Customer Reviews: Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea
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on March 31, 2006
What a frustrating book. First the good news, it is a marvelous history and worth the read. Richelson is the master in collecting data. He did it before on his books on the CIA and NSA and he does it again here.

However, much like his previous books, Richelson lacks the ability to pull the pieces into a coherent whole. (I'd like to generously attribute that to the author having too much classified knowledge.) And without the context (that is surely somewhere in his notes) the general reader is unable to do it for him.

In the 544 pages of the book there wasn't a single coherent description of the components of a weapons complex. It would have been helpful to start with the U.S. Manhattan Project and describe and diagram what were the key facilities necessary for a Plutonium weapon. How were these facilities different for a U-235 weapon? Why do we and other countries choose both? Why use electromagnetic separation versus thermal, etc. Then a description of how each of the other countries chose their paths would have been easy to understand. This didn't have to be a huge section of the book, 10 pages would have sufficed, but it would have turned the mind-numbing laundry list of facts into a coherent story.

In the same vein, what detection methods were developed in WWII (he mentions a few) and how had these methods grown more sophisticated over the years. No one single section summarizes the suite of these tools. You literally have to go through the book and make your own notes to realize that some means of verification literally are mentioned once, and then disappear. Did we really stop using them or are they now codeword classified?

Again, worth reading but could have been great rather than good.
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on April 10, 2006
The header I wrote calls this a "deceptively amazing book".

For pages, there are lots of details about the level of effort it took to find out how each country built their version of the bomb. Country by country. The Soviet Union. France. Israel. South Africa. And all the frustrating suspicions about who was doing it and who MAYBE was doing it.

[Did you know that one of our airplanes was so close to a Soviet nuclear blast that the paint was scorched? The author, Jeffrey Richelson, reports that.]

There are some treasures early on... about my hero, Moe Berg, the Yankee baseball player and spy! Then there are some quibbles about RB-57's; he doesn't distinguish between the "D" model and the "F" model. But that's a quibble.

AND THEN ALL OF A SUDDEN.... IT ALL COMES TOGETHER. All that background detail about how the South Africans and the Indians successfully concealed their programs... all the ambiguities. On page 460... and thereafter... solid gold or better. How the Iraqis learned from all the mistakes of other countries and successfully deceived all the countries of the world... the deliberate construction of buildings first and THEN installing or constructing large equipment or tunnels or test facilities. How to make very specific nuclear facilities look non-descript. Use of twin facilities. Deliberate use of dual-use or triple-use (peaceful versus military versus nuclear) industrial items and machinery and materials to throw off outside observers. Use of remote electrical supplies. Burial of anything that might give away the nuclear facilities. I mean, like, the Indians even disguised piles of dirt from excavating test holes to look like wind-blown sand dunes! And how, in the absence of spies, we overlooked unofficial sources of information such as ethnic newsletters published openly.

AND THEN, Richelson talks about Iran and North Korea.... in context...

This is an amazing book! It is an essential part of the bookshelf of ANY enthusiast of the entire Iraq/ Iran/ WMD controversy.

Richelson even talks about my favorite country, Niger. (I had a short assignment there.) [There was this (amazing!) CIA/KGB volleyball game!!!!] [And, why, exactly, would the world's poorest country warrant so many top-level spies... and apparently they all knew one another!!] Anyway, Richelson goes into exhaustive detail about the real and forged documents. Everyone in the business knew what was forged right away... but there were plenty of real ones.

He never does any name calling... he just reports on meetings and the people. In a sense, also, Richelson does such a thorough job of reporting, that you feel the same sense of exhaustion as the actual players. You can understand why so many of the experts dropped out after a while. Richelson actually makes you feel as if YOU are one of the weapons inspectors. He effectively captures the frustrations, the elation, the fatigue of being there ... spying on the bomb!

