The Man Who Sold the Bomb

How Pakistan's A.Q. Khan outwitted Western intelligence to build a global nuclear-smuggling ring that made the world a more dangerous place. The inside story

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    Meanwhile, Khan expanded. He made contact with the North Korean government as early as 1993, according to Pakistani investigators. In the late 1990s he began shipping centrifuges and the means to make them--"the whole package," as a U.S. intelligence official put it--in bulk to Pyongyang, sometimes aboard Pakistani military cargo planes. Pakistani officials say Khan has testified that the North Koreans were so appreciative that in 1999 they took him on a private tour of their nuclear facilities during his visit to Pyongyang. U.S. and IAEA investigators believe that Khan also traveled to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and to such African countries as Sudan, Ivory Coast and Niger. The purpose of those trips remains unclear, but intelligence officials have hunches: Saudi Arabia and Egypt are believed to be in the market for nuclear technology, and many African countries are rich in raw uranium ore.

    As he hopscotched across the globe, Khan had little reason to believe that Western intelligence agencies were catching on to his activities. But unbeknownst to him, they apparently had found a mole in the operation who could lead straight to the boss.

    When several Italian coast-guard cutters set out from the industrial port city of Taranto on that country's southeastern coast on Oct. 4, 2003, they had specific orders: to detain and board a German-flagged cargo ship called the BBC China, then heading for Libya. The seizure had, in fact, been arranged jointly by the CIA and MI6, the overseas arm of British intelligence. When the agents boarded the BBC China, what they found was anything but routine: five large containers, each carefully packed with precision machine tools, tubes and other bombmaking equipment. The containers amounted to part of a uranium-enrichment facility manufactured in Malaysia by Tahir's Scomi operation.

    The CIA had been tracking Khan since the late 1990s. "We were inside his residence, inside his facilities, inside his rooms," former CIA Director George Tenet told an audience last year. A Libyan source told TIME that the Libyan government believes that the mole may have been Tahir, Khan's trusted aide. "[The U.S.] made a compromise with him," the source says. "He will be safe. They won't touch him, but he had to cooperate." The source has told TIME that when the CIA finally confronted Tripoli in late 2003 about its nuclear ambitions, the officers played a tape of a 1997 Casablanca meeting that was attended by only Khan, Tahir and two representatives of the Libyan government. The source believes that Tahir was wearing a concealed microphone during that meeting.

    Tahir was arrested in Kuala Lumpur in May 2004 and held under a Malaysian law allowing for the indefinite detention of individuals posing a security threat. He has provided a wealth of information to local investigators about the specifics of Khan's dealings, particularly with Iran and Libya. The IAEA said last week that the Malaysian government agreed for the first time to make Tahir available to IAEA investigators--the next best thing to being able to talk to Khan himself.

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