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

Veerman did not answer the letters. Instead, as a dutiful employee, he took them to his supervisor, who told Veerman that he should destroy them and that if he didn't, he would go to jail. Ultimately he lost his job, as whistleblowers tend to, because he was no longer appreciated at FDO. During the subsequent period of unemployment he was picked up by Dutch security agents belatedly following Khan's trail. The agents took him to a prison in Amsterdam, where representatives of various government organizations questioned him for two days. The questioning grew confrontational. According to Veerman, the agents accused him of spying, but backed down in the face of his outrage. He in turn accused them of having made a huge mistake in allowing this technology to escape. And for what—the financial benefit of a few companies?

They said, "You have made trouble."

He said, "No, you have made trouble! I was a technician with a security clearance, and I found a spy in my laboratory!"

"This is not your problem."

"Yes, it is. I have a top security clearance."

"Go home. You may not talk about this anymore. It is dangerous for Holland. Go home."

Veerman did go home, but he began talking to the local press. Word gradually spread, not only about what Khan had done in Amsterdam but, by implication, about what he was doing now. Veerman remained under surveillance by the Dutch security services for more than a year. Eventually he found a safe job in the bureaucracy of a health-insurance company, where he spent the rest of his working life.

Press reports about Khan's spying continued to emerge, and they provoked emotional responses from Khan and his friends, who believed by the late 1970s that a smear campaign had been organized in the West. In 1980 Khan responded to a report in the British Observer with a vitriolic letter to the editor, in which he wrote,

The article on Pakistan in the issue of 9.12.1979 by Colin Smith and Shyam Bhatia was so vulgar and low that I considered it an insult to reflect on it. It was in short words a bull-shit, full of lies, insinuations and cheap journalism for money and cheap publicity. Shyam Bhatia, a Hindu bastard, could not write anything objective about Pakistan. Both insinuated as if Holland is an atomic bomb manufacturing factory where, instead of cheese balls, you could pick up "triggering mechanisms." Have you for a moment thought of the meaning of this word? Of course not because you could not differentiate between the mouth and the back hole of a donkey.

Despite such transparent bluster and prevarication, and the fact that Khan had indeed obtained state secrets, the truth is that by European legal standards it was difficult to prove that Khan had been a spy. In 1980 the Dutch government issued an embarrassed report, concluding that Khan had probably stolen centrifuge designs but pointing out that the evidence remained weak and circumstantial. Indeed, three years later, after further investigations, when the Dutch finally prosecuted Khan, it was not for espionage but for the letters he had written to Veerman requesting classified information. "Attempted espionage" was apparently the best they could do. Khan was convicted in absentia, and sentenced to four years in prison.

Khan saw dark forces at play. Zahid Malik faithfully writes, "This court was comprised of three judges, and was presided over by a woman who was a Jew. Another of the judges was also a Jew. It looked as if this case was instituted under pressure from the Israeli Prime Minister, and its verdict was also written in Tel Aviv."

If so, the Zionist conspirators were uncharacteristically sloppy, because Khan was never properly served with the charges, as a result of which a Dutch court overturned the conviction two years later. Khan appeared on Pakistani television for the first time soon afterward. He said, "This case was false and mala fide. I am happy that it is all over, because my prestige, which had been affected, has now not only been vindicated, but all the allegations which were being leveled against Pakistan's nuclear program have also been quashed." Not even Khan could have quite believed these claims. But Khan was gloating. By then it was June of 1986, one decade after his return, and as the world was coming to recognize, Pakistan in that short time had already achieved the capacity to build a nuclear bomb. People had said that in such a place it could not be done.

W hen, someday, the nuclear arming of the world is nearer to being complete—when, say, a few dozen fourth-rate countries have been able to acquire such destructive power—people may still be blaming the Dutch, as they do today, for having allowed Khan to obtain such dangerous knowledge and run away. The fact of the matter, however, is that once the technology of nuclear weaponry became manifest in the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945, the spying that led to its subsequent spread was as difficult to prevent at Los Alamos and elsewhere as, later, at Almelo. By the time Khan began to steal from the Dutch, similar acts of intellectual "borrowing" had to varying degrees contributed to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union, China, Israel, France, India, and white South Africa—and also to nuclear-weapons projects that were ultimately (and perhaps temporarily) abandoned in Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan. It is true that Khan's success came as a particular shock, because it turned this runt called Pakistan into something like a runt with a gun. But to see that success clearly, and to understand the further proliferation that has resulted, it is insufficient to focus on the loss of state secrets, or to single out the Dutch.

