Khan Nuclear Network Survives Despite U.S. Efforts

A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani engineer who bought and sold nuclear knowledge and supplies in the international black market, appears to be safe from prosecution. Pakistan isn't pursuing charges against him, and cases in Germany and Switzerland are languishing. Meanwhile, experts say Khan's network is still up and running.

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We're also hearing new allegations today about the nuclear black market run by Pakistani scientist AQ Khan. Officially, that network was shut down two years ago. That's when Kahn confessed to selling nuclear materials to clients around the world. Since then, he's been under house arrest at his mansion in Islamabad. But nuclear experts both in Europe and here in the United States says it is far from clear that Kahn's network is really crippled. They argue that the effort is almost certainly still active and they accuse the United States of doing far too little to shut it down.

Here's NPR Intelligence Correspondent Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:

The scope of AQ Khan's work is quite simply staggering. He built a global business with tentacles stretching from Asia to the Middle East to Western Europe and beyond. Running all those deals were dozens of middlemen and it's on these people that attention is now focused. So far the grand total of members of Khan's network to be put behind bars is one. A Dutch businessman, Henk Slebos, was quietly sentenced last December to one year in prison.

If that doesn't sound like much, at least it's something. Right now the only Khan-related trial underway anywhere in the world is in Germany. It involves a man named Gotthard Lerch. He's accused of helping Libya set up its clandestine nuclear program. His trial opened before a court in Manheim, Germany this spring. But so far it has gone nowhere. Lurch's lawyers are arguing that the whole case should be thrown out on procedural grounds. And it's not clear when, if ever, the substance of the charges against Lerch will be examined.

Mark Hibbs is a writer for the small specialist newsletter, Nucleonics Week. He's tracked the Khan network for years and he's not surprised the Lerch case is sputtering.

Mr. MARK HIBBS (Nucleonics Week): These cases are extremely complex. Many jurisdictions are involved in the case of Lerch. We're talking about activities which were investigated by intelligence and judicial agencies in Germany, in Switzerland, in the United States, in Liechtenstein, in South Africa.

KELLY: Indeed, the role played by foreign governments, specifically the U.S., is currently causing headaches for prosecutors in Switzerland. The Swiss are trying to hold their own Khan-related trial. They've detained Friedrich Tinner and his sons, Marco and Urs. All three allegedly played key roles in Khan's network, but to prove that, the Swiss need documents and other evidence from the U.S.

Mr. HANSJÜRG MARK WIEDMER (Spokesman for Swiss Attorney General): We are asking for information that can be useful to our case, and we are still waiting for a reply.

KELLY: That's Hansjürg Mark Wiedmer, a spokesman for the Swiss Attorney General. Switzerland has asked four times for U.S. help in convicting the Tinners, to no avail.

Mr. DAVID ALBRIGHT (President, Institute for Science and International Security): I find this lack of cooperation, frankly, embarrassing.

KELLY: U.S. nuclear expert David Albright, testifying last week on Capitol Hill.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: It is difficult to understand the actions of the U.S. government; its lack of assistance needlessly complicates this important investigation.

KELLY: Albright is a former nuclear inspector in Iraq. He is now informally advising the Swiss government. And he argues the U.S. should be taking the lead in bringing members of the Khan network to justice. So why isn't it? Here's one theory circulating: that perhaps the U.S. won't share what it knows about the Tinners because they were working for the CIA. David Albright believes that's the case and says he has a document proving the Tinners were paid for their services by the U.S. government.

Mark Hibbs, the nuclear writer, says he's heard similar allegations from his sources in Switzerland.

Mr. HIBBS: There is speculation that the Tinners were part of an intelligence operation that was controlled by the CIA.

KELLY: The CIA isn't commenting, nor are the Tinners or their lawyer. But former CIA chief George Tenet did talk about the Khan network a couple of years ago, in an unusually revealing speech at Georgetown University. Tenet detailed just how far the CIA had gone in trying to unravel Khan's activities.

Mr. GEORGE TENET (Former CIA Director): We pieced together the picture of the network revealing its subsidiaries, its scientists, its front companies, its agents, its finances and manufacturing plants, on three continents. Our spies penetrated the network through a series of daring operations over several years.

KELLY: Of course, the man with the answers to many of the outstanding questions about the network is A. Q. Khan himself. Pakistan has steadfastly refused to allow U.S. or United Nations investigators to question Khan. And last month, Pakistan released Mohammed Farrukh(ph), the last of 11 Khan aides detained for their alleged role in the nuclear black market. That pretty much closes the door on the prospect that anyone in Pakistan will be prosecuted.

This week, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry formally announced the Dr. Khan case has been closed. If the U.S. has any new information, they should share it with us. We are ready to cooperate.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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