TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
There's smuggling, and then there's smuggling. We're going to talk about nuclear smuggling, the illicit trade in nuclear technology. It's the most underappreciated and terrifying facet of global nuclear proliferation, according to my guest, David Albright.
This nuclear underground is one reason why it's so difficult to detect or prevent the construction of secret nuclear facilities. The smuggling is driven by profits, big money for the countries, companies and criminal networks that deal in proliferation.
Albright says if there wasn't a profit motive, countries like Pakistan and North Korea would have real trouble acquiring nuclear weapons. Albright is the author of the new book "Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies." He's the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which focuses on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. It investigates and monitors nuclear proliferation.
David Albright, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the story of Syria's nuclear program, because that's a very revealing case study, and also your group discovered the location of the nuclear program, which Israel bombed. So remind us about the story of the Israeli attack on what they assumed was a nuclear reactor.
Mr. DAVID ALBRIGHT (Institute for Science and International Security): The attack on the Syrian reactor was a big surprise publicly. All that we saw initially was that something militarily had happened inside Syria.
Israel denied they'd done anything. Syria tried to trivialize it. The United States wouldn't say anything, and so it was a big mystery. And so the only thing that really happened over the several weeks was ambiguous leaks occurred that over time pointed to that a nuclear site had been hit inside Syria.
But Syria, of course, was denying that; in fact denies it to this day, that it was a nuclear site.
My own group got very curious about what was hit. I mean, we were hearing stories it's a biological weapons site, chemical weapons site, missile site, nuclear, and we decided to try to find out using commercial satellite imagery.
And so we got a lot of imagery of Syria and started to look and also started to interview people in the media and governments and eventually came across a site near the river, Euphrates River, that looked like a nuclear reactor that North Korea would've been built, and when we published that, it was the only evidence of an actual site that had been attacked, and then after publication we were able to get an image that showed the place had been flattened, and then the damage from the bombing, and then the Syrians had come in and just kind of cleared everything off and scraped the earth. And so it's a fairly dramatic confirmation that this was the right place.
Governments, for various reasons, did not want to talk about this.
GROSS: Yeah, why not? Israel was so proud when it bombed the reactor, the nuclear facility near Baghdad.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's right.
GROSS: So why, in 2007, did it not want to take credit for bombing what was a nuclear facility in Syria?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: What emerged when I talked to Israeli officials and U.S. officials was as long as Syria didn't say anything, they didn't see anything to be gained by kind of making it public and in a sense admitting that they've attacked a nuclear site.
They worried about sort of the general Arab reaction that could occur, that if they really admitted to it, then there could be quite a bit of condemnation by various Arab governments. But if no one was admitting anything happened, then that condemnation really couldn't take place.
One of the things that happened after Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981...
GROSS: The one in Iraq, uh-huh.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: In Iraq - was that there was universal condemnation. The Israelis were members of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and there was an effort, a successful effort, launched to throw them out for attacking another country's nuclear facilities.
And the United States had to so defend Israel that it ended up as a threat, that it carried out, in fact, withdrew from the International Atomic Energy Agency for a year or two. And can you imagine, with everything going on with Iran, North Korea, Syria, if the United States withdrew from the International Atomic Energy Agency now?
So there are forums where this could've played out very negatively, and so I think the United States and Israel breathed a sigh of relief that Syria was willing to keep it quiet, and they knew the facility was gone. And Syria can't build reactors. It depends on imports of reactor components. So they could also say, look, this problem's been dealt with for X number of years, and if Syria wants to keep it quiet, all the better. We don't have to deal with the political repercussions.
GROSS: Now, one of the really interesting things about the Syria story is the connection to North Korea. You said that your group, the Institute for Science and International Security, was able to say this is probably a nuclear reactor because it looked like the kind of nuclear facility that North Korea would build.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's right.
