Pakistan backs off on nuclear aid denials

Posted in Broader Middle East , Terrorism | 02-Jan-04 | Author: David Sanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

William Broad and David Rohde

Inquiry promised on possible help for North Korea and Iran

WASHINGTON - A lengthy investigation of the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, by U.S. and European intelligence agencies and international nuclear inspectors has forced Pakistani officials to question his aides and openly confront evidence that their country was the source of technology to enrich uranium for Iran, North Korea and 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 gain nuclear weapons. 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.

Khan, a metallurgist who was charged with stealing European designs for enriching uranium a quarter of a century ago, has not yet been questioned. U.S. and European officials say that he is the centerpiece of their investigation, but that 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 Khan in such a transfer, was reported on 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 by The New York Times over the past two months in Washington, Europe and Pakistan showed that U.S. 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 clandestine sales by its nuclear engineers and to investigate more recent transfers.

Those include shipments in the late 1990's to facilities in North Korea that U.S. 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 U.S. official said this weekend that Libya had shown visiting U.S. 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 CIA declined to say this weekend what country appeared to be Libya's primary technological source.

"It looks like an indirect transfer," said one senior official. "It will take a while to trace it back."

The Pakistani action to question 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 nuclear program the country had long hidden from inspectors.

But even before Iran listed its suppliers to the agency - five individuals and a number of companies from around the world - a British expert who accompanied agency inspectors into Iran this year identified Iranian centrifuges as identical to the early models that the Khan laboratories had modified from European designs. "They were Pak-1's," said a senior official who later joined the investigation, saying that they had been transferred to Iran in 1987.

Pakistani officials said the sales to Iran may have occurred in the 1980's, during the rule of General 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 Khan. A senior Bush administration official, while declining to comment on what Pakistani interrogators had learned from the men, said all three had been "well known to our intelligence folks."

Khan declined several requests for an interview in November, routed through his secretary and his official biographer, Zahid Malik. However, Malik relayed a statement from Khan that he had never traveled to Iran: "He said, 'I have never been there in my life.'" Malik did not ask Khan about the 13 trips he is said to have made to North Korea.

A close European associate of Khan's said Khan put the blame for transfers on a Middle Eastern businessman who he said was supplying Pakistan with centrifuge parts and double-ordered the same components to sell to Iran.

"There is evidence he is innocent," the associate said of Khan in an interview. "I don't think he is lying, but not perhaps telling the whole truth."

The disclosure of the investigation in Pakistan is touchy for 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 Khan, who is 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 oppose the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as what is seen as its 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 Musharraf was responsible for sidelining Khan nearly three years ago, he has also praised him. At a formal dinner early in 2001 to honor Khan's retirement, 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."

Khan, he continued, "gave Pakistan its first-ever fissile material in the form of highly enriched uranium, and thereby leveled the scores with India." He added that Khan and the workers at his laboratory had "made Islamic nations proud."

European and American officials have a different view of Khan, from his work from 1972 to 1975 in the Netherlands at a centrifuge plant. The plant was the Dutch arm of the European uranium enrichment consortium called Urenco, formed in 1971 by Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.

At the plant, Khan gained access to centrifuge designs that were extremely sensitive, records from a later investigation show. Suddenly, around 1976, Khan quit and returned to Pakistan. Not long thereafter, Western investigators say, Pakistan started an atom bomb program that eventually began to enrich uranium with centrifuges based on a stolen Dutch design.

By 1986, U.S. intelligence had concluded that Pakistan was making weapons-grade uranium. And Khan was making no secret of his expertise: He published two articles in the open scientific literature 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 U.S. 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 CIA. In the summer of that year, U.S. spy satellites recorded a Pakistani C-130 loading North Korean missile parts in North Korea.

Pakistani officials say that since 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 aiding poor countries. 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."

William J. Broad and David E. Sanger reported from Vienna, New York and Washington.