Nuclear proliferation
January 23, 2006 9:40 PM   Subscribe

Did the CIA give the Iranians blueprints to build a nuclear bomb? The Guardian offers an extract from New York Times reporter James Risen's new book that reveals the miscalculation that led to a spectacular CIA intelligence fiasco.
posted by semmi (47 comments total)
eh, we've screwed ourselves over from day one in the middle east. from the cold war, to world war I and even before that. isn't it awesome how we get to pay for the sins of our forefathers?
posted by Doorstop at 9:48 PM on January 23, 2006

This is not the kind of story to read before bed. I'll probably have the nuclear winter nightmares now. And we went after Iraq why?
posted by fenriq at 9:54 PM on January 23, 2006

I bet even Tom Clancy would have trouble to come up with such a story. (re-reading "Debt of Honor" as the moment)
posted by nostrada at 10:01 PM on January 23, 2006

. . . "9/11" . . . "9/11" . . . "9/11" . . . "9/11"!
posted by nostrada at 10:03 PM on January 23, 2006

We love arming our enemies. We usually give them our knock-off shit and kill 'em with our better shit. Let's them think they have slightly better than a snowball's chance in hell.
posted by Mijo Bijo at 10:07 PM on January 23, 2006

As keanu would say: whoa!

Impolosion technology is the difference between needing a 12ft, long cylindrical tube with a serious amount of Uranium/Plutonium, and being able to make a bomb which fits, if not in a briefcase, then certainly in a large suitcase and needs much less of the goodies.


As I say to my friends on this topic: drink 'em while you got 'em.
posted by lalochezia at 10:12 PM on January 23, 2006

Who gets to go to jail over this mishandling of information?

Hehe, just kidding.... The CIA has never been held responsible for anything.
posted by Balisong at 10:27 PM on January 23, 2006

I think I'm going to start running up massive credit in the expectation that the whole shithouse is gonna be brought down before they force me to pay up.

Who wants a trip to Vegas? Hookers on me!
posted by fenriq at 10:45 PM on January 23, 2006

The idea of the cobalt bomb originated with Leo Szilard who publicized it in Feb. 1950, not as a serious proposal for weapon, but to point out that it would soon be possible in principle to build a weapon that could kill everybody on earth (see Doomsday Device in Questions and Answers). To design such a theoretical weapon a radioactive isotope is needed that can be dispersed world wide before it decays. Such dispersal takes many months to a few years so the half-life of Co-60 is ideal.
posted by hank at 10:52 PM on January 23, 2006

egregious spelling mistakes have been self-corrected, according to ettiquette
posted by pmbuko at 11:02 PM on January 23, 2006

posted by pmbuko at 11:03 PM on January 23, 2006

Quit now while you're way, way behind.
posted by fenriq at 11:06 PM on January 23, 2006

Shorter article: the CIA gave Iran bad plans for a nuclear device. But what if they weren't bad enough?
posted by fleacircus at 11:26 PM on January 23, 2006

fenriq: as your lawyer, i advise you to pick me up in a red chevrolet caprice convertible and we'll travel to vegas in search of the american dream.
posted by keswick at 11:27 PM on January 23, 2006

Shorter article with context: She [CIA] had sent information to one Iranian agent that exposed an entire spy network; the data could be used to identify virtually every spy the CIA had inside Iran. ... It left the CIA virtually blind in Iran, unable to provide any significant intelligence on one of the most critical issues facing the US - whether Tehran was about to go nuclear. ... On paper, Merlin was supposed to stunt the development of Tehran's nuclear programme by sending Iran's weapons experts down the wrong technical path. The CIA believed that once the Iranians had the blueprints and studied them, they would believe the designs were usable and so would start to build an atom bomb based on the flawed designs. ... The Russian studied the blueprints the CIA had given him. Within minutes of being handed the designs, he had identified a flaw. "This isn't right," he told the CIA officers gathered around the hotel room. "There is something wrong."
posted by Gyan at 11:45 PM on January 23, 2006

fenriq: as your doctor, I advise you pick me up after keswick. I'll brink plenty of painkillors.
posted by Jawn at 12:52 AM on January 24, 2006

Did the CIA give the Iranians blueprints to build a nuclear bomb?

