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Pakistani nuclear scientist's accounts tell of Chinese proliferation
Insider vs. government
The Post obtained Khan's detailed accounts from Simon Henderson, a former journalist at the Financial Times who is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and who has maintained correspondence with Khan. In a first-person account about his contacts with Khan in the Sept. 20 edition of the London Sunday Times, Henderson disclosed several excerpts from one of the documents.
Henderson said he agreed to The Post's request for a copy of that letter and other documents and narratives written by Khan because he believes an accurate understanding of Pakistan's nuclear history is relevant for U.S. policymaking. The Post independently confirmed the authenticity of the material; it also corroborated much of the content through interviews in Pakistan and other countries.
Although Khan disputes various assertions by book authors, the narratives are particularly at odds with Pakistan's official statements that he exported nuclear secrets as a rogue agent and implicated only former government officials who are no longer living. Instead, he repeatedly states that top politicians and military officers were immersed in the country's foreign nuclear dealings.
Khan has complained to friends that his movements and contacts are being unjustly controlled by the government, whose bidding he did -- providing a potential motive for his disclosures.
Overall, the narratives portray his deeds as a form of sustained, high-tech international horse-trading, in which Khan and a series of top generals successfully leveraged his access to Europe's best centrifuge technology in the 1980s to obtain financial assistance or technical advice from foreign governments that wanted to advance their own efforts.
"The speed of our work and our achievements surprised our worst enemies and adversaries and the West stood helplessly by to see a Third World nation, unable even to produce bicycle chains or sewing needles, mastering the most advanced nuclear technology in the shortest possible span of time," Khan boasts in the 11-page narrative he wrote for Pakistani intelligence officials about his dealings with foreigners while head of a key nuclear research laboratory.
Exchanges with Beijing
According to one of the documents, a five-page summary by Khan of his government's dealmaking with China, the terms of the nuclear exchange were set in a mid-1976 conversation between Mao and Bhutto. Two years earlier, neighboring India had tested its first nuclear bomb, provoking Khan -- a metallurgist working at a Dutch centrifuge manufacturer -- to offer his services to Bhutto.
Khan said he and two other Pakistani officials -- including then-Foreign Secretary Agha Shahi, since deceased -- worked out the details when they traveled to Beijing later that year for Mao's funeral. Over several days, Khan said, he briefed three top Chinese nuclear weapons officials -- Liu Wei, Li Jue and Jiang Shengjie -- on how the European-designed centrifuges could swiftly aid China's lagging uranium-enrichment program. China's Foreign Ministry did not respond to questions about the officials' roles.
"Chinese experts started coming regularly to learn the whole technology" from Pakistan, Khan states, staying in a guesthouse built for them at his centrifuge research center. Pakistani experts were dispatched to Hanzhong in central China, where they helped "put up a centrifuge plant," Khan said in an account he gave to his wife after coming under government pressure. "We sent 135 C-130 plane loads of machines, inverters, valves, flow meters, pressure gauges," he wrote. "Our teams stayed there for weeks to help and their teams stayed here for weeks at a time."
In return, China sent Pakistan 15 tons of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a feedstock for Pakistan's centrifuges that Khan's colleagues were having difficulty producing on their own. Khan said the gas enabled the laboratory to begin producing bomb-grade uranium in 1982. Chinese scientists helped the Pakistanis solve other nuclear weapons challenges, but as their competence rose, so did the fear of top Pakistani officials that Israel or India might preemptively strike key nuclear sites.
Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the nation's military ruler, "was worried," Khan said, and so he and a Pakistani general who helped oversee the nation's nuclear laboratories were dispatched to Beijing with a request in mid-1982 to borrow enough bomb-grade uranium for a few weapons.
After winning Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's approval, Khan, the general and two others flew aboard a Pakistani C-130 to Urumqi. Khan says they enjoyed barbecued lamb while waiting for the Chinese military to pack the small uranium bricks into lead-lined boxes, 10 single-kilogram ingots to a box, for the flight to Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.