Following the nuclear trail

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History may record that the early 21st century witnessed the breakdown of the three-decade-long effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. And, according to a comprehensive report in The New York Times, much of the responsibility for that will go to the father of the Pakistani bomb, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Since the nonproliferation treaty of 1970, the five charter members of the nuclear club - the United States, Soviet Union (subsequently Russia), Britain, France, and China - have worked to keep the bomb out of other hands. They did not succeed with Israel, India, and Pakistan. A new menace arose when Pakistan went into the export business, undeterred by the US, which relied on Pakistani help against the Russians in Afghanistan, and later against the Al Qaeda terrorists.

According to the Times, the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories have been peddling nuclear know-how and components to rogue states - North Korea, Iran, and Libya. An official-looking brochure selling nuclear hardware bears the name of the Pakistani government and a photo of Dr. Khan. That Strangelovian character stands at the center of an international network of aspiring proliferaters.

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The Pakistani government has denied that it was involved in transferring nuclear technology, but the denial fell short of claiming that the research laboratory had not done it.

If rogue states have not yet produced any mushroom clouds, it is, in large part, because these developing countries have not yet mastered the complex technology involved in extracting uranium and fashioning the special-purpose centrifuges.

Greater threats may lie ahead. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was the target of two recent assassination attempts, raising the thought of nuclear weapons in the hands of an extremist successor regime. President Bush, asked about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, said, "Yes they are secure." And he changed the subject.

Pakistan's instability heightens the danger of nuclear proliferation. And the known willingness of Pakistan's chief nuclear scientist to share the bomb with rogue regimes intensifies the danger.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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