Sunday, December 26, 2004

 

Lack of cooperation impedes anti-proliferation effort

You can't entirely blame this on the Bush Administration, since the CIA fucked up dealing with this guy for over a decade, but you can blame Bush for worrying more about Mohammed ElBaradei than about A. Q. Khan.

(This is a very long article, so please go read it all.)
As Nuclear Secrets Emerge in Khan Inquiry, More Are Suspected

By WILLIAM J. BROAD and DAVID E. SANGER

When experts from the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency came upon blueprints for a 10-kiloton atomic bomb in the files of the Libyan weapons program earlier this year, they found themselves caught between gravity and pettiness.

The discovery gave the experts a new appreciation of the audacity of the rogue nuclear network led by A. Q. Khan, a chief architect of Pakistan's bomb. Intelligence officials had watched Dr. Khan for years and suspected that he was trafficking in machinery for enriching uranium to make fuel for warheads. But the detailed design represented a new level of danger, particularly since the Libyans said he had thrown it in as a deal-sweetener when he sold them $100 million in nuclear gear.

"This was the first time we had ever seen a loose copy of a bomb design that clearly worked," said one American expert, "and the question was: Who else had it? The Iranians? The Syrians? Al Qaeda?"

But that threat was quickly overshadowed by smaller questions. The experts from the United States and the I.A.E.A., the United Nations nuclear watchdog - in a reverberation of their differences over Iraq's unconventional weapons - began quarreling over control of the blueprints. The friction was palpable at Libya's Ministry of Scientific Research, said one participant, when the Americans accused international inspectors of having examined the design before they arrived. After hours of tense negotiation, agreement was reached to keep it in a vault at the Energy Department in Washington, but under I.A.E.A. seal. It was a sign of things to come.

Nearly a year after Dr. Khan's arrest, secrets of his nuclear black market continue to uncoil, revealing a vast global enterprise. But the inquiry has been hampered by discord between the Bush administration and the nuclear watchdog, and by Washington's concern that if it pushes too hard for access to Dr. Khan, a national hero in Pakistan, it could destabilize an ally. As a result, much of the urgency has been sapped from the investigation, helping keep hidden the full dimensions of the activities of Dr. Khan and his associates.

There is no shortage of tantalizing leads. American intelligence officials and the I.A.E.A., working separately, are still untangling Dr. Khan's travels in the years before his arrest. Investigators said he visited 18 countries, including Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, on what they believed were business trips, either to buy materials like uranium ore or sell atomic goods.

The breadth of the operation was particularly surprising to some American intelligence officials because they had had Dr. Khan under surveillance for nearly three decades, since he began assembling components for Pakistan's bomb, but apparently missed crucial transactions with countries like Iran and North Korea.

In fact, officials were so confident they had accurately taken his measure, that twice - once in the late 1970's and again in the 1980's - the Central Intelligence Agency persuaded Dutch intelligence agents not to arrest Dr. Khan because they wanted to follow his trail, according to a senior European diplomat and a former Congressional official who had access to intelligence information. The C.I.A. declined to comment.

"We knew a lot," said a nuclear intelligence official, "but we didn't realize the size of his universe."

President Bush boasts that the Khan network has been dismantled. But there is evidence that parts of it live on, as do investigations in Washington and Vienna, where the I.A.E.A. is based.

Cooperation between the United Nations atomic agency and the United States has trickled to a near halt, particularly as the Bush administration tries to unseat the I.A.E.A. director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, who did not support the White House's prewar intelligence assessments on Iraq.

The chill from the White House has blown through Vienna. "I can't remember the last time we saw anything of a classified nature from Washington," one of the agency's senior officials said. Experts see it as a missed opportunity because the two sides have complementary strengths - the United States with spy satellites and covert capabilities to intercept or disable nuclear equipment, and the I.A.E.A. with inspectors who have access to some of the world's most secretive atomic facilities that the United States cannot legally enter.

Privately, investigators say that with so many mysteries unsolved, they have little confidence that the illicit atomic marketplace has actually been shut down. "It may be more like Al Qaeda," said one I.A.E.A. official, "where you cut off the leadership but new elements emerge."

A. Q. Khan may have been unknown to most Americans when he was revealed about a year ago as the mastermind of the largest illicit nuclear proliferation network in history. But for three decades Dr. Khan, a metallurgist, has been well known to British and American intelligence officials. Even so, the United States and its allies passed up opportunities to stop him - and apparently failed to detect that he had begun selling nuclear technology to Iran in the late 1980's. It was the opening transaction for an enterprise that eventually spread to North Korea, Libya and beyond.

