Better with Age: David Albright’s travels through time as weapons expert

Better with Age: David Albright’s travels through time as weapons expert
David Albright recently in Old Town. (Courtesy photo)

By Caitlyn Meisner |

Amid the hustle and bustle of a coffee shop in Old Town sits a quiet man with circular framed glasses, a blue button-down shirt and a sweater draped over his shoulders sipping on a small cup of coffee.

But, this isn’t any older gentleman who got out of bed and decided to dress up for his outings that day. This is David Albright, an esteemed physicist, weapons expert and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, or ISIS.

“We call it the Good ISIS now,” Albright joked, referencing the Islamic militant organization ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, that the U.N. has designated a terrorist organization. The nongovernmental’s handle on X – formerly known as Twitter – is even @ TheGoodISIS.

Born in 1951, Albright was a small town boy growing up just north of Chicago with his three brothers, sister and parents when his family moved to Troy, Ohio, just before his freshman year of high school.

It was in these formative years that he realized he loved math in particular; but, with physics, he said there was no one moment or realization for him, just that he was intrigued by the integration of space and time.

After graduating from high school Albright received his bachelor’s degree in 1975 from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He then went on to receive his master’s degree in mathematics in 1977 from the same school. Albright has since received an honorary doctorate from Wright State in 2007.

He also holds a master’s of science in physics from Indiana University, which he received in 1980.

“Time travel can happen around a black hole. You can’t survive it,” Albright said. “The whole question of the integration of space and time … you get all these unusual anomalies from relativity theory. I did study this in graduate school; you can literally study it mathematically.”

Albright recalled his professors were dismayed at these questions that he merely wanted to study, not conduct research projects on. But, he soon realized that in this line of work, he’d be competing with Stephen Hawking.

“He was one of the pioneers of this idea of large scale structure of space-time,” he said. “It was a small field; it’s still a small field and very mathematical. Everything is proven by contradiction.”

He said this field wasn’t all that inspiring, constantly having to wonder and contradict previously published theories. But, coming of age during the Cold War presented itself with a potential career option: nuclear weapons.

“The War Game,” a 1966 British pseudo-documentary about nuclear war and its aftermath, was shown in one of Albright’s high school classes which, he said, was the first concrete impression of nuclear weapons he had at that point.

“That certainly had a big impact on my life,” Albright admitted. “Physics and math was kind of fun. This was a much more serious application.”

With the inauguration of former President Ronald Reagan in January 1981, Albright had his sights set on Washington, D.C. – effectively quitting his doctoral program – to oppose Reagan’s nuclear weapon expansion.

Albright said he wanted to use his physics education for social benefit rather than further studies. He clarified that what he wanted to do was not nuclear physics, but rather looking at alternatives and preventing other nations from obtaining them.

Albright founded the Institute in 1993, but prior to that, he was a consultant to the Environmental Policy Institute, where he analyzed issues related to nuclear power and worked to discover how much plutonium was in the world at the time.

During that time he worked with “atomic veterans,” or people who had witnessed atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s.

“There was a belief that we would have a nuclear war by about 1960 … so they ran thousands of GIs, put them in trenches within a kilometer of the atmospheric blast and then they’d march toward ground zero,” Albright recalled. “I spent a lot of time analyzing the radiation [in the GIs] and trying to fight the government, which already said nothing happened.”

He then worked as a senior staff scientist at the Federation of American Scientists and as a researcher at Princeton University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies.

In the late 1980s, as Albright was studying Iraq’s secret nuclear program and consistently traveling to Germany, he met his wife of more than 30 years, Rika. They have a daughter together, Anna Leia.

In the early 1990s, Albright was involved with nuclear inspections during the 1991 Gulf War following a United Nations Security Council resolution requiring Iran to fully get rid of its nuclear program.

In 1997, Albright co-wrote a groundbreaking book, “Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities and Policies.” It is a revision of a 1992 edition of the same book and provides a comprehensive assessment of the amounts of plutonium in several nations across the globe.

