Jane VaynmanRussian HEU + AQ Khan = New Nuke Book

In the New York Times this past weekend, Jonathan Raban reviews the new book by William Langewieshe (yes, I’ve been wondering too… it’s long-gah-vee-shuh).

The Atomic Bazaar combines Langewieshe’s pieces from the Atlantic Monthly, one on smuggling nuclear materials from Russia and the others on the A.Q. Khan network (part 1 and part 2).

Raban liked it, noting especially the tone:

The most alarming thing about “The Atomic Bazaar” is its utter lack of alarmism. At every point, Langewiesche stresses the difficulties that confront the determined nuclear terrorist. Between Ozersk and an explosion in an American city lies an epic string of daunting obstacles. The terrorist would need to be gifted with an extraordinary run of luck. But none of these obstacles are, in themselves, insurmountable and, in the nearly lawless parts of the world described by Langewiesche, luck comes easily to anyone with millions in his pocket.

In the original nuclear smuggling article, How to Get a Nuclear Bomb, I remember being disappointed that Langewieshe spent more time on the option of stealing Russian HEU with a commando squad, than on the more serious problem of insider theft. In fact, that article sounded quite alarmist too me.

The NYT review, and a recent NPR interview, seem to suggest that in the book, Langewieshe does focus more on insider threat, and perhaps with a calmer tone.

The review also identifies some flaws, which are mostly structural:

Like its predecessors, “The Atomic Bazaar” comes with the curse of The Atlantic Monthly all too visible on its pages, its chapters like free-standing boxcars, loosely coupled by a large general theme — much as they appeared in separate issues of the magazine between November 2005 and December 2006. Too little work has gone into its translation from journalism to book. Though short, it’s littered with clunky repetitions and recapitulations, as when we’re repeatedly told what H.E.U. is and does, and A. Q. Khan twice falls from public grace.

I am not going to be near a US book store for a bit longer, so if anyone is reading the book, please feel free to chime in.

Comments

  1. hass (History)

    I’d be interested if the book covers these tidbits:

    CIA told Dutch not to prosecute Pakistani nuclearscientist Khan, former [Dutch] premier says – ByASSOCIATED PRESS August 9, 2005

    and

    Dutch court loses Abdul Qadeer Khan’s files, judgesuspects CIA Sat Sep 10, 2005 7:37 AM ET

  2. Andy (History)

    Hass,

    We’ve discussed these articles before on this site, so let’s rehash:

    The former Dutch Premier, Ruud Lubbers, was, at the time AQ Khan left for Pakistan with URENCO’s goody bag, head of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. It should come as no surprise that URENCO and its administration fell under his ministry. It’s quite convenient that he now blames the CIA (an agency whose policy is to never comment, confirm or deny) for anything and everything related Khan’s theft when he was the man who actually had the authority to stop it.

    To the specific charge that the CIA “told the Dutch not to prosecute” Khan, that’s ridiculous. First, the Dutch DID prosecute (and convict) him in 1983 in absentia, but that was overturned on a technicality. It seems kind of strange the CIA would “allow” the Dutch to convict him in 1983 and then block a retrial in 1986, even if one believes the ludicrous notion that the CIA held such sway over the Dutch Government. Casting further doubt on Lubber’s claims is the direct contradiction by the Dutch minister of Justice, Donner, who said at the time, “nothing of the kind has happened, the CIA had nothing to do with it.”

    Is it any surprise that the politician who was on watch when Khan got away is now interested in pointing the finger at the CIA bogeyman rather than himself?

    Now, WRT the second article, and in light of the above, what gave the Judge (Anita Leeser) the idea that the CIA stole the documents? A quote from the article itself:

    A month ago former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers said Khan was let go at the request of the US intelligence services. Leeser said when she heard Lubbers, the disappearance of Khan’s files at the Amsterdam court’s archive fell into place for her.”

  3. xxxx

    Langewieshe is an extremely talented writer in putting prose together, but sadly his work, in my opinion, has added nothing to the body of knowledge or debate on the topic at hand…maybe he should use his considerable storytelling skills writting fiction rather than sucking-up funds for the all too rare position these days as an “investigative journalist”…quick, now that Doug Frantz has moved to managing editor at the LAT and Joby Warwick is off on other tasks for the WP, who are the star reporters uncovering new finds in the nuclear and related issues? that would be, UM, UM, UM…right, sad to say nobody is…so the position Langewieshe occupies could be making valuable and much needed contributions-XXXX

  4. hass (History)

    Why so touchy, Andy? I was just curious if the book covered the issue. I don’t think you or I will ever know what the CIA was up to.

  5. Andy (History)

    Hass,

    Didn’t mean to come across as touchy – it was not intended.

    You’re right we won’t know what the CIA was up to for another few decades at least, but there seems to be no evidence of their involvement beyond speculation.

  6. Matthew Bunn (History)

    Langeweische’s book is deeply flawed, unfortunately. On nuclear terrorism, he gets many of the specifics wrong, but the conclusion at least roughly right: if you’re a nuclear terrorist, the “odds are stacked against you” but are “not impossible,” and the best way to reduce the risk is to upgrade security for nuclear stockpiles at their sources.

    But on proliferation to states, he’s wildly off the mark—and dangerous—arguing that nuclear proliferation is inevitable, and we need to just learn to live it. The reality is that there are the same number of states with nuclear weapons today as there were 20 years ago (North Korea joined the list, but South Africa dropped out). That’s an amazing record of success for a period that included the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the entire period of the AQ Khan network’s export activities, Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons program before the 1991 war, Libya’s program, Iran’s program, etc. The more policymakers believe Langweische’s proliferation-is-inevitable theme, the less they will be motivated to take the actions that are urgently needed to shore up the nonproliferation regime—and which do have a significant chance of being effective.

    I have a review making some of these points that will be coming out in American Scientist, will post when I get permission from them.

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