Simon Henderson, a London-based author who has written about Dr. Khan for more than two decades, said the Pakistani scientist long suspected he was under close surveillance. "Khan once told me, indignantly, 'The British try to recruit members of my team as spies,' " Mr. Henderson recalled. "As far as I'm aware, he was penetrated for a long, long time."

Still, for all the surveillance, American officials always seemed a step or two behind. In the 1990's, noted Mr. Einhorn, the assumption was that Iran was getting most of its help from Russia, which was providing the country with reactors and laser-isotope technology. Virtually no attention was paid to its contacts with Dr. Khan.

"It was a classic case of being focused in the wrong place," Mr. Einhorn said. "And if Iran gets the bomb in the next few years, it won't be because of the Russians. It will be because of the help they got from A. Q. Khan."

As soon as Mr. Bush came to office, his director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, began tutoring him on the dangers of Dr. Khan and disclosing how deeply the agency believed it had penetrated his life and network. "We were inside his residence, inside his facilities, inside his rooms," Mr. Tenet said in a recent speech. "We were everywhere these people were."

But acting on the Khan problem meant navigating the sensitivities of a fragile ally important in the effort against terrorism. That has impeded the inquiry ever since.

Dr. Khan's silence has extended to the question of what countries, other than Libya, received the bomb design. Intelligence experts say they have no evidence any other nation received the design, although they suspect Iran and perhaps North Korea. But that search has been hampered by lack of hard intelligence.

"We strongly believe Iran did," said one American official. "But we need the proof."

"It is an unbelievable story, how this administration has given Pakistan a pass on the single worst case of proliferation in the past half century," said Jack Pritchard, who worked for President Clinton and served as the State Department's special envoy to North Korea until he quit last year, partly in protest over Mr. Bush's Korea policy. "We've given them a pass because of Musharraf's agreement to fight terrorism, and now there is some suggestion that the hunt for Osama is waning. And what have we learned from Khan? Nothing."

Given the urgency of the Libyan and Khan disclosures, many private and governmental experts expected that the Bush administration and the I.A.E.A. would work together. But European diplomats said the administration never turned over valuable information to back up its wider suspicions about other countries. "It doesn't like to share," a senior European diplomat involved in nuclear intelligence said of the United States. "That makes life more difficult. So we're on the learning curve."

Federal officials said they were reluctant to give the I.A.E.A. classified information because the agency is too prone to leaks. The agency has 137 member states, and American officials believe some of them may be using the agency to hunt for nuclear secrets. One senior administration official put it this way: "The cops and the crooks all serve on the agency's board together."

The result is that two separate, disjointed searches are on for other nuclear rogue states - one by Washington, the other by the I.A.E.A. And there is scant communication between the feuding bureaucracies.

That lack of communication with the United Nations agency extends to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a loose organization of countries that produce nuclear equipment. It can stop the export of restricted atomic technology to a suspect customer, but it does not report its actions to the I.A.E.A. Moreover, there is no communication between the I.A.E.A. and the Bush administration's Proliferation Security Initiative, which seeks to intercept illicit nuclear trade at sea or in the air.

"It's a legitimate question whether we need a very different kind of super-agency that can deal with the new world of A. Q. Khans," said a senior administration official. "Because we sure don't have the system we need now."

Dr. ElBaradei, the head of the United Nations agency, says he is plunging ahead, pursuing his own investigation even as the Bush administration attempts to have him replaced when his term expires late next year. In an interview in Vienna, he defended his record, citing the information he has wrung out of Iran, and his agency's discovery of tendrils of Dr. Khan's network in more than 30 countries around the globe.

Both in Washington and in Vienna, the most delicate investigations involve important American allies - including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. So far, said European intelligence officials familiar with the agency's inner workings, no hard evidence of clandestine nuclear arms programs has surfaced.
As I said before, this is not all the fault of the Bush Administration. But their absolute inability and unwillingness to play nicely with others - along with their lack of sufficient interest in anti-proliferation - certainly has contributed to this nasty situation. The more countries that have nuclear weapons - the more weapons-grade nuclear material that is unsecured - the more the risk that some terrorist group will get their hands on a weapon or on material to build one. Imagine a nuclear 9-11 - it is not as far off as we may hope. The Bush Administration, compounding the errors of the past, has never taken this threat seriously enough.
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