Pakistan: Assessing Zardari's Mental Health

If Pakistan's upcoming election goes as expected, Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto, will succeed Pervez Musharraf as the country's next president, giving Zardari at least partial sway over the Muslim country's nuclear arsenal. Concerns spiked last week with the disclosure of medical records indicating that as recently as last year, doctors hired by Zardari had diagnosed him with mental problems including dementia, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. While Zardari's spokespeople say he has been cured, multiple U.S. officials, among them Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, told NEWSWEEK that word of Zardari's mental-health history took them by surprise. "Typically," said Hoekstra, "[The U.S.] wouldn't want that kind of person" involved in a nuclear chain of command.

Lawyers for Zardari argued in London's high court that he was too ill to testify in corruption-related cases, and they submitted recent mental-health evaluations as evidence. In March 2007, the Financial Times reported, New York psychologist Stephen Reich concluded that Zardari was "chronically anxious and apprehensive" and had thoughts of suicide, though he had not acted on them. The newspaper wrote that a New York psychiatrist, Philip Saltiel, found that Zardari's long imprisonment in Pakistan while facing corruption probes had left him with "emotional instability" as well as memory and concentration problems. Dr. Reich declined to comment; Dr. Saltiel could not be reached.

Two American officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive issue, said that Washington regarded Zardari's medical diagnoses as a legal ploy designed to stall corruption cases against him. Pakistani officials and Zardari supporters said all the allegations against him were trumped up by his enemies. (Last week, days after reported that Zardari might use his new political clout to try to shut down a Swiss corruption probe, Geneva's prosecutor announced that he had ended his inquiry—a development that Jacques Python, a Geneva lawyer who formerly represented Pakistan, called "extremely shocking.") Zardari's supporters added, however, that the prison stresses were real. In an e-mail to NEWSWEEK, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's U.S. ambassador, wrote that Zardari "obviously was affected by the torture of imprisonment without conviction … A similar diagnosis is usually made for former POWs immediately after their release but that does not preclude their full recovery and subsequent running for high political office. Mr. Zardari has no current condition requiring psychiatric help or medication."

Hoekstra said he did not recall being briefed about Zardari's claims of mental incapacity; two other U.S. foreign-policy officials said they found the revelations surprising and disquieting. But a U.S. official familiar with intelligence, who also asked for anonymity, said any elision was unintentional. "No one here should think information was deliberately withheld or suppressed," the official said. "Nor should they simply accept at face value assertions made with the apparent goal of warding off legal proceedings." According to one of the officials, the U.S. government believes Pakistan's nukes are tightly controlled by elite elements of its military—and that the nuclear authority of elected officials, including the president, would be "extremely limited."