I wish there was some way this book could be turned into a movie. Or maybe a serial like "24". It's really an on-going, never-ending spy thriller. Lots of twists and turns. Maybe a younger Michael Caine could play the lead.

This is a great book! An excellent story and an essential reference book.
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on March 23, 2006
Half a century ago, the United States was the first country to develop and deploy nuclear weapons, uncorking a genie that has now spread to possibly a dozen nations with more crowing and sneaking to join the nuclear club. All this nuclear activity has been closely monitored by the U.S., as Richelson relates in his book "Spying of the Bomb", a timely account of the workings of American nuclear intelligence in monitoring the nuclear development and testing of 15 nations.

Each chapter of this book covers one or more of the 15 nations whose nuclear programs the U.S. has surveilled, using recently declassified documents, interviews, and actual intelligence to tell each nation's story from their first inquiries into nuclear technologies and materials, their decisions to proceed to the next stages, to the actual development and testing by their researchers and scientists. Richelson juxtaposes what the U.S. thought it knew with what was actually happening, highlighting the uncertain nature of intelligence gathering and analysis. Such discrepancies might be disadvantageous when dealing with friendly nations, but with overtly hostile nations, the lack of accurate information has proved disastrous and forebodes even worse consequences.

Richelson's book is a wake-up call not only to the intelligence-gathering community, but to all citizens of the world as well. When the most powerful nation lacks the information to accurately assess potential threats from hostile regimes, everyone in the global community is at risk, and we must hold not only the aggressors, but those who have the power to stop them, responsible.
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Dr. Jeffrey T. Richelson, arguably the most prolific and certainly the most technically correct writer about the U.S. intelligence community, has done it again. "Spying on the Bomb" describes, in Dr. Richelson's usual thorough and well-researched manner, the U.S. intelligence community's efforts to track--and influence--other nations' attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

Dr. Richelson begins his story in Nazi Germany during World War II. Hitler, as it turned out, did not have a meaningful atomic bomb program, despite the worrisome presence in the Third Reich of renowned nuclear physicist Dr. Werner Heisenberg, who was certainly capable of designing one. After the War, the Soviet Union was the second nation to join the "nuclear club," detonating a fission bomb in 1949, years earlier than the "experts" had predicted. Today the nuclear club includes, for sure, Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and South Africa. The evidence concerning North Korea and Taiwan is ambiguous (they probably have small nuclear arsenals), and Iran could join the club at any time. Dr. Richelson describes the nuclear programs of all of these nations at great length, as well as the efforts of countries such as Libya which tried and failed to get nuclear weapons by purchasing them.

He also describes the many types of technological sensors that the U.S. used to detect nuclear weapon tests anywhere on the earth or in near-earth space, and to determine the characteristics of those that were tested. The U.S. deployed global arrays of seismic, acoustic, optical, radiation and electromagnetic sensors to detect nuclear bursts. For each test, the Air Force flew specially modified aircraft into the downwind radioactive cloud to "sniff" particles of the weapon debris, from which analysts could determine many details about the weapon type and design. These sensors, naturally, were only useful "after the fact." Unfortunately, they could not reveal that a nuclear test was GOING to happen, only that one HAD happened. To try to figure out IF and WHEN nations were going to test before they did so, the U.S. used other assets--photographic reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping satellites, human agents ("spies") and diplomacy. The U.S. intelligence community's post-test analyses of other nations' nuclear tests were usually quite timely and accurate. But its record of correctly predicting "if" and "when" nuclear tests were going to take place was dismal. Virtually every foreign nuclear test was a surprise to U.S. analysts in one way or another. Their predictions of test dates, locations, bomb types, designs, fissionable materials, yields, etc., were often so far off the mark as to be worse than useless. The record of failure is so appalling that one wonders why analysts bothered to keep making predictions when they turned out to be so wrong so often.

Long after I have forgotten the technical and operational details that Dr. Richelson describes in "Spying on the Bomb," I will remember three main points.

