Inside Pakistan's Drive To Guard Its A-Bombs
By PETER WONACOTT: Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2007; Page A1
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan -- Inside Pakistan's nuclear program, scientists are allowed to grow long beards, pray five times a day and vote for this country's conservative Islamist politicians. Religious zeal doesn't bar them from working in top-secret weapons facilities.
But religious extremism does. It's up to the program's internal watchdog, a security division authorized to snoop on its employees, to determine the difference -- and drive out those who breach the boundaries.
In an interview, a top security official for Pakistan's nuclear program outlined a multilayered system put in place over the past two years to try to avoid the kind of devastating lapses uncovered in recent years. A series of rogue scientists were found to have sold secrets or met with al Qaeda leaders, finally spurring a screening-and-surveillance program along the lines the U.S. uses -- but with a greater focus on weeding out an increasingly religious generation of would-be scientists and engineers.
With the regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf wobbling, the eyes of the world have refocused on the security of the atomic arsenal of Pakistan, long regarded as the most politically unstable of nuclear powers. Mr. Musharraf's move yesterday to relinquish his military leadership provided at least momentary calm. But worries that weapons technology or materials might leak out remain amid Pakistan's continuing turmoil.
Pakistani officials say the most far-reaching change in their nuclear-security web is the Personnel Reliability Program, named after its model in the U.S. It involves a battery of checks aimed at rooting out human foibles such as lust, greed or depression that might lead one to betray national secrets. Like the security methods of other nuclear powers, the new Pakistani program delves into personal finances, political views and sexual histories.
But it probes most deeply into degrees of religious fervor. One employee recently was booted from the nuclear program for passing out political pamphlets of an ultraconservative Islamic party and being observed coaxing colleagues into joining him at a local mosque for party rallies, said the security official, a two-star general who declined to be identified, citing the sensitive nature of his job. Even though the employee did nothing illegal, his behavior was deemed too disturbing.
"We don't mind people being religious," said the general, sitting in a spartan office behind a code-locked door in a military compound, outside Pakistan's capital Islamabad. "But we don't want people with extreme thoughts." Security officials try to draw a line at people who are inclined to force their religious beliefs upon others, especially in the workplace; urging colleagues to attend Islamist political rallies is seen as less acceptable than quietly taking a break from work to pray.
The attempt to strike this delicate balance, between allowing faith and excluding fundamentalism, is all the more difficult in a time of upheaval for this Muslim nation of 160 million people. Since July, Pakistan has been hard hit by an escalation in extremist violence, with an Islamist insurgency spreading from the lawless border area with Afghanistan -- widely believed to be the home of Osama bin Laden -- to Pakistan's major cities. That was one of the reasons President Musharraf gave for declaring a state of emergency Nov. 3, but the attacks haven't abated. Just last weekend, suicide bombers struck this heavily guarded garrison city, killing 35. Yesterday, Mr. Musharraf turned over control of the military to a handpicked successor; today, he is to be sworn in as a civilian president.
Many experts say it is unlikely that Islamist militants would be able to penetrate Pakistan's nuclear establishment or to steal weapons. They see a bigger threat in a rising tide of young people inclined to be more religiously conservative -- and, spurred by the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more anti-American. That includes the college campuses that are most likely to supply recruits to the nuclear program.
"You can improve physical security by building high walls and establishing a well-guarded perimeter. It's much harder to defend against insiders," says Robert Einhorn, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and a former assistant secretary of state for weapons nonproliferation.
Within Pakistan, a strong contingent opposing any nuclear weapons questions whether the recent attempts to improve the government's security screening are enough. Critics say religious conservatism gripping the applicant pool makes it too difficult to discern potentially dangerous zealots. "It's a source of worry that the secret institutions are seized with religious fervor," says Pervez Hoodbhoy, chairman of the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University, a large source of scientists for Pakistan's nuclear program.
Pakistan's allies, including the U.S., have expressed public confidence in the nation's controls. "I'd like to be very clear," Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters earlier this month in Washington. "I don't see any indication right now that security of those weapons is in jeopardy."
