The Khan network was first exposed in September 2003, when U.S. and British intelligence agents boarded a freighter en route to Libya and found a cargo hold full of centrifuges that were traced back to Pakistan. The leads generated by that intervention laid down a trail which led to some 30 countries, each one of which has different laws governing the export of sensitive technologies to nuclear or "rogue" states. There is no international body that can bring smugglers to justice. If they are to be prosecuted, the cases must be brought by individual countries, but prosecutors may need information and help from other nations.
The discovery of the centrifuges prompted President Bush to declare, in a speech to the National Defense University, that the United States would launch an aggressive effort to cooperate with foreign military and intelligence services to "find the middlemen, the suppliers, and the buyers," and would cooperate with foreign military and intelligence services "to stop the spread of deadly weapons."
But critics say that the United States has not offered as much cooperation as Bush seemed to promise in pursuing the smugglers involved in the A.Q. Khan network. And more than four years later, not one of the members of Khan's vast network is in prison.
Out of the dozens of individuals and businesses in some 30 countries suspected of having links to the Khan network, no one other than the three businessmen in South Africa, and a fourth in the Netherlands (who served four months in prison in 2006) have been brought to justice.
One case against the man widely considered to be Khan's chief liaison in Europe, a German engineer named Gotthard Lerch, collapsed last year after the judge accused prosecutors of misconduct. Lerch is scheduled to be retried this spring. His business partner in South Africa was Gerhard Wisser, who helped him buy prime real estate parcels in Cape Town in addition to engaging in black market nuclear deals dating back to the 1980s, according to a record of Wisser's interrogation by German police.
In late February came another blow to prosecutions of the Khan network: Swiss authorities dropped a part of their criminal case against a family team of engineers, Friedrich Tinner and his sons Urs and Marco, who had allegedly organized, from Switzerland, the shipment of centrifuges from a Malaysian factory to Libya. It was those centrifuges that were found aboard the BBC China, and were ultimately slated to be connected to the equipment manufactured by Tradefin in South Africa.
Friedrich Tinner was released from detention.
David Albright ascribes the troubles with that prosecution at least partly to the U.S. refusal to cooperate with Swiss authorities. Key evidence in that case, he says, is the centrifuges that are now in U.S. custody at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge nuclear research facility. The agency brought U.S. and international journalists to see the centrifuges shortly after taking control of them in 2005, but repeatedly refused, says Albright, to give the same access to Swiss prosecutors.
"That's been one of the most frustrating things to see," Albright says, "is that there hasn't been a lot of cooperation. The Swiss have been asking for help, but the U.S. is not giving it. ... They're not providing help with gathering evidence and understanding that evidence so the Tinners can be prosecuted more effectively."
Albright and others have speculated that the three men were intelligence sources who were promised immunity. Albright claims there's been an ongoing and unresolved "tension between those in the intelligence business, who are more focused on finding things than necessarily stopping them ... and people who are engaged in the legal enforcement business of not only stopping people but holding them accountable. ... It makes the world more dangerous in the end. It allows people to get away with it."
The Department of Energy refused comment on the case.
The sense of frustration made its way even to South Africa, where Abdul Minty, that country's Minister for Non-Proliferation, told us, "Some countries that we knew were particularly well-placed to assist us [in prosecutions] did not assist us in the way that we expected. I think that this is a disappointment when there is so much emphasis being put globally on weapons of mass destruction and the need to stop proliferation.
"The fact that we haven't seen much success there is disappointing. ... What is important is that those engaged in these types of activities must not get the impression that they can get away with these things, because it is extremely serious."
Ambassador Minty did not specify which countries he was referring to. The indictment of Wisser and his colleagues lists meetings, participating companies, individuals and evidence based in at least four countries: Germany, Switzerland, Malaysia and the United States.
After those 11 containers filled with equipment destined for Libya were confiscated from Tradefin, the U.S. Department of Energy took possession of the entire shipment. William Tobey, deputy administrator for nuclear nonproliferation at the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, submitted an affidavit to the South African court last May asserting that the United States would be unwilling to cooperate with the prosecution, and specifically refused to submit evidence regarding the nuclear nature of the shipment, unless the trial was held in secret, hidden from the public or the press.
The South Africans acceded to the U.S. request and put the trial under seal. But the effort to close the trial was successfully challenged by one of that country's leading newspapers, the Mail & Guardian, and a coalition of free expression organizations. The coalition's success in opening the trial was followed in quick succession by the plea agreements of Gerhard Wisser and Daniel Geiges - whose avoidance of prison time, Albright argues, may be related to the government's subsequent inability to obtain cooperation from the United States in presenting evidence at a public trial.
"I'd rather not discuss that," responded the DOE's William Tobey when called for comment in March.
Meanwhile, A.Q. Khan himself is still a national hero inside Pakistan; he is under so-called "house arrest," confined to his mansion in Rawalpindi. Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff has repeatedly refused to make Khan available for questioning by either the IAEA or the United States.
Like those lingering networks left behind in South Africa, the knowledge and connections that Khan assembled have not gone away. Joseph Cirincione*, whom we interviewed when he was Director of Nuclear Policy at the Center for American Progress, comments, "The global nuclear black market is alive and well, despite claims by both the U.S. administration and Pakistan that the A.Q. Khan network has been smashed. It's just not true. A few people have been arrested but all the suppliers and the expediters are still out there."
As the IAEA's Olli Heinonen explained to us, "If the know-how is there, and the will is there, they don't need any A.Q. Khan. They can do it without him."
* Six months after we interviewed him, Cirincione became president of the Ploughshares Fund, one of the funders of this American RadioWorks project.