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The Proliferation Game: How the World Helped Pakistan Build Its Bomb

by Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz

Globalization, what a concept. You can get a burger prepared your way practically anywhere in the world. The Nike Swoosh appears at elite athletic venues across the United States and on the skinny frames of t-shirted children playing in the streets of Calcutta. For those interested in buying an American automobile -- a word of warning -- it is not so unusual to find more "American content" in a Japanese car than one built by Detroit's Big Three.

So don't kid yourself about the Pakistani bomb. From burgers to bombs, globalization has had an impact. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal -- as many as 120 weapons -- is no more Pakistani than your television set is Japanese. Or is that American? It was a concept developed in one country and, for the most part, built in another. Its creation was an example of globalization before the term was even coined.

A Proliferation Chain Reaction

So where to begin? Some argue that Pakistan started down the nuclear road under President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1953 Atoms for Peace program, billed as a humanitarian gesture aimed at sharing the peaceful potential of atomic energy with the world. But Atoms for Peace was a misnomer -- a plan to divert growing domestic and international concern over radioactive fallout from America's nuclear tests. It would prove to be a White House public relations campaign to dwarf all others.

In fact, Atoms for Peace educated thousands of scientists from around the world in nuclear science and then dispatched them home, where many later pursued secret weapons programs. Among them were Israelis, South Africans, Pakistanis, and Indians. Homi Sethna, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, spelled out the program's impact after his country tested its first nuclear device in 1974. "I can say with confidence," he wrote, "that the initial [Atoms for Peace program] cooperation agreement itself has been the bedrock on which our nuclear program has been built."

If you think that India's program, in turn, did not inspire Pakistan's, think again.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the late Pakistani prime minister and father of Benazir Bhutto, first talked publicly about nuclear weapons in the early 1960s when he was Pakistan's energy minister. In his 1967 autobiography, Bhutto wrote, "All wars of our age have become total wars... and our plans should, therefore, include the nuclear deterrent." But Pakistan's generals rejected his ideas, arguing that the cost of producing a nuclear bomb would cut too deeply into spending on conventional weapons. It wasn't until after Bhutto became prime minister that he officially launched Pakistan's nuclear weapons program in 1972.

Consider here, yet another atomic beginning: Pakistan, a poor, backward country, with little indigenous technical or industrial infrastructure, made next to no progress on the nuclear front, despite Bhutto's enthusiasm, until the arrival of Abdul Qadeer Khan at the end of 1975. The Indian-born Khan had fled his home in Bhopal in the 1950s to settle in the new state of Pakistan. There, he went to university, quickly becoming frustrated by the lack of opportunity. Study and advanced degrees in Europe followed until, finally, Khan found himself working at the Physics Dynamics Research Laboratory in Amsterdam in the spring of 1972.

At the time, powerful companies like Westinghouse and General Electric controlled the facilities that provided enriched uranium to civilian reactors throughout the Western world. In 1971, in an effort to protect the fledgling U.S. commercial nuclear industry, President Richard M. Nixon had ordered that the closely guarded enrichment technology not be shared with any other country, not even allies. That led other nations to begin developing their own enrichment technology to ensure continual access to an adequate fuel supply. The lab where Khan was employed, known by its Dutch initials FDO, was the in-house research facility for a Dutch conglomerate that worked closely with Urenco, a consortium formed by the governments of Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands to design and manufacture centrifuges.

To cut right to the chase, Khan, who was able to work at the lab without serious scrutiny from the Dutch security police, found that he had easy access to the latest uranium-enrichment technology. Within three years, he had left the lab -- in possession of plans for Europe's most advanced centrifuge and a shopping list of relevant equipment manufacturers, experts for hire, and sources for the necessary raw materials to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb, all scattered across the globe.

Before leaving the lab, Khan wrote Prime Minister Bhutto, offering his services and returned to Pakistan to launch that country's own uranium-enrichment laboratory.

FDO was just the start of Khan's reliance on the outside world for bomb-making help. With the support of Pakistani scientists and military officers, working undercover as "diplomats" at the country's missions around the world, he set up what became known as "the Pakistani pipeline," securing high-tech equipment from literally hundreds of companies in 20 or more countries.

While some of this is well known, a series of little-publicized letters between Khan and a Canadian-Pakistani engineer, Aziz Abdul Khan, in 1978 and 1979 offer a revealing look at the degree to which globalization shaped Pakistan's nuclear program. The so-called Islamic bomb turns out not to be an indigenous product, but instead a little bit American, Canadian, Swiss, German, Dutch, British, Japanese, and even Russian. Aziz Khan was one of dozens of Pakistani scientists living abroad whom Khan tried to recruit for what he described as a "project of national importance." According to the letters between them, while Aziz Khan declined the offer, he agreed to provide A.Q. Khan with scientific literature and to spend his vacations at A.Q. Khan's laboratory outside of Islamabad, training and mentoring young engineers.

We obtained the letters -- which cover the comings and goings of nuclear experts from nine different countries -- from an American government official, who, in turn, received them from Canadian law enforcement officers after they were taken from Aziz Khan, following his arrest in Montreal in 1980.

