The United States recently admitted that since the attacks of September 11,
2001, it has been helping Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons and the materials
used to make them. Pakistan has welcomed this assistance. A former Pakistani
general who was involved in the nuclear weapons complex has said that "we want
to learn from the West's best practices".
But the US track record for securing its own nuclear weapons, nuclear materials
and weapons information isn't encouraging, to
say the least. If the United States can't secure its own nuclear complex, why
expect Pakistan to do it any better?
On November 11, The Washington Post reported that the United States sent "tens
of millions of dollars worth of equipment such as intrusion detectors and ID
systems to safeguard Pakistan's nuclear weapons". A week later, The New York
Times, which had been sitting on the story for three years, revealed that the
program was in fact much larger, "Over the past six years, the Bush
administration has spent almost $100 million on a highly classified program to
help General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, secure his country's
nuclear weapons." The assistance ranged from "helicopters to night-vision
goggles to nuclear detection equipment".
The US military claims to be confident about the security of Pakistan's nuclear
arsenal. A Pentagon press spokesman said, "At this point, we have no concerns.
We believe that they are under the appropriate control." The chairman of the US
Joint Chiefs of Staff declared, "I don't see any indication right now that
security of those weapons is in jeopardy."
A concern about nuclear weapons security in Pakistan is that Islamists in the
military may seize control of the weapons and try to use them. Pakistan claims
to have followed the US example and installed coded combination-lock switches,
known as Permissive Action Links, on its weapons.
Since the 1960s, most US nuclear weapons are supposed to have been protected
against unauthorized use by coded combination-lock switches that could only be
activated by someone who knew that proper sequence of characters. These
switches were introduced in 1962 by Robert McNamara when he was secretary of
defense to ensure control over the use of US nuclear weapons.
According to Bruce Blair, a
former missile launch control officer, Strategic Air Command, which was responsible
for the nuclear-armed missiles and bombers, installed the switches but set the combinations of all
the locks to a string of zeros. The codes for launching US
nuclear missiles apparently stayed set at 00000000 until the late 1970s. The reason?
Strategic Air Command did not want there to be any problems or delays in
launching the nuclear missiles caused by a more complex set of numbers.
McNamara apparently did not know that the locks he had ordered to be installed
on nuclear weapons were largely worthless, and that the military with direct
control of the weapons were evading official instructions for securing nuclear
missiles. He only learned of this from Blair in January 2004. McNamara was
outraged. But, as Blair observed, this is but "one of a long litany of items
pointing to the ignorance of presidents and defense secretaries and other
nuclear security officials about the true state of nuclear affairs".
Problems with securing nuclear weapons are not a matter of Cold War history. In
August this year, six US nuclear-armed cruise missiles were inadvertently
loaded onto a bomber at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and flown across
the country to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The cruise missiles
remained fitted to the bomber for 24 hours before it took off and for hours
after it landed without anyone realizing that it was carrying nuclear warheads.
It was "an unprecedented string of procedural failures", according to General
Richard Newton, the assistant deputy chief of staff for operations for the US
As nuclear analyst Hans Kristensen has pointed out, the incident showed "the
apparent break-down of nuclear command and control for the custody of the
nuclear weapons". Put simply, the ground crews did not know, or bother to
check, that they were loading nuclear weapons on a plane; the bomber's pilot
and crew did not know or bother to check that they were carrying nuclear
weapons; the respective base commanders did not know nuclear weapons were
leaving or arriving; and, the national authorities responsible for nuclear
weapons did not know where these nuclear weapons were or that they were being
moved across the country. The weapons were to all intents and purposes lost for
about 36 hours.
Gates, guards and guns
A key concern about nuclear security in Pakistan is the risk of radical
Islamist militants making a bid for its nuclear weapons or its stock of the
materials with which to make nuclear weapons. There is a growing armed
insurgency in the areas bordering Afghanistan that has been spreading across
Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province and into its major cities.
