VIENNA, Austria – U.N. investigators are increasingly certain Pakistan government leaders knew the country’s top atomic scientist was supplying other nations with nuclear technology and designs, particularly North Korea, diplomats told The Associated Press.
While rogue nations were the main customers of the nuclear black market, sales of enriched uranium and warhead drawings have fed international fears that terrorists also could have bought weapons technology or material, the diplomats said.
The investigation has widened beyond Iran, Libya and North Korea — the identified customers of the network headed by Abdul Qadeer Khan — they said, speaking on condition of anonymity in a series of interviews.
The diplomats’ assessment comes about half way through the probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency and western intelligence services into the Khan network, whose tentacles extended from Pakistan to Dubai, Malaysia, South Korea, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Britain, the Netherlands and beyond with potential ties to Syria, Turkey and Spain.
Investigators told AP they expect to complete the probe by June, eight months after U.S. officials confronted the Pakistani government with suspicions about Khan, setting into motion events that led the father of Islamabad’s nuclear program to confess last month.
Despite denials by the Pakistani government, investigators now are certain that some, if not all, of the country’s decision makers were aware of Khan’s dealings, especially with North Korea, which apparently helped Islamabad build missiles in exchange for aid with its nuclear arms program, said one diplomat.
“In all cases except Pakistan, we are sure there was no government involvement,” he said. “In Pakistan, it’s hard to believe all this happened under their noses and nobody knew about it.”
The diplomats didn’t say which parts of the Pakistani government might have known of Khan’s black market activity – military, political or both.
Andrew Koch, of Jane’s Defense Weekly, said he ran into evidence that senior military officers knew of Khan’s sideline four years ago when he attended a military technology exhibition in Karachi. There, the booth of A.Q. Khan’s Research Laboratories, complete with pamphlets offering uranium enrichment equipment, shared space with displays of electronics, anti-tank missiles and other items sold by the government defense industry, he said.
“I picked up the (Khan) brochures and I inquired whether everything inside was for sale and was told, ‘yes, of course, it all had government approval and was available for sale and export,'” he said from Washington.
Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, has insisted his government was not involved.
“The Pakistani government has never and will never proliferate,” he told a meeting of world leaders in January in Davos, Switzerland, pledging to prosecute all “anti-state” elements found culpable.
But his pardon of Khan led to speculation the scientist agreed to keep silent on any government involvement in exchange for avoiding punishment.
Much of what was sold were expensive and high-tech uranium enrichment centrifuge components to Libya — which has confessed to trying to build weapons of mass destruction — and Iran, which denies such ambitions and says its enrichment plans are not for warheads but nuclear power.
Such equipment would be useless to terrorists lacking the space and expertise needed to set up thousands of centrifuges in series and repeatedly recycle isotopes until they were weapons grade. The tens of millions of dollars needed to buy the equipment might also be a deterrent.
But the diplomats identified two recent discoveries — traces of highly enriched uranium apparently of Russian origin found in Iran, and drawings of a nuclear warhead surrendered by Libya — as representing a potential fast track for terrorists looking to build a weapon.
The uranium apparently was sold by individuals in the black market and not by the Russian government and carried a signature typical of enrichment in the former Soviet Union, the diplomats said. While short of the 90 percent weapons level, it was enriched enough to make it suitable for a warhead with much less equipment and effort than needed to enrich natural uranium.
“We’re talking a couple of dozen centrifuges, as compared to about 1,000,” said one diplomat.
The engineers’ drawings of a nuclear weapon, now under IAEA seal in the United States, were of Chinese origin. The texts accompanying them were in both Chinese and English, some handwritten. China is widely assumed to have supplied much of the clandestine nuclear technology that Khan used to establish Pakistan as a nuclear power in 1998.
With such high-tech drawings and about 50 pounds of highly enriched uranium, nuclear experts associated with terrorist groups could make a crude warhead, said one diplomat.
“The simplest way to go about it is to get ready-made nuclear material and weapons design, and — from what’s been found in Iran and Libya — both seem to be available on the market,” said another.
Investigators cannot say whether other countries — or groups — have the drawings.
Al-Qaida has shown an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.
The U.S. federal indictment of Osama bin Laden charges that as far back as 1992 the al-Qaida leader “and others known and unknown, made efforts to obtain the components of nuclear weapons.”
Bin Laden, in a November 2001 interview with a Pakistani journalist, boasted of having hidden such components “as a deterrent.” And in 1998, a Russian nuclear weapons design expert was investigated for allegedly working with the Taliban allies of bin Laden.
Another question is whether the Khan network supplied states other than Iran, Libya and North Korea. Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman of the Vienna-based IAEA, said answering that was the agency’s “No. 1 priority.”
A possible suspect is Syria, which denies nuclear weapons ambitions. U.S. officials are divided on whether Syria constitutes a nuclear threat, with Undersecretary of State John Bolton at odds with senior intelligence officials who insist there’s no clear evidence implicating the country, diplomats told AP.
Several teams of Syrian experts spent time at Ranstad Mineral, a Swedish plant that extracted uranium for enrichment between 1997 and 2002. The IAEA confirmed sponsoring some visits, as part of Syria’s small-scale peaceful nuclear program. But Bengt Lillja, owner of the plant, said the Syrians paid several visits later on their own — and still later, Sweden’s nuclear watchdog agency ordered the plant shut down because of unspecified irregularities in the extraction process.
Experts suspect more covert manufacturing operations will be discovered beyond the centrifuge parts plants identified in Malaysia.
A factory in Turkey is being scrutinized, one diplomat familiar with the investigation said, but declined to go into details beyond suggesting the plant might also be making missile components.
David Albright, a former Iraq nuclear weapons inspector who runs the Institute for Science and International Security, also pointed to Turkey, saying, “We know some components (to Libya) came out of there.”
A diplomat said a company in Spain also was under investigation.