Well, naturally they did. Clinton told them to, on days when he wasn't personally peddling military technology to the chinese while drinking fresh-killed-kitten-smoothies.
posted by namespan at 1:36 AM on January 24, 2006

How odd.

I've only just now realized that "nuclear proliferation" has the term "prolife" in it.

"Culture of Life", indeed, baybee!
posted by darkstar at 1:50 AM on January 24, 2006

It would be so much better if the article could imply that Valerie Plame had sent information to one Iranian agent that exposed an entire spy network but the important point is that it was Clinton's idea.

Also, would it be wrong for me to assume that this kind of story isn't just dug up by a hard-nosed investigative journalism but rather dumped into the reporter's lap for a specific purpose? If so, I wonder what that purpose could possibly be?
posted by well_balanced at 1:50 AM on January 24, 2006

Terrible article. First, they imply that these plans were to build a more sophisticated bomb. Then they talk about bomb technology from Pakistan, and imply that technology could aid the Iranians to understand the flawed plans. This doesn't add up. Pakistan doesn't have this implosion technology.

Perhaps this "explosive new book" has more accurate information. Perhaps they are only trying to sell the new book. Why isn't this story in the NY Times, since the author is a 'reporter' with the Times? Do reporters withhold news from their papers in order to sell books?
posted by Goofyy at 2:33 AM on January 24, 2006

"I'm so sick of arming the world and then sending troops over to destroy the fucking arms, you know what I mean? We keep arming these little countries, then we go and blow the shit out of 'em. We're like the bullies of the world, you know. We're like Jack Palance in the movie Shane, throwing the pistol at the sheep herder's feet: 'Pick it up.' 'I don't wanna pick it up mister, you'll shoot me.' 'Pick up the gun.' 'Mister, I don't want no trouble, huh. I just came down town here to get some hard rock candy for my kids, some gingham for my wife. I don't even know what gingham is, but she goes through about 10 rolls a week of that stuff. I ain't looking for no trouble, mister.' 'Pick up the gun.' Boom, boom. 'You all saw him. He had a gun.'" - Bill Hicks

Not that I'm implying that Iran is purely a small innocent country out for gingham for the wife, but y'know...
posted by slimepuppy at 2:48 AM on January 24, 2006

And the sad thing is Bill Hicks said that like 10 years ago. Still you get Bush apologist wankers thinking that America simply does the honourable thing by defending Freedom. The US is the biggest aggressor on this planet. Hicks was right - bunch of idiot cowboys running that country.

And no, it's absolutely no surprise that the US might have given Iran blueprints. At least this time they might find 'proof' after blowing the shit out of them.
posted by twistedonion at 3:57 AM on January 24, 2006

It would be impossibly stupid for Iran to attack us with a nuke, whether via straight delivery or via terrorist. With the mood in the country how it is today, people would be enthusiastically in favor of turning that entire country into glass if it was even LIKELY that they were the cause of a WMD attack.

Bio and chemical weapons are much more effective offensively. They're a lot harder to trace. Nukes just don't work well that way. If Iran is indeed after nukes (which wouldn't surprise me), I believe they're intended as a defensive weapon.

They might try a sneak nuke on Israel, but Israel is seriously badass. There wouldn't be an Iran left after a move like that, either. The Iranian government is a bunch of seriously evil people, but exactly like I said about Saddam... they are not STUPID evil people. (quite unlike our own Mayberry Machiavellis.)

I don't think Iran is a credible threat to us.

One thing that occurred to me... with all the talk of how the OPEC countries have overestimated their reserves... perhaps Iraq really does want nuclear power plants? If their oil reserves are a lot lower than they admit, they may realize that the energy crisis is coming sooner rather than later... so by bluffing and pretending it's about 'weapons', they may be figuring that they'll distract us from the real reason... incipient oil shortages. Since such shortages will make them fabulously wealthy, they probably won't want us to cut back all that much before the crunch hits.

Just a thought.
posted by Malor at 5:37 AM on January 24, 2006

I've only just now realized that "nuclear proliferation" has the term "prolife" in it.

Ahh, darkstar, you put the laughter in slaughter.

Folks, quit pretending that this is hard. We know implosion works. After all, we did it, in 1940, and it worked, the first time. Iran has machine tools with the required precision. This isn't a guess -- they have working reactors, therefore they have all the engineering tech they need to make bombs.

Harder is making things really small, and this is why the US has set off so many bombs. (How many? Lots Scroll around.). But the basic nuclear implosion rig really is a timing problem, not a physics problem. You can practice it, as well -- we did, using steel spheres and rods, until we got a workable design. Of the first three bombs detonated, two were implosion devices -- "Gadget" at the Trinity test, and "Fat Boy" over Nagasaki.

(We were so confident of the simple gun system that we didn't test it before combat use.)

This just isn't hard technology. The main reason that dozens of countries don't have nuclear weapons isn't building them, it's finding the fuel. U235 is hard to find, and needs large machines to separate out from the U238. Plutonium is, for all intents, impossible to find, you need larger machines, and time, to make it.

That's the hard part, and why things like the NPT have worked as well as they did. Hiding the plant that makes the explosive assemblies and cases is easy. Hiding the plants that extract U235 or make Plutonium is much harder. If you don't happen to have large Uranium deposits, buying the ore is a big sign that you're planning big things.

Finally, for a U235 weapon, implosion isn't that important. You need it for a plutonium based weapon -- the difference between a critical and a prompt critical mass is large enough that a simple gun type system would fizzle -- the critical reaction would blow the mass apart before the prompt critical fission chain really got going. With U235, the masses are close enough that by the time the critical reaction has generated enough energy to destroy the U235 mass, the prompt critical reaction has occurred.

Finally, a U235 gun system has enough energy to trigger a Li6 secondary. Wrap U238 (note, not 235, 238, the stuff you dig out of the ground) around that, and you have the classic Fission-Fusion-Fission three stage device they call the Teller-Ulam design, and we call the H-Bomb.

Thankfully, while the physics for that are also not that hard, the engineering isn't. Really, all you need is a workable and reasonably small fission primary.

Thankfully squared, the hardest part, both in engineering, cost and concealment, is building delivery systems that can quickly throw these bombs across continents. The only reasonably fast way Pakistan has to attack the US with a nuclear weapon is, well, FedEx.
posted by eriko at 5:54 AM on January 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thankfully, I only had two finallys. ;)
posted by eriko at 5:55 AM on January 24, 2006

Damn those Iranians are slick. Who knew we'd be giving away secrets when we posted the plans on the internet?
posted by Pollomacho at 5:59 AM on January 24, 2006

This isn't a guess -- they have working reactors, therefore they have all the engineering tech they need to make bombs.

Um, actually that would be a guess, do you have proof of a working reactor in Iran? This whole fuss is about them building one with the help of Russia.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:05 AM on January 24, 2006

(Leaked) information like this makes bombing the shit out of Iran a bit easier to swallow though. No?
posted by acrobat at 6:41 AM on January 24, 2006

Well, it's not exactly hard to come up with one yourself. I mean it's 'hard' but not so hard any well funded government couldn't do it.
posted by delmoi at 7:06 AM on January 24, 2006

I can't for the life of me figure out why anyone in the CIA would leak this story. Even if you're a patriot and think it was a complete cluster-fuck from beginning to end, you wouldn't want the Iranians to know that.

My only explanation is that either A) it was leaked by an actual traitor who wants the Iranians to build a bomb or B) It's not true.

If it weren't for the note saying that the plans were flawed, I'd have assumed that the Iranians bought real, working plans from a Russian who LATER defected to the United States and they released this story to delay them while they searched for (and hopefully corrected) a non-existentant flaw.
posted by empath at 7:09 AM on January 24, 2006

Um, actually that would be a guess, do you have proof of a working reactor in Iran? This whole fuss is about them building one with the help of Russia.

Well, there's this which mentions a uranium refinery, which the article erroneously calls a 'reactor', although supposedly refinery is one of the most difficult parts of a nuclear program. There's this article on the Bushir reactors which are being built and certainly will work when completed. Iran's nuclear program is hardly a figment of people's imagination. The question isn't "Will they have a reactor?" they will it's "Is this reactor legal under the NPT?" and "Will there be adequate safeguards once the reactor is built?" Many countries have nuclear-related programs (such as Niger) which are basically run by the "special" countries under NPT. So in theory Iran could have some sort of nuclear facility. I think. I'm not a international lawyer.

Anyway they could also build a 'light water' reactor which could not be used to create weapons grade stuff.
posted by delmoi at 7:15 AM on January 24, 2006

So, the US has no on the ground intelligence in Iran since 2004? Smooth move exlax.
posted by furtive at 7:27 AM on January 24, 2006

No, I didn't say that it was imaginary, just that I don't see any proof that they have an actual reactor up and running.

In the 50's the US did build a research reactor facility for the Shah and he had big big plans for a series of power plants in the 60's, but we never built those. I suppose you could claim that a 50's era research reactor is a "functional reactor" but that depends on if it actually functions any more (I don't even know, maybe it was dismantled before the revolution or destroyed by Saddam?), and what it's capabilities actually were (are?).
posted by Pollomacho at 8:11 AM on January 24, 2006

Why wouldn't they just buy the technology from Pakistan like everybody else?

Also the knowledge f how to make atomic bombs has been around since the 40s, I seriously doubt it's really that secret anymore.
posted by Artw at 8:12 AM on January 24, 2006

An atomic bomb is not a nuclear warhead nor is it small enough to fit on a missile. It's one thing to make Fat Man and Little Boy, it is an entirely different equation to make a nuke especially one that can reach any distance.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:34 AM on January 24, 2006

Is this where Ahmed Chalabi made his first CIA connections?
posted by nofundy at 8:38 AM on January 24, 2006

I've read the book. What was sold was not the plans for the bomb itself but the triggering mechanism, specifically the plans for the electric setup to detonate the shaped explosives which create the critical mass needed for an implosion. Its called an ignition block or something like that.

The U.S. has tried other operations involving sending defective technology abroad, most notably when they allowed the Soviets to steal defective chips for their oil pipeline accross Siberia. They were set to fail on a certain day at a certain time. Like clockwork, the entire pipleline blew up, costing the Soviets millions.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:04 AM on January 24, 2006

Is this where Ahmed Chalabi made his first CIA connections?

No, that came from his days laundering crooked oil and drug money and CIA cash in his bank scam (Petra Bank) back in the mid-70's.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:14 AM on January 24, 2006

If I’m the Iranians, I want nukes so I can use them on my oilfields if the Americans push too hard.
If I’m the Americans, I want a good reason to be able to use force against Iran.
For that I need a plausible overreaction, whether I have to manufacture one or not.
If a nuke goes off in Israel and it looks like Iran did it, I don’t think there is any question the U.S. and most of NATO will declare war on Iran.

Not that this is what is going to happen, because I don’t need it to actually happen, all I need is the threat of it to happen.

This piece sends that kind of message.

Interesting response to the “go fuck yourself we have the oil” thing from Iran.

If Iran occupied a stable point with the leash around the stability of the oil supply (and as we’ve seen better than I could illustrate in the “patent troll” thread you don’t need to entirely own a thing to have some serious influence over it and make a profit) they could have raked in the bucks for years and become a world power. Sorta like the Brits did with China (Opium wars as one f’rinstance).

Giving them enough power to be a threat to nearby nations - even to us, says “We’re not going to let you do that.” Whether they can be or are a threat, or whatever their intentions are isn’t really the point.
And I think in some ways Israel is a stalking horse (unless they’re not).
For the Iranians if they’re smart, Israel is a red herring to make us (U.S., & allies) over react. (unless it isn’t).

