The Point of No Return

First Pakistan's A.Q. Khan showed that any country could have made a nuclear bomb. Then he showed—not once but three times—why the nuclear trade will never be shut down

Over the months that followed, during Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, Hibbs continued to dig into Iraq's European activities; without drawing the connection explicitly, he described a gray-market procurement network that was remarkably similar to Pakistan's, and in some cases exactly the same. The main suppliers were German, with the Swiss and others, primarily in Northern Europe, pitching in productively. In December of 1990, during the buildup to the Gulf War, the London Sunday Times published the alarming news that Iraq's centrifuge program was merely a year away from enriching enough uranium for a bomb. On Christmas Eve, Hibbs reported that the centrifuge in question was of an early URENCO design, not quite as advanced as the one presumed to have been stolen by A. Q. Khan, but perhaps good enough to do the job—if it could be made to spin at the necessary speeds without falling apart, and then linked to a minimum of several hundred like-spinning clones arranged in a "cascade" through which gassified uranium would flow. The source of the centrifuge design was believed to be a German subcontractor to URENCO, whose engineers seem to have had access to the plans even after leaving the company. Hibbs had traveled to Munich to meet one of the prime suspects, a centrifuge expert named Bruno Stemmler, who had gone to Baghdad as a consultant two years before, and against whom a German criminal investigation had been dropped in frustration. Hibbs got him to talk. Stemmler claimed to have no knowledge of Iraq's suppliers, but he admitted to having met with Iraqi engineers, and he described what he had seen of their centrifuge in detail. He was so untroubled by the contacts he had made that he even told Hibbs about offering the Iraqis advice on modifications that would shorten the enrichment cycle. "But they were not interested,'' Hibbs—clearly reserving judgment—reported that Stemmler said. The Iraqis' lack of interest does seem unlikely, given the personal consequences of failure under Saddam Hussein, but Stemmler's measure of their program later turned out to be for the most part true. In brief, they had managed to build, at best, perhaps a single centrifuge, which they had not fully tested. They must have made progress in the two years following, but according to Stemmler, as reported by Hibbs, the existence of a functioning centrifuge cascade in an operational enrichment plant, which was the premise of the report in the London Sunday Times, remained "completely far-fetched and absurd."

Then came the Western bombing campaign and the short Gulf War, during which Iraq was easily pushed out of Kuwait. As part of the peace settlement new and more assertive nuclear inspections were imposed on the Iraqi regime. The inspections were run by the IAEA and a group created specifically for this purpose, the United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM, whose job was to search for weapons of mass destruction in all forms—chemical and biological as well as nuclear. The inspectors had the right to talk to whomever they pleased, and to go wherever they wanted without advance notice. The Iraqis obstructed them, of course, but over the next few years the inspectors uncovered a lot. What they found came as a shock. Though it was true that the Iraqi centrifuge program had never moved beyond the initial testing stages, it was larger and more serious than had previously been known. In intent, at least, this was not merely an experimental effort but an industrial-scale attempt to build nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Iraq had been pursuing an even larger program using electromagnetic machines called calutrons—an enrichment technology declassified by the United States in 1949, and thought to be so obsolete that no one, including Hibbs, had suspected Iraq might choose it. In this case, however, "obsolete" meant easier to acquire. The calutron program had advanced significantly beyond the centrifuge efforts. In the summer of 1992 Hibbs reported that at the start of the Gulf War it had been about three years from producing enough highly enriched uranium to give Saddam his first atomic bomb.

But the greatest shock was that such industrial-scale nuclear programs—using components purchased in the West, and directly under the nose of the IAEA—had gone largely undetected. Indeed, it became apparent that unlike certain nuclear aspirants that had refused to join the NPT (India, Israel, Pakistan, Argentina, and Brazil, among others), thereby exposing their intentions, Iraq had used the treaty as a cover, gaining greater freedom of action than it otherwise would have had. The revelations emerging from Iraq provoked a crisis among non-proliferation specialists and diplomats; particularly in Europe and the United States it was understood that if the treaty was not to collapse, something would have to be done. And something was. Over the years that followed the Gulf War export-control lists were expanded, necessitating a new level of governmental scrutiny (in participating states) prior to the export of "dual use" machines, materials, and components—the often innocuous items that had been identified nonetheless as the building blocks of nuclear-weapons programs. The export-control-list expansion forced the European procurement networks largely underground by eliminating much of the ambiguity that had existed until then, and it required companies and consultants to break their national laws if they wanted to pursue their nuclear-weapons business, questions of conscience aside. In the new context of a now proven danger, some of the bureaucratic resistance to American activism faded away, and cooperation among the various intelligence and law-enforcement agencies increased. Furthermore, in 1997 the NPT was augmented with an "Additional Protocol" that allowed for more-rigorous IAEA scrutiny of declared nuclear facilities in those countries willing to join. There was a twist, which continues to limit the effectiveness of IAEA inspections today: as an international agency whose primary purpose is to promote the civil use of nuclear power, the IAEA was expressly prohibited from developing expertise in nuclear weapons, and could address proliferation only by auditing civil facilities for signs of military diversions—working around the edges of the real question on everyone's mind. Nonetheless, the Additional Protocol, like the other measures taken in the aftermath of the Gulf War, probably helped to buy the world some time.

