Monitoring the Nuke-Mart

On Wisconsin
November-December 1990.

As the Cold War cools, Third World tyrants are rushing to build weapons of mass destruction. And according to law professor Gary Milhollin, western nations have been their best suppliers.

The nuclear club was pretty exclusive when only the United States and the Soviet Union had the bomb. Peace was kept through mutually assured destruction. Now the club is getting crowded and leaders of all kinds have a finger on the button.

In the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, and Libya have all imported chemical weapons plants and are now trying to import nuclear weapons and long range missiles. In South Asia, India and Pakistan are threatening to have the world’s first nuclear-armed border war. In South America, Argentina and Brazil are teetering on the brink of nuclear capability. And in Saudi Arabia, some of the missiles aimed at U.S. troops are guided by American equipment sold to Iraq with the blessing of the U.S. government.

Soon Third World countries with the bomb could be as commonplace as inner-city drug dealers with machine guns. An article that appeared in the New York Times just days before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait warned that “Third-World tyrants, armed with missiles and A-bombs, are fast replacing the Soviets as the greatest threat to American cities.” Its author is law professor Gary Milhollin, director of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. “I don’t claim to be a prophet,” he says. “It just seemed obvious to me that it was a dangerous situation. We have been shortsighted and imprudent in what we have sent them.”

Milhollin has made a career out of pointing out what others prefer to ignore. He tracks the sale of nuclear materials to Third World countries like Iraq that are trying to get the bomb. Then he publicizes his findings to the press to embarrass arms merchants and their governments into halting these sales. Several western nations, including the U.S., have helped Iraq achieve near nuclear capability in the name of commercial free trade. Milhollin believes that if Saddam Hussein did not pose a nuclear threat, the U.S. would not have almost a quarter-million troops in the Persian Gulf. “It’s the undeclared reason why we’re there,” he says. “The U.S. has been one of the primary sources of nuclear materials for Iraq, and now we’re threatening to spend American blood to counter the nuclear threat.”

Milhollin got into nuclear detective work after serving as an administrative law judge on the commission that investigated the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. He concluded then that the benefits of nuclear energy were minimal compared to the threat of nuclear proliferation. Now that the Cold War has ended, the behavior of such rogue nations as Iraq has underscored his concern. Milhollin compares the new world order to the old Wild West. “Either everybody hangs up their guns and we have a peaceful society, or everybody has to have a gun,” he says. “This is one area where the domino theory really works.”

In a few short years, this respected University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor has transformed himself into the conscience of the nuclear industry. He began teaching here in 1976, and founded the Washington office of the Wisconsin Project five years ago. He’s been on leave since he became the media’s favorite expert on the nuclear arms race.

“When Gary returns to teach, students will get an opportunity to learn from someone with a world of experience,” says associate law school dean Gerald Thain. “His course on nuclear arms proliferation, which examines the degree to which there is compliance with international and treaty law, will be more popular than ever. It’ll be like taking a course from a former secretary of state.”

In the meantime, Milhollin must keep up an incredible pace. He says fishing the truth out of Washington is about as hard as trying to fish a bass out of the Wisconsin River. His gaunt face and somber expression prompted one interviewer to observe that the Wisconsin nuke-tracker had the pained look of a long-distance runner-but he doesn’t even jog. Milhollin’s David vs. Goliath struggle against the spread of nuclear weapons has clearly consumed him.

The professor’s goal is to raise public awareness so governments will be forced to tighten export controls on nuclear materials. His chief weapon in this crusade is publicity. He’s an expert at getting himself into print and on television. He’s taught himself to speak in short, punchy, ten-second blurbs. “You’ve got to be a soundbite professor to get your point across,” he says. He has been interviewed on “60 Minutes” by Mike Wallace and quoted in just about every major U.S. newspaper and magazine. “The way to get people’s attention is to hit them in the media,” he says. “You have to be public and you have to be conspicuous if you want to raise money and convince people. You have to give up any sense of modesty.”

Until last fall, Milhollin worked virtually alone in a cluttered office. Now grants to the law school from the Rockefeller Foundation and others have afforded him three staffers and a suite on L Street, in the power brokers’ section of Washington, D.C.

