This article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose mission is preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
WASHINGTON -- A Pakistani army assertion last week that the nation's nuclear weapons remain safeguarded against potential terrorist theft has drawn mixed reaction in the U.S. capital (see GSN, May 5).
Washington officials and experts are weighing the possible implications for atomic security if Pakistani military and intelligence leaders were -- as they insist -- unaware that the world's most infamous terrorist leader was essentially living among them in an army garrison town for five to six years.
"Pakistan's government claims that it did not know about the presence of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad," Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Robert Casey (D-Pa.) said on Tuesday, in one of the latest expressions of concern by U.S. lawmakers and top brass. "If true, this apparent incompetence does not inspire confidence in the ability of Pakistan's governing or security institutions to oversee their nuclear weapons program."
The Pakistani army last Thursday warned the U.S. military to reduce its footprint in the country following the May 2 unilateral action -- ordered by President Obama and carried out by elite special operations forces - that resulted in the death of the al-Qaeda head and four of his cohorts.
Islamabad's military, deeply embarrassed by the surprise operation, also said that "the nation's strategic assets" remain "well protected and an elaborate defensive mechanism is in place." The reference was apparently to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, which is estimated at roughly 100 weapons and growing.
Over the years, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen has repeatedly voiced confidence in Islamabad's ability to safeguard its stockpile against seizure by violent extremists.
The top U.S. military officer in 2009 said he was "comfortable that the nuclear weapons in Pakistan are secure, that the Pakistani leadership, and in particular the military, is very focused on this."
At the same time, Washington has discussed assisting Pakistan in securing or destroying any excess uranium or other potential bomb-making materials (see GSN, May 5, 2009).
"We have offered any assistance that Pakistan might desire with respect to [the] means for security of nuclear weapons," James Miller, the principal deputy Defense undersecretary for policy, said at a May 4 Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing.
How much of that aid Islamabad has been willing to accept remains unclear. Pakistani leaders have been reticent to divulge many details about their atomic stockpile, fearful that the U.S. or Indian militaries might unilaterally seize these weapons.
Islamabad's worries have only been heightened by last week's raid. The Obama administration opted against notifying Pakistan in advance of the assault out of concern that bin Laden might be tipped off, U.S. officials have said (see GSN, May 9).
Some experts say Islamabad's hand wringing about the potential for a U.S. snatch-and-run operation against its nuclear stockpile amounts to conspiracy theories. U.S. military officers report, though, that Pentagon leaders actually have developed contingency plans to forcefully secure Pakistan's nuclear weapons, if necessary, in the event of an extremist coup (see GSN, June 10, 2009).
A former top U.S. military commander said last week that even if the Pakistani army and intelligence services failed to detect bin Laden's presence within a mile of a prominent military academy, Islamabad's control over its nuclear arsenal likely remains firm.
"It's two different things," said retired Adm. William Fallon, who as head of Central Command led all U.S. forces in the region until March 2008. "When I was out there and looked at the situation, I had -- from what I could see -- high confidence in their ability to take care of business regarding security of those [nuclear weapons]."
Interviewed on May 5, Fallon said Pakistan's failure to detect or shut down a terrorist leader's activities does reveal potentially huge weaknesses in that nation's intelligence capabilities or its willingness to counter extremist activities. After years of making nuclear-armed neighbor India its central security focus, Pakistan's security and intelligence apparatus has only relatively recently begun seriously addressing the threat posed by violent militants, he noted.
That said, Islamabad appears to regard the security of its nuclear assets as a matter of national priority, in part because of the concerns about their potential capture someday by highly capable U.S. or Indian military units.
"These are the most important weapons in the Pakistani arsenal," Mullen said at the Aspen Security Forum last June. "That is understood by the leadership, and they go to extraordinary efforts to protect and secure them."
Pakistan has not revealed the location of its nuclear bases and the U.S. government reportedly does not know where all the weapons are stored. However, warheads are believed to be maintained relatively deep inside the nation to maximize their security. Their delivery systems apparently are based separately from the weapons.
"I don't think you see too many of those [nuclear] sites up on the border with Afghanistan, do you?" the retired admiral said. "I would put them into a different category" from other military sites in terms of protection, he said.
"Just because there is a military garrison nearby doesn't mean that the level of security at Abbottabad would be the same at sites where warheads are kept," agreed Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I assume that the level of security at nuclear sites would be much higher than Abbottabad."
Not so fast, counseled Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He said the potential for an extremist sympathizer to gain access to Pakistani nuclear weapons or materials might involve official corruption.
Complicity -- even if limited to midlevel officials -- might allow a subtle infiltration into the security apparatus, bypassing traditional obstacles erected against violent attacks.
"I have difficulty accepting the Pakistani claim that senior figures in the Pakistani government did not know bin Laden's location," he said. "My concern is that those weapons might be handled by the same sort of people who looked the other way while bin Laden made videotapes and burned his trash. I have no idea what someone crazy enough to shelter bin Laden might do."
Indeed many nuclear security experts refuse to rule out the possibility that one or more Pakistani military or intelligence personnel with access to nuclear material could be vulnerable to bribes or threats. A number of Pakistanis might also take a different view of what best serves the nation's security interests, some regional specialists said.
The situation "revives uncertainties on the extent to which the government is in full and effective control of the country," Bloomberg quoted former International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards chief Olli Heinonen as saying last week. "There is very little assurance that nuclear materials and facilities are fully under government control."
Zenko was optimistic, though, that the Pakistani security services subject those with access to nuclear materials to a high degree of vetting.
"The counterintelligence [and] human resources procedures that we hope are in place to monitor the competence and loyalties of employees at the nuclear facilities are different" than those that ostensibly failed to detect bin Laden at the Abbottabad compound, he told Global Security Newswire.
The U.S. intelligence community continues to pore over documents and electronic media impounded at the bin Laden facility, but to date has not found any indication that Pakistani government officials were aware of or facilitating the terrorist leader's presence in Abbottabad, administration officials have said.
In an interview with CBS News' "60 Minutes," aired on Sunday, Obama said his team believes "there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan. But we don't know who or what that support network was."
It is also unclear whether the Pakistani army's other apparent security lapse -- the seeming failure to detect the U.S. incursion before it was largely over -- should have any implications for the nation's ability to gain prompt notice of any extremist operation to seize Islamabad's nuclear arms.
In planning the assault, the White House was uncertain what level of Pakistani military response to expect. The administration reportedly prepared for the possibility that the Navy SEAL team might have to shoot its way out of the country if challenged by Pakistani troops or police.
As details trickle out about the extensively rehearsed raid by perhaps the most capable and stealthy U.S. forces available, issue experts are increasingly concluding that this particular Pakistani army lapse would be relatively understandable, and in itself says little about the level of security monitoring at nuclear bases.
"Who knows what they detected or didn't detect" during last week's assault, Fallon said.
"But ... this is very rugged terrain. It's not very far from the border. It's difficult to do anything up there," he said. "And we're pretty good. They're not so good."
"I think an extremist incursion would be both different and more detectable," Zenko said. "The [bin Laden] raid was by the most professional people on Earth, with the most training, the best intelligence, and the best equipment. Even with insider help, I doubt extremist incursions would match."