Not all of Pakistan's nuclear scientists were rogues
ISTANBUL — My father, Dr. Mujaddid Ahmed Ijaz, was an early pioneer in Pakistan's "Atoms for Peace" cooperative nuclear program with the US during the late 1960s. One of the most vivid memories I have of him was the stream of tears flowing down his cheeks as our Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 707 took off from Karachi Airport in the winter of 1972.
It would be our last visit to Pakistan as children. I returned to Islamabad in the summer of 1992, the year my father died, to receive the condolences of his colleagues, former students, and friends at Pakistan's key nuclear laboratories. When I asked him a few months before he died why he had become so emotional that day on the plane, he told me it had to do with the deep regret he had felt for not being able to move our family back to Pakistan and fulfill his dream of helping his country become a peaceful nuclear power, one whose only use of nuclear weapons would be for self-defense.
On Jan. 20, 1972, my father (then a tenured physicist at Virginia Tech and senior research scientist at the Oak Ridge National Labs in Tennessee), along with 300 of Pakistan's best nuclear physicists and engineers had been summoned home from around the world by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. They came to a rural Pakistani town where Bhutto ordered them to "build me a bomb." He vowed to "eat grass," if necessary, to make Pakistan a nuclear power.
And so began one of history's most defiant and notorious efforts to set up a worldwide clandestine network aimed at purchasing, copying, even stealing whatever was necessary to get the technology that would yield the Muslim world's first functional nuclear weapons. These efforts ended in humiliation and disgrace last week when Abdul Qadeer Khan, the metallurgist who allegedly first stole blueprints for Pakistan's uranium enrichment centrifuges from a Dutch nuclear consortium in 1975, admitted to selling state secrets and technology based on those designs to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.
Libya's revelations in particular show that Dr. Khan shared not only centrifuge designs, but also warhead components and bombmaking blueprints based on China's 1960s-era weapons. The evidence, now in US hands, is an alarming development because it demonstrates Khan's intent to distribute the Islamic bomb, not just to help Muslim countries build nuclear-fuel plants.
In running his rogue nuclear operation, Khan enlisted the help of Pakistani scientists around the world by combining nationalistic pleas with bribery. If that didn't work, a few well-aimed threats were thrown in to get what he needed. Among the papers that my brothers and I found among my father's belongings after his death was a series of such letters sent to my father by former students in Khan's employ asking for very specific nuclear assistance. Copies of my father's polite but firm handwritten rejections - often with a reminder to his former students that Pakistan's nuclear program had been intended to give energy to its poor, not to make bombs for its self-destruction - were also in his files.
Not all of Pakistan's scientists were rogues, or willing to commit treason. That such a destitute and poor nation would become one of the world's most dangerous proliferators of nuclear technology for little more than the greed of a handful of scientists and the lust for power of its military, intelligence and political leaders would have grieved my father. Notwithstanding Khan's televised confession and orchestrated pardon, what makes Pakistan's nuclear scandal worse is that we probably don't know the full extent of the damage yet.
Admissions by Iran, Libya, and North Korea of their nuclear tinkering reveal only a glimpse of the problem. The sale or transfer of unsafeguarded nuclear materials to terrorist cells seeking radiological "dirty" bombs for their maniacal plots could still happen.
The CIA tracked Khan's travel to Beirut, where he met with Syrian officials in the mid-1990s to discuss ways of circumventing America's heavy presence in the Persian Gulf. In Dubai, the hub for his illicit proliferation activities, Khan curiously took up residence in 2002 ostensibly to build schools for poor Muslim children. US satellites even spotted US-made Pakistani C-130 cargo planes intended to track Al Qaeda fighters picking up missile parts at the Pyongyang airport as recently as July 2002.
Whitewashing Pakistan's official complicity in such activities, as the Bush administration seems to be doing, will only result in rogue proliferators sprouting up everywhere. But if making Khan the scapegoat protects Pakistan's military and intelligence institutions so they can earnestly - albeit secretly - debrief international investigators about which other countries and terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, have received Pakistani nuclear materials and technologies, so be it. Dismantling the threat is more important than assigning blame if we are to prevent a dirty bomb from going off in Los Angeles or New York.
To ensure such transgressions are not repeated, however, the Bush administration should tell Congress it is making all US taxpayer aid to Pakistan contingent immediately on Pakistan's acceptance of verifiable nuclear safeguards.
If, as the weekend's news reports suggested, a secret US antiproliferation team is already in the process of taking control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal by installing safekeeping vaults, tamperproof coded entry systems, sensors, alarms, closed-circuit cameras, and other technologies that give President Musharraf the ability to internally monitor and track nuclear materials and prevent their unauthorized use, then a key first step has been taken. But much more needs to be done.
Pakistan has a right to maintain its nuclear deterrent. It does not have the right to hide from the world how many nuclear monsters it created in our midst, a fact that the real heroes of Pakistan's nuclear program - like my father - understood all too well.
• Mansoor Ijaz, a nuclear scientist educated at MIT and Harvard, is chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York.