The Wrath of Khan

How A. Q. Khan made Pakistan a nuclear power—and showed that the spread of atomic weapons can't be stopped

Thirty years later I met Khan's office mate of 1975, an FDO machinist and staff photographer named Frits Veerman, now sixty-two, who drove me to Almelo, on his first return to the URENCO site in all this time. Veerman turned out to be a typically moralistic Dutchman with a maddening manner, as a driver, of strictly respecting the speed limits, to the point of braking frequently to slow down. Riding with him was a rare form of torture not yet known to Pakistan. I soon understood that living with him would have been worse: his wife and children believed he was obsessed with Khan, and wished he would leave the subject alone. But Veerman had been marked by Khan's actions, and whether because of this brush with fame or because he was truly troubled by the spread of nuclear weapons, he could not stop repeating the story.

He told me that he and Khan had been close friends. They were fellow geeks, I suppose—at least to the extent that centrifuges seem truly to have excited them both. Whenever Khan discovered something interesting on the laboratory floor, or Veerman did, they would troop off together to study it and share their joy. They shared other enthusiasms as well. When the weather turned warm and women in Amsterdam took to walking around in scanty clothes, the two friends would go sightseeing through the city, in earnest appreciation of the female form. Khan in particular was easily smitten, and occasionally would wander off to ogle some woman despite Veerman's entreaties to return to work. I asked Veerman if he meant to say that Khan had frequented prostitutes. He answered as he often did to my questions about those times, with a bewildered and plaintive "I don't know!"—as if he couldn't be sure of anything anymore.

But Khan was almost certainly a good family man, and for that reason a better spy. Veerman was still a bachelor then, and sometimes was invited over for dinner. Henny was less gregarious than Khan, and a bit overshadowed by him, but she was gracious and polite, and the two girls were young and very nice. The family spoke English at home. Veerman would arrive with ten pounds of Dutch cheese, or more, because some of his relatives were cheese makers, and Henny liked cheese a lot. The meals typically consisted of barbecued chicken and rice. Khan had a special fondness for the chicken. The drinks were non-alcoholic. In the style of small Dutch towns, the curtains were left open at night and the illumination was kept high, so anyone passing on the street could see that inside the house everything was just right. Veerman believed nearly the same for a while, though on several occasions he noticed classified documents on a desk in Khan's home, in apparent violation of the lab's security procedures. Khan explained that Henny was helping with translations. He was so clearly unconcerned with hiding the documents away that Veerman assumed Henny was being paid, and therefore had been checked out and approved. Sometimes other Pakistanis came for dinner. They did not explain their jobs. Much later, when Veerman himself was accused of having helped Khan, Dutch intelligence agents showed him photographs confirming that these men had come from the Pakistani embassy, and were its spies. It appears likely that at the very dinners Veerman enjoyed, blueprints and other documents were being collected and taken away. But everything seemed so aboveboard—so normal and brightly lit—that Veerman was mostly just glad to have this friend. He was probably also proud. The pattern was similar at the lab, where Khan formally and in writing asked Veerman to take detailed photographs of the centrifuges and their parts. Taking photographs was one of Veerman's regular jobs. And because he had a European sense of hierarchy ("Abdul was a doctor, and I was just a normal person—do you understand?"), he unquestioningly complied.

Finally, however, it was Veerman who suspected that something was wrong. He enjoyed vacationing in foreign lands, especially when he could lodge with local people and see life through their eyes. He was not much drawn to Pakistan, but when Khan suggested warmly that he should visit, and held out the promise that he could stay with Khan's friends and family, Veerman jumped at the chance. Khan suggested places to see, and provided Veerman with information about direct flights from London. Veerman began to make his plans. Veerman was of course more than a staff photographer: he was a highly specialized centrifuge technician, full of secret knowledge and useful skills. In retrospect it is obvious that Khan hoped to tangle him up or seduce him somehow, and to use him in the project to build a bomb. But then Khan made a rare miscalculation, if only of Veerman's sense of right and wrong: after a short delay, during which he must have consulted with Pakistani officials, he came back to Veerman with an offer to pay for the trip. Veerman was shocked, and immediately declined. He told me that suddenly a light lit up in his mind. Khan's wanderings at FDO and Urenco came back to him, as did the classified documents in Khan's home, his Pakistani guests, the frequent conversations he had conducted in Urdu on his office phone, the photographs he had requested, and his very enthusiasm for centrifuges. He remembered that Khan wore a large gold ring, and that once he had joked that when he had to run away, he could sell it and get home to Pakistan—he carried his ticket on his finger. Veerman no longer thought of this as a joke. He realized that his friend Abdul was a nuclear spy.

