the transfer, something which both the US and Russia probably wanted.
Scandalmongers then raised questions about FBI plans to transfer the material to Russia immediately after Mueller arrived in Russia. This too has an easy explanation. By transferring soon after landing, the FBI was released from its obligations and Mueller could move forward with the other purposes of his visit to Russia, whatever they may have been.
The initial smuggling incident was widely discussed when it happened. Sources described to The Atlantic how a 49-year-old mechanic, Oleg Khintsagov, a Russian citizen, went to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi attempting to sell approximately 100g of weapon-grade HEU, carried in a plastic bag. Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for him, Khintsagov’s buyer was an undercover Georgian agent. Although there were some near-misses, Khintsagov was ultimately arrested, tried, and sentenced.
After Khintsagov was arrested, the Georgian government allowed the seized material to be analyzed by the United States. After this occurred, the Georgians then allowed the United States to give a small sample to the Russians for further analysis, which is what the Wikileaks cable depicted.
Cooperation between the United States and Russia on various issues affecting both countries’ national security has historically been of utmost importance, and this incident certainly fell into that category.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent decline in nuclear security and control of nuclear materials in areas of the former Soviet Union—including Russia—are well-known and documented. Less well-known is that Russian scientists and laboratories have been involved in a worldwide effort to counter the tide by developing forensic techniques to analyze nuclear materials; this analysis would in turn provide the legal evidence required to prosecute nuclear smugglers like Oleg Khintsagov.
Despite increasingly Cold War-esque rhetoric surrounding Russia, maintaining Russia/US cooperation in nuclear forensics, nonproliferation, and other aspects of counterterrorism is essential for international safety and security. Director Mueller’s assistance in a FBI operation eight years ago is a fine example of the type of activity that needs to be maintained.
Hopefully, at some point it will once again be clear to both the US and Russian governments that coordinated nuclear forensics efforts should continue to expand. The past two decades demonstrated that there are a number of Oleg Khintsagovs in various countries worldwide who will have no compunction about selling nuclear material—or other radioactive material—to the highest bidder.
Is Special Prosecutor Mueller biased in his investigation? Is he now “radioactive” due to his involvement with Clinton and a secret Russian transfer of uranium? In this era of alternative facts and fake news, conspiracy theorists will continue to claim he is biased, but it is obvious that his actions in 2009 were appropriate, praiseworthy, and are totally unrelated to his role as special prosecutor.