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Context of 'After February 15, 1975: Pakistan Begins Uranium Enrichment Program'

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Following discussions with fellow Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan, on February 15, 1975, head of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) Munir Khan proposes that Pakistan formally establish a uranium enrichment program, to go with the plutonium enrichment program it already has. The $450 million plan calls for a centrifuge plant, a uranium mine, and a facility to produce uranium gas, which would allow Pakistan to produce a nuclear weapon. The proposal is approved by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and a scientist known as Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood is placed in charge of the program. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 52-3)

Following the commencement of Pakistan’s uranium enrichment program (see After February 15, 1975), A. Q. Khan meets program head Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood in Belgium and then begins to steal an unprecedented amount of information from the company he works for, a European nuclear company called Urenco, to support the program. According to authors David Armstrong and Joe Trento: “Khan sent everything from centrifuge designs and technical literature to parts and lists of suppliers. He even sent blueprints of an entire uranium enrichment facility. In at least one instance, Khan sent [an associate] a discarded component from a uranium centrifuge.” He evens asks a photographer he shares an office with to photograph some centrifuges and components. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 53-4)

After returning from the Netherlands, where he had stolen secrets to help Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program but was under investigation by the authorities (see March-December 15, 1975 and November 1975), Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan is formally hired to assist with Pakistan’s program to build nuclear weapons. The hiring results from a report by Khan to Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto about the state of Pakistan’s uranium enrichment program. After touring the country’s enrichment facility, Khan tells Bhutto that the program is in a bad state, and Bhutto offers Khan a managerial position. When Bhutto is told that Khan has accepted the position, he reportedly pounds his fist on the table and declares, “I will see the Hindu bastards now.” Because of the knowledge Khan has gained during his time in Europe, he soon becomes well respected within the project. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 56-57)

The West German television station Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) broadcasts a documentary naming A. Q. Khan as the head of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program. It also reports that the program is using blueprints stolen from a Dutch plant where Khan had previously worked (see May 1, 1972, October 1974, and March-December 15, 1975). Prior to the documentary, Khan had been a relatively obscure figure, but the story of his activities now becomes big news in both Europe and North America. (Levy and Scott-Clark 2007, pp. 57)

The Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs drafts a memo urging that the government of the Netherlands cover up its actions in regard of Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan. Khan’s role in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons efforts has recently been revealed by a German television program (see March 28, 1979), which highlighted how Khan stole nuclear secrets while working in the Netherlands (see May 1, 1972, October 1974, and March-December 15, 1975). The Ministry of Economic Affairs memo states, “It is of the highest priority [to claim] that from the Netherlands, there is not a single contribution to the Pakistani effort.” However, the Dutch government has known the allegations are true for years, but has kept this secret, initially ignored warnings, and even harassed a colleague who blew the whistle on Khan (see Mid-1975, Mid-October 1975, November 1975, July 1976, Second Half of 1976, and (August 1976)). The Dutch government decides in line with the memo, and issues an interim report whitewashing Khan’s actions in the Netherlands. (Levy and Scott-Clark 2007, pp. 57)

The conviction of Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan on charges of attempted espionage in the Netherlands is overturned on appeal. Khan had been sentenced to four years in prison in 1983 for stealing nuclear secrets from a European company (see March-December 15, 1975 and 1983), but the original verdict is overturned because the summons enabling Khan to respond to the charges was not properly served. On national television in Pakistan, Khan declares he is “vindicated” by the appeal court. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 67)

The CIA advises Dutch authorities to back off the case of Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan, who had stolen nuclear secrets in the Netherlands for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program (see March-December 15, 1975). Khan had been convicted by a Dutch court (see 1983), but the conviction was overturned on appeal due to a technicality (see 1985), and the Dutch are considering reopening the case. Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers will later say that the US wants Khan to be left alone because Pakistan is a key US ally in the battle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The CIA had told the Dutch to back off Khan once before (see November 1975) (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 67)

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