Pakistan: Nuclear Safety Issues
The News, January 27, 2008
Step aimed at preventing Taliban or al-Qaeda from taking control of nukes
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has become more alert to the possible threat posed by Islamic militants to its nuclear facilities in the recent months but its security system is fail-safe and would prevent the Taliban or al-Qaeda from ever gaining control of the weapons, a top official said on Saturday.
Khalid Kidwai, the retired general who heads the Strategic Plans Division that handles Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, said at a rare briefing for foreign media that about 10,000 soldiers were deployed to secure the facilities and provide intelligence under a command and control system headed by President Pervez Musharraf and other top military and political leaders.
“Pakistan's nuclear weapons, fissile material and infrastructure are absolutely safe and secure.” Kidwai said his division still planned for any contingency and had reassessed the militant threat in the light of escalating attacks on the security forces and intelligence personnel, although, it had received no intelligence of a terrorist plot against the nuclear facilities.
“You are always responding to threats, the last six months is no exception,” he said. “The state of alertness has gone up.” He said security was stepped up after the militants began more actively targeting the military in a wave of suicide attacks in the past year, but there was no specific threat. However, no conspiracy or plot related to nuclear facilities had ever been uncovered, he said.
The upsurge in militant violence and US concerns that al-Qaeda has regrouped along Pakistan's volatile border with Afghanistan have ignited international worry, amid media reports that the Pentagon has contingency plans for seizing Pakistan's nuclear facilities if they ever fall into the hands of extremists.
Kidwai described that as “irresponsible talk” and said the United States would not be able to succeed in such an operation. “It's a serious issue. Nobody takes on established nuclear powers,” he said, adding that like all professional militaries, Pakistan had plans for such contingencies.
The wide-ranging media briefing covered the safeguards Pakistan had put in place to prevent accidental use of a bomb and nuclear proliferation, and even an overview of the procedure for launching a nuclear strike.
Foreign diplomats received a similar briefing earlier this month. Kidwai said after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Washington had offered to share its “best practices” in nuclear security, and as a result, Pakistan had accepted about $8 million to $10 million in US aid to enhance physical security of its nuclear assets and for training.
The security equipment that Pakistan has received includes surveillance cameras, special locks, specialised perimeter fencing and patrol vehicles, he said. Kidwai said any decision on using a nuclear weapon would rest with the 10-member National Command Authority chaired by the president, “hopefully by consensus but at least by majority.” The decision would be conveyed to the Strategic Plans Division and then to the military chain of command.
Having given the order, the National Command Authority could still call off a nuclear strike at the last minute, even if a pilot had left the Pakistani airspace, he said. An authorisation code was needed by a pilot or officer commanding a missile launch from the ground to finally press the button.
“Until the very last second (the order) is retrievable and it can be aborted,” he said. Outlining the security in place to secure the nuclear assets, Kidwai said a security division, led by a two-star general and manned by 10,000 professional soldiers, guarded the nuclear facilities and served as a dedicated intelligence network.
He said of about 10,000 staff involved in the nuclear programme, some 2,000 scientists working in particularly sensitive areas, were subject to intense scrutiny throughout their lives. This included regular reports on their political, financial and moral background and their medical and psychological fitness.
Kidwai acknowledged that two Pakistani nuclear scientists had met with Osama bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan, during the rule of the Taliban regime. But a three-month investigation held after the Sept 11 attacks on America had cleared the two men and established “nothing dangerous had happened,” he said.
Otherwise, Kidwai said there had only been “minor incidents” of personnel in the nuclear programme stepping out of line. He cited the case of one scientist who had made a speech against the United States and Musharraf at a mosque and was consequently removed from his job.
"We are capable of thwarting all types of threats, whether these be insider, outsider, or a combination," Kidwai said. Kidwai, echoing President Pervez Musharraf in Europe this week, dismissed any idea of an "extremist takeover" of either Pakistan's government or its nuclear weapons.
Pakistan has launched a public relations offensive to counter what it regards as scaremongering over the security of its nuclear weapons. Kidwai said the idea that militant forces could be democratically voted into power was an impossible proposition, as political parties were predominantly moderate.
He also said fears of a breakdown in law and order or violent revolution were exaggerated, and the possibility of extremists taking over the military was difficult to imagine. Kidwai noted that of 700 to 800 nuclear security incidents reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, most had occurred in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. He said none were reported in Pakistan or, he believed, in India. Kidwai said neither country was on a hair-trigger. Even if a rogue pilot were to fire a missile, he would not have the code to arm the warhead, he said.