November 30, 2007

Book Review: Spying on the Bomb

Book CoverThe development of nuclear weapons in the 20th century changed the world like no other scientific event. For more than 60 years, the United States has monitored friends and foes seeking to develop nuclear weapons. In the book, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea, author Jeffrey T. Richelson, has written a detailed and authoritative account of the U.S. nuclear intelligence efforts. Richelson is a senior fellow at the National Security Archive and author of several books on American intelligence.

This book explores both the successes and failures--from the early days of World War II to the present day. Richelson 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. Each chapter chronologically focuses on the nuclear activities of one or more countries, intermingling what the United States believed was happening, with accounts of what actually occurred in each country's laboratories, test sites, and decision-making leadership. He draws heavily from recently declassified documents and interviews with scientists and spies involved in nuclear espionage.

Every nation that moved to join the nuclear club presented new problems for U.S. intelligence gathering. The book examines the work of the CIA and other intelligence agencies in identifying and providing the details about those nuclear programs as well as the agencies' efforts to monitor and evaluate nuclear testing. The book also highlights the methods used to detect nuclear tests including long-range aircraft mounted with filters to catch radioactive debris, a network of stations to measure seismic waves and early satellites that would eject film capsules to be caught mid-air by planes.

Of great interest is examining the failures by the intelligence community, such as the failure to detect Indian preparations for tests in May 1998. By far, 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 book also examines the double flash detected by the Vela satellite over South Africa in 1979. Since it wasn't the South Africans (they weren't ready to test), was it an Israeli device or an equipment malfunction?

The 700-page book contains new information, photographs, maps, reference notes, a good index, and is well written. Although dense, it is perfect for wonks like me.

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November 29, 2007

Book Review: Bomb Scare

Book CoverToday's headlines are filled with the real threats of nuclear proliferation. But how does the average person attempt to grasp these issues? In a new book, Bomb Scare, by Joseph Cirincione, this problem is addressed in a clear and understandable tone.

Bomb Scare offers a comprehensive review of the history and theory of nuclear weapons, as well as the options before us. Cirincione begins with the first atomic discoveries of the 1930s and covers the history of their growth all the way to the current crisis with Iran. He unravels the science, strategy, and politics that have fueled the development of nuclear stockpiles and increased the chance of a nuclear terrorist attack. He also explores why many nations choose NOT to pursue nuclear weapons.

But rather than leave the reader without hope of escaping from under the nuclear threat, Cirincione offers an outline of a solution to the world's proliferation problem: a balance of force and diplomacy, enforcement and engagement, that yields a steady decrease in these deadly arsenals.

The book is a straight forward, insightful and thought provoking work. It gives the general reader a clear understanding of this issue. For those not familiar with the author, he is the Vice President for National Security at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., and teaches at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has served as the director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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July 05, 2007

Book Review: Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect

Book CoverOppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect is a not a typical biography. Within the past few years, there have been many notable books written about the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and this book provides another fine chapter to the story of this complex man.

Author Charles Thorpe, drawing upon his doctoral dissertation, weaves together a study of Oppenheimer from the viewpoint of a sociologist. The book focuses on the broader social context of Oppenheimer's life. As David Cassidy, author of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century commented; "Thorpe provides new perspective on Oppenheimer's evolution as a scientific intellectual and cultural icon..."

Thorpe explores the way that Oppenheimer shaped himself, but also how society affected him as well. Oppenheimer is often portrayed as both a hero and a martyr, but this work portrays Oppenheimer as a bridge between different worlds. The Manhattan Project ushered in the era of “Big Science”, where scientists, industry and the military all began to intersect closer than ever before. It is here at this nexus that Oppenheimer found his primary role, as leader of the team of scientists racing to develop the atomic bomb and the military who wished to use it.

Even after the war, Oppy kept this role, this time acting as a bridge between the world of science and the world of policy. Although the events of the 1954 security hearings changed many aspects of this role, he continued to be the voice of many scientists until his death.

Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect is a deep and thoughtful work, and should be read along with the other studies on the 'father' of the atomic bomb.

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