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David A. Andelman: The Acorn Dossier, by William Beecher

The ultimate nightmare for the nuclear age is not the behavior of a rogue nuclear power like North Korea, nor the potential for evil of a "wannabe" like Iran. Rather it is the all but totally unpredictable event of an errant nuke falling into the hands of an all but totally uncontrollable, not to mention unpredictable, even undetectable, hands of a nuclear terrorist. Undetectable, that is, before it's too late. This is the premise of the riveting nuclear thriller, The Acorn Dossier; an entirely new genre of spy caper from an author whose career has uniquely positioned him to offer us such a delectable and exciting yarn. William Beecher, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, served for years as the Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times. He then covered national security out of the Washington bureau of the Boston Globe before moving to the Department of Defense and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where he was intimately involved with the teams that actually tracked the whereabouts of the world's nukes. Who better, then, to posture the nightmare scenario that unfurls in this book? As it opens, a team of elite retired Spetsnaz commandos are assembling quietly but most efficiently in a plush villa in Ljubljana, Slovenia; they have gathered from the four corners of the former Soviet empire for one final, highly lucrative, covert operation. The organizer of this rogue enterprise is former Spetsnaz general Nikolai Brik, codenamed "Merlin"—but whose full nickname is Merlin the Merciless. And merciless he certainly turns out to be. Merlin, it seems, is a veteran undercover operative. Put on the shelf in the post-Soviet world of Kremlin-backed oligarchs and what he sees as their American allies, he nurses a deep grudge against his former bosses, but especially against the United States. His reasons unfold as we wind through the intricacies of a tale centered on deeply hidden caches of "suitcase bombs," sequestered during the depths of the Cold War in various towns across America. Their "sleeper" handlers have long since been forgotten, it appears, by everyone but themselves, but Merlin prepares to change all that. The assumption is diabolical, frightening and deeply relevant, for the suitcase bomb is by no means the figment of the unquestionably vivid imagination of William Beecher. The ability to compress a nuclear device multiple times more powerful than the two weapons that laid Hiroshima and Nagasaki to waste in World War II is very real. Such devices were more widely constructed (and deployed) by the Soviet Union than the United States, and as they require no intercontinental ballistic missile for their delivery, they are extraordinarily difficult to track. Their mere existence keeps nuclear monitors awake nights, especially today. It is clear that terrorists have repeatedly tried to lay their hands on such weapons over the past two decades; the organizations range from Al Qaeda in the caves along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to the lethal and deranged Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo, which unleashed sarin gas in the Tokyo subways after its members failed to procure a nuclear device in 1995. It is hardly a large leap of faith to assume that a rogue post-Soviet general might, for his own nefarious purposes, succeed where the others have failed. The problem, of course, is that terrorists like these are prepared to endure multiple failures. Western intelligence, however, needs only a single failure—and these terrorists only a single success—to change the course of human history and render vast stretches of our planet uninhabitable for centuries to come. This is the underlying, and critically important, message of The Acorn Dossier, beyond the indisputable page-turner that is the entertainment value of Beecher's work. The stakes are impossibly high, as are the profits to be made by arms merchants prepared to unleash a twenty first-century holocaust if they manage to acquire, by hook, by crook, or by bribery, such devices. This dilemma is even more complex than a simple one of threats of nuclear holocaust. Imagine, for instance, if a rogue group (or individual for that matter) were to actually acquire such a suitcase bomb and smuggle it into New York. Let's examine the feasibility of these two steps. Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union—and the all but total anarchy unleashed in the heart of some of the organizations that created, deployed, and guarded that disintegrating nation's vast nuclear arsenal—it is known that some weapons were unaccounted for. Some rogue arms merchants, claiming they had acquired weapons and fissionable material, offered them for sale on the international black arms market (all bogus offers, as it turned out). How confident are we that such a transaction might not be possible in the future? As Beecher suggests, the scenario is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Second, there's the question of delivery of such a weapon. When Eliot Spitzer prepared to take over the office of governor of New York three years ago, he commissioned a study of his state's strategic security. The conclusion of this top-secret, blue-ribbon panel? That the greatest single threat (beyond the millions of all but unmonitored shipping containers that arrive each year in the ports of New York and Newark) are the hundreds of thousands of small craft, from rowboats and kayaks to private yachts, that cruise through the waters around New York each year. Every one is capable of dropping off a terrorist with a small metal suitcase containing enough power to render Manhattan uninhabitable for the rest of recorded time. How, then, should we read The Acorn Dossier? With delight as a work of exciting spy fiction, of course. But also as a warning—that we must provide every possible resource to those who are manning civilization's front line against those that would seek to destroy it. David A. Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal and The World Policy Blog. A veteran domestic and foreign correspondent and editor of The New York Times, CBS News, and most recently Forbes.com, he is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.

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