Father of Pakistani Bomb Sold Nuclear Secrets

Karen Yourish and Delano D'Souza

In a dramatic television appearance Feb. 4, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb, acknowledged that during the past two decades he had secretly provided North Korea, Libya, and Iran with crucial technological and intellectual building blocks for making nuclear weapons. Khan, considered a national hero, apologized to the people of Pakistan for what he had done and was pardoned by Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf shortly afterward.

At a time when U.S. and British intelligence agencies are under scrutiny for the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President George W. Bush is touting the breakup of Khan’s network—believed to span some half-dozen countries—as a victory for the intelligence services.

In a speech Feb. 11 at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., Bush reported that the picture of Khan’s network was pieced together over several years by U.S. and British intelligence officers, who gradually uncovered the network’s reach and identified key agents and money men. Bush said operatives monitored the travel of Khan and his senior associates, shadowed members of the network, recorded their conversations, and penetrated their operations. “We’ve uncovered their secrets,” the president stated, “and all Americans can be grateful for the hard work and the dedication of our fine intelligence professionals.”

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, told reporters Feb. 5 that the Khan case “raises more questions than it answers” and that cracking the case of the Pakistani scientist represents only “the tip of an iceberg” in the wider global nuclear black market. “We need to know who supplied what, when, to whom,” ElBaradei stressed. “Dr. Khan was not working alone.” In an op-ed published in The New York Times Feb. 13, ElBaradei underlined the need for urgent action to toughen the world’s nonproliferation regime to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and called for strengthening export controls and accelerating movement toward nuclear disarmament.

The disclosure of Khan’s network comes amid some progress in relations between India and Pakistan. In the first formal peace talks between the two countries in more than two years, officials from India and Pakistan met in Islamabad Feb. 16 and 17 to lay out a timetable for moving forward with a “composite dialogue” aimed at resolving a number of sticky issues, including the bitter controversy over the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir. That dispute has helped plunge the two countries into three wars and repeated threats of war since the partition of the subcontinent more than 50 years ago, including crises in 1999 and 2002 that raised fears of an atomic exchange between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

The Indian government has been relatively silent on the revelations about Khan’s network. When questioned by Arms Control Today, a spokesperson for the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on the affair and instead pointed to an article published in the Hindustan Times Feb. 14 that stated, “In a way, the Khan episode is a vindication of the Indian stance (since the 1980s) that Pakistan’s nuclear program is, as it always was, a clandestine venture. But even in its state of alarm, the world community, notably the United States, is tending to be soft on the system which jeopardized international security by sponsoring terrorism and selling nuclear technology.”

On Feb. 23, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made his first public comments about the Khan network, stating during a news conference in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, “We hope that under the guidance of the United Nations a system will be developed to prevent such clandestine transfer of nuclear capability….It is a serious issue. We are taking whatever steps necessary on the security front.”

In pointing to Khan, the White House has avoided criticizing Musharraf or the Pakistani government—key allies in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and the effort to dismantle the Al Qaeda terrorist organization. They have neither complained about Musharraf’s decision to pardon Khan nor raised public questions about the extent to which the Pakistani government or military were involved in the illicit network. “The government of Pakistan is interrogating the network’s members, learning critical details that will help them prevent it from ever operating again,” Bush noted. “President Musharraf has promised to share all the information he learns about the Khan network and has assured us that his country will never again be a source of proliferation.”

In his speech, Bush said Khan was the illegal network’s “leading scientific mind as well as its primary salesman.” The Pakistani scientist made frequent trips to consult with his clients, selling blueprints for centrifuges to enrich uranium and uranium hexafluoride—an essential raw material. Although low-enriched uranium is used in civilian nuclear reactors, highly enriched uranium can be used in making nuclear weapons.

Bush said that Khan and his associates provided Iran, Libya, and North Korea with designs for Pakistan’s older centrifuges, as well as designs for more advanced and efficient models. The network also provided these countries with components and in some cases with complete centrifuges. Khan and his associates used a factory in Malaysia to manufacture key parts for centrifuges, Bush said. Other necessary parts were purchased through network operatives based in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, who set up front companies to fool legitimate firms into selling them materials.

There is some disagreement over when the United States began providing Pakistan with information about illegal nuclear activities. According to Department of State spokesperson Richard Boucher, the United States has had “long-standing concerns” about nuclear proliferation from Pakistan and has provided the country with information about those activities for years. However, in an interview published Feb. 10 in The New York Times, Musharraf said Washington had not provided evidence until October 2003.

“Certainly, our nonproliferation dialogue with Pakistan goes back much farther than [October],” Boucher said. He also praised Pakistan for taking “this matter seriously over time…and what they’re doing to make sure that Pakistan is not a source of proliferation.”

Musharraf said he first heard about suspicions that Khan was sharing information with other countries in February 2000.