NY Times
December 22, 2003

 

Inquiry Suggests Pakistanis Sold Nuclear Secrets
By WILLIAM J. BROAD, DAVID ROHDE and DAVID E. SANGER

WASHINGTON, Dec. 21 — 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 nuclear capability."

 

 

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 urgent."

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 technicality.

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."

 

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ISBN 90-5087-027-9

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