Book: Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies

One man's theft of nuclear secrets dispersed atom bomb technologies to North Korea and Libya

peddling peril book cover
Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies By David Albright; Free Press, 2010; 304 pp.; US $27.00; ISBN: 978-1-4165-4931-4

First, i'd like to thank author David Albright for implicitly dedicating this book to me, as one of those "who strive for a world free of nuclear weapons and terror." Second, and kidding aside, I want to say that this is a really excellent book.

Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies, is about A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani metallurgist who got a job in the 1970s with Europe's uranium enrichment consortium, where he learned most of what there was to know about centrifuge technology and equipment makers—and then stole the technology, offering it first to his home country and then to anybody for whom the price was right.

An evil genius if there ever was one—and as it turned out, an able engineering manager—A.Q. (as I'll now call him, to distinguish him from his archrival, Munir Khan, head of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission) soon obtained near-total control over the country's enrichment program. A.Q. was particularly good at winning people's trust and figuring out how to obtain needed equipment from foreign suppliers. By the end of the 1980s, the Khan Research Laboratories at Kahuta, in Pakistan, had grown into an industrial city with thousands of specialist employees, not only operating huge centrifuge cascades but also developing missiles, conventional weapons, and almost certainly atomic bombs. The lab even had its own national cricket team.

In September 1974, months after the first Indian nuclear test, A.Q. wrote to then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto about the urgency of developing a Pakistani nuclear weapon. After General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq overthrew Bhutto and had him hanged, A.Q. wrote to the new leader, saying he was in a position to test an atomic bomb on short notice. Less than a decade later, Zulfikar Bhutto's daughter Benazir visited North Korea and traded A.Q.'s centrifuge technology for missile designs.

By that time, A.Q. was peddling a package that included first-generation centrifuges and the blueprints for an early Chinese atomic bomb to countries like Iran and Iraq. Initially, the price for this "starter kit" was surprisingly low—just US $5 million to $10 million—until A.Q. hit the jackpot, with an order of $100 million to $200 million from Muammar al-Gadhafi. But that turned out to be hubris: Western intelligence caught on, a key shipment was intercepted, and Gadhafi was persuaded it was in his country's best interests to give up its nuclear weapons program. He handed everything he had obtained over to the West, including a Chinese bomb blueprint hand-annotated by A.Q.

A.Q., a Pakistani national hero, was forced to apologize publicly and was put under house arrest.

Albright is not the first to tell this amazing story: Journalist William Langewiesche laid out the essentials several years ago in The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor (2007), which, oddly, Albright doesn't mention. Nor does he acknowledge Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation (2009), by Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman, which claims that after China gave Pakistan its CHIC-4 bomb design, it then tested the first bomb Pakistan built to its specs at its Lop Nor site.

Langewiesche, a well-regarded writer associated with The Atlantic and Vanity Fair, may have written the most readable of the three books. But Albright's is by far the most complete, accurate, and authoritative, and it will be the most satisfying to the technically minded reader.

This article originally appeared in print as "Evil Genius."

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