March 09, 2006

Why Export Controls Couldn't Stop A. Q. Khan

In the cover story of November's Atlantic, William Langewiesche looks for accessories to Pakistan's efforts to get the bomb and finds both European indifference and American arrogance to blame:


In the West the weaknesses of the Non-Proliferation Treaty were understood from the start. For the treaty to have weight it would have to be backed by the threat of sanctions—but even then, given the willingness of governments to "eat grass" to acquire such military capabilities, it was unlikely to deter serious aspirants from pursuing the bomb. The solution, therefore, would lie in the complex realm of export controls—restrictions on the sale of nuclear-related materials and components that might appear to be for peaceful purposes (research, health care, power generation) but could be used for weapons development. Emphasis was to be put on technologies that would allow countries to become self-sufficient in nuclear fuels—on uranium-enrichment and plutonium-extraction plants. Exports would be allowed to countries that had joined the treaty, subject to IAEA scrutiny on the ground, but would be banned to countries that had refused to sign, like Pakistan. The reliance on the United Nations posed obvious operational problems: the IAEA was a politicized bureaucracy, awash in national jealousies, and staffed by functionaries who considered themselves to be in the business primarily of encouraging nuclear-energy development. Nonetheless, in the early and mid-1970s two groups of technologically advanced countries (diplomatic assemblies known as the Zangger Committee and the Nuclear Suppliers Group) began to meet to decide on the lists of restricted materials and equipment and to negotiate the tricky terrain of national implementation and cooperation between participating governments. Over the thirty ensuing years their record has been mixed. Though they have produced ever longer export control lists that have helped to slow the nuclear trade by forcing more of it underground, they themselves have been stymied by national bureaucracies, slowed by governmental reluctance to interfere with lucrative business deals, and frustrated by the depths of global trade. As a result their lists have lagged behind the market they intend to regulate. And at no point have they been a match for energies like those of A. Q. Khan.

...[B]y the late 1970s, as Khan proceeded determinedly and American appeals to desist were rebuffed by the government in Islamabad, U.S. officials realized that the only chance they had to stop Pakistan from building a bomb was to take the supply-side approach—to block Pakistan's procurements abroad.

Blocking procurements within the United States proved to be relatively easy, because Khan had few American contacts, and U.S. export-control lists were already quite extensive—significantly more so than those that had been agreed upon by the international supplier groups. Moreover, deep within the customs and commerce bureaucracies, where such regulations are effectuated (or not) day to day, American officials, as representatives of a dominant nuclear power, tended naturally to agree on the importance of nonproliferation, and were alert to hints of violations that appeared in the paperwork that crossed their desks. As a result, though some transactions slipped by unseen, the U.S. government thwarted most of the attempted acquisitions from American suppliers.

The export-control record was altogether different in Europe, where constellations of companies were selling their wares to the Pakistanis, often with the tacit or explicit approval of their governments. In a breathless but generally reliable book titled The Islamic Bomb, published in 1981, the reporters Steve Weissman and Herbert Krosney tell a typical story of three of Khan's purchasing agents, who in 1976 went to a small Swiss company in a small Swiss town and proposed to buy its specialized high-vacuum valves for the express purpose of equipping a Pakistani centrifuge enrichment plant. The company dutifully checked with the Swiss authorities, who sent back a printout of their export regulations, including the list of restricted items as defined by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Weissman and Krosney write,

Complete centrifuge units were listed, and could only be exported to [IAEA] safeguarded facilities, which the Pakistani enrichment plant was not. High-vacuum valves were not listed, even if expressly intended for a centrifuge enrichment unit. The valves might be necessary to the centrifuge. But, in the logic of the ... list, they were not "nuclear sensitive," and did not directly separate the two different uranium isotopes, uranium 235 and uranium 238.

The company, in other words, was informed that it could proceed with the sale, and so it did—as did others throughout Western Europe. In Holland, also in 1976, a Dutch company in the automotive-transmission business sold 6,500 high-strength steel tubes to Pakistan—tubes that could serve as the basic components of centrifuges. The Dutch government knew of the deal and advised against it, but the company sent their product anyway (initially claiming that the tubes were for agriculture), and argued that no export license was required by Dutch law. The argument was accepted, and further shipments went through without delay. Ultimately there were several paltry prosecutions, including one that led to the conviction of a Dutch businessman named Henk Slebos for illegally exporting an American-made Tektronix oscilloscope in 1983. Slebos was a personal friend of Khan's, and one of his main European suppliers. He was sentenced to a year in prison, but never served the time, and continued brazenly to send equipment to Pakistan. Controls were so loose that for more than a decade Khan himself kept visiting Europe.

