"The Arms Control Association’s work is an important resource to legislators and policymakers when contemplating a new policy direction or decision."

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Spreading the Bomb for Profit
Share this

Reviewed by Leonard Weiss

Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America’s Enemies
By David Albright
Free Press, 2010, 295 pp.

To his list of dubious achievements, Abdul Qadeer Khan can add the denuding of forests for all the books, reports, documents, and papers that have been printed about him and his activities since he began his career more than 30 years ago. There are at least seven books in English, as well as extensive investigative reporting by some of the best-known names in journalism. David Albright’s book, Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America’s Enemies, is the latest but probably not the last word on Khan’s history.

Albright has excellent credentials to tell the story. He and his colleagues at the small think tank he established in 1993 have been among the most assiduous observers and chroniclers of the Khan network’s activities from the time in the 1990s that the network turned from an importing operation for Pakistan’s bomb to an import-export operation for the purpose of selling nuclear weapons-related technology to others. Albright has apparently established good sources at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and among a group of U.S. individuals who have or have had access to classified or otherwise closely held information. He has occasionally made news by revealing interesting facts that these individuals would like to make public but do not want attributed to them. This public exposure regarding the activities of proliferators has been quite useful.

However, when it comes to narratives or interpretations as opposed to facts themselves, using such unidentified sources can be problematic because narratives can be the result of a desire on the part of the source or the disseminator to have the facts fit a particular point of view. Albright’s chapter on the case of Libya is an illustration of this problem, which is discussed later in this review.

Peddling Peril consists of 12 chapters laying out the activities and actors of the Khan network in providing or attempting to provide nuclear weapons-related technology to Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, among others. One chapter describes what is currently known about al Qaeda’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, although the chapter’s title, “Al Qaeda’s Bomb,” seriously oversells its content. Al Qaeda has no nuclear weapons. Its most likely route would be to steal one, but that would be very difficult, if possible at all. It could conceivably obtain one from a sympathetic state with nuclear capabilities, but not even Pakistan fits that bill at the moment. Yes, Osama bin Laden has expressed interest in having the bomb, but he may also have an interest in being the new caliph of a resurgent Islamic civilization. Neither is likely to happen any time soon, but the prospect warrants more attention to proliferation and physical security protections over nuclear weapons and materials.

Putting Pieces Together

Given the large amount of material on the Khan network, it is not surprising that Albright’s book covers a great deal of familiar ground. However, in some areas he does provide interesting detail not matched by other accounts. His chapter on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq contains some additional information on Khan’s offer of a nuclear weapons design to Iraq, first reported by John Barry in Newsweek.

The part of the book that shines is Albright’s detailed description of the nodes, connectors, and actors of the Khan network during its operations as an exporter of nuclear weapons-related technology from the 1990s until 2002, when its cover was blown. He chronicles the roles of unscrupulous businessmen and companies operating out of Germany, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates in not only helping Pakistan’s own nuclear weapons program, but also helping Khan to sell the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons materials to other developing nations, including Iran and Libya.

To Albright’s evident frustration, Khan and the vast majority of his professional or business associates in Pakistan or abroad have not suffered any major penalties to date. The lone exception is Gunes Cire, who died while under police interrogation in Turkey. The only case still open is that of Friedrich, Urs, and Marco Tinner, who worked for the Swiss company Vakuum Apparat Technik. Swiss prosecutors have accused the Tinners of violating nonproliferation laws and, by virtue of becoming CIA agents, anti-espionage laws. In that role, they provided important information that helped unravel at least part of the Khan network. The U.S. government protested their possible prosecution, and the Swiss government tried but failed to prevent the assembling of evidence. At some point, a magistrate will determine whether the evidence warrants formal charges against the Tinners and a subsequent trial. Thus, the case is still ongoing, but it is the only one still open.

