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

When Libya agreed, Khan turned, as usual, to his European suppliers; with their assistance, by 2000 he was installing dozens of centrifuges in a pilot plant on the outskirts of Tripoli. That same year he arranged for the delivery (either through North Korea or directly from Pakistan) of gasified uranium that, if fed in closed loops through the centrifuges, would eventually be sufficient to fuel perhaps a single atomic bomb. The gasified uranium was kept in storage and apparently was never used. This was a pattern throughout the program in Libya, which proved unable to absorb all the equipment it had bought, and left much of it lying unassembled in shipping crates. Nonetheless, Khan pushed forward on multiple fronts. The pilot plant was of course just the start. What Libya ultimately required was a sustained and efficient production line involving thousands of linked centrifuges backed up by the ultra-precise computerized machine tools necessary to make replacement parts and an unending supply of bombs. The machine-tool installations were to be provided primarily by Khan's European suppliers, but with help from certain Turks known to him from the past. The centrifuges themselves were to be manufactured in pieces by various companies around the world, including at least one created solely for that purpose by Tahir and Khan.

In the first week of September 2001, six months after Khan's forced retirement in Pakistan and several days before the terrorist attacks on the United States, the CIA issued a report that Libya had revived its nuclear-weapons program, and mentioned guardedly that such an effort required substantial assistance from abroad. It is known now that British intelligence was tracking the Libyans carefully, and it can be presumed that the CIA had not forgotten about Khan. Three months later, in December, Tahir set up a shop southeast of Kuala Lumpur to manufacture certain narrow-tolerance centrifuge parts for the Libyan contract. The shop was created as a subsidiary of a company owned in large part by the Malaysian prime minister's son, a youngish man named Kamaluddin Abdullah. A spokesman later said that the company's managers had not understood the nature of the parts. A Malaysian police investigation duly cleared Kamaluddin of wrongdoing in 2004, with the acquiescence of the United States. Tahir had married the daughter of a Malaysian diplomat, at a society wedding in 1998 attended by Khan, and she, too, was involved in the venture—though also innocently, she later claimed. The company was called Scomi Precision Engineering. To oversee the production Tahir hired a Swiss engineer named Urs Tinner—the son of a man alleged to be a longtime supplier to Khan, Friedrich Tinner. It has been reported in Switzerland that Urs Tinner was turned by the CIA, and that the parts he was producing for Tahir were intentionally faulty, but this runs counter to the official American assertions of U.S. ignorance and uninvolvement, and it has been impossible to verify. Either way, in December of 2002 centrifuge components began to arrive in Libya in large numbers.

Khan kept flying around, making deals, and enjoying life. Among other, more serious outings, he had taken to visiting Timbuktu, in Mali, where he would arrive in chartered airplanes with groups of his proliferationist friends, and where he funded the construction of a small hotel named the Hendrina Khan, after his wife. Apparently nothing nefarious was going on. In fact, it was such grand fun that one member of his entourage wrote a book about it, titled Timbuktu, which was full of praise for the great A. Q. and offered such helpful advice as not to bother visiting the Bamako zoo. But in 2003 such freedoms were coming to an end. With the IAEA having revealed the existence of secret centrifuges in Iran, and with Mark Hibbs standing on the sidelines repeatedly fingering Pakistan, the political pressures on Musharraf kept mounting. For Khan the collapse came in the second half of 2003, as the result of a complex series of events. The problems started in June, when IAEA inspectors found traces of highly enriched uranium on the surface of ancillary equipment in Iran. Iranian officials, who had been denying U.S. claims that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons, were put in the awkward position of having to explain away the evidence; they admitted that the equipment was secondhand, and said that it had been imported from another country. In August IAEA inspectors found similar traces at another site, and the Iranians went further toward blaming Pakistan, without quite doing it by name.

Meanwhile, Libya's leader, Muammar Qaddafi, who had decided to normalize relations with the West, was involved in secret talks with Great Britain and the United States about dismantling his programs for weapons of mass destruction. In October of 2003, apparently, the British and the Americans decided to give him a push: they intercepted a ship called the BBC China, which was known to have left Dubai and passed through the Suez Canal carrying nuclear-weapons equipment destined for Libya. The intercept itself was a low-key affair: it amounted to a phone call to the ship's German owners requesting that they divert their vessel to an Italian port for an inspection. The request was backed up by the presence of a U.S. warship, but perhaps unnecessarily, since the ship's owners were innocent businessmen with nothing to hide. In Italy the inspection turned up five containers holding thousands of centrifuge parts manufactured in Malaysia by Scomi Precision Engineering (and packed in wooden crates boldly bearing the company's name), along with other components manufactured in Turkey and paperwork showing that the trans-shipment through Dubai had been arranged by the enterprising Tahir. To the intelligence agents involved none of this would have come as a surprise.

