The US government is guilty of allowing nuclear materials and intelligence to proliferate among some of the most dangerous regimes in the world for more than 30 years, a new book alleges.
In Fallout, authors Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins charge that the CIA waited until it was too late to stop the A.Q. Kahn network from disseminating nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Libya and Iran.
"They could literally have stopped him in his tracks [in the 1970s]," Franz told NPR's Fresh Air Tuesday. "It would have done an enormous amount to delay Pakistan building its own nuclear weapon, to delay the arms race on the South Asian continent and to stop Iran from getting where it is on the nuclear front."
"You know, so this is something that the CIA has been, in our view, guilty of for more than 30 years now," he added.
In 1974, Kahn, who was working at a centrifuge production facility in the Netherlands, approached Pakistani officials with offers to help them with their nuclear program.
The Dutch security service first notified the CIA after they discovered Kahn in 1975, but US officials asked the Dutch to let Kahn go free so they could secretly monitor him.
"In the subsequent years and decades, Khan became clearly the most dangerous proliferator in history," Franz noted.
In 2004, Kahn was finally arrested and put under house arrest in Pakistan. President George W. Bush hailed the arrest as a victory for his administration.
Fallout details the way the CIA recruited the Tinners, a family of Swiss engineers, to spy on Kahn beginning in the 1970s. The Tinners supplied Kahn with the techniques and materials to make gas centrifuges, which were later sold to Libya and Iran.
The CIA has spent the last seven years trying cover up their role in recruiting the Tinners, and halting a Swiss attempt to prosecute the family.
"Senior CIA and Bush administration officials argued that stopping the Tinner inquiry and destroying the evidence was necessary to protect US intelligence operations and keep nuclear information away from terrorists. But our research uncovered more sinister motives," Franz and Collins wrote in an article the Los Angeles Times.
By stopping the investigation, the CIA had hoped to protect the Bush legacy by covering up evidence showing the true volume of nuclear secrets traded by the Kahn network.
Documents uncovered by the authors show that in February 2008, "the Swiss succumbed to US pressure and destroyed a huge cache of evidence seized from the Tinners. Among the material shredded, crushed and incinerated under CIA supervision were plans for two nuclear warheads from Pakistan's arsenal, blueprints for uranium enrichment plants and producing nuclear weapons, and decades of records detailing network transactions."
In the end, the destruction of evidence came too late in stopping evidence from ending up in the hands of criminals. "Copies were found in Thailand, Malaysia and South Africa; no one is sure where else they may have gone in what we regard as the world's first example of cyber proliferation," the authors observed.
The CIA was also successful in stopping a Swiss prosecution of six CIA officers that may have violated Swiss law by recruiting the Tinners and breaking into their house.
Last month, a Swiss magistrate recommended charging the Tinners with trafficking in technology for making nuclear weapons. The New York Times reported that in defense of the Tinners, lawyers could expose CIA secrets and tarnish the Bush legacy.
"The lesson here is clear: Leaders must set aside national interests and work cooperatively to stay ahead of nuclear traffickers," Franz and Collins concluded. "What's needed is a new multilateral legal regime that puts trafficking in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons on a par with crimes against humanity. This won't be easy, but blind adherence to narrow national objectives increases the risk to all of us."