Significant Omissions

The thoroughness with which Albright describes the network is unfortunately not displayed in other parts of the book. The problems begin at the beginning. The introduction begins with Israel’s September 2007 raid on a not-yet-completed Syrian facility that was later identified by intelligence sources as a budding nuclear reactor based on North Korean technology. Although Syria is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), this facility was not declared to the IAEA as a nuclear site and is under investigation by the agency. Syria has continued to deny that it was a nuclear site. However, the consensus among most observers is that the facility was indeed part of a clandestine Syrian nuclear program and that failure to report it constituted a violation by Syria of its safeguards obligations under the NPT.

The raid was eerily reminiscent of Israel’s 1981 raid on the Osirak reactor in Iraq, which was also bombed prior to the insertion of any nuclear fuel, thereby preventing the widespread dispersal of radioactive material. Its inclusion in the book presumably establishes the dangers of illicit nuclear trade, in this case, from North Korea. To underscore that point, Albright calls Syria’s search for nuclear weapons a “threat.” In conjunction with the book’s subtitle, the implication is that the threat is to the United States and that Syria is therefore an enemy of the United States. That is certainly the opinion of some neoconservatives, but many other observers have a more nuanced view of Syria that recognizes its support for groups the United States considers terrorist but takes into account other factors: Syria’s demonstrated willingness to engage with its adversaries, including Israel; its support for the first war against Hussein’s Iraq; and its secular character. Indeed, Pakistan has done much more than Syria in the realm of illicit nuclear trade while supporting terrorists and building nuclear weapons. Yet, despite considerable evidence that the Khan network was not a rogue operation but was approved at the highest levels of the Pakistani government and despite questions about the security of its nuclear weapons, Albright does not call Pakistan a threat, nor does he appear to consider Pakistan an enemy of the United States.

Additionally, Albright admits, almost as an aside, that Israel “formerly rivaled Pakistan in the extent of its nuclear smuggling” and that such smuggling continued for decades beyond the original delivery of nuclear weapons-related technology to Israel by France in the 1960s. Israel used U.S. and South African companies, among others, just like the Khan network, but Albright says Israel has stopped its smuggling (no reference given). Except for its air attacks on Iraq and Syria, Israel does not appear in this book about illicit nuclear trading except as the provider of intelligence about other proliferators. Thus, although Albright covers the Khan network’s South African connection, which was important to India, Libya, Pakistan, and possibly Iran and North Korea, he does not mention the apartheid regime’s previous and equally important nuclear-related exports to Israel that aided Israel’s weapons program. Many in the intelligence community believe that the military collaboration of the two countries included an Israeli nuclear test in the Indian Ocean on September 22, 1979, which the U.S. government has tried to deny ever since.

Perhaps this omission from Peddling Peril is also motivated by the fact that South Africa was providing nuclear assistance to a U.S. friend rather than an “enemy.” Albright, an ardent nonproliferator, is not alone in avoiding or soft-pedaling substantive discussion of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal when Middle East proliferation issues are discussed. That gap is characteristic of the field, which produces reams of material speculating on the weapons activities of other countries in the region.

Similarly, Albright scatters information about India’s illicit nuclear trade within the book. Such trade has brought India centrifuge technology for making highly enriched uranium for submarine reactors and thermonuclear weapons, but the details here are relatively sparse.[1] The relatively cursory treatment of India underscores the point that this book is not really about illicit nuclear trade generally; its main focus is the illicit nuclear trade that was helpful to specific countries with which the United States has had serious problems, particularly Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. To be sure, Albright tries to distill generic lessons from these examples that could be helpful in reducing illicit nuclear trade with friendly countries as well, and he does write that the United States must press friends and foes alike to clamp down on smuggling, but the history of U.S. responses to such illicit trade by countries considered to be friends does not provide confidence that an evenhanded approach to the issue is likely to be implemented. Foreign policy, as many Department of State representatives repeatedly point out, is more than nonproliferation policy. Therefore, the United States may continue to carry out a discriminatory nuclear nonproliferation policy as “friends” whose nuclear programs are not autarkic keep their arsenals in working order through smuggling.

Whose Source Do You Believe?

