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Pakistan Caught in a Web of Evidence

By Douglas Frantz, Paul Watson and Mubashir Zaidi Special to The Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's admission that the father of its atomic bomb orchestrated illegal sales of nuclear weapons technology to three countries came in response to intense pressure from the United States and the United Nations (news - web sites).

After years of official denial, the Pakistanis said Sunday that Abdul Qadeer Khan, a revered 66-year-old scientist, and his associates spread the designs and technology to produce nuclear weapons fuel to Iran, North Korea (news - web sites) and Libya.

But the government left a central question unanswered: whether the country's powerful military was involved in selling the nation's nuclear secrets.

U.S. officials, nuclear experts and a former prime minister of Pakistan expressed doubts Monday that Khan and a handful of associates could have circumvented the extraordinary controls on the country's nuclear technology without the military's blessing.

Benazir Bhutto, who served twice as prime minister before being ousted in 1996 in a corruption scandal and going into exile, said she doubted that the technology could have been transferred without the knowledge of senior military officials.

"It is difficult to accept that the scientists could have violated government policy on their own," she said. "Those who violated the policy are now hiding behind the scientists."

Bhutto said she had no knowledge that Pakistan's nuclear program had been breached when she was in office.

But Khan told authorities that he began providing technology to Iran in 1989 — during Bhutto's first term — and Pakistani newspapers have reported that Gen. Aslam Beg, commander of the armed forces at the time, approved the move.

The revelations by Pakistani officials were made only after evidence uncovered by international inspectors and U.S. officials pointed conclusively to their nation's role in aiding the nuclear programs of Iran and Libya.

The disclosures focus new attention on Pakistan's nuclear program, which took off after India exploded its first nuclear bomb 30 years ago.

Among other evidence, inspectors recently discovered blueprints linked to Khan in Iran and Libya and entire centrifuge assemblies in Libya that appear to have been shipped directly from Pakistan, according to diplomats familiar with the international inquiry.

Iranian officials also told the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency that Pakistani scientists had introduced them to a private proliferation network that stretched from Germany to Malaysia, the diplomats said.

The flow of new information and U.S. pressure forced Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to open the investigation that led to Sunday's disclosure that Khan had confessed to sharing nuclear secrets.

Khan signed a 12-page confession in which he admitted providing designs and components for centrifuges, a senior Pakistani official told local reporters in Islamabad.

The official said Khan claimed he was motivated by a desire to ease Western pressure on Pakistan's nuclear program and spread the ultimate weapon to other Muslim countries.

In Washington, a State Department official said the United States was eager to learn whether Khan's proliferation network extended to the military authorities who have long controlled the country's nuclear program.

He said there were concerns that Musharraf might not push for a thorough investigation, fearing he could provoke new threats to his leadership.

Musharraf is a general who took power in a bloodless coup in October 1999. He has cooperated with the U.S. in its declared war on terrorism.

After two recent assassination attempts, he is guarded by an American military team but ultimately depends on the loyalty of other Pakistani military officers for his safety.

Musharraf needs the support of his military to fight rising criticism from nationalists and militant Muslims who believe he has already gone too far in appeasing the United States.

Khan is under a form of house arrest at his home in Islamabad and has been unable to speak to the media.

Family members of nuclear scientists who are being detained for questioning accused the government of making them scapegoats in response to U.S. pressure.

One of those in custody is Mohammed Farooq, who was in charge of foreign procurement for the nuclear program throughout the 1990s. His son Asim said his father was being pressured to testify against Khan even though he had done nothing wrong.

"He's being arrested just because he was close to Dr. Khan," the younger Farooq said.

There have been public demonstrations supporting Khan, and opposition political leaders claimed he and the other scientists were being targeted to prevent repercussions against the country's military leadership.

"The government is trying to wash their hands off by sacrificing people who made the bomb for the country," said Chaudhry Nisar, the leader of an opposition group.

Pakistani officials allege that Khan was driven at least in part by a desire for wealth, a contention that followed recent Pakistani newspaper articles saying the scientist had amassed a fortune in real estate on a meager government salary.

