Fear of the jewel thief

On the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal

Image Courtesy The New Yorker

Enough has been said about the assassination of the governor of Pakistan Punjab, Mr Salmaan Taseeer. A little less has been said about the reactions to the murder (here, here and here). But Steve Coll comes in with an even more significant point in this context.

At a certain point the violence of insurgency and counterinsurgency among people sharing language, geography, faith, and culture becomes so intimate that it is no longer possible to reliably vet friends from foes.

Pakistan’s Personnel Reliability Programs[PRPs], as they are known in the nuclear security trade, involve not only evaluating the suitability of bodyguards for governors but also the management of the country’s swelling stockpile of fissile materials and nuclear bombs. Taseer’s betrayal should give pause to those officials in Washington who seem regularly to express complacency, or at least satisfaction, about the security of Pakistan’s arsenal.[NewYorker Blog]

On the specifics of the security guards, Steve Coll is perhaps not precise when he clubs the PRPs for Governor’s security detail with those guarding the nuclear material or sites in Pakistan. The governor’s security guards were drawn from a provincial police force, albeit a specialist one [the Elite Punjab Police] whereas the nuclear stuff is secured by the Pakistan Army, in all likelihood by a combination of the army regulars and the SSG in different tiers.

But Coll is making a larger point here. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who retired after three years as the Department of Energy’s director of intelligence and counter-intelligence, preceded by two decades at the CIA, echoed the same in the July/August 2009 issue of Arms Control Today:

Purely in actuarial terms, there is a strong possibility that bad apples in the nuclear establishment are willing to cooperate with outsiders for personal gain or out of sympathy for their cause. Nowhere in the world is this threat greater than in Pakistan. . . . Anything that helps upgrade Pakistan’s nuclear security is an investment.[Link]

This aspect was touched upon in an informative piece by David Sanger in the New York Times in January last year, where he interviewed Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, who is still in-charge of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal comes under the control of the Strategic Plans Division.

Kidwai says he has not received any specific intelligence from the United States about “sleeper” scientists trying to infiltrate Pakistan’s facilities. Moreover, he says, there is now also a far more effective screening process in place. When we met, Kidwai spent considerable time describing the extensive “personal-reliability program” that he has created to screen existing employees and applicants to the program. Kidwai’s intelligence agency monitors nuclear employees’ private bank accounts, foreign trips and meetings with anyone who might be considered an extremist. But Americans have their doubts. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted to me that “there is no human vetting system that is entirely reliable,” pointing out that lie detector tests and other screening techniques that C.I.A. em­ployees regularly undergo have, at times, failed to identify spies. In Pakistan, the problem is made worse by the fact that the universities — where the nuclear program draws its young talent — are now more radicalized than at any time in memory, and the nuclear program itself has greatly expanded. Kidwai estimated that there are roughly 70,000 people who work in the nuclear complex in Pakistan, including 7,000 to 8,000 scientists and the 2,000 or so with “critical knowledge.” If even 1 percent of those employees are willing to spread Pakistan’s nuclear knowledge to outsiders with a cause, Kidwai — and the United States — have a problem.[NYT]

For a Pakistani view of how the system works, here is retired Brigadier Feroz Hassan Khan, who was the director of arms control and disarmament affairs in the Strategic Plans Division:

[After September 11, 2001] Pakistan improved its supervisory procedure for military and scientific manpower. The security division of the SPD established a reporting system for monitoring the movements of all officials. Two identical programs for employment security were created: the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) and the Human Reliability Program (HRP), for military and civilian personnel, respectively. A security clearance system of annual, semiannual, and quarterly review was created. Counter Intelligence Teams were created to act as the daily eyes and ears of the SPD. Weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports for the security of all organizations are maintained by the SPD to prevent theft, loss, or accident.[Link]

Even Brigadier Khan grudgingly admits that the system is not fool-proof and “motivated individuals can always elude effective barriers”.

The most difficult aspect of measuring effectiveness comes from the unpredictability of human motivations. Motivated individuals can always elude effective barriers. Therefore, Pakistan must constantly maintain a very close watch over the system, in addition to upgrading and improving the PRP and HRP. Simply adding more guards and security personnel will not suffice; Pakistan must constantly evaluate its system to detect potential failures. The security divisions of the SPD and intelligence services have layers of security and counterintelligence mechanisms for all sensitive sites. They are highly active and alert in updating, monitoring, and keeping a vigilant watch to detect and respond to any undesirable proclivities within the system. Western countries can share their experience with Pakistan to help improve the screening and certification procedures of its PRP and HRP.[Link]

There are many who still believe that the US, if it so wants, can secure the Pakistani nuclear weapons by placating its generals. It would be instructive for them to remember what Pakistan army chief General Kayani said just a few weeks ago.

Calling Pakistan America’s “most bullied ally,” Kayani said that the “real aim of U.S. strategy is to de-nuclearize Pakistan.”[WaPo]

In any case, all the chatter is about a lone-ranger breaking through the system and compromising the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. But as Seymor Hersh reported a couple of years ago, Indian officials have the same worries, although in a slightly different manner and context — not of a lone-wolf, but of the complete pack of wolves in-charge of the Pakistani arsenal.

I flew to New Delhi after my stay in Pakistan and met with two senior officials from the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s national intelligence agency. (Of course, as in Pakistan, no allegation about the other side should be taken at face value.) “Our worries are about the nuclear weapons in Pakistan,” one of the officials said. “Not because we are worried about the mullahs taking over the country; we’re worried about those senior officers in the Pakistan Army who are Caliphates”—believers in a fundamentalist pan-Islamic state. “We know some of them and we have names,” he said. “We’ve been watching colonels who are now brigadiers. These are the guys who could blackmail the whole world”—that is, by seizing a nuclear weapon.

The Indian intelligence official went on, “Do we know if the Americans have that intelligence? This is not in the scheme of the way you Americans look at things—‘Kayani is a great guy! Let’s have a drink and smoke a cigar with him and his buddies.’ Some of the men we are watching have notions of leading an Islamic army.”[The New Yorker]

The danger is real. It exists. The challenge is for India, and the rest of the world, to confront it.


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18 Responses to Fear of the jewel thief

  1. amar January 11, 2011 at 1:41 am #

    wow, you did a great analysis/reporting…
    hadn’t read any of the previous entries.But for sure i will be..

    And surprisingly there are no comments!

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    radiation capability only term solution. water management,
    chemical, biological methods as sp arms ?

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  1. Tweets that mention Pragmatic Euphony » Fear of the jewel thief -- Topsy.com - January 5, 2011

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by pragmatic_desi, pragmatic_desi. pragmatic_desi said: At my blog, the fear of the jewel thief: On the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. http://is.gd/k8SNC [...]

  2. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the enemy within | World Wrap - May 20, 2014

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