Book review: ‘Peddling Peril’ by David Albright
Nuclear weapons, which largely faded from front pages after the Cold War, are back in the news. President Obama endorsed a new national security strategy, and earlier this year he signed an ambitious arms control treaty with Russia, further easing fears of global Armageddon. But Obama also led an unprecedented summit of world leaders to warn of an increasingly urgent threat — nuclear terrorism.
Much of this perilous state of affairs can be traced to the villainous deeds of Abdul Qadeer Khan. A.Q. Khan, as he is known, is the self-described father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb and the self-confessed mastermind of a criminal network that seemingly sold nuclear weapons technology like it was aluminum siding. The proof: Nearly every nation that has tried to build or obtain a nuclear device in the last 30 years has relied on Khan’s black market enterprise.
Outside the CIA and its sister services overseas, probably no one has investigated Khan’s smuggling network as thoroughly as David Albright. His “Peddling Peril” is the most authoritative account we are likely to see of how a Pakistani metallurgist with monstrous ambition used front companies, forged documents and legal loopholes to create a nuclear Wal-Mart, or what Albright calls “Bomb Inc.” Dr. Strangelove couldn’t have said it better.
For years, government officials downplayed or ignored Khan’s illicit trade as industrial spying, or violations of export control laws, rather than as nuclear espionage on behalf of a foreign power. Security breaches were repeatedly concealed lest they jeopardize other diplomatic priorities or corporate profit margins. It is a terrifying tale, not least because the failure to prosecute or imprison most of Khan’s associates means the world’s most dangerous business may still be thriving.
Other books have sketched Khan’s story, but Albright mines previously unavailable documents, and he interviews key players for new details. He chronicles how Khan stole classified blueprints from a European consortium to jumpstart Pakistan’s uranium enrichment program in the mid-1970s and then did what no Western scientist considered remotely possible — he built an atomic bomb in Pakistan by secretly buying and assembling component parts from abroad.
In the 1980s, Khan again broke new ground: He began selling complete nuclear factories and the know-how to construct bombs, something only governments had done before. He assembled a team of unscrupulous German, South African and Swiss businessmen to help peddle these resources to dictatorial regimes in Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Khan’s drawings and documentation for Libya’s centrifuge plant were so detailed they contained instructions on where to install toilet paper holders in the bathrooms. He also supplied Iran with critical components for a then-secret uranium enrichment program that still bedevils the international community. “Without Khan’s assistance,” Albright writes, “Iran’s gas centrifuge program would pose little threat to the region or the United States today.”
Khan has claimed patriotism and Muslim solidarity as his motive, but he and his cohorts raked in hundreds of millions of dollars. Vital supplies, purchased from the United States and Europe, were routed through a maze of businesses and third-party cutouts in Malaysia, Dubai, Turkey and elsewhere to avoid suspicion. “They could not outmaneuver us, as we remained a step ahead always,” Khan boasted on Pakistani TV last year.
Although the CIA and British intelligence investigated Khan from at least 1978, it took them nearly three decades to take him down, an intelligence failure that haunts us today. The evidence suggests willful blindness in successive U.S. administrations more concerned about using Pakistan as a Cold War proxy against the Soviet Union than on stopping this nuclear Johnny Appleseed.
It’s still unclear how much Pakistani leaders authorized Khan’s freebooting (he frequently used Pakistani Air Force planes to ferry his supplies) and, more important, whether his customers included Al Qaeda or its murderous offshoots. The Pakistani government has refused to let foreign intelligence or U.N. experts interview Khan since he was placed under house arrest in 2004.
Albright is a unique figure in Washington, a nuclear proliferation expert who flourishes in the interstices between intelligence and journalism. He founded and heads the Institute for Science and International Security, a one-man think tank for all practical purposes. He regularly makes news by relying on commercial satellite photos, personal ties to U.S. policy makers and U.N. nuclear inspectors (Albright served with U.N. teams in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War) and a deep grasp of nuclear science. Like many journalists, I called him regularly when I reported on nuclear proliferation.
In September 2007, for example, Israeli jets bombed a nondescript building in the Syrian desert. Neither government, nor the George W. Bush administration, initially acknowledged the raid’s purpose. But Albright’s institute used commercial satellite imagery to determine that the target appeared to house a nuclear reactor built with technology from North Korea. For six months, Albright’s analysis was the only independent assessment. Finally, in April 2008, the CIA publicly concurred.
Albright is a better investigator than writer, and his dry prose sometimes reads like a grand jury indictment involving export licenses and shipping manifests. But this is also a valuable book: The reader’s outrage mounts as clues emerge, the danger spreads and government officials look the other way. It’s clear what drives Albright: America must vastly improve its ability to prevent nuclear smuggling and, ultimately, nuclear terrorism. After reading “Peddling Peril,” it drives my fears too.