- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2010

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a likely presidential candidate for 2013 elections, defended his decision to block U.S. intelligence officials from questioning A.Q. Khan, the rogue nuclear technician behind an illicit arms supplier network that boosted nuclear programs in Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Mr. Musharraf said in an interview with The Washington Times that Mr. Khan, who was freed last year from house arrest, “was a bit of a braggart” by overstating his role in developing the first nuclear bomb for a Muslim-majority nation.

“We have interrogated him and we have given the United States the information. You are implying either we are incapable of interrogating him, which is wrong and insulting,” he said in the interview. “Or secondly, this means that we are bluffing, which is also unacceptable and an insult to the Pakistani people.”

Islamabad’s handling of Mr. Khan and his role in selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, China and North Korea remains an irritant in U.S.-Pakistani relations and one of the most damaging cases of nuclear proliferation since the 1940s.

Mr. Khan, who was trained as a metallurgist, is widely thought to have established front companies and phony bank accounts in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia to acquire the material and technology to build a bomb.

The scandal came to a head under Mr. Musharraf’s presidency in 2003 after the United States and Italy intercepted a ship with components of a nuclear centrifuge bound for Libya. The interception led to Libya’s disclosure and dismantling of its own nuclear program, that included documents implicating Mr. Khan.

On Feb. 5, 2004, Mr. Khan confessed to aiding the Libyan, North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs on Pakistani state television. The next day, Mr. Musharraf pardoned him. Mr. Khan remained under house arrest until Feb. 6, 2009.

Mr. Musharraf said Mr. Khan overstated his role in acquiring the technology and know-how to build Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in post-conviction press interviews.

When asked whether he was concerned that the Khan nuclear network would be able to reconstitute itself over time, Mr. Musharraf said he sought to correct the record.

“This massive network was not of A.Q. Khan’s. The massive network was of the Pakistan government and our intelligence, not of A.Q. Khan’s network,” Mr. Musharraf said.

Mr. Musharraf insisted that he had no personal knowledge that Mr. Khan was trading secrets with Libya, Iran and North Korea. But he did acknowledge that “he may be having his own network for proliferation or whatever he was doing, but the network of the acquisition of our strategic capability was [owned by] the government of Pakistan.”

“I find it hard to believe, and have always found it hard to believe, that the Pakistani military did not know what nuclear deals were being done by Khan on behalf of the country,” Simon Henderson, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview.

Mr. Henderson in 2009 published an essay in the Sunday Times of London based on a smuggled 2003 letter from Khan to his wife that was written at a time when he thought he would be arrested. The letter stated that the military had full knowledge of his nuclear deals with North Korea, Libya and Iran. It also mentioned nuclear contacts between Khan and China.

Husain Haqqani, the current Pakistani ambassador to the United States, in a book he wrote before assuming that post, said he found Mr. Musharraf’s explanation that he first learned of Khan’s proliferation activities when the U.S. government told him in 2003 to be “incredible.”

In response, Mr. Musharraf said: “It is Haqani’s word against mine. Ask any Pakistani what he thinks of my word and what he thinks of Haqani’s word.”

Mr. Musharraf in the interview also said the United States had no access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.