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The Atomic Bazaar The Rise of the Nuclear Poor William Langewiesche Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 182 pp., $22

May 20, 2007|Art Winslow | Art Winslow, a former literary and executive editor of the Nation, writes frequently about books and culture.

WRITING from Iraq for Vanity Fair last November, in a posting titled "Rules of Engagement," journalist William Langewiesche began with the Euphrates and enumerated the towns strung along it in Al Anbar province: Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, Haditha. Of the last, he noted, "Snipers permitting, you can walk it top to bottom in less than an hour, allowing time enough to stone the dogs. Before the American invasion, it was known as an idyllic spot, where families came from as far away as Baghdad to while away their summers splashing in the river and sipping tea in the shade of trees. No longer, of course. Now, all through Al Anbar, and indeed the Middle East, Haditha is known as a city of death, or more simply as a name, a war cry against the United States."

The opening is typical of Langewiesche, the juxtaposition of telling detail (you stone the dogs) and horrific implication (snipers might kill you); the smooth-flowing, unforced syntax; the straightforward connecting of political dots (before and after) with neither stridency nor euphemism. Vanity Fair, which was perspicacious enough to hire Langewiesche away from his distinguished perch at the Atlantic, has just won a National Magazine Award for "Rules of Engagement," a chronicle of the November 2005 killing of 24 Iraqi men, women and children in Haditha by U.S. Marines in the aftermath of a roadside bombing.

Langewiesche is adept at long-form narrative journalism, along with such peers as Seymour Hersh, James Fallows and Robert Kaplan, and he has a nose for reporting on calamity. Readers of his trilogy of pieces written from the ruins of the World Trade Center and collected in "American Ground" may recall his account as unflinching, poignant and ultimately controversial (principally for its hero-busting contention that a few firefighters had been involved in looting).

In his new book, "The Atomic Bazaar," the reportorial stakes are higher than at ground zero or in Iraq. It is about the escape of the nuclear genie from the leaky bottle of international controls, and many facts are necessarily murkier: Information is classified; sourcing is often anonymous; governments dissemble in the interests of policy; evidence can be indicative rather than conclusive. Like "American Ground," the book is assembled from Langewiesche's magazine reporting, this time from disparate locales along real and potential supply lines of nuclear material and processing equipment.

"The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed," Langewiesche observes, and in the post-Cold War era, "large parts of the world are exposed once again to the universal appeal of atomic bombs -- the fast-track, nation-equalizing, don't-tread-on-me, flat-out-awesome destructive power that independent arsenals can provide." An unnamed Russian high in Moscow's nuclear bureaucracy tells him, "Nuclear weapons technology has become a useful tool especially for the weak. It allows them to satisfy their ambitions without much expense."

At the state level, this is worrisome, and much of "The Atomic Bazaar" is devoted to reporting on Pakistan and its atomic mastermind, Abdul Qadeer Khan, "the greatest nuclear proliferator of all time," who fed nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya -- and made overtures to a fourth country (Syria? Saudi Arabia?) -- before he was stopped. Langewiesche cautions that although Khan was perceived as evil in the West, to his countrymen and others in the Islamic world he "openly represented the right of the global underclass to bear nuclear arms."

And what of the non-state players? "At the extreme is the possibility, entirely real," writes Langewiesche, "that one or two nuclear weapons will pass into the hands of the new stateless guerrillas, the jihadists, who offer none of the retaliatory targets that have so far underlain the nuclear peace." That fear, expressed as well by former CIA Director George J. Tenet in his new book, "At the Center of the Storm," is one of the principal angles from which Langewiesche approaches the topic of nuclear proliferation. He becomes a participant-observer of sorts, to divine how one would acquire the necessary weapons-grade material (by theft or other means, or by development of enrichment technology), how one would move it about and how one would then assemble the components of a nuclear bomb.

"It turns out that the world is rich with fresh, safe, user-friendly HEU [highly enriched uranium]," Langewiesche reports, "dispersed among hundreds of sites and further separated into nicely transportable, necessarily subcritical packages." Worldwide, that amounts to 2.2 million pounds of fissile material, in more than 40 countries as widespread as Chile, Ghana, Iran and Jamaica. However, more than half the surplus plutonium and highly enriched uranium are in Russia alone, a place Langewiesche characterizes as offering "the best opportunities for anyone trying to acquire fissile material."

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