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Why the nuclear whistleblower exposing AQ Khan was ignored

Nuclear secrets: the Dutch whistleblower who tried to stop Pakistan’s bomb Frits Veerman first warned the authorities in 1973 about the suspicious activities of his colleague AQ Khan. Why was he ignored?  Simon Kuper– 24 July 20, 
  In the early 1970s, the Dutch technician Frits Veerman shared a large desk in a lab in Amsterdam with a charming Pakistani scientist named Abdul. One day, Veerman mentioned that he’d like to visit Pakistan. He asked if he could stay a few nights with his colleague’s family. Abdul — full name Abdul Qadeer Khan — replied that Pakistan’s government would pay for his entire trip. That’s when Veerman began to suspect that Khan was stealing Dutch nuclear secrets.  ………
Veerman first tried to report Khan to the Dutch authorities in 1973. He didn’t make it past a secretary. Had he been heard, then or later, the world might have been spared a nightmare. The Dutch allowed Khan to leave their country in 1975 and to keep visiting European suppliers. The US Central Intelligence Agency didn’t stop him either. Khan ended up building Pakistan’s nuclear bomb and selling the technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
………….After Veerman blew the whistle, he lost his job. A report this month by the Huis voor Klokkenluiders, the new Dutch Whistleblowers Authority, finally absolves him. It also helps explain why he and not Khan was punished.

Khan is now 84, and living under unofficial house arrest in Pakistan, where he has long had an up-and-down relationship with the authorities. He is closely escorted by security officials during his restricted movements, while any visitors to his home are screened in advance.  …………
The Dutch briefed the CIA on Khan, Lubbers told Japanese TV in 2005. The Americans opposed the nuclear ambitions of their Pakistani allies. Nonetheless, the CIA stopped the BVD from arresting Khan. The Americans wanted to watch him, so as to track Pakistan’s nuclear procurement and Europe’s secretive nuclear suppliers.

The CIA’s failure to stop him in 1975 “was the first monumental error”, Robert Einhorn, who worked on nonproliferation in the Clinton and Obama administrations, told Frantz and Collins. The Americans asked the Dutch “to inform them fully but not take any action”, Lubbers recalled, laughing. He said he “found it a bit strange”, but also thought, “‘OK, it’s American business.’ We didn’t feel . . . safeguarding the world against nuclear proliferation as a Dutch responsibility.” The business of the Netherlands was business. The CIA would watch Khan for decades.

