Video: Selling secrets to the enemy

By Producer
NBC News
updated 2/4/2004 7:31:52 PM ET 2004-02-05T00:31:52

U.S. intelligence now believes that A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, offered Iraq critical nuclear weapons technology and components in the months leading up to the 1991 Gulf War — an offer Iraq turned down fearing it was a sting operation run by the U.S.

U.S. officials say the Khan offer is memorialized in an Iraqi intelligence document found by U.N. inspectors in 1995. The document is dated Oct. 6, 1990, three months before the Gulf War began and five days after the United States cut off military aid to Pakistan because of its nuclear weapons activity.

It was one of several the inspectors found in 1995 after being tipped by Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and head of the WMD program. Kamel defected along with his brother that year and provided both the United States and U.N. inspectors with a great deal of intelligence about Iraq’s weapons programs. He and his brother later returned to Iraq and were killed by Saddam. One former U.N. inspector told NBC News the offer was made in person and was only written up in the memo found by the inspectors.

While at the time the underlying facts of the memo could not be fully authenticated, the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency now have other intelligence that confirms it. That intelligence comes primarily from what Libya has provided the United States and IAEA on its dealings with Khan, which mirror the Khan offer to Iraq. Khan supplied what one U.S. intelligence analyst called “the entire kit: the weapons design, a full-up centrifuge and the Rolodex of suppliers” Khan had developed in building Pakistan’s bomb. 

Other countries contacted
Khan wanted $5 million up front for his cooperation, according to the memo. According to recent reports, Libya paid him $50 million. Khan has now admitted supplying nuclear expertise and equipment to Libya, Iran and North Korea and is believed to have offered it to Iraq and Syria. Syria too is believed to have rejected Khan’s offer.

Building "The Bomb"For years, both Pakistan and Iraq claimed the offer was a hoax, but with the Libyan decision to abandon its weapons of mass destruction and the opening of Iraq’s WMD files, current and former U.N. inspectors and U.S. intelligence officials say there is evidence that the offers were real and came from Khan.

The memo regarding the offer was delivered to the head of Iraq’s secret police procurement agency, which was known to handle sensitive weapons purchases.  A Greek national whose name is known to the IAEA but whom the agency has not tracked down, offered the services of “Dr. Ab-del-Qadeer Khan,” according to the memo.  

Provided NBC News by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), it states that Khan: “is prepared to give us project designs for a nuclear bomb ... ensure any requirements for materials from Western European countries via a company he owns in Dubay [sic].”

“The memo notes that a meeting with Khan directly was not possible at that time, given the tense international atmosphere resulting from Iraq’s continued occupation of Kuwait and the impending attack by coalition forces,” says David Albright, president of ISIS. “An alternative of setting up a meeting in Greece with an intermediary, who had good relations with the Iraqi intelligence agents, was mentioned as a possibility. Iraqi intelligence officials said in the memo that they believed the motive was money.”

Word gets out
It was first revealed in January 1998 in a top-secret note from the IAEA to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.  However, the note described the offer as coming from “a foreign national” without identifying Khan.  The spokesman said the agency had contacted officials in Pakistan, who had denied the charge.

When the story first broke in 1998, Khan denied any involvement with the Iraqi program, saying the reports were attempts to create the impression of an “Islamic bomb,” adding: “I have never stepped foot in Iraq.”  He did not mention Iraq in his apology to the Pakistani nation Wednesday.   The Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein claimed they believed the offer was part of a “sting” operation to get them to show their nuclear hand.  

As one former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official noted, a sting would have the value of helping the U.S. and its allies in Desert Shield determine the status of the program.

“If you approach them with an offer of a critical technology and they dismiss your offer, that could mean they have already mastered that technology,” said the official, who added that the United States did try some stings during the Gulf War, but that he was not aware of anything like the Khan offer.

“The Iraqis may say they thought it was a sting,” said a former inspector, “but they believed the offer was real and believed they were dealing with Khan.”                                

The timing is one of the things that inspectors have found intriguing about the offer.  Not only was it during the buildup when Iraq had a secret crash program to build the bomb, but it followed by five days the U.S. decision to cut off all aid to Pakistan because the United States believed Pakistan had made several nuclear weapons in the previous six months.

The United States also feared that the Iraqis while rejecting the offer in 1990 may have planned to revive it after the war, with one inspector noting that the Iraqis had kept it secret from U.N. inspectors for nearly five years. .”Why’d they keep it secret?” asked one inspector. “Unless they had plans to go back to him after we finished our inspections.”

In addition, inspectors note there was other evidence suggesting Khan used Iraqi auspices to procure maraging steel, a specialty steel used in centrifuges that enrich uranium to bomb-grade.  Pakistan and Iraq preferred to use centrifuges to enrich uranium.  The other inspector said that Khan failed to fulfill his part of the bargain on that deal, whose details remain murky.  “There was a level of mistrust in Khan,” said one person familiar with the investigation.

One former inspector says Iraqis also told inspectors that they did not want to give Khan “control” over their bomb program after Khan had “double-crossed” the Iraqis on the steel deal.

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