Pakistan Chief Says It Appears Scientists Sold Nuclear Data
DAVOS, Switzerland, Jan. 23 — Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, acknowledged Friday that scientists from his country appeared to have sold nuclear designs to other nations probably “for personal financial gain.” He denied that the Pakistan government knew of any sales at the time but vowed that suspects would be dealt with “as antistate elements.”
General Musharraf’s statement at a global economic forum here came after weeks of delicate efforts to force Pakistan to deal with the scientists, according to diplomats and American officials. Technical documents recently obtained from Libya on its nuclear program, as well as documents relating to Iran’s nuclear activities, undercut years of Pakistani denials and appeared to force General Musharraf’s hand, diplomats and American officials said.
The documents “have created a situation in which the denials no longer hold up,” one senior American official said.
General Musharraf met several times in recent weeks with Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb, who is revered in the country as a national hero, the officials said. A number of scientists closely tied to Dr. Khan have been detained for questioning. There have already been protests in Islamabad over the detentions, and some European and American officials said that General Musharraf seemed to be preparing for arrests or other legal actions.
Starting in late December, Pakistani government officials began backing away from their vigorous denials that their scientists had provided critical help to several aspiring nuclear states, including Iran and North Korea. But on Friday, General Musharraf went further. “Well, I would not like to predict,” he said in an interview with CNN, “but it appears that some individuals, as I said, were involved for personal financial gain.”
General Musharraf continued to insist that the government was not involved in the sales, portraying the actions as the efforts of corrupt scientists. American officials, however, are clearly skeptical of those claims.
They note that when Pakistan received missile parts from North Korea — believed to be the quid pro quo for nuclear aid — a Pakistani air force cargo jet was dispatched to Pyongyang, North Korea, to pick up the parts. They also note that the A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories are the crown jewel of the Pakistani nuclear program, with close ties to both the military and the intelligence agency, the I.S.I.
“I don’t think anyone has proven the case for officially sanctioned transfers of technology,” one senior American official said recently. But a senior European diplomat who has reviewed much of the evidence said that “it stretches credulity that proliferation on this scale can occur without senior officials in the government knowing about it.”
General Musharraf told CNN that there were also credible allegations against European nuclear middlemen and other nations, “so it is not Pakistan alone.” The same theme was struck Friday by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who said that the global black market in nuclear materials and equipment had grown into a virtual “Wal-Mart” for weapons-seeking countries.
Dr. ElBaradei, director general of the agency, the United Nations’ watchdog on atomic weapons, said he was astonished by the scale and complexity of the illicit trafficking through which the Libyans obtained material and blueprints for nuclear weapons designs.
“All of that was obtained abroad,” he said in an interview during the World Economic Forum meeting here. “All of what we saw was a result of the Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation.
“When you see things being designed in one country, manufactured in two or three others, shipped to a fourth, redirected to a fifth, that means there’s lots of offices all over the world,” Dr. ElBaradei said. “The sophistication of the process, frankly, has surpassed my expectations.”
Dr. ElBaradei said he was satisfied with the level of cooperation shown by the Libyans.
Documents provided by the Libyans indicated that the uranium enrichment equipment they were using was based on a sophisticated design that could only have come from the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories. The centrifuge design is known as a “Pak-2,” indicating that it was a second-generation version that probably dates from the late 1980’s, American officials said.
“They are taking us everywhere we want to go,” Dr. ElBaradei said of the Libyans. “They are answering all our questions, they are showing us all of what they have.”
In interviews, American officials have insisted that Pakistan, not the United States, is leading the investigation, though the American officials acknowledge providing information to Islamabad. The biggest trove came after the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, agreed in December to dismantle his unconventional weapons programs, and to turn over documents about how he developed them.
“Pakistan’s cooperation is key for us to understand the dimension of the problem,” Dr. ElBaradei said in the interview on Friday. “I have no reason to believe the government was involved, but I hope to have a clear picture in a few weeks.”
Dr. ElBaradei’s confidence, however, was leavened by his acknowledgment that neither his agency, nor the intelligence branches of the big countries, have a clear idea of the extent of nuclear trafficking.
“The system is under a good deal of stress,” he said. “We need to take this seriously.”
American officials say they are uncertain why General Musharraf is now moving against the scientists. They suggested in recent interviews that the evidence has become so overwhelming that he has begun to fear the reimposition of sanctions by Congress. But they also suggest that he may be trying to reassert his power, demonstrating that he will not be intimidated by critics who say he has warmed up too much to the United States, both in the hunt for Al Qaeda terrorists and in Washington’s demands to clamp down on proliferation.
For many experts who have gathered in Davos, nuclear proliferation is the next big security threat. Much of the focus has centered on the suspected trail of nuclear material and skill from countries like Pakistan and North Korea to striving nuclear powers like Iran and Libya.
Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami, on Wednesday rejected suggestions of transfers between his country and North Korea — though intelligence officials said the Iranian government had long obtained missile technology from the North. He reiterated Iran’s contention that its nuclear program was peaceful.
Dr. ElBaradei expressed a guarded view of Iran, saying it had aroused concern by appearing to backslide on its earlier commitment to suspend its enrichment of uranium. While enriched uranium is a prime ingredient in nuclear bombs, it can also be used to fuel nuclear reactors.
“They keep saying, `We might continue to produce centrifuges,’ ” Dr. ElBaradei said. “This is, of course, not sitting well with the Europeans or others.”
Dr. ElBaradei said he would meet in Davos on Saturday with the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, and said he would encourage the Iranians to agree to a blanket suspension of their activities.
Of all the crises facing his agency, Dr. ElBaradei said he was most alarmed by the one associated with North Korea, which expelled the agency’s inspectors and pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
“North Korea has the most advanced capability, in terms of having the plutonium needed to produce a weapon,” he said. “It’s also the country that is the most beleaguered. If you put this insecurity and the capability together, it makes you feel very concerned about North Korea.”
Mark Landler reported from Davos, Switzerland, for this article and David E. Sanger from Washington.