But the U.S. has long had contingency plans in place under which American Special Forces operatives would deploy to Pakistan to secure nuclear-weapons sites in the event of an Islamic takeover. Some U.S. military and intelligence personnel fear that there may be additional weapons sites that the U.S. doesn't know about. "It's going to be some time before Pakistan overcomes the confidence deficit," says Mark Fitzpatrick, an arms-control specialist and senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is believed to contain about 50 warheads that, when mounted on missiles, are capable of striking anywhere in archrival India, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which recently produced a report on the program's history. It also estimated the arsenal, kept at secret, commando-guarded locations, could be expanded significantly with Pakistan's stockpile of weapons-grade material.
Components and core materials are stored separately -- an additional security measure experts say is undertaken by both Pakistan and India. Those components are supposed to be put into operation only with the consent of a National Command Authority, comprising the country's top civilian and military leaders.
Pakistan has worked to advance its technical security along with its human checks, introducing fingerprint and iris scanners that are commonplace in other countries' nuclear programs. According to current and former Pakistani nuclear officials, Pakistan has developed its own version of "Permissive Action Links," or PALs, a sophisticated type of lock the U.S. uses to prevent unauthorized launching.
No country's program is immune from mishaps. Last month, the commander of a nuclear-powered U.S. Navy submarine was fired after failing to do safety checks and falsifying records to cover it up. In August, a B-52 bomber took off mistakenly carrying nuclear-tipped missiles. Both incidents caused embarrassment but no damage.
But Pakistan's past security breakdowns have eroded the credibility of its assurances that its program is in safe hands. In 2004, A.Q. Khan, who headed a national research laboratory named after him, was placed under house arrest for selling nuclear secrets and materials to North Korea, Iran and Libya -- making a personal fortune in the process. In late 2001, acting on tips from U.S. intelligence, Pakistan detained two of its retired nuclear scientists who had met with members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, including Mr. bin Laden.
Some analysts suspect Pakistan continues to buy weapons materials on the black market, in part because of trouble procuring supplies through legitimate channels. That suggests to some that at least parts of the procurement network engineered by Mr. Kahn, still widely considered a national hero, remain active -- despite Pakistan's assertions that it has been shut down.
The Bush administration has ruled out any plan to share nuclear technology with Pakistan, even as it seeks to complete such a pact for India's civilian power program. Nuclear suppliers have followed suit, denying some safety equipment that Pakistani nuclear officials say are meant for civilian use. For example, Pakistan hasn't been able to buy a system to monitor potentially problematic parts at its power reactors, say these officials.
Pakistan's current emphasis on security marks a shift from its early focus on acquiring technology, rather than safeguarding it. That stemmed from a race with India to build the bomb, which culminated in 1998, when both countries conducted a series of tit-for-tat nuclear tests.
More than two decades earlier, spurred by India's test of a nuclear device in 1974, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto built up the nuclear program around a coterie of patriotic scientists, among them the metallurgist Mr. Khan. As the program advanced, Mr. Khan assumed an ever-more powerful role, rising to head his own laboratory that operated free of much -- if any -- government control. Mr. Khan eventually turned his attentions to selling the secrets to other countries, including Iran. Current and former army commanders maintain Mr. Khan acted within a tiny circle without their knowledge. General Mizra Aslam Beg, then chief of army staff, says he told an Iranian military delegation shopping for technology and material in the 1990s that he couldn't help: He advised them to get what they wanted "like us, through the underworld."
A major early problem was weak oversight from the civilian government. Mr. Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, helped craft Pakistan's nuclear policies on exports and deterrence, yet says she was mostly kept out of the loop by the country's intelligence services while she was prime minister. Her successor, Nawaz Sharif -- who like Ms. Bhutto recently returned to Pakistan to challenge Mr. Musharraf's rule -- didn't fare any better during his two terms in office. At a 1999 meeting with President Clinton in Washington, Mr. Sharif says in an interview, U.S. intelligence informed him that Pakistani military transport planes were carrying used nuclear centrifuges, which can be used to produce weapons-grade uranium, out of the country.
"No, no," Mr. Sharif recalls responding. "That couldn't happen." But before he could check out the allegations, he says, his government fell in Gen. Musharraf's military coup. A former director of the centrifuge program was later arrested.
