Pakistanis sold nuclear secrets
By William J. Broad, David Rohde
and David E. Sanger
WASHINGTON, The New York Times
A lengthy investigation of the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb,
Abdul Qadeer Khan, by American and European intelligence agencies
and international nuclear inspectors has forced Pakistani officials
to question his aides and openly confront evidence that the country
was the source of crucial technology to enrich uranium for Iran,
North Korea and possibly other nations.
Until the past few weeks, Pakistani
officials had denied evidence that the A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories,
named for the man considered a national hero, had ever been a source
of weapons technology to countries aspiring to acquire fissile material.
Now they are backing away from those denials, while insisting that
there has been no transfer of nuclear technology since President
Pervez Musharraf took power four years ago.
Dr. Khan, a metallurgist who was
charged with stealing European designs for enriching uranium a quarter
century ago, has not yet been questioned. American and European
officials say he is the centerpiece of their investigation, but
that General Musharraf's government has been reluctant to take him
on because of his status and deep ties to the country's military
and intelligence services. A senior Pakistani official said in an
interview that "any individual who is found associated with
anything suspicious would be under investigation," and promised
a sweeping inquiry.
Pakistan's role in providing centrifuge
designs to Iran, and the possible involvement of Dr. Khan in such
a transfer, was reported Sunday by The Washington Post. Other suspected
nuclear links between Pakistan and Iran have been reported in previous
weeks by other news organizations.
An investigation conducted by The
New York Times during the past two months, in Washington, Europe
and Pakistan, showed that American and European investigators are
interested in what they describe as Iran's purchase of nuclear centrifuge
designs from Pakistan 16 years ago, largely to force the Pakistani
government to face up to a pattern of clandestine sales by its nuclear
engineers and to investigate much more recent transfers.
Those include shipments in the late
1990's to facilities in North Korea that American intelligence agencies
are still trying to locate, in hopes of gaining access to them.
New questions about Pakistan's role
have also been raised by Libya's decision on Friday to reveal and
dismantle its unconventional weapons, including centrifuges and
thousands of centrifuge parts. A senior American official said this
weekend that Libya had shown visiting American and British intelligence
officials "a relatively sophisticated model of centrifuge,"
which can be used to enrich uranium for bomb fuel.
A senior European diplomat with
access to detailed intelligence said Sunday that the Libyan program
had "certain common elements" with the Iranian program
and with the pattern of technology leakage from Pakistan to Iran.
The C.I.A. declined to say over the weekend what country appeared
to be Libya's primary source. "It looks like an indirect transfer,"
said one official. "It will take a while to trace it back."
There are also investigations under
way to determine if Pakistani technology has spread elsewhere in
the Middle East and Asia, but so far the evidence involves largely
the exchange of scientists with countries including Myanmar. There
have been no confirmed reports of additional technology transfers,
intelligence officials say.
The Pakistani action to question
Dr. Khan's associates was prompted by information Iran turned over
two months ago to the International Atomic Energy Agency, under
pressure to reveal the details of a long-hidden nuclear program.
But even before Iran listed its suppliers to the I.A.E.A.
five individuals and a number of companies from around the world
a British expert who accompanied agency inspectors into Iran
earlier this year identified Iranian centrifuges as being identical
to the early models that the Khan laboratories had modified from
European designs. "They were Pak-1's," said one senior
official who later joined the investigation, saying that they were
transferred to Iran in 1987.
Pakistani officials said the sales
to Iran might have occurred in the 1980's during the rule of the
last American-backed military ruler, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. They
acknowledge questioning three scientists: Mohammed Farooq, Yasin
Chohan and a man believed to be named Sayeed Ahmad, all close aides
to Dr. Khan.
A senior Pakistani intelligence
official said Mr. Farooq was in charge of dealing with foreign suppliers
at the Khan laboratory, run by Dr. Khan until he was forced into
retirement partly at American insistence in the spring
of 2001. At the laboratory, where much of the work was done that
led to Pakistan's successful nuclear tests in 1998 and its deployment
of dozens of nuclear weapons, Mr. Chohan was in charge of metallurgical
research, according to senior Pakistani officials.
Contacted by telephone last week,
relatives of Mr. Farooq said he was still being questioned. Mr.
Chohan's family said Sunday that Mr. Chohan had been released and
was at home.
Pakistani officials have insisted
in that if their scientists and engineers had done anything wrong,
it was without government approval. They said their bank accounts
and real estate holdings were also being investigated. A senior
Bush administration official, while declining to comment on what
was learned when Pakistani officials questioned the men, said that
all three had been "well known to our intelligence folks."
Another official said the United States had steered Pakistani officials
to the three, in hopes it would further pressure Dr. Khan.