Nor would Khan have been surprised that Pakistan's operations had been penetrated. He had been working under that assumption for decades without slowing down, and the loss of five containers, or even of the Scomi facility in Malaysia, would normally not have fazed him at all. But in a larger sense now he was losing control. In Libya the intercept of the BBC China was seen as an inconvenient event because it amounted to being caught red-handed. It is necessary to discount the Bush administration's subsequent claim that Qaddafi was chastened by the invasion of Iraq, because by late 2003 the lack of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was already becoming a major public embarrassment, and the U.S. military in Iraq was clearly bogged down. More likely, Qaddafi, far from being impressed by Washington's resolve, was invigorated by the depths of its blunder. Nonetheless, he had decided to do business with the world, particularly with the nearby moralists of Europe, and soon after the BBC China seizure he gave up on his nuclear-weapons program—at least temporarily.

In December of 2003 the Libyans accepted the arrival of IAEA inspectors and others and began to answer questions about Libya's arrangement with Pakistan. They were more forthcoming than the Iranians had been. They provided dates, named names, opened their facilities, and eventually even allowed the equipment to be flown away, under IAEA control, to warehouses in the United States. Their centrifuges were mostly unassembled and incomplete, but they were of the same proven URENCO design as those in Iran—and at least similar to those being built in North Korea, and to those perhaps being considered in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and countries beyond. In December the news got out, with mention of the various cross-connections, and was published in the major American papers. How much worse could it get? In January of 2004, having certainly made photocopies first, the Libyans handed over bags from an Islamabad laundry that contained the plans for a Chinese-designed implosion bomb just like Pakistan's. On the margins were handwritten notes in English disparaging the hated Munir Ahmed Khan. Clearly these plans had come from the Khan Research Laboratories, and possibly from A. Q. Khan himself.

Musharraf ducked into the same defensive position he had used before. He launched an official investigation and began hauling in Khan's staff for questioning. The conclusion was known from the start: after nearly six years of warnings, beginning with the snubs Khan had received on the day of the test explosions in 1998 and continuing through his dismissal from the laboratories in 2001, it was finally time for Khan to disappear for good. Before checking out, however, he had one last service to provide to the regime, and if he did it right, technically speaking his life would be spared. On February 4, 2004, after days of persuasion in Islamabad, he appeared on television and absolved everyone but himself of blame. Speaking in English, a language that relatively few Pakistanis understand, he said,

"My dear ladies and gentlemen, Assalam-ul Alaikum, it is with the deepest sense of sorrow, anguish, and regret that I have chosen to appear before you in order to atone for some of the anguish and pain that have been suffered with the people of Pakistan on account of the extremely unfortunate events of the last two months. I am aware of the vital criticality of Pakistan's nuclear program to our national security and the national pride and emotion which it generates in your heart. I am also conscious that any untoward event, incident, or threat to this national security draws the greatest concern in the nation's psyche. It is in this context that the recent international events and their fallout on Pakistan have traumatized the nation.
"I have much to answer for. The recent investigation was ordered with the government of Pakistan consequent to the disturbing disclosures and evidence by some countries to international agencies relating to alleged proliferation activities by certain Pakistanis and foreigners over the last two decades.
"The investigations have established that many of the reported activities did occur, and these were inevitably initiated at my behest.
"In my interviews with the concerned government officials I was confronted with the evidence and findings, and I have voluntarily admitted that much of it is true and accurate.
"My dear brothers and sisters, I have chosen to appear before you to offer my deepest regrets and unqualified apologies to a traumatized nation. I am aware of the high esteem, love, and affection in which you have held me for my services to national security, and I am grateful for all the awards and honor that have been bestowed upon me. However, it pains me to realize in retrospect that my entire lifetime achievements of providing foolproof national security to my nation could have been placed in serious jeopardy on account of my activities which were based in good faith but on errors of judgment related to unauthorized proliferation activities.
"I wish to place on record that those of my subordinates who have accepted their role in the affair were acting in good faith like me on my instructions.
"I also wish to clarify that there was never ever any kind of authorization for these activities by the government.
"I take full responsibility for my actions, and seek your pardon.
"I give an assurance, my dear brothers and sisters, such activities will never take place in the future.
"I also appeal to all citizens of Pakistan in the supreme national interest to refrain from any further speculations and not to politicize this extremely sensitive issue of national security.
"May Allah keep Pakistan safe and secure. Long Live Pakistan!"

