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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.

Ian Williams: Pinochet's Echoes Today

Ian WilliamsSeptember 11 is a day that will live in infamy: a terrorist attack on a landmark building whose aftermath left more than 3,000 dead. Yes, Chileans will always remember the coup of September 11, 1973, when their military commanders—with tacit, and indeed active, support from Washington—bombed their own presidential palace, setting up a repressive regime that imprisoned, tortured, and executed supporters of the deposed government while driving untold more into exile. But while Osama bin Laden is being hounded around the North West Frontier, one of the architects of the Chilean coup, Henry Kissinger, is a revered advisor to governments; the other, Augusto Pinochet, died without facing trial for his involvement. “He had taken full advantage of the rights guaranteed to him by due process—rights that his victims were denied—and postponed his day of reckoning indefinitely.” On the day he died, “My feelings of hate toward Pinochet and what he represented had waned through the years; instead I felt a serene contempt for the man,” concludes Heraldo Muñoz in The Dictator's Shadow, a highly readable, fascinating, and revelatory account of the General’s career. Muñoz, now Chile's ambassador to the United Nations and one of those who had to flee his country in 1973, has written a remarkably restrained memoir assessing just how big a shadow Pinochet cast, both globally and historically.

Ian Williams: Untangling the Oil for Food Knot

Ian WilliamsMichael Soussan's Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy (Nation Books, 2008) is a compelling, fascinating, and humorous account of his years working with the UN's Oil for Food program. This by no means a definitive account of the program, but rather a personal and highly impressionist view from an insider. But his impressions have the ring of truth for anyone who has observed the UN at close range and even more so for anyone who knows the characters with whom he worked. As a writer, he was blessed, since the Oil for Food program was short on gray bureaucrats and big on distinctively eccentric characters. In fact, he does not appear to realize just how much the pugnacity and stubborn-ness of his boss, "Pasha" Benon Sevan, may have been critical in getting the program up and running. If he had played by the bureaucratic rules, Iraqis would have been waiting for their rations while memos piled up on desks across the Secretariat. But eccentricity has its limits. There are echoes of Catch 22 in Soussan's narrative, not least of which is a female ex-PFC Wintergreen, "Cindy," the administrative assistant, whose attempt to secure promotion and recognition included fighting a war of bureaucratic attrition that at times almost brought the program (that was feeding the bulk of the Iraqi population) to a halt. Inexperienced and idealistic, Soussan soon realized that had joined "an organization riddled with internal turf wars, petty office politics, dramatic personal rivalries, and in our case, a shameless competition for control over more money than the UN system had ever seen."

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