TOPICS > Nation

Nuclear Bazaar

February 3, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


IAN WILLIAMS: Well throughout this city, there are monuments to the work of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, hero of the nation, father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Reports, quoting official courses, say he’s confessed to passing on nuclear know-how to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. The official inquiry into proliferation is now almost complete. At his last public appearance, the pressure was beginning to show.

REPORTER: Have you been debriefed?

SPOKESMAN: No comment. No comment.

IAN WILLIAMS: It was at a conference of Islamic scientists in Islamabad in late December, and Dr. Khan was still being treated as a celebrity. Today, he’s effectively under house arrest.

(Explosion) It was after Pakistan successfully tested a nuclear device in May 1998, that Dr. Khan, the head of the program, “Father of Pakistan’s Bomb,” became a national hero. The evidence that he passed on nuclear know-how was handed to the Pakistan government by the International Atomic Energy Agency, who had obtained it from Iran and Libya.

In addition, Washington has alleged that Pakistan swapped nuclear know-how for North Korean missile technology. Yet as the crisis has unfolded, the Pakistan government is insisting the scientists were acting alone, out of greed, without the knowledge of the military, even though the men in uniform were in charge of the nuclear program.

SPOKESMAN: They were not answerable to the army chief at any stage, not then and not now.

IAN WILLIAMS: General Aslam Beg was army chief during the time when most of the alleged proliferation was taking place. He insists that because of the clandestine nature of their work, the nuclear scientists had to be given a great deal of autonomy.

GENERAL ASLAM BEG: A lot of freedom had to be given. Funds had to be placed at their disposal because you can’t ask them where they went, how they got it, and you don’t ask for a check or a receipt from them. So that’s what happened, right from the day it started in 1976. They were just helping friends, operating in the same environment of the underworld, looking for technology and know-how.

IAN WILLIAMS: In other words, greedy Pakistani scientists became sellers in the same black market in which they’d bought their technology. But for many, the claim that the army was kept in the dark simply doesn’t wash, especially among the families and lawyers of six scientists and staff who’ve been detained from Dr. Khan’s research center. Mr. Ikram says the military was in tight control.

MOHAMMAD IKRAM: It was not only the physical security of the research or other research labs relatable to the nuclear program, but even regarding the internal affairs as to what was being done, how it was being done, how it was being managed, what was being produced, and to what extent certain areas were being really brought up for the purpose accomplishment of the nuclear project.

IAN WILLIAMS: He says that by scapegoating scientists, the government will open a Pandora’s Box. And the public may find it hard to swallow, too. Parts of the city are named after Dr. Khan. Downtown Islamabad even boasts a fiberglass model of the mountain where the nuclear test took place. Now the authorities are leaking details of the lavish lifestyles, the secret bank accounts and front companies in Dubai through which the men– once built up as national icons– allegedly conducted their illegal nuclear trade.

There have already been protests, mostly from the religious parties. The evidence of proliferation handed to Pakistan’s government seems to have been too damning to ignore, as has pressure from America, more concerned than ever about nuclear know-how getting into the wrong hands. Under intense American pressure, President Musharraf says he’ll come clean on proliferation and he’ll address the nation, giving the results of the inquiry after the Eid holidays later this week, which is when the religious parties say they’ll step up their protests– protests against the humiliation, as they see it, of a national hero.