Nuclear intelligence history begs policy questions for CISAC reviewer

Jeffrey T. Richelson's history of American nuclear intelligence, Spying on the Bomb, is timely, writes CISAC's David Holloway, given the faulty intelligence about nuclear weapons that was used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In fact the book could have gone further toward analyzing the relationship between the intelligence community and policy makers, Holloway suggests in this New York Times book review.

Before attacking Iraq in March 2003, the United States told the world that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program in defiance of the United Nations. That claim, used to justify the war, was based on assessments provided by the United States intelligence community. But as everyone now knows, those assessments were wrong. So Jeffrey T. Richelson's history of American nuclear intelligence, including our attempts to learn about Iraq's nuclear program, could hardly be more timely.

In "Spying on the Bomb," Richelson, the author of several books on American intelligence, has brought together a huge amount of information about Washington's efforts to track the nuclear weapons projects of other countries. He examines the nuclear projects of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, France, Israel, India, South Africa, Taiwan, Libya, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, as well as Iraq. Through interviews and declassified documents as well as secondary works, he sets out briefly what we currently know about those projects and compares that with assessments of the time.

This may sound like heavy going, but Richelson writes with admirable clarity. And along the way he has fascinating stories to tell: about plans to assassinate the German physicist Werner Heisenberg during World War II; about discussions in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations on the possibility of attacking Chinese nuclear installations; about Indian measures to evade the gaze of American reconnaissance satellites; and about the bureaucratic infighting over the estimates on Iraq.

The United States has put an enormous effort into gathering information about the nuclear projects of other countries. After World War II it equipped aircraft with special filters to pick up radioactive debris from nuclear tests for isotopic analysis. It created a network of stations around the world to register the seismic effects of nuclear explosions. Most important, in 1960 it began to launch reconnaissance satellites that could take detailed photographs of nuclear sites in the Soviet Union and China. Richelson occasionally speculates about the role of communications intercepts and of spies, but these appear from his account to have been much less important than the other methods of collecting information.

Through these means the United States has gathered a vast quantity of data, sometimes to surprising effect. Intelligence played a crucial role in the cold war, for instance, by reducing uncertainty about Soviet nuclear forces. Alongside such successes, however, there have been failures. One notable example concerned the first Soviet test, which took place in August 1949, much sooner than the C.I.A. had predicted. Another was the failure to detect Indian preparations for tests in May 1998, even though at an earlier time the United States, with the help of satellite intelligence, had managed to learn about preparations the Indians were making and to head off their tests.

But the most serious failure of all was in Iraq in 2003, because in no other case did the intelligence assessments serve as justification for the use of military force. The information needed for avoiding political surprise is one thing. That needed for preventive war is quite another, if only because of the consequences of making a mistake.

Beyond making the uncontroversial recommendation that "aggressive and inventive intelligence collection and analysis" should continue, Richelson draws no general conclusions. That is a pity, because his rich material points to issues that cry out for further analysis. He suggests in one or two cases that failures sprang from the mind-set of the intelligence community, but he does not elaborate on this point. He has little to say about relations between policy makers and the intelligence community, even though the quality of intelligence and the use made of it depend heavily on that relationship.

His focus is no less narrow in his discussion of foreign nuclear projects. He concentrates on the programs themselves, paying very little attention to their political context. Does that reflect a technological bias in nuclear intelligence? Would, for example, the prewar assessment of Iraqi nuclear capabilities have been more accurate if it had paid more attention to the broader political and economic circumstances of Hussein's regime?

The task of intelligence has become more complex than it was during the cold war. A single dominant nuclear opponent has now been replaced by a number of nuclear states, along with states and stateless terrorists that are aiming to get their hands on nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the technology needed for producing nuclear weapons has become easier to acquire.

Many critics believe the recent performance of the intelligence community shows it has not responded adequately to this new situation. Richelson does not have much to say on this question; nor does he discuss the likely impact of the current reforms, initiated in response to the Iraq war, on the quality of intelligence. His reticence may imply that he does not think reform is necessary. Still, it is disappointing that he does not draw on his historical survey to discuss whether new approaches are needed for dealing with nuclear threats, and, if so, what those new approaches might be.