RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged for the first time yesterday that he had suspected for at least three years that the country's top nuclear scientist was sharing nuclear technology with other countries, but he argued that the United States had not given him convincing proof.
In an hourlong interview conducted here in English, Musharraf shared blame for the delay with Washington, saying it was not until October that U.S. officials provided him with evidence of the activities of the scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
"If they knew it earlier, they should have told us," Musharraf said. "Maybe a lot of things would not have happened."
At the same time, Musharraf said he had seen signs that Khan was sharing nuclear technology, including "illegal contacts, maybe suspicions of contacts," and "suspicious movement" connected to Khan's laboratory.
But he said he was concerned that investigating Khan, a national hero in Pakistan for his role in developing its nuclear weapons, could provoke a political backlash.
"It was extremely sensitive," he said. "One couldn't outright start investigating as if he's any common criminal."
In Washington yesterday, a senior Bush administration official acknowledged that Musharraf was not given highly specific information about Khan's activities until last fall.
But the official said the United States conveyed more general warnings about Khan's activities starting in 2001.
Tomorrow, President Bush is expected to give what one senior official at the White House described yesterday as a "lengthy, detailed speech on what must change in the area of stopping proliferation."
He is expected to include new proposals for dealing with rogue scientists and countries that are not now members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty - a delicate subject, because India and Israel, like Pakistan, have refused to sign.
Musharraf said he forced Khan to retire from his post as head of a nuclear weapons lab in March 2001, to prevent him from transferring any more nuclear secrets. This is the first time Musharraf has cited Khan's nuclear activities as the reason for his departure.
"We nipped the proliferation in the bud; we stopped the proliferation," Musharraf said of Khan's removal. "That is the important part."
But the nuclear black market supplied by Khan continued to operate for 2 1/2 years, until last fall, according to U.S. officials. That network is one of the largest and most successful efforts at evading nonproliferation controls, and it is suspected of being the source of nuclear weapons developed in Iran, North Korea and Libya, investigators say.
Before the exposure of Khan's network late last fall, Pakistani officials, including Musharraf, had long denied that Pakistan was the source of nuclear technology for any other country. In repeated interviews, Musharraf never disclosed that he suspected the country's leading nuclear scientist of spreading technology.
Even yesterday, Musharraf seemed ambivalent about whether Khan was victim or villain, patriot or traitor: "I don't know whether Dr. A.Q. was using the underworld or the underworld was using A.Q."