A.Q. KHAN….Way back in 2004, during the first Bush-Kerry debate, the president was anxious to convince voters that he’d been successful in combating terrorism. Specifically, the president boasted about bringing a notorious Pakistani scientist to justice who was selling nuclear secrets — design plans and components — to North Korea.

“We continue to pursue our policy of disrupting those who proliferate weapons of mass destruction…. The A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice,” Bush said. He added, “We busted the A.Q. Khan network. This was a proliferator out of Pakistan that was selling secrets to places like North Korea and Libya.”

The truth was more complicated than that. Far from bring Khan “to justice,” Bush signed off on a deal in which Khan was slapped on the wrist by Pakistani officials, who were afraid of the political implications of punishing someone considered a hero in much of Pakistan. As for “busting” Khan’s network, none of Khan’s cohorts have even been charged with a crime.

This week, we learn that Khan is “virtually a free citizen,” and has been for “several months.” What’s more, Spencer Ackerman noted, “Musharraf refused to allow U.S. intelligence officials to question Khan, and Congress has raised questions over whether the proliferation network Khan created is truly out of business.”

I’d only add that the White House was told about Khan’s nuclear-selling network almost immediately after the president took office — but the Bush gang was slow to act on it. Indeed, British officials encouraged the administration to take Khan’s network more seriously, but the administration pursued awkward and fruitless negotiations with Pakistan, which only gave Khan more time to expand his growing business.

And now, Khan is basically free. Policy towards Pakistan sure can be tricky, can’t it?

Update: A reader reminds me that the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, along with the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, recently held a joint hearing: “A.Q. Khan’s Nuclear Wal-Mart: Out of Business or Under New Management?”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.