The Point of No Return

First Pakistan's A.Q. Khan showed that any country could have made a nuclear bomb. Then he showed—not once but three times—why the nuclear trade will never be shut down

But trading in nuclear-weapons technology is more than just a form of misbehavior. To ignore such activities once they are known is in effect to participate in them. The lack of financial trails is inconvenient, but it does not obscure the essential history. A. Q. Khan had allies in high places who, rather than ignoring his activities, were directly involved. In Pakistan this can only mean the generals, including some of those currently in power, and to a certain but unknowable degree Musharraf himself. Hasan mentioned that the country's leaders had without question been given plenty of warning. It turns out that Munir Ahmed Khan, A. Q. Khan's despised rival and the director of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, had been a longtime friend of Hasan's. In the late 1980s Munir Ahmed Khan had repeatedly complained to Hasan that A. Q. Khan was corrupt and, more important, that he was involved in selling Pakistan's nuclear-weapons technology abroad. According to Hasan, Munir Ahmed Khan had taken the same complaints to the generals in charge at the time, and of course nothing had been done.

Hasan used the term "traitorous" to characterize A. Q. Khan's activities. I said, "Can an activity be traitorous when the government itself is complicit, and in a country without effective law? I mean, at what point does such activity in such a place simply become a policy?"

He gave that to me. He said, "You're right. You can be a traitor only if the power is not aware."

Beyond Pakistan, those aware of A. Q. Khan's growing proclivity to export his nuclear wares included a small number of non-proliferation specialists in the intelligence services of the West. These were people sworn to secrecy, and though they were concerned, they remained largely paralyzed so long as their own governments—and particularly the leaders of the United States—placed greater importance on propping up the various Pakistani regimes than on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Just outside these circles, however, stood a few unofficial observers who were harder to control, and who kept peering in. The most persistent of them was an obscure American journalist named Mark Hibbs, who is largely unknown to the public, but must rank as one of the greatest reporters at work in the world today.

Hibbs is a legend within the secretive realm of nuclear power. At the age of fifty-four now, he is based in Bonn, Germany, where he lives with his longtime girlfriend when he is not traveling. He travels a lot. With a slight shift in intent he would have made an excellent spy. He looks like one too, with a bearing so ordinary for a middle-aged man that from even a short distance away—in a hotel lobby, in a restaurant, on a European street—he can be hard to identify. His face would be ordinary too, were it not for the exceptional intelligence that animates his features when he speaks and the habit he has of frowning in deep concentration while remembering the events that have shaped his work.

Those events go way back. For more than twenty years Hibbs has been reporting the news for Nucleonics Week and Nuclear Fuel, two publications with ultra-high subscription rates and correspondingly low circulations, now disseminated primarily on the Web. These publications stand among sixty-five similar ones in a McGraw-Hill group called Platts, dedicated to the petrochemical and energy industries. Other Platts titles include Megawatt Daily, Emissions Daily, and Dirty Tankerwire. Subscribers to Nucleonics Week also receive daily "Nuclear News Flashes," which could nicely be shortened to "Nuclear Flashes" if only Platts would lighten up. But Platts will not. Hibbs is its star, but he earns just a modest middle-class salary that allows him to get by. Platts has a lock on him in part because there are so few journalistic outlets for his knowledge. Much of what he writes is of short-term interest at best, and only to regulators and nuclear-energy insiders; he has filed thousands of such service reports over the years. Imbedded among them, however, are several hundred related dispatches—usually inconclusive, yet accurate and precise—that together tell an ongoing story of great consequence to the international political order, and perhaps even to the survival of mankind. That story is about the gradual failure of the United States, Europe, Russia, and China to prevent nuclear arsenals from spreading around the globe, and the ferocious determination to acquire such arsenals that upstart nations, some banding together, continue to show.

It is to Hibbs's advantage that he is not, strictly speaking, a spy. Because he works in the open, without a security clearance, he is not bound by government policies and cannot easily be silenced. There are others outside the government who share his freedom—professors, analysts, and advocates—and a few of them are very good, but none have produced results to equal his. Superficially, what he does seems simple enough: he ferrets out details from a variety of sources, fits them into patterns in his mind, and writes them up. But that process requires unlimited patience, sound technical knowledge, an intense determination to avoid making mistakes, and a sense for the plausible in a world full of lies. These are rare attributes, and in Hibbs they combine. It helps that he is not a crusader, and that although he privately regrets the spread of nuclear weapons, in his reports he takes no sides. It helps as well that publications he writes for do not accept advertisements, and understand that their value to their readers lies in delivering the news even if that news embarrasses the industry or is otherwise impolite.

