Pakistan’s Role in Scientist’s Nuclear Trafficking Debated
In the fall of 2000, Pakistani intelligence agents followed the country’s most influential nuclear scientist as he flew to the Persian Gulf port of Dubai.
Abdul Qadeer Khan, acclaimed as the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, was under surveillance as he met with men described by a former senior Pakistani military officer as “dubious characters.”
Rumors had persisted for years that Khan was selling atomic secrets, but Pakistani intelligence was on his trail for another reason. His unauthorized trip violated new rules imposed by President Pervez Musharraf to assert government control over Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons laboratory, which Khan ran as his fiefdom.
Upon Khan’s return to Pakistan from the United Arab Emirates city, Musharraf warned the scientist to obey the rules. When Khan persisted in his travels, he was forced to retire. But the investigation went no further.
Khan’s secret life in Dubai and beyond is the subject of a meticulous international inquiry tracing a black market in nuclear technology that stretched over 15 years and three continents.
Investigators have concluded that Khan masterminded a hugely profitable network that provided uranium enrichment equipment to Iran and North Korea, countries whose nuclear ambitions are now causing global anxieties. Libya paid the ring an estimated $100 million for atomic warhead designs and plans for a complete bomb factory before giving up its program.
After more than a year of investigation, one of the crucial unsolved mysteries is whether Khan could have run his network without the knowledge, and possibly the connivance, of Pakistani military and political leaders. The answer is vital to discovering not only the full scope of Khan’s trafficking, but whether Pakistan has adequate safeguards to protect its arsenal of 30 to 50 atomic weapons.
Interviews in the Middle East, Europe and the United States with former Pakistani government and military officials, international investigators and Western diplomats show that warnings about Khan’s illicit trafficking were ignored by a succession of Pakistani political leaders and military strongmen.
Neither Musharraf nor his predecessors fully investigated Khan despite years of accusations from U.S. officials and international media, Khan’s visible accumulation of enormous wealth and the significance of his dealings in Dubai.
His crucial role in building an atomic bomb to match India’s was deemed more important than controlling his activities. And over the years, Khan had orchestrated a publicity campaign that made him so popular that he was virtually untouchable. The decision to turn a blind eye gave Khan extraordinary freedom.
“The military knew that Khan’s orders came from the very top and that it was state policy to get the bomb, by hook or by crook,” said the former senior Pakistani military officer who was involved in nuclear oversight and spoke on condition of anonymity. “He delivered what we all thought was impossible, and that was what mattered.”
International investigators say they might never learn exactly who knew what in Pakistan. Neither the United States nor the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, has been allowed to interrogate Khan, who was pardoned by Musharraf after a televised confession in February 2004 and remains under house arrest in Islamabad, the capital.
Musharraf has maintained that Khan ran the illegal trade without government knowledge. Former and current aides to Musharraf argue that until late 2003, there was no proof that Khan was selling to other countries the same technology he was acquiring on the black market to build Pakistan’s bomb.
An Anti-Extremism Ally
The Bush administration, which regards Musharraf as an ally in the fight against Islamic extremism, has not pressed for access to Khan. U.S. officials have said they are satisfied with the Pakistani president’s assurances.
To outside nuclear experts, it defies logic that a scientist as prominent and privy to secrets as Khan could travel freely, operate outside security restrictions and ship sensitive technology overseas for years without attracting official scrutiny.
“What he did was simply impossible without the full cooperation of people outside his laboratory,” said Michael May, director emeritus of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a U.S. nuclear weapons facility in California. “It’s inconceivable to me that he had this broad global network without people knowing about it, even Musharraf.”
Until Washington and the IAEA provided evidence to Pakistan in 2003, Khan parried accusations about his activities by saying he was the victim of a U.S. smear campaign for making Pakistan a nuclear power. The argument resonated among government officials and commanders who viewed the U.S. as a fickle ally that favored India.
Khan’s trip to Dubai three years earlier offered a golden opportunity for Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency and Musharraf, a general who had seized power in 1999, to get to the bottom of his activities.