The scenario described by Pakistani officials is that Khan used his position of trust to evade tight security at the country's nuclear installations and disguise his personal proliferation agenda from the military.

"Everybody knew ours was a covert program, and every successive government and security agencies overlooked allegations about Dr. Khan's assets in the interest of the program and because of the trust in this person," a senior official told Pakistani reporters Sunday night.

Pakistan's nuclear program was born in fear and secrecy three decades ago. On May 18, 1974, India detonated its first atomic weapon in the Rajasthani desert about 100 miles from Pakistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of Benazir Bhutto, had launched a nuclear effort in 1972. After the Indian test, he ordered a crash program to match his much larger neighbor.

Khan soon took on a pivotal role. Trained as a metallurgist, he was working for a Dutch engineering firm that was a major subcontractor for a European consortium building an advanced nuclear-fuel-enrichment plant. He was on holiday in Pakistan in 1975 when the prime minister asked him to take charge of Pakistan's uranium-enrichment program.

When Khan agreed, Bhutto "thumped his fist on the table and said, 'I will see the Hindu ****s now,' " according to an account in "India's Nuclear Bomb," a book by George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

A Dutch court convicted Khan of stealing the centrifuge designs from the European consortium, Urenco, and sentenced him in absentia to four years. His conviction was later overturned on a technicality by an appeals court.

Pakistan did not have the technical base to support an atomic development program. So Khan initiated a huge clandestine effort to acquire the components and materials necessary to develop the process to produce fissile material for an atomic weapon. He eventually passed the technology and contacts he used to build Pakistan's program to Iran and Libya, diplomats and intelligence officials said.

Pakistan also lacked the financial resources to build a bomb from scratch. Experts said it turned to fellow Muslim countries for help in creating what would become known as the "Islamic bomb."

"Libya, Saudi Arabia and Iran were primary funders," said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of nuclear physics at Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons.

By the early 1980s, Pakistan was making progress on its bomb.

The extent of U.S. knowledge was laid out in a secret State Department briefing memo dated June 23, 1983.

"There is unambiguous evidence that Pakistan is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program," said the memo, which was declassified and later published by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit group in Washington.

Three years later, Khan boasted in an interview with a Pakistani newspaper that Pakistan had a nuclear bomb.

By most accounts, Pakistani technology was first passed to Iran in 1989.

What remains unclear is who initiated the offer and who profited from it.

Two former senior Pakistani officials said in separate interviews last summer that Beg, the general, secretly offered to sell the technology to Iran. They said Benazir Bhutto, prime minister at the time, blocked the sale after learning of it from an Iranian leader.

Khan has admitted that he began selling technology to Iran in 1989, but the Pakistani officials said he claimed to have stopped two years later.

However, diplomats said the IAEA has evidence of Pakistani assistance to Iran as late as 1996. Relations between the countries soured about that time because of Pakistan's support for the Taliban in Afghanistan (news - web sites). Iran's Shiite Muslim leadership opposed the Taliban's Sunni extremism.

Some intelligence officials and experts said, however, that Pakistani assistance to Iran's covert program continued despite the troubled relations.

In May 1998, Pakistan successfully tested its first atomic weapon. Khan became an overnight hero, dubbed the father of the Islamic bomb.

What was unknown was the extent of his assistance to other countries.

Despite suspicions that its technology had leaked to Iran and North Korea, Pakistani leaders consistently denied providing help to outside nuclear programs.

In an interview with The Times last summer, Musharraf insisted that Pakistan had never provided nuclear help to Iran, before or after he took office.

But hard proof of Pakistan's role in helping Iran began to emerge last year, after IAEA inspectors were permitted into Iran's nuclear facilities. The advanced centrifuge program that they discovered was clearly based on Urenco designs Khan had stolen nearly 30 years earlier, according to diplomats and intelligence officials.

In addition, they said, components of some centrifuges appeared to have come directly from Pakistan. One diplomat said Iran told the IAEA it had complained to Pakistani scientists that some of the machines it had bought did not work properly.

