Pakistani nuclear scientist

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: The Obama administration got an unwelcome reminder of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal last week ? that's when Pakistan's high court released A.Q. Khan from house arrest. A.Q. Khan, you might remember, is the man who gave Pakistan the nuclear bomb. He's been under house arrest since 2004, after he admitted selling nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea, and Libya. But in Pakistan, he's still considered a national hero. William Langewiesche is author of the book ?The Atomic Bazaar: Dispatches From The Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking?. William Langewiesche, remind us briefly who A.Q. Khan is.

WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: Khan is a Pakistani engineer and PhD materials scientist who was working in Amsterdam and walked away in the 1970s with blueprints for advanced centrifuges for the enrichment of Uranium; returned to Pakistan and led the effort to enrich uranium in Pakistan, which in about 10 years led to the development of the Pakistan nuclear arsenal.

WERMAN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said his release made her ?very much concerned.? Are those realistic concerns?

LANGEWIESCHE: No, they're not. I mean, look. The specific concern is what happened after he led the effort to build nuclear bombs in Pakistan, and that is that he then started up a network on behalf of the Pakistan dictatorship at the time, and the elite sold nuclear weapons technology and secrets and materials for the enrichment of uranium to a variety of countries. This was then, in the West, portrayed as the act of one man -- as if A.Q. Khan was some evil genius and without A.Q. Khan none of this would have happened and because of A.Q. Khan it did happen ? all of which is again a gross simplification. So Khan was a front-man. Khan was an effective manager ? but there are plenty of effective managers in Pakistan and throughout the world.

WERMAN: When you say he was a front-man, he was a front-man for whom? And is that what ultimately led him to his house arrest?

LANGEWIESCHE: Well, I mean, his main claim to fame is that he was a front-man for the Pakistani government, because what he really did again was lead this large effort, with thousands and thousands of employees, in the construction of the nuclear bomb for Pakistan. It was a policy that was sustained through changes in leadership in Pakistan. It was a rational policy. It was a response to the development of nuclear weapons in India. So he was a front-man for the very core of Pakistani politics and government and regimes and the military for years. He then also became a front-man for a sub-set -- and no one really knows who was directly involved in profiting, but we can presume ? of course, we know that the government knew all about this when he was selling weapons. He did it openly. This was not a secret.

WERMAN: How dangerous is A.Q. Khan at this point? I guess what I'm asking is does his release represent anything that Secretary Clinton should be concerned about?

LANGEWIESCHE: No, it does not. In fact, it's surprising in the context of the troubles that we face in south Asia right now, ranging from tensions between Pakistan and India and of course, more important, the internal problems within Pakistan and the way they relate to the war in Afghanistan ? that these people, whether it's Secretary of State Clinton or Holbrooke, would be wasting any of their mind or their thoughts or their time or their breath or their statement on the release of this old man from his house.

WERMAN: Why do you think Pakistani authorities have refused to let US authorities question A.Q. Khan?
LANGEWIESCHE: Obviously, they were concerned about being implicated themselves, I mean, on the highest level in his scheme to sell nuclear weapons technology to other countries, they did not want to be embarrassed. Although, it's obvious that the US authorities already knew.

WERMAN: And do you think now that he's no longer being held under house arrest, that some of the secrets might emerge?

LANGEWIESCHE: For what they're worth, you know, yes. I'm sure that we'll slowly learn more about the network that he established, but this is getting to be pretty old history by now, and some of the network has been dismantled already, much of it has ? and new networks will form. That's really the point. So we can go chasing after those details for sort of academic interest, but operationally it doesn't really matter anymore than his release really matters. There are plenty of other people who can do what he did, and there are plenty of other networks organically available for the spread of this technology.

WERMAN: William Langewiesche, international correspondent for Vanity Fair. Thanks very much for your time.

LANGEWIESCHE: Sure.