European Affairs

"Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies" by David Albright     Print Email

The Dirty and Dangerous Details of Nuclear Technology Smuggling

Peddling Peril

By David Albright alt

Free Press, 2010, 254 Pages

Reviewed by Kurt Moss

This account of the global clandestine traffic of nuclear-weapons technology is written by David Albright (no relation to Madeline), one of the most knowledgeable American experts on proliferation. Albright minces no words about his conviction that the most dangerous threat today to international security is the threat of nuclear weapons falling into “the wrong hands:” terrorists, criminals or irresponsible governments. He is equally clear about what needs to be done in self-defense against this threat. Western democracies and their allies should not rely on pre-emptive military action as their first line of defense against nuclear-armed rogues. Instead, Albright argues that Western democracies and other responsible governments should make it a security imperative to combat the global nuclear smuggling that is spreading this weapons technology amid comparative indifference to this particular dangerous threat.

In other words, it would have been better for the United States to have more closely monitored the trade of centrifuge parts (used to make the bomb) sold to Saddam Hussein and to have taken preventative measures, instead of having to invade Iraq to remove WMDs afterwards.

Such “pre-emptive defense” requires three critical steps in his view. Paramount among them is making export-control laws universal and insisting on their effective enforcement. The other key challenges involve locking down fissile material more securely and establishing better systems designed to give early detection of illicit nuclear trafficking.

These points fit nicely with the official rhetoric coming from Washington and capitals in the EU and elsewhere. The difference in Albright’s compressed and compelling account of undercover proliferation is that he documents the gap between lip service to non-proliferation and the actual practices of governments. The gap often emerges between rival agencies of the same country as they pursue their own counter-proliferation agendas without an overriding national strategy that sets the stage for effective international cooperation and global standards.

On this trans-Atlantic issue, the European Institute held a meeting on May 25 featuring Under Secretary of Commerce for Industry and Security Eric Hirschhorn, a top U.S. policy-maker on export control. In his presentation, Hirschhorn highlighted the Obama administration’s plan to overhaul and modernize U.S. export controls. The proposed legislation (a complex package known as “the export control initiative”) would reduce the number of items monitored by the government, but intensify the scrutiny of those remaining. Because many of these technologies are “dual-use”, Hirschhorn noted the importance of companies maintaining ethical business practices while working closely with the U.S. government and its partners abroad to provide an early warning of illicit trade.

On the same note, Albright outlines the necessary collaboration between all Western governments and companies for this ambitious, yet very crucial, goal to be realized. Specifically, Albright notes how companies must be the first line of defense against nuclear proliferation, citing complex challenges such as indentifying forged shipping orders, preventing the diversion of cargo through neutral nations (see map below), and cracking-down on unlawful sales practiced by some U.S. and European companies. Moreover, as Albright emphasizes in this must-read, investigative account, that companies (such as Leybold), which have inside knowledge of nuclear technologies, must be the first line of defense to defuse this threat to Western democracies. For this, Oerlikon Leybold is widely regarded as a model company, working closely with the EU to stop nuclear proliferation.

“Peddling Peril,” is particularly credible because Albright does not make the United States the white knight leading the world in this battle. Instead, he recounts episodes in which the U.S. government lost sight of this strategic goal in the course of pursuing its own national operations against nuclear smugglers. For example, the CIA has refused to cooperate with the Swiss government in prosecuting or clearing up the case against the Tinners, a Swiss businessman and his two sons who were involved in helping break up a network trying to give Libya nuclear technology. Working with A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who pioneered his own country’s bomb and sold the technology to other Muslim nations, these Swiss middlemen were involved in the final showdown in 2003, which led to the interception of a freighter taking nuclear materials to Libya. Subsequently, Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi decided to publicly acknowledge his secret nuclear-weapons program and then to surrender it. The Tinners have claimed that they worked as CIA informants but the U.S. intelligence service (perhaps because it wants to protect its own Swiss agents) has refused to offer any public cooperation to the Swiss authorities in their investigation into the network that operated on their soil. In Albright’s view, the CIA should have set an example by cooperating with the Swiss government in the same way that Washington expects cooperation on anti-proliferation issues from other governments. “The simple truth is…that we cannot yet rely on the coordination of national prosecutions to service the cause of justice” and mutual self-defense in these ultra-sensitive matters”, Albright writes.