FDO didn’t tell Khan he was under suspicion. It gave him a new job, calling it a promotion, and said he could stop visiting Almelo. He may have realised the game was up. On December 15 1975 he flew to Pakistan on leave, taking his wife, daughters and blueprints of centrifuges. Soon afterwards, from Pakistan, he resigned from FDO.  ……..
In September 1976, FDO held a meeting about Khan. Veerman told his colleagues that he thought Khan was a spy. FDO doesn’t seem to have launched an investigation or taken measures, says the Dutch Whistleblowers Authority. Later, Veerman detailed Khan’s actions to BVD agents. But his speaking out was unpopular. There had been rejoicing within FDO when an executive returned from a visit to ex-employee Khan in Pakistan with orders of work. Pakistani technicians began visiting FDO for what Veerman calls “a course in ‘how to build an ultracentrifuge’”.
In September 1976, FDO held a meeting about Khan. Veerman told his colleagues that he thought Khan was a spy. FDO doesn’t seem to have launched an investigation or taken measures, says the Dutch Whistleblowers Authority. Later, Veerman detailed Khan’s actions to BVD agents. But his speaking out was unpopular. There had been rejoicing within FDO when an executive returned from a visit to ex-employee Khan in Pakistan with orders of work. Pakistani technicians began visiting FDO for what Veerman calls “a course in ‘how to build an ultracentrifuge’”.  ………..
Why was Veerman sacked? A former Dutch security investigator, who handled the Khan case from 1979, told the whistleblowers authority that Veerman was “sacrificed” because he wouldn’t stop talking. FDO’s security had been lax, the Netherlands and its high-tech sector were embarrassed, those involved didn’t want the story to reach the media or other countries, and the junior employee had to shut up. This is what Veerman had always suspected.
No other Dutch tech company would hire him. Is Veerman bitter? The question seems to surprise him. He doesn’t have a large emotional vocabulary. “I don’t cry about it all day. A great injustice was done to me, but I don’t think about it much. When something like that happens, you have to make an assessment — maybe I am too sober — and go on.”  Now, with the whistleblowers’ report, Veerman plans to seek compensation from the Dutch state and the present incarnation of FDO’s former holding company, VMF-Stork (FDO closed in 1992). The current Stork, which now consists of a very different set of operating companies, says it “has fully co-operated with the investigation [by the Dutch Whistleblowers Authority], even though this question is from a very long time ago . . . The ­current Stork cannot be regarded as Mr Veerman’s employer, as the Authority’s report confirms.”  ………
Meanwhile, Khan regularly flew into Brussels, then drove to nearby countries visiting suppliers and scientists. The BVD took no action, even when Dutch businessman Nico Zondag reported in 1977 that Pakistan was seeking products to build a nuclear bomb. A Dutch foreign-ministry official wrote in a memo in 1984 that exports to Pakistan continued, “including essential bomb components that for whatever reason couldn’t be blocked”.  Khan said in 1987 that Europeans were keen sellers: “People chased us with figures and details of equipment they had sold to Almelo and Capenhurst [the British site of another Urenco plant]. They literally begged us to buy their equipment.” There were few restrictions on such exports in those days. If an item seemed particularly problematic, the trick was to conceal its destination by routing it through an inoffensive third country.
A small country with an impenetrable language can generally keep national embarrassments secret. The Dutch government commissioned a report on Khan only in 1979, after the German TV channel ZDF — using sources other than Veerman — revealed Khan’s espionage to the world. Nobody then thought Pakistan was close to getting the bomb and the CIA believed it had the matter under control, but the Netherlands — a vocal supporter of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 — was humiliated in front of its allies.
In 1983, Veerman was summoned to a meeting at the Bijlmer prison. There, he later told the whistleblowers authority, government officials ordered him to keep quiet about Khan “because the Netherlands’ international relations and reputation were at risk, and the interests of Dutch industry”. When he said he’d keep speaking out, an executive from FDO snapped that speaking out had got him fired — thereby blowing the company’s cover story
Veerman went straight from the meeting to a Dutch newspaper, but afterwards retreated into his social security job and was hardly heard of again in public for decades until now. He was also put on an international watchlist and for many years was questioned by the authorities when he travelled abroad. On one family holiday in Italy, his car was stopped by armed police.
In 1983 the Netherlands sentenced Khan in absentia to four years in jail for seeking secret information. The main evidence was his letters to Veerman. Khan was offended by the verdict and his biographer Zahid Malik would record his complaint that two of the judges were Jews. Later, his sentence was overturned because he hadn’t been served the summons. The Dutch then abandoned prosecution of the most consequential crime committed on their territory since the second world war. The ministry of justice later admitted that Khan’s legal file had gone missing.
Lubbers, who became prime minister in 1982, wanted Khan arrested but was told to “leave it to the [intelligence] services”. Looking back, he told the Argos radio show: “The last word is Washington. There is no doubt they knew everything, heard everything. There is an open line between The Hague and Washington . . . It was very dumb.” Khan was allowed to return to the Netherlands repeatedly, including for a visit to his dying father-in-law in 1992.
 The CIA’s former director of central intelligence, George Tenet, once boasted: “We were inside [Khan’s] residence, inside his facilities, inside his rooms.” Yet the Americans missed a lot, partly because they expected Pakistan to pursue a bomb made with plutonium rather than uranium. They were also late to realise that Khan had opened a nuclear supermarket, offering starter kits to many countries including Syria and Saudi Arabia. Decades after leaving the Netherlands, he was still selling Dutch knowledge. He grew rich. In 1998, he also became celebrated as “Mohsin e-Pakistan” (Saviour of Pakistan), after the country detonated six nuclear bombs at a test site.
 Proof of his sales emerged in 2003, when the US Navy intercepted a ship carrying nuclear technology from one of his factories to Libya. Later, the Libyans handed the Americans two plastic bags (bearing the names of an Islamabad tailor and a dry cleaner) that contained bomb designs. In 2004, Khan confessed on live television to transferring the technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea. By then, the US couldn’t demand his punishment, as Pakistan was an ally in the “war on terror”.
Meanwhile, the Dutch government admitted in 2004 that Iranian centrifuges had been seen that used “Urenco technology from the 1970s”. Pakistan’s centrifuges were similar. The Dutch foreign ministry told the FT: “The Netherlands attaches great importance to the Non-proliferation Treaty and the prevention of proliferation. The Netherlands did not actively contribute to unwanted proliferation of knowledge.” Khan later withdrew his confession. Some years ago, an American documentary-maker arranged for Veerman to phone his old friend. Khan, who resents being painted as a common spy, told him, “Frits, you are the biggest liar around.” Khan is now out of favour with Pakistan’s government. Security forces personnel installed in the house next door block him from meeting his relatives, friends and lawyers, he complained in an appeal to Pakistan’s Supreme Court last month.  ……
Veerman is harsher about his own country: “If Iran ever manages to destroy Israel, they could put on the weapons, ‘Made in Holland.’”

July 25, 2020 - Posted by | EUROPE, Pakistan, secrets,lies and civil liberties, USA

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