The most recent mind-blowing revelations about weapons of mass destruction had nothing to do with Iraq.

While the world and the Bush team were focused on Saddam’s nonexistent nukes, the top nuclear scientist in Pakistan was peddling bomb designs and hardware.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of the Pakistani bomb, was the key figure in a black market ring that sold nuclear designs and hardware all over the world during the last decade. It was an international “supermarket,” in the words of Mohamed elBaradei, head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

A veritable nuclear Wal-Mart.

Khan’s known customers included Libya, Iran and North Korea. He’s said to have offered Iraq the designs for a nuclear bomb and uranium enrichment equipment for $5 million on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War. (Iraqi officials reportedly rejected the proposal because they thought it was a scam.)

But what about Khan clients whose identities we still don’t know? Could they have included terror groups?

At a time when the prime U.S. security concern is the possibility of terrorists getting nukes (or biological weapons), the Khan case is a scary wake-up call.

Among the questions it raises are the following:

One: At a time when the accuracy of U.S. intelligence is being challenged, when and what did we know about Khan’s deadly network?

Pakistani officials denied for years that their country was a proliferator, until the evidence became so overwhelming they couldn’t refute it. In recent months, the IAEA found proof that Pakistan helped Iran with hardware and expertise for enriching uranium. Libyan officials – now coming clean on their nuclear program – implicated Pakistan further.

CIA director George Tenet, in his defense of the agency last week, said it played a crucial part in penetrating Khan’s ring. But if the agency knew Khan was peddling nuclear designs even as we were going to war with Iraq to prevent Saddam from getting a nuclear weapon, why wasn’t Pakistan confronted sooner? Were we so reliant on President Pervez Musharraf to help us fight the Taliban and al-Qaida that we downplayed Pakistan’s export of nuclear expertise?

Two: Can we rely on Musharraf? He just granted Khan a full pardon after insisting that no military or government official had known of his actions.

That beggars belief. At minimum, experts believe the Pakistani military knew about deals with North Korea in which Pakistan allegedly swapped nuclear technology for missiles. The Pakistani press claims Khan told investigators Musharraf knew of this swap, implying the pardon was meant to keep Khan quiet.

Musharraf insists otherwise. At a small meeting with journalists at the Davos World Economic Forum two weeks ago, he said fiercely, “No one knew” what Khan was doing.

“We will sort out anyone involved,” he went on. “They are anti-state elements.”

Yet Khan will go substantially unpunished. And the Bush administration has praised Pakistan for breaking up Khan’s network, despite Musharraf’s public refusal to investigate further.

This is all public theater. The Bush team knows Khan is a national hero. Pakistanis view his bomb as their safeguard against India. Musharraf, under threat by homegrown Islamists, can’t afford to jail

the “father of the Islamic bomb.”

Three: So what should be done now?

U.S. officials must insist on getting every detail about Khan’s black market ring from Pakistani officials, including buyers, suppliers and details of his European, Malaysian and Arabian Gulf networks. Otherwise the struggle against proliferation becomes a farce.

The Khan case should also send a clear warning that terrorists have many more sources from which to obtain weapons of mass destruction than so-called rogue states.

Saddam is in jail. But Abdul Qadeer Khan – on orders, or from greed, or because he wanted more Muslim nations to have nukes – was willing to spread the bomb. Others will try to imitate his efforts.

“Khan’s blueprints and designs exist on CD-ROMs, and they are out there,” says proliferation expert Michael Krepon. “We need to come down like a ton of bricks on protecting fissile materiel.” Huge amounts of such materials are poorly stored in Russia and elsewhere and, if stolen, could be sold on the black market.

Shutting down nuclear black marketeers will require far better intelligence and international cooperation than we now have. The task is as important – and perhaps harder – than stopping Saddam.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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