Big Bucks, Big Bangs

Chalmers Johnson

  • Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea by Jeffrey Richelson
    Norton, 702 pp, £22.99, April 2006, ISBN 0 393 05383 0

Jeffrey Richelson is an expert on the American secret intelligence agencies, particularly on their peculiar devotion to spying without spies – their reliance on aerial or satellite imagery, intercepted communications, seismic and acoustic detection of nuclear bomb explosions, and other esoteric means of surveillance. Richelson’s politics are completely conventional. He sees the ‘West’, led by the United States, as being on the side of good in the world and its efforts to detect nuclear weapons in the hands of its adversaries as ingenious attempts to disarm what George W. Bush would call ‘evil-doers’. Richelson concludes his book by denying that ‘political leaders, including the president, dictated the content of the [National Intelligence] estimates to provide a “pretext for war” [in Iraq] or to “hoodwink” the American public.’ That proposition is not substantiated in this volume.

Spying on the Bomb is valuable nonetheless. Its 121 pages of source citations are a massive compendium of information on the nuclear weapons programmes of Nazi Germany, the USSR, China, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, Iraq and Iran, as well as on the successes and failures of official US efforts to find out what each of these countries was doing. Richelson’s primary sources are highly classified CIA National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), which he has been able to read in censored form in the National Archives, or through successful requests using the Freedom of Information Act. He does not go into detail on how he achieved this or where these documents can be found by other researchers today, but thanks to the FOIA, he obtained relevant documents from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the State Department, the Air Combat Command and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Most important, Richelson is a senior fellow at the National Security Archive in Washington, the pre-eminent American organisation researching the Cold War and US foreign policy, whose work is based primarily on an aggressive use of the FOIA. The National Security Archive has a well-deserved reputation for bringing suit to compel the government to divulge information that it would prefer to keep secret. Richelson is at the heart of this great tradition.

He has set himself too big a task, but he performs it as well as one could expect. No single human being could possibly master the massive files on nuclear weapons, from World War Two to Ahmadinejad’s Iran. In addition to the CIA estimates, Richelson relies primarily on standard works – John W. Lewis and Xue Litai’s China Builds the Bomb (1988), George Perkovich’s India’s Nuclear Bomb (1999), Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy (1991) – which he supplements with memoirs and establishmentarian or right-wing journalism. One won’t find references here to Bruce Cumings on North Korea’s bomb-making, or Wen-Ho Lee’s account of his alleged espionage for China from inside Los Alamos – or the racism of the FBI and the Department of Energy that lay behind Lee’s ordeal. But these are not fatal limitations.

Richelson is primarily interested in the means the US invented over the past sixty years to detect a nuclear weapons programme, from its developing stages up to and including testing, without having a human spy to witness it and tell us about it. He is frank about the numerous instances in which the whole detection apparatus failed, as it did in the first Soviet test of August 1949; the ‘Vela’ explosion in the South Atlantic in September 1979; the detonation by India of several devices, one thermonuclear, at Pokhran in May 1998; and Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. Richelson presents each of these cases with his usual deep immersion in detail – sometimes failing to produce much in the way of insight or analysis.

During World War Two, the United States and Britain were very keen to find out what Germany was doing in the nuclear weapons field, not just because it was the enemy but because it was the home of many of the world’s greatest physicists, the country where Robert Oppenheimer and others had gone to do graduate work, and where fission had been discovered. In December 1938, Otto Hahn, Germany’s leading radiation chemist, and his student Fritz Strassmann, profiting from the experimental work of Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie and Enrico Fermi, had cautiously reported their success in splitting the uranium atom. In exile in Sweden because of her Jewish ancestry, Lise Meitner, Hahn’s former colleague and longtime collaborator, explained in the 11 February 1939 issue of Nature that what Hahn and Strassmann had discovered was the ‘fission’ of the uranium nucleus. In August, Einstein wrote from Peconic, Long Island to alert President Roosevelt to the threat of the new discovery. An explosive chain reaction of the isotope uranium-235, he wrote, might lead to ‘extremely powerful bombs of a new type’. Given the origins of these developments, Roosevelt and his military advisers urgently sought intelligence on what Germany would do to develop such weapons.

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