GROSS: So what's the North Korea connection to the Syria nuclear program?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, when we looked at the imagery overhead, the building looked fairly nondescript, and we learned later that Syria had gone to tremendous taken tremendous steps to try to disguise the facility so it wouldn't look like a North Korean reactor. But when you naively measure the dimensions from overhead, and you end up with dimensions that are very close to a North Korea reactor that's at the Yongbyon site, and you end up concluding that despite all this camouflaging, that it sort of looks like this North Korean reactor.
GROSS: So what did North Korea supply to Syria, and how much money do you think North Korea got for it?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's there are a lot of questions that remain, and one of which is what Syria paid and exactly what Syria got. I mean, the evidence seems to suggest that Syria got reactor technology. They got some engineering support, and they've gotten some they got some reactor components.
They must have gotten some uranium to fuel the reactor. Syria also utilized North Korean trading companies to buy things in Europe for the reactor. And so you had North Korea both providing things directly and then organizing, in collaboration with the Syrians, the kind of smuggling of reactor components or equipment to the site.
But it's probably one of the biggest mysteries right now is: Did North Korea provide uranium? And there's some media reports, which depend on intelligence information, that suggests that there was a certain amount of uranium sent to Syria from North Korea, but it's still unconfirmed, and the Syrians refuse to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, so they're, the inspectors are more or less stuck.
GROSS: So this Syrian facility that was bombed by Israel in 2007, that was a nuclear that was designed to be a nuclear reactor that could be used for generating uranium for nuclear weapons?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: The reactor was designed so that it could use uranium fuel to make plutonium, and then the plutonium could be used in nuclear weapons.
GROSS: Got it. I've never designed a weapon myself. So it gets a little confusing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Now, you write in your new book that as a source of proliferation, North Korea has nearly matched the A.Q. Khan network. That's pretty amazing. I mean, how much do you think North Korea has exported in terms of supplies that are needed for renegade nuclear facilities?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, with Syria it's pretty extensive, and this program, the supply was stopped, but I think North Korea intended to go all the way, probably, with Syria. And whatever Syria wanted, they probably would've either provided directly or helped Syria get.
With other countries it's less clear. I mean we know North Korea provides missile assistance to many countries: Syria, Iran, did it in the past with Egypt. There are suspicions that North Korea may be helping Burma acquire some nuclear items.
I mean, we know they're cooperating on military items, but there's also concern that they may have crossed over into some nuclear areas. And the problem is North Korea likes money, and it doesn't demand very much of its customers.
I mean, it demands secrecy and large payments, and it's willing to do a lot for that.
GROSS: So North Korea poses two kinds of nuclear threats to us. One is their own nuclear capacity, which is what now? And the other is their ability to export to other nuclear wannabes. So what do you know about North Korea's nuclear capacity now?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: North Korea has a small nuclear arsenal. It's tested twice underground. So it has more confidence that its nuclear weapons will work. It's program is largely based on plutonium that it got out of a reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear site north of Pyongyang. It appears to be able to put a warhead on a ballistic missile. And all these things probably don't work that well, but nonetheless, they probably work well enough.
North Korea has also been or has restarted to accelerated a program to enrich uranium using gas centrifuges, and that centrifuge assistance to get the program going originally came from Pakistan and A.Q. Khan, but then it's essentially been on its own.
I think that in recent times they've accelerated their centrifuge program, and that would probably mean they want to get the other nuclear explosive material, highly enriched uranium, and you just have to wonder what they want with that, but typically when countries go that route of having both plutonium and highly enriched uranium, it's to build more sophisticated weapons, including up to thermonuclear weapons.
So North Korea seems determined to continuously expand its nuclear weapons capabilities and its nuclear arsenal.
Now, at the same time, it likes to sell things, and as the Syria case demonstrates, it's willing to sell nuclear facilities, and so you have to worry that it's going to be selling centrifuges.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Albright. He's the author of the new book "Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies." He's also the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which investigates and monitors nuclear proliferation. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is David Albright. His new book is called "Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies." He's the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which investigates and monitors nuclear proliferation.