The secret relationship began to unravel further in November. In response to an IAEA demand, Iran turned over a complete history of its nuclear program. Among the information was a list of middlemen and scientists with links to Pakistan and Khan, according to diplomats who have seen the material.

IAEA inspectors and officials have been unable to determine how much Iran paid for the nuclear technology and designs. But two diplomats familiar with the inquiry said that "tens of millions of dollars" were suspected to have been paid to Pakistani scientists and middlemen.

One of the diplomats said some money was funneled back to secret accounts in Pakistan through the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which was founded by a Pakistani and collapsed in 1991 under massive fraud.

A Senate report in 1992 by John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and current presidential candidate, said there was "good reason" to conclude that BCCI helped finance the Pakistani nuclear program. The bank also contributed $17 million to the nuclear research program, according to Perkovich's book.

Some diplomats in Vienna said they suspected the Iranian payments were used to keep Pakistan's nuclear program afloat in the early 1990s, when U.S. sanctions were squeezing the country's finances.

Arms technology rather than money apparently was behind the transfer of centrifuge technology to North Korea, according to interviews with sources in Europe, the U.S. and Asia.

As Pakistan neared completion of its bomb, efforts to develop a delivery system intensified. In late 1993, Khan approached Benazir Bhutto a few days before she was headed to North Korea for a meeting with its leader, Kim Jong Il.

"If you are going to North Korea, it would be very good if you could talk to Kim Jong Il about helping us with this nuclear project," Khan said, according to the two former Pakistani officials.

Khan explained that he wanted designs for long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Bhutto agreed, the officials said, telling aides that she hoped she could reduce the military's pressure on her government by helping Khan. She returned from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, with computer disks containing plans for missiles.

The former officials said Bhutto denied trading nuclear technology for the designs, saying instead that Pakistan paid for them. Later, U.S. intelligence and other sources reported that Pakistani nuclear technology was being traded to North Korea for missiles because Pakistan did not have the money to pay.

The senior Pakistani official said that in his confession, Khan said his dealings with North Korea lasted from the early 1990s to 1997. But U.S. intelligence officials believe transfers were made as recently as 2000.

Libya, on the other hand, appears to have paid substantial sums for Pakistan's centrifuge technology, according to diplomats familiar with the discoveries in the North African country.

"Best guess is that the Libyans paid $40 million or more for centrifuges, components and designs," said a diplomat who has seen documents provided by Libya.

While Iran had withheld some information about its dealings with Pakistan, diplomats said that Libya provided a more comprehensive look at how the network operated and who some of its players were.

The Libyan program started in the early 1990s, using a Pakistani-designed centrifuge known as the G-1. Diplomats familiar with the Libyan disclosures said some of the centrifuges were used and had been flown to Libya from Pakistan.

Later, they said, Libya switched to a more advanced Pakistani centrifuge design, the G-2. Plans for these machines were among the documents provided to U.S. and IAEA officials by the Libyans.

The second-generation machines were being manufactured at a plant in Malaysia through an arrangement made by Khan, according to the diplomats. Components from the plant were intercepted on the way to Libya in October by U.S. authorities.

Details about the Malaysian plant remain sketchy. The Pakistani official told reporters Sunday that a man linked to Khan was in custody in Malaysia and that Khan had admitted meeting with Iranian scientists in Malaysia.

A diplomat in Vienna said the plant was involved in the oil and gas industry and was part of a larger Malaysian company whose name he did not know.

The Pakistani official who described Khan's confession said the nuclear transfers stopped after Musharraf created the National Command Authority to take control of the country's nuclear arsenal in early 2002.

Musharraf is expected to address the country later this week, after the religious holidays. The question now, according to U.S. officials and experts, is whether he will say the investigation will continue or is finished.

"It's incomprehensible to me that there wasn't collusion between these scientists and their superiors, though not necessarily Musharraf himself," said Perkovich, the Carnegie Endowment expert. "But, given that Musharraf and the military run the country, we should be skeptical that the investigation will follow all the leads into the military."

