What’s All the Fuss About A.Q. Khan?

Even before retiring, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet – who had presided over two of the worst intelligence failures in history – tried to salvage something of his reputation. In remarks he made last February at his alma mater, Georgetown University, Tenet concluded by saying,

"Last year in my annual World Wide Threat testimony before Congress in open session, I talked about the emerging threat from private proliferators, especially nuclear brokers.

"I was cryptic about this in public, but I can tell you now that I was talking about A.Q. Khan. His network was shaving years off the nuclear weapons development timelines of several states, including Libya.

"Now, as you know from the news coming out of Pakistan, Khan and his network have been dealt a crushing blow, with several of his senior officers in custody. Malaysian authorities have shut down one of the network’s largest plants. His network is now answering to the world for years of nuclear profiteering."

Notice Tenet didn’t claim that Khan was a nuclear-weapons proliferator. Or that Khan had done anything that had resulted in nuclear-weapons proliferation.

For good reason.

Shortly after India tested its first nuke, metallurgist A.Q. Khan – working at the time as a subcontractor to Urenco, the European uranium-enrichment consortium – began sending back to Pakistan engineering drawings of Urenco centrifuges, lists of associated parts and components, and the suppliers thereof.

Khan returned to Pakistan in 1978 and soon established a uranium-enrichment program at Kahuta, based upon his Pak-1 gas-centrifuge, a modification of Urenco’s first generation design. But Khan had trouble producing aluminum rotors which would pass the "spin" test. So, in the 1990s, Khan developed the Pak-2, his modifcation of Urenco’s second-generation design, which had maraging steel rotors.

Khan then sold off the Pak-1 equipment. To Iran. To Libya.

When Pakistan held its first international arms bazaar in 2000, there was available at the booth of A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) a Pak-2 brochure, as well as an associated 10-page catalog of specialty vacuum pumps, gauges, high-voltage switches, power supplies, and other equipment.

According to KRL representatives, all the listed items were available for sale and had been approved for export by the Pakistan government.

Now, how’s that for a "hidden network"?

Nevertheless, Tenet claimed to have played a major role in uncovering it.

"First, we discovered the extent of Khan’s hidden network. We tagged the proliferators. We detected the network stretching from Pakistan to Europe to the Middle East to Asia offering its wares to countries like North Korea and Iran.

"Working with our British colleagues, we pieced together the picture of the network, revealing its subsidiaries, scientists, front companies, agents, finances, and manufacturing plants on three continents.

"Our spies penetrated the network through a series of daring operations over several years. Through this unrelenting effort, we confirmed the network was delivering such things as illicit uranium enrichment centrifuges."

Now, delivering a uranium-enrichment centrifuge to anyone is not illicit unless such delivery is a violation of the laws of the exporting country. And accepting delivery is not illicit unless the importing country (a) is a signatory to the NPT and (b) intends to enrich uranium for use in a nuclear weapon.

Last December, Libya decided to follow Iran’s lead. Libya admitted having attempted for more than a decade to acquire a uranium-enrichment capability, and Libya had engaged in some activities that should have been reported to the IAEA, but weren’t. But Libya told IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei it wanted to sign – and adhere to, immediately – a go-anywhere, see-anything Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement

ElBaradei was shown warehouses full of uranium-enrichment equipment, much of it still in shipping crates. ElBaradei reported that he found no evidence that Libya had yet produced even small amounts of enriched uranium. Apparently, the Libyans – like the Iranians – had the money to buy such equipment, but – unlike the Iranians – had no idea what to do with it once they got it.

But the Washington Post reported that the Libyans also gave ElBaradei two white plastic shopping bags from a Pakistani clothing shop. The shop’s name – Good Looks Tailor – and Islamabad address were printed on the bags in red letters. One of the bags contained drawings and blueprints; the other contained "a stack of instructions on how to build not only a bomb but also its essential components."

The Libyans obviously didn’t know what to do with that, either.

As for Khan, in 2001, Pakistan tightened up its export laws. So Khan "retired."

Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.