Now, you write a lot about A.Q. Khan in your book, who, again, is the father of Pakistan's bomb and the leading until he was arrested the leading smuggler of nuclear materials. And you say that A.Q. Khan refused, declined to help al-Qaida, that he was approached three times by al-Qaida. Why didn't they work with why didn't the A.Q. Khan network worth with al-Qaida? I'm glad they didn't, but why didn't they?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think they had their own limits. I mean, members of the network would surprise you if you met them. I mean, in the United States we kind of call some of them country club people. I mean, they were respectable businessmen in Europe, South Africa, Dubai.
Khan is, you know, is very learned, and I think they were horrified that al-Qaida could get nuclear weapons. And so there were just lines that they weren't willing to cross.
GROSS: Is that in part because A.Q. Khan is Pakistani and maybe not sympathetic to al-Qaida's cause?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, it's hard to know his motives. I mean, he but he's not a fundamentalist. I mean, he's most popular among kind of the right-wing, fundamentalist part of the Pakistani public, but he's not a fundamentalist. And so I don't think he would normally warm up to al-Qaida, Taliban.
He wouldn't want his children to have been he has two daughters. He's not going to want them put under the controls of groups like the Taliban. So I just don't think he's that drawn to those kind of people, and I think he understands too that, you know, there's lines that if he crosses, I mean, he knows that he's risking his life I mean, and if you're not ideologically motivated to help the Taliban and al-Qaida, then why would you want to take that kind of risk? I mean, no amount of money is worth ending up dead.
GROSS: So you know, we're talking about Khan in the present tense, but he's not active as a smuggler anymore, is he?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Not as far as anyone knows. He's essentially a free man, and what you have to worry about is just that he's helping intellectually. I mean...
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, through passing information that's on CDs, or he uses to communicate with journalists he does it through his wife's email account. And so I think that kind of communication is easily monitored, but if you have a courier carrying something, a trusted courier, that it starts to get harder to monitor if he's not under house arrest or under close surveillance. And I think the restrictions on him have gone down.
He's certainly mad. He's mounted almost a media campaign to try to, you know, what he calls clearing his name, but it's and so he is active in engaging people internationally. And so you have to worry that he could be thinking about helping some others.
GROSS: You describe Libya as the pinnacle of the A.Q. Khan network's achievements.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Yeah, Libya was the pinnacle of the A.Q. Khan network's achievements. I mean, it was it involved 100, $200 million. It was a country willing to buy whole facilities, was open to help on making the nuclear weapon itself. It was tolerating pretty slow deliveries of the key items and had very deep pockets and had no incentive to reveal anything at the time.
GROSS: Now, Libya on the other hand is the only country that abandoned a nuclear program. Why did Libya abandon its nuclear program? This is, what, in 2003?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Three, that's right, and I think there are many reasons. One is one is the sanctions were taking a toll on Libya, that Gadhafi didn't want to take anymore, I mean - and he was also solving, starting to solve this issue over the bombing of this Pan Am plane over Lockerby, Scotland that resulted in so many deaths.
And so he was starting to resolve that internationally, and I think he was willing to slow down the program. Now, what was important was it's not clear he would've ended it if something else hadn't happened, and that was the busting up of the Khan network by the CIA and MI6.
GROSS: And that made it harder for Libya to get what it needed?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, what happened is the busting up was so thorough that they -and they gained such incredible evidence that - in a sense 100 percent iron-clad evidence that Libya had this secret nuclear weapons program underway with the help of Khan, that they had to admit to it. They couldn't get out of admitting to it, and since they were interested in reducing sanctions internationally, they basically had to go all the way and give it up.