“It was the first time anyone had ever put all this together,” Albright said. “It was actually needed by governments because the U.S. had estimates, but they were classified. Britain had estimates, Russia had estimates. Our book allowed governments to talk to each other.”

He’s written and co-written a number of other books, including but not limited to, “Challenges of Fissile Material Control,” “Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Program,” “Illicit Trade Networks – Connecting the Dots” and his latest, “Iran’s Perilous Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons.”

This was a busy time for Albright, as he also became the first nongovernmental inspector of the Iraqi nuclear program in June 1996; he questioned members of the nation’s former uranium enrichment programs.

Also, notably, in September 2002, Albright and the Institute were the first to publicly criticize former President George W. Bush’s administration and the CIA about Iraqi aluminum tubes. The claim from the administration was that “Iraq not only had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program but would soon be able to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons,” according to a December 2003 Institute report.

Albright believes much of the press around that time was coordinated with Sunday morning talk show appearances of top Bush administration officials. He recalled the timing of the release of a New York Times piece by Judith Miller being just too late.

Miller published a series of stories in 2002 and 2003, suggesting Saddam Hussein had or was developing an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction; Bush was making similar claims around the same time, which Albright believes was to justify going to war in the Middle East. Many of these articles have been criticized, and the New York Times published a piece of its own calling these articles “problematic.”

“I was at a funeral in Atlanta, and I was coming back to [the District] that Sunday morning, saw the story, and when I got home, I had a message on my home phone [from Miller],” Albright recalled. “I called her and said, ‘You know, there’s another side to this.’ But, it was really too late.”

He said the time following this bombshell story was “an uphill battle,” as the Institute was not accustomed to the amount of press coverage that was building over the issue. Despite being the first to criticize the administration, Albright and the Institute were unaware of how powerful the media frenzy would be.

“We were always kind of one step behind,” Albright admitted. “… We learned a lot from that experience.”

He continued, adding that the Institute continued publishing as much as they could to spread the truth.

“We were horrified [the government] was pushing this whole new, untrue story, and then also wanting inspection but really not being prepared to deal with it,” he said. “The whole administration, from president on down.”

Albright said a large part of what the Institute does is government accountability. The Institute’s website states it is dedicated to not only informing the public about international security policy, but is also focused on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. government is so big that we can be working with one part of it and opposing another part of it,” Albright said with a laugh. “We’re not lobbying, developing a set of talking points and we don’t lobby for legislation either. … We always saw ourselves in the background.”

In the years since the Iraq war, Albright has remained president and chairman of the board at the Institute, running it from both Germany and his home in Alexandria. He and his wife travel often, splitting the time between their respective home countries.

Albright said he loves the walkability of both of his residences, especially the emphasis on bicycling in Germany. It’s what he appreciates about Old Town specifically, in its similarity to some European cities.

Though Albright has worked extensively with journalists throughout his career, he has decreased his presence on broadcast television programs, as he said it feels more partisan these days. Instead of wanting an expert to speak on important issues, he said it feels more personality-based.

David Albright has appeared on many television news networks to provide his expertise. (Photo/AIJAC)

He’s also made numerous appearances to discuss Iran’s nuclear capabilities, often appearing on panels and in front of Congress to testify. In October 2017, Albright was one of four experts to speak in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee ahead of former President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

“There is a need for Congress to start thinking through legislation to fix this deal,” Albright said in the committee hearing. “I think it is a priority to focus on how to ensure that the inspectors get in there.”

Despite being in his early 70s, Albright doesn’t see a path to full retirement just yet.

“I had started to retire. I went half-time about 18 months ago, [but] there’s a real shortage of people to do this kind of work,” he said. “A colleague in his 80s was outraged I was thinking of retirement at 70.”

He said this is a larger problem within the NGO world: there just aren’t enough people.

“We just don’t have the means to bring up people,” Albright said. “My institute was given money to start that process so we now start teaching at least one-day courses, bringing in more young people to work. We’re trying.”