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A pair of NY Times reporters offer a damning indictment of the CIA’s failed war on nuclear proliferation.

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“But he had seen enough of the ingenuity of Iranian scientists to suspect they might be able to figure out what was wrong and correct the problem. The Americans seemed to have taken a huge risk.”

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This is an understatement. Short of placing a nuclear-secrets vending machine on Constitution Avenue, it’s not clear how a law enforcement agency tasked with stopping nuclear proliferation could more effectively proliferate. Absurdly, though, the CIA trumpeted the success of their operation after Khan was placed under house arrest in 2004. As “America’s massive inspection efforts turned up no evidence of active WMD programs [in Iraq], the pressure mounted on the CIA and its director [George Tenet],” Collins and Frantz write. “Tenet’s claim that bringing down the Khan network was a major intelligence victory, and his later assertion that the agency had acted at the optimal moment, hinged on the CIA’s ability to shape the events that followed the speech.”

Today, those events are out of the CIA’s control. Later in 2004, Tenet did resign. The question of Iran’s nuclear capabilities – not to mention those of North Korea – remains open. In 2009, Khan was released from house arrest in Pakistan. According to The Washington Post, “the international effort to prosecute [Khan’s smuggling network] is largely in shambles, yielding convictions of only a few minor participants and no significant prison time for any of them.”

The shell companies that made up Khan’s empire for producing and distributing centrifuges have disappeared and may already have reappeared. And “Fallout” isn’t afraid to cast blame.

“The CIA had the evidence to turn all of these cases into a potent deterrent for future proliferators,” Collins and Franz write. “Instead they went into cover-up mode ... and interfered with the criminal process of an allied nation, creating a ripple effect that derailed prosecutions not only in Switzerland but in many other countries.” It’s a damning – and spectacularly well-reported – indictment.

One only wishes that Collins and Frantz had gone further. “‘Fallout’ is part spy story and part cautionary tale,” its authors write.

They’ve nailed the spy story – what they’re cautioning against is less clear. Khan “believed the United States and its allies employed a double standard that allowed Israel to possess nuclear weapons but sought to deny them to Muslim countries.” Is it naive to ask whether Khan is right? Or, with the Soviet Union two decades gone and American geopolitical influence on the decline, who should control nuclear weapons? Or if stopping the spread of any kind of information is even possible with Mark Zuckerberg looking over everyone’s shoulder?

Collins and Frantz don’t tackle these questions. But before the first dirty bomb is detonated on an airplane or in the middle of a major city, someone must.

Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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