Sunday, November 18, 2007

Who's Got the Nukes, Part II

As Pakistan's domestic crisis continues, so does the debate about the security of that nation's nuclear arsenal.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the U.S. has provided almost $100 million in aid since 2001 to help Islamabad improve its nuclear security. According to the Times, the assistance was buried in secret portions of the U.S. budget, and used to fund initiatives that ranged from a nuclear security training center, to a "raft of new equipment."

While the training center has yet to open--and Pakistan has been reluctant to show how and where the equipment is being used--officials in Washington and Islamabad claim that Pakistani efforts have improved in recent years, and that nation's nuclear facilities are secure.

In recent days, American officials have expressed confidence that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is well secured. “I don’t see any indication right now that security of those weapons is in jeopardy, but clearly we are very watchful, as we should be,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference on Thursday.

Admiral Mullen’s carefully chosen words, a senior administration official said, were based on two separate intelligence assessments issued this month that had been summarized in briefings to Mr. Bush. Both concluded that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was safe under current conditions, and one also looked at laboratories and came to the same conclusion.

But the Times account also raises a concern that we highlighted almost two weeks ago: there are limits on what we know about Pakistan's nuclear program. Not only has Islamabad been reluctant to share details of its nuclear security efforts, there are also legitimate questions about the number of nuclear facilities, the location of weapons, their operational status, and the vetting of personnel associated with Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. It would be very interesting to know if the assessments that Admiral Mullen referred to also highlight our intelligence "gaps" regarding the Pakistani nuclear program, and how they affected the bottom-line assessment.

Despite those intel gaps--and Pakistan's reluctance to share sensitive information with the United States--the Bush Administration is debating plans to expand the nuclear security effort, offering more money for training and new equipment. However, there are limits on what Washington is willing to do. So far, the U.S. has refused to share its most sensitive weapons safety technology with Pakistan, including the so-called Permissive Action Links (PALs), which prevent a warhead from being detonated without proper codes and authorizations.

Not surprisingly, the Times steers its coverage toward the notion of sharing PALs technology--considered one of the "crown jewels" of U.S. nuclear technology. Noting that the U.S. has provided sensitive safety data other nations in the past, the paper located a former top nuclear scientist who argues that we should also share warhead technology:

Harold M. Agnew, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory, which designed most of the United States’ nuclear arms, argued that recent federal reluctance to share warhead security technology was making the world more dangerous.

“Lawyers say it’s classified,” Dr. Agnew said in an interview. “That’s nonsense. We should share this technology. Anybody who joins the club should be helped to get this.”

“Whether it’s India or Pakistan or China or Iran,” he added, “the most important thing is that you want to make sure there is no unauthorized use. You want to make sure that the guys who have their hands on the weapons can’t use them without proper authorization.”

In the past, officials say, the United States has shared ideas — but not technologies — about how to make the safeguards that lie at the heart of American weapons security. The system hinges on what is essentially a switch in the firing circuit that requires the would-be user to enter a numeric code that starts a timer for the weapon’s arming and detonation.

But there's a key element missing from that discussion. When the U.S. shared information in the past--most notably, with France and Russia--there was little chance that the data would be transferred to other nuclear powers, or wind up in the hands of terrorists. Given Pakistan's past history as a nuclear proliferator (through the notorious A.Q. Kahn network) and continued domestic turmoil, the decision to not to share PALs-type technology strikes us as eminently sensible.

Dr. Agnew's proposal is sheer folly. Let's suppose for a moment that we share sensitive warhead safety concepts with Pakistan, and that country falls into the hands of Islamic radicals. Not only would the Islamists gain access to nuclear weapons, they would also gain the ability to build bombs are are less tamper resistant--and much more difficult to disarm. That technology could be easily shared with the Taliban and Al Qaida, creating a true nightmare scenario: a terrorist nuclear bomb with advanced security features, a device that would be almost impossible to neutralize prior to detonation.

Given current conditions in Pakistan, the U.S. should expand nuclear security assistance for Islamabad. But any increase in aid should require a better accounting of how the aid is being used, and better information on the location and function of Pakistani nuclear facilities. While Islamabad will never provide a full accounting of its nuclear activities, an improved database on nuclear sites and their purpose will--if nothing else--provide a better comparison for our own intelligence information.

Scientists like Dr. Agnew believe that "complete transparency" (with the U.S. leading the way) is the only way to ensure nuclear safety. But that view is hopelessly naive, particularly in our dealings with Pakistan. Given that country's current political and security environment, sharing sensitive nuclear technology with Islamabad might easily backfire, resulting in a compromise of information that could have dreadful consequences, both at home and abroad.


Epaminondas said...

It is inconceivable to me that among those tasked for ultimate security of these devices, are not men sympathetic to the Hamid Gul, Zia ul Haq, ISI.


What's the plan for that?

Ken Prescott said...

Agnew's statement is based on the belief that the latest PAL technology (the Category F PAL) cannot be bypassed.

As someone who has dealt with issues of computer security in my employment, I'll simply cite what the computer security professionals tell me: given unrestricted access to the computer and sufficient technical resources, any computer can be compromised, which is why things such as laptop theft are so serious.

I imagine that the situation is the same with PALs.