Such was the scene American officials faced in the global nuclear marketplace as they grappled with the inadequacy of the UN's multi-party approach, and tried through private entreaties to European governments to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. They were undercut, as they are today, by the thousands of nuclear warheads that the United States insisted on retaining for itself, and the resentment that such an obvious double standard provoked even within countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, which were said to be direct beneficiaries of American nuclear strength. They did, however, experience a few successes—particularly in 1977, when they pressured the French into backing out of the lucrative agreement to provide Pakistan with its long-desired plutonium-reprocessing plant. The cancellation set back the PAEC's nuclear-weapons plans by a decade or more. In consequence it further legitimized A. Q. Khan, and helped him to pursue his alternative goals—but nothing could be done about that anyway. For France the cost of killing the deal was several billion dollars, because of the loss of associated contracts for French products such as airplanes and trucks. The decision was all the more difficult because, with its "force de frappe," France embodied the right (and perhaps the need) of independent nations to bear nuclear arms. Such was its ambivalence that it had refused to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (It would not join until 1992.) Nonetheless, as an established power pretending to diplomatic relevance, it had little choice but to back away once it was faced with evidence of Pakistan's ambitions. By American estimation France this time behaved well.

West Germany, however, did not. Thirty years had elapsed since World War II, the German economy was strong, and the government had embarked on an ambitious program of energy self-sufficiency, which was to be achieved largely through nuclear-power generation. Germany had joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, but from the start it had been concerned almost exclusively with the provisions that promoted the rights of member states to acquire peaceful nuclear technology. In practice the German government did not rigorously differentiate between countries that were member states and countries that were not. In the mid-1970s it entered into a major nuclear deal with Brazil, which had not joined the treaty but agreed in this case to accept IAEA safeguards as if it had. Such safeguards were weak, and everyone knew it. Nonetheless, Germany was going to sell Brazil no fewer than eight nuclear reactors, a uranium-enrichment plant, a fuel-fabrication plant, and plutonium-reprocessing facilities. Presumably the centrifuges would be of the same urenco design that A. Q. Khan was stealing for Pakistan at that very time. U.S. officials were angry, because they had indications that Brazil was secretly seeking a bomb. (So was Argentina, which had rejected the Non-Proliferation Treaty as "the disarmament of the disarmed.") But when the Americans took their concerns to Bonn, the Germans reacted skeptically, and said they would proceed with the deal. In Bonn an inside observer recently said to me, "The Americans said, 'Hey, wait a minute! This is what we can show you.' And they showed the Germans a little bit of information. Apparently it was just enough to persuade the Germans that they were off the reservation." The Germans gave in and reluctantly let the Brazilian contracts drift. Fifteen years later both Brazil and Argentina, for domestic political reasons, formally renounced their nuclear-weapons ambitions.

But the Germans were increasingly restive. Reflecting a sentiment that was organic and widespread in Europe, they resented the disproportionate power of the United States, and suspected the Americans of wanting to use nonproliferation to corner the free-world market in nuclear fuels. The founding of urenco was an act of resistance to such perceived domination. Moreover, resentment toward the United States was greatest not among the national policymakers, who could sometimes be swayed, but deep within European bureaucracies, among the ordinary diplomats and officials who transacted the daily business of government and were largely immune to American pressure. It was on that level—or lower—that the Pakistani purchasing network operated, and that the American attempts to stop Khan failed. The patterns were repetitive. Whenever American intelligence discovered that one company or another was about to export devices to Khan, U.S. officials would pass the information along in writing to their European counterparts in the expectation that the activity could be stopped. In some cases the Europeans refused to act because the sales were unambiguously legal. In many others interpretation would have been possible, and with sufficient commitment and energy the companies could have been approached and warned off. Instead, the Europeans closed ranks. Their attitude toward the Americans was them against us. The reports were slid into drawers, and the drawers were slid shut.

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