Albright’s inadequate discussion of illicit nuclear trade by U.S. friends is not the only case of incompleteness in this book. Another concerns the treatment of the Libyan case in the chapter entitled “Busting the Khan Network,” whose title is another example of hype. Albright’s narrative of this case basically accepts former CIA director George Tenet’s characterization of the Libyan case as a U.S. intelligence coup.[2] However, an alternative narrative exists. Seymour Hersh, in a March 8, 2004, article in The New Yorker, presents a different perspective based on his own interviews with former CIA officials and two men “who worked closely with Libyan intelligence.” In Hersh’s account, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi had been seeking reconciliation with the West for years and was urged by the head of Libyan intelligence to use the coming war with Iraq as an opportunity to show his good faith by opening up his weapons operation to international inspection. Gaddafi then approved offering details to U.S. and British intelligence about a centrifuge deal with Khan that was underway. The parts were due to be shipped aboard a German freighter, the BBC China. In October 2002, the freighter was seized, and the incident was claimed to be an intelligence success. Yet, Hersh quotes an Arab intelligence operative as saying it had become a staged sting operation in which the Libyans “blew up the Pakistanis.” In this version, Gaddafi knew the Bush administration wanted a success story, so he provided one in order to save his skin and change U.S. attitudes toward Libya. He was successful on both counts.

An informed judgment on which narrative on the Libya case is more accurate may have to await further clarification from the Libyans. The two versions agree that the result was the exposure of the Khan network, which was followed by the shutdown of certain elements of it. However, one should note, as Albright does, that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons production complex is still operating and still shopping for components. Intelligence agencies in the European Union warned companies in 2005 of a huge shopping spree in Europe by agents working for Pakistan, suggesting that new nodes and connectors are being sought and perhaps found to replace those lost after the Libya affair became public and arrests were made. Thus, the Khan network has perhaps not been busted, but more likely transformed.

Whether or not the network was “rolled up” in 2003, could it have been disrupted earlier, before all those transfers to other countries occurred? Although he does not explicitly say, Albright appears to accept the notion that the Khan network could not have been broken up until 2003, when President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a meeting planning the Iraq war, decided that Khan had to be stopped. The CIA had, in fact, infiltrated Khan’s network and collected a great deal of information about elements of it during Pakistan’s drive in the 1970s and 1980s to build its bomb. The U.S. National Security Agency was intercepting communications between elements of the network, and the CIA began to collect even more when it realized that Khan had become an exporter as well as an importer of weapons-related technology. For various reasons, no actions such as arrests were taken. One factor might have been the desire to protect U.S. intelligence agents inside the network from exposure, which is what happened later in the case of Friedrich Tinner. So the question is, did the United States choose not to break up the Khan network at an earlier time even though it had the ability to do so? Hersh’s 2004 New Yorker article quotes a Bush administration intelligence officer as saying that “we had every opportunity to put a stop to the Khan network 15 years ago. Some of those involved today are the children of those we knew about in the 80s.” (He may have been referring to the sons of Friedrich Tinner and Cire, who play a significant role in Albright’s narrative.)

It may be legitimate to complain that Hersh used an unidentified source for that assertion, but Albright cannot be one of the complainers. This reviewer counted 95 references to unidentified sources for the material in his book, and they tend to put themselves and their agencies in a favorable light on the Khan affair. The difference between Albright’s and Hersh’s accounts in this case is important. It could have meant the difference between having and not having advanced centrifuge technology in the hands of countries the United States does not trust. In a similar vein, Peddling Peril contrasts with another recent book, The Nuclear Jihadist,[3] as to whether the CIA advised the BVD, the Dutch intelligence agency, not to arrest Khan for espionage in 1975 in order to provide more time to track his contacts and activities. It is another case of “Whose source do you believe?”