One is that EVERY nation that today possesses nuclear weapons has lied about its intention to develop them. EVERY nuclear nation once protested that either "we are NOT going to develop nuclear weapons" or "our nuclear research is for peaceful purposes only." Then they went right ahead and developed the bomb. With the historical perspective that Dr. Richelson offers in this book, which might as well be entitled "Lying About the Bomb," I can't imagine how ANYONE can put any stock whatsoever in the promises of foreign leaders that they will not build atomic bombs. Such promises, in fact, should be considered insults.

Another related point is that treaties are useless. Dr. Richelson does not explicitly say this--it is more of an "exercise for the reader." But he tells of several nations that signed the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or other agreements to refrain from developing atomic weapons in exchange for trade rights or economic aid, and then went right ahead and did what they wanted to do--build atomic bombs. Such treaties, in fact, may do more harm than good. If diplomats or analysts believe falsely that a nation is abiding by the terms of a treaty, they may not react quickly enough when evidence accumulates that the nation is simply ignoring the pretty words on the piece of paper.

The third point, related to the U.S. intelligence community's consistent failure to accurately predict the nuclear activities of non-U.S. nations, has to do with a certain "technological arrogance." In the examples that Dr. Richelson cites, U.S. analysts seem to think that most other nations lack the scientific, engineering and manufacturing skills required to design and build an atomic bomb. The record clearly belies that assumption. They also seem to assume that every other nation MUST proceed along the same nuclear path that the U.S. took. But counter-examples abound. For example, U.S. analysts ASSUMED that any nation developing an atomic bomb would use plutonium for the fissionable material. China, however, shocked U.S. analysts by using highly enriched uranium instead of plutonium. Similarly, many analysts smugly assume that certain isotope separation techniques are "obsolete." But just because the U.S. does not use them today does not mean they are not perfect for some other less-advanced nascent nuclear nation.

U.S. intelligence community analysts seem to lack a real-world appreciation for the importance of innovation, cleverness and adaptability, on which the U.S. does not have a monopoly, in the nuclear weapon development process. This short-sightedness has repeatedly led them, and the nation, to be unpleasantly surprised by foreign nuclear developments.
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Jeffrey T. Richelson chronicles the efforts the United States has made to deal with the threat of atomic and nuclear weapons from they were first conceived in the 1930s and `40s through the gathering of intelligence. You know, spying. The building of our own (the United States') nuclear arsenal is well chronicled in other books. This volume is more about the kinds of methods that were developed in the human intelligence and technical intelligence areas and the debates that have raged over the decades in interpreting the meaning of what was found out. I found the gradual growth of the intelligence bureaucracy and how each component of the CIA versus the State Department versus the Military became predictable in its interpretation of evidence of nuclear activity fascinating and distressing. It is hard to have confidence that our nation is getting a handle on the threats facing us when intelligence interpretation is more about turf wars than truly understanding what is happening in the laboratories and processing plants of our enemies.

While the book does discuss the development of sampling the atmosphere for the minute quantities of by products unique to nuclear activity and the particles that are the residue of a nuclear explosion, the acoustic infrasonic signatures of nuclear blasts, the satellite detection of light signatures, gamma ray production, photographic evidence of infrastructure and activities signaling the enrichment of uranium or the collection and processing of plutonium through flyovers by spy planes and specialized satellites, it also discusses the problems associated with gathering human intelligence in the various regimes. Even when you get evidence from someone on the ground, one has to not only verify the validity of the information provided, but also consider carefully the motives of the person supplying the information. It becomes a very complicated series of issues very quickly.

