Delicate Dance For Musharraf In Nuclear Case
By DAVID ROHDE and TALAT HUSSAIN; William J. Broad contributed reporting from Vienna, David E. Sanger from Washington, and Craig S. Smith from Amsterdam.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 7
Almost from the moment he took power in October 1999, Gen. Pervez Musharraf heard about serious problems with Abdul Qadeer Khan, the prominent Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist who this week issued a tearful, public confession to selling nuclear secrets around the world.
Those early reports, aides to General Musharraf said this week, involved financial improprieties -- allegations of skimming from government contracts and awarding contracts to relatives for work at the government laboratory run by Dr. Khan. But over the years, officials from the United States and elsewhere gathered more troubling evidence -- that Dr. Khan was secretly exporting nuclear know-how to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
For years, little was done to stop the flow of nuclear secrets. Aides to General Musharraf say he lacked the necessary proof to crack down on Dr. Khan, but some former and current American officials say there was considerable evidence that General Musharraf was turning a blind eye to Dr. Khan's activities, which they say may have involved parts of the Pakistani military.
Last week, the long standoff ended with a confrontation, confession and then a presidential pardon. That choreography was emblematic of the balancing act General Musharraf has engaged in with a scientist lauded at home as the father of Pakistan's nuclear program but seen abroad as a dangerous merchant of nuclear secrets.
In March 2001, after intense American pressure, General Musharraf removed Dr. Khan as the head of the Khan Research Laboratories.
A day after Dr. Khan's forced retirement, General Musharraf called a senior official to vent his frustration about politicians and newspapers that were accusing him of appeasing the West and embarrassing Dr. Khan.
" 'Do these Nizamis know what bad news this fellow is?' " a senior Pakistani official recalled General Musharraf asking, referring to the Nizami family, which owns a leading national newspaper. "He was furious," the official said.
But then, at a dinner for Dr. Khan's retirement, General Musharraf lavished the scientist with praise and gave him the title "special adviser" to the president.
The United States, meanwhile, was performing its own balancing act, weighing Pakistan's lack of action against Dr. Khan with its need to support the Musharraf government.
In 2002, the United States tipped off Pakistan that the Khan laboratories had traded nuclear technology for missile technology with North Korea.
But the United States refused to criticize Pakistan publicly or even hint at imposing penalties. Such penalties had been put in place in 1998, after Pakistan and India conducted nuclear tests, but were lifted after Sept. 11, 2001, when the Bush administration sought Pakistan's cooperation in the campaign against terrorism.
Aides to General Musharraf said they could not act further against Dr. Khan because Pakistan did not have enough evidence of his illicit activities. That changed last year. Iran was forced to allow international inspectors into its nuclear operations, and a European expert identified its centrifuge equipment as a Pakistani adaptation of a European design that Dr. Khan had been accused of stealing in the 1970's. Then, in October, a ship was intercepted on its way to Libya, bearing centrifuge parts. They were traced back to a plant in Malaysia that did work for Dr. Khan.
As evidence mounted, the Pakistani government slowly began to back away from its years of denials, and the pressure on Dr. Khan grew.
The details of the confrontation with Dr. Khan came from accounts provided by aides to General Musharraf as well as a senior military official. They provided an account that portrayed General Musharraf as concerned about proliferation but fearful of a political backlash if he moved against Dr. Khan.
Over the last three months, 11 aides to Dr. Khan have been detained for questioning and two of the country's highest ranking generals have begun a series of meetings with Dr. Khan, according to senior Pakistani officials.
A first meeting was held at Dr. Khan's house in December, at which he denied any wrongdoing to the two generals, Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, head of the country's Strategic Planning and Development Cell, or nuclear wing, and Lt. Gen. Ehsan ul-Haq, the head of Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani officials said.
Dr. Khan fought the inquiry, according to family friends of the scientist. He sent his daughter to London, allegedly with material showing that senior military officials approved of his activities, according to a friend of the Khan family. And he also quietly encouraged families of his detained aides to protest the inquiry as humiliating to the scientists.
But slowly Dr. Khan cracked. As meetings with the two generals continued, Dr. Khan eventually admitted that he had shared technology with Iran, but said he had done so at the behest of two aides to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, both of whom are dead, the officials said. He insisted that the equipment sent to Iran was antiquated and could not be used to make a nuclear bomb.
During the meetings, a senior government official said, the generals hinted to Dr. Khan that they feared he could be kidnapped by American and Israeli intelligence officials if he traveled abroad. The generals also said Pakistan could not protect Dr. Khan's daughter in London, the official said.
The breakthrough meeting, those officials said, came last Sunday. It began with a threat from the two generals to expose Dr. Khan.
