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Chris Ames

Chris Ames, a freelance writer and investigative journalist, is editor of iraqdossier.com
independent minds

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independent minds

Going nuclear

Posted by Chris Ames
  • Friday, 12 December 2008 at 01:22 pm

In Parliament on Wednesday, foreign secretary David Miliband made a passing reference to “the proliferation that has occurred though the A. Q. Khan network”. What he didn’t mention was that for many years the West allowed  Khan’s nuclear smuggling ring to proliferate, with serious consequences. True to form, a customs official who did point this out is on the wrong end of a criminal investigation.

Who would be a whistleblower? While most of us agree that a democracy needs people on the inside to challenge the official version of events, the state doesn’t always agree. From David Kelly to Derek Pasquill to Damian Green, government reacts according to the scale of its embarrassment. As with Kelly, the story of Atif Amin undermines the government’s case for invading Iraq. Perhaps that explains why he is in the frame.

As I describe in my story today for Index on Censorship, Amin has been the subject of a year-long investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission over allegations that he co-operated with a book on Pakistan’s involvement in nuclear proliferation. Technically, the IPCC has jurisdiction over HM Revenue and Customs investigators, although quite why it is “persecuting a whistleblower” over an alleged breach of the official secrets act is unclear.

All that Amin is known to have done is to give an interview to  NBC News after the publication of the book,  America and the Islamic Bomb by Joseph Trento and David Armstrong. The book recounts how in April 2000 Amin was prevented by MI6 from investigating Khan’s network after he found that it was supplying proliferation-sensitive materiel to Libya. Given that the authors have denied that Amin was their source, the real problem seems to be that he expressed some mild criticism of the decision to let the Khan network run for a further three and a half years.

In doing so, Amin challenged the official version of events, as set out in the Butler Review of pre-Iraq war intelligence. Butler saw the Khan investigation as a text book operation, unquestioningly accepting the spooks’ claims that the CIA and MI6 were right to leave Khan to proliferate because they had infiltrated his network. He also accepted that the plug was pulled at the right time, when Khan’s activities had “reached the point where it would be dangerous to allow them to go on”.

For Butler, that point came in October 2003 as a consignment of centrifuge parts was on its way to Libya. The successful interception of this shipment is said to have led not just to the shutting down of the Khan network but Libya’s renunciation of its nuclear ambitions. What Butler does not mention is that the delay allowed Khan to supply Iran’s nuclear programme. It has been revealed that during this time the CIA deliberately fed Iran dodgy technology, with mixed results

At the time of Amin’s interview, NBC News quoted US intelligence sources as claiming that “intelligence gained during that period enabled the U.S. to mount other clandestine operations that may still be active, including one aimed at slowing down Iran’s nuclear weapons program.” Obviously, the less said about those clandestine operations, the better.

According to the official version of events, letting the Khan network run also contributed to the decision to invade Iraq. Witnesses told Butler how the “creeping tide of proliferation” exemplified by the network heightened concerns about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Presumably Tony Blair wasn’t talking about Iran when he recalled his view that:

“we are not going to allow the development of WMD in breach of the will of the international community to continue.”

To follow the British government’s logic, the West let the Khan network continue in order to find out more about it. But it was then so worried about what he was up to that it had to invade a country that he hadn’t supplied.

Adding to the sense that letting the network run was a bad idea, most of its participants, with the possible exception of BSA Tahir, got off very lightly. Khan, who is a hero in Pakistan, had a few years of house arrest. As one expert told me: “No-one involved with the network has really been punished for contributing to the worst nuclear proliferation case in history.”

The lesson seems to be that it’s better to be a nuclear proliferator than a whistleblower.