Pakistani Leader Reviews Nuclear Security Amid Newly Reported Concerns

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Sept. 5, 2013, 12:02 p.m.

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.

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