Adding to the difficulty is that those who desire to develop these weapons usually want to do so in great secrecy until they successfully explode a nuclear device. They have learned a lot about the capabilities of our satellites and the habits of interpretation by our intelligence services. So, they design their facilities to look as much like something legitimate as they can. They take facilities underground. They build decoys that look hidden, but are designed to hold attention. At times, they are even good enough to fool the watchdogs that come on site to inspect. For example, in the old days, inspectors measured the total radiation of fuel rods being shipped. One Asian country wanting enriched uranium got around this by building fuel rods of the proper weight and size and radiation, but using smaller pieces of enriched uranium spaced with aluminum filler. Another shaped the dirt covering the blast site (to ensure no radiation escaped into the atmosphere) so that it looked as if was created by the prevailing wind so the satellite photo interpreters would be less likely to pick up on it.

Obviously, I can't recount everything that is covered in 544 pages. However, the last three chapters do cover current events with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The author shows clearly how the present administration was not served well by competition between intelligence services. I found the discussion of the infamous aluminum tubes quite enlightening. Iraq orders 60,000 extremely engineered aluminum tubes. Why? One analyst at the CIA sees them as centrifuge tubes. He even tests them as such and finds a way to make one spin at high enough rpms to function as one. Other agencies point out that the proportions are wrong for centrifuge tubes and they are indeed similar to the missile bodies Iraq had used in the past. However, the tubes are too hard and the tolerances are overly precise for rockets. Is Iraq simply living with inefficiency to get away with enriching uranium? Or was Saddam himself the victim of his own agencies? Did he order the program restarted, and his crooked bureaucrats ordered these things to make him think they were doing something but secretly benefiting themselves somehow?

Who knows. All the certainty you here from various parties is evidence of their political position rather than any real expertise in intelligence analysis.

What I come away with is a sense that we really do need to reform our intelligence services to make sure we are focused on gathering intelligence and interpreting it as well as we can with as few turf wars and bureaucratic wrangling as we can. The daunting task is that the reforms have to be done by the same bureaucrats who are fighting over power and turf now. Who wants to give up power? And just because one group wins over another in no way indicates that the better and more reliable group won the fight. It simply means that the better political infighter was rewarded.

Some say that we are too focused on nuclear weapons. That a single nuclear weapon cannot take down the United States. While that is likely true, it isn't the direct assault that is the real threat for America. It is if a bomb goes off in a place and in a way that draws America into a war the way the Allies were all drawn into World War I through a seemingly small act. We have to be focused on these nations and what they are up to on this front. Of course, we must do the other things, too. Nobody said being a Superpower was easy work. Of course, nations will act in their own interests. What is interesting, and adds to the complexities, is how the political factions within each nation (including ours) will interpret, leak, and promote various activities contrary the plans of those in power. From what we have seen leaked to the press in the past few years, it appears that our own intelligence bureaucracies are rife with this contrarian activity.

A fascinating and informative work. You cannot consider yourself informed on this subject by what you hear and read in the mainstream media. This book is certainly one you should read. And the background it will give you will help you decipher sense from nonsense when you hear someone talking about nuclear issues on the tube.
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on March 21, 2007
I confess that I think the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable. To make a nuclear bomb all you need is 1940s technology. In time more and more nations will get them. At best, the US can try to slow down the growth. To do that they need accurate intelligence. What is critical is before they get the bomb as later it is much harder to stop it. Reading this book I did not feel confident the US intelligence was that successful in finding out this information. Partly it is asking too much of an intelligence agency for example it is clear from the book that few in the countries that are trying to make bombs know or even suspect it. The cost is not that high. It appears the local intelligence is these countries is adequate in security. It does not take that much time to make one if a country wants too. It is also clear for all the technological marvels available to the US they do not have enough. Although it does appear the US often knows a bomb has gone off after it has gone off.

What I did not like is the book lacks an overall assessment at the end of each section. So I felt like we are going from story to story with no real theme.

However it is a good study and if your interested in this subject it is a must read.
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VINE VOICEon July 27, 2008
At first blush, the events of September 11th ushered in a fundamental paradigm shift in the core mission of the US intelligence community. The focus of national intelligence efforts quickly shifted from a sprawling conventional superpower to a relatively miniscule network of extremists operating independently in some of the most remote and culturally inaccessible parts of the planet. A half-century of hard-earned operational experience and countless billions of dollars in technology were quickly rendered irrelevant. Or so it seemed.