These exchanges provide a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into Khan's nuclear Wal-Mart in its infancy, long before he began peddling his finished wares to Iran, North Korea, and Libya. After a decade of diplomatic rhetoric about the need to stop the spread of nuclear technology, they also offer a window into the ineffectiveness of American and European export controls. By setting these letters -- often colorfully translated from Urdu by the Canadian authorities -- against the backdrop of the news coverage of the time, you can see just how disturbingly international the assistance was that Khan received.

Buying "Ducks" from Russia

It was an exciting time for Pakistan's fledgling nuclear program. On June 4, 1978, A.Q. Khan wrote to Aziz Khan, describing early tests of his centrifuge designs, referring to the process of substituting helium for uranium gas as putting "air in the machine."

"June 4 is a historical day for us. On that day we put 'air' in the machine and the first time we got the right product and its efficiency was the same as the theoretical... As you have seen, my team consists of crazy people. They do not care if it is day or night. They go after it with all their might. The bellows have arrived and like this we can increase the speed of our work."

Khan's international nuclear shopping spree was soon on display as he wrote proudly to his Canadian friend just a week later to recount the trip made by a member of his clandestine procurement network to Japan to obtain some critical, though unexplained help. "Colonel Majeed is back from Japan and thanks God all the problems have been solved. Next month the Japanese would come here and all the work would be done under their supervision."

The following month, he wrote Aziz Khan about one of his Pakistani protégés: "Dr. Mirza is back from America. He had gone to get the training for the control room of the air conditioning plant." In the same letter, he announced that "the plant of Switzerland has arrived," probably a reference to a specialized pumping system to move uranium gas in and out of the centrifuges during enrichment.

In August, the scientist told Aziz Khan that Colonel Majeed was on the road again, "leaving for Germany, England and Switzerland. He would be looking for cable and sub panels. Our friend from Kuwait will join us in November and in this way we will not have to worry about generators and emergency power supply. He has 15 years experience." Within weeks, Khan wrote enthusiastically that "a German team was here. After staying five days, they went back. It was quite a busy time."

A.Q. Khan was also in the hunt himself. Mentioning that he had sent a cable to California, he wrote in the fall of 1978 that, "if our two units are ready, then myself and Dr. Mirza would come for thanks and maybe we could meet you." The "two units" was probably a reference to two huge air conditioners that Khan bought from an unidentified U.S. company.

In the spring of 1979, Khan would explain: "Dr. Alam, Dr. Hashmi and myself are going to Germany and Switzerland for two or three days. We have to buy some material there and then we will return through London."

Khan's project was seen abroad as a potentially profitable market, and the Russians, too, were rushing to sell their wares. Using a primitive code, Khan wrote: "Hopefully, in winter there will be ducks from Russia. This is a big job. Now the emergency generators are going to be installed very soon."

But all was not perfect. During the summer of 1978, a British member of Parliament asked why a British subsidiary of the American Emerson Electric Co. was selling Pakistan the same high frequency inverter that Britain was using in its own uranium-enrichment project -- and by the fall, shipments to Pakistan had been stopped. Khan complained that a German supplier had tipped the British off when he did not get the nod on a business deal.

"That man from the German team was unethical. When he did not get the order from us, he wrote a letter to a Labour party member and questions were asked in Parliament. Work is still progressing satisfactorily but the frustration is increasing. It is just like a man who waited for 30 years but cannot wait for a few hours after the marriage ceremony."

By the spring of the following year, Khan's team was feeling the strain. He once again wrote Aziz Khan about his troubles in a clumsy code:

"For such a long time, no one has taken a single day's holiday. Everybody is working very hard so that by the end of the year, the factory should start working and should start providing cake and bread. Here there is shortage of food and we need those things very badly. From everywhere our food is being stopped."

Khan's success in obtaining nuclear material abroad did not go unnoticed. American intelligence watched his procurement operation and U.S. officials occasionally complained in public, prompting Aziz Khan to write in June 1979: "There is no doubt that you guys made people here sleepless.... These days you are famous all over the world."

In August of 1979, still struggling, Khan wrote his friend of a deal that he could not consummate in Canada, probably a reference to difficulties obtaining a specialized type of inverter essential to operating the uranium enrichment plant.

"You must be reading that your countrymen have decided to drink our blood. The way they are after us, it looks as if we have killed their mother. Their building of castles in the air has beaten the Arabian Nights. There is lots of pressure, but I have trust in God in doing my work. I am thinking, if I finish this job, then I would solve the purpose of my life."

Khan did indeed overcome the obstacles -- with plenty of help from his friends around the world. And he had learned his lesson well. When he was finished helping Pakistan build its bomb, he turned his talents to another kind of globalization -- marketing his wares, and those of his associates from Europe, Asia, and South Africa, to a new set of clients.

Douglas Frantz, the former managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a senior writer at Conde Nast Portfolio. Catherine Collins, a former Chicago Tribune reporter, is now a Washington-based writer. They are co-authors of The Nuclear Jihadist: The True Story of the Man Who Sold the World's Most Dangerous Secrets... and How We Could Have Stopped Him (Twelve, 2007).

Copyright 2007 Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz

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