In 1986, when Hibbs was thirty-five, the Soviet reactor at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, melted down. Hibbs began to travel to the Soviet Union to report on its nuclear industry, a subject still largely hidden from view. The puzzle fascinated him. He was a fast learner, capable both of grasping physical technicalities and, more important, of navigating the complex political terrain that surrounds the use of nuclear power. His interest in the field expanded worldwide. By then he had found his outlet, too, and was writing for Platts, which soon hired him full-time.
For a while he wrote only about civil nuclear power. To anyone outside the industry it was mind-numbing stuff. But beneath the surface in Europe was action of a different sort: though the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) had come into force, and parallel protocols had been agreed upon to restrict the export of materials necessary for the construction of nuclear bombs, enforcement was lax, and individual companies, particularly in Germany, were eagerly doing business with a growing number of nuclear-weapons aspirants. Much of the business was questionable but not obviously illegal; for the most sensitive items it involved dealings with middlemen who worked through front companies and third-country destinations and provided the sellers with usable explanations. Then as now, European attitudes were soft despite official abhorrence of such activities, because in private the nuclear non-proliferation initiatives—accompanied as they were by repeated U.S. scolding—were perceived by many European officials as yet another self-serving American crusade. Along with their resentment of American domination came an understanding that providing nuclear technology (especially in big packages to the Middle East) was a way of gaining European influence in strategically important regions. Hibbs began to write extensively about the activity in 1988, when the German parliament, the Bundestag, finally opened an investigation. For two years government officials and businessmen were called in to explain their dealings, especially with Pakistan. Some sessions were tense. In the end, however, the Bundestag issued a report absolving German companies of involvement in the trade. The report was absurd. Hibbs wrote it up at length but brushed it aside.
Neither he nor his readers needed the Bundestag to tell them what was going on. Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, though officially denied, was well known to the world by then, as was the existence of its procurement network in Europe. A. Q. Khan had been bragging about himself for years: it was he who had stolen the centrifuge designs from the Dutch-British-German consortium URENCO, in Holland; who had used them to construct a plant in Pakistan for the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium; who had built the necessary procurement network worldwide; and who, he sometimes slyly implied, had followed through with the design for a Pakistani bomb. Indeed, Khan was already such a figure in the West that as far back as 1985 he had been featured in Time magazine. In the European and American press he was portrayed as an evil scientist and a treacherous spy, but in many ways it made sense for Pakistan to have the bomb—as much, at least, as it does for other countries, including the United States. In private Hibbs would probably have disagreed; recently to me he characterized Khan's efforts as "diabolical." But he kept those thoughts to himself, and in print went hard after the nuclear news.
Some of that news continued to be of Pakistan. A few of the most blatant suppliers were prosecuted in Germany and the Netherlands; more were identified but, for lack of proof of intent, they were left to continue the trade. The Pakistani procurement network remained large and robust, providing not only for A. Q. Khan's uranium-enrichment plant but also for a parallel program to acquire plutonium—the alternative material for a fission bomb—which was led by Munir Ahmed Khan, at the head of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. Over the course of the 1990s Hibbs dug through the evidence, forming hypotheses in his mind and asking increasingly precise questions of obscure specialists who knew of him but did not necessarily know what he was after.
I asked him to take me inside his investigative process. He said, "There was a German company that was exporting a certain device to Pakistan that in the worst case could have been for the nuclear-weapons program. All the surface evidence suggested that no, this was the case of a scientist who went to Pakistan and sold some equipment to an innocuous research institution—and that was the end of it. That was the official explanation in Germany. But then I looked at it, and looked at it again from a couple of different points of view, and there was a very small chance that the equipment could have been used for removing tritium, a gas that comes into play in nuclear weapons. I wondered, 'Could you use the equipment for that? I mean, it's pretty far-fetched, but is it possible?' After a while I realized you could use it for that. Then I wondered, 'Is there anything else he did that indicated he had the know-how?' I started talking to people, and just kept asking one question after another. I was operating in a vacuum, and people in the nuclear laboratories in the U.S. weren't supposed to be telling me anything. But I kept asking, 'Could it be this?' and 'Could it be that?' and 'If that's true, could it also be this?' And after several months, when it appeared that the answers were all yes, finally the article I wrote stated that this guy in Germany had exported equipment to Pakistan for the removal of tritium. And I'm told that inside the U.S. laboratories there was a shit storm, because what I wrote matched what they were thinking, and it was all classified."
