When the United States learned in 2001 that Pakistani scientists had shared nuclear secrets with members of al-Qaeda, an alarmed Bush administration responded with tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment such as intrusion detectors and ID systems to safeguard Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
This is quality: "When the United States learned in 2001 that Pakistani scientists had shared nuclear secrets with members of al-Qaeda,..."
But Pakistan remained suspicious of U.S. aims and declined to give U.S. experts direct access to the half-dozen or so bunkers where the components of its arsenal of about 50 nuclear weapons are stored. For the officials in Washington now monitoring Pakistan's deepening political crisis, the experience offered both reassurance and grounds for concern.
It seems Pakistan has accurately judged that the value of nuclear weapons for a nation-state lies in their impact on foreign relations to deter a major conflict.
Consequently, it is assessed the Pakistan does not keep weaponized nukes ready-to-fire, as the US does, and as the Russian Federation supposedly does, but that, rather, weapons components are stored individually, and away from delivery systems.
Protection for Pakistan's nuclear weapons is considered equal to that of most Western nuclear powers. But U.S. officials worry that their limited knowledge about the locations and conditions in which the weapons are stored gives them few good options for a direct intervention to prevent the weapons from falling into unauthorized hands.
"We can't say with absolute certainty that we know where they all are," said a former U.S. official who closely tracked the security upgrades. If an attempt were made by the United States to seize the weapons to prevent their loss, "it could be very messy," the official said.
I think that is deliberate.
As previously reported here in The Islamic Bomb, Part 1:
Given the ongoing crisis in Pakistan, which, since the publishing of the article being quoted has heightened with the Bhutto assassination, Pakistan's position should be one of cooperating with the international community to ensure the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.
Instead, the concern is about Pakistan's sovereignty, and protecting that sovereignty from possible US infringement.
Returning to our article:
Of the world's nine declared and undeclared nuclear arsenals, none provokes as much worry in Washington as Pakistan's, numerous U.S. officials said. The government in Islamabad is arguably the least stable. Some Pakistani territory is partly controlled by insurgents bent on committing hostile acts of terrorism in the West. And officials close to the seat of power -- such as nuclear engineer A.Q. Khan and his past collaborators in the Pakistani military -- have a worrisome track record of transferring sensitive nuclear designs or technology to others.
I hope that last paragraph sank in.
That record, and the counterterror prism of U.S. policymaking since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have led the Bush administration to worry less that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal might be used in a horrific war with India than that it could become a security threat to the U.S. homeland in the event of any theft or diversion to terrorist groups.
Because the risks are so grave, U.S. intelligence officials have long had contingency plans for intervening to obstruct such a theft in Pakistan, two knowledgeable officials confirmed. The officials would not discuss details of the plans, which are classified, but several former officials said the plans envision efforts to remove a nuclear weapon at imminent risk of falling into terrorists' hands.
The existence of contingency plans means very little. There are hordes of guys (& gals) whose job it is to plan, just in case.
The plans imagine, in the best case, that Pakistani military officials will help the Americans eliminate that threat. But in other scenarios there may be no such help, said Matt Bunn, a nuclear weapons expert and former White House science official in the Clinton administration. "We're a long way from any scenario of that kind. But the current turmoil highlights the need for doing whatever we can right now to improve cooperation and think hard about what might happen down the road."
It always seems to be the scenarios that "we're a long way from" that seem to develop suddenly and get everyone excited.
Former and current administration officials say they believe that Pakistan's stockpile is safe. But they worry that its security could be weakened if the current turmoil persists or worsens. They are particularly concerned by early signs of fragmented loyalties among Pakistan's military and intelligence leaders, who share responsibility for protecting the arsenal.
The current turmoil has, since that was written, persisted and worsened.
"The military will be stretched thin if the level of protest rises," said John E. McLaughlin, the No. 2 official at the CIA from 2000 to 2004. "If the situation becomes more volatile, the conventional wisdom [about nuclear security] could come into question." He noted that Pakistan's army has become increasingly diverse, reflecting the country's ethnic and religious differences, "and that is different from the way it was years ago."
The level of protest has risen.
Former and current intelligence officials said the focus of U.S. concerns is the stability of Pakistan's army, which was already showing strain from Western pressures to upgrade its counterinsurgency work when President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency last week, unleashing riots and a police crackdown on political opposition groups. The officials said the military might not remain a loyal, cohesive force if violence becomes sustained or widespread.
Violence has become more sustained and more widespread.
Anytime a nation with nuclear weapons experiences "a situation such as Pakistan is at present, that is a primary concern," said Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a Pentagon news conference last week. "We'll watch that quite closely, and I think that's probably all I can say about that at this point."
Concerns about possible thefts if the government's authority erodes or disintegrates extend to nuclear components, design plans and special materials such as enriched uranium. Twice in the past six years, Pakistan has acknowledged that its nuclear scientists passed sensitive nuclear information or equipment to outsiders -- including, in one case, members of al-Qaeda.
The loss of components, plans and know-how is a very real threat, one that has repeatedly materialized in Pakistan.
Of course, the US has a fairly bad track record of preventing espionage of US nuclear secrets. We also have a bad track record of investigating these incidents and throwing the criminals and spies in prison. The investigations, you see, would lead to some embarrassing places....
