"Fatal Error" Changed Nuclear History

The founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, is seen in this undated photo in Islamabad, Pakistan.
By CBS News producer Wendy Krantz.

As searing images of Pakistani policemen with automatic weapons and riot gear appeared this week on our network and elsewhere, hours after Gen. Pervez Musharraf imposed martial law, two dogged investigators for the National Security News Service suggest in a new book that we may be one step away from a catastrophic meltdown in a country where the Taliban, al Qaeda and nuclear weapons are all in play.

In the book by David Armstrong and Joe Trento, titled "America and the Islamic Bomb: The Deadly Compromise," the authors provide a new perspective on Abdul Qadeer Khan's nuclear black market scandal and the circumstances that brought us to this nuclear crossroads today.

"Right now, we have a government that is barely hanging on, controlling a vast stash of nuclear weapons," Trento told CBS News. "American may be facing nuclear terrorism if the Pakistani government doesn't hang on."

Trento and Armstrong recently sat down with CBS News, discussing why we should be concerned about ongoing nuclear proliferation from members of Khan's former network and how a "fatal error" in 2000 changed the course of nuclear history forever.

"We heard about this amazingly brave, British customs inspector who had run up against the network," Trento said. "As he makes his discoveries and gets closer and closer to AQ Khan, he's pulled off the case, and told to stop it, leave it alone."

That's when it became clear, says Trento, that the intelligence services of Britain and the U.S. were actually protecting members of the AQ Khan network in what Trento calls "a cover-up." The result: proliferation continued for four more crucial years, allowing North Korea and Iran to move forward with their WMD programs. That's a gap, according to Trento, that could never be recovered.

U.S. intelligence sources tell CBS News that this is a misinterpretation of the situation, and that there was no fatal error. Rather, in an effort to protect "assets" and develop "actionable" intelligence, they say that the continued monitoring of Khan's network allowed them to develop further intelligence on the nuclear weapons programs in other countries.

That's an answer that doesn't sit well with Trento and Armstrong, or that loyal customs inspector, Atif Amin, who identified the front companies, the financial conduits, the middlemen and even the players who were procuring and providing all of this nuclear know-how for AQ Khan in early 2000.

In a recent videotaped interview with the National Security News Service, provided to CBS News, Amin says that he was puzzled that the U.S. waited to shut things down, adding that they could have been "more proactive" in disrupting this network years ago.

Armstrong and Trento offer example after example in their book of this "blind eye" policy, where members of Khan's network who were linked to proliferation activities were let off the hook. In some instances it was a case of intelligence sources tipping off some of the proliferators. In others, it was a case of Washington's long arm reaching down and tampering with the legal system. Evidence, Armstrong said, of Pakistan's nuclear "get-out-of jail-free" card.

Today, few members of the network have been held accountable, and many are free to travel. Not only are they not on the "no fly" list, says Trento, but some of Khan's middlemen are even living here - including an import/export businessmen in South Florida, recently granted U.S. citizenship, who appears to be using the social security number of a man currently in jail.

Still others appear to be in the same line of business, working for some of the same companies Amin uncovered in his Dubai investigation seven years ago, according to corporate records obtained by CBS News. All this despite public assurances from the Bush administration that the Khan network has been "dismantled, and the culprits "brought to justice."

"We know that members of the network have largely escaped any kind of sanction, and in cases where there have been attempts at prosecution, it's been primarily slaps on the wrist, suspended sentences, small fines," Armstrong said. "There has been no real penalty, no repercussion, for the people who have participated in this and no real serious effort to wrap up the members of network and bring them to justice."

That leaves a potential pool of skilled engineers and technicians trained by Khan's gang available to anyone willing to pay.

"We have situation where you have warlords who first the CIA paid, and bin Laden has paid, who are basically available to the highest bidder, who may end up in control of a weapon," Trento said. "That is something that gives me great pause."