ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The founder of the Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, has signed a detailed confession admitting that over the past 15 years he provided Iran, North Korea and Libya the designs and technology to produce the fuel for nuclear weapons, according to a senior Pakistani official and three Pakistani journalists who attended a government briefing here last night.
In a 2 1/2 -hour presentation to 20 Pakistani journalists, a senior government official gave an exhaustive and startling account of how Khan, a national hero, made millions of dollars selling secret technology to three countries that have been striving to produce nuclear arsenals.
Two of them, Iran and North Korea, were among those designated by President Bush as part of an "axis of evil."
If the Pakistani government account is correct, Khan's admission amounts to one of the most complex and successful efforts to evade international controls to stop nuclear proliferation.
The account provided by Pakistan last night came after years in which the government strongly denied that the government or scientists at the Khan Research Laboratories had sold critical technology to other nations.
Officials detailed how Khan presided over a network that smuggled nuclear hardware on chartered planes, shared secret designs for the centrifuges that produce the enriched uranium necessary to develop a nuclear weapon, and gave personal briefings to Iranian, Libyan and North Korean scientists in covert meetings abroad.
The Bush administration offered no comment on the Pakistani announcement yesterday. But in recent weeks, administration officials have made it clear that they forced the government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to confront the evidence, after Iran and Libya made disclosures that clearly showed their reliance on Pakistani-supplied technology.
"This is the break we have been waiting for," one senior American official said.
But the account provided by Pakistani officials carefully avoided blaming the army or the Pakistani intelligence service, despite the fact that some of the material - especially to North Korea - appeared to be transported on government cargo planes.
The Khan laboratory has for years been the jewel of the Pakistani nuclear program, and it received the highest-level support after Khan was accused of stealing the technology for uranium enrichment from a European consortium, Urenco, in the late 1970s.
Khan's house has been surrounded by Pakistani security officials for several weeks, and he could not be reached for comment yesterday.
A spokesman for the families of Khan and six other officials who have been detained in the government's proliferation investigation said they would respond to the government allegations today.
There was no way to independently verify the senior government official's account, though senior American officials said parts of it seemed in accord with intelligence they have gathered and provided to Pakistan.