A.Q. Khan's Atomic Vision
How a petty postal inspector became the world's leading nuclear salesman.

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.

Khan couldn't operate alone. He was a master at using people and companies in Europe and at promoting his agenda within Pakistan. The West, India and Israel had or would have the bomb, he argued, and only Muslims would be left unprotected in the nuclear world. Pakistani leaders -- from Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to Pervez Musharraf, who is now ruling by decree -- agreed.

Of these three books, Deception is the most complete and authoritative. Levy and Scott-Clark take the reader deep inside Khan's operations, including his extensive and previously unreported contacts with China, which gave him technical help beginning in the early 1980s. Their book also provides the fullest picture of Khan's turbulent family life, his constant tension with his wife, his extramarital affairs and even his visits to a psychiatrist, who noted that he seemed "eaten up . . . as if he was unable to sate his ambition."

It was this insatiable ambition that appears to have led Khan to move beyond just developing Pakistan's nuclear capability and into the world of black market proliferation in the '80s. As his ego and expensive tastes grew, so did the recklessness with which he sold off nuclear plans and materiel. In the late 1990s, he went so far as to draw up a menu of nuclear goods and services he could provide. Pakistani officials occasionally sought to limit his business trips abroad, indicating they had inklings of his proliferation activities. All three books suggest that this mediocre physicist could not have carried out his plans without the backing of at least some senior military and government officials.

Deception also gives the harshest indictment of Pakistan's duplicity. By Levy and Scott-Clark's account, Musharraf has often told the West what it wanted to hear while following what the ISI -- Pakistan's entrenched intelligence service, which has strong ties to Islamic militants -- wanted to do. His recent declaration of a state of emergency has left Pakistan adrift and control over its nuclear arsenal arguably more tenuous than ever, as the army's command and control structure has frayed. Yet Musharraf seems confident that the United States, Britain and other patron states will not dare cut Pakistan off militarily or economically, precisely because of that arsenal.

The Nuclear Jihadist covers much of the same ground from a narrower, U.S.-centered perspective. Of particular interest is a behind-the-scenes account of the negotiations that led Libya's Moammar Gaddafi to give up his nuclear program, one of the few bright spots in this saga. In clear, gripping prose, the husband-and-wife team of Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins recount the race to intercept a shipment of equipment that would have helped make Libya's nuclear ambitions a reality. They also add new details of the key role that Gaddafi's son, Seif Islam Gaddafi, played in the negotiations.

America and the Islamic Bomb is a ground-level look at the operational failures of U.S., British and other intelligence services in assessing the Khan network. Relying on government documents and interviews, David Armstrong and Joseph Trento reveal multiple scuttled investigations and chronicle the infighting within several U.S. administrations, beginning under Reagan in the 1980s, over what to do about Khan and, more broadly, Pakistan, whose cooperation was deemed vital in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Rivetingly, Armstrong and Trento also recount the deals that Khan made through a Dubai-based company, Gulf Technical Industries, to supply uranium centrifuges to several countries. And they tell the story of Operation Aquarium, a successful British effort to uproot the tentacles of Khan's illicit purchasing network from Malaysia to Spain and France. It shows what Western intelligence services can do when they have clear direction and international cooperation.

But, on the whole, these books give little grounds for optimism that the West will be able to prevent Islamic extremists from getting their hands on nuclear weapons. "There are plenty of ideologues, thinkers and Islamic strategists who are working towards precisely that goal," Levy and Scott-Clark write, "and here is a regime in Islamabad that has no hard and fast rules, no unambiguous goals or laws, and no line that cannot be bent or reshaped." *

Douglas Farah's most recent book is "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible."

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