Commentary Magazine

Spying on the Bomb by Jeffrey T. Richelson

Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea
by Jeffrey T. Richelson
Norton. 608 pp. $34.95

In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations Security Council and laid out the case for using force against Saddam Hussein. The stakes were extraordinary. The United States wanted to do more than remove a megalomaniacal despot with a history of violating UN resolutions and developing and using weapons of mass destruction. In the aftermath of September 11, the Bush administration was seeking to create a domestic and international consensus for dealing vigorously with an emerging nexus: rogue states like Iraq, international terrorists, and weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear ones.

Powell’s presentation relied heavily on highly classified information, including overhead photographs, communications intercepts, defector reports, and evidence of clandestine purchases of banned equipment. It all pointed to a single conclusion—namely, that “Saddam Hussein [was] determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb.”

As we now know, this assessment was not supported by facts on the ground, or at least by the facts discovered on the ground by coalition forces after the 2003 invasion. The full story of the misjudgment remains something of a mystery, though. As it turned out, the intelligence community had actually been divided over the interpretation of several critical bits of evidence, including the notorious high-strength aluminum tubes supposedly obtained by Iraq for use in nuclear centrifuges. If the CIA exaggerated the Iraqi nuclear threat, it may have had something to do with the fact that it had underestimated the scope of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program a decade earlier on the eve of the first Gulf war. Whatever the cause of the lapse, the United States is now saddled with the burden of restoring the credibility of its intelligence agencies just as Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions are leading us into competing crises.

In Spying on the Bomb, Jeffrey T. Richelson seeks to aid our understanding of these high-stakes challenges by tracing the U.S. nuclear-detection effort from its origins during World War II to the present. A senior fellow at the National Security Archive, a non-profit research organization in Washington D.C., Richelson is one of a small group of scholars who specialize in mining diverse unclassified sources to present a credible, and often critical, picture of the U.S. security establishment. He puts his expertise to use in this book by providing a detailed look at how the United States has tried, with mixed results, to pry loose information about the most sensitive of the military crown jewels of foreign countries.



Richelson adopts a case-study approach that focuses on the early stages of nuclear-weapons programs—that is, the development and testing of the bomb itself but not of associated delivery systems like missiles. First, he analyzes our experience with what might be termed global threats—Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China. Second, he considers the programs of two major independent powers, France and India. Third, he examines what he calls the “pariah states” of Israel, South Africa, and Taiwan. Finally, there are the rogues: Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, North Korea, and Iran.

As Richelson’s diverse studies show, gaining and making sense of nuclear intelligence is an extremely complex task, with adversaries and even some friends being engaged in extensive denial and deception. To break through the veil of secrecy, the U.S. has had to field a wide range of resources. The menu comprises human assets of various sorts (spies, defectors, refugees, scientists, former nuclear workers); assistance from foreign-intelligence agencies and international organizations; and the careful analysis of open sources (newspapers, journals, and the like). At its technical core, moreover, the U.S. program is driven by a dazzling array of detectors carried on foot, in the sky, in space, underground, and undersea, constantly probing for the telltale physical traces of nuclear-weapons activity.

But even when the U.S. succeeds in collecting data about a particular foreign program, the implications of the information are frequently ambiguous, and educated guesswork inevitably takes over. Richelson’s account here will appeal more to fans of crime-scene investigations than to devotees of espionage thrillers. Not all analysts read the evidence the same way, especially when regional specialists and human-intelligence sources enter the picture. Disagreements inside the intelligence community are a regular occurrence—the controversy over Iraq’s WMD program was hardly the first internal clash of its kind. Sometimes these bureaucratic disputes break along predictable agency lines—e.g., the State Department’s “dovish” intelligence bureau versus the “hawkish” Defense Intelligence Agency—but sometimes not.

In his comprehensive review, Richelson finds many success stories, which have naturally received less public attention than the high-profile blunders. Even so, the failure rate is worrisome. Significantly, the majority of the consequential nuclear surprises have run in the opposite direction from our experience with Iraq—that is, our intelligence agencies have not been alarmist enough. Thus, the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1949, roughly two years earlier than the consensus low-end U.S. forecast. In 1964, when Communist China unexpectedly used enriched uranium rather than plutonium in its initial nuclear test, our entire understanding of the scope and direction of Beijing’s strategic program was cast into doubt. Nor did the intelligence community see or warn us of preparations for India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.



The general reader will not have an easy time of Spying on the Bomb. It is both lengthy and dense, and filled with an array of organizational acronyms, unfamiliar names, and technical details. Richelson has also refrained from providing a comprehensive introduction summarizing his findings, let alone a detailed set of lessons learned or policies recommended (other than a general plea for continued aggressive and inventive intelligence collection and analysis).

Still, anyone prepared to dive in will find Richelson a reliable and fair-minded guide. If he has a policy or bureaucratic axe to grind, it is not discernible in these pages; nor does he systematically attack the intelligence agencies for their historic failings or dismiss outright the Bush administration’s treatment of intelligence before the Iraq war. Instead, Spying On the Bomb calmly and capably synthesizes the available public sources while supplying copious details, both in the text and in the accompanying footnotes, that leave the reader free to reach his own conclusions. True, Richelson’s case studies, though painstakingly reconstructed, are uneven and incomplete—but that is because the evidence is uneven and incomplete. Much of the story is still secret; some portions of it are lost or forgotten.

The overarching lesson one takes away from this book is that gathering intelligence about nuclear weapons is not only inherently problematic but becoming more so. No magic technology will resolve or remove the major dilemmas and unknowns. It is not just that sensors often render readings that are open to different interpretations by competing analysts. It is also that countries pursuing covert nuclear-weapons programs can press back against U.S. surveillance by means of increasingly sophisticated campaigns of denial and deception, based in part on what they learn from each other and in part on what they learn from us—as they did via the intelligence information the U.S. released publicly in the run-up to and aftermath of the Iraq war.

Every one of Richelson’s case studies is a sobering reminder of how often the professionals in the nuclear-intelligence business have been at least a little wrong in a field where being a little wrong can have catastrophic consequences. In such an environment, neither technical resources nor cleverness can substitute for sound political judgment. With the stakes as high as they are, policies designed to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons must be able to withstand the shock of surprise. Although we obviously need to avoid another Colin Powell moment, we need still more to avoid the far worse consequences that can follow if we overlook a nuclear bomb that is heading our way.


About the Author

Patrick J. Garrity, a new contributor, is a research associate at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

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