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What secrets is he keeping?

June 21, 2008|Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins | Douglas Frantz, a senior writer at Conde Nast Portfolio and former managing editor at The Times, and Catherine Collins are coauthors of "The Nuclear Jihadist: The True Story of the Man Who Sold the World's Most Dangerous Secrets and How We Could Have Stopped Him."

Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan has been living in official disgrace for more than four years, confined to his estate in Islamabad after confessing that he sold nuclear technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea. But his image as a national hero remains intact for most of his countrymen, who still regard him as the father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and the man who brought pride to a downtrodden country.

Since the new coalition government took the reins in Pakistan this spring, momentum has been building to free Khan from house arrest and restore him to his former glory.

As an initial step, he was allowed in April to break his silence, and he has since given interviews to the Pakistani and international media. He has used the sessions to accuse President Pervez Musharraf of forcing him to confess to crimes he didn't commit and blame Musharraf for turning Pakistan into a "banana republic."

The story line fits neatly into the new government's demonizing of Musharraf. It also demonstrates Khan's canny ability to exploit Pakistan's political turmoil for personal gain. For years, he shifted allegiances smoothly to each new leader, whether civilian or military.

With most observers counting the days until the new government forces Musharraf out of office, freedom and redemption seemed within Khan's grasp -- until this week.

David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, issued a report Monday that concluded Khan and his nuclear black market had distributed electronic copies of designs for a compact nuclear weapon. Khan found himself back in the headlines as troubling new questions were raised about whether the damage caused by his nuclear Wal-Mart was even greater than previously known.

International investigators had discovered Khan's fingerprints in the world's nuclear hot spots before. His sale of technology for enriching uranium to Iran, North Korea and Libya -- and probably at least one unknown customer -- led to his 2004 confession. He also had sold Libya designs for a bulky nuclear warhead developed in 1966 by the Chinese.

In our recent book about Khan's network, we described how he had ordered a Swiss associate to make electronic copies of nuclear warhead plans and distribute them to members of the ring. This occurred in late 2003, as American and British intelligence agents were closing in on Khan. International investigators initially thought the copies were of the old Chinese plans.

Only later did inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency come across something much more disturbing. Cracking the encryption on designs copied in 2003 and found in computers seized from members of Khan's network in 2004 and 2005, the IAEA discovered partial electronic plans for the more sophisticated -- and miniaturized -- warhead, which could be carried by missiles in Iran, North Korea and other countries. The plans were found on computers in Switzerland, Dubai and Malaysia. Speculation is that the designs were Pakistan's own refinement of the 1966 Chinese warhead.

"It's a very different category of information, and it's very dangerous," said Albright of the new designs. "There is very little information of this quality outside the nuclear weapons states."

So far, there is no hard evidence that the designs made their way to a rogue country or a terrorist group. But it's almost impossible to know who might have received the plans, given the ease with which the electronic versions can be transmitted. A diplomat familiar with the plans said they were missing some key elements but that they would be enormously helpful to any country building a nuclear warhead.

Khan has called the Albright report "a pack of lies" in phone interviews from his home. And Khan's supporters in Pakistan remain undaunted by what appears to be his latest perfidy. Even as news of the dangerous blueprints broke, members of parliament renewed the call for releasing him. Freeing Khan is a reckless proposition, particularly because this latest revelation proves that Khan's deadly legacy is not over.

Even if good sense prevails in Islamabad and Khan remains isolated in his house, he must be interrogated by experts to determine what he sold and to whom he sold it. The U.S. should have demanded that long ago, but the Bush administration didn't press the Pakistanis for direct access to the scientist because it feared jeopardizing relations with Musharraf. Now it's no longer a job for the United States. Relations between Washington and Islamabad have reached a new low since U.S. bombs killed 11 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers last week. Instead, the responsibility belongs to the IAEA. Its inspectors have continued to track the network when others backed away, and it carries the authority of the United Nations.

So far, Pakistan has refused to grant the IAEA access to Khan. Only pressure from the international community, including the United States, can open the door to Khan's knowledge. The risk of not getting to the bottom of Khan's network is too great, as the latest revelation demonstrates.

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