And so it was one of these cases where the CIA and MI6 launched a very successful operation. It took many years, but the operation was so successful that it helped convince Libya to completely give up nuclear weapons, which we saw by how the International Atomic Energy Agency was allowed to come and do a thorough set of inspections to scrub all this out.
GROSS: Since your group monitors nuclear proliferation, and Libya is one of the few countries that actually abandoned its nuclear program, what lesson do you take away from the Libya story?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, one is that you can convince countries to give up nuclear weapons. In that sense, sanctions can have a very important role in convincing countries to give up nuclear weapons, as can intelligence operations that are directed at disrupting nuclear weapons efforts.
It also shows how important inspections are, that the inspections can either reveal a program after the fact, unfortunately in the case of Libya, but the weakness of the inspections that were in Libya Libya refused to let the IAEA do its job can also - should send an alarm to the international community that maybe something's going on here and increase suspicions that something secret with nuclear weapons is going on.
GROSS: You tell a great story in your book about this family, a father and two sons, the Tinners, who are from Switzerland and were part - I think they were part of the A.Q. Khan network, and then they became informants for the CIA. So tell us, first of all, what they did for the network.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Friedrich Tinner was at the beginning of the Khan smuggling network. He worked with Khan in the '70s and was very important in Khan getting the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons in Pakistan. And he was interested in additional business, and so he was anxious and interested in this offer with Libya that evolved in the 1990s.
And he became responsible for making the centrifuge components for the deal, and he enlisted his two sons to help, and so they launched a major effort to find ways to make centrifuge components. They would contract with, for example, a company in Switzerland to make, let's say, 30 components. They were setting up, or established, a company in Malaysia to make another dozen or so components, and they were looking to set up workshops, other places to be able to make centrifuge components.
And so they were working internationally to find the ways to put together what amounted to about a million components, and they were running into some trouble, but overall they were succeeding, and we call them the Three Tinners. It's the father, Friedrich, and then two sons, Urs and Marco.
GROSS: So how did the Three Tinners become CIA informants?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, as far as I could determine, I mean there's, it's the main way was through Urs. He had some trouble with the law, and...
GROSS: This is one of the sons.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's right, and he'd been sent to Dubai to take over Tinner operations there. Dubai was a major hub for the Khan network, and it had no export laws, and so kind of all this activity was legal, and so they didn't have to worry about police shutting them down.
And so he was initially contacted by the CIA and kind of convinced to be what I would view as a reluctant source for things. I don't think he was a CIA operative at that point, but it allowed the CIA to start to see what was going on and to figure out what the Khan network was up to with regard to Libya.
It's at some point in 2002, 2003, the CIA and MI6 convinced the Three Tinners, the father and the two sons, to participate. The Tinners were visited in June of 2003. One of them, Marco, the son, was kind of pressed to turn over a lot of information to the CIA at his home, including computer files. June of '03 is the date when it is viewed when the Tinners kind of, in essence, went on the CIA payroll.
GROSS: David Albright will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Peddling Peril." Albright is the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross back with David Albright. We're talking about nuclear smuggling, the elicit trade and nuclear technology that has enable rogue states to get nuclear weapons and to start nuclear weapons programs. Albright is the author of the new book "Peddling Peril."
When we left off, we talking about the three Tinners, a father and two sons from a Swiss family named Tinner, which was part of A.Q. Khan's nuclear smuggling network and then became informants for the CIA. Albright was able to learn what information the Tinners provided.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: I obtained some documents in 2005 that showed that the Tinners actually sold the CIA quite a few of the centrifuge components they were making.
GROSS: Sold the CIA?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's right. They sold it.
GROSS: After they became informants or before?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's right. So this was after June of '03, and that makes sense from the CIA's point of view, is buy up what you can. Keep it out of the hands of Libya. And so it made a lot of sense to buy it up. But what was clever is the Tinners got the same amount of money from the CIA, according to this shipping document, as they were charging the Kahn network. I mean the CIA didnt get any discount on the centrifuge parts, and it was - Tinners were collecting for this set about a million dollars for the sale.
