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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Reading List: Spying on the Bomb

Richelson, Jeffrey T. Spying on the Bomb. New York: W. W. Norton, [2006] 2007. ISBN 978-0-393-32982-7.
I had some trepidation about picking up this book. Having read the author's The Wizards of Langley (May 2002), expecting an account of “Q Branch” spy gizmology and encountering instead a tedious (albeit well-written and thorough) bureaucratic history of the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology, I was afraid this volume might also reduce one of the most critical missions of U.S. intelligence in the post World War II era to another account of interagency squabbling and budget battles. Not to worry—although such matters are discussed where appropriate (especially when they led to intelligence failures), the book not only does not disappoint, it goes well beyond the mission of its subtitle, “American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea” in delivering not just an account of intelligence activity but also a comprehensive history of the nuclear programs of each of the countries upon which the U.S. has focused its intelligence efforts: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, France, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Libya, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.

The reader gets an excellent sense of just how difficult it is, even in an age of high-resolution optical and radar satellite imagery, communications intelligence, surveillance of commercial and financial transactions, and active efforts to recruit human intelligence sources, to determine the intentions of states intent (or maybe not) on developing nuclear weapons. The ease with which rogue regimes seem to be able to evade IAEA safeguards and inspectors, and manipulate diplomats loath to provoke a confrontation, is illustrated on numerous occasions. An entire chapter is devoted to the enigmatic double flash incident of September 22nd, 1979 whose interpretation remains in dispute today. This 2007 paperback edition includes a new epilogue with information on the October 2006 North Korean “fissile or fizzle” nuclear test, and recent twists and turns in the feckless international effort to restrain Iran's nuclear program.

Posted at May 3, 2008 17:30