I said, "But day-to-day what does that work really look like, tangibly?"
He said, "It looks like talking to as many people as you can."
"With narrow questions?"
"Yeah, but also general, generic questions. If you call somebody in a government laboratory and you ask him, 'Do you think this German is exporting equipment for Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program?,' the guy will probably hang up. He'll think, 'What? Nuclear weapons in Pakistan? This is a government laboratory, and this reporter doesn't have a security clearance! Get OFF the phone!' But if you meet the same guy at a conference and you ask him a generic question about the configuration of the machine—'If the piece of equipment is configured like this, could it be used for that, could it be used for this?'—then maybe he will answer. And then if you ask a bunch of different people the same generic question, maybe something will crystallize out of it, and you'll get closer."
Hibbs writes about wisps of smoke. Still, over the years the wisps have added up. A growing number of diplomats and policy analysts now express satisfaction that earlier predictions of a widely nuclearized world have been proved wrong, but it is largely just the timing that was off. Non-proliferation functionaries would earnestly disagree with such a gloomy assessment, as they must because of the business they are in. It is natural that they cite their successes, and necessary that they struggle on. But despite the occasional collapse of nuclear-weapons programs, and the inconveniencing of programs in place, the readers of Platts over the years can have harbored few illusions about the trend. Proliferation is a ratcheting affair that moves in fits and starts, and often slips backwards, but gradually and incrementally progresses. Diplomatic efforts to suppress it are weakened by national jealousies, UN-style dithering, higher geopolitical priorities, the sheer volume of international trade, and, at the most fundamental level, the inability of the Great Powers themselves to disarm. In a world where perhaps ten countries have already acquired the bomb, and another thirty have the capacity to build one relatively fast, rational reasons for choosing that path will now and then arise. If even Pakistan can go nuclear, almost any other nation can as well.
None of this was an argument for giving up on the struggle to restrict nuclear weapons, or for turning away from the non-proliferation treaties and accords as they existed. Indeed, Hibbs's writing made it clear that these international instruments needed to be strengthened. By 1989 smoke was rising on many horizons. Word emerged through Israeli intelligence that Saddam Hussein, having suffered the loss of the Osirak reactor, had reconstituted a nuclear-weapons program and was pushing to build a functioning bomb within two years. Iraq had signed the NPT, and had therefore been subject to twice-yearly inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is headquartered in Vienna. Such inspections were at that time strangely unobtrusive worldwide. They occurred by invitation only, with itineraries controlled by the host governments and negotiated weeks in advance. In Iraq they had resulted in little more than some good dinners, perhaps a belly-dancing show, and the chance to tour around. By the IAEA's diplomatic standards the country remained clean. This meant either that the report from Israel was false (and probably propaganda) or that a serious failure had occurred at the very core of the NPT. After the 1991 Gulf War it turned out that both were to some degree true.
Meanwhile, Hibbs filed a dispatch—the first of more than 160 that he wrote on proliferation in Iraq—in which he described widespread skepticism among nuclear experts that any Iraqi program could be so close to producing a bomb, and gave the reasons why. In time his skepticism became a point of contention with the mainstream American press, which reflected Washington's tendency to take Saddam at his word and to exaggerate the immediate nuclear danger that he posed. Hibbs reflected a more sober view. As always, his writing was based on the closest attention to detail. He did not doubt that Iraqi engineers could someday build a bomb, and that Saddam Hussein was just the man to use it, but he was aware of the technical difficulties that would first have to be overcome.
The largest difficulty was acquiring sufficient quantities of bomb-grade fuel. As is now known, Iraq had abandoned the hope of extracting plutonium from its civil reactors and, like Pakistan and other countries, had decided instead to pursue weapons built around cores of highly enriched uranium. As a signatory to the NPT it had the right to use lower-grade enriched uranium for power generation and research, but such fuel was monitored, or "safeguarded," by the IAEA, and therefore was difficult to divert into a weapons program without attracting attention. The solution was to construct an entirely separate enrichment program that from start to finish would remain hidden from sight, or at least be deniable. In the mid-1980s—toward the end of the war with Iran, when Saddam was still something of a friend of the United States—Iraq launched a secret initiative to buy or steal the necessary parts, mostly from the West. Hibbs eventually caught on. Writing from Bonn in the summer of 1990, just after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, he broke the news of an extensive Iraqi procurement effort under way in Europe and the United States, whose purpose was to acquire the materials necessary for a uranium-enrichment centrifuge plant.