But even as the advanced nations closed ranks against conventional proliferation—the leakage of nuclear know-how from nations like Germany to nations like Iraq—the new form of proliferation emerged, in which the nuclear upstarts began to help one another. There were reasons for this beyond convenience and greed. They amounted to a moralistic rejection of the discriminatory nuclear order as enshrined in the NPT. In principle the rejection made sense. If all peoples are created equal, why not here, too? This was the same question that until recently had undermined export controls in Europe and elsewhere. The answers were practical rather than principled, and for certain countries they were not good enough. In any event this new form of proliferation lay largely beyond the conventional structures of control. As is now widely known, the pioneer was Pakistan, where A. Q. Khan exploited the connections he had developed in acquiring nuclear weapons and, by neatly diverting the inbound procurement flows, eventually set up a virtual nuclear-weapons market in which countries could buy the entire package, from the necessary machine shops and centrifuges to the blueprints for a bomb.

Without quite knowing what he was looking at, Mark Hibbs wrote about the early signs. In October of 1990, in a report on the Iraqi centrifuge program, he described skepticism among nuclear specialists that Iraq possessed the necessary engineering expertise to mount such an effort, and he mentioned the possibility of Iraq's secret cooperation with Brazil or Pakistan—two countries beyond the IAEA's reach. It later turned out that those particular suspicions were unfounded—that the expertise at play in Iraq was mostly German. But the possibility of third-country proliferation was obviously on people's minds. In November of 1993 Hibbs broke the news that during a meeting the previous month in Baghdad, Saddam's deputy premier, Tariq Aziz, had told IAEA and UNSCOM inspectors that a Pakistani or Indian known simply as "Malik" and residing in Britain had in 1989 arranged for shipments of special high-strength steel for the construction of Iraq's clandestine centrifuges. Hibbs wrote that on the basis of this information British agents had tried to identify the man but had been unable to find him. At the end of his dispatch he mentioned that following the Baghdad meeting the IAEA director, Hans Blix, had reported to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that the information provided by Iraq appeared to be mostly complete, though there were still some gaps.

One year later Hibbs returned to the subject, writing that Malik was a Pakistani whose full name was Mazhar Malik and who lived in South London, where he had a small trading company, Development & Technology Enterprises, Ltd. The company appeared on a U.S. Department of Agriculture list as having inquired into the export of food staples and cigarettes, among other materials. Hibbs reported that the high-strength steel had been sent by an Austrian firm through the port of Antwerp, and had traveled aboard two Pakistani ships to Dubai before being trucked to Iraq. Because of lax Austrian export laws at the time, the British agents who had finally tracked Malik down concluded that nothing illegal had transpired, and the IAEA now considered the case to be closed. Hibbs had gotten through by phone, and Malik had denied that he knew anything about the shipments of steel.

Then, in the summer of 1995, the name came up again. Saddam's son-in-law Hussein Kamel, the man in charge of the pre-war nuclear program, had fled to Jordan, and he was talking. Among the documents subsequently found on his chicken farm in Iraq was a top-secret memo written by agents of the Iraqi intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, and addressed to an unknown person in the nuclear-weapons program. The memo described an approach made to the Mukhabarat in October of 1990, during Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, by a Pakistani named Malik, who claimed to be an intermediary for A. Q. Khan, and who offered to assist Iraq with centrifuges and the construction of a bomb. The asking price was $5 million up front, with an additional 10 percent commission to be paid on all materials and components obtained. In translation the memo read:

Top Secret Personal …
We have enclosed for you the following proposal from Pakistani scientist Dr. Abdul Quadeer Khan regarding the possibility of helping Iraq establish a project to enrich uranium and manufacture a nuclear weapon. The above mentioned expressed it as follows:
1. He is prepared to give us project designs for a nuclear bomb.
2. Ensure any requirements or materials from Western European countries via a company he owns in Dubai.
3. Request a preliminary technical meeting to consult on the documents that he will present to us. However, the current circumstances do not allow for an immediate meeting with the above mentioned. There is the possibility of meeting with the intermediary that we have connections and good relations with in Greece.
4. The motive behind this proposal is gaining profits for him and the intermediary.
5. The project has been given the code name of A-B to use in correspondence and consultations.
Please review and give us your opinion on this matter, so that we can take the initial steps to consult with him, according to the notes and instructions that we received from you. Thank you.
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William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. This is the second of two reports about A. Q. Khan and nuclear proliferation. More

"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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