HONOLULU -- There’s an old adage about blaming the messenger who bears bad news – a practice often applied to journalists -- but when it comes to disturbing media revelations about the potential theft or unauthorized use of Pakistani nuclear weapons, fingers point in all directions.
Pakistani officials blame their U.S. counterparts for press leaks on some of the most sensitive aspects of their security apparatus. South Asia experts in Washington decry media coverage for sometimes being inaccurate, inflammatory or harmful to relations between the two countries. Public interest advocates in both nations criticize the Pakistani military for a lack of transparency on nuclear security policies and practices that might endanger the region’s population.
Over the years, Pakistanis have said Western news reports focus undue attention on periodic violent assaults by extremists against the nation’s military bases, and on the possibility that someday an atomic weapon might be seized.
Last August, for example, armed militants attacked the Minhas air force installation roughly 25 miles northwest of the capital, where some of the nation’s estimated 100 nuclear warheads are believed stored. The two-hour battle left one security official and eight insurgents dead.
Pakistani military officials reportedly said in 2012 the army had bolstered defenses at another key nuclear site, the Dera Ghazi Khan installation, after seeing indications it could come under Taliban attack.
Though it is unclear whether the Pakistani Taliban has designs on acquiring a nuclear weapon or materials for a radiological “dirty bomb,” al-Qaida operatives also present in the region have said they would use a Pakistani bomb to attack the United States, if the opportunity arose.
As not much reporting about Pakistan has focused lately on good news, officials in Islamabad and some in Washington complain that Westerners are left with a simplistic and overly dire impression of a highly vulnerable arsenal, mistaking speculation and media hype for facts.
Twenty-one Pakistani and U.S. journalists are gathering here this week to discuss this and other challenges affecting their respective news coverage at a forum co-sponsored by the Honolulu-based East-West Center and the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, headquartered in Islamabad.
Pakistani nuclear weapons have been shrouded by secrecy since their initial development in the early 1970s. Even now, little about them is publicly known. The information deficit underscores public concerns about security measures in a country that has become home base for several jihadist organizations.
Leading up to Islamabad’s first nuclear test-detonation in 1998, Washington and other capitals opposed Pakistani development of a deterrent that, like neighboring rival India’s, falls outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime. It has thus lacked the international legitimacy given to the world’s five officially recognized atomic arsenals in China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States.
Stability in Pakistan is today a mixed bag. This month, new national elections are to be called for what would be the country's first peaceful civilian transfer of power. While the overall number of terrorist incidents declined in 2012, sectarian-based attacks were on the rise, according to a recent report by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. Fears are also growing about cross-border instability as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
U.S. diplomats and military leaders have for years conducted an off-and-on dialogue with their Pakistani counterparts about how best nuclear weapons and sensitive fissile materials might be safeguarded from theft or misuse.
Islamabad’s warheads are believed stored at multiple sites apart from their delivery vehicles. Washington officialdom has repeatedly expressed public confidence in the arsenal’s safety, but occasionally has also sounded notes of concern.
On even the smallest chance that the Pakistani government might someday lose control of nuclear arms in a crisis or potentially even civil war, U.S. military planners have developed contingency plans for entering the South Asian nation with the aim of helping secure the arsenal, Global Security Newswire and other media have reported.
The desktop exercises are among hundreds carried out by each U.S. combatant command -- with scenarios ranging widely from likely to wacky -- as a means of being ready for almost any global crisis in which the president might conceivably order a military mission.
Though such Defense Department thought drills are highly secret, they have been accompanied by public calls from Bush-era envoy John Bolton and a number of others who say a potentially explosive mix of jihadists and nuclear weapons might require U.S. military intervention.
Published commentaries of this sort -- as well as media reporting on so-called Pentagon “what if” drills -- have gone viral in Pakistan. The alleged military vulnerabilities understandably have provoked much public anxiety.
The nation’s civilian politicians and powerful military, staunchly supporting what Pakistanis widely view as their defense trump card, have at times suspected that the prolific talk of crisis-contingency plans belie a serious U.S. desire to seize its atomic arms.
“When the U.S. says that they are worried about the security [of] Pakistan’s nuclear arms, it means it fears that these might fall in the hands of such elements as the extremists Taliban,” said a commentary published by Pakistan’s Frontier Post in late 2011. “However, when [former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood] Qureshi says so, he means that these are in danger of being whisked away by the U.S. armed forces.”
