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May 28, 1998


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How Dr Strangelove stole the bomb

"Western journalism," read a letter published in the German daily Der Spiegel in 1980, "takes pride in false and malicious reporting, especially when covering the developing countries.

"The intensity is enhanced when it deals with Muslim countries. I want to question the bloody holier than thou attitudes of the Americans and the British. These bastards are God-appointed guardians of the world, to stockpile hundreds of thousands of nuclear warheads, and have the God-given authority to carry out explosions every month. But if we start a modest programme, we are the Satans, devils, and all the journalists consider it a crusade to publish fabricated and malicious stories."

That letter, published 18 years ago, was to be the first -- and, indeed, pretty much the only -- time the world heard directly from Pakistan's own Dr Strangelove. Dr Abdul Qadir Khan, to give him a name.

The 62-year-old father of Pakistan's nuclear programme was then in hiding. Under investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency for allegedly offering to sell a nuclear-weapons design to Iran -- a charge he has since denied -- he still lives in his heavily fortified and guarded home, in proximity to the uranium-enrichment plant in Kahuta, hidden in the hills outside Islamabad.

His shadowy profile of today fits perfectly with the image the world has had of Dr Khan -- a pastiche of hype, myth, legend, and very little fact.

The career of probably the most successful nuclear spy since Klaus Fuchs and Alan Nunn landed up in the Kremlin with the secrets of the German nuclear programme began in Bhopal, in 1936.

By all accounts a competent if not outstanding student, Dr Khan studied in the Techjnische Universitat in West Berlin. He then moved to Holland, between 1963-1967, for a degree in metallurgical engineering at the presigious Technical University of Delft. And finally, on to the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, for a Ph D that completed his studies.

Professor M J Brabers, his mentor at Leuven, remembers him as a competent scientist, if nowhere near the genius class. Crucially, though, Professor Brabers was to sum him up as an outgoing, charming and highly likeable sort of chap, with an instinctive ability for making friends.

Another trait Professor Brabers remembers is a thirst for information, and a corresponding willingness to ask questions of anyone who could supply the answers. With his charm and easy affability, Professor Brabers was to recall when l'affaire Khan hit the headlines, the Pakistani scientist managed to evoke replies to his questions, no matter how sensitive.

The high point of Professor Brabers's recollections is of working with Dr Khan on a book on physical metallurgy. The senior professor recalled how the young Pakistani, with no standing at the time in the international scientific community, still managed to persuade leading scientists all over the world to contribute articles to the book.

After his studies in Leuven, Dr Khan took up his first job. As it turned out, this was to provide him the key to unlock Pakistan's nuclear programme.

The Physical Dynamics Research Laboratory in Amsterdam, a specialised engineering firm, was putting together an elite team for a special project.

A subsidiary of the major Dutch firm Verenigde Machine-Fabrieken, FDO was closely involved in one of Europe's key nuclear projects.

Urenco, a joint venture of the governments of Great Britain, West Germany and the Netherlands, was meant to break away from the monopoly the United States had at the time in the field of nuclear fuel. Urenco, created in 1970, was meant to guarantee the three nations a steady supply of enriched uranium to fuel their nuclear power plants via a plant in the town of Almelo, in Holland.

The Almelo plant was designed to employ the state of the art, highly classified, "ultracentrifuge" technique, which was guaranteed to produce, from natural uranium, a much higher proportion of weapons-grade uranium 235 than any other method then extant.

The FDO, of which Dr Khan was a part, served as consultants on the hi-tech process. Which put the Pakistani scientist right in the heart of the secret his country most desperately needed.

Interestingly, though the project was of such crucial importance, security was incredibly lax. The Dutch security service, the BVD, did carry out a security check on Dr Khan, but passed him without too many problems. Aiding the positive assessment by the BVD was the "fact" that Dr Khan had a Dutch wife and spoke of his intention to settle down in Holland -- it was only much later, when the storm broke, that it was realised that his wife, Henny, was actually a South African citizen with a British passport.

With the BVD clearance and approval of the Dutch ministry of economic affairs -- apparently the ministry was given the impression that Dr Khan would work on less sensitive aspects of the programme -- the Pakistani scientist blended into the scenery and went about his business.

Much later, when security services attempted to piece the story together, neighbours of the Khans -- they were, at the time, living at 71, Amstelle Street in the Amsterdam suburb of Zwanenburg -- spoke of how, especially in the aftermath of India's first nuclear test on May 18, 1974, cars with diplomatic plates would land up outside the Khan home in the late night hours.

However, as with so many other little signs, nothing much was made of this at the time.

Dr Khan, meanwhile, assiduously took notes. And asked questions. And worked his way deeper, ever deeper, into the heart of the super-secret project.

Interestingly, it was the FDO itself that gave Dr Khan the run of the Almelo project, when it briefed him to familiarise himself with the procedures at Urenco.

One of Dr Khan's many tasks at the time was to translate technical documents from German to Dutch and vice versa -- and with a laxity of security that seems startling in retrospect, he was allowed to take the documents home to work on them. At the same time, his "familiarisation" brief allowed him to gain not only the complete project design plans, but also get the names and addresses of all firms supplying components for the ultracentrifuges.

The real breakthrough came in the fall of 1974, when Urenco came up with a breakthrough in the field of vertical centrifuges -- a technique the Germans had come close to cracking during its nuclear race with the US during World War II, and which was later developed by the Russians.

Urenco finally cracked the trick -- and Dr Khan was the one briefed to translate all relevant documents from German to Dutch. For this, he was given an office deep in the heart of the most sensitive section of the Almelo plant, where the final planning and design work were executed.

This was where he lived and worked for 16 days, with constant access to every single process required for the procurement of weapons-grade uranium.

Though there were rules and security regulations in place, insiders later revealed that they were not followed with any stringency. Everyone within the heart of the project was assumed to have the ultimate clearance, and therefore all records were open to all, and everyone spoke freely to everyone else.

Dr Khan watched, listened, absorbed, and took notes. Once, when asked by a colleague what he was writing in an obviously foreign language, he said he was writing a letter to his folks back home.

After 16 days, Dr Khan shifted out of the Almelo plant, but remained with the FDO till October 1975 when, on the instance of the ministry of economic affairs -- which, by then, had just begun to sniff a rat -- he was shifted to a new post that had nothing to do with the ultracentrifuge project.

Two months later, on December 15, 1975, Dr Khan, his wife and two daughters left on what was passed off as a sudden trip back home to Pakistan, ostensibly because a close relative was seriously ill.

A while later, came a letter from Dr Khan's wife, to the effect that since her husband was down with yellow fever, he would be extending his stay in Pakistan.

Then came a letter from Dr Khan himself, stating that he had decided not to return to Holland and was therefore submitting his resignation.

He had, he said in his letter, found a good job back home.

He had, indeed. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then prime minister of Pakistan, had created the uranium processing facility at Kahuta -- a massive one, with 10,000 ultracentrifuge units. And put Dr Khan in sole charge.

The rest, like they say, is history in the making.

Postscript: It was only in 1979 that the Dutch finally realised they had been had.

After a round of recriminations, in which everyone blamed everyone else -- Urencho blamed the FDO, the FDO blamed the ministry of economic affairs, which blamed Urenco right back... a commission of inquiry was constituted in 1980. "It accepted that Engineer Dr Khan had been able to assist Pakistan in acquiring essential ultracentrifuge know how..." the commission concluded.

In 1983, the Dutch government, in a classic case of locking the stable door after the horse had bolted, sentenced Dr Khan in absentia to four years in prison for stealing classified information from the Almelo uranium enrichment plant.

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