Shopping for Bombs by Gordon Corera
Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network
by Gordon Corera
Oxford. 275 pp. $28.00
In the autumn of 1974, a thirty-eight-year-old metallurgist named Abdul Qadeer Khan, then employed at a uranium-enrichment plant in Holland, began spying for Pakistan. Within two years, using information and equipment pilfered or purchased in Europe, he established a secret “research” laboratory back in the hill country just east of Islamabad. Not long afterward, the Carter administration, alarmed by the progress Pakistan had made in its nuclear-weapons programs, seriously considered destroying Khan’s lab in an air strike. But the Carter team demurred: “There were too many unknowns and too many moving parts,” according to Joseph Nye, then a State Department official and now a professor at Harvard.
Who can say whether air strikes would have sufficed to derail Pakistan’s nuclear project? But as Gordon Corera, a security correspondent for BBC News, makes clear in Shopping for Bombs, there were plenty of opportunities to stop Khan early in his career as a nuclear proliferator. All of them were missed. Because of those past failures, we live today with the terrifying consequences, among them Iran’s rapidly developing nuclear capabilities, North Korea’s secret uranium-enrichment facilities, and perhaps other programs in other countries, still unknown.
Khan’s own story begins in India, from which his family fled after the country’s independence and bloody partition into Hindu and Muslim states in the late 1940′s. Decades later, as a doctoral student in Belgium, he became determined to avenge Pakistan’s loss of what became Bangladesh in the 1971 war with India. That ambition found its opportunity when Khan was recommended for a job at URENCO, a European nuclear consortium.
Security was lax: nobody thought twice about hiring a young scientist from Pakistan; nobody objected as Khan, notebook in hand, wandered into areas of the centrifuge facility from which he was officially barred. When a Dutch colleague noted that Khan had taken centrifuge blueprints home with him and was in regular contact with Pakistani embassy officials, he sounded an alarm. But the reaction of the plant’s managers, writes Corera, “was to deny it was possible and to do nothing.”
The Dutch Security Service eventually wised up to Khan’s activities, particularly after Pakistani diplomats went knocking on the doors of URENCO’s industrial suppliers. There is still a controversy as to why he was not stopped then. Dutch officials claim their hand was stayed by the CIA, which wanted to watch and follow Khan; American officials insist it was the Dutch who failed to act. Yet even after Khan left Holland for Pakistan in 1975, his links to Europe remained essential to his efforts. A British company, Emerson Electric, supplied him with high-frequency inverters; a Swiss company, VAT, sold the vacuum tubes and valve equipment; a German company, Leybold Heraeus, assisted with a plant to handle uranium hexafluoride.
Much of this business was legal, strictly speaking, though the suppliers could hardly have been in the dark as to its ultimate purposes. Still less creditable was the attitude of European governments toward their own proliferators. Corera cites a 1986 internal memo from West Germany’s economics ministry, in which an official says that U.S. intelligence warnings regarding nuclear-related exports to South Asia “usually land in my wastepaper basket.”
The behavior of the U.S. government was not always better. “We will not make your nuclear program the centerpiece of our relations,” then Secretary of State Alexander Haig told his Pakistani counterpart in 1981. Washington continued to certify Pakistan as a non-nuclear state long after it knew the opposite was true. When, in the 1990′s, information leaked out that China had sold ballistic-missile technologies to Pakistan, the Clinton administration fought tooth and nail against imposing sanctions that, by law, should have automatically applied.
Where the U.S. did better, at least for a while, was in intelligence. In the 1980′s, according to Corera, covert U.S. operatives found the blueprint of an atomic bomb, evidently of Chinese design, in Khan’s luggage. In 1989, then CIA director William Webster even gave a mock-up of the Pakistani bomb to the visiting Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. “What was truly shocking” to her, notes Corera, “was that U.S. intelligence knew more about [Pakistan's] nuclear program than she did.”
But the trail went cold in the 1990′s. Partly this was because U.S.- Pakistani relations soured after the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s decertification as a non-nuclear state, which led to sanctions. Partly it had to do with the nature of Khan’s enterprise, which operated as a power unto itself with only uncertain oversight by Pakistan’s successive military and civilian governments.
But the largest failure was imaginative. Nobody seems to have considered that, once Khan was done importing the technology needed by Pakistan to assemble a bomb, he would begin shopping his wares and skills for export and for his own gain. Corera traces the various threads connecting Khan and his far-flung network of associates to Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Libya, as well as, perhaps, to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Sudan, Burma, even Nigeria.
