Journalist: Pakistan still using illegal nuclear technology smuggling networks
The journalist who first uncovered the existence of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan's atomic weapons trading network told a conference in Washington, DC, last week that Pakistan still using his network to procure materials for its nuclear weapons program.
The disclosure preceded the revelation that Pakistani authorities have eased the lengthy house arrest to which Khan had been subjected.
A senior editor for Nucleonics Week, Mark Hibbs writes for a specialist journal that follows the nuclear power industry. He published some of the earliest accounts of Khan's illicit trading network, which appears to have hawked uranium enrichment technology and nuclear weapon designs to Iran and Libya.
Speaking at the annual Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference in Washington June 26, Hibbs asserted that Pakistan was still procuring technology for its nuclear weapons program through the network Khan developed.
"We've researched this long after people in the US government suggested to us that the network was dead," Hibbs remarked. "We continue to follow this and find that Pakistan continues to use the network to procure for its nuclear program."
The veteran journalist also said that the broader network Khan built continues to operate.
"I'm satisfied that the networks are still operating," he explained. "The people that are involved in this business...continue to morph over time."
"I know of a case of a company that I was following in the 1980s that was helping Iran get some equipment to power centrifuge machines," he added. "The name of this company has changed six times since 1985."
Hibbs' message varied from one delivered before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs by another specialist versed in the Khan network.
Mark Fitzpatrick of the United Kingdom's International Institute for Strategic Studies agreed that Pakistan continued to seek nuclear technology illicitly, but remarked that the broader Khan network was dormant.
"I do not see any evidence to suggest that the network is currently operating," Fitzpatrick, the lead author of the recently published Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan and the rise of proliferation networks, said. "I believe some elements of the network are lying low and could, after a period of time, reconstitute themselves.
But he cautioned that other countries' networks might be more dangerous.
"I think the greatest danger today may be that other similar quasi-state-related networks could emerge from countries like North Korea or Iran," he said.
Fitzpatrick testified before a congressional panel that considered the Pakistani government's failure to share information on Khan's network with American authorities. Congressmembers criticized Islamabad for its intransigence.
"I think it's obvious that it's the Pakistani government, not some guy in a basement, that's responsible for the A.Q. Khan program. It is the Pakistani government program," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade. "The real question is will that government, that claims to be an ally of ours now, continue to get everything they want from us without sharing information?"
Another congressman also condemned the Bush administration for not putting more pressure on Pakistan over Khan.
"On a government to government level, the Bush Administration has refused again and again to press the Pakistani government for direct access to A.Q. Khan, the one man who could answer all these outstanding questions," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. "Even though the threat of terrorists getting access to nuclear weapons is cited as the greatest threat to American national security, the President has responded by giving Pakistan a squadron of F-16ís, a giant 'get out of jail free card' and has declared that the network has been 'shut down.'"
In his June 26 appearance, Hibbs said that any further Pakistani cooperation with American authorities investigating Khan's network remains unlikely.
"Khan knows a lot more than we do. And he knows a lot more than [International Atomic Energy Agency] knows, and he knows a lot more than the US government knows," he said. "I talked to the chief of the Pakistan Joint Chiefs. This man was the person who was singularly responsible for debriefing Khan after his arrest...he said we could never allow Khan to be interrogated by a foreign govt because 'he has too many of our nuclear secrets.'"
The week after the Congressional oversight and Hibbs' appearance, Pakistani news reports indicated that the terms of Khan's house arrest had been relaxed.
"An Urdu-language daily newspaper, Nawa-i-Waqt, reported Monday that Mr. Khan had recently been allowed to invite six friends individually for lunch or dinner. It quoted an unidentified official as saying that Mr. Khan, who has been treated for prostate cancer, is in good health," according to the New York Times on Tuesday. "The report also said he had been told he would be allowed to go to his favorite restaurant in Islamabad and to visit the hill resorts of Bhurban and Murree."
An AP report went further, quoting a Pakistani government official linked to the nuclear weapons program as stating, "He is virtually a free citizen."
Pakistani authorities denied that Khan's status had changed. The Times report suggested, though, that Pakistan eased up Khan's punishment as a result of the progress in the US-India nuclear cooperation agreement.
A webcast of Hibbs' full appearance can be viewed at this link. A webcast of the Congressional hearing on Pakistan's nuclear trading network is available at this link.