ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, confessed in a televised address Wednesday to illegally passing nuclear weapons secrets to other countries and begged for forgiveness.
Khan asked President Pervez Musharraf to grant him clemency for what Pakistani authorities say was the black-market sale of nuclear bomb technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea that earned Khan millions of dollars.
But his statements left many questions unanswered and also left many Pakistanis and independent analysts speculating that he was being forced to take the fall for more powerful military leaders, who many believe were secretly behind the technology transfers.
The National Command Authority, a group of the country's top military officers, government ministers and officials, chaired by Musharraf, said Wednesday night that Khan's fate would be decided today at a special Cabinet meeting.
After being ordered confined to his house for days, Khan appeared on state-run television Wednesday, first being shown seeking forgiveness from Musharraf, who sat grim-faced in his camouflage and khaki general's uniform, and then reading a confession to the nation.
Expressing "the deepest sense of sorrow, anguish and regret," Khan, reading from an English text, said he wanted "to atone for some of the anguish and pain that has been suffered by the people of Pakistan on account of the extremely unfortunate events of the last two months.
"I take full responsibility for my actions and seek your pardon," he said.
Khan said he and unnamed accomplices had acted without government authorization. He did not provide specifics about whom he gave the secrets to, how or why he dispersed the technology or what he received in return.
"I wish to place on record that those of my subordinates who have accepted their role in the affair were acting in good faith like me, on my instructions," Khan said.
The face millions of Pakistanis saw on their TV screens Wednesday was not the proudly combative one they had come to idolize as successive governments glorified Khan's effort to make Pakistan the world's only nuclear-armed Muslim nation. This time, Khan appeared somber and contrite as he took the blame for passing the weapons secrets.
Politicians from across Pakistan's political spectrum and analysts said it appeared that Khan, who has staunchly defended his nation's right to have nuclear weapons, might have been falling on his sword to protect others.
"He was just one of the cogs in the machine," Ayesha Siddiqa-Agha, a Pakistani defense and strategic analyst, said in an interview. "He was a very important player, but he was not the only player."
Siddiqa-Agha said she believed the confession was part of a compromise that would allow Khan, and anyone in the armed forces who approved his actions, to suffer limited consequences.
In Washington, U.S. officials said they were eagerly awaiting information about the Pakistani government's investigation into the dispersal of the secrets. They said they did not necessarily accept Khan's contention that the breach had gone no further than him. "We're not accepting or rejecting, we're just digesting all of this," one State Department official said.
Although Pakistani officials have said Khan acted for personal profit against government orders, U.S. officials have claimed that satellites spotted Pakistani military transport planes in North Korea in 2002. Pakistan's government said Saturday that no nuclear proliferation occurred after February 2000, when Musharraf created the National Command Authority.
Following years of denying involvement in nuclear proliferation, Pakistan's government admitted in December that individuals had acted wrongly -- after United Nations inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency uncovered evidence of Pakistani technology in Iran. Libya then said Pakistani scientists had aided its effort to build an atom bomb.
Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations, Munir Akram, said Wednesday that the government removed Khan from his post as head of the nation's nuclear weapons production facility two years ago because of U.S. intelligence reports that the scientist was suspected of passing secrets to North Korea. The government thought that the ouster of Khan, who was then appointed as Musharraf's personal advisor on science and technology, would halt the outflow, Akram said.
The recent revelations about Iran and Libya led to a further crackdown, he said.
"As information was shared with us as a result of the Iran and Libya investigations, we acted on it," Akram said in New York. "We brought people in, asked questions and acted very aggressively. We basically eliminated the source of the problem.
"But obviously it was a whole international operation. Khan may have been essential, but the whole organization involved many other countries and many other companies."