Over the past couple of years a mission as old as the modern intelligence community itself has re-emerged as a critical national priority - the monitoring and accurate assessment of foreign nuclear weapons capabilities and intentions. Indeed, Iranian president Ahmadinejad and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il capture more headlines today than does Osama bin Laden and the intelligence community is more hard-pressed to explain the WMD debacle in Iraq than the failures that led to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

As if on cue, distinguished intelligence historian Jeffery Richelson has delivered Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea, a comprehensive history of US nuclear intelligence efforts.

Richelson breaks the material into essentially stand-alone case studies, which is an effective approach given the enormous scope of the subject he has undertaken. The first third of the book focuses on the earliest days of American intelligence efforts against Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China along with the development of a global network of sensors and collection assets to monitor testing activities and weapons stockpile growth. The final two-thirds of the book is a mix of chapters on the pariah nations of Israel, South Africa, Taiwan, India and Pakistan and the rogue nations of Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Libya. The author also provides extensive reviews of US intelligence collection operations against the French and detailed analysis of two specific nuclear test incidents: the 1979 "double-flash" in the South Atlantic and the surprise Indian underground tests at Pokhran in 1998.

On one level, Spying on the Bomb is a notable success. It is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the full sweep of the US nuclear intelligence experience, from the earliest days of the Cold War to the present international crisis with Iran. Richelson's primary research is exhaustive and impressive. He employs a broad mix of sources in building each case study, using de-classified (or leaked) government documents, Congressional testimony, private interviews and public technical documents. Because the author avoids any unifying narrative device, each chapter can easily be read in isolation and can therefore serve as an excellent open-source reference manual on American intelligence efforts against a dozen countries. Moreover, the author keeps each case study engaging with the use of cloak-and-dagger anecdotes, such as the proposed December 1944 assassination of prominent Germany physicist Werner Heisenberg at a conference in Zurich by former professional baseball player-turned-spy Moe Berg or the Mossad's use of a femme fatale to lure and capture Dimona reactor turncoat Mordechai Vanunu in Rome in 1985.

That said, there are two aspects of Richelson's style and approach that will make Spying on the Bomb tough going for many would-be readers. First, the author assumes a significant pre-existing knowledge of nuclear weapon technology, such as the enrichment process for uranium, the production of plutonium, and the various methods of device design. Any reader new to the topic will find many sections difficult to comprehend. Second, each chapter is so densely packed with foreign names, places, and organizations that it can easily overwhelm even the most widely read reader. For example, the book lists the names of over 800 people in the index, many of them only being referenced once.

On another level, Spying on the Bomb is something of a disappointment. Richelson is a leading intelligence scholar with an enviably deep understanding of the intelligence process, supporting technologies and component agencies. Yet, he simply refuses to offer any assessments or lessons learned from the half-century American engagement in nuclear espionage. In the preface, Richelson blandly notes that "There is no simple explanation for success or failure in [U.S. nuclear intelligence efforts]" and is evidently content to leave it at that, which is a shame given that several themes emerge from his research that bear emphasis and consideration on a broader level.

First, with one very notable exception (Iraq in 2003), the US intelligence community has consistently and often grossly underestimated the capabilities of foreign nuclear weapons programs. The Soviet Union, China, Israel, South Africa and Iraq (in the 1980s) were all years ahead of where the consensus opinion in the intelligence community thought possible. Although Richelson does not say so explicitly, the thrust of his work certainly suggests that the US intelligence community's record on assessing nuclear weapons capabilities consists of varying degrees of failure. It remains to be seen how the intelligence catastrophe on Iraqi WMD will impact the intelligence community in the years ahead. Will it instill a new rigor in analysis and promote inter-agency cooperation that avoids the pitfalls of Iraq? Or is it likely to produce a crisis of confidence that constrains intelligence organizations from making actionable assessments of foreign nuclear intentions and capabilities based on limited information, thus removing them as players in the national security decision-making? Richelson does not conjecture either way.

