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Bomb threat

December 23, 2007|Daniel Kurtz-Phelan | Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs magazine.

The Nuclear Jihadist

The True Story of the Man Who Sold the World's Most Dangerous Secrets . . . and How We Could Have Stopped Him

Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins

Twelve: 414 pp., $25

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Deception

Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons

Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark

Walker & Co.: 586 pp., $28.95

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America and the Islamic Bomb

The Deadly Compromise

David Armstrong and Joseph Trento

Steerforth Press: 288 pp., $24.95

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The Seventh Decade

The New Shape of Nuclear Danger

Jonathan Schell

Metropolitan: 254 pp., $24

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In the first week of this year, four lions of the American foreign-policy establishment took to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal to jointly champion a view more commonly associated with peaceniks and left-wing utopians. The piece, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," was written by two GOP former secretaries of State (Henry Kissinger and George Shultz), a former Democratic secretary of Defense (William Perry) and a former Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (Sam Nunn).

"Nuclear weapons," they wrote, "were essential to maintaining international security during the Cold War" but had since become "increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective." After outlining the disappointing history of nonproliferation measures, they concluded unequivocally: "We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal."

The article, given its placement and its provenance, made waves in the foreign-policy world. What had persuaded four veterans of Cold War nuclear diplomacy that abolition had become the only responsible defense against catastrophe? The article set out a few explanations. Hostile or potentially unstable states -- Iran, North Korea, Pakistan -- had made major strides in developing weapons programs, signaling the onset of a "new and dangerous nuclear era." Groups such as Al Qaeda, meanwhile, seemed intent on getting their hands on nuclear devices and turning them into "the ultimate means of mass devastation." All of this, the authors argued, had rendered the traditional logic of deterrence largely obsolete.

The op-ed did not mention it, but all of these developments related, directly or indirectly, to the exploits of one ingenious and megalomaniacal Pakistani metallurgist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the man maligned in the West -- and celebrated in much of the world -- as "the father of the Islamic bomb." Khan gave Pakistan the capacity to build its own nuclear weapons, then turned around and sold his expertise to others. By the time he went on television to offer his "confession" in 2004 -- after pressure from Washington had compelled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to put him under house arrest -- his wares had made it to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Even more ominously, there was evidence that two veterans of Khan's nuclear laboratory had met with Osama Bin Laden in August 2001.

Khan's story is a three-decade-long cloak-and-dagger saga, one that jumps from Washington, Amsterdam and Johannesburg to Islamabad, Tehran and Timbuktu and drags in corrupt Pakstani generals, unscrupulous European businessmen and dissembling American diplomats. It's no surprise that there has been a cascade of books on Khan in recent years. But the three newest -- "The Nuclear Jihadist" by Douglas Frantz (a former L.A. Times managing editor) and Catherine Collins, "Deception" by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark and "America and the Islamic Bomb" by David Armstrong and Joseph Trento -- drive home the point that Khan is not the real story here. More important is how and why he was able to flout the nuclear nonproliferation regime for so many years, "ushering in," as Frantz and Collins put it, "the second nuclear age." Jonathan Schell, in his new book "The Seventh Decade," calls this the era of "nuclear anarchy."

In the 1970s, Khan was working in a Dutch laboratory that was developing uranium-enrichment technology for European nuclear reactors. By all appearances, he was a middle-class technocrat with a European wife, two daughters and a house in the suburbs. But when India tested a nuclear weapon and Pakistan responded by kick-starting its own program, Khan was in the perfect position to act, as Frantz and Collins write, on "his fierce desire to be perceived as both a brilliant scientist and the savior of his nation." (Or, as Khan's onetime psychiatrist puts it to Levy and Scott-Clark: "He had a Hitler complex. . . . Always overcompensating.") He launched a one-man nuclear espionage campaign, stealing plans for enrichment technology, translating them into Urdu and taking them back to Pakistan.

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