Proliferation for profit

March 12, 2004|By Micah Zenko

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Officials and diplomats around the globe were shocked by the recent discovery of the reach and depth of the Pakistan-based nuclear proliferation network, and rightfully so.

Two factors make these latest revelations profoundly worrisome: This network operated completely at the private level, and everyone involved was in it only for the money. For the world to counter such profit-seeking nuclear entrepreneurs, it must do much more than simply roll up this network directed by Pakistan's national nuclear "hero," Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Mr. Khan signed a confession Feb. 1 admitting he provided nuclear know-how to Iran, North Korea and Libya over 15 years. Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, referring to Mr. Khan as "my hero," fully exonerated the 66-year-old metallurgist for his conduct. But he must make Mr. Khan available to U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency investigators for questioning about the specifics of his nuclear contacts and contractors.

The Bush administration accepts General Musharraf's kid-gloves handling of the situation, incorrectly reasoning that Pakistan's support in the hunt for Osama bin Laden is more important than the full disclosure of Mr. Khan's network. But finding bin Laden and understanding the extent of the Pakistani nuclear black market are not incongruous goals.

Collectively, they represent the gravest security threats to America, and dealing with both should be a condition of Washington's continued embrace of the politically vulnerable General Musharraf. Indeed, many would argue that stopping rogue nukes is more important to U.S. security than capturing bin Laden. But finding bin Laden is of much greater political value to the Bush administration.

The allegations against the Khan enterprise are especially troubling because this self-contained network -- which bought and sold nuclear technology -- was composed entirely of private individuals. Mr. Khan oversaw the clandestine group of business executives, merchants and engineers.

Previously, decisions to provide nuclear technology to friendly or allied nations nearly always had been made by a nation's top leaders: the United States to Britain and later to France; the Soviet Union to China and North Korea; France to Israel; and China to Pakistan. While it was rare for parliamentary votes or Cabinet-level agreements to approve such transactions, at least heads of governments authorized the exchanges and did so in the belief that targeted proliferation was in their nation's strategic best interest.

Today, private citizens wholly unconcerned with the threatening and destabilizing effects of their behavior sell nuclear information -- from uranium hexafluoride to centrifuge enrichment designs to technical expertise and even bomb blueprints in full-service kits.

This private trade in nuclear technology is all the more terrifying because transnational terrorist groups such as al-Qaida operate in this same arena.

Money ultimately motivated these individuals to sell advanced nuclear know-how. This contrasts with the motivation for nuclear proliferation by national leaders, which included alliance burden-sharing, security assurances or ideological compatibility.

Many principals in Mr. Khan's network were legitimate businessmen spread through Asia, Europe and Africa. Before entering the nuclear trade, some of these individuals were engaged in producing and shipping computers and high-precision components or in capital investments.

Such operations easily morphed into black-market front companies to traffic in nuclear secrets. Mr. Khan simply energized an existing globalized economy to develop what IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei dubbed "a veritable Wal-Mart" of nuclear trade -- complete with glossy brochures and salesmen beating the bushes for customers.

Only a global cooperative effort can eliminate future private nuclear networks. President Bush's recently announced seven-point plan to make the selling of nuclear equipment more difficult is a good first step. But three additional policies must be implemented:

All states must exceed Mr. Bush's call to simply strengthen existing export laws. New laws must be drafted that put the overwhelming burden on corporate exporters of dual-use technology to prove beyond doubt the benign intent of their buyers and end-users.

The IAEA must be infused with greater resources to uncover nuclear proliferation by private parties. Currently, less than half of the agency's paltry $268 million annual budget is dedicated to stopping proliferation -- the world's single greatest security threat.

Senior political leaders where Mr. Khan's conglomerate operated and elsewhere must make preventing the emergence of the next underground nuclear network their top priority by criminalizing any support by government agencies of acts of nuclear proliferation by private individuals.

International scandals such as Mr. Khan's fade when new ones emerge to take their place. Let's hope our leaders never overlook this one.

Micah Zenko, an authority on national security issues, is a research associate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

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