Dr. Khan declined several requests
in November for an interview, routed through his secretary and his
official biographer, Zahid Malik. However, Mr. Malik relayed a statement
from Dr. Khan that he had never traveled to Iran. "He said,
`I have never been there in my life.' " A European confidante
of Dr. Khan's, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the
Pakistani scientist put the blame for transfers on a Middle Eastern
businessman who he said was supplying Pakistan with centrifuge parts
and, on his own, double-ordered the same components to sell to Iran.
"There is evidence he is innocent," the confidante said
of Dr. Khan in an interview. "I don't think he is lying, but
not perhaps telling the whole truth."
Iran has insisted that all of its
centrifuges were built purely for peaceful purposes, and last week
it signed an agreement to allow deeper inspections.
But for 18 years Iran hid the centrifuge
operations from the agency's inspectors.
In Pakistan, the disclosure of the
investigation is already complicating the political position of
General Musharraf, who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt
a week ago. An alliance of hard-line Islamic political parties has
already assailed him for questioning the scientists, saying the
inquiry shows he is a puppet of the United States.
Any attack on Dr. Khan, hailed as
the creator of the first "Islamic bomb," is likely to
be seized by the Islamist parties as a major political issue. Many
Pakistanis opposed the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and
Iraq, as well as what is seen as the United States' one-sided support
of Israel. Many also perceive the United States as trying to dominate
the Muslim world and through pressure on the nuclear scientists,
to contain its power.
While General Musharraf was responsible
for sidelining Dr. Khan nearly three years ago, he has also praised
him. When the nuclear and military establishments of Pakistan gathered
for a formal dinner early in 2001 to honor Dr. Khan's retirement,
General Musharraf described him this way, according to a transcript
of his speech in a Pakistani archive: "Dr. Khan and his team
toiled and sweated, day and night, against all odds and obstacles,
against international sanctions and sting operations, to create,
literally out of nothing, with their bare hands, the pride of Pakistan's
European and American officials
have a different view of Dr. Khan, from his work from 1972 to 1975
in the Netherlands at a centrifuge plant, Urenco.
At the plant, Dr. Khan gained access
to centrifuge designs that were extremely sensitive, records from
a later investigation show. Suddenly, around 1976, Dr. Khan quit
and returned to Pakistan. Not long after, Western investigators
say, Pakistan started an atom bomb program that eventually began
to enrich uranium with centrifuges based on a stolen Dutch design.
Investigators in the Netherlands
found a letter he wrote in the summer of 1976, after having returned
to Pakistan, to Frits Veerman, a technician friend at the plant.
"I ask you in great confidence to help us," Dr. Khan wrote,
according to an article by David Albright, a nuclear expert, in
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "This is absolutely
Dr. Khan asked for help on how to
etch special grooves on a Dutch centrifuge's bottom bearing, a critical
part. The grooves were to aid the flow of lubricants. He also asked
if Mr. Veerman might like to vacation in Pakistan "and earn
some money at the same time?"
Suspicious, Mr. Veerman gave the
letter to officials at Urenco. It was eventually used against Dr.
Khan when he was put on trial in absentia in the Netherlands. In
1983, he was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing nuclear
secrets. The conviction was later overturned, however, on a legal
By 1986, American intelligence had
concluded that Pakistan was making weapons-grade uranium. And Dr.
Khan was making no secret of his expertise: he published two articles
that advertised his knowledge. He did so, he wrote, "because
most of the work is shrouded in the clouds of the so-called secrecy"
controlled by Western nuclear powers.
At around the same time, Iran made
its secret deal and obtained basic centrifuge designs, the ones
that now bear Pakistan's technological signature.
But it was in the mid- to late 1990's,
as American sanctions tightened, that Pakistan made its biggest
deal with North Korea, American intelligence officials have
said. Though Pakistan continues to deny any role, the laboratories
are believed to have been the centerpiece of a barter arrangement
of nuclear technology for missiles. South Korean intelligence agents
discovered the transactions in 2002 and passed the information to
the C.I.A. In the summer of that year, American spy satellites recorded
a Pakistani C-130 loading North Korean missile parts in North Korea.
Earlier this year the State Department
barred American transactions with the Khan laboratory because of
the missile deal.
Pakistani officials say that since
Dr. Khan's retirement, he has no longer been officially affiliated
with the laboratory that bears his name. Still, one former Pakistani
military official described him as a proud nationalist who saw himself
as a Robin Hood-like character outwitting rich nations and aiding
poor ones. Dr. Khan, he said, "was not that sort that would
think it was a bad thing" to share nuclear weapons technology.
"In fact, he would think it was a good thing."
David Rohde reported from Pakistan and Boston. William J. Broad
and David E. Sanger reported from Vienna, New York and Washington.
Pakistan Questions Top Atomic Scientist
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: December 23, 2003