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From Salem to Pakistan, an atomic smuggler's plot

SALEM --It looked like any other package when a mail truck carried it away from the four-story office park at 35 Congress St., along with packages from other businesses near Pickering Wharf, like the Palmer's Cove Yacht Clubcq and the Harbor Sweets candy store.

But the contents of this particular parcel, mailed in September 2003, were so alarming that US special agents secretly tracked its journey from Salem to an office in Secaucus, N.J., on to a warehouse in South Africa, then to an air cargo shed in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and to its final destination: a military supplier in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Nestled inside the box were 66 high-speed electrical switches called ``triggered spark gaps,'' each the shape of a spool of thread and the size of a soda can. In small numbers, they are used in hospitals to break up kidney stones. In large numbers, they can detonate a nuclear weapon.

The story of how a box at the North Shore office of PerkinElmer, Inc., -one of about a dozen firms in the world that produces the switches, - ended up in the hands of a Pakistani army supplier supplier for the Pakistani army, provides a rare glimpse into the underworld of nuclear smuggling.

In many respects, it is a victory in the in-the-trenches battle to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons. Tipped off by suspicious PerkinElmer employees and an anonymous source abroad, US officials arranged for the box's dangerous contents to be disabled before it was shipped, tracked the package, and arrested the alleged nuclear supplier, an Israeli businessman named Asher Karni.

Karni was arrested on Jan. 1 New Year's Day in Colorado as he flew into the United States for a ski vacation. He was charged in federal court in Washington, D.C., with violating US export laws.

But the case is also a disturbing reminder of just how rare it is for a nuclear smuggler to be prosecuted:. Karni seems to be the only person currently facing trial for selling nuclear components to a middleman in Pakistan, which is at the center of a massive international investigation into dozens of companies involved in nuclear black-market trading.

Selling dual-use technology like the switches to certain foreign companies is still legal, but it can be hard to keep the technology from falling into the wrong hands once it goes overseas, according to Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists, a non-profit research group that tracks arms-control issues.

Manufacturers are required by law to scrutinize their customers, flag suspicious orders, and keep track of an ever-growing list of blacklisted companies. Despite heavy fines for non-compliance, security specialists acknowledge that companies cannot catch every problem order.

"You don't catch it all, but you try to catch enough of it so that you deter people,'' said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, who said that two or three people each year are caught trying to smuggle items that can be used for nuclear weapons. ``It's like street crime. . . . It's just a continuing battle.''

Another problem is that nuclear export controls are essentially "gentlemen's agreements'' which lack the legal force of treaties and do not reach several countries that are nuclear suppliers, said David Albright, a former weapons inspector at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. D.C. ``It's

a huge problem and not much is being done,'' Albright he said. ``The enforcement can work, but then ``When it comes to giving penalties, they are often just very minor.''

Into dangerous hands

The case of the switches - a crucial and hard-to-get ingredient for a modern nuclear weapon - is even more disturbing since because they were bound for Pakistan, a hub for nuclear smuggling to rogue nations around the world.

In January, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who helped developed Pakistan's nuclear bomb, confessed to selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. That black market will be a key issue for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell when he travels to Pakistan this week. Despite a probe of Khan's activities that uncovered dozens of middlemen and businesses around the world, very few have been punished for their involvement.

Karni, the 50-year-old Israeli salesman who allegedly ordered the switches from Salem, was an expert at circumventing US export controls, US prosecutors say. His South African company, Top-Cape Technology, often served as a middleman for foreign clients who were banned from buying directly from US firms, according to documents filed in his criminal case.

Karni wrote often by e-mail about how to get around bypass export license requirements, even lamenting the loss of business when the restrictions on the sale of sensitive technology to India and Pakistan were loosened in 2001, according to e-mails submitted as exhibits in his case.

``I have not heard from you in a long time,'' Karni wrote to a man who procures items for India's Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre . ``I guess now that the sanctions are off, you are probably going directly to the manufacturer, but I still think there must be many other opportunities [in] which we can book some orders together.''

In the summer of 2003, Karni was contacted by Humayun Khan , a Pakistani businessman who counts the Pakistani military among his clients.