The Tinners were also providing information about the network, and Urs was tasked - he was in Malaysia at that point. He was tasked to find out the date of a crucial shipment of centrifuge parts that were bound for Libya. In essence, it would be the smoking gun of this whole effort if it could be seized. And so Urs provided the shipping - did get the shipping documents.
It terrified him to do this but he did get the shipping document or the shipping information and was able to alert the CIA about the departure of the shipment and then the CIA was able to track the shipment and then finally seize the goods that were on the ship. It was called the BBC China. And that became a smoking gun, and at that point, Libya could no longer deny what was going on, and that helped turn them to say, look, then we really do have something and we're going to give it up.
GROSS: I'm not going to be surprised if the three Tinners become the subject of a movie.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, that's right. But, you know, they're like Mafia informers and they broke a lot of Swiss laws. And they're subject to prosecution in Switzerland, and that's...
GROSS: Well, actually, dont you write that they ended up serving more time than anybody else in the A.Q. Kahn network?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's right. And because as soon as they were arrested, they said, look, we work for the CIA. The CIA certainly wasnt saying that very openly, and it started sending signals to the Swiss government that, yeah, these guys had done some good things. But what happened, unfortunately, was the Swiss prosecutor said, look, you broke some pretty serious laws here. And yes, maybe you did some good, although we can't get the U.S. to really tell us much about that, but you broke these laws and youre accountable for those. Please cooperate with us so we can understand what you did.
And the Tinners took the position of total noncooperation with the Swiss prosecutors. And so the Swiss government or the Swiss court system was under a bind. They could flea with the help of the CIA. They're not cooperating, and so they decided to keep them in jail. And yes, they ended up - the two brothers served probably more time than anyone else. The father was released after about six months for health reasons.
GROSS: And the sons served what, five years was it?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Three and four years.
GROSS: Okay. Okay. I want to talk with you about Iran. Not only because they're probably very close to nuclear weapons now, but also because you played a role in uncovering their nuclear program. So let's start with that. What was your group's role in uncovering what Iran was up to?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: In 2001 we learned Iran had secret nuclear sites. I mean we didnt know where they were. But an Iranian opposition group in August of 2002 revealed that there were two secret nuclear sites near various - two cities: Natanz and Iraq. And what that allowed us to do is start to buy commercial satellite imagery and start to try to find those sites. And after an investigation we found them. And what we were mystified by was one near the town of Natanz.
The opposition group had called it a fuel fabrication plant, which wasnt very credible to us because we knew Iran had such a plant elsewhere and that's not a very sensitive facility if youre thinking of nuclear weapons. And so what we were able to do was figure that this site was a gas centrifuge plant. And so we were able to release, in conjunction with CNN, this pretty dramatic story that Iran was building this gas centrifuge plant.
Now, the International Atomic Energy Agency and intelligence agencies knew this already, but the public didnt know. And more importantly, Iran, because it wasnt in the public domain, was continuing to deny that it had such a facility and so our revelation forced Iran's hand to publicly reveal its gas centrifuge program.
GROSS: Now you write you were very surprised by the Bush administration's reaction to the public disclosure of Iran's nuclear program.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Yeah. I was surprised and disappointed. I mean they appeared so confident that in a sense the military option would work that their reaction to us was, look, when we get to Baghdad we're turning right instead of...
GROSS: In other words, after Baghdad, Iran.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's right. Instead of thinking, well, how do you work this thing diplomatically when youve got to start to get Iran in a corner, how do you get concessions from them? Regardless of any military plans, you have to have a policy and a plan to deal with Iran, and if they're at a disadvantage, you want to be ready to take advantage of that.
