"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
The Low Politics of Nonproliferation

Reviewed by Zia Mian

Fallout: The True Story of the CIA’s Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking
By Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz
Free Press, 2011, 289 pp.

For most of the past 60 years, almost the only people who featured in books about how countries acquired nuclear weapons were politicians, generals, scientists, and strategists. These were powerful men who already were public figures, if not household names, in their own countries and often around the world. Nuclear history has been the stories of such men, of enormous struggles, great passions, and the fate of nations, reflecting how the bomb was introduced to the world by the United States.

The August 6, 1945, White House press release announcing the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima declared that the bomb was “a new and revolutionary increase in destruction” made possible by “a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.” The United States had been able to build the bomb because it “had available the large number of scientists of distinction in the many needed areas of knowledge…[and] the tremendous industrial and financial resources necessary for the project.” To drive the point home, the White House revealed that “employment during peak construction numbered 125,000” and observed, “We have spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history.”

The press release established the story line for how people and governments came to think about nuclear weapons and what was involved in building them. Describing the Manhattan Project, the White House declared that

the greatest marvel is not the size of the enterprise, its secrecy, nor its cost, but the achievement of scientific brains in putting together infinitely complex pieces of knowledge held by many men in different fields of science into a workable plan. And hardly less marvelous has been the capacity of industry to design, and of labor to operate, the machines and methods to do things never done before.… Both science and industry worked under the direction of the United States Army, which achieved a unique success in managing so diverse a problem.… It is doubtful if such another combination could be got together in the world. What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history.

Ever since the Manhattan Project, would-be bomb builders have believed that if they could repeat the feat, some of this greatness would rub off on them.

The past five years have seen a wealth of books that tell a new and different story about the spread of nuclear weapons over the past 40 years. Notable among these recent books, some of which have been reviewed in these pages, are Shopping for Bombs by Gordon Corera, Deception by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, America and the Islamic Bomb by David Armstrong and Joseph Trento, The Nuclear Jihadist by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, and Peddling Peril by David Albright. The newest addition to this literature is Fallout: The True Story of the CIA’s Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking by the wife-and-husband team of Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz. It is a sequel to their earlier work.

In all these books, the focus is the trade in nuclear technology, particularly the network established by Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist who trained and worked in Europe in the early 1970s before returning to lead Pakistan’s uranium-enrichment program. Khan set up a procurement network that provided crucial technology to Pakistan’s enrichment program and enabled the country to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. The Khan network later sold this technology to at least three other countries. The key players are small-time businesspeople and bureaucrats, engineers and technicians, intelligence analysts and spies, customs officials, police officers, and magistrates. No scientific breakthroughs take place, motives are often venal, self-interest rules, and ambitions are petty. Enterprises are small, and not very secret. The amounts of money involved are surprisingly small. The new narrative is all about how the bomb has become increasingly ordinary.

Spy Story and Cautionary Tale

Fallout describes itself as “part spy story, part cautionary tale.” The book is certainly organized like a modern spy movie. Its three sections, engagingly titled “The Setup,” “The Cover-up,” and “The Endgame,” are divided into 22 short, brisk chapters that jump from city to city. Much of it reads like a movie screenplay. It begins, for instance, in JeninsSwitzerland, on June 21, 2003, with a CIA team breaking into a house belonging to a member of the Khan network. There are details of how the break-in team of five men and one woman, all with special skills, was assembled, how the lock was picked, the house methodically searched, and computer files hacked, revealing files on the design of a nuclear weapon. The leader is a suitably dramatic “driven and obsessive” agent dubbed “Mad Dog,” who recruited Friedrich, Urs, and Marco Tinner to serve as CIA informers from inside the Khan network.

The larger story of the Khan network and how it was exposed has been told often enough. Fallout offers a new level of human detail. The Tinner family is at the heart of the story. In 1999, Urs Tinner is described as “a plain-looking man with no distinguishing features [who] had barely finished high school [and] seemed incapable of holding a job.” Divorced, denied access to his children, with a second marriage on the rocks, without friends, and in debt, Urs Tinner was holding three jobs to make ends meet, including as a cook and a bartender, when his father Friedrich offered him a job working for Khan in Dubai. Soon afterward, Mad Dog began to pay Urs Tinner “small amounts of cash—five hundred dollars here, a thousand dollars there” to spy for the CIA.

