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Dateline NBC
updated 1/19/2005 12:57:57 PM ET 2005-01-19T17:57:57

He's been called by some, the most dangerous man in the world. And he's not Osama Bin Laden. You may not even know his name but, according to those who do know him, he helped spread nuclear bomb-making technology to some of America's most determined enemies. The question is, just how much damage has he done?

In the summer of 1999, a group of illegal weapons dealers were meeting at a warehouse in Florida, their conversations recorded by federal investigators. One of the men, from Pakistan, was seeking technology for nuclear weapons. Who did he say he was working for? 

Dick Stoltz: “Dr. Abdul Khan.”

Chris Hansen: “A.Q. Khan.”

Dick Stoltz: “A.Q. Khan.”

Former federal undercover agent Dick Stoltz was posing as a black market arms dealer.

Hansen: “Did you realize what you had at the time?”

Stoltz: “No. We didn't.”

But now he does -- because A.Q. Khan is considered, by some, to be the most dangerous man in the world. Why? Because Dr. Khan has peddled nuclear weapons technology to some of the countries the United States considers most dangerous, and some accepted his offers.

Hansen: “We're talking about Iran?”

David Albright: “Iran accepted.”

Hansen: “North Korea?”

Albright: “Accepted.”

Hansen: “Libya?”

Albright: “Accepted.”

David Albright, a physicist and former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq, has been tracking A.Q. Khan for 20 years.

Albright: “There was no way for most of these countries to actually succeed in getting nuclear weapons. I mean they lack certain capabilities, and Khan was there to help them. “

And the U.S. still doesn't know for sure exactly how many nuclear customers Khan had.

Hansen: “What's our worst nightmare having to do with this case?”

Albright: “I think the worst nightmare is really how much assistance he could've given al Qaida or helped al Qaida get closer to being able to make a nuclear weapon.”

In order to build a nuclear bomb capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people, experts say you need only an amount of weapons grade uranium the size of a grapefruit. But the biggest challenge is being able to produce that radioactive fuel.

And that's where A.Q. Khan comes in. He's the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program and an expert on uranium enrichment. While working in Europe in the 1970s he gained the knowledge and the contacts that helped Pakistan become a nuclear power, as he said in a rare interview in 1998 for German television:

A.Q. Khan: “Now, if I needed something, I had friends in England, I had friends in Germany. So I asked to buy some equipment, some materials. He'd send a quotation. If the price was ok, we gave a go-ahead and we bought it.”

Khan made it sound like a trip to the hardware store, all completely above board. But U.S. and foreign intelligence sources say that Khan was buying highly sensitive machinery and many of his purchases were illegal.

Albright: “He was breaking laws all over the world. And the Pakistani government was basically willing to accept that he was doing that, and in fact, happy he was doing that, because they wanted nuclear weapons.”

Once Pakistan had the bomb, David Albright says, Khan expanded his operation. Though it's not clear whether the Pakistani government knew, sometime in the 1990s, he began selling nuclear secrets to anyone willing to buy. He even printed up these glossy brochures obtained by the military trade magazine Jane’s Defense Weekly to market himself to potential customers. 

In his 1998 interview, he downplayed his own role in the spread of nuclear weapons, and claimed many countries could take advantage of readily available nuclear technology:

A.Q. Khan: “If you know something has been done or something can be done, it is no secret any more.”

David Albright says when Khan offered his services to countries like Syria and Egypt, they apparently turned him down. But there's no question that the countries that accepted his help are much further along with their nuclear weapons programs than they would have been.

Albright: “The scariest part is a country like Iran goes from probably they couldn't do it to being able to do it-- with the assistance from Khan. Because of that assistance, they could be as little as three years away, perhaps five.”

Undercover federal agent Dick Stoltz says there's evidence Khan's operatives were at work here in the U.S., like a man who asked  if Stoltz could supply heavy water, an ingredient used to make plutonium for nuclear bombs.

Stoltz: “He said that Dr. Khan was handling the negotiations behind the scene, as far as-- the heavy water.”

Stoltz says the heavy water was supposed to go to Iran or North Korea, two of Khan's biggest nuclear customers. Khan was also supplying nuclear technology to Libya. But what he didn't know was that U.S. intelligence was onto his expanding network and decided to go after it. In October 2003, the U.S. Navy intercepted this ship headed for Libya. On board were parts to make equipment for enriching uranium. The materials were traced by investigators back to A.Q. Khan. This past summer, President Bush reacted:

President Bush: “These materials are the sobering evidence of a great danger.”

Caught red-handed, Libyan leader Muamar Qaddafi said he was abandoning his nuclear program. Khan's alleged accomplices, who authorities say provided the equipment Khan was selling, began to be rounded up in Asia, Europe, and Africa:

President Bush: “Today, the A. Q. Khan network is out of business. We have ended one of the most dangerous sources of proliferation in the world, and the American people are safer.”

Last February Khan went on Pakistani television to apologize for what he called his "irrational judgment" in selling nuclear secrets. And though he was pardoned by Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, Khan was also placed under virtual house arrest. The Pakistani government says it has been interrogating Dr. Khan and sharing what it has learned with the international community. But some international investigators would like to interview Dr. Khan face-to-face.

Mark Gwozdecky: “We'd like to talk to Dr. Khan.”

Mark Gwozdecky is the spokesman for the IAEA, the U.N. agency that polices nuclear programs worldwide.

Gwozdecky: “We've made it clear to the Pakistani authorities that that's our wish. They've indicated to date that that's not going to be possible.

The Bush administration says it is satisfied with what Pakistan is doing and has received a "treasure trove of information." The U.S. has not publicly pressed to interview Khan.

And that does not surprise Rich Barlow, who was an intelligence officer who helped catch A.Q. Khan's agents in the U.S. almost 20 years ago.  He's long been at odds with policymakers on the issue of Pakistan and says the U.S. has been too lenient on matters related to Khan.

Rich Barlow: “This issue in my opinion has always taken a back seat to other more immediate policy concerns.”

For instance, in the 1980s when Pakistan was helping the U.S. drive the Soviets from Afghanistan, Barlow says some U.S. officials didn't want to pursue Khan aggressively because it could have jeopardized Pakistan's cooperation. 

Hansen: “Did the United States government close its eyes to A.Q. Khan and the Pakistani Nuclear Network?”

Barlow: “Oh, well, I wouldn't say they closed their eyes. But they certainly turned their heads.”

And now, even with Khan apparently out of business, critics like David Albright worry it may be too late to undo the damage he's done.

Albright: “It's like removing a tumor you know. The tumor's been removed but we don't know if it's already metastasized and the cancer cells are already spreading.”

Hansen: “How do we know that he didn't sell some of these secrets to al Qaida, Osama bin Laden?”

Albright: “We don't know. And it's on these kind of questions where people just don't trust the Pakistani government to give us a straight answer. I think it's going to be several years before we understand all the damage that Khan has done to us.”

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