ISLAMABAD: The Foreign Office has said that Pakistan will never allow ‘any country to have direct or indirect access to its nuclear and strategic facilities’.
‘No talks have ever taken place on the issue of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal with US officials,’ a spokesman said in a statement issued on Sunday in response to assertions made in an article in The New Yorker magazine.
He said the author, American journalist Seymour Hersh, had quoted ‘anonymous and unverifiable sources’ for his assertions and article, ‘Defending the arsenal – In an unstable Pakistan can nuclear warheads be kept safe’, amounted to ‘nothing more than a concoction to tarnish the image of Pakistan and create misgivings among its people’.
The spokesman said Pakistan’s strategic assets were ‘completely safe and secure’.
‘The multi-layered custodial controls which have been developed indigenously are as foolproof and effective as in any other nuclear weapons state.
‘Pakistan, therefore, does not require any foreign assistance in this regard,’ he said.
The spokesman said the United States had repeatedly expressed its confidence in Pakistan’s ‘custodial controls’ and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had recently ‘denied any US concerns in this regard’.
He said Seymour Hersh was known for his anti-Pakistan bias and for writing ‘sensational stories premised in far-fetched and imaginary scenarios. His latest article is no exception and is, therefore, strongly rejected.’
Meanwhile, US Ambassador in Islamabad Anne Patterson said that ‘the United States has no intention to seize Pakistani nuclear weapons or material’.
‘The US has confidence in Pakistan’s ability to protect its nuclear programmes and materials,’ she said.
Anwar Iqbal adds from Washington:
Despite rejection of the report by US and Pakistani officials as speculative and ‘incorrect’, journalist Hersh stands by his story.
In the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine, Mr Hersh describes two possibilities for a possible nuclear crisis in Pakistan: the Taliban and Al Qaeda militants seize the government and the weapons or a coup by rogue and extremist elements within the army.
Mr Hersh, however, concedes that the US national-security council and the CIA have denied that there were any agreements in place.
But Mr Hersh claims that his own investigations show that the Obama administration ‘has been negotiating highly sensitive understandings with the Pakistani military’.
The understanding would ‘allow specially trained American units to provide added security for the Pakistani arsenal in case of a crisis’, he adds.
At the same time, the US would also provide funds to the Pakistani military to equip and train Pakistani soldiers and to improve their housing and facilities.
Mr Hersh notes that in June, the US Congress approved a $400 million request for the Pakistan Counter-insurgency Capability Fund, providing immediate assistance to the Pakistan Army for equipment, training, and ‘renovation and construction’.
The ongoing consultation on nuclear security between Washington and Islamabad intensified after the announcement in March of President Obama’s so-called Af-Pak policy, which called upon the Pakistan Army to take more aggressive action against Taliban enclaves inside Pakistan.
‘I was told that the understandings on nuclear cooperation benefited from the increasingly close relationship between Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Kayani, his counterpart,’ Mr Hersh writes.
‘Although the CIA and the Departments of Defence, State, and Energy have also been involved, all three departments declined to comment for this article. The national security council and the CIA denied that there were any agreements in place.’
The report, however, concedes that the Pakistani nuclear warheads and their triggers are stored separately from each other, and from their delivery devices, which reduces the threat of a militant takeover.
The arrangement serves as a safeguard in case of a quickly escalating confrontation with India but also makes the weapons vulnerable during shipment and reassembly, the report adds.
A former US senior intelligence official told Mr Hersh that a team that had trained for years to remove or dismantle parts of the Pakistani arsenal had now been augmented by a unit of the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite counter-terrorism group.
‘The Pakistanis gave us a virtual look at the number of warheads, some of their locations, and their command-and-control system,’ the former senior intelligence official told Mr Hersh.
‘We saw their target list and their mobilisation plans. We got their security plans, so we could augment them in case of a breach of security,’ he said. ‘We’re there to help the Pakistanis, but we’re also there to extend our own axis of security to their nuclear stockpile.’
The report notes that high-level cooperation between Islamabad and Washington on the Pakistani nuclear arsenal began at least eight years ago.
The detailed American planning even includes an estimate of how many nuclear triggers could be placed inside a C-17 cargo plane and where the triggers could be sequestered, the report adds.
But Mr Hersh acknowledges that when he discussed the issue with President Asif Ali Zardari, he spoke with derision about ‘America’s obsession’ with Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
‘We give comfort to each other, and the comfort level is good, because everybody respects everybody’s integrity,’ Mr Hersh quotes President Asif Ali Zardari as telling him in an interview about the security relationship with Washington.
‘Our army officers are not crazy, like the Taliban,’ Mr Zardari went on to say. ‘A mutiny would never happen in Pakistan. It’s a fear being spread by the few who seek to scare the many.’
The report also mentions that former president Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged that his government had given US non-proliferation experts insight into the command and control of the Pakistani arsenal and its on-site safety and security procedures. The report notes that Pakistan has been a nuclear power for two decades, and has an estimated eighty to a hundred warheads, scattered in facilities around the country.
Mr Hersh notes that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked after the GHQ attack if she believed Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals were safe, and she said: ‘We have confidence in the Pakistani government and the military’s control over nuclear weapons.’ She added that despite the attacks by the Taliban, ‘we see no evidence that they are going to take over the state’.
The report then moves to President Barack Obama’s April 29th news conference where he was asked whether he could reassure the American people that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could be kept away from terrorists. Mr Obama said he was ‘gravely concerned’ about the fragility of the civilian government in Islamabad. ‘Their biggest threat right now comes internally,’ Mr Obama said. ‘We have huge… national-security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don’t end up having a nuclear-armed militant state.’ The US, he said, could ‘make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure.’
The questioner, Chuck Todd of NBC, began asking whether the American military could, if necessary, move in and secure Pakistan’s bombs. Mr Obama did not let Mr Todd finish. ‘I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals of that sort,’ he said.