Pakistani nuclear scientist denies selling bomb secrets

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A.Q. Khan, the renegade nuclear scientist from Pakistan who once admitted helping Iran and Libya obtain nuclear-weapons technology, said Tuesday that he'd only introduced those two "rogue" regimes to Western businessmen who provided the technology and the know-how for their fledgling nuclear-weapons program.

In a telephone interview with McClatchy in Islamabad, his first with an American news organization, Khan also said that others in Pakistan who'd aided him had gotten away "scot-free" while he'd become a "black sheep" for offering advice on nuclear weaponry.

Khan's protestations of innocence didn't impress Western experts.

Told of Khan's defense, David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector who now heads the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said simply: "He's just lying; the facts are established." According to Albright, Khan agreed to oversee the building of a sophisticated nuclear facility for Libya.

In a startlingly detailed confession in 2004, Khan said that over a period of 15 years he'd provided Iran, Libya and North Korea with designs and technology. Much of that help, Pakistani officials said at the time, came from a secret network of smuggled equipment, the transfer of sensitive designs for centrifuges and technological advice offered in clandestine meetings with those nations' scientists. U.S. officials said the transfers didn't stop until just months before his confession.

In Tuesday's interview, Khan denied that he'd done anything but offer "very small advice" on where to acquire the technology. "When Iran and Libya wanted to do their program, they asked our advice. We said: 'OK, these are the suppliers, who provide all.' "

Khan said that the companies were European.

Specifically, Khan said the nuclear technology included "complete centrifuge design, complete enrichment-plant drawings, complete weapons drawings."

"The Germans have those drawings. The South Africans have those drawings. The French have those drawings. They were the suppliers. You can't blame me for it. They were selling. They were making money. Why put blame on me? The fact that I brought them (Libya and Iran) into contact with middlemen."

Khan disputed his confessed assistance to North Korea as well. He said that North Korean had obtained a different technology from its relationship with Russia.

"North Korea, right from the beginning, was one of the closest partners of Russia. All the North Korean scientists and engineers studied in Russia," Khan said.

Khan described the North Korean program as having "excellent technology" with "very sophisticated designs."

The Pakistani nuclear scientist, described by the CIA as "at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden" and by Time magazine as "the merchant of menace," was bristling with indignation Tuesday.

"They (the allegations) are bullshit and concoctions," Khan said in the interview from his villa in one of Islamabad's leafiest residential areas, where he remains under house arrest. "Now I have become the black sheep."

An international pariah but still a hero to most Pakistanis, Khan said he wouldn't co-operate with inspectors from the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, who've pressed to interrogate him.

"Why should I? Are we their colony? We are not even a signatory to the NPT. There are no international laws that force anybody to comply," he said, referring to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. "Co-operation with the IAEA is voluntary."

Khan spearheaded Pakistan's covert nuclear program from its inception in the mid-1970s until he was forced to make his confession about his proliferation activities on national television in 2004, under huge pressure from Washington, which had discovered his allegedly lucrative trade.

Khan, a 72-year-old who recently recovered from a bout of prostate cancer, said that he'd made the confession "in the national interest," believing that it would protect Pakistan and he'd be allowed to continue to live a normal life. He'd been promised "unconditional pardon, free movement, respect" in return, he said.

"The moment I made the confession at the TV station and I was coming home, I said, 'OK, from tomorrow I will lead a normal life.' But as soon as I entered the house, there were guards outside. They said, 'Sorry, you cannot go out, you cannot meet anybody, your children cannot come, your daughter cannot come from England.' "

Khan said cryptically that others "got away scot-free" as a result of his taking all the blame, but he identified no one. Most experts think that he collaborated with Pakistani army personnel, who've always controlled the nuclear program.

Khan said that he'd been to North Korea twice — "a liar said I went 13 times" — but that the authoritarian state didn't need any help from Pakistan, which has a nuclear program based on uranium enrichment rather than the plutonium technology that North Korea uses.

"The North Korean program is totally based on reactor reprocessing plutonium. They had mastered this technology even before we started. I told my government when I saw their system, they have excellent technology. They are much more advanced than we are. And they have very sophisticated designs."

According to many independent accounts, North Korea later sought to acquire uranium technology by swapping its missile systems for Pakistan's uranium-enrichment know-how. A recent book even claimed that the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was personally involved in the barter arrangement during a trip to Pyongyang.

The Pakistani scientist remains under heavy guard at his home, with soldiers wielding automatic weapons stationed outside. In the last couple of weeks, there's been a slight relaxation in his conditions, with unofficial phone contact tolerated, a few visitors allowed and one brief outing. The freedom he longs for hasn't been granted, but members of Pakistan's new coalition government have called for him to be let go.

Khan himself has no doubts why he and Pakistan have been singled out for international condemnation.

"Muslims were the only religion which threatened the Western civilization. They hate Muslims; they hate Islamic culture. Every Muslim is a terrorist," he said.

"The West will never forgive you. I broke their monopoly. I am the black sheep for them. I destroyed their total monopoly over this technology. We're the only Muslim country that managed to do it. So they will tarnish me, left, right."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)