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Nuke-smuggling network in demand
Agents seek to lure group ‘out of retirement’
Question of the Day
Scientists, engineers and financiers involved in the A.Q. Khan nuclear-smuggling network are being contacted by several governments in an effort to lure these specialists out of retirement.
The development is raising concerns among U.S. intelligence agencies about the revival of the proliferation network that was thought to have been shut down years ago.
Two U.S. intelligence officials and other U.S. officials with access to intelligence reports said information compiled over the past seven months showed that agents from several foreign governments — including Brazil, Burma, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Sudan and Syria — pursued members of the network named after Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist considered to be the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
“They have propositioned them to get them to come out of retirement,” one senior U.S. intelligence officer said.
This official, however, stressed that the contacts observed in recent months did not necessarily reflect a state-level decision by countries such as Brazil and Nigeria regarding nuclear proliferation. “These could be people acting on their own,” this official said.
Another intelligence official cautioned that others in the intelligence community have disputed the assessment about whether governments have approached the remnants of the Khan network.
The A.Q. Khan network supplied “starter kits” for uranium enrichment, based on large numbers of centrifuges, to Iran, Libya and North Korea from the 1980s until it was shut down in 2003 and 2004. Mr. Khan has confirmed much of these charges in interviews.
Earlier this month, a classified analysis was distributed on the Defense Intelligence Daily — a compendium of intelligence products shared with senior executives in the military and the Pentagon — on evidence that elements of the Khan network may be reactivating. It did not answer that question conclusively. The report, however, did confirm the existence of new intelligence on the recruiting efforts.
The Khan network was largely shut down after the United States in October 2003 stopped a German cargo ship called the BBC China that was carrying components for some 1,000 centrifuges bound for Libya.
In so doing, Libyan officials turned over to the U.S. and Britain large amounts of documents on a network of Khan-related front companies, financiers, traders and machine-part factories that spanned the world from Dubai to Malaysia and several European capitals. These entities were quickly rolled up, and Mr. Khan was placed under house arrest in Pakistan, though he was released from custody last year.
However, between 50 and 100 individuals associated with his network were left alone and not prosecuted. Instead, the U.S. intelligence community put these people on various watch lists and have placed some of the most dangerous individuals on the network under human and electronic surveillance.
The network includes nationals from around the world, but particular concerns have been expressed about its Eastern Europeans.
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