Humayun Khan, who has no known connection to Abdul Qadeer Khan, allegedly asked Karni to provide him with 200 ``triggered spark gaps'' - enough, specialists say, to detonate three to 10 nuclear bombs.

Karni called companies in Europe, including PerkinElmer's sales agent in France, asking for the items, but was rebuffed, court records said. He wrote back that the sale was not possible because an export license was required.

But Humayun Khan begged him to try again. ``I know it is difficult, but that's why we came to know each other,'' he wrote. ``Please help negotiate with any other source.''

Eyebrows raised in Salem

So Karni approached Zeki Bilmen, of Giza Technologies Inc., a New Jersey-based company that does not face the same purchasing restrictions as a foreign firm. Karni asked Bilmen to buy the switches and ship them to South Africa, where Karni said they were needed at the Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.

Bilmen agreed, even though experts say a hospital would only need five or six triggered spark gaps, at most. Bilmen's lawyer, Robert Herbst, said Giza deals with thousands of products a year and did not know enough about this one to notice that the order was unusual.

In July of 2003, Bilmen placed the order with PerkinElmer Optoelectronics, based in Salem, for 200 triggered spark gaps, model GP-20B, at a price of for $447 each.

But the order - on the magnitude of a military request - raised eyebrows in Salem, where PerkinElmer employs a specialist to monitor the sales and make sure they comply with all regulations.

``It was such a huge quantity. A hospital buys one or two,'' said Daniel Sutherby, a PerkinElmer spokesman. It was the largest such order the company had ever received.

PerkinElmer contacted US officials, who told the company they were already tracking Karni's request, following an anonymous tip from South Africa, according to Sutherby and court documents.

Under the direction of special agents with the Department of Commerce, PerkinElmer moved to fill the order as though nothing was wrong. But before the first shipment of 66 switches was sent to New Jersey in September, PerkinElmer employees permanently disabled the devices.

US investigators tracked the package across three continents, until it arrived a month later at Khan's office in a run-down commercial complex in Islamabad. For the last leg of the journey, the package was labeled ``scientific equipment'' and addressed to the ``AJKMC Lithography Aid Society.'' No public record could be found in Pakistan of such an organization.

David Poole, a special agent with the US Department of Commerce, told the court he thinks the AJKMC Lithography Aid Society is an organization that prints copies of the Koran. In other court documents, US investigators note that ``AJKMC'' are the initials of the ``All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference,'' a Pakistani opposition party that supports extremist fighters in Kashmir, a disputed terroritory between Pakistan and India.

Lack of punishment

In a recent interview with the Globe, Humayun Khan said he had no idea why the package had been shipped to his street address or what AJKMC Lithography is. He also denied ever having seen the package, and insisted said he knew nothing about it.

He acknowledged that he had dealt with Karni before on the attempted purchase of sensors to guide aircraft and wireless communications equipment, but denied buying the switches. He said the flurry of e-mails sent in his name had come from a rogue employee who has since disappeared. Khan said he has been put on a blacklist by the US Commerce Department and is no longer able to import goods from the United States, - a restriction he called rash and unfair.

Karni was arrested Jan. 1 when he flew to the United States for a ski vacation with his family, and was released on bail into the supervision of a Maryland rabbi. His lawyer, Alyza Lewin, declined to comment on his case.

Others accused of involvement in underground nuclear sales to Pakistan have avoided harsh penalties.

Even Abdul Qadeer Khan, who confessed to helping three countries to pursue a nuclear bomb, has been pardoned by Pakistan's president and allowed to keep the money he made from the deals.

Milhollin said the lack of punishment is outrageous because the wares that nuclear smugglers sell threaten the lives of far more people than the act of an ordinary criminal: ``You have to punish those people,'' he said. ``They are basically businessmen. he said. ``They sit down and calculate their risks. If you raise the chances of conviction, they are going to alter their behavior.''

Back at PerkinElmer in Salem, people say many feel their role in solving the case is just part of the business. ``Employees talked about the incident around the water coolers for a day or so,'' Sutherby said. ``But then everyone went back to their daily routines.''

Victoria Burnett reported from Islamabad. Ross Kerber of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.

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