Friedrich Tinner, a friend and supplier of Khan since the early 1970s, and Urs’ brother, Marco, who also worked for Khan, joined the CIA payroll in December 2002. The whole family, in effect, switched sides. Collins and Frantz note that, for all three, “the total payment…didn’t amount to much more than…a few hundred thousand dollars at the most.” The money bought details of purchases and sales of equipment, shipping invoices, engineering plans for at least three different kinds of centrifuges and for an entire enrichment plant, and technical blueprints of two nuclear weapons designs. The Tinners eventually were able to get more money out of the CIA by selling the agency two second-generation (P-2) centrifuges—for half a million dollars. All told, the CIA may have paid out perhaps several million dollars. It is all a far cry from the vast sums that most imagine must somehow be involved when nuclear weapons are for sale.

The larger “cautionary tale” part of Fallout is how, having penetrated the Khan network, the CIA lied to and misled the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about the network’s activities, frustrated a Swiss government investigation and criminal prosecution of key members of the network, and extorted the Swiss to destroy crucial evidence (a copy of which, however, remained with the CIA). The book argues that the driver of this “political battle and power struggle” by U.S. officials against the Swiss government and the IAEA was the institutional culture and organizational interest of the CIA.

CIA Prevails

Collins and Frantz suggest that, in the internal policy debates against the Department of State and other arms control advocates about dealing with the Khan network, starting in the mid-1970s, “the CIA and its backers always argued that they needed more information, more evidence, more time.” This was because as long as the focus was on spying, the CIA was always in charge: “From [CIA] case officers…to senior officials providing daily intelligence briefings to the president of the United States, intelligence was the source of power that kept them in the game.”

For Collins and Frantz, the role and power of the CIA in the Washington process ensured that “the intelligence imperative was driving U.S. policy.” As a result, for four decades “protecting the chess pieces in the game of espionage outranked punishing Khan and his associates.”

The key part of Fallout is how the CIA sought to protect its operatives and its sources in the Khan network─the Tinner family, who lived in Switzerland—from a Swiss investigation. It describes how, to squash a police inquiry into the Tinners, the CIA used U.S. officials including U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Pamela Willeford, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and possibly even former President George H.W. Bush to pressure the Swiss government.

Despite the efforts of Swiss export control officials, police officers, magistrates, and parliamentarians, the Swiss government followed U.S. demands and destroyed thousands of files the police had collected from the Tinners, amounting to 1.9 tons of paper and 1.3 terabytes of data on computer hard disks, CDs, and DVDs. Over a period of two days, almost all the paper files were shredded and incinerated, the hard drives and disks drilled and crushed. Kurt Senn, the head of national security for the Swiss police, the officer who had been in charge of the investigation into the Tinners, observed, “I thought I lived in a democracy.… This Switzerland is a banana republic now.” As a result, key members of the Khan network escaped prosecution or were released after short periods in prison.

How did the CIA get away with this? Collins and Frantz explain it by noting that a succession of U.S. leaders “traded strict standards against nuclear proliferation for other goals, starting with the Carter administration’s determination to ignore Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions in order to maintain the country’s assistance against the Soviets in Afghanistan in late 1979.” This is true enough, but one need not start the clock with Jimmy Carter. After all, as David Albright has pointed out in Peddling Peril, Israel and South Africa, both U.S. allies, were shopping on the nuclear black market before Pakistan even got started. Israel, Albright notes, “rivaled Pakistan in the extent of its nuclear smuggling.”

Like all the other recent books on the Khan network and proliferation, Collins and Frantz call for “a thorough review of the nation’s priorities in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.” The United States, they say, should make fighting proliferation its “highest priority.” Like the other authors on the subject, however, they do not suggest what would be involved in such a shift of policy priorities. It is difficult to see how such a shift can take place absent a much larger change in how the United States thinks about its own nuclear weapons. It is well understood, except perhaps by some in Washington, that until the United States gets serious about eliminating its own nuclear weapons, the incentives driving other states to keep or acquire their own weapons cannot be addressed properly.

There is no evidence that U.S. policymakers are rethinking their basic attitudes toward nuclear weapons. The hope raised by President Barack Obama in Prague two years ago already has faded from policy memory. In 2009, Obama suggested that the goal of a world without nuclear weapons “will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime.” In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared, “[O]ur goal [is] of a world someday, in some century, free of nuclear weapons.”

Washington’s real policy priorities are codified in budgets, and the news there is grim. The Obama administration has announced its support for a massive program of modernization of nuclear warheads, their research and development and production complex, and delivery systems. Over the next decade alone, $88 billion is to be spent on upgrading warheads and new weapons facilities, and $125 billion on a next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile, a new cruise missile, and a long-range nuclear bomber. Other nuclear-weapon states will follow. Unless it is stopped soon, this wave of nuclear weapons modernization will ensure that nuclear weapons and with them the problem of proliferation are here to stay for many more decades.



Zia Mian directs the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security.