Gen. Musharraf began to revamp Pakistan's nuclear bureaucracy. He established the National Command Authority and formalized the role of a secretariat, called the Strategic Plans Division, set up in 1998 to oversee the nuclear program's policies. Gen. Musharraf sidelined Mr. Khan, launched an internal investigation, and later publicly arrested him after the U.S. presented evidence of his misdeeds. When Mr. Khan confessed, however, Gen. Musharraf pardoned him. In ailing health, he still resides in his heavily guarded Islamabad home.
Just after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Pakistan's intelligence service detained two retired nuclear scientists who had met with senior members of al Qaeda, including Mr. bin Laden, during charity work in Afghanistan. One, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, was a former director at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and a controversial Islamic scholar who had postulated that energy could be harnessed from fiery spirits called djinns.
Mr. Mahmood, who remains under house arrest, had sketched a rough diagram of a nuclear bomb for Mr. bin Laden during a meeting, Pakistani officials said. Pakistani intelligence agents later described the drawing as absurdly basic. But his unauthorized travel to Afghanistan highlighted gaping holes in the system. "Despite our proactive measures, it will haunt us," Air Commodore Khalid Banuri, a director in Pakistan's Strategic Plans Division, said of the bin Laden meeting. "I don't know for how many years."
When news surfaced of the meeting, Air Commodore Banuri was in the U.S. on a fellowship studying how Pakistan could apply a Personnel Reliability Program at home. Later, the U.S. decided to help, according to two former directors of Pakistan's Strategic Plans Division. "We want to learn from the West's best practices," says one of them, Feroz Khan, who also is a retired brigadier general. "Why shouldn't the U.S. share this with developing countries?" After years of sensitive exchanges, it took until 2005 for Pakistan to put in place the U.S.-style reliability program.
To hone its loyalty tests, Pakistan says it has departed from the U.S. program in significant ways. It focuses much less on drinking, for example, since consumption of alcohol is severely curtailed in Muslim Pakistan, and more on finances and religious beliefs.
Recruits are subject to a battery of background checks that can take up to a year. New employees are monitored for months before moving into sensitive areas. They may also be subjected to periodic psychological exams and reports from fellow workers.
For a handful of top scientists and military officials, life becomes a fishbowl of eavesdropped phone calls, tailed movements and monitored overseas travel, according to Feroz Khan, the former Strategic Plans Division director. Most top officials now are watched into retirement, usually while given undemanding advisory positions.
"The system knows how to distinguish who is a 'fundo' [fundamentalist] and who is simply pious," he says.
Pakistan's hardline Islamic parties have vigorously promoted the nation's nuclear program as a way for Muslim countries to combat American hegemony -- and don't share the government's concern about the kind of security lapses that alarm the U.S. In July, a senator for Pakistan's largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, criticized the government's confinement of A.Q. Khan as "an act of cruelty against one of the greatest benefactors of Pakistan... just to appease the American administration."
At Quaid-e-Azam University, the nuclear critic Mr. Hoodbhoy says his students are more radical than a previous generation. They have come up through an education system that increasingly stresses Islamic ritual and come of age in a charged political environment. There's widespread sympathy for those fighting Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, he adds, although most wouldn't want to live under a Taliban-like regime.
On campus, young women stroll in groups along shrub-lined pathways, cloaked head to toe in scarves and gowns. "The students aren't conscious that they've changed, but this new dress would've looked so odd 30 ago," says Prof. Hoodbhoy. "Even five years ago."
During lunch at the university, a group of graduate students huddle outside a physics classroom. One 22-year-old says he has applied for work at Khan Research Laboratories, known as KRL -- still named after the famous scientist despite his arrest.
The student says he's not particularly religious, praying twice a day. He does worry about the security program, though, and asks not to be identified, thinking that talking to a reporter might jeopardize his job chances. "I'm under observation," he explains.
The general who's a top security official says nuclear-program employees are well aware of the lines they can't cross. The electronics engineer who was fired for passing out pamphlets had been clearly warned, the general says, with an earlier job transfer out of a sensitive area. Today, security agents continue to keep an eye on the engineer, he adds. They know he's tutoring students in a small room off the side of his house.
--Jay Solomon contributed to this article