Home page Investigative works


Originally published in Il Venerdì of La Repubblica, 16 November 2007

There is a question that torments the powers-that-be in Washington while Pakistan collapses into chaos: will Musharraf's army manage not to lose control over the nuclear arsenal? The scenario is Armageddon-like. The idea that a single atomic bomb can finish in the hands of fundamentalists is pure terror. Bush forebodes World War Three if Iran manages to get a bomb (currently they have none), Ahmadinejad's boastful comments about 3,000 centrifuges are cause for the usual turmoil...and the 60 atomic bombs that Pakistan has, then? Most certainly, the Court of Miracles surrounding the Pakistani bomb is frightening: the army, the military intelligence, full to the brim with Taliban sympathizers, scary characters like Sultan Bashir-ud-Din Mahmood. And finally Abdul Qader Khan, guardian of the unspeakable truth. There is one person who knows the secrets of Pakistan's atomic bomb: Richard Barlow. In the 1980's, he was a young, brilliant analyst with the CIA. His career had great promise. Twenty years later, at 52 years old, he has lost everything. He agreed to tell his story to Il Venerdì of La Repubblica.

“I was the only CIA analyst with the permanent assignment of overseeing A.Q. Khan's network," Barlow says with a nervous smile, “and my problems began immediately after the arrest of Arshad Pervez, a Khan intermediary. The CIA and the Department of State made my life difficult, but they didn't go beyond that. Dick Cheney's men, though, crossed every line." Abdul Qader Khan. How many people would be able to recognize his face? For George Tenet, head of the CIA from '97 to 2004, Khan is dangerous "at least as much as Laden." For Pakistan, he is a national hero. It is thanks to him that the country was able to put a clandestine nuclear program into place, and to arrive at the atomic bomb in '87. Pakistan in the 80's, with its incredible illiteracy rate, was unable even to produce sufficient quality metal for simple sewing needles, much less for a nuclear program. Khan had studied in the best European universities, and he had worked in Holland for a famous uranium enrichment company, "Urenco." He had precious contacts and knew the right technology and materials necessary for the bomb and who was commercializing them. He set up a formidable network of unsuspected businessmen who would buy from European and American companies and, after thousands of transactions, obscure triangulations and front companies, they managed to get the goods into Pakistan. When Barlow stumbled on Khan's intermediary, he wasn't yet aware of it, but Khan had more friends than he did in Washington. Barlow caught the businessman, but his arrest sparked tensions between who, like him, was working for the CIA against arms of mass destruction, and those fighting communism. Those were the years during which Pakistan was backing the mujaheddin, who were making the Russians bleed in Afghanistan: the USA and Pakistan were great allies. A deluge of dollars was flowing from Washington to Islamabad, the CIA was systematically keeping the American Congress in the dark about what was going on in Pakistan, and Reagan was continuing to tell lies, declaring that the country didn't have nuclear weapons, to avoid any difficulty among the allies fighting communism. Barlow managed to get his hands on a "small fish," the intermediary, but not on the Pakistan Army official who was behind him. "High-level government people were warning Pakistan," he explains. And so no bigger fish was arrested. And when, during a briefing, Barlow tried to open Congress' eyes, he found himself in high water: "I was treated like a traitor," he says, "like someone who was boycotting the war in Afghanistan against communism. In the end I had to leave the job." He ended up at the Pentagon, working as an analyst for Dick Cheney, who was Secretary of Defense at that time. But he lasted only a short while there, too: in 1989, Defense officials testified in Congress that the US could sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan with no trouble, as those planes could only have been used as atomic bombers with technological modifications which were beyond Pakistan's capabilities. That was false. And Barlow protested against his superiors. He was immediately fired. But Cheney's men weren't satisfied with simply firing him: they wanted to destroy his reputation, to ruin his credibility so that, if that analyst got it in his mind to try to open Congress' eyes again, nobody would have taken him seriously. Every aspect of his life was sieved through, in an attempt to find compromising facts. They were even able to get their hands on information about couples counselling he was in with his wife, who was also a CIA agent. "They used that therapy to depict me as a psychotic in psychiatric treatment," he states. Barlow lost everything: his work, his wife. Since then, he has fought to re-establish the truth, hidden under top secret documents, falsified reports and crossed political vetoes.

Today Pakistan could have 60-100 nuclear devices. Musharraf has remained a great US ally – yesterday for the Cold War, today for the global war on terrorism, while the mujaheddin have gone from being the CIA's best friends to being the devil incarnate. And the possibility that the Pakistani weapons could finish in the hands of Bin Laden's supporters is an entirely realistic scenario. Could it have gone differently? Or was there no alternative to the realpolitik of the Cold War? Barlow is convinced that there was: "We could have fought against communism and proliferation at the same time, we just needed to handle Pakistan differently," he insists. "Today we find ourselves with the enormous threat of Musharraf's arsenal and with the problems of Iran and North Korea." And it is so, yes, because Khan's network didn't limit the arrival of nuclear technology only in Pakistan, but it was passed along to Iran and Korea. "Why didn't the United States stop Khan before he sold the secrets of the P-1 and P-2 centrifuges to Iran?", we finally ask Barlow. The former head of the CIA said "We got inside his house, inside his laboratories, inside his sitting room." So why not stop him then, before there was a problem with Iran?, we insist. "That is an important question," responds the enigmatic Barlow. "That's the way it was decided. If Khan wasn't stopped, it wasn't because we didn't know how to or that we couldn't stop him."

The ex CIA golden boy leaves us with unanswered questions: what secrets could have been revealed by Khan, who has been under house arrest in Islamabad since 2004 and unaccessible to anyone? Why, in 2005, did the US refuse to collaborate with the Swiss authorities who were investigating three key characters in the network? How many unsuspected companies, spies and respected diplomatic are still in the hands of A. Q. Khan?