Khan then disappeared into his house, perhaps never to reappear. The official Pakistani investigation continued, occasionally producing the news that Khan was to blame. Several of Khan's staff members were placed under house arrest as well, one of whom has not yet been released. Outside Pakistan there was a bit more progress. Tahir was arrested in Malaysia but was not made available to representatives of the IAEA for the first nine months. The Malaysians eventually cleared themselves of wrongdoing. Urs Tinner was arrested in Germany and extradited to Switzerland, where he remains jailed while under investigation. Germany is trying to prosecute one of Khan's alleged German suppliers, a man named Gotthard Lerch, and Holland is trying the same against another of Khan's longtime associates—but both cases are in trouble. South Africa, which turns out to have been an important supplier to the Libyans, is trying halfheartedly to go after some of its own citizens. Meanwhile, Qaddafi has been mumbling about having cut a bad deal with the West, and both Iran and North Korea are rapidly arming, despite various assertions and diplomatic maneuvers that raise the possibility that they might stop. As for the United States, it keeps repeating its exquisite claim of ignorance: that for all those years it knew practically nothing about the activities of the dangerous A. Q. Khan.

But with or without the CIA, readers of Mark Hibbs have long known what was going on. He is a disciplined reporter who sticks closely to the news, but people with a sense for his beat—this world of nuclear secrets—draw as much from reading between his lines. Last September, for instance, under the headline "Pakistan Says Its Role in Probing Khan's Proliferation Is Finished," he led with two apparently simple sentences (one a lovely quote) that are memorable as much for the questions they intentionally left unanswered as for Hibbs's statement of the facts. Hibbs wrote,

The Pakistan government said Aug. 29 that its interrogation of [A. Q.] Khan, former head of Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), about his involvement in proliferating Pakistan's nuclear technology abroad has been completed. "As far as we are concerned, I understand that whatever information that was there has been obtained and has been shared with the relevant countries, and [that] the relevant countries are satisfied with the information," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Naeem Khan told a weekly press briefing.

The investigation was over? All available information had been obtained? It had been shared? With relevant countries? Which countries were they? Who chose them, anyway? And what about Khan? Since Musharraf had already pardoned him, and he had now confessed everything he knew, what was the reason for his continuing house arrest and his ongoing isolation from Western intelligence and the press? Hibbs did not address these questions for a reason quite obvious to his readers: Pakistan's investigation was a cover-up and a sham—moreover, of a sort possible only in a morally bankrupt and corrupt nation where cowardly and illegitimate rulers, propped up by huge infusions of American dollars and dependent on their soldiers' guns, suppress genuine inquiries because they themselves would be implicated and, in the embarrassment that followed, would be cut off from foreign aid and driven from power by their own people, who almost universally now detest them. The problem for the United States, and conceivably for Europe, is that those doing the driving would most likely be Islamists, who are growing in strength and numbers even as they are being hunted down. The Iranians will probably beat them to it, but if the Islamists in Pakistan took power tomorrow, they would be the first Islamists with nuclear bombs. Hibbs trusted his readers to know all this and more when he wrote about the sham investigation's end. To me in Bonn he simply chuckled and said, "Ah, Pakistan."

But strictly in terms of nuclear proliferation there is the question of what good a genuine investigation would do anyway—as Hibbs understands in full and painful detail. There would be the immediate frustrations that Khan's network was spread around, that it operated in the gray areas of national laws, and that prosecutions would be undermined by political sympathies even if unambiguously illegal acts could be proved. More difficult still, however, is the very nature of such a network, which is not a rigid structure that can be shattered and shut down but, rather, something more like the Internet—a vast and informal web of infinitely flexible connections, capable of reshaping itself with ease, and able therefore to sustain enormous damage without suffering significant loss of efficiency. A. Q. Khan did not create his nuclear-weapons network so much as discover it as a pre-existing condition of the modern world.

Mubashir Hasan, the pacifist and former finance minister in Lahore, told me he worries that Pakistan, like the United States, is the sort of country that would actually use its atomic bombs. He said he had once asked Pakistan's leaders when they thought such use would be justified.

One said, "When we are threatened enough."

"But when will you be threatened enough? If India takes Lahore?"

"We don't know."

"But if you throw a bomb, and India throws two bombs back in return, what then?"

"So what?" the man said. "Then we die."

Hasan was more surprised by this logic than I am. Once a country has a bomb, it must be determined to use it.

In Islamabad I met a smart man close to the military who recognized this risk and the wild-card problem, which is that Pakistan's command-and-control leaves much to be desired. He said, "The best way to fight proliferation is to pursue global disarmament. Fine, great, sure—if you expect that to happen. But you cannot have a world order in which you have five or eight nuclear-weapons states on the one hand, and the rest of the international community on the other. There are many places like Pakistan, poor countries that have legitimate security concerns—every bit as legitimate as yours. And yet you ask them to address those concerns without nuclear weapons—while you have nuclear weapons and you have everything else? It is not a question of what is fair, or right or wrong. It is simply not going to work."

The man was right, of course. A. Q. Khan proved it once, and then three times over again. There will be other Khans in the future. Shifted to America, and stripped of its postcolonial indignation, the point becomes an argument not for standing down from the diplomacy of nuclear non-proliferation but for stoically finding a way to deal in parallel with the reality of a world in which many countries have acquired atomic bombs, and some may use them.

William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. This is the second of two reports about A. Q. Khan and nuclear proliferation.
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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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