Scientists, engineers and financiers involved in the A.Q. Khan nuclear-smuggling network are being contacted by several governments in an effort to lure these specialists out of retirement.
The development is raising concerns among U.S. intelligence agencies about the revival of the proliferation network that was thought to have been shut down years ago.
Two U.S. intelligence officials and other U.S. officials with access to intelligence reports said information compiled over the past seven months showed that agents from several foreign governments — including Brazil, Burma, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Sudan and Syria — pursued members of the network named after Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist considered to be the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
“They have propositioned them to get them to come out of retirement,” one senior U.S. intelligence officer said.
This official, however, stressed that the contacts observed in recent months did not necessarily reflect a state-level decision by countries such as Brazil and Nigeria regarding nuclear proliferation. “These could be people acting on their own,” this official said.
Another intelligence official cautioned that others in the intelligence community have disputed the assessment about whether governments have approached the remnants of the Khan network.
The A.Q. Khan network supplied “starter kits” for uranium enrichment, based on large numbers of centrifuges, to Iran, Libya and North Korea from the 1980s until it was shut down in 2003 and 2004. Mr. Khan has confirmed much of these charges in interviews.
Earlier this month, a classified analysis was distributed on the Defense Intelligence Daily — a compendium of intelligence products shared with senior executives in the military and the Pentagon — on evidence that elements of the Khan network may be reactivating. It did not answer that question conclusively. The report, however, did confirm the existence of new intelligence on the recruiting efforts.
The Khan network was largely shut down after the United States in October 2003 stopped a German cargo ship called the BBC China that was carrying components for some 1,000 centrifuges bound for Libya.
The seizure of the ship and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq are largely credited with persuading Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, to relinquish his Khan-supplied nuclear program.
In so doing, Libyan officials turned over to the U.S. and Britain large amounts of documents on a network of Khan-related front companies, financiers, traders and machine-part factories that spanned the world from Dubai to Malaysia and several European capitals. These entities were quickly rolled up, and Mr. Khan was placed under house arrest in Pakistan, though he was released from custody last year.
However, between 50 and 100 individuals associated with his network were left alone and not prosecuted. Instead, the U.S. intelligence community put these people on various watch lists and have placed some of the most dangerous individuals on the network under human and electronic surveillance.
This network of retired specialists who used to work for Mr. Khan is now the focus of concerns about the reactivation of the proliferation ring among officials of the U.S. intelligence community.
One senior U.S. intelligence officer said the countries seeking out Khan contacts all “expressed [interest] in hiring individuals formerly associated with the A.Q. Khan network.”
The network includes nationals from around the world, but particular concerns have been expressed about its Eastern Europeans.
The issue was mentioned briefly during a House hearing on July 22 when Rep. David Scott, Georgia Democrat, asked Vann Van Diepen, the acting assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, whether remnants of the Khan network were operational.
Mr. Van Diepen, who earlier asserted that the Khan network was “defunct,” declined to comment and said the issue needed to be discussed only in closed session.
CIA spokesman George Little, when asked by The Washington Times about the new intelligence, said, “The disruption of the A.Q. Khan proliferation network was a genuine intelligence success.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
According to a senior U.S. intelligence official, some Khan-network members escaped prosecution because of concerns that they would go into hiding. In other cases, their smuggling activities did not violate the law in countries where they set up their activities. For example, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia — important hubs for the Khan network — have established export-control laws only in the past two years.
John R. Bolton, who was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security when the United States began rolling up the Khan network, said governments faced difficult choices on prosecuting the suspects.
“Once you expose the network, everyone who is a piece of it will try to run for cover,” Mr. Bolton said in an interview. “That is part of the decision to break it open and expose it publicly. That is part of the cost-benefit analysis.”
He added, “The same kind of calculus applies to the decision to prosecute or not to prosecute. You are also shutting front businesses down and making them known to the nuclear suppliers group. Their identities, capabilities are much more widely known. Moreover, you do not stop the information-gathering activities about this. The fact is, you can’t prosecute everyone, even if you wanted to, both for the sources and methods reasons, and you can’t get cooperation from countries that don’t have legal systems or laws that allow you to prosecute or get the information you need for a successful prosecution.”
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and the author of “Peddling Peril,” a new book that focuses in part on the Khan network, said the nonproliferation community has worried for years about elements of the Khan network that escaped prosecution.
“One of the things that emerged in the prosecution is that these guys don’t know any other business,” Mr. Albright said. “There has been a constant worry that the second and third tier of the Khan network would resume the illicit business of the network.”
Mr. Albright, who is also a former weapons inspector, added: “So few people were ever prosecuted and you get the sense that this network was never truly disrupted, ripped out root and branch.”
Among the many unanswered questions about the Khan network is the role of Pakistan’s government in supporting the illicit activities. A congressional aide familiar with the issue said, “Given Pakistan’s proliferation history, there is good reason to be skeptical that the entire network is out of business.”
Pervez Musharraf, Pakistani president at the time, was one of the first to disclose the proliferation of uranium-enrichment technology from the network to Libya, Iran and North Korea in his 2006 memoir, “In the Line of Fire.”
In September, journalist Simon Henderson disclosed a handwritten 2007 letter from Mr. Khan that revealed that he ran the network on behalf of the Pakistani government, contrary to claims from Pakistani officials that he worked independently of the wishes of their government or military.
Pakistan’s government never allowed U.S. officials access to Mr. Khan when he was under house arrest.
• Eli Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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