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The Secret Treachery of A.Q. Khan
  • December 14, 2011 : 20:12
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For all his bluster, Khan could legitimately claim a victory over the Indians when it came to centrifuge technology. While the Indians had beaten Pakistan to the bomb, they had  done  so through mastery of plutonium production—a  different route to creating a nuclear weapon. India’s ability to enrich uranium remained limited. New Delhi started a centrifuge program in the 1970s, but  the  Indians weren’t ready to break ground on their main  enrichment facility until  1986. By that point, Pakistan’s KRL had  been  churning out  weapons-grade uranium for at least  three years.

India’s enrichment program progressed slowly, but at some point before 1992 the Indians began experimenting with supercritical centrifuges, devices that can withstand very high rotational speeds. The program apparently continued to expand, with the Indians purchasing large quantities of supercritical centrifuge components from 1997 to 1999 and again from 2003 to 2006.  Surprisingly, they were almost open about their shopping spree. In 2006 the Washington, D.C.–based Institute for Science and International Security revealed that the Indian government had used news- paper ads to solicit bids for centrifuge parts. The details of these advertisements, along with documents the Indians gave potential suppliers, provide strong clues about where New Delhi’s supercritical centrifuge technology came from. Despite some changes, the design is recognizable to the trained eye:  It almost mirrors the  G-2 centrifuge, a design that  Khan  stole from URENCO in the 1970s and later reproduced as Pakistan’s P-2 centrifuge.

Centrifuge specs are not the only apparent link between India’s enrichment program and Khan’s operation. The cast of characters also overlaps, starting with Gerhard Wisser, a German living in South Africa. In collaboration with Gotthard Lerch in Switzerland, Wisser’s engineering firm supplied new gas- handling equipment for KRL’s centrifuges, delivered through Farooq’s operation in Dubai. When Khan struck his 1997 deal with Libya, he called on Wisser for similar equipment. According to a South African court document, Wisser also supplied India’s centrifuge program with specialized equipment, starting in the late 1980s. What else he or Lerch might have sold to the Indians remains unknown, but the timing is consistent with India’s earliest known work with supercritical centrifuges. Wisser seems to have had access to centrifuge designs, too; he tried to sell them to the South Africans around the same time.

Could Khan have been ignorant about Wisser’s dealings with India? His own guilty conscience says otherwise. Though Khan has never acknowledged having a fourth customer, he gave his Pakistani interrogators at least two contradictory cover stories that explained how KRL’s enrichment technology could have ended up in enemy hands. The full transcript of Khan’s interrogation, said to run hundreds of pages, has never been made public, but Musharraf ’s 2006  memoir provides important details. At first, Khan seems to have suggested his overseas network (Lerch, Wisser et al.) was autonomous enough to supply both India and Pakistan without either side knowing. But Khan later alleged he had been exploited by an Indian connection who was hidden inside Farooq’s Dubai operation. “Ironically,” wrote Musharraf, “the network based in Dubai had employed several Indians, some of whom have since vanished. There is a strong probability that the Indian uranium enrichment program may also have its roots in the Dubai-based network and could be a copy of the Pakistani centrifuge design.”

Musharraf’s tale of betrayal is slightly distorted. There are no indications any Indians were regularly employed by Farooq or his nephew Tahir.  But some accounts describe Farooq as being of Indian origin, just like Khan. And indeed, after Khan could speak more freely again, he accused Farooq of having absconded. In a 2009 interview, he claimed Farooq didn’t simply retire in 1992 but “cheated Tahir and fled to Singapore with all the money they had in their bank accounts. He later blackmailed Tahir.” According to the ISI’s partial summary of the interrogation, Khan emphasized that Farooq had access to copies of the centrifuge drawings. Khan also told his interrogators Farooq had supposedly transferred his share of the money from Libya to accounts in Singapore and India.

Lately, Khan has gone a step  further, blaming the foreign members of his network for all the sales of KRL technology, not just  sales to India. In this new version of events, Farooq has developed into one of Khan’s primary villains—a thief, a blackmailer and an agent of the CIA. Conveniently, too, he was now permanently out of reach. “The bastard died of cancer that he deserved,” Khan told a reporter in 2011.

Privately Khan could rationalize his culpability another way. He habitually cheated nearly all his customers. India would have been no exception. “Some of Khan’s customers were clearly being misled by the network,” says Scott Kemp, an expert on gas centrifuges at Princeton University. “He was consciously selling junk—providing customers with incomplete, sometimes rejected drawings, disused and sometimes broken parts, plus random knickknacks he tried to pawn off as centrifuge components. Political figures in Iran and Libya believed Khan to be an authority and were willing to throw money at his schemes, but technical experts soon realized they would have to reinvent the centrifuge on their own.”

Khan has basically admitted as much. In a statement to the Pakistani authorities in early 2004, he wrote contemptuously of the Iranians and Libyans: “At no time did I seriously believe they were capable of mastering this technology as they didn’t have the required infrastructure, the trained manpower or technical know-how.” North Korea, which received preferential treatment once it began supplying missiles to KRL, was another matter.  Because the North Koreans already had plutonium- based nuclear weapons, Khan reasoned, selling them enrichment technology did no harm. In this way, the Indians fit the bill perfectly. They could already produce plutonium, and Khan considered their enrichment efforts hapless. He may have done his part to keep them hapless, too: India’s centrifuge design has small differences from the P-2 that seem to make it more susceptible to failure.

Whatever the truth, no one is talking. Khan, no longer on the defensive, has stopped making admissions. He has even begun flirting with politics. His admirers now compare him to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, an important figure in India’s nuclear pro- gram. At a banquet in Khan’s honor last April, the host declared, “We detained our nuclear scientist, but India repaid its debt to Dr. Kalam by making him president.” But on his quest for ever-greater glory, can Kahn escape his last secret?

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read more: News, magazine, issue january 2012


  • Anonymous
    If anything, it should be clear to people documenting the AQ Khan saga that you can never believe anything that the prinicipal actors claim. In this light, most of the "facts" in this story may just turn out to be duds.