Pakistan’s Program

Albright recognizes that the story of the Khan network’s aid to other proliferators is inseparable from the story of the Pakistani bomb, and he devotes a chapter to that story. However, despite the many details he includes about how Khan stole centrifuge blueprints in the 1970s and set up his network to provide materials and equipment to Pakistan for building centrifuges and the bomb, his treatment of that story ignores a shameful part of U.S. Cold War history. Albright takes great pains to show how the Khan network was infiltrated by Western spies, including those of the United Kingdom and the United States, but readers will look in vain for any reference to the radical shift of U.S. nonproliferation policy toward Pakistan, engineered by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, that took place in 1979 after the mujahideen revolt against the Communist regime in Afghanistan began.

The United States had embarked on a mission that required an impossible balance. On the one hand, the U.S. government was attempting to convince the Pakistanis that it was serious about stopping their nuclear weapons program. On the other hand, the United States, determined to show the importance it attached to assisting the anti-Soviet mujahideen, changed its nonproliferation laws to allow aid to continue flowing to Pakistan in spite of weapons activities that otherwise would have triggered a cutoff. The Glenn-Symington amendments to the Foreign Assistance Act were altered to allow time-limited military aid to Pakistan.[4] Subsequent extensions of the time limit on military aid, plus failure to adhere to the Pressler and Solarz amendments, which created new redlines for Pakistan’s nuclear progress, sent the message to Pakistan that the creation of the Khan network was not an impediment to U.S.-Pakistani relations, at least as long as the Soviets were in Afghanistan.[5] By the time the Soviets left in 1989, after which Pakistan was cut off from U.S. assistance, Pakistan had built its first nuclear weapons, including some based on a design provided by China in 1983. It had also put into place the trading network that, with a few additional nodes and connectors, provided Khan and Pakistan with the ability to send nuclear weapons technology to other countries.

People inside and outside the U.S. government were trying to change the disastrous path taken by its nonproliferation policy in the 1980s. Some leaked detailed information to the press, and there was much activity behind the scenes to intercept or otherwise block nuclear-related shipments to Pakistan. The basic U.S. policy, however, ensured that such activity would fail to stop Pakistan’s drive for the bomb. Moreover, the highly classified nature of U.S. information in this area meant that hardly anyone inside government was speaking out publicly about this shameful state of affairs. The loudest voices were in Congress, which is invisible in Albright’s book. Perhaps the most sustained voice of protest was that of Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio), in speeches on the Senate floor and his investigatory hearings.[6]

The Turkish Connection

An exception to the virtual silence in Albright’s book on the U.S. decision to take no action against Pakistan or its bomb enablers is contained in his rather sparse discussion of the role of Turkey in the Khan network. The story is as follows: Two Turkish contractors, Selim Alguadis and Cire, had for years been helping Khan obtain component parts such as frequency inverters and ring magnets for powering and controlling centrifuges. The British and U.S. governments were aware of this early on. A secret State Department cable, not mentioned by Albright, to the U.S. embassy in Ankara, which was leaked in 1981, stated, “We have strong reason to believe that Pakistan is seeking to develop a nuclear explosives capability” and that “a covert purchasing organization” of Turkish companies known to the Pakistani, Turkish, and U.S. governments was purchasing U.S.-made electrical equipment and diverting it to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. The cable also said that “Pakistan is conducting a program for the design and development of a triggering package for nuclear explosive devices.”[7] Over a decade, the U.S. government sent more than 100 démarches to Turkey on this matter. No action resulted, although President Ronald Reagan raised the issue in a 1988 meeting with Turkish President Kenan Evren. Albright writes that the lack of action was because “Turkey was a crucial ally in the fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, and many did not want to threaten that cooperation by pressuring the Turkish government to stop sales to Khan.” He does not say whether he believes that was an acceptable trade-off, nor does he say that those sales made Turkey a violator of the Glenn-Symington amendments and therefore subject to a cutoff of military and economic assistance unless the sales were stopped or the president issued a waiver. This was a prime and early example of U.S. enabling of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development, but Albright does not characterize it that way. He simply writes of “a huge internal debate” within the State Department and the belief of “many U.S. officials” that Turkey had stopped the sales. He also makes no reference to what some have characterized as outright lies told to Congress in hearings about Pakistan’s nuclear activities. Richard Barlow exposed these transgressions when he worked for the CIA and suffered mightily as a result. Albright thanks him in the Acknowledgments section of the book, but one must consult other books, such as The Nuclear Jihadist and Deception, for Barlow’s story and how Congress was purposefully misled.[8]

