Ever since 9/11, the nightmare scenario for American security has been the possibility that terrorists could obtain nuclear weapons.
I've just come back from the place where, in theory, that might happen. Not Iraq, of course, not now and not before we invaded. (Our focus has clearly been on the wrong country.) I refer instead to Pakistan, a country that is thought to have around 50 nuclear warheads, where al-Qaida, the Taliban and other jihadis have established a substantial foothold.
The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the continuing instability in her country force us to ask a terrifying question: Could Pakistan's Islamic extremists seize a nuke or steal the fissile material for a dirty bomb?
Back in November, U.S. intelligence agencies assessed that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal was safe under then-current conditions. "I don't see any indication right now that security of those weapons is in jeopardy," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. "But clearly we are very watchful, as we should be."
Just after imposing emergency rule in November, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told reporters that as long as the military was in charge of the weapons there was no problem. The situation has deteriorated sharply since then, with Musharraf's popularity sinking and Bhutto's murder further poisoning the political climate.
So are those weapons safe?
To search for answers, I visited a top security official responsible for the safety of Pakistan's nuclear program, two days after the death of Bhutto. We met in a well-guarded military compound not far from the capital, Islamabad.
The official, a military general, declined to be identified due to the sensitive nature of his job. For two hours, using a slide presentation, he outlined a multilayered system of safeguards for weapons and materiel, along with an elaborate system of personnel checks for scientists and workers, designed to weed out any militancy or connection with terrorist elements.
"Pakistan's nuclear weapons are absolutely safe and secure irrespective of the political situation," the top security official told me. So who's in charge of those weapons?
A Nuclear Command Authority, made up of the president and prime minister, along with senior cabinet members and military officials controls the nukes and would decide on any deployment. A Personnel Reliability Program focuses on the most sensitive employees of the system, even after they leave it, including background checks and psychological testing.
"There is no way a group of terrorists could penetrate our strategic facilities," says the security official. "That is a Hollywood scenario. Especially given the multiple layer of defenses inside and outside."
The system was set up in 1999, following Pakistan's first detonation, in 1998, of a nuclear weapon; it was tightened after the nuclear scandal perpetrated by the father of the Pakistani bomb, A.Q. Khan.
Khan sold nuclear weapons designs and components to Iran, North Korea and Libya in the 1980s and 1990s and is now under house arrest. (Many experts believe senior Pakistani military and intelligence officials were complicit, and that it was not simply a rogue operation as the government claims.)
In today's uncertain Pakistani political climate, could another A.Q. Khan provide nuclear material to Islamists? Could Islamist sympathizers within the military evade the scrutiny of the security system?
The security official insisted that there would never be a repetition of the A.Q. Khan disaster where the system was penetrated. The slightest sniff of any such misadventure would be reported.
And could there be a repetition, I asked, of the August 2001 meeting in Afghanistan at which two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists offered to help Osama bin Laden? (He wanted them to design a bomb, but fortunately they didn't have the knowledge). "Today that would not happen," the security official told me. "The moment anyone moves, with or without permission, we would know."
The professional qualifications of the top security official were impressive. The system he described was complex and substantial with a Pakistani version of the sophisticated PALS locking system the United States uses to prevent unauthorized launch of a weapon. Counterintelligence on weapons security now comes directly to the top security official, not routed via other intelligence agencies, some of which have had past connections with jihadis.
"If anyone had a linkage to any al-Qaida or Taliban, or to any jihadis from Kashmir, he would be out the next day," says the security official. As for religious fervor in the military, "We don't accept anyone who might be in the preaching business."
OK, I say, let's suppose the Pakistani security system works. But in a time of political uncertainty, could someone with Islamist sympathies take over the entire system?
"The Taliban or al-Qaida are in no position to take over the central government and thereby the National Command Authority," comes back the swift answer. "They may kill Benazir," or may try to kill the president, "but to take over the government and nuclear assets is out of the realm of possibility." This is probably true.
The problem is that Pakistan is entering unchartered political waters. Under Musharraf, the military has been ambivalent about taking on Pakistani militants, and has become demoralized by losses sustained in jihadi attacks. No political leader except Bhutto has spelled out clearly that this is now Pakistan's war, not a proxy war for American interests.
The greatest fear of U.S. experts on Pakistan's nuclear security is that disgruntled insiders could penetrate the security system. "The most stressing scenario is one of multiple insiders helping outsiders" in an attack or a theft, says Matthew Bunn, senior research associate in the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Bunn notes that military insiders were involved in two assassination attempts on Musharraf. "If they can't trust the men guarding the president, can they trust those guarding the nuclear weapons?," he asks.
I want to believe that the Pakistani security system can weed out bad actors before they get their hands on fissile material. But can we be sure?
- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.