Investigators and IAEA reports said Khan had shifted his base of operations to the United Arab Emirates city to coordinate the huge order from Libya for an off-the-shelf nuclear weapons plant. He traveled there often to meet with suppliers and Libyan officials, and he even maintained a luxury apartment in a fashionable neighborhood.
Musharraf set the stage for a potential crackdown early in his tenure when he created a military unit to enforce uniform controls on the country’s nuclear weapons installations, including Khan’s laboratory.
The former senior military officer said that, with Pakistan having achieved its goal of becoming a nuclear power, Musharraf was determined to see the elimination of financially damaging international sanctions that followed the nation’s 1998 nuclear tests. That meant regaining control of Khan and his laboratory.
“It was time to stop this dirty business,” said the ex-officer, who clashed with Khan several times after Musharraf began trying to limit the scientist’s activities.
Khan refused to answer questions about suspicious transactions at his laboratory or report his travels and meetings with foreigners. At meetings of senior officials, including Musharraf, he complained openly about the restrictions, according to two participants in the sessions. His determination to not alter his behavior became clear when Musharraf received the Inter-Services Intelligence agency report on Khan’s trip to Dubai in late 2000.
The president summoned the scientist to his office and confronted him with the evidence, according to the ex-military officer. Khan argued that ISI had no business following him, but he assured the president that he had gone to Dubai only to finalize the sale of 50 shoulder-fired antiaircraft rockets manufactured by his laboratory for a Middle Eastern country.
Musharraf, whose grip on power was tenuous, was wary of Khan’s popularity and unconcerned about his trade in anti-aircraft rockets. He accepted the explanation, admonishing him to abide by the new restrictions.
Khan was undeterred. Within weeks, intelligence agents reported spotting him back in Dubai with another suspicious group of men.
Musharraf had heard enough. In late March 2001, a month before Khan’s 65th birthday, the president forced him to retire as director of the laboratory and barred him from the facility that carried his name: Khan Research Laboratories. Musharraf softened the blow by naming him to a Cabinet-level position as a presidential advisor and permitting him to travel freely. But that’s where the investigation ended.
The previously undisclosed confrontation was described by the former senior officer and confirmed by a second retired Pakistani officer, both still aligned with Musharraf, on condition that their names and ranks be withheld. They said they would face government retaliation if they were identified.
The conventional wisdom has been that Musharraf removed Khan in response to U.S. pressure. But the ex-officers said the scientist was demoted because he resisted the new procedures. They said the punishment was sufficient because the president was unaware of Khan’s nuclear trafficking.
“It was happening right under our noses and we didn’t know,” the former senior officer said. “We got what we wanted -- a bomb. We knew that he was using these dubious characters, greedy suppliers in Europe and other places, but this was in our military interest. So some dirty acts were allowed to go on.”
A ‘Nuclear Wal-Mart’
The question remains whether anyone in authority wanted to know what else Khan was doing as he scoured the world for equipment for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, creating what IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has called a “nuclear Wal-Mart.”
Never examining Khan’s activities very closely gave Pakistani leaders plausible deniability in case he was discovered.
“If Pakistani officials didn’t recognize that there was a problem here, it’s because they didn’t want to recognize it,” said Scott D. Sagan, co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. “This is a damning indictment of their processes, and that’s the best scenario.”
Khan’s freedom had its origins in Pakistan’s race to match India in developing nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto launched Islamabad’s program in 1972, but the military took over in 1977 after Bhutto was deposed by Gen. Zia ul-Haq.
Pakistan was under international sanctions aimed at stopping it from building nuclear weapons, so Khan was given an open account to buy what he needed on the black market. The clandestine nature of the transactions meant that most were done in cash.
Khan, a metallurgist, had a ready blueprint. He had worked in Europe for a consortium that enriched uranium for civilian nuclear reactors. When he abruptly returned to Pakistan in 1975, he brought plans for centrifuge machines and other technology to enrich uranium, along with a list of European suppliers. Military engineers built a laboratory for Khan at Kahuta, about 30 miles southeast of Islamabad.
