Holding Khan Accountable, An ISIS Statement Accompanying Release of Libya: A Major Sale at Last

by David Albright

December 1, 2010

A.Q. Khan’s most complex act of proliferation was the attempted sale to Libya of the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons. The Libyan case is detailed in the ISIS Special Report, Libya: A Major Sale at Last by David Albright. This report discusses the Khan network’s assistance to Libya far more completely than previously done publicly. It supplements a chapter on Libya in Peddling Peril, published by Free Press in March 2010.

This case reminds us of just how dangerous Khan and his network were. An April 10, 2008 U.S. State Department cable written by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan states: “The damage done to international security by Dr. Khan and his associates is not a closed book.” She continues, “Because of Khan’s actions, the international community must contend with the reality that uranium enrichment technology and nuclear weapons designs that were sold to Libya are now available to other states and non-state actors. This will make it much harder to combat nuclear proliferation in the future.” She added, “The United States and other countries, as well as the IAEA, are expending enormous amounts of time and resources to address the threats that resulted from Dr. Khan’s engagement with Iran, North Korea, and possibly other states.”

Khan would like to portray himself as someone who simply followed Pakistani government orders, somehow uninvolved in nuclear proliferation to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. However, the Khan network’s $100-200 million sale to Libya illustrates the level of Khan’s deception.

This new ISIS report highlights Khan’s role, using statements from Khan’s closest colleagues to show that Khan was directly involved in providing Libya with a complete centrifuge plant. According to these colleagues, Khan oversaw several important aspects of the implementation of the deal to supply a gas centrifuge plant. Khan also personally handed over a nuclear weapon design to a senior Libyan official in Dubai.

In his confessions, Khan has claimed that the initial discussions and deliveries to Libya, dating back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, were carried out with the approval of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in conjunction with her aide and former defense minister, General Imtiaz, and Dr. Z.K. Niazi, a confidante of both. All three individuals are now deceased, making direct confirmation of Khan’s claims impossible. However, Khan’s efforts to act as though he were just following orders initiated at the highest levels of government should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. He has also tried to implicate all three individuals in ordering the transfer of centrifuges to Iran. Yet Khan’s claims contain major discrepancies, at odds with both Iranian statements and documents provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and with the IAEA’s findings about centrifuge transfers to Iran by the Khan network.

Moreover, Khan’s transfers to North Korea’s gas centrifuge program are perhaps the easiest to represent as simply Khan following orders from his government or military leaders. But even here, Khan’s confession and Pakistani government investigations demonstrate that Khan actively advocated these transfers to the Pakistani military and civilian leadership. He also tolerated, likely implicitly or directly sanctioned, unauthorized transfers by his underlings of key centrifuge technology and goods to North Korea over many years in the 1990s.

According to Peddling Peril: “In a December 10, 2003 letter from A.Q. Khan to his wife that aimed to defend his actions and was obtained by British journalist and Khan family confidant Simon Henderson, Khan states that he passed $3 million from the North Koreans to a senior Pakistani general, who had “asked” Khan to give drawings and centrifuges to the North Koreans. However, this letter reportedly omits key parts of this story, namely that North Korea had to pay off this Pakistani general, who wanted the money for a secret army fund, before he would authorize the payment of monies owed to North Korea for an earlier shipment of missile components to Khan Research Laboratory’s (KRL’s) Ghauri missile project. A North Korean official approached Khan and said that North Korea would agree to pay this Pakistani general if his country received help on uranium enrichment technology. In was in this context that this Pakistani general ‘approved’ Khan sending North Korea drawings and centrifuges.

“Khan apparently did not need or seek approval when several years earlier he allowed North Koreans into two of KRL’s centrifuge manufacturing workshops so that North Korean engineers could teach KRL technicians how to make missile components. Not surprisingly, the North Koreans became interested in centrifuge technology, and Khan did not stop these inquisitive engineers from spending considerable time in one of the workshops with a top Pakistani centrifuge expert, where construction of the most sensitive centrifuge components occurred and the P2 centrifuge underwent testing. Even Khan admitted that he knew that it was quite possible that this Pakistani expert explained details of centrifuges to the North Korean engineers.”

In the case of the significant centrifuge transfers to Libya starting in the late 1990s and ending in 2003, Khan in his own private and public confessions has not tried to claim government approval. After all, Khan lost his position at Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) in early 2001 after evidence of his unauthorized nuclear proliferation surfaced. Instead, Khan has sought to blame his chief aide, B.S.A. Tahir, and others in the Khan network, downplaying his own role to that of a distant observer and supposed victim. However, network members uniformly state, and evidence collected by the IAEA shows, that Khan played a leading role in the Libyan deal and called the shots.

The manner in which Khan ran KRL further belies his professed indifference about the Libyan deal. When discussing the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, he routinely and proudly states he established the centrifuge facilities and a highly efficient network of companies to import necessary goods. He states he personally supervised each and every aspect of the centrifuge project, even preparing the drawings and specifications for overseas suppliers. That he acted differently in the case of Libya is simply not credible. Moreover, in discussing the Libyan deal, his own network members, who he says he recruited and firmly directed, describe Khan as being in charge of this program and its every activity. They do not describe the removed, disinterested bumbler and mindless follower that Khan would now have us believe he was.

Some have raised Khan’s shipment of most of the P1 centrifuge components to Libya on Pakistani Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft as evidence of Pakistani governmental approval of Khan’s activities. However, because of Khan’s special role using smuggling operations to develop Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, he had acquired tremendous autonomy to carry out official smuggling to supply the Pakistani nuclear program, allowing him to use the same resources to conduct his unauthorized proliferation deals. That overlap, according to senior U.S. officials, is one of the chief reasons U.S. and British intelligence had such difficultly discovering Khan’s proliferation to other states.

Even believing that there is some merit in Khan’s claims does not answer for his central role in so many proliferation acts from the mid-1980s until 2004. According to Peddling Peril, “While Pakistani military and political leaders came and went, Khan remained. He operated freely in a largely unregulated, sometimes corrupt, political and military environment. Top leaders might have sanctioned a few specific proliferation acts but in general they tolerated or did not know of, let alone have the ability or motivation to stop, his and his associates’ many proliferation activities.”

George Tenet, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was right when he said that Khan was as “at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden.” Khan has shown little remorse for his actions or regard for the truth. Khan made the world far more dangerous; every effort should be made to thwart future “Khans”, and Khan himself deserves special scrutiny, despite his pardon and recent Pakistani court rulings. Khan is already subject to U.S. sanctions; placing him under United Nations Security Council sanctions remains logical. Making nuclear smuggling an international crime would also ease the task of punishing future violators. In the meantime, if the Pakistani government refuses to take action against Khan, the many countries exploited by the Khan network should make it clear that if Khan travels to their countries they will arrest him and bring him to trial for committing one of the most heinous crimes of nuclear proliferation in history.

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