ISLAMABAD: Two Pakistani nuclear scientists reportedly have told investigators
they conducted long discussions about nuclear, chemical and biological weapons
with suspected terrorist Osama Bin Laden last August in Kabul, according to
Pakistani officials familiar with the ongoing interrogations of the two men.
Pakistani intelligence officials said they believe the two retired nuclear scientists - who have been under questioning for more than two months - used an Afghan relief organization partially as a cover to conduct secret talks with Bin Laden.
The Pakistani officials characterized the discussions between the scientists and Bin Laden as "academic" and said they have no evidence the information resulted in the creation or production of any type of weapon.
The reported admissions by Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, who held key appointments in each of Pakistan's three most important nuclear facilities, and his associate, Abdul Majid, represent a turnabout from their earlier claims that they met with Bin Laden only to discuss their charitable endeavors in Afghanistan, according to the accounts provided by Pakistan intelligence authorities.
Mahmood and Majid, who are being detained by Pakistani officials at an undisclosed location, could not be reached to confirm the purported statements described by Pakistani officials. Because the interrogations are being conducted in secrecy, it's impossible to determine the nature of the investigatory techniques being used. Neither of the men have been charged with any crime.
Officials here said the Pakistan government is now considering charging Mahmood and Majid with violating the national official secrets act, a charge which carries a seven-year jail term for conviction. If so, it would be the first known case of a nuclear official charged with that crime, officials said.
Pakistani officials said Mahmood - who had experience in uranium enrichment and plutonium production, but was not involved in bomb-building - had neither the knowledge nor the experience to assist in the construction of any type of nuclear weapon. The Pakistani scientists were not believed to be experts in chemical or biological weapons.
Pakistan has been under intense pressure by the US government to pursue the investigation of the nuclear scientists' relationship with Bin Laden at a time of heightened concerns by American authorities that Bin Laden may have acquired nuclear, biological or chemical materials or weapons. The investigation was a major issue discussed during CIA Director George Tenet's recent visit to Pakistan, according to US and Pakistani officials.
Though neither US nor Pakistani officials say they have evidence that Bin Laden has obtained any such material, both intelligence agencies have indicated they believe he has sought it.
Pakistani officials familiar with the investigation said representatives of the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency are in contact almost daily on the investigation. Two other Mahmood associates, including a retired one-star Army general, have also been detained for questioning.
Pakistan authorities said Mahmood and Majid changed their accounts recently after they were presented with compelling evidence of their relationship with Bin Laden. The evidence was provided to authorities here by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Pakistan intelligence officials declined to characterize the US evidence.
Mahmood and Majid reportedly met with Bin Laden, his top lieutenant Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri and two other al-Qaida officials several times over the course of two or three days at an Arab compound in Kabul last August, the Pakistani officials said.
The two scientists described Bin Laden as intensely interested in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, claiming he peppered them with numerous theoretical questions about how various materials could be used or turned into weapons.
Mahmood and Majid said Bin Laden indicated he had obtained, or had access to, some type of radiological material which he claimed had been acquired for him by the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The scientists said they came away from the meetings believing Bin Laden had some such material, but Pakistani officials said they have been unable to verify those claims.
The scientists reportedly said Bin Laden asked questions about how the material could be made into a weapon or anything useable. The scientists said they tried to tell him it would not be possible to manufacture a weapon with whatever he might have.
Pakistani officials noted that organizations and individuals throughout the South and Central Asian region have frequently approached Pakistani officials offering to sell nuclear materials from former Soviet nuclear facilities smuggled through Central Asia.
The scientists have insisted they provided no material or specific plans to Bin Laden, but rather, engaged in wide-ranging "academic" discussions, Pakistani officials said.
"They spoke extensively about weapons of mass destruction," one Pakistani official said. The official described the scientists as "very motivated" and "extremist in their ideas," but added they were "discussing things that didn't materialize, but fall under the breaking secrets act...."
US officials recently have expressed concerns that Bin Laden could have access to radiological materials that could be combined with conventional explosives to create a "dirty bomb." Though far less potent than a nuclear weapon, such a device could nonetheless contaminate several city blocks with radiation if exploded, according to experts.
Mahmood, who once received one of Pakistan's highest civilian honors for nearly three decades of work in the country's nuclear programs specializing in uranium enrichment, was largely forced out of his job through a demotion in 1999 because of concerns over his vocal views advocating the extensive production of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium enrichment to help equip other Islamic nations with nuclear arsenals.
After his retirement, Mahmood continued to espouse his personal viewpoint in public speeches, and one friend recalled that Mahmood said his knowledge about Pakistan's nuclear program was a state secret, but not his expertise on enriching uranium and producing weapons-grade plutonium. Majid worked for Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission until 1999.
Since his retirement, Mahmood had helped start an organization called Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (Islamic Reconstruction) which he described as a relief agency dedicated to construction and redevelopment projects in Afghanistan. The Pakistan government gave Mahmood and some of his associates, including Majid, permission to travel to Afghanistan on three separate visits this year, including one after the September 11 attacks in the United States, according to Pakistan officials.
Mahmood reportedly told investigators he met with Mohammad Omar, leader of Afghanistan's Taliban militia, several times during a long visit to Kandahar in midsummer and discussed a flour mill his agency operated in Kandahar, as well as the need for alternative agricultural programs to persuade farmers to stop growing poppies for opium production. At one point in that visit, Omar introduced Mahmood to Bin Laden, officials said.
Mahmood said he did not discuss any issues related nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in his first meeting with Bin Laden, describing it as an introductory encounter in which he discussed his relief program.
Mahmood and Majid returned to Afghanistan in August, traveling to Kabul, where they held extensive meetings with Bin Laden and his associates, the officials said. Omar was not present at any of the sessions, they said.
After the September 11 bombings, the two scientists made a third trip, this one to Kandahar where they met with Omar, but not Bin Laden, they said. The scientists said they never discussed nuclear, chemical or biological issues with Omar.
Pakistani authorities have detained or questioned at least seven members of Mahmood's relief agency in connection with the investigation, including two Air Force general officers, an Army one-star general, a third nuclear scientist, a well-known Pakistan industrialist and at least one financial officer of the organization, according to Pakistani officials. The two Air Force officers, the third nuclear scientist and the industrialist have been released. The others remain under detention.
The families of some of the detainees have protested to the courts and Pakistani government that they have not been allowed access to the men.
US officials have long raised concerns about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear program and the reliability of some of its scientists. Pakistan is believed to have the materials to assemble between 30 and 40 warheads, and has test-fired intermediate-range missiles that potentially could be used to launch them, according to intelligence reports and nuclear experts. Both Pakistan and neighboring India tested underground nuclear devices in 1998, and the two countries are viewed by many security experts as the globe's most worrisome nuclear flashpoint.
Pakistan, particularly in recent weeks, has responded to concerns over the safety of its nuclear program saying that even more extensive measures have been implemented in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.