"Proliferation begets proliferation," said CIA director George Tenet, testifying this month before the Senate armed services committee.
Mr. Tenet went on to say, "The nation-state used to be the sole purveyor of technology, and today networks of individuals, loosely affiliated, who may not have an affiliation formally with a nation-state, are now providing technology and components and the wherewithal in a one-stop shopping mechanism that has complicated our life."
Ever since Hiroshima in 1945, nations have been breaking into the nuclear club and then trying to shut the door behind them. "Nonproliferation," it was called: trying to halt the spread of this unbelievably destructive weapon. Sometimes nonproliferation worked, as with South Africa, Argentina, and most recently Libya, which volunteered to scrap its nuclear program. But more often it didn't work, and the nuclear club expanded to include the Soviet Union, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, probably Israel, and maybe North Korea and Iran.
In all these years, nonproliferation efforts centered on governments, those not friendly labeled "rogue regimes." But they were at least governments that one could negotiate with, and reward or punish with sanctions to induce their abandoning their nuclear ambitions.
But now, as Tenet's testimony indicated, we are faced with a new era - the era of the nuclear bazaar where bombs, or the components of bombs, can be acquired by terrorists and all sorts of mischiefmakers, address unknown. What brought us to the realization that a new commercial nuclear era was dawning was the revelation that Abdul Qadeer Khan, known as the father of the Pakistani bomb, was operating a vast nuclear-smuggling operation.
Nonproliferation think tanks have been turning up details. The Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control discovered that Dubai in the United Arab Emirates was serving as a key transfer point for Dr. Khan's shipments. B.S.A. Tahir, a Sri Lankan businessman, was fingered as an exporter of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. A former Nazi named Alfred Hempel shipped heavy water, a component of nuclear reactors.
Where did it all go? Some to firms in Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Six firms in Dubai have been identified as fronts for Iranian efforts to import nuclear technology. In other cases, the destination remains unknown.
Libya has surrendered some of the bombmaking material it bought from Dr. Khan. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham displayed some of it this week to journalists at the closely guarded Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear facility. He said Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi had paid $100 million for it.
Pakistan, vital to the American campaign against terrorism, goes unpunished for the worst case on record of contributing to the nuclear menace. But Secretary of State Colin Powell, on a visit to Islamabad this week, was prepared to demand of President Pervez Musharraf that he come clean about any Pakistani officials still involved in the nuclear network.
In last week's bomb attacks in Madrid, the terrorists were still using conventional explosives. But, given the spread of nuclear components from Pakistan and elsewhere, one wonders how long this will remain the case.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.