Interestingly, too, Albright singles out as his casebook-study of what ought to be done by citing the work of a German engineering exporter, Leybold. At first glance, a German exporter seems like an unlikely poster child: throughout the cold war history of export controls, Germany has seemed like a breeding ground for this form if illicit trade. With its export-minded industries, reflexive national suspicion of military controls on civilian business and perhaps frustration among engineers that their country has no prospect of building its own nuclear weapons, Germany has a record of falling into the trap of exporting industrial materials that are officially (or unofficially) banned by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This group acts as a multi-national agency engaging all the leading Western nations in a concerted effort to prevent raw materials, industrial technology and blueprints for nuclear weapons from reaching customers who are outside the controls embraced by the nuclear weapons states.



Siemens, the German engineering giant, has “officially stopped doing business with Iran” after being accused of smuggling “dual-use” technology to Tehran that could be used for nuclear weapons. Siemens has denied breaking any laws, but allegations reported in the media said that Siemens was shipping banned technology to Iran’s civilian reactor at Bushehr via Russia.

(In a potentially ironic twist, the Siemens announcement coincided with reports from Tel Aviv that Israeli intelligence had developed a “cyber-war” program aimed at infiltrating and sabotaging Siemens’ systems being delivered to Iran. The Israeli operation allegedly would have ensured that the Iranians received faulty deliveries of German technology. If true, the information would mean that the smuggled technology would backfire on any nuclear weapons program in Iran. Even if not true, the suggestion could cause doubts and expensive re-examination of the smuggled goods in Tehran.)


Leybold, a Cologne-based manufacturer of the vacuum tubes that are vital for enriching uranium to weapons grade levels, fit this old profile very well. Its management and exports salesmen had been involved in many dubious transactions over the years and the company, then called Leybold-Heraeus, was closely identified with the Khan network when it was finally exposed. By that time, the company had been taken over by Oerlikon, a Swiss high-tech corporation with 170 subsidiaries in 35 countries. That takeover was partly caused by the international criticism of Leybold for its practices – an attack that at one seemed close to triggering a ban on U.S. companies’ cooperation with the company. At that point, Leybold’s owners apparently underwent a change of heart and decided to turn the company from an outfit ready to be a part of rogue deals into a company that is scrupulous about the customers it sells to and a close collaborator with the authorities in Germany and elsewhere engaged in trying to curb international nuclear smuggling. Today, Oerlikon Leybold is an “exemplary global citizen,” Albright says. Retracing the company’s turnaround, he explores the problems which the company has confronted in its own ranks on its long path to its new posture.

Albright cites Leybold as an exemplary company that has thoroughly reshaped its business strategy through cooperation with EU and government export-control laws. The newly-placed EU trust in this German-based company comes amid U.S. efforts to revamp American export-control laws for companies such as Leybold. Particularly, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stressed American companies’ key role in putting a stop to nuclear proliferation. Gates himself has admitted that “onerous and complicated restrictions too often fail to prevent weapons and technologies from going places they shouldn't.” In other words, Gates' aim to neutralize the nuclear threat sharpens the U.S.'s focus to specific arms dealers selling to rogues. David Albright takes Gate's timely argument one step further, making it clear that if the U.S. wants to stop the illicit and immoral trade of “dual-use” technologies, it cannot succeed simply by enacting laws. The U.S. government must be able to rely on the support of U.S.-based companies the way that Leybold has made itself trustworthy within the EU.

Kurt Moss is an Editorial Assistant at European Affairs.

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