On Wednesday, December 10, 2003, the day his carefully assembled world crumbled, Abdul Qadeer Khan sat down to write a letter for safekeeping. The words, intended for his wife of nearly 40 years, rushed out in a jumble. “Darling,” it began, “if the government plays any mischief with me, take a tough stand.” Forthright and unapologetic, he named countries to which he had illicitly sold nuclear technology and gave instructions for feeding his version of the story to sympathetic journalists. Pakistan’s senior generals, he claimed, were at least as guilty as he was. “Tell them the bastards first used us and now [are] playing dirty games with us.”
In the eyes of most Pakistanis, Khan was the father of the country’s nuclear bomb. The European-educated metallurgist was considered his nation’s greatest scientist—the hero who had rescued Pakistan from the domination of nuclear-armed India, Islamabad’s archenemy. Behind this exalted image, Khan’s activities went unquestioned. From 1976 until 2001, the eponymous Khan Research Laboratories, or KRL, was simultaneously one of Pakistan’s most sensitive nuclear facilities and Khan’s personal fief. Without external oversight, he could easily conceal his side business: selling advanced nuclear technology to an assortment of foreign countries.
The events of December 10 shattered this illusion. That morning, the Daily Jinnah, a Pakistani newspaper, reported that the ISI, Pakistan’s CIA equivalent, had arrested senior managers from KRL on suspicion of aiding Iran’s nuclear program. The article triggered an uproar. After two decades of illicit nuclear sales, Khan’s cover was blown. The knock at his door could come at any moment.
In his letter Khan acknowledged providing Pakistan’s gas-centrifuge-enrichment technology—a type of equipment that could be used to make nuclear explosives—to numerous international buyers. Khan wrote that at some point in the late 1980s he and his colleagues sent “drawings and some components” of centrifuges to the Iranians at the request of a top Pakistani general. Scribbling in the margin of the letter, Khan allowed that he “must have got money for it ($1 million).” In the late 1990s, he continued, another top Pakistani general accepted a $3 million bribe from North Korea through Khan and then directed him to provide North Korea with “some drawings and machines.” Without giving any details, Khan also mentioned Libya in the letter. Pakistan’s military men, he claimed, were ultimately responsible and now wanted a scapegoat: “They might try to get rid of me to cover up all the (dirty) things they got done by me in connection with Iran, Libya and N. Korea.”
Over the next few weeks, more KRL staffers were arrested. Khan was placed under house arrest, interrogated by senior intelligence and military officials—debriefed was the polite word used in official statements—and finally made to confess. On February 4, 2004, he sat before a television camera and recited a statement in English. Khan admitted that “alleged proliferation activities by certain Pakistanis and foreigners over the last two decades” had occurred at his behest. “It pains me to realize in retrospect that my entire lifetime achievement of providing foolproof national security to my nation could have been placed in serious jeopardy on account of my activities, which were based in good faith, but on errors of judgment related to unauthorized proliferation activities.”
Khan assumed sole responsibility and asked to be pardoned. The next day, Pervez Musharraf, the general who had seized control of Pakistan in 1999 and appointed himself president in 2001, granted that pardon before the national news media. Still, Khan remained under house arrest, beyond the reach of foreign investigators, forbidden to say anything that might endanger national security.
Only when Musharraf’s power weakened did Khan resume speaking about his past activities. Today, Musharraf lives in exile, and Khan is once again free to express himself— more or less. The Pakistani government continues to limit his travels, but he talks to reporters and writes newspaper columns. In one interview he asserted that the military agency in charge of nuclear security had drafted his televised confession on Musharraf’s orders. “The statement was thrust into my hands to read. I immediately realized that it was mischievous to put all the blame solely on me.… I refused to read it out as it was and insisted that the words ‘I did it in good faith’ be inserted.”
By now Khan has made nearly every possible claim about who bears responsibility for selling Pakistan’s centrifuge technology. He did it at the behest of the military. He acted purely on his own. The military was solely responsible. It was all done by foreigners. Khan lost many things during his ordeal, including his freedom and his credibility. But throughout, he retained one crucial secret: the identity of a fourth country, after Iran, Libya and North Korea, to which he had provided the shortcut to a nuclear weapon.