- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009



One of the most important challenges confronting the intelligence community is learning the nature of and damage done by the worldwide network in nuclear centrifuge technology, bomb components and training run for almost two decades by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan - the revered “father” of his country’s nuclear program. Considered a pariah abroad but a hero at home, that task got a lot tougher when Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered Mr. Khan released from house arrest earlier this month.

At the recent Wehrkunde Security Conference in Munich, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi astonished delegates (I was one), telling us that his government had not decided whether to challenge the court decision but that Pakistan would continue to monitor Mr. Khan.

But for those who stay awake at night worrying about Iran’s increasing mastery of centrifuge technology and the ability of terror groups to access nuclear components, Pakistan’s action is distressing.

When Mr. Khan “confessed” in 2004 to his illegal nuclear dealings, he was promptly placed under “house arrest” and pardoned by then President Pervez Musharraf. The U.S. government was denied access to Mr. Khan, and was never able to question him about what he did and what else he knew.

This much we do know. As a university student in Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mr. Khan earned degrees in metallurgical engineering from institutions in Holland and Belgium. In 1972, he began working for the Dutch partner of a uranium enrichment consortium and almost immediately raised eyebrows for repeated visits to a facility he was not cleared to see and for inquiries made about technical data unrelated to his own assignments.

Dutch intelligence quietly began to monitor him. In 1974, following India’s first nuclear test, Mr. Khan offered his expertise to Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Later that year, Mr. Khan’s company assigned him to work on Dutch translations of advanced, German-designed centrifuges - data to which he had unsupervised access for 16 days.

By 1975, the damage appears to have been done. Pakistan began to purchase components for its domestic uranium enrichment program from European suppliers, and Mr. Khan was transferred away from enrichment work due to concern about his activities.

In December, he abruptly returned to Pakistan with blueprints for centrifuges and other components and detailed lists of suppliers.

Convicted in absentia by the Dutch government for nuclear espionage, beginning in the mid-1980s, Mr. Khan is widely believed to have provided nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea, Libya and possibly Syria and Iraq. His network involved front companies and operatives in Dubai, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland and Turkey. Though much of the network was taken down following Mr. Khan’s confession, there is no conclusive evidence that it was destroyed.

As ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee at the time, I was never convinced. And Mr. Khan is again a loose nuke scientist with proven ability to sell the worst weapons to the worst people.

What to do? The Obama administration should promptly seek Pakistani permission to question Mr. Khan, and Pakistan should agree to appeal the Supreme Court decision and perhaps to undo the Musharraf pardon. The U.S. Congress can condition further aid to Pakistan on those events.

But, hopefully, appropriate Pakistani officials worry as we do that their civilians could become nuclear targets - as could NATO soldiers in neighboring Afghanistan or civilians in any number of Western countries. Questioning Mr. Khan and learning all the details of his past and present activities is crucial.

It is imperative that President Obama’s strategy for the region Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke calls “Afpak’” include safeguards for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and finally defusing its “ticking bomb,” A.Q. Khan.

Jane Harman, California Democrat, chairs the Intelligence and Terrorism Risk Assessment Committee’s Intelligence and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee. She was a member of the House Intelligence Committee for eight years.

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