DAVOS, SWITZERLAND — DAVOS, Switzerland - Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, personally acknowledged yesterday that scientists from his country appeared to have sold nuclear designs to other nations, probably "for personal financial gain." He denied that the Pakistani government knew of the sales at the time but vowed that those involved would be dealt with "as anti-state elements."
Musharraf's statement at a global economic forum came after several weeks of delicate efforts to force Pakistan to deal with the scientists, according to diplomats and U.S. officials. Technical documents recently obtained from Libya on its nuclear program, as well as documents relating to Iran's nuclear activities, undercut years of Pakistani denials and appeared to have forced Musharraf's hand, diplomats and U.S. officials said.
The documents "have created a situation in which the denials no longer hold up," one senior U.S. official said.
Musharraf met several times in recent weeks with Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb, who is revered in the country as a national hero, the officials said. A number of scientists closely tied to Khan have been detained for questioning.
There have been protests in Islamabad over the detentions, and some European and U.S. officials said that Musharraf seemed to be preparing the political ground for arrests or other legal actions.
In late December, Pakistani government officials began backing away from their vigorous denials that their scientists had provided critical help to several aspiring nuclear states, including Iran and North Korea. But yesterday, Musharraf went further. "Well, I would not like to predict," he said in a CNN interview, "but it appears that some individuals, as I said, were involved for personal financial gain."
Musharraf continued to insist that there was no government involvement in the sales, portraying the actions as the efforts of corrupt scientists. U.S. officials, however, are skeptical of those claims.
They note that when Pakistan received missile parts from North Korea - believed to be the quid pro quo for nuclear aid - a Pakistani air force cargo jet was dispatched to Pyongyang, North Korea, to pick up the parts. They also note that the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories are the crown jewel of the Pakistani nuclear program, with close ties to the military and the intelligence agency, the ISI.
"I don't think anyone has proven the case for officially sanctioned transfers of technology," one senior U.S. official said recently.
But a senior European diplomat who has reviewed much of the evidence said that "it stretches credulity that proliferation on this scale can occur without senior officials in the government knowing about it."
Musharraf told CNN that there were also credible allegations against European nuclear middlemen and other nations, "so it is not Pakistan alone."
The same theme was struck yesterday by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who said that the global black market in nuclear materials and equipment had grown into a virtual "Wal-Mart" for weapons-seeking countries.
ElBaradei, director-general of the agency, the United Nations' watchdog on atomic weapons, said he was astonished by the scale and complexity of the illicit trafficking through which the Libyans obtained material and blueprints for nuclear weapons designs.
"All of that was obtained abroad," he said in an interview during the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. "All of what we saw was a result of the Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation.
"When you see things being designed in one country, manufactured in two or three others, shipped to a fourth, redirected to a fifth, that means there's lots of offices all over the world," ElBaradei said. "The sophistication of the process, frankly, has surpassed my expectations."
ElBaradei said he was satisfied with the level of cooperation shown by the Libyans.
Documents provided by the Libyans indicated that the uranium enrichment equipment they were using was based on a sophisticated design that could only have come from the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories. The centrifuge design is known as a "Pak-2," indicating it was a second-generation version that probably dates from the late 1980s, U.S. officials said.
"They are taking us everywhere we want to go," ElBaradei said of the Libyans. "They are answering all our questions, they are showing us all of what they have."
'Cooperation is key'
In interviews, U.S. officials have insisted that Pakistan, not the United States, is leading the investigation, though the U.S. officials acknowledge providing information to Islamabad.
The biggest trove came after the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el Kadafi, agreed in December to dismantle his unconventional weapons programs, and to turn over documents about how he developed them.
"Pakistan's cooperation is key for us to understand the dimension of the problem," ElBaradei said in the interview yesterday. "I have no reason to believe the government was involved, but I hope to have a clear picture in a few weeks."
ElBaradei's confidence, however, was leavened by his acknowledgment that neither his agency, nor the intelligence branches of the big countries, have a clear idea of the extent of nuclear trafficking.
"The system is under a good deal of stress," he said. "We need to take this seriously."