Khan’s style of work would prove essential to his later trafficking. Former government officials said he refused to permit auditing of the laboratory’s books, dispatched shipments on his own signature and reported directly to the prime minister. Top scientists were paid double what their peers made at Pakistan’s other nuclear installations.
New information from the two former officers shows that laboratory security was firmly under Khan’s control too. They said the army officers who monitored the laboratory and its employees were paid by Khan, not the military, and that many of them stayed there after retiring.
Khan ensured his freedom of operation by delivering what he promised. Senior Pakistani military officers said Kahuta was enriching uranium to weapons grade by 1984 and that Pakistan could have detonated a nuclear bomb as early as 1986, a view supported by U.S. intelligence reports. Pakistan’s first nuclear tests occurred May 28, 1998, 17 days after India exploded its own bombs.
Though much of the work was done by other scientists at a competing laboratory, Khan emerged as a heroic symbol of defiance of India and the West. He also had grown rich, which he never bothered to hide. Few saw it as a red flag in a country where official corruption is not uncommon.
“People assumed that he was skimming from his purchases of equipment for Pakistan’s atomic program, and that was viewed as almost his right because he was a hero who had delivered the bomb,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani government official and the author of an upcoming book, “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military.”
Much of Khan’s wealth came from selling nuclear expertise and technology. The IAEA reported last year that Khan received $3 million in cash from Iran for enrichment equipment in 1994. Investigators have since tracked more large payments to accounts in bank-secrecy havens across Europe.
At the time ISI followed Khan to Dubai, its investigators also informed Musharraf that the scientist had accounts containing millions of dollars and owned seven houses in Islamabad, one of the former officers said.
Iran’s Early Designs
Iran, which the U.S. accuses of pursuing nuclear weapons, is threatening to create an international diplomatic crisis by resuming uranium enrichment at plants whose initial designs and equipment were procured through Khan’s network.
Tehran was Khan’s first known customer, and the history of that relationship demonstrates the difficulty of determining who in Pakistan knew of Khan’s trafficking. The two countries signed a pact to cooperate on nuclear energy in 1987 and Iranian scientists trained at Pakistani civilian installations, according to a 1992 report by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights advocacy group.
In 1989, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani told Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto that Pakistani generals had offered to share nuclear weapons technology with Iran, according to two former high-level Pakistani officials who were privy to the conversation.
The two officials said in separate interviews in 2003 that Rafsanjani was looking for Bhutto’s blessing for a deal that he said had been initiated by Gen. Aslam Beg, commander of the Pakistani armed forces from 1988 to 1991.
Bhutto told both Rafsanjani and Beg that she objected, the former officials said.
Beg said in a recent telephone interview that he had initiated several joint defense projects with Tehran and that he had favored closer ties to Iran to counter U.S. influence. But he denied authorizing anyone to transfer Pakistan’s nuclear expertise to Iran.
“I have not been part of any illicit activity where we could pass on any nuclear technology to anyone else,” Beg said. “Nuclear technology was not in my domain. It was under A. Q. Khan and the political leaders.”
Bhutto, who lives in exile in London and Dubai, has said the military retained control of the nuclear program while she was prime minister. Historians and political analysts say the military has been the dominant political influence in Pakistan since the nation’s creation in 1947.
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Henry S. Rowen said Beg threatened to provide nuclear weapons technology to Iran in January 1990. The incident was first reported by Associated Press last year and confirmed by Rowen in a recent interview.
Rowen said he was in Pakistan trying to calm relations between New Delhi and Islamabad when he told Beg that the U.S. might have to cut off aid to Pakistan because of its nuclear program.
“In the midst of our conversation, he said that Pakistan might be forced to share its nuclear technology with Iran,” said Rowen, now a professor at Stanford University. “I didn’t take it all that seriously, though I told him if that were to happen, Pakistan would be in terrible trouble with the United States.”
