If you weren’t paying attention, you missed it. OK, you didn’t miss it, my staff of thousands did. “It” is the little documentary “Nuclear Jihad: Can Terrorists Get the Bomb?” that aired in April on cable TV (Discovery Times) in the U.S. and on the CBC-TV network in Canada. Last night it came to the Council on Foreign Relations for a “special screening.” (Better late than never.)
To judge from what the documentary implies without saying it outright, a more accurate title might be “Nuclear Jihad: When Can Terrorists Get the Bomb?” Because the alarming answer to the question is: “Soon.” If they don’t have it already.
For that you can thank A. Q. Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan’s A-bomb, who set up a global rogue network that effectively privatized nuke weapons production. And don’t forget to thank the U.S. government, which abetted Khan, particularly the CIA early on and, later, the Bullshitter-in-Chief‘s regime, which looked the other way precisely when it shouldn’t have.
Because of Khan — a k a The Merchant of Menace, per Time magazine — the policy of “mutual deterrence,” which worked during the Cold War, is out the window.
Director-producer Julian Sher, who wrote the documentary (with reporting help from David Sanger and William Broad of The New York Times), says Khan “changed the rules of the nuclear game forever.” When he outsmarted his watchers and outsourced the bomb, he created what some observers call “a second nuclear age.”
You knew all this already, but …
Here’s a taste of the bad news from the documentary:
Pervez Hoodbhoy, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad: I’m very puzzled why the United States and the CIA took so long to stop A.Q. Khan because they knew very well what he was up to, there were deals with North Korea with Iran, with Libya and so forth. He was openly advertising his wares you had his website you had newspaper advertisements, you had conferences and so forth. Yet I guess the CIA just wanted to watch.
Matthew Bunn, Managing the Atom Project, Harvard: The obvious question is how much damage was done during that period when we were watching and not yet acting. I think frankly that we should have acted sooner and that what we saw in Libya in particular was more advanced than what we might have thought. It appears that some of North Korea’s shopping occurred during this period when we were just watching.
David Sanger, NYT: After 9/11 you’ll remember that the phrase about American intelligence was a failure to connect the dots. You can say the same about the early investigations of the A.Q. Khan network. The CIA knew about Khan from the mid 70’s. We had two senior officials say to us — [they were] non-American officials — that when the Dutch were ready to pick up Khan the CIA and others in the American intelligence went to the Dutch and said no don’t touch him we want to follow him. Well they followed him but they lost him. And the result was that they knew he was involved in nuclear exporting, they knew that North Korea and Iran were seeking the bomb. They knew that Libya was interested in nuclear structure but they never sewed it all up together.
Art Brown, Former CIA Operations Director, Asia: In conclusion we certainly let Khan play out too much of his string. Had we stopped him, had we stopped him before 1993 for example we might be looking at a different situation in North Korea. We might be looking, might be looking at a situation where the primary threat was from the plutonium programs and the plutonium programs are checkable. The uranium programs are not checkable. So by letting Khan or not moving quickly enough on Khan it certainly allowed the North Koreans to acquire something that is now going to be very, very difficult to dig out of their nest.
Sanger: For an American intelligence agency that had been beaten up for failures in Iraq in predicting the collapse, failing to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the great tales they can tell is how they got into the Khan network in Malaysia. They clearly had key elements of the network penetrated. So penetrated that when they raided the BBC China, which was the cargo ship that was carrying giant equipment from Malaysia to Libya, they knew that the ship also had lots of other things completely unrelated to nuclear material. When they pulled the ship in they didn’t unload every single cargo container, they asked for specific numbers, so they were watching it being loaded in Malaysia and they knew what they wanted to get at the other end.
Video clips of these and other excerpts may be seen here.
What’s in the documentary, though not in the clips, is the Chinese connection. In a Q&A session after the screening Sanger said the most surprising thing he learned from his reporting was that Khan had delivered Chinese blueprints for an atomic bomb to Libya along with the manufacturing equipment. Those blueprints are now in the possession of the U.S. Department of Energy, Sanger said, residing in a vault under the National Mall in Washington. For all anybody knows, however, Khan may have sold copies of the blueprints to others.