Where did the UF6 come from?

The United States is paying the price for A Q Khan’s quiet retirement

As long as the Centrifugist remains sequestered in his lakeside villa, what he knows will never be completely known. And as long as international investigators (both American and those of the IAEA) do not have a complete, mutually agreed account of the extent of Khan’s network and activities, anti-proliferation diplomacy will have to rely on allegations, insinuations and indirect conclusions.

The controversy over the origin of the uranium hexafluoride (UF6) found in Libya is a case in point. It would help the case of the Bush administration’s policy position if it were established that it was North Korea that supplied nuclear material to Libya. Confronting the Dear Leader armed with such damning evidence would be useful, if only the evidence were incontrovertible. But this is not the case, and as the Arms Control Wonk reports, the UF6 could have come from elsewhere, including, of course, from Pakistan.

Now sorting out the North Korean nuclear issue is very important, and the Bush administration needs all the help it can get to help end the standoff with no broken bones. But it risks losing its credibility as long as key pieces of evidence, and key tools of diplomacy, end up as subjects of controversy. As in this case, the United States will find it increasingly difficult to shake off an impression that it is selectively exploitating intelligence gained its investigation of A Q Khan to suit its own interests.

Until Bush administration stops handling Musharraf and the Centrifugist with kid-gloves, it will continue to pay a heavy price — that of the credibility of American intelligence.