He told me once that it is very lonely work, and more so even than ordinary writing, because for all his influence, he writes for an audience imbued with secrecy, and therefore rarely hears from his readers. Speaking of a meeting he attended of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, he said, "I remember I sat down in the back of the room, and there was a delegate from one of the Western countries who was sitting next to me. I looked at him, and on his lap he had a copy of an article I did on the Iranian centrifuge program. It was a Xerox of the article I did. And the copy was meticulously underlined, and some things were circled, and there were written comments in the margins. So I tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'You know, that's interesting. Can you tell me where you got that article?' He looked at me and said, 'Why do you want to know?' I said, 'Because I'm the author.' So what did he do? He turned white as a sheet, and just ran out of the room! It was the weirdest thing."

Weird perhaps, but standard for Hibbs. That was his point. He said, "Sometimes I feel that what I do is happening in a black box. The readers have security clearances. They read what I write in classified rooms in government offices and companies all over the world, and often they don't like what they're seeing. So how do they react? They go and talk to their buddies, who also have security clearances. Or they send a message to their enemies, and it's the same thing. You could be unleashing a major international crisis and wouldn't even know it, because it's all secret. Once the information is out there, you have no idea what's going on. Most of the time you just don't know. You don't hear about it. The reaction itself becomes classified. The lack of feedback is the really disturbing thing about this job."

Still, as he admitted to me, he has thrived.

It is not a life a person could seek, or even imagine in advance. Hibbs was born in 1951 in a nondescript town in upstate New York. His father was a smalltime accountant, and characteristically tidy. His mother was a housewife, and came from a large working-class Irish family. Hibbs had six uncles and aunts from her side alone, and many of them lived nearby with children of their own. As one of the oldest among the cousins, Hibbs was the focus of his aunts' and uncles' attention. When the Vietnam War came along, they assumed that the right thing to do was to go off and fight.

But Hibbs went off to Cornell instead, and they were nonetheless proud. They believed that the purpose of attending a good university was to learn good manners—how to wear a suit, sip wine, and hold a knife and fork in just the correct style. For Hibbs it did not work out that way. He joined the rebellion of the time, and when he returned home on break, he ate with his fingers and flaunted his long hair. He opposed the war in Vietnam, and wanted America to change. He marched in demonstrations. But he never became as radical as his friends. He simply could not follow along with other people's thinking without at some point considering that perhaps they were wrong. This, of course, was the real benefit of a good education, and it later served him well in deciphering the mysteries of nuclear proliferation. But even now in his family there must be some who do not understand.

In 1973, the last year of the draft, he graduated from Cornell with a degree in literature and history, and drifted to Boston, where for some years he worked as a cartographer, designing maps for public-transportation agencies. In the late 1970s he moved to New York and enrolled in a master's program at Columbia to study international diplomacy. He knew that Israel had nuclear arms, and that India had tested its own device (the "Smiling Buddha" of 1974), but he was not aware of Pakistan's ongoing program to respond in kind. If he thought about nuclear weapons at all, it was in the conventional terms of the Cold War turning hot. In July of 1981 the realities of proliferation were briefly thrust upon him when the Israeli Air Force bombed the French-built Osirak reactor in Iraq, ending a secret attempt by Saddam Hussein to extract plutonium from spent fuel and acquire a nuclear arsenal of his own. But Hibbs did not imagine that he himself would ever be involved in such matters.

He had a talent for language that allowed him eventually to learn German, Dutch, and French, as well as some Russian and a little Chinese. After leaving Columbia he stayed on in New York, working as a freelance consultant and editor, primarily for a German government office, but he found it difficult to earn a living, and so left for Europe, from which he has never permanently returned. For a while he lived in London, doing research for the Financial Times in the energy business—an area previously unknown to him, but of sufficient depth to engage his mind. He moved to Bonn, where he continued the same work and contributed occasionally to Business Week. His writing was concise. He was in no sense yet anything like a spy. Without having thought his career through in advance, he had become a reporter.

Presented by

William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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