They presented him with an intercepted letter he had written to Iranian officials urging them to dismantle equipment from Pakistan and to identify dead Pakistani officials as their contacts, senior officials said. Then he was shown evidence of a bank account in Dubai, holding several millions of dollars, that a surrogate allegedly opened for him under a false name. The generals also produced statements from his aides implicating him in proliferation.
The generals had gotten the best of the scientist. Dr. Khan signed a confession detailing his illicit network. Later that day the government began describing the charges to Pakistani journalists.
But Dr. Khan had one final move. Senior government officials said that he then asked to meet with General Musharraf to request a presidential pardon. Pakistani political and military experts have called this version of events implausible, saying that the two generals had worked out an understanding with Dr. Khan beforehand.
Either way, on Wednesday the president and the scientist met for 45 minutes. General Musharraf told aides afterward that he grew angry with Dr. Khan only once, when he claimed that two deceased former aides to Ms. Bhutto had urged him to share technology with Iran. After General Musharraf confronted him with evidence to the contrary, the aides said, Dr. Khan backed off.
After the meeting, Dr. Khan "looked relieved," according to the senior official, who was present. The official said that General Musharraf told Dr. Khan that he would receive a presidential pardon if he apologized to the nation.
At 4:30 p.m., Dr. Khan arrived at the state television studios with a two-page typewritten statement. A senior official who was present said that the scientist declined to use a teleprompter and wrote one phrase into the speech.
Along with stating that his activities were "errors in judgment," Dr. Khan added a caveat. A decade of proliferation, he said, was "based in good faith."
But others say Dr. Khan's misdeeds sprang from vanity and avarice.
"He's an egomaniac," said George R. Perkovich, a Pakistan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Dr. Khan has told interviewers that he devised Pakistan's nuclear weapons program from a desire to have Islamic countries catch up with the West. But Dr. Perkovich painted a different portrait.
"There's almost zero pan-Islamic ideology there," he said. "What's more likely is a rejection of the nonproliferation ethos as something that the Americans and Israelis worry about, but is not Pakistan's problem."
Although Dr. Khan is seen in Pakistan as the father of the Pakistani bomb or the founder of its nuclear weapons program, Western experts say he is hardly due all of the credit. He is an expert at making centrifuges, hollow tubes that spin very fast to enrich natural uranium into bomb fuel. His mastery of the difficult art proved vital to Pakistan's success.
Other scientists played bigger roles in turning the enriched uranium into nuclear weapons, Western experts agree. But Dr. Khan seldom refused overall credit.
Dr. Khan is believed to have stolen centrifuge designs from Urenco, a European consortium for manufacturing nuclear equipment, between May 1972 and December 1975. At that time, he was working at FDO, a company in Amsterdam and a member of the consortium.
Frits Veerman, a technical photographer who shared an office with Dr. Khan at FDO, described him as well-liked and respected for his energy and diligence. Mr. Veerman, who spoke by telephone from his home in Huizen, the Netherlands, said Dr. Khan was "a very charming, friendly man."
Mr. Veerman recalled that Dr. Khan was allowed to carry sensitive files home from work. "I saw top secret technical drawings in his house," Mr. Veerman said. Dr. Khan continued to write to Mr. Veerman, asking for his help supplying sketches and other technical details.
When Dr. Khan left the Netherlands, he took blueprints for Urenco's centrifuges, Dutch investigators said when they tried and convicted Dr. Khan in absentia. (The conviction was later overturned on a technicality.)
The deal that Dr. Khan struck with the Pakistani government may leave many questions unanswered, including whether government officials or other scientists knew about or played a role in the nuclear network.
There are signs that the balancing of competing interest that has characterized the case continues.
After General Musharraf pardoned Dr. Khan, the United States refrained from criticism or any further action against Pakistan. And General Musharraf said he would not conduct any further investigation into the military's role or allow international inspectors into nuclear facilities in Pakistan.
Simon Henderson, a London-based author and associate of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has repeatedly interviewed Dr. Khan and his associates, said that much more information about the scientist's exploits could come to light, potentially embarrassing people inside and outside Pakistan.
"Musharraf hopes he has killed the story," Mr. Henderson said. "But while Khan is still around, there is the danger that the real story will emerge."
This article was originally published
in The New York Times on February 8. 2004. Copyright
© 2003 The New York Times. For more New York
Times articles please visit www.nytimes.com.
For more information go to:
Suggests Pakistanis Sold Nuclear Secrets"
(December 22, 2003)
• "Delicate Dance for Musharraf in Nuclear Case"
(February 8, 2004)
Tale of Nuclear Proliferation: How Pakistani Built His Network"
(February 12, 2004)
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