The latest turmoil in Pakistan has sparked new worry over the prospect that Al Qaeda or other Islamic radicals will acquire access to the country's nuclear arsenal. Pakistan has an estimated 50 nuclear bombs (compared with about 80 in India), which are dispersed throughout the country. U.S. officials acknowledge they do not have as much information about their location and security arrangements as they would like.
Yet despite Pakistan's political convulsions, U.S. officials say their fears about loose nukes are not as great as they once might have been. After the 9/11 attacks, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage discussed the problem with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. According to two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter, Musharraf agreed to install safeguard mechanisms that would "lock" nuclear weapons if they should fall into unauthorized hands.
Even so, the threat of Pakistan as a "ticking nuclear time bomb" should be a "real concern," said Graham Allison, a former assistant secretary of defense for planning in the Clinton administration who now teaches at Harvard. "It is quite possible to describe scenarios in the destabilization of Pakistan in which control of nuclear weapons would be splintered—and in which some of those splinters could be Taliban or Al Qaeda sympathizers." Those scenarios have taken on new urgency in the past few days, after Musharraf suddenly declared emergency rule, sparking widespread protest throughout the country.
The prospect of Al Qaeda getting ahold of Pakistan's nukes haunted U.S. officials after the September 11 attacks—in part because of intelligence that some of Pakistan's top nuclear scientists were members of Umma Tameer-e-Nau, a shadowy Islamic charity associated with Osama bin Laden. In his memoir published earlier this year, former CIA director George Tenet described how the agency received reports from a friendly intelligence service that, just before 9/11, two UTN leaders met around a campfire in Afghanistan with bin Laden and his principal deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and "discussed how Al Qaeda should go about building a nuclear device."
Those reports, combined with an escalation in Pakistani-Indian tensions, produced widespread alarm among U.S. officials and prompted Powell and Armitage to fly to Pakistan beginning in 2002. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff at the time, told NEWSWEEK that Powell and Armitage intensely lobbied Musharraf to install the same kind of protective fail-safe systems that the United States uses to guard against accidental or unauthorized launches of nuclear systems.
The systems, known as "permissive action links" (or PALs), require that two separate operators enter codes or turn keys to arm and launch nuclear weapons. Wilkerson said that both India and Pakistan were "very receptive" when U.S. officials explained to them how PALs would help them stand down their nuclear arsenals from what had previously been a "hair trigger" launch status.
In part because of those steps, U.S. fears that Pakistan's nukes could fall into extremists' hands abated, according to Xenia Dormandy, former National Security Council director for South Asia affairs under President Bush. The fear that Al Qaeda might gain access to a Pakistani bomb "was a big concern after September 11," she said. "But in the last two to three years, our level of confidence over Pakistan's nuclear weapons has grown."
The view of the U.S. intelligence community—as explained by two U.S. officials who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information—is that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal appears to be under the firm control of special nuclear security units of the Pakistani military. These units are led by senior officers regarded as trustworthy by both Musharraf and the U.S. government.
It is "always a concern" that something unexpected could happen, given the current disorder in Pakistan, said one Bush official. But at present, said the official, there is "no indication" that any of Pakistan's atomic weapons or related nuclear materials are in any jeopardy of falling into the wrong hands. "There are no alarm bells ringing" at present in Washington among counterterrorism or nuclear security experts inside the U.S. government, the official acknowledged—though he conceded that the longer Pakistan's political turmoil continues, the greater the risk of a possible compromise of Pakistan's nuclear complex by Islamist sympathizers or other government insiders.
Even if the current mess intensifies, says Michael Krepon, a Pakistan expert affiliated with the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, the country is a very long way from a nuclear crisis. Krepon notes that two other nuclear-equipped states have suffered serious political upheavals in the past—China during the cultural revolution and the Soviet Union during its collapse—and neither of their nuclear arsenals was compromised. "The situation in Pakistan is bad, but it doesn't begin to approach these convulsions," Krepon says. "There's a lot to worry about in Pakistan before worrying about the country's nuclear arsenal."
Krepon and Leonard Spector, a former senior nuclear-nonproliferation official for the U.S. Energy Department during the Clinton administration, noted that Pakistan's nuclear weapons and the facilities that manufacture and store them are under the control of a special nuclear-safety branch of the military high command called the Strategic Plans Division. According to U.S. estimates, this division has as many as 8,000 to 10,000 troops assigned to nuclear-related duties. Within that force, says Matthew Bunn, a nonproliferation expert at Harvard, is a special Nuclear Security Division with at least 1,000 officers.
Heading the Strategic Plans division is Khalid Kidwai, a lieutenant general in Pakistan's army who is highly regarded by U.S. officials. Spector, the former Clinton advisor, described Kidwai as being "at the top of his game." Last year, according to U.S. experts, Kidwai made a tour of the United States during which he spoke to officials about Pakistan's nuclear security measures.
Several U.S. experts also note that in the Pakistani system nuclear warheads are stored separately from missiles that can deliver them. And the most critical parts of the nuclear warheads—the radioactive cores, made up of plutonium or highly enriched uranium—are in turn stored separately from the other parts of the warheads. According to the experts, if terrorists were to get access to parts of the system—even the nuclear cores—they would not necessarily be able to use them to set off a nuclear explosion. Also, the separation of the various elements of the nuclear weapons systems would make it much more difficult for rogue elements of Pakistan's military to seize complete nuclear weapons and threaten other countries with attacks.
Despite such expressions of confidence, U.S. officials acknowledge that in the past Pakistan's nuclear program has been notorious for leaks of equipment and technology. For years before 9/11, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, A. Q. Khan, operated a secret nuclear-proliferation ring that disseminated atomic bomb manufacturing equipment and know-how to rogue regimes like North Korea, Libya and possibly Iran. The ring was only dismantled several months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi renounced his nuclear ambitions and turned over equipment and details of how he obtained it to U.S. and British spy agencies.
U.S. experts say there still may be radical sympathizers in both the Pakistani nuclear establishment and, more critically, inside ISI, Pakistan's sprawling intelligence service, which has its own history of close contacts with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The political instability spurred by Musharraf's current crackdown is unsettling at best. "We're talking about a nuclear power, and a nuclear power that is potentially imploding," said Dormandy.