The mother of all intelligence failures (3)

Pettiness, bungling and the fate of the world

The New York Times’ William Broad and David Sanger report how tensions between American investigators and their IAEA counterparts are coming in the way of thorough investigations into Khan the Centrifugist’s nuclear sales network. Concerned that nuclear secrets disclosed by Libya would fall into the hands of some not so scrupulous members of the IAEA, the United States is reluctant to share information with the UN’s nuclear watchdog. It is also concerned that too enthusiastic an investigation into A Q Khan by the IAEA would embarass Gen Musharraf, its anti-terror ally, that among other things, would jeopardise the hunt for bin Laden. The end result is that A Q Khan remains comfortable in Musharraf’s care, shielded from the prying eyes of international and American investigators.

All this is a shameful repetition of how Pakistan and A Q Khan managed to get there in the first place — the United States found it politically expedient not to pay more attention to Pakistan’s activities.

The breadth of the operation was particularly surprising to some American intelligence officials because they had had Dr. Khan under surveillance for nearly three decades, since he began assembling components for Pakistan’s bomb, but apparently missed crucial transactions with countries like Iran and North Korea.

In fact, officials were so confident they had accurately taken his measure, that twice – once in the late 1970’s and again in the 1980’s – the Central Intelligence Agency persuaded Dutch intelligence agents not to arrest Dr. Khan because they wanted to follow his trail, according to a senior European diplomat and a former Congressional official who had access to intelligence information. The C.I.A. declined to comment.

“We knew a lot,” said a nuclear intelligence official, “but we didn’t realize the size of his universe.”[NYT]

Cold War era calculus and the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan caused the United States close one eye to Pakistan’s nuclear programme. But between the fall of the Soviet Union and the ‘questioning’ of Khan lay a decade of apathy and inaction. And as B Raman points out, it was not as if it all happened without any warning.

When India raised an alarm about the construction of the Kahuta enrichment plant, it was told that Khan was a glorified store-keeper in the Holland plant and would not be able to develop an enrichment capability. He did.

When India raised another alarm about the Chinese sharing their old nuclear designs with Pakistan, it was attributed to its anti-China reflexes.

I have been writing about the Pakistan-North Korea nuclear-missile axis since 1998 and have written nearly a dozen articles on it. People were told not to take my articles seriously because of my intelligence background. I was projected as an anti-Pakistan analyst, who misses no opportunity to have Pakistan discredited.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Each and every one of my articles has proved correct in retrospect. If the international community has A.Q.Khan thoroughly interrogated by an independent panel of outside experts as recommended by me in an earlier article, we may still be able to find out the entire truth and contribute to saving the world from a possible act of nuclear or radiological terrorism. [Outlook India]

The United States is not wrong in keeping information away from the IAEA — not least because it may not be the only country tapping El Baradei’s phones — but its current tactic of sacrificing everything at the altar of the hunt for bin Laden is bound to produce some nasty surprises.

And in spite of Musharraf’s peerless record in breaking every single big promise he has ever made, the United States continues to take his word, at least nominally. And upon the word of this serial liar does the fate of the world lie.

Related Posts: The mother of all intelligence failures: Parts 1 and 2

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