Those Nuclear Flashpoints Are Made in Pakistan
George W. Bush is hardly the first U.S. president to forgive sins against democracy by a Pakistani leader. Like his predecessors from Jimmy Carter onward, Bush has tolerated bad behavior in hopes that Pakistan might do Washington's bidding on some urgent U.S. priority -- in this case, a crackdown on al-Qaeda. But the scariest legacy of Bush's failed bargain with Gen. Pervez Musharraf isn't the rise of another U.S.-backed dictatorship in a strategic Muslim nation, or even the establishment of a new al-Qaeda haven along Pakistan's lawless border. It's the leniency we've shown toward the most dangerous nuclear-trafficking operation in history -- an operation masterminded by one man, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
For nearly four years, under the banner of the "war on terror," Bush has refused to demand access to Khan, the ultranationalist Pakistani scientist who created a vast network that has spread nuclear know-how to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Indeed, Bush has never seriously squeezed Musharraf over Khan, who remains a national hero for bringing Pakistan the Promethean fire it can use to compete with its nuclear-armed nemesis, India. Khan has remained under house arrest in Islamabad since 2004, outside the reach of the CIA and investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who are desperate to unlock the secrets he carries. Bush should be equally adamant about getting to the bottom of Khan's activities.
Bush's sluggishness over Pakistan-based proliferation, even as he has funneled about $10 billion in military and financial aid to Musharraf since Sept. 11, 2001, is even harder to explain when one considers the damage Khan has done to the world's fragile nuclear stability. Khan used stolen technology and black-market sales to help Pakistan obtain its nuclear arsenal, setting the stage for a possible atomic showdown with India. He played a pivotal role in helping Iran start what we increasingly fear is a clandestine nuclear-arms program, allowing Tehran to make significant progress in the shadows before its efforts were uncovered in 2002. He gave key uranium-enrichment technology to North Korea. And if all this weren't enough, he was busily outfitting Libya with a full bomb-making factory when his network was finally shut down in late 2003. Khan has been held incommunicado ever since, leaving the world with new nuclear flashpoints -- and some burning, unanswered questions about his black-market spree.
The most urgent line of inquiry -- particularly given Bush's bellicose statements about the threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions -- centers on what exactly Khan provided to the Iranians over 15 years of doing business with them. He could help answer the questions on which war may depend: Is Iran trying to get the bomb? If so, how close is Tehran to obtaining it? Or are the mullahs simply pursuing a civilian nuclear capacity? We do know that Khan sold Iran advanced equipment to manufacture and operate the centrifuges that can enrich uranium, either to generate electricity or to provide the fuel for a weapon. But Khan's nuclear bazaar trafficked in other goodies as well -- including the blueprints for a Chinese-made nuclear warhead, which were found in Libya after Moammar Gaddafi abandoned his atomic aspirations in December 2003 and fingered Khan as his chief supplier.
Despite all these compelling reasons for interrogating Khan, the Bush administration has treated Musharraf with kid gloves, insisting that the general is simply too critical to the fight against Islamic extremism to jeopardize his tenuous hold on power by forcing him to hand over such a national icon. (The same type of flawed rationale is now being rolled out to defend U.S. timorousness in the face of Musharraf's repugnant crackdown on his political foes, the judiciary, the media and human rights groups.) The nastiest legacy of Musharraf's reign will almost certainly not be his turn toward tyranny. It will be his reluctance to get tough on Khan in the past and to question him now -- a reluctance echoed by U.S. reticence about demanding that Pakistan's leaders control its rogue nuclear network. The dangers those failures created will threaten the world long after Musharraf and Bush are gone.
In fact, Khan could have been stopped before he got started. In the mid-1970s, he was working as a mid-level scientist at a research laboratory in Amsterdam, preparing to steal top-secret Dutch plans for building centrifuges and busily compiling a list of potential suppliers for Pakistan's nascent atomic-weapons program -- the seeds of the procurement network that led Pakistan to the bomb. In the fall of 1975, the Dutch secret service discovered what Khan was up to and grew eager to arrest him on espionage charges. But more pragmatic officials from the Dutch economics ministry urged them to hold off, worried about the embarrassment of exposing a spy in the heart of their nuclear establishment.
The CIA turned out to be a tiebreaker. Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch economics minister at the time and later prime minister, told us that the security service had asked the CIA to support its pleas to bust Khan. But the Americans surprised their Dutch colleagues, asking that the scientist be allowed to continue working so that they could monitor his budding procurement operation. Instead of being thrown in jail, Khan was transferred to a less sensitive job. That demotion tipped him off that time was running out, so he bolted for home, taking with him the nuclear secrets that would help make Pakistan a nuclear power. It was a "monumental error," said Robert Einhorn, a senior State Department official who worked on arms control under Bush and President Bill Clinton.