An October 1990 memo from the Iraqi intelligence service, discovered by UN weapons inspectors in Iraq five years later, gives a flavor of how Khan operated:
We have enclosed for you the following proposal from Pakistani scientist Dr. Abd-el-Qadeer Khan regarding the possibility of helping Iraq establish a project to enrich uranium and manufacture nuclear weapons. . . . He is prepared to give us project designs for a nuclear bomb. Ensure any requirements or materials from Western European countries via a company he owns in Dubai . . . [and] request a preliminary technical meeting to consult on the documents that he will present to us. . . . The motive behind this proposal is gaining profits for him and the intermediary.
The 1991 Gulf war and the subsequent sanctions-and-inspection regime helped prevent Saddam Hussein from taking up Khan’s offer (though the memo suggests how easily Iraq might have reconstituted a nuclear program once those sanctions were lifted). But nothing stood in the way of other deals.
In the case of Iran, Khan’s relationship with the Islamic Republic dated to 1987, when he provided centrifuge blueprints as well as a list of suppliers from which it could purchase the parts required for construction. In the mid-1990′s, he struck a second deal with Iran to supply a more advanced centrifuge—this time the machine itself, not just the design. This activity went mostly unnoticed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which also missed Khan’s role in supplying both Libya and North Korea with centrifuges and other nuclear technology. Both deals were huge in scope and likely involved the collusion of at least some elements of the Pakistani military.
Then there was the behavior of the Clinton administration, which downplayed intelligence warnings about Iran’s nuclear programs because it feared souring its budding relationship with the “moderate” presidency of Muhammad Khatami. The administration also had sound indications that Khan was trading uranium-enrichment technology in exchange for North Korea’s ballistic missiles. But again it failed to act, perhaps because President Clinton did not want to expose the hollowness of the 1994 “Yongbyong Agreed Framework” in which North Korea promised to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for U.S. technical and energy assistance.
Things might have continued in this way even today had September 11 not brought the nuclear-proliferation stakes into the sharpest possible relief. “After the attack on America, it was vital we took a completely different attitude to the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons,” said Tony Blair in 2005, explaining the decision to invade Iraq. Corera ably tells the story of the joint effort by the CIA and Britain’s MI6 to track and roll up Khan’s network—efforts that for once were not hindered by political or diplomatic considerations. President Bush also played a personal role, making it clear to Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf in a September 2003 meeting that he would have to move against Khan, despite the latter’s status as a national icon. He was finally placed under house arrest in 2004.
To a degree that ought to be disconcerting, luck played a large part in bringing down Khan and exposing what we know about his network. About Iran’s nuclear programs, the U.S. was largely in the dark until the country’s secret facilities were exposed by an opposition group in 2002. North Korea surprised us by admitting to its uranium-enrichment efforts that same year. Intelligence about Libya was somewhat better, but it was only because of Muammar Qaddafi’s decision to abandon his nuclear program that the U.S. learned just how close he was to a bomb.
Large questions also remain about just who else might have been supplied by Khan’s network—questions that Khan has apparently not been compelled to answer. Given the number of countries he visited and the casualness with which he disseminated nuclear information—a blueprint for a bomb was found in Libya in the laundry bag of his Islamabad tailor—it is reasonable to assume that even now much remains unknown.
There is also the sheer size of Pakistan’s nuclear industries, which employ some 45,000 people, including 6,500 scientists. Of these, only 11 have been detained in connection with Khan’s activities. How many others like him are willing to sell their skills to the highest bidder, or offer them free for the sake of a cause? Given the instability of Pakistan’s political institutions, not to mention the Islamist saturation of its culture, the country will likely remain a serious proliferation risk for decades to come.
It is to Corera’s great credit that he tells his story straight, without much by way of editorial interpolation or obvious ideological bias. As for what policy conclusions to draw from the tale he tells, here opinion divides sharply. Broadly speaking, there are those who would strengthen the legal architecture of nonproliferation and those who view that architecture as inherently unsound. Critics of the Bush administration, for instance, argue that its nuclear deal with India rewards a country that has never joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and thereby makes nonsense of our insistence that other countries honor their commitments under the treaty. “How,” wrote former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn in a May 2006 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “will we explain to other friends—like Brazil, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Japan, and South Korea—that India is trusted with nuclear material production but they are not?”
But the real problem is not so much with the India deal as with a nonproliferation regime that allows any country to develop “peaceful” nuclear power at will and therefore come within a screw’s twist of building a bomb. As Corera notes, some two-thirds of Khan’s business, on both the import and export sides, was entirely legal. Even today the Bush administration does not dispute Iran’s legal rights to civilian nuclear technology. In doing so, it lends legitimacy to a system that facilitates the very abuses it seeks to curb.
How to devise a better system remains a nagging question. But if the A.Q. Khan saga contains one abiding lesson, it is that, whatever the risks at the time, the failure to deal decisively with Pakistan’s nuclear program while it was still in its infancy was a mistake of gruesome proportions. So far, there is little to suggest that we are done living with its deadly repercussions.