Jeffrey LewisHibbs Reviews Books on Pak Bomb

If there were an award for journalism on matters nuclear, it would be the Mark Hibbs Award and the eponymous author would be permanently ineligible just to give everyone else a chance.

Six of his competitors have recently published a trio of books, of varying quality, on AQ Khan and Pakistan’s bomb:

Mark Hibbs, writing in the Nonproliferation Review, reads them so you don’t have to — or at least so you can avoid the real clunker among the three.

Hibbs also discusses his own reporting, including a forthright analysis of the motives behind the leaks leading to one of his biggest stories:

In 1994, I never anticipated that Pakistani officials would tell me about a clandestine plutonium production reactor project hitherto subject to vague rumors. But at the time I never questioned why they did that. Thirteen years later, sources in the United States suggested to me that Pakistan had a good reason for confirming this project to me when it did.

As the Khushab project geared up during the 1980s, U.S. experts handling intelligence on Pakistan began ringing alarms about it both at the Department of State and at the White House. But during the four years following the inauguration of President George H.W. Bush in 1989, officials in the trenches had been unsuccessful in getting Bush to persuade Pakistan to abandon it. Initial drafts of talking points for the president had included stopping the plutonium project. But the matter never got to the top of the agenda and was never raised by Bush during meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif.

In 1993, however, Clinton succeeded Bush, amid some uncertainty in Pakistan about how the Democrats would handle the nuclear issue. In the fall of 1994 both sides started preparing for a Bhutto-Clinton summit in Washington. The meeting eventually took place the following April. U.S. sources said that the decision by Pakistani officials in 1994 to expose Khushab was taken to handcuff Clinton from persuading Bhutto to agree to halt the project.

Like their counterparts in Pakistan, for about a decade U.S. officials kept the existence of this project a secret. The reason, one participant in deliberations told me last year, was straightforward. “So long as Khushab wasn’t public, there was a chance the president could get them to stop it,” he said. “But as soon as the Pakistanis told you it was real, we had no card to play. Once it was out in the open, Pakistan would never back down.”

(If you pick up a hard copy, you will notice an article by Gregory Kulacki and myself entitled “Understanding China’s Antisatellite Test”.)


  1. AHM (History)

    Actually, they all sound like clunkers, given Hibbs’ account. Unfortunately, it also sounds like each may have small and perhaps useful tidbits, so I’ll probably have to buy all three anyway: Armstrong and Trento sounds least conspiratorial, Levy and Scott-Clark got the best interview with Griffin, and Frantz is the most prominent nuclear reporter among the group.

  2. Tariq Mufti (History)

    I find it quite amazing how easily Western scholars, experts and journalists have swallowed the AQ Khan myth; anybody truly familiar with Pakistan’s nuclear programme knows that AQ Khan’s projection and public posturing grossly exaggerated his contribution, perhaps deliberately, to keep the deeper layers away from outsiders’ research. AQ’s KRL produced the HEU, but little else.

  3. M Ahmed (History)


    With regard to production of HEU for Pakistan’s nuclear program, another important point that is either innocently or deliberately forgotten by these writers is that the production of the feed material for enrichment, the crucial uranium hexaflouride gas (UF6), was produced by PAEC at its Nuclear Materials Complex at Dera Ghazi Khan. Not only this, the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle that led to the production of UF6 including the infrastructure for uranium exploration, mining and refining, production of uranium oxide, tetraflouride and toxic flourine compounds was all the responsibility of PAEC.

    All the authors of the books mentioned in this discussion have wrongly claimed that AQ Khan was also responsible for the UF6 production plants, whereas the West German Alfred Migule who was accused of having sold a pilot UF6 plant to Pakistan was actually the customer of PAEC, and not AQ Khan.

    The uranium enrichment project itself was launched by PAEC in 1974 and the site selection of the Kahuta centrifuge enrichment plant, procurement of most of the essential materials, machines, and equipment for it, from maraging steel to flow forming machines and the first batch of inverters was all completed by PAEC before AQ Khan took over the project and managed to have it separated from PAEC, for reasons that have now become obvious to the world.

    Also the entire technical manpower, who actually performed the feat of enrichment were also selected and transfered to the enrichment project prior to AQ Khan’s arrival in Pakistan.

    After HEU was enriched to weapons grade level, it was handed over to PAEC where it was converted into metal.

    Also, the entire nuclear weapons program, from the theorerical physics design, development of explosive lenses, precision mechanical and metallurgical facilities for the machining and manufacturing of various bomb components, the neutron source for the implosion device,the neutron reflectors, diagnostics and testing facilities, and high-speed electronics etc was all developed by PAEC.

    So was the back end of the fuel cycle, including the reprocessing plant at New Labs. The Khushab production reactor and the fuel fabrication complex were also part of PAEC’s overall program that comprised over 20 labs and projects, every one the size of KRL.

    In addition the entire import oriented nuclear procurement network was set up in the early 1970s by SA Butt, who reported directly to PAEC chairman and not to AQ Khan. But he was also responsible for procurements for the enrichment project in addition to several other fuel cycle projects, and continued to procure for the Kahuta project in the initial months after AQ Khan’s taking over the project in 1976-77, where after AQ Khan placed his own man in charge of procurements for KRL in the following years, and totally separated the import chain from PAEC, whereas SA Butt continued to serve PAEC’s procurement requirements.

    Nevertheless, SA Butt had been responsible for the successful procurement of almost the entire materials, machines and equipment needs for the enrichment project.

    About the contribution of AQ Khan’s Urenco designs, there is much more to it than meets the eye in terms of how much has been said about their utility in the west for Pakistan’s centrifuge program.

    Needless to say, PAEC had other source of information, from the complete Zippe-centrifuge design to other necessary information for setting up an enrichment plant, independent of AQ Khan.

    All this was accomplished by several hundred nuclear scientists, engineers and technicians in over 15-20 Directorates of PAEC under Mr. Munir Ahmad Khan, chairman PAEC from 1972-1991. On March 11, PAEC carried out the first cold test of a working nuclear device, work on which was begun in March 1974 in PAEC, and till 1990, PAEC conducted 24 cold tests of different bomb designs.

    AQ Khan tried to erect a parallel bomb design and development program, based on Chinese designs, but since he did not have the mandate, or the manpower, or the specialized facilities needed to build an implosion device, he was unable to produce a nuclear device, which is why the 1998 tests were carried by PAEC where AQ Khan was one among several “guests” invited to witness the tests. But he did beat PAEC at propaganda and managed to cultivate the myth of the father of the bomb, which was consistently promoted by the western media and the Pakistani media.