US spends $100mn to guard Pakistan’s nuclear arms: NYT


Washington : The United States has spent almost $100 million on a highly classified programme over the last six years to help Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf secure his country’s nuclear weapons, according to the New York Times.

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But with the future of Pakistan’s leadership in doubt, debate is intensifying about whether Washington has done enough to help protect the warheads and laboratories, the influential daily said Saturday citing unnamed current and former senior Bush administration officials.

Also debated is whether Pakistan’s reluctance to reveal critical details about its arsenal has undercut the effectiveness of the continuing security effort, it said.

The aid, buried in secret portions of the federal budget, paid for the training of Pakistani personnel in the United States and the construction of a nuclear security training centre in Pakistan, a facility that American officials cited by the Times say is nowhere near completion, even though it was supposed to be in operation this year.

A raft of equipment – from helicopters to night-vision goggles to nuclear detection equipment – was given to Pakistan to help secure its nuclear material, its warheads, and the laboratories that were the site of the worst known case of nuclear proliferation in the atomic age, it said.

While American officials quoted by the Times say that they believe the arsenal is safe at the moment, and that they take at face value Pakistani assurances that security is vastly improved, in many cases the Pakistani government has been reluctant to show American officials how or where the gear is actually used.

That is because the Pakistanis do not want to reveal the locations of their weapons or the amount or type of new bomb-grade fuel the country is now producing.

The American programme was created after the Sep 11, 2001, attacks, when the Bush administration debated whether to share with Pakistan one of the crown jewels of American nuclear protection technology, known as “permissive action links”, or PALS, a system used to keep a weapon from detonating without proper codes and authorizations.

In the end, despite past federal aid to France and Russia on delicate points of nuclear security, the administration decided that it could not share the system with the Pakistanis because of legal restrictions.

In addition, the Pakistanis were suspicious that any American-made technology in their warheads could include a secret “kill switch”, enabling the Americans to turn off their weapons, the Times said.

While many nuclear experts in the federal government favoured offering the PALS system because they considered Pakistan’s arsenal among the world’s most vulnerable to terrorist groups, some administration officials feared that sharing the technology would teach Pakistan too much about American weaponry.

The same concern kept the Clinton administration from sharing the technology with China in the early 1990s, the daily said.

The New York Times said it has known details of the secret programme for more than three years, based on interviews with a range of American officials and nuclear experts, some of whom were concerned that Pakistan’s arsenal remained vulnerable.

The newspaper agreed to delay publication of the article after considering a request from the Bush administration, which argued that premature disclosure could hurt the effort to secure the weapons.

Early this week, the White House withdrew its request that publication be withheld, though it was unwilling to discuss details of the programme.

The secret programme was designed by the Energy Department and the State Department, and it drew heavily from the effort over the past decade to secure nuclear weapons, stockpiles and materials in Russia and other former Soviet states, the Times said.

Much of the money for Pakistan was spent on physical security, like fencing and surveillance systems, and equipment for tracking nuclear material if it left secure areas.

But while Pakistan is formally considered a “major non-NATO ally”, the programme has been hindered by a deep suspicion among Pakistan’s military that the secret goal of the United States was to gather intelligence about how to locate and, if necessary, disable Pakistan’s arsenal, which is the pride of the country.

“Everything has taken far longer than it should,” a former official involved in the programme told the Times in a recent interview, “and you are never sure what you really accomplished”.

So far, the amount the US has spent on the classified nuclear security programme, less than $100 million, amounts to slightly less than one percent of the roughly $10 billion in known American aid to Pakistan since the Sep 11 attacks.

Most of that money has gone for assistance in counter-terrorism activities against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the New York Time said.