Wall Street Journal

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Shopping For Bombs
By Gordon Corera
(Oxford University Press, 288 pages, $28)

Bookshelf / By Gabriel Schoenfeld

Dangerous Merchandise

At the dawn of the nuclear age, it was exceedingly difficult to construct an atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project, begun in 1940, was, a famously heroic effort, gathering together some of the world's most brilliant minds, costing mere than $20 billion (in today's dollars) and moving forward at maximum speed in the race against Hitler's scientists. Yet still it took years to construct a workable device.

Six decades later, a lot has changed. With the rise of a nuclear-power industry, more and more scientists and engineers throughout the world possess the technical skills for building a bomb. The physical materials, too—most notably an array of specialized machine tools and high-speed centrifuges—are more easily possessed. If we count North Korea, the world's "nuclear club" includes eight countries. Several others are eager to build the most fearsome weapons ever devised—or to buy them. (Iran is already well on the way.) It is all too easy to see an end to the long hiatus since Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to imagine nuclear weapons being used in anger once again.

If such a cataclysm happens, the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan may well figure prominently in the judgment of history. His name is not as familiar as those of, say, Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, two of the scientists who paved the way for America's atomic success; and his talents are nothing like their genius. But he has played a major role in the 20th-century history of the bomb. From the 1970s through the 1990s, Khan secretly, disseminated nuclear technology to a number of rogue states around the world.

The full story of Khan's activities cannot yet be fully told—much information is under lock and key in Pakistan, if it has been preserved at all—but a persuasive preliminary account has been prepared by Gordon Cotera, a correspondent for the BBC who has followed the rise and fall of the Khan network. "Shopping for Bombs" tells a disturbing tale.

A metallurgist by training, not a physicist as is commonly assumed, Khan was born in Pakistan and educated in the Netherlands, where he began his career in a subsidiary of Urenco, the European nuclear-power consortium. Although not originally a spy, Khan enjoyed access to secret documents and developed a keen interest in the nuclear reactor at the Urenco site. By 1974—in the wake of Pakistan's defeat at India's hands three years earlier and India's test of a nuclear device—he offered his services to Pakistan's intelligence service.

The race was on to build a "Muslim bomb" to counter the Hindu one. It wouldn't be easy,. given Pakistan's poverty. As Khan himself told an interviewer in the early 1990s: "A country which could not make sewing needles, good and durable bicycles or even ordinary durable metal rods was embarking on one of the latest and most difficult technologies."

Over time, Khan became a key player in the project, first by stealing designs for key components, like centrifuges, from his Dutch employer. When European authorities began to suspect his illicit activities, he returned to Pakistan to become the project's manager. His contacts in Europe served him well, helping him to acquire a range of materials, including a custom-built uranium conversion plant. By 1987, Pakistan had the bomb. It is now thought to have dozens of them.

But the story isn't limited to Pakistan's nuclear-club membership. By the late 1970s, as Mr. Corera reports, Khan's operation began to function in reverse gear. What had been a. procurement network became a proliferation one as well: Desperately poor Pakistan began to supply nuclear technology to other countries. Khan himself was an effective salesman, exploiting his access to technology and his ability to move things aboard military transport planes. He soon developed a "network" of avid customers. Mr. Corera argues (but is not entirely sure himself) that Khan was mostly a freelancer, acting out of a mixture of nationalist zeal and personal cupidity and providing guidance and materials beyond what the Pakistani government was willing to sell on its own.

In chapters devoted to Pakistan's chief customers—Iran, North Korea and Libya—Mr. Corera traces the outflow of blueprints and materials, particularly intense in the 1990s. Alas, the U.S. intelligence services at the time, although supposedly devoted to preventing nuclear proliferation, were almost completely in the dark about the biggest proliferation racket going. Their analysts were aware that Pakistan was importing nuclear technology. They failed to grasp that such purchases were often intended for re-export.

By the close of the 1990s, the CIA started to scrutinize Khan's activities and travels, still without realizing their full importance. One of the more curious details in Mr. Corera's book is that the agency turned to Joe Wilson, the husband of CIA officer Valerie Plame, to investigate some of Khan's - African visits. To this end, Mr. Wilson traveled to uranium-rich Niger in 1999, a full three years before he went there to investigate Saddam Hussein's possible attempts to buy "yellowcake" uranium. Mr. Wilson found nothing worried some in Niger either time.

Unsurprisingly, 9/11 changed everything. Documents captured by the U.S. in Afghanistan suggested Pakistan-Taliban nuclear cooperation, alarming the CIA. The agency pressed harder for clues to Pakistan's nuclear export activities. More and more evidence implicated Khan. The decisive moment came in 2003, when Libya turned its nuclear program over to the U.S. and Britain. Libyan documents supplied direct proof of Khan's dealings.

Not that his network was shut down overnight. Only Khan's televised "confession" in February 2004, followed by his house arrest in Islamabad, marked its end. By then a great deal of damage had been done: We know about only a portion of what Iran acquired from him during those busy years. And all the while, the government of Pakistan, our sometime ally, had turned a blind eye.

What are the lessons of this episode? Mr. Corera mounts no soapbox, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions. Here is one: The CIA has been appallingly ineffective for far too long. We have already paid a high price for this. One day, we may pay a higher price still.

Mr. Schoenfeld is the senior editor of Commentary