February issue 2004
Interview: General Aslam Beg
“There is a conspiracy against me by the Jewish lobby”
– General Aslam Beg
Q: You have been accused of trying to sell nuclear technology to Iran. A former minister in the Nawaz Sharif government maintains that you had approached him with a suggestion that Iran was prepared to pay 12 billion dollars in return for providing nuclear technology.
A: It’s not true. It is fabricated and carries political overtones. At the time, people like Ishaq Dar were not in the picture at all. So, there is no question of talking to him or to anybody else. There is no evidence of it . I never conveyed any such message to Nawaz Sharif. Actually Ishaq Dar was part of a conspiracy which began when I raised my voice against the US war on Iraq in 1991, when I was still in uniform.
Former American Ambassador Robert Oakley had talked about my contacts with the Iranian military. He remarked that I was trying to transfer nuclear technology to Iran. That was a fabrication. What Oakley said at that time has been appearing time and again. The same allegation was carried by a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, compiled by Seymour Hersch, titled, “On the Nuclear Edge.” Recently there was another report on the Iranian nuclear programme published by the Brookings Institute. That too repeated the same thing. So there is a linkage, a conspiracy against me by the Jewish lobby. The former US ambassador and Ishaq Dar are playing the same game. They don’t have any proof against me. Except for rumours, they have nothing against me.
Q: President Musharraf has repeatedly said that some scientists, “motivated by greed,” might have been involved in the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran and some other countries in the late ’80s. Do you agree that nuclear secrets were, indeed, sold?
A: Musharraf did not say any such thing. He said it happened through the underworld. There may be some people involved in passing on nuclear secrets, but not nuclear technology. This has also been confirmed by the head of the International Atomic Energy Commission. President Musharraf has said the same thing, as have Iran and Libya. These countries acquired nuclear knowhow and secrets from sources which may have links with Pakistani scientists. There has neither been a transfer of nuclear technology, nor a direct transfer of nuclear secrets to any foreign country.
The way our nuclear programme was started in 1974 is now an open secret. We were buying and acquiring nuclear capability. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto called Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan and assigned him the task of developing the nuclear bomb. Dr. Khan was working with a firm run by a Dutch-British-German consortium. That was a civilian facility for enrichment of uranium through the centrifuge method. When Dr. Khan arrived here he didn’t bring any design or any equipment with him. He came here with only his knowledge. He was tried by a Dutch court in absentia and was given a four-year jail sentence. The sentence was later quashed when challenged. It is not a crime under any law, to transfer or share your knowledge about nuclear or any other technology. You are legally and morally justified in transferring your knowledge to a third party.
A.Q. Khan came here with his knowledge and gave us nuclear capability. We all protected him, right from Mr. Bhutto to General Pervez Musharraf. We protected [shielded] him in his efforts to acquire instruments and materials to enrich uranium, which is the first phase in the development of a nuclear programme. He was given a fund, which was not [subject to auditing]. Naturally, he started working with friends. He contacted some multinationals like ARY Gold, because they have a vast network. That is how they developed contacts with people and agencies all over the world, picking up things from various places and making payments. Had Dr. Qadeer not been given a free hand, he could not have achieved his objective. Those people engaged by him were all scientists. Naturally, they came in contact with the outside world. You can call them by any word — Pervez Musharraf calls them ‘the underworld.’ However, it was all authorised and approved by the legal government of Pakistan. Some of our people were caught in Germany and elsewhere. They were tried, and some of them even punished. I remember Mr. Inamul Haq and Mr Pervaiz.
So, a lot of activity was going on, and that is how our nuclear programme proceeded. It was done covertly, but it was an open secret. That is how those scientists, who have been named in the investigation, came into contact with people in the business. My apprehension is that Iranians, maybe Libyans and North Koreans, would have known that Pakistan was stealing, buying and smuggling all the items which are needed for developing nuclear capability. So, they must have approached these scientists. And what they might have done is told them to go to certain companies for the equipment they needed. Now is that a crime? How can these scientists be penalised simply for identifying their sources? This is what has happened.
Q: Were they not involved in nuclear proliferation and is this not a crime?
A: No, it is not a crime. If I was in it and had the people contacted me, I [too] would have told them to go to such and such supplier. I would not be committing a crime, in that I have not directly passed on any nuclear secrets or nuclear knowhow.
The way things have been blown up is largely because of inter-departmental rivalry, enmity and jealousy. There were two organisations, the KRL and the Atomic Energy Commission. The KRL had at its disposal funds which were not subject to auditing. The Atomic Energy Commission was given funds which were audited. This created bad blood between the two. They didn’t want A Q. Khan and his people to have their cake and eat it too. As long as General Zia was in charge, this rivalry was kept under control. Then everything was out in the open, with people blaming each other. Those people who were against A. Q. Khan concocted stories. These stories were very appealing. When General Musharraf came to power, stories that A. Q. Khan and his scientists had built an empire with the money that they had at their disposal were floating around. Some of the stories, which have appeared in the press, reported how distressed Musharraf was when he was told about how A. Q. Khan and other scientists had obtained the money which was lying in their accounts. How much money, I don’t know.
