Pakistan Insists Nukes Are Safe

Worries about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal have been further heightened over the past few months as President Pervez Musharraf seems to be increasingly beleaguered and unpopular, and as violent Islamic extremists seem bolder and frighteningly able to project their destabilizing jihad even into Pakistani cities, most recently with the assassination of popular opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last December. As a result, cries of concern about Pakistan's questionable nuclear safety and security have recently come not only from Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but also from U.S. Congressional leaders.

To blunt the criticism and to reassure an anxious international community, Musharraf has ordered senior officials in charge of his country's nuclear assets to go on the offensive and brief visiting dignitaries (such as U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman), the Islamabad-based diplomatic community, and finally on Saturday several dozen journalists. The unequivocal message coming from retired Lt. General Khalid Kidwai, director general of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) that develops and manages Pakistan's nuclear capability, is: Don't worry; Pakistani has its nukes, its fissile material and its scientists well under control, thanks to complex nuclear command and control structures and security measures that make the arsenal "fool proof."

Kidwai, who has headed the SPD since its inception in 2000 soon after Musharraf came to power in a military coup, says the ironclad control and safety of the system starts at the top with the National Command Authority. The 10-member NCA is chaired by Musharraf and includes the three military service chiefs, several cabinet officers and a scientist. They, and only they, formulate nuclear policy and centrally control all aspects of the deployment and eventual use of a nuclear weapon. While the committee is said to operate on a consensus basis, clearly strongman Musharraf as chairman has the ultimate say. Still, there are checks up and down the chain of command. "We have well developed physical safety mechanisms and firewalls in the weapons and in the chain of command that will ensure that unauthorized use will never take place, especially by a single individual," Kidwai told the Saturday press briefing at the military's Chaklala Garrison in Rawalpindi.

Kidwai emphasized that the nuclear production sites and weapons' storage areas are tightly secured by specially trained soldiers with body armor, closed circuit television, foot patrols, sentry dogs, and special armored vehicles, fencing and locks acquired from the United States. The Americans are also helping Pakistan set up a nuclear security training academy charged with turning out specially trained security personnel. Kidwai admitted, however, that "the state of alert has gone up" in the nuclear command structure of late because of the threat of political instability. But he says they have not detected any imminent threats. Militant tribal leader Baitullah Mehsud, whom Musharraf has accused of masterminding and carrying out the Bhutto assassination, reportedly has hinted that he could attack the country's nuclear arsenal next. Kidwai shrugged off the threat. "He can say what he likes," says Kidwai. "We are prepared for it."

The failsafe mechanisms even ensure that no rogue commander, pilot or soldier could launch a live nuclear weapon without coded authorization coming down the chain of command. No nuclear weapon will explode, Kidwai says, unless it is activated at the very last minute by a top secret, 12-digit alphanumeric code. "If a wonky pilot dropped a bomb without the code it would be a dud," he said.

To guard against any rogue activity, Kidwai's SPD even runs its own 10,000-man intelligence service, called the Security Division, that keeps a close eye on the some 10,000 scientists that work in the country's vast nuclear weapons development industry. The autonomous Security Division that runs the Personnel Reliability Program doesn't depend on the military's premier and powerful spy organization, Inter-Services Intelligence. The SPD's security outfit runs a "cradle-to-the-grave" surveillance system that follows a scientist well into retirement. He said in today's "emotional anti-American and anti-Musharraf" atmosphere in Pakistan, scientists are being kept under the microscope. He recounted the case of a scientist who went to a mosque and gave an anti-Musharraf speech, though he didn't say when. The man was summarily fired and remains under strict surveillance. He even claimed that there is strict accountability of all fissile material, whether in the form of gas, metal or waste, "down to the last gram.

Noted Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, however, is skeptical that such strict accountability has been the rule since Pakistan's nuclear program began seriously in 1975 under the direction of Pakistani metallurgist A.Q. Khan. He is not convinced that fissile material has not leaked outside the system.

There certainly have been egregious leaks of nuclear know how. Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb and a national hero, ran until the late 1990s a supermarket of nuclear proliferation, selling Pakistan's nuclear technology and know how to North Korea, Iran and Libya, among others. Pakistan finally unmasked him in 2003. He was dismissed from his august position in the nuclear establishment, interrogated by Pakistani investigators and placed under house arrest. Musharraf, however, despite repeated requests has never allowed the IAEA, the United States or anyone outside Pakistan to talk to him, though the president insists that all the information that has been gathered from his interrogation has been shared with U.S. and other agencies investigating nuclear proliferation.

All leaks have been plugged, Kidwai says, ever since Musharraf set up the country's command and control organization in 2000. "We think we have been completely transparent and have held nothing back," Kidwai says of the information gleaned from Khan's interrogation. The Khan affair, he adds, "is a dead horse that has been flogged many times over." But American officials would disagree.

Nuclear researchers and analysts have long speculated that a key element of Pakistan's nuclear security program ntry is that the country's nuclear warheads—Pakistan is believed to have some 40 to 60—are separated by some distance from the delivery systems of missiles and aircraft. But Kidwai says that distance is not an issue. "Whether separated by a yards or miles the weapons will be ready to go in no time," he says.

In a stretch of credibility, Kidwai also claims that Pakistan's nuclear program is transparent and holds only two secrets: the number of nuclear devises it possesses and their location. To prove his point that Pakistan's nuclear program is fully under control he says that over the past few years 800 incidents of illegal nuclear trafficking have been undercover around the world, mainly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but none in Pakistan.

Kidwai says he can foresee no scenario in which Pakistan would lose control of any of its nuclear assets, especially to Islamic extremists taking over the Pakistani state. He says militants couldn't come to power through democratic means since Pakistan's political parties are largely "moderate and middle of the road." He dismisses the chance of a breakdown of law and order or a violent revolution saying that such behavior would be very un-Pakistani. Finally he also excludes the possibility of a radical military takeover, saying the country's military establishment is moderate, largely middle class, cohesive, disciplined and pro-Western. "There is no conceivable scenario, political or violent in which Pakistan will fall to extremists of the Al Qaeda or Taliban type," he confidently says.

Still, there's plenty of skepticism around the world. Several articles have been written about U.S. contingency plans that would send in commando teams to secure Pakistan's nuclear assets in case the country descends into political chaos. When asked what would happen if a foreign strike force entered the country on such a mission, Kidwai says the military already has drawn up contingency plans to thwart such a seizure. The end result, he says, "would be a disaster for the intruder."