SHOPPING FOR BOMBS: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network

By Gordon Corera

Oxford Univ. 288 pp. $28

It is tempting to demonize A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani engineer who became infamous for selling nuclear weapons designs and production equipment to North Korea, Iran, Libya and perhaps others. Demonizing the fiery nationalist who brought the bomb to Pakistan -- the state that nurtured the Taliban and remains a den of terrorist training and Islamist fanaticism -- can actually be reassuring: If Khan is written off as simply evil, then his deeds can be written off as peculiar sins that do not reflect flaws in the international system.

Unfortunately, life is more complicated. As the BBC reporter Gordon Corera vividly narrates in his fine new "Shopping for Bombs," it was prosperous Western engineers and business people who eagerly provided the wares that Khan marketed, and it was largely governments from the "advanced" world, including the United States, that failed to correct the weaknesses in export rules that Khan's network exploited. Khan was a brilliant shopper, trade expediter and salesman, not a great technologist. Now exposed as an arms peddler and confined to his villa in Islamabad, he is certainly an egomaniacal and amoral man, but the systemic dangers he represents are far larger than any one person.

The network took decades to build. Khan, a metallurgist, left the Netherlands for Pakistan in the 1970s, armed with nuclear centrifuge designs and parts stolen from his employers at a Dutch engineering firm, as well as lists of the manufacturers of components for a uranium-enrichment plant. That's important because nuclear export controls work like a filter: Rulemakers decide which components should be controlled and then set the gauge of the filter to catch them. With his eager vendors' connivance, Khan realized that these controls could be bypassed by trading subcomponents that would pass undetected through the filters. As Corera shows, instead of transferring complete centrifuges, which would have set off alarm bells, the Khan network would buy and sell specialized steel parts, magnets and electrical gear separately and assemble them later in Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, Libya and perhaps elsewhere. As countries got wise to the game, the network would move its manufacturing to less suspecting and less suspected countries such as Malaysia.

Khan's venality and recklessness were immoral but, by and large, not illegal. No international criminal law proscribes the proliferation of nuclear weapons or the wherewithal to produce them. That isn't the case for other dangerous evils such as slave-trading, hijacking and piracy, but when it comes to peddling nukes, each country is supposed to make its own laws and decide whether and how to prosecute violators. "It has been estimated," Corera writes, "that at least two-thirds of the Khan network was entirely legitimate, breaking no law." The few members of the network who have been prosecuted have done little or no jail time.

"Shopping for Bombs" is more than the fast-paced story of an alarming proliferation network and the conditions that let it flourish. Corera also offers a fascinating, detailed account of how Libya surprised the world with its undetected nuclear acquisitions and how the United States and Britain secretly persuaded Moammar Gaddafi to verifiably give them up.

That proved to be a major turning point for Khan. Washington and London had started getting detailed intelligence on the surprising extent of his network's activities in 2000, but before taking action against it, U.S. and British intelligence agencies wanted to learn more "to be sure that all the tentacles were under surveillance. Otherwise they could simply go underground and emerge soon after in a new -- and unknown -- form." But then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf suddenly became a key helper in the U.S.-led war against al-Qaeda. Pressing Musharraf to put Khan out of business would have to wait.

But in 2003, when the United States and Britain managed to induce Gaddafi to hand over all his nuclear equipment, materials and blueprints, Libya provided troves of new intelligence on the Khan network, which served as the public justification for Musharraf finally to turn on Pakistan's greatest hero and source of nuclear pride. But Musharraf continued to dodge and conceal information that would be vital to preventing future proliferation.

Here, Corera takes readers briskly through some real policy conundrums without lapsing into wonk talk. "The United States had invested so much in Musharraf personally rather than building broader democratic institutions that it found itself with little leverage to influence Pakistani policy," he notes. Would cutting off U.S. aid -- meant primarily to boost Pakistan's cooperation in hunting al-Qaeda -- change Musharraf's calculations? When the United States had imposed severe sanctions on Pakistan in 1990 because of its nuclear weapons program, it had pushed the Khan network into overdrive. The diminished U.S.-Pakistani relationship that resulted from the sanctions deprived the United States of contacts and intelligence that might have helped uncover Khan's activities; it also reduced the leverage Washington had to try to get the Pakistani government to crack down on the Khan network.

Gaddafi eased these dilemmas by exposing the network's dangers and scope so dramatically that the heretofore reluctant Musharraf had to take Khan out of commission. But the basic dilemmas raised by Pakistan remain relevant for Iran and other future flashpoints: Is combating proliferation more important than hunting terrorists or promoting regime change? If bombing, invading or sanctioning a country -- whether Pakistan or Iran -- cannot solve the proliferation problem, what levers can compel changes in nuclear policy? International criminalization of activities described so cogently by Corera certainly wouldn't hurt.