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Experts Doubt Pakistani Scientist Acted Alone in Spreading Nuclear Secrets - 2004-02-04


Pakistan's top nuclear scientist says he acted alone in exporting sensitive nuclear technology abroad. But the confession leaves many questions unanswered. There are serious doubts that he could have acted alone.

In his startling televised confession Wednesday, Abdul Qadeer Khan insisted he acted without authorization in selling nuclear technology to other governments.

But Western experts doubt that claim. They say not even as prominent a personality as Mr. Qadeer Khan could have delivered such sensitive material without approval from higher authority.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer and now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says at the very least the leadership of Pakistan's military establishment must have sanctioned the transfers.

"Certainly on the first question, was the Pakistani Army cognizant of this and supportive of this, I think you have to answer that yes. Otherwise it does suggest that the Pakistani Army and intelligence service is as rickety as what you might call the civilian side of Pakistani society. And it certainly hasn't been the case in something of this nature," he said.

Mr. Qadeer Khan, who headed Pakistan's nuclear program for some 25 years, admitted selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

Pakistan's nuclear weapons program is a source of extreme national pride, and, as its father, Mr. Qadeer Khan is considered a national hero. Many Pakistanis feel that President Pervez Musharraf is succumbing to U.S. pressure in moving against Mr. Qadeer Khan.

But Teresita Schaffer, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, says Mr. Musharraf, a former general and army chief of staff, is in an extremely awkward position.

"This is the last person General Musharraf would like to take action against," he said. "On the other hand, Musharraf clearly recognizes that of all the nuclear problems that Pakistan might have with the United States, short of starting a nuclear war this is about as bad as it gets. All three intended recipients are on the list of countries the United States is most anxious to keep away from weapons of mass destruction."

But did now-President Musharraf himself know of the nuclear proliferation? He has denied any knowledge - and Ms. Schaffer says that there is no way of knowing for sure.

"If there were any transactions after he became Army chief of staff, I would say the chances are that he would at least have had reason to suspect. How closely he would have been informed, there's really no telling there," she said.

It is not clear, analysts say, how much previous civilian governments might have been told of the transfers, even if the military knew of and approved the actions. The army has traditionally distrusted civilian politicians. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in particular had a rocky relationship with the military. And Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted in a coup by then-General Musharraf in 1999.

Ms. Schaffer says Mr. Musharraf will now have a difficult task in restoring credibility in Pakistan's nuclear security. "The government of Pakistan is not eager to give the United States any more information than it absolutely has to about the whereabouts of its nuclear arsenal or the security arrangements because they're concerned that the United States might wish to take out their nuclear arsenal," he said. "So that finding a way of making tightened security truly credible to the United States might turn out to be fairly difficult."

Mr. Qadeer Khan has asked for clemency, but the Pakistani government has made no public announcement about whether he is to be prosecuted.

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