A.Q. Khan's Atomic Vision

Reviewed by Douglas Farah
Sunday, November 18, 2007

DECEPTION Pakistan, the United States, And the Secret Trade In Nuclear Weapons

By Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark | Walker. 586 pp. $28.95

THE NUCLEAR JIHADIST The True Story of the Man Who Sold The World's Most Dangerous Secret And How We Could Have Stopped Him

By Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins | Twelve. 413 pp. $25


By David Armstrong and Joseph Trento | Steerforth. 292 pp. $24.95

Abdul Qadeer Khan's sale of nuclear technology to rogue nations is no longer a secret. The Pakistani physicist, revered in his homeland as the father of the Islamic bomb, was forced to confess his "unauthorized proliferation activities" on Pakistan's state television in 2004. He has been confined to house (more accurately, mansion) arrest ever since.

But the staged confession and wrist-slapping were only one act in a long-running farce whose full consequences have yet to play out. U.S. intelligence agencies first got wind of Khan's nuclear black-market activity during the Carter administration. Yet he continued to operate, uninterrupted, through the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, the Clinton years and George W. Bush's first term, until his network was formally shut down in 2003.

Despite being incommunicado, Khan is such a compelling figure that three teams of investigative reporters have come out with books on him this fall. While differing in emphasis, they arrive at some important, common conclusions. Together, they dispel any notion that Khan was an independent actor or that he operated on the fringes of legality, beyond Pakistani government control. They also show that U.S., British and other intelligence services knew a great deal about him. Most damning, they provide evidence that Khan's operation could have been shut down in the '70s or '80s -- long before this bitter, egomaniacal physicist was able to provide nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea and possibly other state and non-state actors.

Instead, successive U.S. administrations turned a blind eye to Khan's network in return for short-term favors from Pakistan, first in funneling arms to the mujaheddin combating the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and, after 9/11, in helping with the global war on terror. At times, Khan also profited from sheer bumbling by Western intelligence agencies and their failure to understand, until it was too late, how global networks of front companies could buy small pieces of nuclear weapons technology in hundreds of separate transactions, some legitimate and some not.

Back in the early '60s, Khan was a low-paid postal inspector in Karachi, known for demanding bakshish, or bribes, according to Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, who write for the London Guardian. Then he visited a U.S.-sponsored exhibition on Eisenhower's vision of "Atoms for Peace" and, ironically, had an atomic vision of his own: a Pakistani bomb. He headed to Holland to study metallurgy, married a South African woman of Dutch descent and got a job at a subcontractor for Urenco, a consortium of European governments that operates a top-secret uranium enrichment facility on the Dutch-German border.

"An expatriate Muslim from a South Asian country known to be in pursuit of the bomb, Khan should have stuck out," Levy and Scott-Clark rightly note in Deception. Instead, the Dutch gave him a limited security clearance and, before long, access to highly classified designs for an enrichment centrifuge. He did little to hide his translating, copying and photographing of the plans, scribbling data in a black notebook that his co-workers grew to know well. It was these designs that he provided first to his own country and later to others.

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