The FBI arrested a former NASA scientist Monday afternoon on charges of attempted espionage. Prosecutors say he tried to deliver nuclear secrets to someone posing as an Israeli intelligence officer. Israel already has the capacity to build nuclear weapons, as do at least seven other nations. So what passes for a nuclear secret these days?
Anything that's classified. The Mossad and intelligence agencies from other countries (both friendly and hostile) aren't looking for big picture information like how to build a bomb, but rather whatever details the United States government values sufficiently to keep quiet. They might be interested in our latest designs for missile-launching equipment or other technological innovations—like the fabled backpack nuke. Nuclear secrets may also pertain to technique, rather than technology: How we ensure the safety of our stockpiles, for example.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, nuclear spy craft was a more bread-and-butter endeavor. Stalin had a team of scientists dedicated to developing the bomb, but his atomic project was likely sped along by espionage. The German-born British physicist Klaus Fuchs, for example, supplied British and American atomic bomb research to the USSR after World War II. In 1945, Soviet intelligence agents acquired blueprints that may have permitted the project scientists to skip dangerous, costly, and time-consuming tests. And American communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953 for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets—though doubts remain about the extent of Ethel's involvement. * But the basic designs for nuclear bombs have been set for decades now. Most innovations since the 1970s have led to safety rather than performance improvements. The design for our most advanced thermonuclear weapon, a W88 warhead mounted on a Trident II 5D missile, was completed in 1989.
Spies are as likely to target industrial secrets as government ones. In 2007, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission accused China of running an "aggressive and large-scale industrial espionage campaign," enlisting scientists and engineers to get ahold of technology secrets from private companies "by whatever means possible—including theft." The French and German spy services have also been fingered for stealing trade secrets. According to a 1990 Time article, "the French intelligence service … recruited spies in the European branches of IBM, Texas Instruments and other U.S. electronics companies" in 1989 to pass "along secrets involving research and marketing to Compagnie des Machines Bull, the struggling computer maker largely owned by the French government."
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Explainer thanks Thomas Boghardt of the International Spy Museum and John Pike of GlobalSecurity.Org.
Correction, Oct. 21, 2009: This article originally misspelled the first name of Ethel Rosenberg. (Return to the corrected sentence.)