The government probably believes that he had misused the funds. How could this happen? A.Q. Khan had been given lots of funds to do his job and he used it. You cannot give an account of every penny you spend. I was a member of the Nuclear Command Authority and was present at the annual meeting where the budget was discussed, and the balance sheet of the fund given to A.Q. Khan was approved by the Chief Executive. Everything was accounted for — so much money was given and so much enriched uranium was produced. I remember such a balance sheet being last presented when I was chief of army staff and Benazir Bhutto was prime minister. Would you believe that the total amount which was spent on the programme beween1976 to 1990 was less than 250 million dollars, including foreign payments. Nobody believes that it was so inexpensive to build nuclear weapons. Compare this to the price of one submarine which we obtained from France at a cost of 350 million dollars. So people who say we were indulging in the luxury of acquiring a nuclear deterrent are wrong. It was the cheapest deterrent we have acquired against India.
Dr. A.Q. Khan and his scientists have given this country a credible deterrent for a paltry sum of money. What they have in their accounts is what I call gold dust — they have not taken the government’s money. If a scientist is given 10 million dollars to get the equipment, how would he do it? He will not carry the money in his bag. He will put the money in a foreign bank account in somebody’s name. The money lies in the account for some time, and the mark-up that it fetches may probably have gone into his account. It is a fringe benefit.
It is very logical that somebody contacts a scientist telling him that ARY Gold determines gold [prices] in the region, so why not invest a million dollars or have it invested on his behalf? This may have happened. Is it a crime? No. The government is handling the issue in a very clumsy manner. It has become party to what is a departmental conflict. It believes that the scientists have sold nuclear technology.
Now they say that one or two scientists were involved with the international underworld. They have been involved, but only to the extent that they might have simply given the names of some suppliers who could provide the equipment for uranium enrichment. Now it is becoming difficult for the government to extricate itself. The greater difficulty they face now is how to counter the moves of political and non-political forces in the country. The things which have been appearing over the last few days will prove to be quite embarrassing for the government.
The PPP has sent a letter to the US and other western countries stating there should be a full debate to determine whether the scientists did export nuclear technology for greed or were being made scapegoats by General Musharraf and his government for a crime committed by them. This is a chargesheet of the Pakistan People’s Party. They also say that the transfer of nuclear technology took place when the first commando president, General Musharraf, was the army chief and later chief executive. Other reports say an advertisement, issued by the ministry of coomerce appeared in a national daily offering to sell sensitive nuclear materials. Another report which is very damaging to the government is that European investigators are examining a brochure which has allegedly been handed out at trade shows in France, Germany and other places with a picture of Dr. A.Q Khan. This is another bombshell.
Q: Are you saying that scientists have been made scapegoats?
A: The government has made a mistake and it will have to explain why it issued that advertisment and brochure. It will have to explain what it did or did not sell. There is documentary proof. The scientists who are being investigated have done nothing more than providing information regarding which companies to contact to procure the material they [certain countries] might want.
Q: But the nuclear programme was controlled by the military, so how could the scientists act independently?
A: Control did not mean that they were watching everything when the scientists were sent abroad. Where was the need to control, when you have given them freedom. None of the scientists were involved in transfer of technology.
Q: What will happen now?
A: The Europeans are currently involved in investigations about the brochure.
Q: Personally, how do you feel about the government issuing that brochure?
A: It was a folly. It should not have been issued. The government now has to explain its own conduct.
Q: Are you saying it is an act of nuclear proliferation involving the government?
A: Probably they will come out and say, those were items which can be sold under the international law framed by the International Atomic Energy Commission. However, knowing the sensitivity of our programme, it becomes serious. But, otherwise, I don’t think it was a crime.
Q: Are you saying there has not been any wrongdoing?
A: It is the Pakistan government which has made a great fuss about it. As far as the international community is concerned, it is satisfied that there has not been any transfer of nuclear technology from Pakistan. The balloon has already burst. First, they accused A.Q. Khan, myself and other scientists. Now they are saying only one or two scientists were involved through the underworld. But they cannot prove it in any international court of law.
The government should apologise to the scientists. If they continue to hold them and freeze their accounts, it will rebound on them. If you try to hit someone, he will hit back at you. [Though] people know too much, many more things will be coming out. Nothing will happen to the scientists. I had to face the Supreme Court twice on very serious allegations. My hands are clean. The government cuts a sorry figure. There is a huge public outcry against what it has done to the scientists. There will be a public reaction and [the government] will suffer the consequences. There is a conspiracy to malign the scientists and me.
Q: Who has controlled Pakistan’s nuclear programme over the last two decades?
A: The chief executive. Under a military government it is the chief of army staff, and under a civilian government it is the Prime Minister. General Musharraf controls the nuclear assests now.
Q: The civilian leadership has always maintained that it was the army which controlled the nuclear programme, and that they didn’t have any say in it.
A: They are lying. If Benazir was not controlling the programme, how could she claim that she framed a nuclear doctrine? How could she introduce a policy of nuclear restraint. How could Nawaz Sharif in 1998 decide to go for a nuclear test, if he was not controlling the programme?
Q: Benazir Bhutto has said that she was kept out of all decision-making on nuclear issues.
A:She not only knew , but also gave other people access to information. Who was Happy Minwala? He was dealing with the issue. He was the one who was shuttling between Washington and Islamabad. If she did not know, why did she put a man like Happy Minwala in that position. It is all politics.
The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.