PELINDABA, South Africa — Shortly after midnight on a cold Thursday morning, four armed men sliced through the chain-link fence surrounding this storage site for nuclear explosives on the banks of the Crocodile River, west of the administrative capital, Pretoria.
The raiders slipped under an array of high-voltage wires in the fence, then shut off the electricity and some alarms, stormed the emergency response center at the 118-acre complex, held a gun to the head of one of the employees there and shot another.
Around the same time, a second group of intruders breached another section of the fence. But both teams wound up fleeing after they unexpectedly stumbled on a fireman at the emergency center who fought them while a substitute watch officer summoned help.
Whatever the raiders were after that night in November 2007, they didn’t get it. All they left with was one of their victim’s cell phones, which they quickly discarded. Ever since, the government of South Africa has dismissed the incident as a routine burglary by inept thieves who tried but failed to steal computers or civilian nuclear technology.
Many U.S. officials in Washington reached a different view — more closely matching the conclusions of an unpublicized, independent investigation ordered by the chief of the state corporation that manages Pelindaba. That probe produced an alarming report that has never been released — or even acknowledged — in South Africa, but was obtained by foreign intelligence agencies and described to the Center for Public Integrity by multiple people familiar with its contents.
The author, who formerly worked for Kroll Inc., an international investigations firm, concluded that the raid was a carefully planned operation, that it relied on inside help, that those involved had special training, and that it probably targeted the nuclear explosives. Its leads and recommendations were shared with South African officials.
More than seven years later, no one has been charged with a crime, and no suspects have been identified.
South African opposition parties have demanded a more concerted inquiry, but the ruling African National Congress has brushed the issue aside. Then-Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota told lawmakers in 2008 that the break-in was “a clear criminal act” and a matter for police to pursue.
William H. Tobey, the deputy administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration at the time of the break-in, is among many U.S. experts disturbed by the episode. While he remains uncertain of the raiders’ objectives, he said he was convinced “there was insider participation.” Rather than face the implications of the assault, he said, South African officials are in denial about it.