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U.S. Discusses Depth of Khan's Nuclear Network

March 16, 2004|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — The black-market network of Pakistan's top atomic scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, stretched across several continents, had active training programs and received $100 million from Libya for equipment and technology to make nuclear weapons, senior U.S. officials said Monday.

Operatives in at least a dozen countries manufactured, sold or transported nuclear components to Libya, Iran, North Korea and perhaps other nations as part of Khan's enterprise in recent years, the officials said.

"Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East -- it really did span the entire globe," said one, who requested anonymity. "We were surprised by the quantity and how advanced it was."

The disclosures marked the most comprehensive statements by senior Bush administration officials about the network run by Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program. He is believed to have personally made millions of dollars from illicit sales of nuclear technology and components to rogue nations.

The officials spoke during a daylong media tour of the U.S. Energy Department's top-secret Y-12 National Security Complex, which put on display 55,000 pounds of nuclear components surrendered by Libya in recent months, including centrifuges -- used to enrich uranium -- and other equipment allegedly supplied by Khan's network.

The officials, including Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, said Libya's decision to voluntarily dismantle its program marked a milestone in the effort by the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency to curb the proliferation of unconventional weapons.

"The success of our mission in Libya underscores the success of our administrator's broader nonproliferation efforts around the world," Abraham said.

But officials also acknowledged that gaining unfettered access to Libya's nuclear program showed how damaging -- and lucrative -- the network's activities had been.

If Libya had received a large shipment of centrifuges and other nuclear components from Khan's network last year, it would have gained everything it needed to soon begin building bombs, Abraham and the other officials said.

In return, Libya paid handsomely for the technology and equipment. "The estimate is about $100 million -- which, for a very small number of individuals, made it a very lucrative trade," said a second senior administration official. That figure was confirmed by deputy national security advisor James Wilkinson.

In briefings, officials with the Energy Department, the State Department and the National Security Council discussed their secret negotiations with Libya, which led to Tripoli's decision in December to dismantle its nuclear program and its efforts to produce chemical weapons and deploy long-range missiles.

They also described the dramatic scramble to secure thousands of centrifuges, huge canisters of highly enriched uranium and other components, truck them through the congested streets of Tripoli and load them on a C-17 transport plane in the dead of night.

"We got that entire plane loaded, lashed down and off the runway in five hours, from 9:30 at night to 2 a.m.," said one official, a veteran nonproliferation expert who oversaw the U.S. effort in Libya. "It's safe to say their nuclear program has been completely dismantled and removed from the country."

The official said an additional 1 million pounds of nuclear components, largely less-sensitive equipment, was on a freighter bound for the United States.

The officials said that although they had learned little about Khan's operation from the scientist himself, a top associate, Buhary Syed abu Tahir, had provided substantial information to Malaysian authorities, who passed it on the U.S.

To date, no one has been criminally charged -- including Khan, who was pardoned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

The U.S. officials said they believed that a Briton named Peter Griffin provided training in Libya, the Basque region of Spain and perhaps elsewhere in Europe to members of the network. Libyan officials have told the IAEA that their nuclear workers were sent to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, for weeklong training courses.

The U.S. officials also disclosed more than was previously known about the role of Tahir, who they said oversaw day-to-day operations of the network, including shipping the equipment to Libya. Tahir also "managed the financial aspects of the network" and the manufacturing facility in Malaysia.

And an official said a German, Gotthard Lerch, "was very active in acquiring specific components of centrifuges both for Libya and Iran" and that two companies in Turkey provided centrifuge parts and electrical components to Libya. "All of these nodes operated together. All of them operated as a coordinated network," the official said.

*

Times staff writer Douglas Frantz in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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