Nations have long done battle with one another in different ways. These days, they spy from satellites, send viruses to corrupt government software, poach scientists and infiltrate academia. At The Guardian, Daniel Golden describes how international intelligence agencies send operatives to scientific conferences to gather intel, and how the U.S. has worked to convince foreign nuclear scientists to defect.
Scientific conferences attract people from all corners of the world and facilitate the exchange of information. Conferences are also one of the few opportunities for nuclear scientists from Iran to leave the country, so they function as what Golden calls “a modern-day underground railroad” for potential defectors. U.S. intelligence agencies routinely create their own sham conferences through an intermediary in order to isolate their targets and engage them one-on-one. The system has worked on many scientists. It’s fraught with many dangers: how to blend into a relatively small academic community and impersonate a scientist with actual scientific knowledge? How to get the target away from his guards without attracting attention? The larger question is whether this billion-dollar industry keeps the world safer.
“From the Iranian point of view, they would clearly have an interest in sending scientists to conferences about peaceful uses of nuclear power,” Ronen Bergman told me. A prominent Israeli journalist, Bergman is the author of The Secret War With Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, and is working on a history of Israel’s central intelligence service, the Mossad. “They say, ‘Yes, we send our scientists to conferences to use civilian technology for a civilian purpose.’”
The CIA officer assigned to the case might pose as a student, a technical consultant, or an exhibitor with a booth. His first job would be to peel the guards away from the scientist. In one instance, kitchen staff recruited by the CIA poisoned the guards’ meal, leaving them incapacitated by diarrhoea and vomiting. The hope was that they would attribute their illness to aeroplane food or an unfamiliar cuisine.
With luck, the officer would catch the scientist alone for a few minutes, and pitch to him. He would have boned up on the Iranian by reading files and courting “access agents” close to him. That way, if the scientist expressed doubt that he was really dealing with the CIA, the officer could respond that he knew everything about him, even the most intimate details – and prove it. One officer told a potential defector: “I know you had testicular cancer and you lost your left nut.”
At the request of a high school friend, Lacy M. Johnson began investigating an area north of St. Louis where toxic waste from the Manhattan Project was illegally dumped in 1974. The resulting piece for Guernica finds Johnson diving into the human costs of America’s decision to end the war on Japan with expedient nuclear force.
The years of experimentation leading up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the years dealing with the nuclear fallout, have taken a lasting toll on the home front. Areas in St. Louis county near the Westlake Landfill Superfund site have higher incidence of lupus, rare cancers, neuropathy, and congenital defects than the general population. Although the EPA has maintained that the site is minimally hazardous, some residents have formed advocacy groups to raise awareness and demand immediate removal of the waste.
When Karen and her husband bought a house in North County for their own growing family, they chose one not far from the neighborhood where she’d splashed through the creek as a girl. But in the summer of 1999 she ran across a parking lot in the rain and then couldn’t get out of bed for days. Maybe she had come down with the flu, she thought. She visited her doctor, who didn’t know what to make of her symptoms. Karen’s blood work showed signs that antibodies were attacking the proteins in the nuclei of her cells. “Lupus,” the doctor told her, years later. He prescribed steroids to manage the symptoms of the disease, and mostly it did manage them. She felt healthy more often than ill. But in July 2012 she collapsed at her daughter’s softball game and didn’t bounce back, didn’t return to work, or to feeling healthy. Her doctor said this might be the new normal.
Karen went to a new doctor, who told her that there’s increasing consensus that lupus can be brought on by environmental triggers, including exposure to contaminants and chemicals, like cigarette smoke, silica, and mercury. In particular, he said, recent studies have shown a link between lupus and uranium exposure. That night over dinner Karen’s husband asked if she remembered a story on the news from a few months before about the creek that ran through her neighborhood. She remembered only vaguely. “Well, it was something about uranium contamination,” he said, looking up from his plate.
In a recent piece for the New York Review of Books, FreemanDyson reviewed Half-Life, a biography of Bruno Pontecorvo, a brilliant nuclear physicist and possible spy. Pontecorvo spent six years working on nuclear reactors in Canada, where he may or may not have passed information on to Soviet contacts. However, according to Dyson—who is himself a world-renowned mathematical physicist— even if Pontecorvo had been a spy, the overall effect of his information wouldn’t have been hugely important. Perhaps some of it might have been useful to Soviet bomb designers, but it wouldn’t have been a game changer. Furthermore, the Soviets already had two technical spies (Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall) relaying information from Los Alamos.
This is where Dyson brings up an interesting distinction: that between technical and tactical spies. As a layperson, I’d always presumed a spy is a spy; however, in Dyson’s view, technical and tactical spies belong in entirely different categories. He sees the latter as being responsible for putting actual lives in danger, whereas the former merely steal useful scientific knowledge:
Technical spies were unimportant because the Soviet Union had plenty of first-rate scientists working in the relevant areas of nuclear physics… If a country has this kind of home-grown technical talent, it does not need technical spies to make progress. If a country does not have this kind of talent, technical spies will not be an effective substitute. In either case, the contribution of technical spies will be marginal. Science is a collective enterprise, and needs a community of active participants to succeed in any large venture.
The public vastly overrates the importance of technical spies such as Klaus Fuchs, because the same word “spy” is used for technical spies and for tactical spies. The archetype of the tactical spy is Judas Iscariot, the secret enemy betraying his master and directly causing his master’s death. For two thousand years, the story of Judas has been linked with the image of a spy in the cultures of Europe. Another tactical spy, not quite as notorious as Judas, was Kim Philby, a British intelligence officer who held high positions in the British diplomatic service. He gave his Soviet contacts lists of names of undercover agents operating in various countries, so that Soviet authorities could quickly eliminate them. He was directly responsible for many disappearances. Tactical spies are rightly condemned by public opinion and by the traditional rules of war. They have immediate effects on the life and death of fellow citizens. They are fair game for any soldier to kill, with or without a legal trial. But technical spies are different. Technical spies are more concerned with things than with people.
Why then does the American public still consider all spies to be demons? Why does the public make no distinction between technical spies like Julius Rosenberg stealing useful knowledge and tactical spies like Kim Philby destroying human lives? Perhaps it is because the American public is misled by the American secrecy system. The secrecy system is a bureaucratic monster that classifies vast quantities of information as secret, making it impossible for the ordinary citizen to see the difference between important and unimportant secrets.
Which would be worse: Iran developing a nuclear weapon, or waging a war to prevent it? An examination of both scenarios:
Given the momentousness of such an endeavor and how much prominence the Iranian nuclear issue has been given, one might think that talk about exercising the military option would be backed up by extensive analysis of the threat in question and the different ways of responding to it. But it isn’t. Strip away the bellicosity and political rhetoric, and what one finds is not rigorous analysis but a mixture of fear, fanciful speculation, and crude stereotyping. There are indeed good reasons to oppose Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, and likewise many steps the United States and the international community can and should take to try to avoid that eventuality. But an Iran with a bomb would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume, and a war to try to stop it from acquiring one would be less successful, and far more costly, than most people imagine.