May 28, 2006


The Secrets of the Bomb: a review of Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea
by Jeffrey T. Richelson (Jeremy Bernstein, May 25, 2006, NY Review of Books)

About the Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Iraqi programs, Richelson points out that what they all have in common is that foreign intelligence failed badly to detect them, a failure caused in part by the successful deception practiced by these countries. In the Iraqi case, American and other intelligence services failed twice to find out about its nuclear progress. After the Israeli air raid that destroyed Iraq's so-called Tammuz 1 reactor in June of 1981, foreign intelligence agencies assumed that the Iraqi program had been successfully stopped. As far as the manufacture of plutonium was concerned this was largely true. But the Iraqis had a very sizable program to separate uranium isotopes that had not been affected by the raid. They also had a group of bomb designers equally unaffected. Neither of these had been detected by American intelligence. Only after the first Gulf War, and after a good deal of resistance by the Iraqis, were international inspectors finally able to pin down the extent of the program. They concluded that if it had not been interrupted it might have produced a bomb within a year or so. In short, Saddam Hussein's abortive invasion of Kuwait had an unintended consequence of depriving him of a nuclear weapon.

The misreading of the intelligence before the latest Iraq war has been much discussed, but a reader who wants a compact summary will find it in Richelson's book. What the reader will not find is an explanation of why Saddam Hussein gave up the program in the early 1990s yet did not fully cooperate with the inspectors who would have verified that he had done so. If he had supplied adequate information at first, the war might well have been avoided; he might have reconstituted the program, although I have seen no hard evidence that he planned to do so. If inspections had been allowed to continue under Mohamed ElBaradei and Hans Blix in 2003, as many nations preferred, the absence of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction would have been increasingly clear, and in Blix's view war would probably have been avoided. What has been hardly mentioned in the controversy over whether Saddam Hussein might have revived a nuclear program is Blix's statement in his book Disarming Iraq that while he informed the Security Council that "neither governments nor inspectors would want disarmament inspection to go on forever," he

reminded that Council that, after verified disarmament, a sustained inspection and monitoring system was to remain in place to strike an alarm if there was any sign of revival of forbidden weapons programs.

In his failure to make full disclosure, Saddam Hussein's worst enemy was Saddam Hussein. He may, Blix and others have speculated, have been reluctant to admit that he didn't have the weapons with which to intimidate Iran and others in the region.

As for the Indians and Pakistanis, they simply lied about their intentions. The US had no informants on the ground, so when they tested their first nuclear weapons Americans were taken by surprise. Until 1959 the Russians and the Chinese collaborated on nuclear development, and Chinese scientists were sent to the Soviet Union to learn about nuclear technology. The Russians had agreed to supply the Chinese with fissionable material and, more remarkably, with a sample bomb and the plans that went with it. But then the two countries had a falling out and the cooperative program was stopped before any samples arrived. The Chinese were on their own. US intelligence services made a very substantial effort to follow developments, but they assumed incorrectly that, like the other countries, the Chinese were going to make a plutonium bomb, so they made an unsuccessful search, mainly from the air, for nuclear reactors that would produce plutonium. Not finding any, they came to the conclusion that no Chinese bomb was imminent.

The Chinese, however, had decided to make a uranium bomb but one with a novel design. In a bomb the fissionable material passes through three stages; subcritical, critical, and super-critical. In the subcritical stage fissions do take place but they do not produce a self-sustaining chain reaction. When the material becomes critical the chain reactions become self-sustaining and when it goes super-critical the material becomes explosive. In the Hiroshima bomb what happened was that a subcritical mass was fired into another mass, producing first a critical and then a super-critical mass. This device was not tested before it was used at Hiroshima.

When the plutonium bomb was first considered, scientists proposed to use the same design. But when the first plutonium was delivered to Los Alamos from the reactors in Hanford, Washington, it was found to contain an unwanted isotope of plutonium that spontaneously fissioned. This could set off the fission reaction in the bomb before enough material was assembled, thus producing a "fizzle." Thus a different method was needed. This consisted of imploding a sphere of plutonium by wrapping shaped high explosives around it. This worked much faster and solved the isotope problem. What the Chinese did was to use implosion for their uranium bomb, which they exploded on October 16, 1964. This design was much more efficient than the one the US used at Hiroshima, so it used less fissionable material. The test again caught our intelligence services totally by surprise.

The last part of Richelson's book deals with Iran and North Korea. Here events, especially in Iran, are moving so quickly that Richelson's account has to be supplemented by information released by the International Atomic Energy Agency and reported by the press. Of the two countries, in my view, the prospects of an Iranian bomb are the more serious. The North Koreans probably have a small, untested nuclear arsenal. My guess is that sooner or later, under Chinese and other international pressure, Kim Jong-il may accept an offer of economic and other rewards in return for giving up his nuclear program. Meanwhile, the principal concern about the North Koreans is that they do not try to sell their technology to terrorists. They may have little else to sell.

What makes the Iranian situation so difficult is that they have oil to sell, which makes them less vulnerable to economic sanctions. Indeed, when they are threatened the price of oil tends to go up, making the Iranians richer. The Chinese at the moment get about 14 percent of their oil from Iran, which is why they are so unwilling to apply pressure. To add to the difficulties, the Iranian president often speaks of eliminating Israel, although it is a question whether he has the authority to try to do so. In any case, if the Iranians eventually make one or more bombs, the logic of mutual deterrence would apply: use of the bomb against Israel would very likely result in a disaster for Iran. Meanwhile, the Israelis seem to mean it when they say they would not allow the Iranians to have nuclear weapons; the Iranians, one can surmise, are as aware of this as anyone else, just as they must be aware of the alleged American contingency plans for an attack on Iran recently reported by Seymour Hersh.

The themes of this review have been twofold. In order to have really reliable intelligence about the atomic program of a foreign country a necessary, but not sufficient, condition is to have agents on the ground. In the examples I have given the necessity is clear. Countries can hide their nuclear programs even from satellites and other sophisticated detection instruments. The Chinese hid their program because the satellites were looking for the wrong signals. Until Vanunu, an agent on the ground, unmasked the Israeli program the Israelis hid it by deception. But even with an agent on the ground mistakes can be made. Samuel Goudsmit was selected as the scientific leader of the Alsos mission in part because he did not know anything about ours. He often said that if he had been captured by the Germans he could not have told them anything. Since he did not know about our plutonium program, he did not look for the German program and made the erroneous assertion that there was none.

The second theme is that in almost all cases the predictions have erred on the side of conservatism.

Since we can't know for sure it would seem the wisest policy is to treat our enemies as if they were close or already had nukes and to bomb them accordingly.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 28, 2006 10:01 AM

Absolutely correct.

Posted by: erp at May 28, 2006 12:23 PM

Now you're making sense.

Posted by: pj at May 28, 2006 10:21 PM

The failure to find WMDs underscores the importance of preventative war.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 28, 2006 11:57 PM