Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz
Globalization, what a concept. You can get a burger prepared your way practically anywhere in the world. The Nike Swoosh appears at elite athletic venues across the United States and on the skinny frames of t-shirted children playing in the streets of Calcutta. For those interested in buying an American automobile — a word of warning — it is not so unusual to find more “American content” in a Japanese car than one built by Detroit’s Big Three.
So don’t kid yourself about the Pakistani bomb. From burgers to bombs, globalization has had an impact. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal — as many as 120 weapons — is no more Pakistani than your television set is Japanese. Or is that American? It was a concept developed in one country and, for the most part, built in another. Its creation was an example of globalization before the term was even coined.
A Proliferation Chain Reaction
So where to begin? Some argue that Pakistan started down the nuclear road under President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace program, billed as a humanitarian gesture aimed at sharing the peaceful potential of atomic energy with the world. But Atoms for Peace was a misnomer — a plan to divert growing domestic and international concern over radioactive fallout from America’s nuclear tests. It would prove to be a White House public relations campaign to dwarf all others.
In fact, Atoms for Peace educated thousands of scientists from around the world in nuclear science and then dispatched them home, where many later pursued secret weapons programs. Among them were Israelis, South Africans, Pakistanis, and Indians. Homi Sethna, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, spelled out the program’s impact after his country tested its first nuclear device in 1974. “I can say with confidence,” he wrote, “that the initial [Atoms for Peace program] cooperation agreement itself has been the bedrock on which our nuclear program has been built.”
If you think that India’s program, in turn, did not inspire Pakistan’s, think again.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the late Pakistani prime minister and father of Benazir Bhutto, first talked publicly about nuclear weapons in the early 1960s when he was Pakistan’s energy minister. In his 1967 autobiography, Bhutto wrote, “All wars of our age have become total wars and our plans should, therefore, include the nuclear deterrent.” But Pakistan’s generals rejected his ideas, arguing that the cost of producing a nuclear bomb would cut too deeply into spending on conventional weapons. It wasn’t until after Bhutto became prime minister that he officially launched Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program in 1972.
Consider here, yet another atomic beginning: Pakistan, a poor, backward country, with little indigenous technical or industrial infrastructure, made next to no progress on the nuclear front, despite Bhutto’s enthusiasm, until the arrival of Abdul Qadeer Khan at the end of 1975.
The Indian-born Khan had fled his home in Bhopal in the 1950s to settle in the new state of Pakistan. There, he went to university, quickly becoming frustrated by the lack of opportunity. Study and advanced degrees in Europe followed until, finally, Khan found himself working at the Physics Dynamics Research Laboratory in Amsterdam in the spring of 1972.
At the time, powerful companies like Westinghouse and General Electric controlled the facilities that provided enriched uranium to civilian reactors throughout the Western world. In 1971, in an effort to protect the fledgling U.S. commercial nuclear industry, President Richard M. Nixon had ordered that the closely guarded enrichment technology not be shared with any other country, not even allies. That led other nations to begin developing their own enrichment technology to ensure continual access to an adequate fuel supply. The lab where Khan was employed, known by its Dutch initials FDO, was the in-house research facility for a Dutch conglomerate that worked closely with Urenco, a consortium formed by the governments of Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands to design and manufacture centrifuges.
To cut right to the chase, Khan, who was able to work at the lab without serious scrutiny from the Dutch security police, found that he had easy access to the latest uranium-enrichment technology. Within three years, he had left the lab — in possession of plans for Europe’s most advanced centrifuge and a shopping list of relevant equipment manufacturers, experts for hire, and sources for the necessary raw materials to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb, all scattered across the globe.
Before leaving the lab, Khan wrote Prime Minister Bhutto, offering his services and returned to Pakistan to launch that country’s own uranium-enrichment laboratory.
FDO was just the start of Khan’s reliance on the outside world for bomb-making help. With the support of Pakistani scientists and military officers, working undercover as “diplomats” at the country’s missions around the world, he set up what became known as “the Pakistani pipeline,” securing high-tech equipment from literally hundreds of companies in 20 or more countries.
While some of this is well known, a series of little-publicized letters between Khan and a Canadian-Pakistani engineer, Aziz Abdul Khan, in 1978 and 1979 offer a revealing look at the degree to which globalization shaped Pakistan’s nuclear program. The so-called Islamic bomb turns out not to be an indigenous product, but instead a little bit American, Canadian, Swiss, German, Dutch, British, Japanese, and even Russian.
Aziz Khan was one of dozens of Pakistani scientists living abroad whom Khan tried to recruit for what he described as a “project of national importance.” According to the letters between them, while Aziz Khan declined the offer, he agreed to provide A.Q. Khan with scientific literature and to spend his vacations at A.Q. Khan’s laboratory outside of Islamabad, training and mentoring young engineers.
We obtained the letters — which cover the comings and goings of nuclear experts from nine different countries — from an American government official, who, in turn, received them from Canadian law enforcement officers after they were taken from Aziz Khan, following his arrest in Montreal in 1980.
These exchanges provide a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into Khan’s nuclear Wal-Mart in its infancy, long before he began peddling his finished wares to Iran, North Korea, and Libya. After a decade of diplomatic rhetoric about the need to stop the spread of nuclear technology, they also offer a window into the ineffectiveness of American and European export controls. By setting these letters — often colorfully translated from Urdu by the Canadian authorities — against the backdrop of the news coverage of the time, you can see just how disturbingly international the assistance was that Khan received.
Buying “Ducks” from Russia
It was an exciting time for Pakistan’s fledgling nuclear program…
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Douglas Frantz, the former managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a senior writer at Conde Nast Portfolio. Catherine Collins, a former Chicago Tribune reporter, is now a Washington-based writer. They are co-authors of The Nuclear Jihadist: The True Story of the Man Who Sold the World’s Most Dangerous Secrets and How We Could Have Stopped Him (Twelve, 2007).
Copyright 2007 Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz