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«Intelligence and nuclear proliferation: an introduction to the special issue This item was submitted to Loughborough University's Institutional ...»

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Loughborough University

Institutional Repository

Intelligence and nuclear

proliferation: an

introduction to the special


This item was submitted to Loughborough University's Institutional Repository

by the/an author.

Citation: BOWEN, W.Q., DOVER, R. and GOODMAN, M.S., 2014. Intelli-

gence and nuclear proliferation: an introduction to the special issue. Intelligence

and National Security, 29 (3), pp. 315 - 322.

Additional Information:

• This article was published in the journal, Intelligence and National Secu- rity [ c Taylor & Francis (Routledge)] and the denitive version is available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02684527.2014.895590 https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/2134/15297

Metadata Record:

Accepted for publication


c Taylor & Francis (Routledge)


Please cite the published version.

Intelligence and Nuclear Proliferation: An Introduction to the Special Issue Wyn Q. Bowen, Robert Dover and Michael S. Goodman “The atomic bomb was an interesting intelligence problem …”(R. V. Jones, Director of Scientific Intelligence1) Intelligence has long played an integral role in the context of western and broader international responses to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and efforts to contain the associated technology, materials and expertise. There are, of course, many challenges associated with accurately assessing proliferation intentions, processes, programmes and the underlying scientific and technical wherewithal. There is also an uneven record in this respect.

On the one hand, the inaccuracy and misjudgements that characterized the British and American intelligence assessments related to Iraq's nuclear and other weapons programmes in 2002–3 resulted in a costly war of choice to topple the Saddam Hussein regime fought officially on the erroneous grounds of forcible disarmament. The understandable controversy that followed regarding the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has, arguably, clouded what have otherwise been several important intelligence successes in recent years. Indeed, intelligence collection and analysis has played a pivotal role in national and international responses to the suspect nuclear activities of Libya, Iran and Syria since 2001.

US-UK intelligence efforts vis-à-vis the A. Q. Khan proliferation network provided significant insights into the increasingly trans-national and non-state-based nature of proliferation and were a major contribution to nuclear rollback in Libya.2 Lord Butler's review of British intelligence noted the ‘uncovering and dismantlement of this network is a remarkable tribute to the work of the intelligence agencies’.3 Moreover, the timely insights into the nature of Libya's nuclear activities provided by American and British intelligence helped to increase the pressure on the regimeand to accelerate and cement its decision of December 2003 to abandon its nuclear and other WMD programmes.4 Significantly, this included the interdiction in October 2003 of the rather innocuous-sounding BBC China – a boat en route to Libya to deliver a cargo of gas centrifuge enrichment equipment from the A. Q. Khan network to the country's nuclear weapons programme. The intelligence gathered on Libya increased US-UK confidence in the subsequent dismantlement of the weapons programmes, and British and American intelligence officers also played a pivotal role in bringing the Libyans to the negotiating table through ‘covert diplomacy’. This intelligence success helped to lay the foundations for the UK and Libya to foster closer trade links in the years following: the unpromising start of counter-proliferation intelligence made a significant contribution to the development of a useful bilateral link that was only scuppered by the Arab Spring-inspired uprising in late 2010, and which resulted in Colonel Gadhaffi's overthrow in October 2011.

Iran's nuclear programme has become a key focus of western intelligence agencies, although intelligence assessments have caused some controversy in this case too. In December 2007, for example, the public release of the summary findings of the US National Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear programme and intentions, which concluded in part that Iran had ‘halted’ its military nuclear activities in 2003, significantly undermined the position of those arguing at that time in favour of using military force to enforce non-proliferation in this context.5 Moreover, US allies in Europe reportedly assessed that Iran had probably continued to work on weaponization after 2003.6 More recently, at a G8 meeting in Pittsburgh in September 2009, Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Gordon Brown released previously secret US, French and British intelligence on Iran's efforts to construct a clandestine enrichment facility inside a mountain about 20 miles from the city of Qom. The announcement was prompted by Iran's realization that the facility had been identified by external intelligence organizations which prompted it to deliver ‘a vague, terse letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency’ (IAEA) noting that a second uranium enrichment site was being built.7 The site was subsequently placed under IAEA Safeguards. There has also been a suggestion that the UK Secret Intelligence Service has engaged in covert measures to disrupt Iran's weaponization efforts.8 In neighbouring Syria two years previously in 2007, Israel had launched a preventive military attack against a suspected clandestine heavy water reactor under construction.9 The discovery of the reactor by Israel had reportedly occurred after a review of all potentially relevant intelligence on nuclear proliferation in the region following its failure to detect Libya's acquisitions via the A. Q. Khan network.10 In April 2008, US intelligence officials subsequently gave a public and very detailed briefing on the intelligence case against Syria and its suspected clandestine plutonium reactor which Israeli aircraft had destroyed the previous September.11 While Israel had informed Washington of the existence of the Syrian site prior to the attack, the Bush administration opted not to launch a military strike of its own.12

Intelligence and Nuclear Proliferation

Nuclear proliferation is a dynamic process characterized by evolving political motivations, opaque strategic intentions and an ever-changing technical backdrop, typified by often innovative illicit procurement techniques and elaborate deception efforts on the part of proliferators to conceal the existence, or progress, of nuclear weapons related activities.

Indeed, Ellis and Kiefer note that ‘since the nature of the specific proliferation challenges presented by states, as well as their underlying motives, varies considerably, it is unlikely that a one-size-fits-all policy will achieve the desired non-proliferation objectives in every case’.13 They further emphasize that ‘forecasting trends, divining intentions, and estimating capabilities are central to understanding the proliferation enterprise’.14 The dynamic nature of proliferation has obvious implications in itself, but it also has far reaching connotations when considered from the perspective of intelligence collection and analysis. Certainly, intelligence is central to understanding and coping with or managing the nuclear proliferation problem, whether the focus is the target country itself or the locations from and the transit routes via which materials, equipment, components and knowledge are sourced. The pre-eminence of intelligence comes from the lengths to which proliferators seek to hide their efforts, and nuclear weapons programmes are invariably the most secret aspect of what tend to be very secretive regimes. As Lord Butler concluded, ‘proliferating states usually represent difficult targets for intelligence collectors, and weapons programmes are usually particularly difficult targets within them’.15 Similarly, the United States' WMD Commission report gloomily recorded: ‘there is no single strategy the Intelligence Community can pursue to counter the “proliferation” menace’.16 This raises the question of what policy makers can reasonably hope that intelligence might achieve if there is no magic formula to hand.

From the perspective of intelligence, capabilities and intentions are two very different things.

In terms of capability, a nuclear weapons programme is an incredibly expensive and complicated entity and, to be successful, will generally require several key elements: access to sufficient financial resources; a solid scientific base ranging from scientists at the top down to competent engineering technicians at the bottom; sufficient quantities of raw material; the industrial and engineering wherewithal to manufacture a weapon; and an effective procurement mechanism to secure infusions of technology, materials and technical knowledge from abroad as and when necessary. Bringing all of this together also requires effective leadership and skilled management at various levels across a programme. From an intelligence perspective then, an awareness of the capability of a state requires addressing certain essential questions including among others: what is the state of the scientific infrastructure in country x? What level of training in nuclear-related subjects is on offer? Have scientists studied abroad and if so where and with whom? What technologies and materials can be sourced domestically and what will need to be acquired from abroad?

Most elements on the capability side of the equation are, generally speaking, more straightforward to spot and to understand. A nuclear weapons programme will, of necessity, be a large-scale endeavour with numerous different sites often deployed across a country.

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