The last chapter of Peddling Peril is devoted to policy prescriptions. Given the book’s focus on trade, it is not surprising that the prescriptions, although unexceptionable, are relatively narrow and do not address nonproliferation in a wider context. They consist of making international trade more transparent, ramping up intelligence collection, broadening export controls and law enforcement, and getting more countries to adopt an additional protocol to their safeguards agreements, giving the IAEA increased inspection powers in those countries. These tools do provide a net for catching illicit trade, but the net still has large holes in it, allowing proliferators and their enablers to continue potentially deadly programs and activities. Albright’s main recommendation for tightening the net is to facilitate better cooperation between government and industry in sharing information that could identify illicit procurement attempts. He holds up the Leybold Corporation, a former major contributor to the Khan network, as a model of how helpful a newly responsible business attitude toward nonproliferation could be, via close cooperation with government in tracking questionable purchase requests.

Albright ends his book with a plea for “a shift in the way we think about nuclear proliferation,” but it can be argued that his approach in this book is merely an application of more of the same. The proliferation problem is not just a problem of illicit trade. It is, at its core, a problem of national and, increasingly perhaps, subnational motivation for nuclear weapons. One cannot, for example, divorce the policies of the most powerful nations, especially the United States, from the desire for nuclear weapons in some parts of the world. Threatening the security of other nations with whom one is not at war, especially when the threat has a nuclear tinge, may concentrate the mind of an adversary to behave better in the short term, but it is a powerful motivator to counter such threats in the longer term by obtaining the ultimate deterrent.

In fairness to Albright, addressing motivation can be difficult, especially if historic grievances or ideology are involved. If motivation cannot be addressed adequately or practically, then stopping illicit trade and imposing sanctions may be what remains. At least two things are clear. As long as nuclear weapons are seen as an appropriate way for a country to protect its interests, there will be countries that will seek them or, if they have them already, keep them. Also, as long as such weapons exist, some subnational groups with core grievances that are being ignored or with a desire for wealth and power will try to obtain them. It is unclear if the problem of proliferation has a solution in a world where nuclear weapons exist and legitimate demands for fairness and equity by the many are so frequently frustrated by the wealth and military power of the few. In such a world, changing one’s mode of thinking to avoid nuclear catastrophe, as Albert Einstein implied was necessary, means focusing attention on a lot more than illicit nuclear trade.

Leonard Weiss, a former professor of applied mathematics and engineering, is an affiliated scholar at StanfordUniversity’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a member of the national advisory board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington. He worked for more than two decades as a senior aide to Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio) on nonproliferation issues and was the chief architect of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978.


1. Albright does not mention the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement, which will allow India to ramp up weapons production by reserving indigenous uranium for that purpose. This is an example where licit trade can be just as helpful to a proliferator as illicit trade.

2. See George J. Tenet, Speech at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, February 5, 2004.

3. Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, The Nuclear Jihadist: The True Story of the Man Who Sold the World’s Most Dangerous Secrets...And How We Could Have Stopped Him (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007).

4. The Glenn-Symington amendments provided for cutoffs of economic and military assistance to countries that import or export spent fuel reprocessing technology or unsafeguarded uranium-enrichment technology.

5. See Leonard Weiss, “Turning a Blind Eye Again? The Khan Network’s History and Lessons for U.S. Policy,” Arms Control Today, March 2005, pp. 12-18.

6. Glenn made speeches on July 9, 1981; July 13, 1981; July 17, 1981; July 24, 1981; October 21, 1981; October 10, 1986; March 27, 1987; July 14, 1987; and July 31, 1987.

7. Quoted by Senator John Glenn, Congressional Record, October 20, 1981, pp. 24505-24506.

8. Frantz and Collins, The Nuclear Jihadist; Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons (New York: Walker and Co., 2007).