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A High-Risk Nuclear Stakeout

The U.S. took too long to act, some experts say, letting a Pakistani scientist sell illicit technology well after it knew of his operation.

February 27, 2005|Douglas Frantz | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Nuclear warhead plans that Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan sold to Libya were more complete and detailed than previously disclosed, raising new concerns about the cost of Washington's watch-and-wait policy before Khan and his global black market were shut down last year.

Two Western nuclear weapons specialists who have examined the top-secret designs say the hundreds of pages of engineering drawings and handwritten notes provide an excellent starting point for anyone trying to develop an effective atomic warhead.

"This involved the spread of very sensitive nuclear knowledge, and it is the most serious form of proliferation," one of the specialists said. Both described the designs on condition that their names be withheld because the plans are classified.

The sale of the plans is particularly troubling to some investigators because the transaction occurred at least 18 months after U.S. and British intelligence agencies concluded that Khan was running an international nuclear smuggling ring and identified Libya as a suspected customer, according to U.S. officials and a British government assessment.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Pakistani scientist -- An article in Sunday's Section A about Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan said Congress had approved a request for a three-year, $3-billion package of economic and military assistance to Pakistan. The package is for a period of five years.

Interviews with current and former government officials and intelligence agents and outside experts in Washington, Europe and the Middle East reveal a lengthy pattern of watching and waiting when it came to Khan and his illicit network.

The trail dated back more than 20 years as Khan went from a secretive procurer of technology for Pakistan's atomic weapons program, which he headed, to history's biggest independent seller of nuclear weapons equipment and expertise.

For most of those years, Khan's primary customers were Iran and North Korea. In 2002, President Bush said the countries were part of an "axis of evil," in part because of nuclear programs nourished by Khan and his network.

Despite knowing at least the broad outlines of Khan's activities, American intelligence agencies regularly objected to shutting down his operations. And policymakers in Washington repeatedly prioritized other strategic goals over stopping him, according to current and former officials.

Some officials said that even as the picture of the threat posed by Khan's operation got clearer and bigger in 2000 and 2001, the intelligence was too limited to act on.

Other officials said the CIA and the National Security Agency, which eavesdropped on Khan's communications, were so addicted to gathering information and so worried about compromising their electronic sources that they rebuffed efforts to roll up the operation for years.

"We could have stopped the Khan network, as we knew it, at any time," said Robert J. Einhorn, a top counter-proliferation official at the State Department from 1991 to August 2001. "The debate was, do you stop it now or do you watch it and understand it better so that you are in a stronger position to pull it up by the roots later? The case for waiting prevailed."

Current and former Bush administration officials say the patience paid off. They say that in late 2003, combined U.S. and British intelligence on Khan finally yielded enough information to persuade Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi to relinquish his nuclear technology and turn over conclusive evidence used to shut down the Pakistani scientist, who by then had been removed as head of his nation's primary nuclear laboratory.

"A.Q. Khan is a textbook case of government doing things right," John S. Wolf, then assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation, said when Kadafi gave up his nuclear equipment.

Others say that the price of patience was too high, emphasizing that for years Khan fed the nuclear ambitions of countries that the U.S. says have ties to terrorism and pose major foreign policy problems.

"I don't see what was gained by waiting," said George Perkovich, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "Iran got centrifuge equipment and knowledge at the very least, and possibly a weapons design. We don't even know what North Korea got."

An American diplomat in Europe was more blunt, saying, "It's absolutely shocking that Khan spread nuclear knowledge while he was being watched."

As a global inquiry into Khan's network enters its second year, investigators from several countries and the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna are trying to answer two vital questions -- how much damage did Khan do and how did he stay in business for so long?

The challenge has been made tougher by Pakistan's refusal to allow outside investigators to question Khan, who is under house arrest in Islamabad, and because his network began systematically shredding papers and deleting e-mails in the summer of 2002, after realizing it was under surveillance.

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