A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani scientist, created a global network to secretly obtain and sell the capability to go nuclear. Two journalists sniff out the efforts of U.S. and British intelligence to penetrate and dismantle that network.
Fallout: The True Story of the CIA's Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking
Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz
Free Press: 290 pp., $26
Anyone concerned about nuclear proliferation or interested in the world of espionage will want to read Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz's provocative new book, "Fallout: The True Story of the CIA's Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking," which tells a fascinating story whose characters come straight out of a spy novel.
The emergence of Pakistan, North Korea and potentially Iran as nuclear states owes much to the work of one man, A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani scientist who created a clandestine global network to secretly obtain and sell the capability to go nuclear. At first, his efforts were devoted exclusively to making Pakistan a nuclear power, but driven by greed and intense hatred of the United States, he soon became a global supplier of nuclear weapons know-how and the specialized equipment required to make atomic bombs. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, described Khan's clandestine network as a nuclear "Wal-Mart."
The efforts of the CIA and British intelligence to penetrate and dismantle the Khan network are the subject of "Fallout," which serves as a kind of sequel to the authors' previous book, "The Nuclear Jihadist," and, of necessity, repeats some of the same material.
But their continuing investigations and interviews with sources in the intelligence community and their principal informants also offer additional details and observations as well as remarkable success stories, such as the CIA's recruitment of the Tinner family (father and sons), Khan's Swiss confederates. The information the Tinners provided enabled American and British intelligence to uncover Khan's operations in Europe, Dubai and Malaysia, subtly alter blueprints and sabotage equipment destined for his customers, and intercept a shipment of vital nuclear components headed for Libya.
Books about contemporary espionage come with a warning label: No matter how much is leaked, authors never have all the facts. They know only what they are told by people who have an interest in contests yet to be resolved. No one speaks in the interest of truth; information is provided only to advance national, institutional or personal agendas.
Collins, a former foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, and Frantz, a former managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and correspondent for the New York Times, describe what must have been a frustrating interview with the talented CIA agent who recruited the critical informants inside Khan's network. He evaded all of the authors' questions, then left them with a slip of paper on which was written, "The most important part of the story is the piece of it you don't know."
Concerned that a well-written history, however interesting, might not suffice to attract readers, publishers too often push for a headline-grabbing angle. Government incompetence, a cover-up or imminent danger are reliable themes, but they can also distract from a solidly supported narrative such as "Fallout's." Though they admire the CIA's success, the authors remain critical of America's failure to dismantle Khan's network sooner. In their view, Khan was able to steal secrets and peddle his black-market connections far longer than was necessary. They are also critical of what they describe as a "cover-up" subsequently engineered by Washington to prevent the public from finding out just how tarnished its intelligence victory was.
Many in the intelligence community would disagree with these assertions. There is often tension between the need to take action and the need to collect more information. It is a classic intelligence quandary. The Khan network was a complex enterprise that took decades to assemble. Thus it took time for outsiders to understand all of its dimensions. Acting prematurely might have only temporarily disrupted one tentacle of Khan's operations rather than delivering a strategic blow. Networks are inherently resilient, hard to kill. Previous investigations and warnings to several of Khan's confederates had not stopped them.
Even today, most of those connected with Khan's nuclear black market, including Khan himself, are free men, and intelligence officials continue to have different views about when the plug should have been pulled. The authors challenge former CIA Director George Tenet's assertion that the U.S. moved in at the "optimal moment." Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to know what might have happened.
The authors criticize the agency for seeing the world not as it was but as its case officers and spymasters wanted it to be. Perhaps. No doubt justice would be better served if Khan and all of his confederates were locked up in a deep dungeon, but in today's world, the laws governing sensitive technology are inadequate and prosecutions are difficult. Trials can reveal sensitive information and imperil ongoing intelligence operations. National and commercial interests of other countries trump American concerns about proliferation. New villains inevitably will arise. Dangerous know-how and material will again be on offer. Espionage will continue. Old sources must be protected, new ones recruited.
Only in movies does the criminal mastermind die in hand-to-hand combat as his evil empire goes up in flames. The real world offers few such victories. One thing is certain: Collins and Frantz won't lack subject matter for future volumes. I look forward to them.
Jenkins is a senior advisor to the president of the Rand Corp. His most recent book is "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?"
This commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times on January 9, 2011