The same year, the nation’s Daily Mail reported that one well-known strategic analyst and newspaper columnist had claimed on Islamabad’s version of “Meet the Press” that the U.S. interest in Pakistan’s arsenal is part of a broad strategy to control the South Asian country, gain access to its energy resources and contain China.
“The U.S. intends to [put] nuclear assets of Pakistan under the supervision of the United [Nations]” and “that is why she pressurizes Pakistan by painting a picture of chaos and instability in the country,” Shireen Mazari was quoted as saying.
Pakistani concerns of this sort became particularly acute following the May 2011 U.S. assault that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, according to issue experts.
Many uniformed officers in Islamabad suspect their U.S. counterparts in the military and diplomatic corps of leaking stories about Pakistani atomic force weaknesses -- and about potential grab-and-go operations -- as a means of sowing public doubt and humiliating the South Asian nation, Washington officials say.
After a number of these news reports have appeared, Pakistani officials have gone silent about the nuclear arms in military-to-military and other bilateral dialogues, reportedly citing a loss of trust, according to U.S. government sources.
U.S. issue experts have voiced concern that chilled exchanges could ultimately harm security by effectively cutting off Pentagon and State Department guidance and support for Pakistan in joint efforts to prevent a catastrophic incident.
Public calls for a possible U.S. military intervention during a crisis – or even simply voicing concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear safeguards in peacetime – have “really made it difficult” for Washington officials to sustain a dialogue with that nation’s army about possible security improvements to be made, said one U.S. government official interviewed last week.
“Anything that’s out there that paints Pakistan in a negative light -- on what they consider the crown jewel of their security -- has an impact on our bilateral relationship,” the source said.
This Washington official and a number of others agreed to be interviewed for this article on condition of not being named, citing diplomatic sensitivities.
“I believe that the commentary and reporting about contingency planning to scoop up nuclear weapons in Pakistan is certainly not helpful,” agreed Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center and director of its South Asia program. “It’s your job to report the news. But reporting the news is different than reporting speculative assessments.”
Though Pentagon planning drills might be uncontroversial in the United States, they are perceived quite differently halfway around the world, according to some issue experts.
“Whatever the U.S. says gets amplified a thousand times in Pakistan,” Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, said in an e-mail exchange last week. “It is therefore better that its worries about Pakistani nukes be kept private.”
A Defense Department spokesman took a moderate stance on the matter.
“Media reporting plays an important role in informing the public, and it is important to us that the reporting is accurate,” Lt. Col. James Gregory said in a written response to questions last week. “But our relationship with Pakistan is in no way driven by it.”
Without news reports about the dysfunction of national institutions, serious problems could be hidden from public view and remain insufficiently addressed, said Zia Mian, a physicist who directs Princeton University’s Project on Peace and Security in South Asia.
“The fact that people do report [such stories] is important. And the fact that there are whistleblowers is important,” he said in an interview last week.
Particularly in a nation such as Pakistan with a strong national security establishment protecting nuclear secrets, some voice on behalf of the public interest is needed, he argued.
Secrecy is needed to some degree to protect national assets, but it also “allows incompetence, mismanagement, violations of law and prevents a democratic process from actually working,” Mian said, noting that the Pakistani media has faced enormous impediments to reporting on these issues.
“If the international community basically goes silent on this question also -- the international media, in particular -- then there is actually no possibility of learning from mistakes,” he said. “If things failed catastrophically, is that what you want?”
Hoodbhoy has argued for years that given the high stakes involved in potential extremist access to nuclear arms or materials, the Pakistani government must demonstrate to the world that its arsenal stewardship is terrorist-proof.
The Pakistani military saying, “‘Trust us,’ isn’t good enough,” Hoodbhoy told GSN this week. “But an incredibly fierce reaction follows every time this point is raised by the U.S. media.
“Actually, that reaction is also very visible when raised by a Pakistani,” added Hoodbhoy, who recently lost his post at Lahore University of Management Sciences after years of publicly raising concerns about military and security shortcomings. “The safety of the nuclear arsenal is now a sacred cow.”
Mian acknowledged that occasionally news reports on the Pakistani nuclear stockpile or on Pentagon planning complicate life for Washington envoys in gaining the trust of Islamabad’s nuclear establishment -- the Strategic Plans Division or SPD -- in discussing these matters.
“You should report everything that you possibly can, as long as it’s done accurately and fairly,” Mian said. “And if it kind of makes life difficult for DOE [the U.S. Energy Department] about getting SPD to talk to them, well, that’s DOE’s problem. Let them work it out.”