The United States, which has much less of a threat to worry about, has had
plenty of problems trying to makes sure terrorists could not get their hands on
the materials with which to make nuclear weapons. The US Department of energy
currently spends $1.3 billion a year on securing its facilities that contain
significant amounts of nuclear weapons-useable materials through the use of
fences, guards, cameras, intrusion sensors, and so on. But many of these
facilities are not required or able to protect against a 19-strong group of
attackers such as were involved in the September 11, 2001, aircraft hijackings.
The failure to secure weapons materials at US facilities has been exposed by
exercises in which simulated attackers carried away material sufficient to make
a weapon. Reports show that the security at the sites fails more than 50% of
the time. The Project on Government Oversight, an independent watch dog group,
has revealed for instance that during a mock attack on Los Alamos National
Laboratory in New Mexico, a US Special Forces team "was able to steal enough
weapons-grade uranium for numerous nuclear weapons". In a subsequent security
test at the same site, the "mock terrorists gained control of sensitive nuclear
materials which, if detonated, would have endangered significant parts of New
Mexico, Colorado and downwind areas".
A particular worry about Pakistan is that scientists and engineers within its
nuclear program may share weapons information with other countries or Islamist
groups. The story of Abdul Qadeer Khan is all too familiar, as is that of
several senior former Pakistani nuclear scientists who were found to have met
with the al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan.
In the United States, there is a long and troubling history of nuclear weapons
information going missing from the nuclear weapons laboratories, and ending up
in unexpected places. The first and most famous atomic spy was Klaus Fuchs, who
passed on the secrets of the US nuclear weapons project to the Soviet Union
during World War II. Fuchs claimed he did it for ideological reasons.
More recently, the Project on Government Oversight has compiled a list of
reports on the loss of classified information from the US nuclear complex. They
found 17 incidents in 2004 alone in which classified information from Los
Alamos was sent using unclassified networks. This led the Department of Energy,
which manages the U.S. nuclear weapons program, to shut down all operations
involving removable hard drives, laptops, CDs and DVDs, flash drives and such
like, across the entire complex.
In one dramatic case, missing computer disks containing nuclear weapons
information were lost and mysteriously found several weeks later behind a copy
machine. In another case, classified information about nuclear weapons designs
was found during a raid on a drug den. In January 2007, there was an incident
in which a highly classified email message about nuclear weapons was sent
unsecured by a senior Pentagon nuclear adviser and then forwarded by others. It
has been described as "the most serious breach of US national security".
History suggests that the most enduring problem for the security of nuclear
weapons, materials and information, is the people who work in and manage the
nuclear weapons complex. The United States has a nuclear weapons personnel
reliability program which screens people who are allowed to work with nuclear
weapons. Pakistan says it has adopted a similar program.
An independent study of the US nuclear personnel reliability program found that
between 1975 and 1990, the United States disqualified annually between 3% and
5% of the military personnel it had previously cleared for working with nuclear
weapons. These people were removed on the grounds of drug or alcohol problems,
conviction for a serious crime, negligence, unreliability or aberrant behavior,
poor attitude, and behavior suggesting problems with law and authority.
Problems like this continue. In October 2006, a Los Alamos lab worker with the
"highest possible security clearance" was arrested in a cocaine drug bust. One
year later, the commander of a US nuclear submarine was removed from his duties
after it was discovered that the ship's crew failed to do daily safety checks
on its nuclear reactor for a month and then falsified the daily records to
cover up the lapse.
After 60 years of living with the bomb, the United States has failed to get its
own nuclear house in order. It continues to suffer serious problems with
securing its own nuclear weapons, nuclear materials and weapons-related
information. Showing no sign of having learned from its own mistakes, the
United States may only end up encouraging a false sense of security and
confidence about nuclear weapons security in Pakistan.
The only sure way to secure nuclear weapons and materials is not to have them.
The only way to be sure that nuclear weapons scientists do not pass information
is to forbid scientists from working on such weapons. Anything short of that is
taking a risk and being willing to pay the price for living in a nuclear-armed
Zia Mian, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist, directs the Project on
Peace and Security in South Asia at the Program on Science and Global Security,
at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International