TRIPOLI Pakistan was the source of the centrifuge design technology that made it possible for Libya to make major strides in the last two years in enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons, Bush administration officials in Washington and other Western experts say.
The officials emphasized Monday that they possessed no evidence that the Pakistani government of President Pervez Musharraf – a crucial ally in the pursuit of Al Qaeda – knew about the transfer of technology to Libya, which helped finance Pakistan’s early nuclear weapons program three decades ago.
Nonetheless, the officials’ remarks brought a furious response Tuesday from the Pakistani government, which asserted, through a senior official in its nuclear program, that “Pakistan should not be blamed for any individual’s wrongful act.”
Many of the centrifuge parts that Libya imported, and which Italy intercepted in October, were manufactured in Malaysia, according to experts familiar with the continuing investigation.
The timing of the transfer of the centrifuge design from Pakistan calls into question Musharraf’s ability to make good on his vow to President George W. Bush that he would rein in Pakistani scientists selling their nuclear expertise around the globe.
Musharraf made that pledge shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States. Yet the main aid to Libya appears to have come since those attacks, suggesting that Pakistani scientists may have continued their trade even after the explicit warning.
“It has all the hallmarks of a Pakistani system,” a senior official in Washington said. “These guys are now three for three as supplier to the biggest proliferation problems we have,” the official added, referring to previously disclosed Pakistani aid to the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.
In Islamabad on Tuesday, a senior official of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission denied any government involvement in the transfer of nuclear technology, although the official stopped short of rejecting the possibility that individual Pakistanis might have had a transfer role.
“The government of Pakistan was not behind any move aimed at transferring nuclear knowledge or technology or any other thing to any other country,” the official told The Associated Press, which did not identify the official. “We do not know who has been helping Iran, North Korea or Libya.”
Separately, Pakistan’s information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, told The Associated Press: “This is total madness. The report is absolutely false, and there is no truth in it.” He added, “Pakistan’s program is under tight control and in safe hands. People keep publishing this kind of trash. Let me again say that Pakistan is a responsible state and Pakistan has never proliferated.”
Libya agreed on Dec. 19 to dismantle its nuclear program and open itself to full inspections, which have already begun. But on Monday, Bush issued a statement saying U.S. economic sanctions against Libya would continue until it takes “concrete steps” to disarm.
The president pointed the way to a lifting of sanctions, however. “As Libya takes tangible steps to address those concerns,” Bush said in a statement to Congress, “the United States will in turn take reciprocal tangible steps to recognize Libya’s progress.”
The United States and Britain have declined to identify publicly the sources of uranium enrichment technology shipped to Libya. They still will not discuss the origin of many of the parts that Libya obtained from middlemen and dealers. Those shipments are often hard to trace; the ship containing the Malaysian-made components in October picked them up in Dubai, a major transfer point for both legitimate and banned technology.
Still, a senior Bush administration official said it would be wrong to say the Pakistani government was involved in the shipment.
“This is intellectual property,” the official said, “and the technology of uranium enrichment is out there on the black market.” He added that to say the government of Musharraf was involved would be like saying “an American drug smuggler arrested on the border was working for the United States government.”
While Washington has waxed eloquent over the Libyan decision to disarm, some officials are concerned that Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, could change his mind, especially if the United States does not to act on an implicit pledge to lift the economic sanctions. To speed disarmament, the United States, Britain and Libya have agreed to begin talks later this week in London to work out detailed plans to verify and dismantle Libya’s nuclear, chemical and other weapons programs.
Senior Western officials said on Monday that over the weekend, the United States and Britain agreed on a common approach after a visit to London by John Bolton, the under secretary of state in charge of nonproliferation matters.
Separately on Monday, the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, said in the House of Commons that he had invited the Libyan foreign minister, Abdelrahman Shalqam, to London “soon” to discuss “the process of implementing the decision by Libya to dismantle its weapons programs.”
After the mechanics of a disarmament plan are worked out, Straw said, it will then be Libya’s responsibility to report separately to the international agencies that will undertake the long-term monitoring of military laboratories in Libya to ensure that it does not renege on its pledges to give up illicit programs.
“We have committed ourselves to helping with the preparation” of Libya’s submissions to the international treaty agencies, Straw said, “and to helping dismantle the programs Libya has agreed to destroy.”
Straw’s statement appeared to be a carefully calibrated division of labor among the main players in Libya’s disarmament, and spoke of relevant international agencies playing a part, at least after initial talks.
Earlier comments from senior Bush administration officials had suggested that there was an effort by Washington to sideline Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which he heads, from playing a key role in setting out a plan for dismantling Libya’s nuclear program. Monday’s statements in London and those by a senior U.S. official suggested that ElBaradei would initially play a subordinate role as Britain and the United States move to inventory the full scope of Libya’s illicit weapons programs and then take a prominent role in their dismantling.
In his statement to the British commons on Monday, Straw alluded to the coming negotiations in London.
“Britain and the United States will now be taking forward the practical issues of verification and of the dismantling of these weapons in partnership with Libya” and the international agencies that monitor the treaties banning the spread of nuclear and chemical weapons.
However, a senior Bush administration official said by telephone that staff from the I.A.E.A. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will not attend the London talks.