GROSS: During the Bush administration, Seymour Hersh wrote several articles about how the Bush administration was considering attacking Iran. And I'm wondering - how close do you think the Bush administration ever got to actually following through on that threat to turn right after Baghdad and attack Iran because of its nuclear program?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: I never thought they got very close. I mean if things had gone differently in Iraq, I think they may have gotten very close and maybe even tried something. But I think the military lost the appetite. I mean the policymakers didnt lose the appetite to make threats, but you didnt see much behind those threats, and Iran didnt seem to see much behind those threats and actually got emboldened. Plus, it used that, those threats, to rally its, in a sense its nation.
You know, it could use it as, for propaganda value to say how, you know, what the United States is intending to do and you better stick with us and, you know, support the nuclear program, which is, you know, the right of every Iranian. And so I thought it was used pretty effectively by the Iranian regime to gain support for a nuclear program. And the Iranians are some of the only people in the world who even know what a centrifuge is. I mean it's not normal for people to actually understand what a gas centrifuge is, but the Iranians, because of this nationalism behind the program, tend to.
GROSS: So what is the state of Iran's nuclear program now?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Iran's program is pretty advanced. I mean its centrifuge program is capable if it wanted to do so start making weapon grade uranium. It may take a while to get enough for a bomb, but still it could do it. I dont personally think right now they're ready to do it or willing to do it because that means they're going to be exposed to tremendous international pressure and possible military strikes. So I think in 2010 I dont expect Iran to make a move toward nuclear weapons; 2011, 2012, it could be a different story.
GROSS: Isn't there a debate now too about what do we do? Do we bomb Iran if it builds a nuclear - a weapon, or do we practice, you know, containment - try to prevent them from actually using it and hope that like with China, like with the former Soviet Union, that the weapons will exist but not be used?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, there's another way of approaching it too, which is really more motivated by Libya and South Africa, which is the containment - in a way it's a like a mini cold war, is meant to show a determination to end the program and try to end it before it gets nuclear weapons. If it gets nuclear weapons, try to end it then and get Iran to give up those nuclear weapons. And so it's not a program it's not a containment to accept it, its a program to end it, and at the same time to try to limit the spread of nuclear weapons into the region.
And so that's part of the reason to start to work more closely with the Arab states, is you dont want Saudi Arabia panicked about Iran and then seek some kind of nuclear umbrella or alliance with Pakistan. You know, you dont want Egypt feeling that, look, you know, we had to tolerate Israel's nuclear arsenal, now we're supposed to tolerate Iran's? And then they seek their own indigenous capability, probably with smuggling, to develop nuclear weapons themselves.
So the containment strategy is to limit the damage Iran does, deter it against using its nuclear capabilities or eventually its weapons, and then try to limit the damage that's done, while having a policy that's aimed at getting rid of those Iranian weapons.
GROSS: How would you compare the Obama and Bush strategies for dealing with Iran's nuclear aims?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think the Bush administration finally, you know, started to think through what it wanted to do, and the last year or two wasnt too bad. But it was too, in a sense, too little too late. Obama came roaring in, willing to do all kinds of things. And I think its from Iran's point of view, it may be a little too late, and that they're so close to having this nuclear weapons capability, feeling that the punishment so far for moving in those directions has been so manageable - it's not been slight but it's been manageable - that I think they want to go further and try to get as far as they can and they're not in the mood for negotiations. And I think they still view that - the regime views that going in this direction helps them domestically.
And so I think for Obama, you know, it was unfortunately maybe a little late. And so he now has the unpleasant job of ratcheting up the pressure while avoiding war. With Israel in the background, that's never easy.
GROSS: My guest is David Albright, the author of the new book "Peddling Peril."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is David Albright. He's the author of the new book "Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies." He is also the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which investigates and monitors nuclear proliferation.
You make some suggestions in your book about what the international community could do to prevent more countries from becoming nuclear countries. Tell us a couple of those suggestions.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think in looking at illicit trade the things that kind of popped out at ISIS...