Two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists traveled to Afghanistan in August 2001 at the request of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He pressed the scientists for details on how to make nuclear weapons, and the scientists replied with advice and crude diagrams, according to U.S. officials at the time.
Officials at the Pakistani Embassy declined to comment for this story.
While we're yukking it up here, here's one for you:
"Mr. Ambassador, is it true that Pakistan has provided nuclear weapons, complete with delivery systems, to Al Qaeda?"
"No, that is absolutely false, that is ridiculous."
"Mr. Ambassador, is it true that Pakistan has provided complete nuclear warheads to Al Qaeda?"
"No, that is untrue, that is a fabrication, it is completely inaccurate."
"Mr. Ambassador, is it true that Pakistan has provided nuclear weapons expertise to Al Qaeda?"
Not funny, huh?
Pakistan, which tested its first warhead in 1998, began developing nuclear weapons in the 1970s with help from Khan, the Pakistani engineer who years later became the leader of an international nuclear smuggling ring. Khan covertly acquired sensitive nuclear information and equipment from several European countries, helped build the stockpile and later profited personally by providing materials to Libya, North Korea and Iran.
The Father of the Islamic Bomb was the head of an international nuclear smuggling ring.
Pakistan has repeatedly asserted that its government and army were unaware of Khan's proliferation activities until 2003. However, numerous published accounts have described extensive logistical support that military officials provided to Khan, including the use of military aircraft.
And Pakistani officials new nothing about the stuff that was being flown by Khan's network on Pakistani military aircraft.
In the weeks after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration dispatched Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and other senior officials to Islamabad to raise the issue of safeguarding the country's nuclear arsenal. Musharraf agreed to policy changes and security upgrades, starting with the dismissal of some Pakistani intelligence officials suspected of ties to the Taliban, bin Laden's ally.
Musharraf also agreed to move some nuclear weapons to more secure locations and accepted a U.S. offer to help design a system of controls, barriers, locks and sensors to guard against theft.
Unlike U.S. nuclear arms, which are protected by integrated electronic packages known as "permissive action links," or PALs, that require a special access code, Pakistan chose to rely on physical separation of bomb components, such as isolating the fissile "core" or trigger from the weapon and storing it elsewhere. All the components are stored at military bases.
That means would-be thieves would have to "knock over two buildings to get a complete bomb," said Bunn, now a researcher at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. "Theft would be more difficult to pull off, though presumably in a crisis that might change."
In a crisis?
Supposedly Pakistan hasn't been able to prevent it, didn't know it has been happening, and has no comment on it occurring in the absence of a crisis.
The Khan network's proliferation has been business-as-usual. Quoting Congressional testimony presented in Part 1:
Khan claims to have acted without Pakistani Government support, yet former Pakistani President Zia spoke about acquiring and sharing nuclear technology, in his words, with the entire Islamic world. Khan advanced Zia's mission well. Some of Khan's exports were transported by Pakistani military aircraft. Many ask how can the network aggressively market its nuclear products, including the glossy brochures, without Pakistan's Government taking notice?
Back to the article:
Instead of allowing U.S. officials access to its weapons facilities, the Musharraf government insisted that Pakistani technicians travel to the United States for training on how to use the new systems, said Mark Fitzpatrick, a weapons expert who recently completed a study of the Pakistani program for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Washington is confident that Pakistan's nuclear safeguards are designed to be robust enough to withstand a "fair amount of political commotion," said John Brennan, a retired CIA official and former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. The problem, he said, is that no one can reliably predict what will happen if the country slides toward civil war or anarchy.
You know, ethnically, Pakistan has divisions in some ways not unlike Afghanistan's.
"There are some scenarios in which the country slides into a situation of anarchy in which some of the more radical elements may be ascendant," said Brennan, now president of Analysis Corp., a private consulting firm based in Fairfax. "If there is a collapse in the command-and-control structure -- or if the armed forces fragment -- that's a nightmare scenario. If there are different power centers within the army, they will each see the strategic arsenal as a real prize."
Imagine something along the lines of Afghanistan's civil war, though not as anarchic, but where some of the factions -- warlords -- have nukes.
And I hope my Pakistani readers don't take offense at this. There is no slam of Pakistan intended here. I am merely pointing to human nature. We know the factionalism and strife that can happen on the streets of major American cities -- gang wars, etc. -- and we know what has happened in the Balkans. It is perhaps less likely, but still very possible, for even disciplined Pakistani military officers to become "warlords" under the wrong circumstances.
Other nuclear "prizes" could leak more easily if the military holds together and the bombs remain in their bunkers, according to David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the nonprofit Institute for Science and International Security. He said individuals working inside nuclear facilities could make a quick fortune by selling bomb components or "fissile" material -- the plutonium or enriched uranium needed for building bombs.
There's lots of ways to make money if you have access to nuclear weapons components, technology, materials and know-how.
And everything is for sale, baby.
"If stability doesn't return, you do have to worry about the thinking of the people with access to these things," said Albright, whose Washington-based institute tracks global nuclear stockpiles. "As loyalties break down, they may look for an opportunity to make a quick buck. You may not be able to get the whole weapon, but maybe you can get the core."
And, naturally, the component someone is going to want to buy is the component someone doesn't already have.