WASHINGTON – Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Thursday reportedly said he was confident “our nuclear facilities are in safe hands” following new revelations that the U.S. intelligence community has been privately expressing concerns.
In response to a report this week in the Washington Post, Sharif convened a meeting of the National Command Authority, which has the responsibility of overseeing the nation’s nuclear arsenal, according to a Thursday article in Pakistan's DAWN newspaper.
Relying on classified documents on the intelligence community’s so-called “black budget” leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the Post reported that U.S. spy agencies have substantively ramped up their surveillance of Pakistani nuclear, chemical and biological sites.
Retired Pakistani Lt. Gen. Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, who heads the army division tasked with physically protecting the arsenal, said that any questions raised by the Post piece “regarding the safety of the nuclear facilities are groundless.”
The NCA body reviewed security protocols to protect the arsenal, after which the prime minister insisted that the nuclear assets are secure.
The Obama administration also continues to publicly assert its confidence in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal against the possibility of extremist attack or infiltration, despite the Post news report.
The U.S. State Department on Wednesday said it was assured that Pakistan is serious about the security of its nuclear arsenal.
"The United States is confident that the government of Pakistan is well aware of its responsibilities and has secured its nuclear arsenal accordingly," department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a released statement.
"While there is room for improvement in the security of any country's nuclear program, Pakistan has a professional and dedicated security force that fully understands the importance of nuclear security," Psaki said. "We recognize that Pakistan is fully engaged with the international community on nuclear safety and security issues."
Still, local Taliban strikes on Pakistani military installations in recent years have been “very ambitious, well planned, well executed attacks that in a number of cases appear to have had inside assistance,” Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior adviser to the RAND Corp. president, said in a Thursday interview. “On the basis of that, the United States does have a concern” about the threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
The Post's reporting concluded that one of the principal drivers of the U.S. surveillance effort is a desire to learn more about how Islamabad protects its WMD-compatible substances, as the Pakistani security establishment refuses to share with the United States most details about how it protects such materials.
“Knowledge of the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and associated material encompassed one of the most critical set of ... intelligence gaps," states the “black budget” summary, as reported by the Post.
The absence of this information is particularly alarming due to “the political instability, terrorist threat and expanding inventory [of Pakistani nuclear weapons],” the report is further quoted as saying.
However, it is the United States’ own reported secret planning of how to protect Pakistani nuclear weapons from terrorist threats in a potential intervention that has contributed to longstanding reluctance among Pakistani officials about sharing with Washington information about security protocols.
Given the degree of extremist violence in Pakistan -- including in recent years a number of highly organized and large-scale attacks on military facilities -- Pentagon defense planners are believed to have brainstormed about what to do if Pakistani terrorists are on the verge of acquiring nuclear warheads or the components to build their own crude explosive device.
A November 2011 National Journal article reported that the Defense Department has developed a range of options for responding to different types of terrorist threats to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. That kind of planning, according to the article, has heightened Pakistani fears that the United States could swoop in at any time and steal its warheads.
Pakistani officials reportedly responded at the time by attempting to cloak their movement of nuclear weapons from U.S. satellite surveillance by transporting them in civilian-style vans along crowded streets. Measures such as those likely have contributed to the heightened U.S. fears, as revealed by the Snowden document leak, about how little is known of the status of Pakistani warheads and materials.
Vipin Narang, an assistant political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said there is strong reason to doubt Pakistani insistence about the security of its nuclear assets.
“The apparent sustained militant interest in attacking Pakistan military installations and their repeated success in doing so would have no doubt privately confirmed the significant concerns the U.S. intelligence community has about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets,” Narang wrote in a Thursday e-mail.
“As the size of the Pakistan nuclear program has grown -- both in terms of personnel and assets -- securing it completely against both insider and militant threats becomes increasingly difficult,” he said.