GROSS: That's your group.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Yes. And that I also could see in working with companies, is part of the problem is we dont detect this illicit smuggling soon enough. I mean in a way the CIA was lucky to bust the Kahn network. I mean it didnt have to happen that way. Israel was lucky to learn about the Syrian reactor before it went online and then it bombed it. But bombing is not a good option, and so these last lines of defense are just not - they're necessary but they're what you want.
And so you want first lines of defense and that really, part of that is detecting this activity much quicker. And what I've seen in practice is companies are natural allies in this. They dont want their stuff in these secret programs and they're pretty sophisticated at spotting these suspicious inquiries for their products. And when they work with governments, it becomes synergistic and the detection comes much earlier and the intelligence agencies or governments get to see into these networks much quicker and more deeply.
GROSS: What do you think the odds are that there will be a nuclear attack in some country, on some country, in your lifetime?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think the chance of it is low, but its not low enough, and if you think of the Chernobyl accident in 1986 that spread radiation all over Europe and Russia, these low probability events can happen. And if it's a nuclear weapon, it's devastating. It could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people. And so I dont feel very confident that it's not going to happen. And although I see it as low chance it could happen, that's far too high of a chance given the destructiveness of these weapons. And I think we have to do everything we can to try to reduce the number of countries with nuclear weapons and to actually work toward getting rid of all nuclear weapons. I mean maybe we'll never reach that, but it's a lot healthier to try to get rid of these things, which I dont think anyone sees as beneficial.
GROSS: You talk about how the A.Q. Kahn network turned down al-Qaida when al-Qaida wanted nuclear materials from them. What do you think the odds are that al-Qaida will actually have a nuclear weapon?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: I think al-Qaida's going to work very hard to try to get one, and the more countries that get nuclear weapons or are working on nuclear weapons, then al-Qaida's chances improve. They need the nuclear explosive material and they're going to have to get it, and that's not easy. They're also going to learn how to make a nuclear weapon, at least a crude one that would work for them. And it would certainly be simpler than the ones nations need. But unfortunately, in a sense, time is on their side.
GROSS: When I was a kid growing up during the Cold War, I used to have like a lot of nuclear war nightmares.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: We were doing the nuclear drills. We had to hide under a desk and stuff like that. So...
Mr. ALBRIGHT: I did those too.
GROSS: Yeah. So since youre in the nuclear nonproliferation business and youre studying this nuclear stuff all the time, youre so immersed in it, do you have like nuclear dreams?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Not anymore. I mean I used to - I certainly got into this business out of kind of the horror that I saw that nuclear weapons could do, and at that time it was between United States and Russia.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: And it - but it didnt require much to be totally devastating. And so I used to think about it more. I must say, you know, I've gotten, I wouldn't say I've gotten used to it, but I've learned to live with it and it's really - I think its important that people work on it, but youve got to accept that its your in a sense staring into, you know, some pretty ugly things when you work on it.
GROSS: And do you meet a lot of pretty ugly people too? Do you meet any of the proliferators that you write about - any of the smugglers?
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Yeah, very much so. I mean we sometimes in the past have hired them. If they're willing to plead guilty, we're willing to hire them as consultants to tell their story, help us understand smuggling better. I've met people in countries like Iraq, South Africa, that were involved in their nuclear weapons programs and, you know, some are creepy. You know, some are very nice people. You know, some you can, you know, you can kind of laugh and kind of make kind of banter about the, you know, the smuggling or the making of the bomb or the tricking of the supplier.
I mean, you know, you can always have human relationships with these people, and many of them are quite nice. But there are some really creepy ones and that makes this whole thing a little more dangerous, that this isn't just nice people in a sense making mistakes. I mean there's some evil people out there who want people to get nuclear weapons and on the other side want nuclear weapons, and they're not going to hesitate to use them if it was up to them.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.
Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, thank you very much.
GROSS: David Albright is the author of "Peddling Peril" and he's the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security. You can read a chapter of his book on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.