Four years later, Washington got a second chance to stop Khan. By 1979, U.S. intelligence agencies had a clear picture of Pakistan's pursuit of nuclear arms and Khan's crucial role as the chief of its uranium-enrichment efforts. In April, Carter slapped economic sanctions on Pakistan -- a shrewd move that turned out to be woefully short-lived.
On Christmas Eve 1979, Soviet troops landed at Kabul International Airport, and by Christmas morning, Red Army soldiers were rolling across pontoon bridges in northern Afghanistan and fanning out across the country. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser, saw an opportunity to confront the Soviets by funneling money and arms to the nascent Afghan resistance movement, dominated by the zealous Muslim fighters who would one day become the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But Brzezinski's plan required using Pakistan as a conduit for aid to the anti-Soviet jihad, which meant abandoning the sanctions on Islamabad. "This will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy," Brzezinski wrote Carter in a memo dated Dec. 26, 1979.
Carter reluctantly agreed. But by revoking the sanctions, he granted Pakistan -- and Khan -- carte blanche on the nuclear front. Washington sacrificed the goal of stopping Pakistan's nuclear-arms effort, and the moral authority that the United States had used to advocate the cause of nuclear nonproliferation was severely damaged.
The blame did not end with Carter. During a campaign stop in Florida in January 1980, Ronald Reagan was asked about Pakistan's atomic ambitions. "I just don't think it's any of our business," he replied.
In office, Reagan and his aides made an art of ignoring Pakistan's march toward the bomb, including intelligence in 1987 that warned that Khan had transferred nuclear equipment to Iran. That transaction started Tehran's clandestine atomic program and marked Khan's transformation from a buyer of nuclear technology to a seller of it. Once again, an opportunity to stop him -- and to derail Iran's fledgling efforts -- was missed.
Bush brags that he helped shut down Khan's network. In fact, much of the damage had already been done. And even Bush's supposed great nonproliferation victory -- persuading Libya to abandon its secret nuclear program -- was too little, too late.
Between 1997 and 2003, we found, Libya paid Khan and his associates nearly $100 million for bomb-making technology and expertise. Among Libya's purchases were detailed plans, which arrived in Tripoli in 2000 or early 2001, for a Chinese warhead. International experts who have seen those designs strongly suspect that the Libyans copied them before turning the plans over to the Americans, along with their nuclear hardware.
In fact, the Americans could have acted against Khan before Libya ever got the nuclear designs. A CIA case officer nicknamed "Mad Dog" had recruited a Swiss technician at the center of Khan's ring who was providing regular reports on what was going to Libya. We don't know whether the mole was aware of the warhead plans, but we do know that he provided the CIA with a list of equipment so frighteningly thorough that British intelligence, after learning how much material Gaddafi was receiving, was clamoring for action against Libya well before the Americans agreed to move.
The mole also revealed another bombshell. In previously secret briefings with senior IAEA officials in Vienna, he disclosed that he had made electronic copies of the warhead plans in the fall of 2003, acting on orders from Khan, according to diplomats with direct knowledge of the briefings. The mole said that he sent the copies to Khan and one of his associates. But the plans have never surfaced.
Other items from Khan's deadly inventory are missing, too, including a shipment of centrifuge components and precision tools that disappeared in mid-2003. International inspectors worry that the material wound up in the hands of a previously unknown Khan customer -- perhaps Saudi Arabia or Syria, both countries where Khan had tried to peddle his wares before he was arrested. Another possible destination: Iran, where some U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials suspect that the military is operating a second, parallel enrichment program buried deep within the mountains that cover much of the country. But solving such dangerous riddles is apparently not as attractive as propping up a dubious ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.
In the Carter and Reagan years, the justification for going soft on Pakistan's nuclear adventures was always the hope of defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan. Under George H.W. Bush and Clinton, the CIA argued convincingly that it needed more information before striking at Khan. When it comes to Pakistan, there's always something -- some perfectly sensible, hard-headed reason for putting the dangers of nuclear proliferation on the back burner. And Washington's priorities may well stay that way until the very moment when the unthinkable occurs.
Douglas Frantz, a senior writer at Condé Nast Portfolio, and Catherine Collins, a Washington-based writer, are co-authors of the forthcoming "The Nuclear Jihadist: The True Story of the Man Who Sold the World's Most Dangerous Secrets . . . and How We Could Have Stopped Him."