By Arnaud de Borchgrave
May 6, 2007
On Oct. 4, 2003, a German cargo ship, the BBC China, was inspected in the southern Italian port of Taranto as part of an ongoing program to check on ships that might be transporting equipment to assist nuclear proliferation.
The inspection disclosed sophisticated components designed to facilitate erection of centrifuges indispensable for enrichment of weapons-grade uranium. The BBC China had taken on its secret cargo in Dubai and was on its way to Libya.
Instead of denouncing yet another imperialist plot, Libyan authorities startled Western intelligence agencies by admitting they did indeed have a clandestine nuclear weapons program under way. Col. Moammar Gadhafi immediately capitulated and agreed to cooperate. The U.S. had just overthrown Saddam Hussein and the insurgency was in its infancy.
Col. Gadhafi thought Libya, as a secret nuclear proliferator, might be next on the Bush Doctrine’s hit parade.
Since seizing power in 1969 at age 27, Col. Gadhafi had interfered in 42 countries with a mix of lavishly funded terrorism (including the downing of Pan Am 103), subversion and outright military aggression.
Now, he correctly calculated that by coming clean he would also ensure his survival.
Col. Gadhafi’s abject surrender included turning over to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. and U.K. all nuclear equipment already purchased on the international black market, as well as the details of how, where and what and with whom the secret deal was made.
Col. Gadhafi’s confession staggered the CIA, MI6 and other leading Western intelligence agencies. Libya’s secret nuclear purchase included the entire kit and kabootle for a nuclear enrichment plant and detailed how-to plans for assembling a nuclear weapon. The supplier was not a nuclear proliferating state, but a company based in Dubai, run by the infamous Dr. A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and the second most popular man in his country after the founder of the state, Ali Jinna.
“Dr. Strangelove — or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964) cast Peter Sellers as an eccentric, wheelchair-bound German scientist whose mechanical hand involuntarily jerked straight out in a Nazi salute. Pakistan’s Dr. Strangelove kept soliciting America’s self-avowed enemies — North Korea, Iran and Libya — with nuclear goodies designed “to deter an attack by our common enemy,” i.e., the United States.
Dr. A.Q. Khan’s Dubai-based holding company controlled a nuclear centrifuge plant in Malaysia, as well as a network of 75 suppliers throughout the world, ranging from Germany and Switzerland to Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Khan’s clandestine nuclear empire was heavily compartmentalized. None had the overall picture of what he was up to. Three or four major production points had to know about the recipients unless A.Q. had ordered his managers to undergo frontal lobotomies.
The Malaysian operation, SCOPE, clearly was protected at the highest level. A.Q. Khan’s partner was none other than the prime minister’s son. A Swiss family engineering group, TINNER, assembled the nuclear centrifuge kits and a group in South Africa — the only country to have unilaterally abandoned its secret nuclear weapons program — supplied pumps designed to be coupled to centrifuges.
In his new book “Rapacites (Greed),” Jean-Louis Gergorin, a prominent French strategic thinker, pulled a variety of financial strands together as he investigated Clearstream Banking, a financial clearing institution based in Luxembourg.
Clearstream had been in the news since 2001 as a facility for kickbacks to secret accounts held by several French political figures, industrial leaders, and intelligence operatives, all involved in a controversial sale of six French frigates to Taiwan. The deal generated 5 billion French francs (before the euro) in kickbacks. Eight deaths have been linked to the scandal. In Taiwan, 13 military officers and 15 arms dealers were sentenced to between 8 months and life for bribery and leaking military secrets. Mr. Gergorin was accused of circulating a list that included the names of several prominent French politicians.
An investigation by the Luxembourg government led to the resignation of Clearstream’s CEO. There was a little math error. The clearinghouse at one point handled back-office paperwork for some 40 percent of European stock and bond trades and had, said BusinessWeek, overstated its assets in custody by $1.5 trillion — not billion. At one stage, Clearstream carried 33,000 secret, nameless numbered accounts.
From Russia’s new robber oligarchs to Colombian drug dealers to Mafiosi networks to Col. Gadhafi’s secret payments to Dr. A.Q. Khan for the do-it-yourself nuclear weapons kit, the chicanery Laundromat worked squeaky-clean wonders.
A.Q. Khan was president and CEO of a multinational holding company. His chief of staff was Abu Tahir, a Sri Lankan. His principal executives were Swiss, German and South African. Peter Griffin and his son Paul, both of them Brits, headed the commercial sales side. Gerhard Wiesser, a German nuclear engineer, had worked on South Africa’s nuclear weapons program that was later scrapped. He said he worked with Pakistan’s nuclear black marketeer because he had a costly divorce pending. Most were based in Dubai, the new Hong Kong on the Gulf, one of the United Arab Emirates. where anything goes (including $20,000-a-night hotel suites).
Gotthard Lerch, a Swiss-domiciled German engineer, was the technical brain behind the Libyan project. He had done business with Khan as he assisted in Pakistan’s secret nuclear program in the 1980s. For Libya, Khan signed a contract that gave Mr. Lerch 27 million euros. He was eventually extradited to Germany where a judge decreed a mistrial as the prosecution said it couldn’t share classified documents.
For most of Khan’s minions, proliferation was rewarding — and unpunished. Mr. Griffin cooperated with British and U.S. intelligence, which nailed Col. Gadhafi and led him to turn over the unpacked kit boxes to the Brits and the U.S.
A.Q. Khan made $100 million on the aborted deal.
When Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was confronted with the evidence, he persuaded Khan to confess and repent in return for amnesty, but he was allowed to keep his ill-gotten gains. He made 13 trips to North Korea through 2004 where he traded Pak nuke know-how for Korean missiles. And his cash-and-carry nuclear centrifuge deal with Iran’s mullahs is now two decades old. Unlike Libya and North Korea, Iran has thousands of scientists and engineers.
North Korea now has a rudimentary nuclear capability. Iran can’t be far off.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.