Beg said he did not recall such a conversation with Rowen.
There is evidence that Pakistan offered Iran nuclear technology and know-how even before the meeting between Bhutto and Rafsanjani. In March of this year, an IAEA official said that middlemen affiliated with Khan had met with Iranian officials in Dubai in 1987 and had offered to sell enrichment technology and designs for an atomic weapon. Iran said its officials had turned down the offer of weapons designs but had agreed to buy equipment for centrifuges to enrich uranium and a list of potential suppliers.
“Khan might have had meetings in 1987 [with Iranians] we know now, but it was when Beg came to power that A. Q. Khan got his green light to deal with Iran,” said a former Pakistani official who had access to records of the internal investigation of Khan’s activities.
Iran received undisclosed shipments of centrifuges, components, designs and other help from Pakistan until the mid-1990s, according to IAEA reports. Much of the equipment came directly from Khan’s laboratory.
A Deal for Missiles
Khan’s transactions with North Korea also appear to have roots in a deal sanctioned initially by his government.
Bhutto has acknowledged buying designs for missiles at Khan’s request during a visit to North Korea in late 1993. At the time, Khan’s laboratory was developing missiles to carry nuclear warheads. It came to rely heavily on North Korean designs.
U.S. intelligence officials said Khan’s relationship with North Korea changed when Pakistan ran short of cash in the late 1990s. They said he traded advanced centrifuge technology to North Korea for more help with missiles. The North Korean assistance led to the development of the Ghauri missiles, which are part of Pakistan’s nuclear delivery system.
North Korea is thought to currently have enough weapons-grade plutonium for five to eight bombs, though the technology involved was not provided by Khan. Concern is mounting that it is about to conduct an underground nuclear test.
But U.S. officials also say the North Koreans are developing a second method for producing atomic weapons, based on uranium enrichment technology from Khan.
To many experts, Khan’s trade with North Korea stands out as the clearest evidence that the Pakistani military knew at least something about his nuclear trafficking.
“They can’t say that this was a guy out on his own and we were shocked when we learned that he was doing this,” said George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
While acknowledging Khan’s sales to Iran and Libya, Musharraf and other senior Pakistani officials deny that North Korea received nuclear technology. They say Pakistan paid for the North Korean help.
“The money was on the books,” said the former senior military officer. “Unless Khan kept the money for himself and gave North Korea nuclear equipment instead, we paid for it.”
Tracking the proceeds from Khan’s nuclear commerce has proved difficult, according to international investigators. Some records were intentionally destroyed, and huge sums disappeared into a labyrinth of bank accounts in Dubai, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.
Pakistani officials acknowledged that profits from sales of antiaircraft rockets and other conventional weapons designed by Khan Research Laboratories have helped finance the facility’s nuclear research.
Perkovich and others suspect that a portion of the trafficking proceeds went into the laboratory’s coffers too. But no one has offered proof, and as with many aspects of Khan’s clandestine activities, it remains an open question.
Khan has not appeared in public since his televised confession. He is not allowed to use a telephone, read a newspaper or watch television, although he may swim once a day in his pool.
Two former laboratory security chiefs, an army major and a brigadier general, were among 11 people investigated by Pakistani authorities in addition to Khan. Of these others, only Mohammed Farooq, a senior scientist at KRL, remains in custody.
“Unfortunately, the entire proliferation took place under the orders and patronage of Dr. A. Q. Khan,” reads a transcript of the closed briefing Musharraf gave Pakistani journalists hours before Khan’s mea culpa. “I can say with certainty that no government official or military personnel were involved.”
Pakistani journalists close to Khan have said he claims that Beg and others approved his sales of nuclear technology.
A former Pakistani official and the former senior Pakistani officer both said outside investigators would never be allowed to question Khan because he knows too many secrets and for fear of what he might say, true or not.
“He might name names, he might say that Gen. Beg authorized his activities,” the former senior officer said. “It would create a problem that Pakistan does not need.”