Is Abdul Qadeer Khan a threat to nuclear nonproliferation? The father of Pakistan's nuclear program may have been freed from house arrest by an Islamabad court, but in the U.S. the jury's still out on how much harm Khan himself could do. The general consensus, however, is that his release sends a bad signal.
Commenting this morning, before there was confirmation of Khan's release, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said Khan "remains a serious proliferation risk." He added, "The proliferation support that Khan and his associates provided to Iran and North Korea has had a harmful impact on the international on international security, and will for years to come."
Khan's release comes as no great surprise, because it was clear the Pakistani government was not going to keep him under house arrest forever. But proliferation experts worry that his release by the Islamabad high court will be interpreted as a vindication of his claim that he had never been involved in any criminal activity. The experts say this could encourage others including some in the Pakistani nuclear program to follow his example.
The experts are divided on whether A.Q. Khan himself poses a threat to nonproliferation efforts. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, says Khan's release was "a big defeat for nonproliferation." He warns that Khan was now free "to do whatever he wants, and may return to criminal activity."
But Michael Levi, a proliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Khan himself is not a threat. As a private Pakistani citizen, he will not have the access to sensitive technology and facilities, and Levi believes the networks Khan once ran to trade nuclear secrets have largely been smashed. "He can't enable proliferation simply with the ideas in his head," says Levi.
Joseph Cirincione, who advised President Obama on nuclear issues during the presidential campaign, disagrees. "Claims by the Bush adminstration that they had 'shut down' the network were never true," he tells TIME by e-mail. "The network still operates, in part to keep equipment coming into the Pakistani program. European intelligence agencies say companies and individuals in the network are still involved in black market sales. Khan's release means it is likely that these operations will increase." (See a map of A. Q. Khan's dangerous game.)
But the experts all agree that Khan's release is a terrible signal. "There are others in the Pakistani establishment who have access to sensitive materials, and we would have liked them to know that there would be consequences to any misuse," says Levi. "But Khan's release undermines any deterrent effect." (See pictures of A. Q. Khan's nuclear bazaar.)
Levi hopes that the Pakistani government will now persuade Khan to cooperate in investigations into his network. "The impact of what he did is still alive, we don't fully understand it," says Levi. The British government has already asked Pakistan to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency access to Khan. Previous such requests went nowhere. Pakistan's foreign ministry has said it now considers the Khan affair a closed chapter.
It's unclear how the U.S. government will react to Khan's release. Cirincione, who runs the Ploughshares Fund, a grantmaking foundation focused on issues of security and peace, points out that Khan's release comes just days after the U.S. imposed sanctions against Khan, 12 of his associates and three firms tied to his network. "Was this a reaction to our move? If so, it is a direct challenge to our efforts to stop the network," he says.
Albright points out that Washington "has used up whatever leverage it had with Pakistan in this matter." He says U.S. efforts to prevent further leaks of nuclear technology from Islamabad have concentrated on intelligence gathering, rather than ensuring that previous offenders, like Khan, were adequately punished.