Leaked classified U.S. diplomatic documents reveal strong doubts that Pakistan can keep nuclear fuel and expertise out of the hands of terrorists, alarmingly illustrated by a report that Pakistani nuclear workers have been kidnapped by Islamic extremists and not heard from again.
Although the U.S. has long expressed wariness about a nuclear weapons program in a country that remains a seedbed for terrorism, in public it has expressed steadfast confidence in the layers of security the Pakistani government and military use to safeguard the country's nuclear facilities.
The New York Times, which along with Britain's Guardian newspaper and other European media, was given advance access to more than 250,000 diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, reported on its website Sunday that since 2007, the U.S. has been trying to persuade Pakistan to hand over highly enriched uranium for safekeeping. American officials made the request out of fear that the uranium from a research reactor might be diverted for use in an illicit nuclear device.
And in a chilling Feb. 24 State Department cable on WikiLeaks' website, a Russian Foreign Ministry official laid out concerns about the safety and fate of Pakistani nuclear facility workers ambushed by Islamic militants in the last few years.
"Some were killed, and a number were abducted, and there has been no trace seen of them," the cable reported Russian official Yuriy Korolev as saying during a December 2009 meeting of U.S. and Russian diplomats and security officials in Washington.
The cable also expressed concerns that some Pakistani nuclear workers may share extremist religious beliefs similar to those held by Islamic militant groups and could be susceptible to recruitment.
According to the cable, Korolev acknowledged that the U.S. and Pakistan together have established reliable layers of physical protection and security at the country's nuclear and missile sites. But, he added, "there are 120,000 to 130,000 people directly involved in Pakistan's nuclear and missile programs, working in these facilities and protecting them.... Regardless of the clearance process for these people, there is no way to guarantee that all are 100% loyal and reliable."
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit on Monday condemned the release of the cables as an "irresponsible disclosure of sensitive official documents." He said that his government was still poring over them but that it was "not in the position to comment on the veracity of U.S. internal documents."
Basit said the "U.S. suggestion [in 2007] to have the fuel transferred was plainly refused by Pakistan." He added that the research reactor was not producing highly enriched uranium, contradicting the claim in the classified cable.
Pakistan successfully tested its first nuclear bomb in May 1998, a few weeks after archrival India carried out its second test of a nuclear device. The exact size of Islamabad's nuclear stockpile has not been made public, but a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists report issued this year estimated that Pakistan has between 70 and 90 nuclear weapons. The scientist regarded as the father of the country's nuclear weapons program, A.Q. Khan, allegedly relayed nuclear weapons technology to states such as North Korea and Iran.
Pakistan has repeatedly dismissed U.S. concerns about the potential acquisition of nuclear materials by Al Qaeda, based in Pakistan's northwest tribal region, or other allied militant groups. Experts say there is no evidence that any Islamic extremist organization has ever obtained nuclear material from Pakistani facilities, and many here believe the U.S. ultimately wants to defang the country by seizing its nuclear arsenal.
"Pakistan's nuclear program is very well governed," said Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. "We have trained personnel and there has never been any leakage or any incident.... So I don't believe that this concern by the U.S. is a genuine concern."
The revelation that the U.S. had sought to persuade Pakistan to give over its nuclear fuel for safekeeping is likely to worsen anti-American sentiment in a country already highly suspicious of Washington's intentions in the region, said Zafar Hilaly, also a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.
The Obama administration has been trying to improve Pakistani public perception of the U.S. through billions of dollars in economic aid and reconstruction programs following catastrophic floods in the summer. The latest WikiLeaks disclosures, however, "will confirm Pakistanis' worst fears," Hilaly said. "There's very little sympathy within the Pakistani public for Americans to begin with, so this will only aggravate those feelings."