Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal a U.S. worry

Times Staff Writer

Alarmed by the political crisis in Pakistan, U.S. spy agencies have stepped up their scrutiny of the country’s nuclear weapons program and directed analysts to reexamine the risk that rising instability could lead to the loss of a nuclear device or material, U.S. intelligence officials said.

The officials emphasized that there was no new intelligence to suggest that Pakistan’s tight controls on its nuclear facilities are in any danger of being compromised.

Officials said the effort underway at the CIA and other agencies focuses on identifying scenarios in which further deterioration of the political situation could weaken the Pakistani government’s ability to keep track of its weapons, components or even scientists.


“That was one of the things people immediately started asking about” when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule in his country Saturday and suspended the constitution, a senior U.S. intelligence official said. “How do we game this out? How might it happen?”

The official spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing internal deliberations.

The scenarios being considered include an attempt by Al Qaeda or another terrorist network to launch an attack on a nuclear site, or a move by a faction of the powerful Pakistani military to gain power by aligning with Islamic militant groups.

Officials said they considered both to be remote possibilities. More realistic scenarios, experts said, involve the risk that rogue scientists or security officials working in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program could seek to take advantage of the turmoil to sell technology, supplies or secrets.

“That is my fundamental worry,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “If there is [further] instability, Musharraf is going to have less ability to exercise tight control. Pakistan tends to leak. It has leaked vital nuclear weapons information. It’s the nature of the system.”

Albright was referring to the illicit network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who has been held under house arrest in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, since Western intelligence agencies unraveled a vast network he operated that sold nuclear secrets and technology to other countries.

Intelligence officials have testified that though Al Qaeda leaders have repeatedly expressed interest in obtaining nuclear capabilities, there is no indication the terrorism network has succeeded. If Al Qaeda were able to obtain enough fissile material, experts said, it would require only a limited amount of expertise to assemble a powerful bomb.


Pakistan is the only nuclear-armed Muslim nation, and it is fiercely protective of information about its capabilities and the locations of its weapons and facilities.

Most experts believe that Pakistan has produced enough highly enriched uranium for about 50 nuclear weapons or warheads, and that the devices are distributed among half a dozen or more locations. Pakistan also operates a constellation of weapons production facilities where hundreds of kilograms of fissile material are stored.

Experts said security around these sites is extremely tight and multilayered. Pakistan does not use the electronic systems that require the input of access codes to arm warheads, but its weapons are stored disassembled, with key components kept in separate, secure vaults.

Musharraf has improved the security system, centralizing control in a single government agency and putting a special branch of the military known as the Strategic Plans Division in charge of operations and security.

The senior officers in that division are vetted to eliminate candidates with sympathies for Islamic militants, officials said. The division is led by Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, an officer with close ties to U.S. military officials.

“If we started to see things deteriorate, there would be an urgent and immediate effort to reach out to him,” said Daniel Markey, a former State Department official who focused on U.S. policy in South Asia. Speaking of the Strategic Plans Division, Markey said, “If there’s a safe box within Pakistan’s army, this is it.”


Musharraf’s commitment to securing Pakistan’s weapons has contributed to anxiety over what might happen if he were to lose power. Such concerns may help account for U.S. reluctance to impose sanctions or even issue more forceful rebukes to Musharraf for his decision to suspend the constitution.

Because the military is widely considered the most professional institution in the country, U.S. officials and experts said they regard the possibility of a failure of military control over the weapons as highly unlikely.

“You’d have to imagine competing forces within the officer corps at the highest levels,” Markey said, “and one of those sides deciding they want to align themselves with the more extreme side of the Pakistani political spectrum.”

Due to the military’s capabilities, most experts also discount the possibility of an attack on a Pakistani nuclear facility by Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. As a result, the most worrisome scenarios center on insiders in the Pakistani nuclear program, officials and experts said.

In 2001, just weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, two Pakistani nuclear experts met with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to discuss how Al Qaeda should go about building a nuclear device. That meeting, and subsequent efforts by the CIA to track Al Qaeda’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, was described by former CIA Director George J. Tenet in a book published last spring.

The experts, Sultan Bashirrudin Mahmood and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, are believed to be under house arrest in Pakistan, officials said. But intelligence experts worry that the political instability in Pakistan could weaken the country’s ability or effort to keep track of scientists and experts who might be inclined to share nuclear secrets out of ideological affinity with extremist groups or simply for profit.


“The control system is only as good as its weakest link,” Albright said. “With tight controls and a strong leader you are OK. But if it becomes less stable, you could have fewer constraints and someone may grab an opportunity to steal something and sell it.”