Global Nuclear Inquiry Stalls
Authorities fear that the extent of a Pakistani scientist's proliferation ring remains unknown and that it will resume work if pressures ease.
By William C. Rempel and Douglas Frantz
Times Staff Writers
December 5, 2004
VIENNA — The global investigation into Abdul Qadeer Khan's black market trade in nuclear technology has stalled in a clash of national interests that threatens a full accounting of his secret partners and clients, according to interviews with diplomats and officials from several countries.
International authorities fear the full scope of the Pakistani scientist's ring may never be known.
Senior investigators said they were especially worried that dangerous elements of the illicit network of manufacturers and suppliers would remain undetected and capable of resuming operations once international pressures eased.
Investigators also said that records obtained in Libya and elsewhere showed that some nuclear equipment purchased or manufactured by the network had yet to be found, raising the possibility that it was diverted to still unidentified customers.
"We are far from knowing everything," a senior European diplomat involved in the inquiry said. "I'm frustrated by the lack of cooperation. We are losing a lot of time."
Some countries have refused to help, and others have only partially cooperated, said numerous officials involved in the inquiry spearheaded by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.
Pakistan has not permitted investigators to interview Khan, and his closest confidant is being held in Malaysia under that country's restrictive security act. Investigators also are concerned about the level of cooperation of former Soviet republics and China.
Investigators have suffered setbacks and delays even as they have gathered new evidence of the network's sophistication and have documented its move into Dubai, an ancient smuggling port on the Persian Gulf. Dubai was the hub of Khan's covert distribution operation, a transportation and storage base for parts and machinery destined for the secret nuclear programs in Iran and Libya, shipping records and investigation files show.
The Khan ring used nondescript warehouses scattered throughout Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to store and repackage some of the equipment, as well as to complete small-scale manufacturing assignments, according to documents and photos shown to The Times.
Inspectors from the IAEA visited the warehouses in recent weeks and took environmental samples to check for the presence of enriched uranium, which could indicate the shipment of weapons material. Test results are pending, officials said.
Information implicating members of Khan's ring began to surface last December after Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi announced that he was giving up his efforts to build an atomic bomb. In a deal negotiated with the U.S. and Britain, Libya turned over evidence showing that Khan and his associates had sold at least $100 million worth of technology to Libya, including a nearly completed uranium enrichment plant to produce material for a bomb.
The disclosures revealed that Khan, regarded as the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, also had provided extensive assistance to Iran's nuclear program, dating back to the late 1980s.
Investigators from the IAEA and various police agencies have been trying to piece together the ring's operation, identifying middlemen and suppliers who contributed to what officials call the world's worst case of nuclear proliferation.
Individual countries are conducting their own criminal investigations, but the IAEA has sole responsibility for carrying out the worldwide effort to shut down the black market.
A handful of arrests have been made in Germany, Switzerland and South Africa. Law enforcement authorities also are investigating people in several other countries, including Britain, France and Spain.
Not everyone is eager for full disclosure, however.
Amid speculation that Khan may have operated with the knowledge or assistance of other high-ranking military officials in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf pardoned Khan early this year and has refused to permit investigators from the IAEA or the United States to interview the scientist.
"Investigators are very keen to get direct access to [Khan], but I don't think it will ever happen," a Western diplomat said.
Similarly, Malaysia has blocked access to Khan's confidant, Dubai businessman Buhary Syed abu Tahir, who is being held in Kuala Lumpur. Hussein Haniff, Malaysia's ambassador to the IAEA in Vienna, said Tahir was being held under the country's Internal Security Act, which restricts access to him.
The case is politically sensitive in Malaysia. Tahir, who married into a prominent Malaysian family, had arranged for production of centrifuge components at a factory controlled by the prime minister's son.
Risks From Delays
Such delays and obstacles compound fears of the IAEA inspectors that evidence will disappear, memories will fade and leads will turn out to be false. The agency, which is responsible for monitoring compliance with nuclear regulations, lacks the power to compel testimony or subpoena evidence.
"Without state cooperation we have a difficult time. The whole process is so slow," said another senior European diplomat.
Ineffective export controls also appear to be a continuing problem, the investigation has found. Shipments of sensitive material from Malaysia, Dubai, Spain, Turkey and Pakistan have turned up in Libya.
Two officials said they were especially concerned about former Soviet republics and China, which provided assistance to Iran's nuclear program.
The Western diplomat said investigators wanted to question South African officials after The Times reported last week that a complete, ready-for-assembly control system for a Libyan uranium enrichment plant was built undetected near Johannesburg, in part with imported supplies. He questioned whether the Pretoria government should have known more and shared more information about suspicious imports and exports.
But the diplomat said evidence in the Khan case indicated that the problem was much more widespread.
"Some countries say their own customs people wouldn't know a centrifuge rotor from a banana," the Western diplomat said. "The fact that this [black market] trade could have gone undetected in some countries raises doubts about whether it would be noticed next time."
Investigators are uncovering ever more alarming evidence about the reach and sophistication of the Khan network in selling nuclear equipment and knowledge to Iran and Libya over a 15-year period.
A senior investigator said that he was stunned this year when he visited the workshop set up in Libya to manufacture components for the uranium enrichment plant.
"These guys were really organized," said the investigator, who has a long involvement with the nuclear industry and provided a detailed description of the operation.
Machine Shop 1001
The enrichment plant was based on designs provided by Khan. It involved using the centrifuges, an array of spinning cylinders, to purify a uranium gas to produce enriched material for a bomb. Nearly 100 different pieces of machinery from all over the world had been assembled before the scheme was uncovered in late 2003.
Among the machinery were two specialized lathes from Spain, a furnace from Italy, power supply units from Turkey and centrifuge components from Malaysia and Pakistan, the investigator said.
The Libyan plant was code-named Project Machine Shop 1001. Crates shipped to the project used false export documents to disguise the contents, but each was stamped with a tracking number to indicate where in the assembly process the contents were intended.
The operating instructions were drawn from videos of Khan's top-secret, government-owned enrichment plant in Pakistan, designs from that plant and instructions assembled by network participants in Dubai, according to documents and investigators.
Detailed instructions discovered in Libya specified the number of minutes required for each step in the enrichment process and the number of skilled technicians needed at each station in the plant.
Collections of photographs uncovered by investigators provided a surprisingly extensive inventory of machinery that had been shipped to Libya. Because export records and bills of lading routinely were falsified, photos were used as proof to guarantee final payments after delivery.
"They didn't trust each other and they didn't have proper documentation, so they took pictures to prove what they had sent," the senior investigator said.
Using shipping records and information from Libyan officials, investigators determined that much of the machinery had been shipped to Dubai. Once there, it was repackaged for shipment to Libya.
Some components were sent separately, according to investigators and documents.
For instance, two specialized lathes were purchased from a Spanish company without the computerized controls necessary to make precision centrifuge parts. Such computers would have alerted Spanish authorities.
Photos of the machinery shown to The Times indicate that computer controls were purchased separately and attached to the lathes in South Africa and Libya.
Tahir told Malaysian police that in late 1994 or early 1995 he delivered two suitcases containing about $3 million in cash to a Dubai apartment used by Khan.
The money was payment for two containers of centrifuge components sold to Iran. Investigators said far larger sums were sent to bank accounts in Dubai, Switzerland and other countries.
Investigators said that they believed other sensitive components of the Libyan enrichment plant had been manufactured, and that they were urgently trying to find them.
"Big quantities did not end up in Libya, and the question is, where are they?" said the senior investigator.