Second, nearly all of Richelson's case studies demonstrate the important role allies and international organizations have played in thwarting the nuclear ambitions of rogue states and in operating a sophisticated global web of monitoring equipment to enforce treaties and confirm testing activities. The IAEA and other international bodies have certainly failed in their duties several times in the past (which the author does not hesitate to point out) but he also maintains that such bodies play an important role in the non-proliferation regime and are often quite effective in complicating illicit uranium enrichment and nuclear weapon design programs. Unfortunately, Richelson does not explore how the international community and the non-proliferation regime can best be leveraged in the global struggle against extremists that clearly covet a bomb of any kind or effectively stifle the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

Third, Richelson demonstrates that bureaucratic infighting, overlapping missions, and organizational rivalry have burdened US nuclear intelligence activities since their inception, and he expresses little hope that the shortcomings of the past will be ameliorated anytime soon. He places specific emphasis on the mutual animosity between the competing foreign intelligence cells at the national nuclear labs - Lawrence Livermore's Z Division and Los Alamos' Intelligence and Research team. Rather than maintaining separate areas of focus or serving as Red Team/Blue Team cells for independent analysis and thoughtful, professional disagreement, the two units are portrayed more like bitter corporate rivals battling in a zero-sum game for marketshare. Again, possible reform initiatives or organizational realignment to combat these consistent failings are left up to the reader to imagine.

Finally, Richelson's case studies make it abundantly clear that there is no substitute for good human intelligence, a discipline that has never been the métier of the US intelligence community. The few examples of bona fide intelligence coups in the nuclear weapon arena came from well placed and well groomed inside sources, such as Colonel Chang Hsien-yi, who was deputy director of Taiwan's nuclear energy research institute and a critical supplier of intelligence before defecting to the US in the late 1980s. Presumably recent efforts to boost the HUMIT capabilities at CIA and DIA will address this critical shortcoming; unfortunately, Richelson does not provide any thoughts on how this might best be achieved or how long it will take for the investment to make substantial returns.

In closing, Jeffery Richelson's latest piece is an outstanding factual overview on the US intelligence community's fifty-year history in tracking the nuclear activities and intentions of over a dozen nation states. However, any insights into what it all means and how that long experience may be exploited to improve our ability in meeting similar intelligence challenges of the 21st century is left to the reader alone to ponder.
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on September 8, 2006
This is a detailed study of what we know about the different atomic weapons holdings and development efforts and how we obtained that knowledge. Jeffrey Richelson describes all the development efforts from war-time Germany to Iran and North Korea today. He particularly brings across the importance of the different airborne and satellite surveillance programs, showing how the need for airplane over-flights diminished as higher and higher resolution imagery became available from the KH series reconnaissance satellites.

This is an exhaustive effort and well documented with 122 pages of notes that left me with an appreciation for the problem of information gathering when dealing with nuclear proliferation.
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on March 22, 2013
Jeffrey T. Richelson is one of the fraternity of science writers who possesses the necessary security clearance to go through government archives and bring back reams of information about this particular subject matter - a look at the long multi-national arms race through the eyes of America's elite corps of atomic intelligence gatherers. As such, it deliberately focuses on what we knew at the time we were learning it, which tells us much more about nuclear intelligence efforts than a simple history of the arms race. It's a necessary reference for someone who wants to really be informed on the history of nuclear weapons, and of technical intelligence gathering. I learned new things from this book, and the odds are great that you will, too.
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on April 14, 2014
I worked in several of the positions covered in this book. It is quite accurate considering a great deal of the newer info is still classified. It filled in the holes I didn't know.
This book is for those interested in America's part of the nuclear arms race or those into American history.
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