Inside The A-Bomb Bazaar

Evidence mounts that Pakistani scientists sold nuclear know-how to a triad of rogue nations

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Dapper Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was always a man with a mission--even if it was long shrouded in obscurity. Some 30 years ago, he allegedly stole blueprints for enriching uranium from the top-secret Dutch lab where he worked. For decades, his team in Pakistan labored behind heavily guarded walls to produce enough of the fuel to make A-bombs. In 1998 he watched proudly as Pakistan detonated its first nuclear devices beneath the scorched desert hills of Baluchistan, shocking an unsuspecting world. A public hero at last to exultant countrymen, he was hailed throughout the Muslim world as the "father of the Islamic Bomb."

Now Khan is earning new renown as the godfather of nuclear proliferation, a dangerous salesman who helped bring the Bomb within closer reach of other eager powers. Since Iran and Libya were exposed in recent months as nuclear-weapon owners in the making, Khan and more than six other scientists who worked with him, plus an undisclosed number of Pakistani diplomats and intelligence agents posted abroad, have been under investigation in Islamabad for sharing the playbook of atomic weapons with those states, well-placed foreign intelligence sources tell TIME. Khan has long been suspected of orchestrating Pakistan's nukes-for-missiles swap with North Korea, and his name even appeared in a 1990 letter from a Dubai middleman to Saddam Hussein offering to sell Iraq the scientist's nuclear know-how.

U.S. intelligence officers have joined the Pakistani probe, hoping it will provide clues to unmask and stamp out clandestine nuclear-procurement networks. The one Khan pioneered for Pakistan is considered a model for would-be Bomb builders. "I've always thought that A.Q. Khan's Rolodex is the most important thing of all in giving people advice on how to put all the pieces together," says Robert Oakley, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. Washington is worried that someone might barter away Pakistan's nuclear secrets to terrorists.

One question no one involved wants to address is whether Khan and his colleagues operated on their own or at the behest of the Pakistani government. President Pervez Musharraf, who under pressure from Washington sacked Khan as head of nuclear-weapons development in early 2001, insists that his four-year-old government has never dabbled in nuclear trade--whatever past regimes might have done. It's possible that Khan & Co. or the military and intelligence officers who long supported such deals acted independently. "I think that during his administration there was a lot going on," said Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, declining to give details. Investigators in Islamabad tell TIME that a handful of scientists now being interrogated were selling the nation's nuclear secrets for their own profit or for ideological reasons. Those investigators absolve the government and steer clear of fingering Khan as the ringleader. Eager to keep Musharraf in power and a partner in the war on terrorism, the Bush Administration also tiptoes around the issue of Pakistan's official role. Yet some proliferation experts in the U.S. doubt that rogue scientists and their cronies in the security services could have arranged such supersecret, high-level deals without government approval.

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