Nuclear Ring Reportedly Had Advanced Weapon Design
By DAVID E. SANGER, New York Times, June 15, 2008
WASHINGTON — American and international investigators say that they have found the electronic blueprints for an advanced nuclear weapon on computers that belonged to the nuclear smuggling network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist, but that they have not been able to determine whether they were sold to Iran or the smuggling ring’s other customers.
The plans appear to closely resemble a nuclear weapon that was built by Pakistan and first tested exactly a decade ago. But when confronted with the design by officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency last year, Pakistani officials insisted that Dr. Khan, who has been lobbying in recent months to be released from the loose house arrest that he has been under since 2004, did not have access to Pakistan’s weapons designs.
In interviews in Vienna, Islamabad and Washington over the past year, officials have said that the weapons design was far more sophisticated than the blueprints discovered in Libya in 2003, when Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi gave up his country’s nuclear weapons program. Those blueprints were for a Chinese nuclear weapon that dated to the mid-1960s, and investigators found that Libya had obtained them from the Khan network.
But the latest design found on Khan network computers in Switzerland, Bangkok and several other cities around the world is half the size and twice the power of the Chinese weapon, with far more modern electronics, the investigators say. The design is in electronic form, they said, making it easy to copy — and they have no idea how many copies of it are now in circulation.
Investigators said the evidence that the Khan network was trafficking in a tested, compact and efficient bomb design was particularly alarming, because if a country or group obtained the bomb design, the technological information would significantly shorten the time needed to build a weapon. Among the missiles that could carry the smaller weapon, according to some weapons experts, is the Iranian Shahab III, which is based on a North Korean design.
However, in recent days top American intelligence officials, who declined to speak about the discovery on the record because the information is classified, said that they had been unable to determine whether Iran or other countries had obtained the weapons design. Pakistan has refused to allow American investigators to directly interview Dr. Khan, who is considered a hero there as the father of its nuclear program. In recent weeks the only communications about him between the United States and Pakistan’s new government have been warnings from Washington not to allow him to be released.
Dr. Khan’s illicit nuclear network was broken up in early 2004; President Bush declared that shattering the operation was a major intelligence coup for the United States. Since then, evidence has emerged that the network sold uranium enrichment technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, and investigators are still pursing leads that he may have done business with other countries as well.
While Libya gave up its nuclear program, North Korea and Iran have not, despite intense international pressure, sanctions, and repeated offers of incentives to do so.
On Sunday, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, said that the administration remained concerned about the possibility that additional plans have been disseminated, but he did not address any of the latest revelations about the Khan network.
“We’re very concerned about the A.Q. Khan network, both in terms of what they were doing by purveying enrichment technology and also the possibility that there would be weapons-related technology associated with it,” he told reporters traveling with Mr. Bush from Paris to London on Sunday.
“That was a concern. That’s one of the reasons we rolled up the network here three years or so ago, and fairly successfully. And part of that rolling up was to roll up the network and part of it was to pursue what kind of relationship the A.Q. Khan network had to individual countries with which they are dealing.”
The existence of the compact bomb design began to become public in recent weeks after Switzerland announced that it had destroyed a huge stockpile of documents, including a weapons design, that were found in the computers of a family in Switzerland, the Tinners, who over the years played critical roles in Khan’s operation.
In May, Switzerland’s president, Pascal Couchepin, announced that more than 30,000 documents had been shredded, saying the government acted to keep them from “getting into the hands of a terrorist organization or an unauthorized state,” according to Swiss news accounts.
But American and I.A.E.A. officials say that destroying one copy of an electronic file was more satisfying to the Swiss than it was reassuring to them. It is unclear whether the Swiss knew that some of the same material had been found in other countries by I.A.E.A. investigators.
Some details of the Swiss action and the bomb design have appeared recently in Swiss newspapers and The Guardian of London and in The Washington Post on Sunday.
The Swiss have provided little information about exactly what they destroyed, but I.A.E.A. inspectors watched the destruction and American intelligence officials were deeply involved. “We were very happy they were destroyed,” one senior intelligence official said Friday. But he added that “what else is out there” remains a mystery. The Swiss destruction of the equipment came in response in the case of Urs Tinner, who has been in custody for more than four years but has not yet stood trial.
Two former Bush administration officials said they believed Mr. Tinner had provided information to the Central Intelligence Agency while he was still working for Dr. Khan, including some of the information that helped American and British officials intercept shipments of centrifuges on their way to Libya in 2003.
When news of that interception became public and Libya turned its $100 million program over to American and I.A.E.A. officials, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan forced Dr. Khan to issue a vague confession and then placed him under house arrest. Dr. Khan has since renounced that confession in Pakistani and Western media, saying he made it only to save Pakistan greater embarrassment.
It was not until 2005 that officials of the I.A.E.A., which is based in Vienna, finally cracked the hard drives on the Khan computers recovered around the world. And as they sifted through files and images on the hard drives, investigators found tons of material — orders for equipment, names and places where the Khan network operated, even old love letters. In all, they found several terabytes of data, a huge amount to sift through.
“There was stuff about dealing with Iranians in 2003, about how to avoid intelligence agents,” said one official who had reviewed it. But the most important document was a digitized design for a nuclear bomb, one that investigators quickly recognized as Pakistani. “It was plain where this came from,” one senior official of the I.A.E.A. said. “But the Pakistanis want to argue that the Khan case is closed, and so they have said very little.”
In public statements, Pakistani officials have insisted that the Khan “incident,” as the call it, is now history, and they publicly declared nearly two years ago that their investigations are over.
A senior Pakistani official, interviewed in Islamabad in April, said that the information provided by the I.A.E.A. was “vague and incomplete,” and he insisted that because Dr. Khan’s laboratories specialized in the manufacture of the equipment needed to enrich uranium, “he was not involved in weapons designs.”
But investigators have no doubt that he was the source of the digitized bomb design. “Clearly, someone had tried to modernize it, to improve the electronics,” one said. “There were handwritten references to the electronics, and the question is, who was working on this?”
The officials said that parts of the design were coded so that they could be transferred quickly to an automated manufacturing system for the production of parts.
Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from London.