Washington, Feb. 5: It was a slip of the tongue: of the kind that those who regularly appear before the media rarely commit.
US state department spokesman Richard Boucher was yesterday asked immediately after Pakistani nuclear proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan’s televised confession if he believed that the Pakistani government was not complicit in the export of weapons knowhow.
Casting doubts about Khan’s confession, one reporter asked Boucher at his daily briefing: “Do you find that credible, given the use of government aircraft in some of these transfers'”
“I don’t”, said Boucher momentarily, but quickly relapsed to the official line. “The Pakistani government is investigating this”, he intoned, reproducing lines from the briefing notes prepared for him. “We have said this is a matter of importance to us, but it is a matter that the Pakistani government is taking very seriously. “And as you know, they have been investigating and they will be addressing the issue. We think they are addressing the issue in a serious manner and we have been following this closely. We will see how they — what they decide to do at this point”.
Unfortunately for Washington, the issue will not go away as easily as the state department would like it to. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed el Baradei, said today: “Dr Khan was not working alone. Dr Khan is the tip of an iceberg for us”.
Warning that Khan’s confession was not the end of the story, el Baradei said: “I don’t know whether he (Khan) was the head” of the nuclear black market on which Pakistan thrived. “He was clearly an important part. We are still in the process of investigating this whole network of supply, so we haven’t really seen the complete picture. I think that is really our number one priority”. In the weeks since the nuclear black market operated out of Islamabad, covering half the globe, became public knowledge, the government of General Pervez Musharraf has been cooperating with the IAEA in the realisation that its options are limited.
Perhaps learning from the experience of Saddam Hussein, the Pakistani army, which effectively controls the country’s nuclear programme, has concluded that the best course is not to be an obstructionist.
But the IAEA chief was ominous when he praised Pakistan’s cooperation. He added in the same breath that the agency was seeking more information from Islamabad. There was a sense of deja vu about those words.
El Baradei had used them a year ago in the context of weapons inspections in Iraq. The Bush administration’s dilemma is that it confronted Musharraf with the information which has now been used to nail Khan. Even if Washington may find it expedient to go along with Musharraf, it is unlikely that America’s non-proliferation lobby and a world truly concerned about proliferation will let that happen.
One reporter put it bluntly to the state department’s spokesman. “How concretely US can assure that Pakistan will not make the same mistake again in the future'”
Boucher replied: “The point is that Pakistan’s President has assured the international community that he intends to make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear technology, weapons of mass destruction expertise, does not contribute to proliferation, does not contribute to the development of those weapons elsewhere and that they have taken a number of steps since that pledge was made to try to make it effective.
“And we consider that this investigation and the seriousness with which they have pursued this matter testifies to the fact that they are serious about meeting their commitments in that regard.”
Question: “Will it be enough for him to say that he hopes this will — he will make sure this doesn’t happen in the future if it does turn out he knew about the incidents in the past'” An exasperated spokesman changed the subject after saying: “I am not going to speculate on a matter that continues to be under investigation.”