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Shell game

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

March 12, 2006|Max Frankel | Max Frankel, former executive editor of the New York Times, is the author of "High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis."

NEVER mind all the technical babble and consider the simple subplot: how America learned, fearfully, often blindly, always grudgingly, to live with the Bomb in other hands.

The fear began, reasonably enough, with the thought that Hitler might get one first during World War II. U.S. scientists, reinforced by Europe's refugees, not only won the race but also devised the first forms of atomic espionage to learn about the Nazis' progress. The scientists thus gave birth to two still-flourishing industries: the secret crafting of fission and fusion weapons with uranium and plutonium fuels and the global snooping into their manufacture elsewhere -- a vast enterprise of aerial reconnaissance, communications intercepts and seismic monitoring, augmented by too few human spies and backed by our bickering intelligence bureaucracies.

Now in its seventh decade, the costly international game of atomic hide-and-seek seems to have no logical end. The prestige of membership in the once all-white nuclear club has no proven antidote. Most attempts to halt the weapons' spread have failed. Most efforts to track their spread have failed even more decisively.

And Iraq has shown us the consequences of being doubly wrong. We were shocked to learn in 1991 how close Saddam Hussein had come to secretly making a bomb before he seized Kuwait. We were no less shocked in 2003 to learn how well he had been thwarted from resuming the nuclear quest that was the given reason for a second U.S. invasion.

How we spy on the Bomb, misread our findings and mismanage our responses has long been Jeffrey T. Richelson's professional concern. Now a senior fellow at the National Security Archive, he has written extensively about nuclear weapons development and intelligence. His new book weaves a useful, nonpolemical history of both subjects, relying heavily on the records recently wrung from many governments.

"Spying on the Bomb" is especially comprehensive in recording the evolution of technological espionage -- which cameras aboard which planes and satellites could cover which portions of the globe at various times and angles. And it is especially damning in demonstrating how this costly array of gadgetry in the air, on land and beneath the seas still leaves us guessing about different nations' nuclear capacities. Time and again, Richelson shows, our analysts misjudged the game and were left with postmortems that documented a failure to connect dots, to prioritize concerns and to place spies in the target countries.

Richelson's book therefore belongs on the shelf of students of the subject and the legions engaged in the diplomatic and intelligence strategies of the nuclear age. The general reader needs only to grasp its underlying, understated themes. Encyclopedic in its details, the book is technically dense and chronologically diffuse, neither gracefully written nor well organized. It nonetheless bears witness to the great drama of our time, implying that the slow and hard-to-discover spread of atomic weapons will end either in nuclear catastrophes or in the eventual surrender of nuclear arms and fuels to a genuine world authority.

Richelson avoids such prediction and prescription. He is content to explore the deceptions of a dozen nations in their nuclear quest and the long American struggle to penetrate them. He shows that, by and large, the miners and marketers of uranium and the manufacturers of plutonium fuel have outrun the spooks, drones and buggers deployed to catch them and have thus defeated the diplomats demanding "nonproliferation."

Washington's hope of monopolizing atomic arms was shattered in only four years by a catch-up test of a Soviet bomb in 1949. The surprise was so great that Pentagon skeptics disputed the evidence for more than a month. And the shock in suddenly vulnerable America was so great that it inspired our domestic spy hunt, the deployment of a global ring of spy stations and the creation of competing intelligence agencies.

Yet instead of restraining their arms race, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union drove ahead to produce thermonuclear weapons, the still more powerful H-bomb, which only added to global anxieties and to the ecological risks of testing. So they hoped somehow to prevent, or at least long defer, the production of nuclear weapons by other nations. Why those three governments but no others could be trusted with nuclear arsenals was a question they never properly addressed. And it looms ever larger as more nations join the nuclear club.

It was to monitor Soviet progress and to shut out other aspirants that America invested so heavily in nuclear intelligence. France was next in line and a relatively easy espionage target, but it was not to be deterred after losing an empire. Wholly unobserved was the help France gave to Israel to jump-start that nation's camouflaged nuclear arms program.

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