The stakes were obviously high. Veerman feared that if his suspicions were discovered, his life would be at risk. He invented an excuse not to visit Pakistan, and began gingerly to distance himself from Khan. But these were temporary measures at best; the next time Khan submitted a formal request for photographs, Veerman would have no choice but to disregard it, and would have to explain why. Furthermore, as a man trusted to handle state secrets, he believed that he had a moral responsibility to sound an alarm. The question was how. He had no proof, and was intimidated by the idea of making serious allegations against a man of much higher rank. As best he knew, neither URENCO nor FDO had procedures in place to handle such a case, or to ensure his anonymity.

He tried to ensure it himself. He went to a public phone and called the head office at URENCO, but was unable to get through to the director. He then sent the same message to the director of FDO, also without effect. Finally he took his concerns in person to his manager at the laboratory. The manager was visibly skeptical. He later got back to Veerman, scolding him that such allegations were too serious to be made without proof, and advising him not to stir up trouble at the lab. FDO was overcome, in other words, by a sort of institutional inertia. Veerman assumed—and still assumes—that nothing was made of his warnings. Paradoxically, FDO's unwillingness to confront the problem provided Veerman with the anonymity he desired: to the end, Khan never suspected that his friend had turned against him. But at roughly the same time, the Dutch government learned that a certain Pakistani agent, working out of the embassy in Brussels, had attempted to buy a highly specialized centrifuge component, the knowledge of which seemed perhaps to have come from Khan. Highly specialized components are rare in the business of building bombs. The Dutch government quietly communicated its concern to the lab—acknowledging, however, that the evidence was ambiguous and inconclusive. In October of 1975 FDO finally roused itself and promoted Khan to a new and less sensitive job, which would keep him away from the centrifuge technology. Khan's stay in Europe had come to an end. He was never, however, under such pressure that he had to sell his ring and flee. Two months after his promotion, in December of 1975, he simply flew his family back to Pakistan on another holiday, and this time did not return.

He had succeeded by then in stealing the plans for the most advanced uranium-enrichment process known to the West. Such was the appearance of normalcy, however, that neither urenco nor FDO quite woke up to what had happened. Initially Khan sent word from Pakistan that he had come down with yellow fever and would have to extend his stay into 1976; later he explained that he had found an important new job, and that regretfully he would resign from FDO, effective March 1. Relations remained friendly, in part because Khan showed no tendency to duck and hide. He may have been something of a sociopath, and from early on. In any case, such was his self-centeredness that apparently he felt no regret, even on a personal level, for the trust he had betrayed, and he refused to believe that decent people—for instance, his old friends in Europe—might consider that he had done something wrong. These attitudes predated his return to Pakistan. He had known enough while at urenco to lie about the nature of his letters back home, and he must have had some sense that he might be subject to prosecution; but he was an effective spy largely because, for reasons of personality, he was such an open one. For their part, the managers at FDO remained confused. They knew that Khan was now involved in a large government project in Pakistan, probably in the construction of centrifuges. Nonetheless, they continued to communicate with him, and in 1977, having sent a representative to Islamabad, they went so far as to sell him expensive instrumentation originally designed for urenco.

Khan continued to cultivate Veerman as a friend and a source of secret information. In January of 1976 he wrote Veerman, "Dear Frits, it is now almost a month since we left the Netherlands, and I am gradually beginning to miss the delicious chicken. Every afternoon I think: ask Frits if he feels like eating chicken." After another chatty letter, in which he extolled the spring beauty of Islamabad and renewed his invitation to Veerman to visit, he wrote twice again, and this time got down to business. In one letter, for instance, he wrote,

Very confidentially, I request you to help us. I urgently need the following for our research program: 1. Etches of pivots: (a) Tension—how many volts? (b) Electricity—how many amperes? (c) How long is etching to be done? (d) Solution (electrolytic) HCL or something other is added as an inhibitor. If it is possible, [I would be] grateful for 3-4 etched pivots. I shall be very grateful if you could send a few negatives for the pattern. You would be having negatives of these. 2. Lower shock absorber. Can you provide a complete absorber of CNOR [a type of centrifuge]? Please give my greetings to Frencken, and try to get a piece for me. You can ask for it, or get it in pieces. In any case I shall like to request you very strongly to send me a few pieces (3 or 4) of membranes, and a few pieces of steel springs that are used in the absorber ... Frits, these are very urgently required, without which the research would come to a standstill. I am sure you can provide me with these. These two things are very small, and I hope you will not disappoint me.
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William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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