Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged for the first time that he had suspected for at least three years that his country's top scientist was sharing nuclear technology with other countries, but argued the US had not given him convincing proof.
In an hour-long interview with the New York Times on Monday Musharraf shared blame for the delay with Washington saying it was not until October that American officials provided him with evidence of the activities of the scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
"If they knew it earlier, they should have told us," Musharraf was quoted as saying. "Maybe a lot of things would not have happened."
Musharraf told the paper that he had seen signs that Khan was sharing nuclear technology, including 'illegal contacts, maybe suspicions of contacts', and 'suspicious movement' connected to Khan's laboratory.
Musharraf, however, said he was concerned that investigating Khan, a national hero in Pakistan for his role in developing its nuclear weapons, could provoke a political backlash.
"It was extremely sensitive," he was quoted as saying. "One couldn't outright start investigating as if he's any common criminal."
He attributed his protectiveness to Khan's national stature to political realities in Pakistan. "Since he had acquired a larger-than-life figure for himself, one had to pardon him to satisfy the public and I think it has gone extremely positively."
The NYT quoted a senior Bush administration official as acknowledging that Musharraf was not given highly specific information about Khan's activities until last fall but he noted the US conveyed more general warnings about Khan's activities starting in 2001.
Bush is expected to give today what one senior official at the White House described as a 'lengthy, detailed speech on what must change in the area of stopping proliferation'.
Musharraf told the paper that he forced Khan to retire from his post as head of a nuclear weapons lab in March 2001, to prevent him from transferring any more nuclear secrets.
"We nipped the proliferation in the bud, we stopped the proliferation," he said of Khan's removal. "That is the important part."
But, the paper said, the nuclear black market supplied by Khan continued to operate for two and a half years, until last fall, according to American officials.
That network is one of the largest and most successful efforts at evading non-proliferation controls, and is suspected of being the source of nuclear weapons developed in Iran, North Korea and Libya, investigators said.
Before the exposure of Khan's network late last fall, the paper noted Pakistani officials, including Musharraf, had long denied that Pakistan was the source of nuclear technology for any other country.
In repeated interviews, Musharraf never disclosed that he suspected that the country's leading nuclear scientist was spreading technology.
Musharraf's comments, the paper said, will only add to the debate over what is a murky episode. Some political and military analysts said Pakistan's earlier refusal to act against Khan and its effort now to bring the scandal to a hasty conclusion reflect at least tacit approval from the powerful army for his activities.
They suggest that Khan received a full pardon in exchange for publicly stating that he alone was responsible for the proliferation, the paper said.
Musharraf said after he had 'centralised oversight' of the nuclear programme in February 2000, he received reports from a scientist who had been 'sidelined' by Khan that raised concerns about 'some proliferation activity, some underhand proliferation going on'.
He also confirmed earlier reports that Pakistani agents had raided a cargo plane used by Khan in 2000, but had found nothing.
"We got some suspicious reports through the security agencies that there are some suspicions of some items to be loaded and taken somewhere in the plane," he said.
"We were very sure there was some activity likely," said Musharraf, who added that the scientist may have been tipped off. "But we didn't catch them red-handed."
Musharraf, who had said he would shield Khan from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations watchdog group, softened his position slightly yesterday, saying, "We need to think about it."
The military ruler has indicated that he is not eager for trials of six close aides to Khan in part because lengthy public trials would raise 'the same sensitive issue of Dr A Q Khan coming in again, getting invoked every time'.
He told the paper that despite his suspicions, he had no idea how extensive Khan's network was, nor how long it had been operating.
"We didn't know that this is so deep that it started somewhere in the late 80s," he said. "We didn't know that at all. And frankly again, the sensitivity of the issue, we tapped it and we just sidelined this one individual."
Even removing Khan from his post in 2001, Musharraf told the paper, required hours of deliberation over how best to proceed. Khan was removed as head of the laboratory but was made a special adviser to the government, a post he was stripped of last week.
The paper said Musharraf seemed ambivalent about whether Khan was victim or villain, patriot or traitor. "I don't know whether Dr A Q was using the underworld or the underworld was using A Q," he said.
Musharraf, the paper said, emphatically denied reports by American intelligence officials that Khan had struck a barter agreement with North Korea in which Pakistani nuclear technology was exchanged for North Korean ballistic missile technology.
He said Pakistani cargo planes spotted in North Korea in July 2002 were picking up surface-to-air missiles Pakistan had purchased at the height of tension with India.
Though the military ruler has previously said the government completed its investigation of the proliferation, he said yesterday that the government was 'still looking into the details' about what, beyond designs, had been transferred to North Korea.
But the paper said Musharraf seemed to have few answers about how Khan operated freely in a country where the nuclear arsenal is considered its greatest single asset.
He was quoted as saying in the interview that the brigadier general in charge of security for Khan's laboratory never reported anything. "He didn't, and frankly, he hasn't even now," the president said. "He in fact has said that yes, he regrets that he was inefficient, he couldn't unearth, he didn't know."
"He says he didn't know whatever was going on. And he swears by that even now. But, however, he is being investigated for at least inefficiency. He didn't know anything, being the security in charge."
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