Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan has been demonized for selling nuclear technology around the world. In the post 9/11 era, the activities of his network raise fears that a terrorist group would manage to acquire and detonate a nuclear bomb in a major city. Although preventing nuclear proliferation is presented as a cornerstone of the US foreign policy, recent revelations indicate that the US government helped Kahn to escape justice. Moreover, the CIA is suspected of trying to cover up this enormous mistake.
On February 4th 2004, Dr. Kahn, speaking in English on Pakistani national television, admitted "sharing" nuclear technology with other countries. Through a worldwide smuggling network, Dr. Kahn has sold the technology of ultracentrifuges1. Dr. Kahn used a factory in Malaysia to manufacture key parts for centrifuges. One of his collaborators, B.S.A. Tahir, ran a front company in Dubai to ship centrifuge components to Libya, North Korea, Iran and possibly other countries.
Khan was born in Bhopal, India, in 1932. His family immigrated to Pakistan in 1952. A decade later, he moved to Europe to complete his studies. After attending courses at West Berlin University, he enrolled at the Technical University in Delft, Holland, where he received a degree in metallurgical engineering in 1967. Five years later, Khan received a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.
In May 1972, Khan joined the Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory, a subcontractor of Ultra Centrifuge Nederland. His first assignment was to investigate various possibilities to strengthen the metal centrifuge components that are exposed to severe stress during operation. Just a few days after his arrival at the Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory, Khan visited the advanced enrichment facility in Almelo, Netherlands. There, he became familiar with the aspects of Urenco centrifuge operations relevant to his own work. In fact, Khan had not been cleared to visit the facility. Nevertheless, he did so on several occasions. No one seemed to bother finding out why. In late 1974, he was charged with the task of translating the more advanced German-designed centrifuges documents from German to Dutch. During two weeks, he had unsupervised access to highly classified documents.
On May 18 1974, India conducted its first nuclear test. In September, Khan wrote to Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to offer his expertise to Pakistan. In August 1975, Pakistan began buying components for its nuclear program from European Urenco suppliers. A physicist in the Pakistani embassy in Belgium, S.A. Butt, contacted a Dutch company to obtain electronic equipment, which is used to control centrifuge motors.
The purchases of many centrifuge components from Urenco suppliers and the behaviour of Kahn himself raised suspicion, as he inquired about technical information not related to his own projects. In October 1975, Khan was transferred away from enrichment work with the Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory as Dutch authorities became increasingly concerned over his activities.
Near the end of the year, Khan understood that he was being watched. On December 15, he suddenly fled the Netherlands for Pakistan, carrying in his baggage copies of the ultracentrifuge blueprints and contact information for nearly 100 subcontractors and suppliers of Urenco.
Dr. Kahn was convicted in absentia in November 1983 by Judge Anita Leeser. The Dutch court sentenced him to four years in prison for attempting to obtain classified information. Two letters that he had written to a former colleague reveal that Khan was asking for detailed information about ultracentrifuge components. On appeal the verdict was quashed because of procedural errors. The Dutch government elected to pursue the matter no further.
Over the last few months, this story has taken a new twist. Ruud Lubbers, a former Dutch prime minister, revealed in August 2005 that the Netherlands was prepared to arrest Abdul Qadeer Khan 30 years ago. Dutch authorities came close to arresting Khan twice, first in 1975 and later in 1986, but the CIA requested that they let him act freely. This revelation is embarrassing to both the CIA and Dutch minister of Justice P. H. Donner, who was previously asked about possible CIA action concerning Khan, and told parliament ''that nothing of the kind has happened. The CIA had nothing to do with it''.
Dutch intelligence had suspicions that Khan was stealing nuclear secrets in the Netherlands. They began to monitor him as soon as he arrived at the Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory. However, according to Lubbers, the country's security agency asked the Ministry of Economic Affairs in 1975, then headed by him, not to act against Khan. "I think the American intelligence agency put into practice what is very common there; just give us all the information. And do not arrest that man; just let him go ahead. We will have him followed and that way gain more information," Lubbers told VPRO Argos Radio in an interview.
The CIA's pressure against the Dutch authorities and its handling of Kahn's activities resulted in a disaster. Khan skilfully outplayed the CIA, manoeuvred around the international export controls of the IAEA, and acquired all the equipment needed for the fabrication of the A-bomb. Dr. Kahn would later recall: "My long stay in Europe and intimate knowledge of various countries and their manufacturing firms was an asset. Within two years we had put up working prototypes of centrifuges and were going at full speed to build the facilities at Kahuta."
Lubbers said that, while he was Prime Minister in 1983, Dutch authorities could have reopened the case after the verdict was quashed. Once again, the Dutch authorities did not do so because of US pressure. "The man was followed for almost ten years and obviously he was a serious problem. But again I was told that the secret services could handle it more effectively," Lubbers said. "The Hague did not have the final say in the matter. Washington did."
The State Department declined to elaborate about Lubber's remarks2. "It is not something that I feel we really have anything to say about because it deals with events long in the past, it deals with intelligence matters and for those reasons, I don't have anything to say about it." US State Department Deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.
Lubbers suspects that Washington allowed Khan's activities because Pakistan was a key ally in the fight against the Soviets. At the time, the US government funded and armed mujahideen such Osama bin Laden. They were trained by Pakistani intelligence to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Anwar Iqbal, Washington correspondent for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, told ISN Security Watch that Lubbers' assertions may be correct. "This was part of a long-term foolish strategy. The US knew Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons but couldn't care less because it was not going to be used against them. It was a deterrent against India and possibly the Soviets."
By September 10 2005, this story had taken yet another new twist. The Amsterdam court, which sentenced Abdul Qadeer Khan to four years in prison in 1983, has lost Khan's legal files. The court's vice-president, Judge Anita Leeser, suspects the CIA had a hand in the documents' disappearance. "Something is not right, we just don't lose things like that," she told Dutch news show NOVA. "I find it bewildering that people lose files with a political goal, especially if it is on request of the CIA. It is unheard of". She had asked to see Dr. Kahn case files several years ago but they had disappeared from the archive.
Mr. Lubbers admitted that succumbing to CIA pressure was a mistake but emphasized that in the cold war era "you had to listen to the Americans". Lubbers also claimed that Dr. Khan continued to "slip in and out of Holland illegally" and the CIA knew about it. Regrettably, the fact that the CIA forbade the Dutch secret service to arrest Khan allowed him to become, in the words of President George W. Bush, the "primary salesman of an extensive international network for the proliferation of nuclear technology and know-how". Dr. A. Q. Khan is blamed for selling nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya but the CIA bears a significant share of the responsibilities for the worst case of nuclear proliferation in history.
1. Ultracentrifuges are fast rotating devices used to enrich uranium. Natural uranium contains 0.7% of 235U can be enriched to 3% which is suitable to fuel a civilian nuclear reactor. It may also be enriched to very high level for the making of nuclear bomb.
2. Daily Press Briefing. Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman, Washington, DC. August 9, 2005. (www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2005/50931.htm)