Speculation really, but these kinds of moves aren’t about hitting real estate anymore like they were in WWII.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:30 AM on January 24, 2006

Stratfor's recent analysis is worth reading. Iran's Redefined Strategy
posted by well_balanced at 1:38 PM on January 24, 2006

oops, bad linky. Try Iran's Redefined Strategy.
posted by well_balanced at 1:41 PM on January 24, 2006

nifty post well_balanced
posted by Smedleyman at 2:15 PM on January 24, 2006

That's a very good article, thanks for linking it.

One additional thought I'm having... perhaps they really are trying to get us to strike them. Stratfor seems to think that's a political play only, and that they're hoping not to get hit, but I think I disagree.

If they can get us to hit them while doing nothing overtly aggressive (in the eyes of the Islamic world), they'll gain boatloads of support. And if we start hitting Iran, the Iraq situation is very, very likely to deterioriate. Suddenly, they become 'brothers-in-arms' instead of 'that nation that invaded us 20 years ago.' And if they can bait Israel into attacking them, they win the jackpot.

Stratfor is trying to point out that, even with working nuclear bombs, they're not really a direct threat to us. Rather, they're counting on the Cowboy President to overreact. (Note: cowboy president idea added by me. :) )
posted by Malor at 3:24 PM on January 24, 2006

Why would Iran wanna attack you with a nuke? There's nothing to be gained in that. They'd inevitably lose, and lose big; the entire western hemisphere and their trading partners would ensure they were utterly destroyed*.

Only reason they'd ever need to get serious about using a nuke is if you attacked them.

And isn't that what everyone else that has them, has them? To ensure they are not attacked by Russia and/or the USA? and now India, and China, and France, and Britain, and... ?

*radical muslimsreligionists have no sense of fashion nor entertainment. Hollywood couldn't afford the loss.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:35 PM on January 24, 2006

Only reason they'd ever need to get serious about using a nuke is if you attacked them.

They're acting according to the Bush Doctorine, which states that if a state theoretically hostile to the US attempts to get WMD, they are subject to attack by the US. They've seen two states targeted explicity -- Iraq, without and nowhere near nuclear weapons, and North Korea, very close to nuclear weapons, if not actually in possession thereof.

Iraq was invaded and occupied. North Korea wasn't, and isn't about to be.

A few nuclear weapons make an invasion by the US doubtful to impossible. Without, you may be the next Iraq -- esp when Bush has named you explicitly.

France was one of the big victims of both World Wars -- so much so that they basically lost a generation of young men, which screwed up demographics badly there. Their answer is the Force de Frappe. If you invade France now, you will be hurt badly, if not destroyed. De Gaulle's comments were explicit and clear on this.
Within ten years we shall have whatever is necessary to kill 80 million Russians. Well I reckon one does not light-heartly attack people who are able to kill 80 million Russians, even if one can kill 800 million French, that is if there were 800 million French.
So: If you attack France, you will die.

Now we have the last Pakistani/India conflict. This one was kind of scary, because, for the first time ever, two nuclear nations were in direct military conflict.

In the end, it fizzled out, and relations started to normalize. Why? Everyone saw where the war was going. There was a point where one side would be losing too much, and nukes would be deployed, and counterdeployed, and then things get very ugly indeed. They blinked.

Iran has noticed this. No, they wouldn't be able to easily attack the US homeland. But even US Divisions and Carrier Battle Groups fall over and die under nuclear fire, and one nuke could shut down the Persian Gulf (and the oil that flows through) for a great deal of time, which might be even more devastating to the US than a nuke in Manhattan or DC.

They want the bomb, because it is about the only way they can tell the US and Israel to stay out.
posted by eriko at 6:04 AM on January 25, 2006

One of my wishes is for Canada to have a nuke aimed directly at our oil sands. If the USA makes any threatening military moves against Canada, we nuke the sands.

We'll sell you the oil, no worries. Just keep your greedy goddamn hands out of our country.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:03 AM on January 25, 2006

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