Wannabe nuclear powers must love the Internet. Imagine the headaches a rogue nation would have had trying to enrich uranium during the cold war: build a spy network, recruit double agents, arrange illicit midnight meetings at spooky train stations along the borders of non-NATO countries where chain-smoking men wearing fedoras and black overcoats can exchange weapons designs scribbled on wrinkled cocktail napkins. The bill for fake moustaches alone would bankrupt a small country.
In 2010, nuclear proliferation is a lot easier. Facebook is great for sharing pictures of your newborn. It’s even better for posting classified sketches of P-2 centrifuges. And because sharing nuclear technology is now as easy as pressing “send” in an e-mail, it’s become more important than ever to stop it. The Central Intelligence Agency understands that, right?
Maybe not. In Fallout: The True Story of the CIA’s Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking, New York Times veterans Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz Monday morning quarterback the CIA’s failed war on nuclear proliferation.
“By the time the CIA set up its first full-time counterproliferation operation, Khan had fulfilled his role in providing the highly enriched uranium required for Pakistan to develop its nuclear arsenal,” the authors write of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani engineer who provided nuclear secrets to Iran and Libya for decades. Though the CIA discussed assassinating Khan as early as 1978, the agency allowed the criminal scientist to continue peddling nuclear secrets to learn more about his network – a bit like a basketball team running an ineffective zone defense to see how many points it can lose by.
“The CIA could have stopped Khan before he had even begun to help Pakistan build its nuclear arsenal,” write Collins and Frantz, “and before he ever provided the technology and expertise that was even then leading Iran to the brink of possessing a nuclear weapon, further destabilizing the Middle East.” Though the authors’ 2007 book “The Nuclear Jihadist” detailed Khan’s long career as the Harold Hill of black market nuclear weapons technology, the portrait that “Fallout” paints of the CIA as Khan’s enabler is more devastating. The agency discouraged the International Atomic Energy Agency from investigating its informants in Khan’s employ, pushed Swiss authorities to destroy evidence of Khan’s activities, and, most ridiculously, provided Khan’s network with “sabotaged” enrichment materiel to slow his progress. “He didn’t doubt that the American scientist had altered the [uranium enrichment] pump enough so that it would not work properly,” the authors write of an IAEA engineer skeptical of the CIA’s plans.
“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.”
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.