Khan himself has accurately said that the designs he obtained in Holland were not nearly enough. Building the thousands of centrifuges that were necessary, and then putting them to use, required solving untold numbers of practical problems, and equipping a new industrial plant with technology that lay beyond the indigenous capabilities of Pakistan. Khan's solution, once he returned to Pakistan, was to buy the technology in bits and pieces from manufacturers and consultants in the West. He knew where to shop because he had kept names and addresses from his years in Europe, and he knew who might provide what, and why. Later he bragged that it was this knowledge, and not his so-called theft of designs, that counted most in enabling Pakistan to build the bomb. The market he worked was gray rather than black, because with few exceptions the equipment and materials he sought had multiple uses, and usually would trigger questions only if a nuclear purpose was openly declared. For the most sensitive items Khan used front companies, false end-user certificates, and third-country destinations to obscure the intended use; but generally he or his agents simply went out and bought the stuff. The list was long. Machine tools, magnets, exotic steel. Vacuum pumps, ball bearings, instrumentation of all kinds. The manufacturers who sold to Khan, like the European professors who signed on as his consultants, tended to be willingly naive and greedy. Those who were confronted by Western authorities invariably claimed to believe they were helping an impoverished country to pursue peaceful research. Pakistan was indeed an impoverished country, and all the more so because it was spending a fortune on this. I've been told that Khan was willing to pay two or three times the going rate for what he bought, as a premium for working fast and in the shadows. And having such money was fun. Spending it gave Khan power. He felt vindicated somehow that in the same nations where he was being pilloried as a spy, there were so many people who, as he described them, would come begging for his business. Nor did it escape his attention that one of those nations was Pakistan's former colonial master, and that the beggars now were whites. At times it was nearly enough to make a man glad for the nuclear success, next door, of all those Hindu bastards.

Khan particularly resented two of the traditional nuclear powers. Responding to criticisms of Pakistan's program, he wrote a bitter letter in 1979 to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, in which he said,

I want to question the bloody holier-than-thou attitudes of the Americans and the British. Are these bastards God-appointed guardians of the world to stockpile hundreds of thousands of nuclear warheads and have they God-given authority to carry out explosions every month? If we start a modest programme, we are the satans, the devils ...

He had overstated the numbers, but he was expressing widely held opinions, and indeed making a legitimate point. Since the 1960s the possession of nuclear weapons had been considered the exclusive prerogative of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the Soviet Union, France, Great Britain, China, and the United States—with a special exception made for Israel, and with Japan and the rest of Europe tagging along unarmed but under the protection of the American or the Soviet nuclear umbrella. The inequity of this arrangement was formalized in 1970 (when Khan was still a graduate student) by an openly discriminatory global agreement: an American initiative known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which recognized the overlap between electric power generation and the construction of weapons, and attempted to place controls on the spread of fissionable fuel and nuclear technology. That treaty today, having at best slowed the emergence of some new nuclear-weapons states, still constitutes the foundation for nonproliferation efforts worldwide. It has four essential parts. The first prohibits the traditional non-nuclear-weapons states (or the 184 that have signed—India, Pakistan, and Israel never have) from attempting to build nuclear weapons. The second assures those same states that as a consequence of joining the treaty they have the right to acquire peaceful nuclear technology—subject, however, to intrusive IAEA inspections and controls. So far, so good—why insist on equity in the world if that lets the world go up in smoke? But the third part, which is an operational understanding, works as a subversive display of just the sort of political power that nuclear weapons can provide: it is a blanket exemption from any such international intrusion for the traditional "club of five." Finally, the fourth part is a feeble promise that the declared nuclear powers will themselves somehow, someday, disarm—standing down from power in a dream world without nuclear weapons, which no one can realistically expect to see.

Presented by

"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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