His elevated status is the result of several notable successes. He exposed a German industrialist who was trading nuclear materials on the black market. His testimony before the Bundestag helped persuade the Germans to change their export law. He pounded away at the Norwegian government in the American press until it closed its heavy water industry. (Heavy water, or deuterium oxide, allows reactors to run on natural uranium as opposed to enriched uranium, which is more expensive and tightly controlled.)

The self-appointed watchdog targets his own government just as effectively. In September, his testimony persuaded a congressional subcommittee to demand a list from the Commerce Department of all U.S. “dual use” transactions with Iraq since 1985. Items such as supercomputers are ostensibly for peaceful purposes but are also essential to any nuclear program. “If they furnish that information and I get a look at it, it will be a devastating experience for them,” promises Milhollin, who has a bachelor’s degree in engineering in addition to his law degree.

The bomb is big business. The co-conspirator nations that armed Saddam Hussein include West Germany (centrifuges and a reactor), France (a reactor), Italy (the technology to extract plutonium from uranium), the U.S. (mainframe computers and oscilloscopes), and Brazil (rocketry expertise). Milhollin regards such trade as immoral. “People are going to be killed because other people made a buck.”

Some administration officials speculate the real reason the Soviets are not sending ground troops to the Persian Gulf is they don’t want to face their own weapons. “The Soviets sold a lot of their SCUD missiles to Iraq, and they’re going to kill our troops,” predicts Milhollin, who believes war is likely before the end of the year. Yet he favors a tightly enforced embargo against Iraq while a diplomatic solution is pursued. “Unless President Bush goes in and does something brilliant, I don’t see how he wins. And I’ll be the first one out there saying that because of failed diplomacy, we’re paying with our lives.”

Keeping up with the underground sales of nuclear components requires an in-depth understanding of international law and a disposition that’s anything but bookish. Milhollin operates like an investigative reporter. He pores through public documents. He networks in national security circles. He keeps up with industry sources, whose job it is to know what the competition is doing. He nurtures international contacts.

“One thing leads to another,” he says. “Like a beagle, I follow the trail.” He works closely with reporters, trading sources and information and using them as legmen. He recently expanded his field of inquiry to include missiles and chemical weapons (“the poor man’s bomb”).

Because of his successes, Milhollin claims, the Bush and Reagan administration have conducted “witch hunts” to see which officials talk to him. “People at the Department of Energy tell me their career is on the line if they’re seen with me,” he says.

This UW-Madison professor is no stranger to Washington. He first came to the capital the year John F. Kennedy was inaugurated (“when you could drive fifty miles into Virginia and find ‘colored-only’ water fountains”). After getting a law degree from Georgetown University, he worked in Paris, where he met his wife, Monique, now a professor on the French faculty at Johns Hopkins University. Their children have dual U.S.-French citizenship. Son Elliott is a sophomore at the University of Michigan. Daughter Jessica, sixteen, is the varsity goalie on her high school field hockey team.

Although he still thinks of himself as a professor, Milhollin won’t be back in the classroom just yet. Washington policy-makers are encouraging the Wisconsin Nuclear Arms Control Project to continue its research. They realize that Iraq is not the only Third World country that could pose a threat to the U.S., and that tyrants’ quest for the bomb can be set back permanently if the world is willing to curb its export trade of dangerous materials.

If Milhollin had his way, no one in the world would have the bomb-“Not even us,” he says emphatically. “I don’t think anybody should have a weapon of mass destruction. If I could redraw the world, we’d all be armed like the people who fought at Troy.” Reminded that the history books are filled with violent clashes from that period, Milhollin doesn’t flinch. “The casualties were much lower,” he says.

Indeed, Milhollin believes a prolonged war by the United States may no longer be possible. High-tech weapons would inflict mass carnage on both sides, he says, and television cameras in the Persian Gulf would be standing by to record the scenes in living color. Americans would see the horrors on the network news, and just as they did during the Vietnam conflict, they’d rise up from their living rooms and demand an end to the human devastation.

It’s a thesis this law professor would rather not see tested.