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Fortunately, the Bush Admin has been building ties with the Indian government. Unfortunate for me personally becasue so much of what they do is so far behind, it's gonna take a lot of time and effort to bring them up to speed. but maybe when all is said and done, we can help them flush out Pakistan.

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Guest SkinsHokie Fan

ATB- I am convinced that India and Pakistan will never hammer out a permanent deal on Kashmir no matter the moves being made.

Both defense institutions in that country have a huge stake in this ongoing dispute. If Kashmir is solved and India and Pakistan begin to normalize relations that pretty much kills any need for a military in either country. I guess India is worried about China since that is what they said when they tested their A-Bomb.

And quite honestly I am surprised it took this long for the rest of the world to catch on to Dr. Khan. I got to meet him in 1998 (about a month after the tit for tat tests in the subcontinent) and he seemed like a real nice man. But my dad's uncle who works in the Pakistani nuclear establishment told me about his bussines' and what not I was a little surprised he was able to afford the lavish life he had while my great uncle was living the life of an ordinary middle class citizen. And knowing that Pakistan was idioticly propping up the Taliban at the time (and probably still is) I figured something was up with Dr. Khan.

I would be absolutley shocked if Kashmir is peacefully solved within the next 50 years. Its because of Kashmir that I hate the U.N and its lack of teeth and it absolutley demonstrates the U.N's limited ability. But having it solved without war makes me laugh to be honest.

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SHF, you're such a buzz-kill. :)

I sincerely hope you're wrong about Kashmir. I realize what a great stake both countries have in it, but with the proposed South Asian Free-Trade Zone looming on the horizon, suddenly it doesn't seem to outrageous to have a potentially autonomous area that is primed for an economic boom and would attract millions of dollars annually in tourism. Meanwhile, the reduction in military spending would ease the tax burden significantly in both countries, allowing for accelerated economic growth.

If Pakistan really does quit its sponsoring of terrorism in Kashmir--and, furthermore, takes significant steps towards reducing the terrorist base in its own country--then India may be willing to listen.


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Guest SkinsHokie Fan

ATB- I love the optismism you have and I hope that I am wrong. Nothing would please me more then to see those two countries have a normal relationship. The situation is so awful.

One interesting thing is India's defense budget is greater then Pakistan's overall government budget. And India has more Muslims then Pakistan does.

It would take a few generations of good will to be established. As Sarge said this is a long long story just like Isreal and Palestine (ironic that the UN f'd up on both these hot spots in the late 1940s)

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Yes, the UN was a disaster in Kashmir, and that contributes to my contempt for that organization.

I've lived in both India and Pakistan, and I have Muslim and Hindu relatives in both countries (well, no Hindu relatives in Pakistan :)). India has the second highest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia, yet apart from a bomb blast once in a while, we don't really see much Islamic fundamentalism there. I would think that the Muslim violence we've seen in recent years has been dwarfed by aggressive acts by Hindu nationalists. Now that the BJP is becoming more mainstream, it's beginning to shed its ultra-"patriotic", chest-thumping, inflammatory rhetoric. This is a good thing.

Sarge, I appreciate that you might be privy to a lot of military information that I have no access to regarding India and Pakistan, but I can claim a broad base of knowledge of both countries, both culturally and politically. I see hope, and so do many others. The defense organizations are vested in promoting aggression, but the common people, for the most part, are sick of living in fear and tension.

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Guest SkinsHokie Fan

ATB I do agree that the common people are sick of living under tension and fear. When my mother was in Karachi in May one thing she said was there is sentiment among academics and other more educated peoplethat Kashmir just may not be worth it.

If this opinion begins to swell we could see significant progress. Right now however I need to see something, something concrete from both sides. Pakistan could stop infiltration. India could agree to 3rd party mediation. That would be a start.

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Sarge, it was Maharaja Hari Singh that ruled Kashmir at the time of Partition. He was given a choice of acceding to India or Pakistan, or remaining independent. Internal chaos and a Pakistani uprising made him accede to India, which immediately sent in troops.

The Indian government forced him out in 1949 and replaced him with the popular Muslim leader Sheikh Abdullah.

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