AP: Pakistan, Nuclear Black Market Linked
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The black-market network that supplied nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea relied on European businessmen convicted or investigated in the 1980s for selling similar equipment to Pakistan, U.S. officials say.
The evidence developed by the United States points to at least two college friends of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who admitted being the mastermind of the scheme, according to the officials familiar with the intelligence and to proliferation experts assisting the international effort. All spoke to The Associated Press only on condition of anonymity.
One of the friends, Henk Slebos of the Netherlands, was convicted there in 1985 of trying to sell equipment to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Slebos’ wife told the AP this week he would not talk to reporters.
Some evidence came from Khan himself and from admissions that Iran made to U.N. inspectors, while other intelligence was developed during a covert CIA operation aimed at cracking the smuggling ring, the officials said.
Khan last week admitted selling nuclear secrets and equipment. He was pardoned by Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
U.S., international and Pakistani investigations continue into the extent of Khan’s network and whether it provided equipment or information to anyone outside the three countries already named.
That black market figures already suspected of smuggling in the 1980s re-emerged to play a role in Khan’s effort has alarmed some weapons experts.
``This should serve as a wake-up call for the need for much more alert and aggressive efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and materials to terrorists and other states,″ said Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and former top Pentagon arms control official under President Clinton.
CIA Director George Tenet said agents worked for years to penetrate Khan’s nuclear network; their efforts paid off in the October seizure of a ship full of nuclear components headed for Libya. That seizure helped prompt Libya to reveal _ and renounce _ its nuclear weapons program in December.
The network Khan set up to peddle his nuclear knowledge became a comprehensive one-stop-shopping venue for countries wanting their own atomic bombs, experts from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency and U.S. agencies have said.
From the high-speed centrifuges needed to make uranium bomb fuel to designs for the bomb itself, Khan’s network provided the know-how, the materials, even 24-hour technical support if problems cropped up, diplomats and intelligence officials have said.
He even had glossy brochures _ complete with his own photo _ with color pictures and specifications of some of the centrifuge parts for sale.
The network provided Libya and Iran with equipment and know-how to make a large centrifuge plant to separate bomb fuel from ordinary uranium. Libya also got a relatively unsophisticated but workable nuclear warhead design from Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats allege.
The network evolved after Khan’s black-market deals to supply Pakistan’s nuclear program in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The enterprise started with Khan stealing centrifuge designs while he worked in the early 1970s for Urenco, a European uranium enrichment consortium. He was convicted in absentia in the Netherlands for stealing the designs but the conviction was overturned because Khan was not properly served with court papers.
Several of the European businessmen Pakistan tapped for nuclear help also are believed to have aided Libya and Iran, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials and outside nuclear experts who spoke on condition of anonymity.
One of them was Slebos, who was convicted in 1985 of trying to ship high-tech equipment to Khan’s laboratory in Pakistan. The U.S. officials said evidence points to Slebos as a participant in the Khan network that helped supply Libya with nuclear weapons equipment in the 1990s.
Slebos now runs a company called Slebos Research, which was a corporate sponsor of a conference organized by Pakistan’s Khan Research Laboratories last year. Dutch officials have said they intercepted five shipments to Pakistan from Slebos Research and another company in 1998.
The Slebos Research Web site says it offers ``solutions for unusual problems″ and boasts, ``We find hard to get objects for customers all over the world.″
Slebos did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages left at his firm. A woman who answered Slebos’ home telephone and identified herself as his wife said Slebos would not talk to reporters.
Iran identified to the IAEA three German businessmen among five middlemen who were sources for some of its centrifuge technology. The U.N. nuclear watchdog has not made their names public.
The U.S. officials and outside experts say they included two former executives, Otto Heilingbrunner and Gotthard Lerch, of a company that made centrifuge components. German prosecutors investigated them in the 1980s for allegedly selling equipment and blueprints to Pakistan’s nuclear program.
The two men worked in the 1980s for Leybold AG, which got nuclear-related designs from Urenco while bidding on a centrifuge contract for the uranium enrichment consortium. Leybold has publicly acknowledged it also sold nuclear equipment directly to Iraq and Iran in the 1980s.
Heilingbrunner, reached by telephone at his home near Cologne, said he was involved in selling aircraft engine parts to Iran in the 1980s but denied any involvement with nuclear sales.
``I have nothing to do with Libya, Iraq, North Korea or any others,″ he said.
Lerch could not be located for comment.
Another German supplier named by Iran, the late Heinz Mebus, also was a college friend of Khan. Mebus worked in the early 1980s for Albrecht Migule, who was convicted in the former West Germany of selling equipment to Pakistan to help its uranium enrichment program.
Khan’s network also used at least five factories in Malaysia and other countries to make centrifuge components, the U.S. officials and outside nuclear experts said.
The most sophisticated factory was near Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, owned by Scomi Precision Engineering, or SCOPE. The majority owner of SCOPE’s parent company Scomi Group is Kamaluddin Abdullah, the only son of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Scomi officials have said they did not know that the precision parts they made were destined for uranium centrifuges. Centrifuge parts made by SCOPE were aboard the ship bound for Libya seized in Italy last October.
The middleman for that deal was B.S.A. Tahir, a Sri Lankan based in the United Arab Emirates port of Dubai, which is a hub for Khan’s network, Malaysian national police chief Mohamed Bakri Omar has said. Malaysian authorities have questioned Tahir.
Tahir ordered the centrifuge parts beginning in 2001 on behalf of a company called Gulf Technical Industries LLC, which calls itself a dealer in specialty steel products. The multi-million-dollar contract made GTI Scomi’s biggest customer in fiscal 2002, according to Scomi’s public financial reports.
Associated Press writers Tony Czuczka in Berlin, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and John Solomon in Washington contributed to this report.