Amid U.S. Concern, Pakistan 'Confident' Nukes Are Secure

PHOTO: Pakistans incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistan's incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks during a ceremony in Lahore, May 28, 2013, marking the 15th anniversary of Pakistan's first succesful nuclear weapons test.

After a high-level internal meeting, the Pakistani government announced today it has "confidence" in the security of its "strategic assets," including its nuclear weapons -- an apparent response to newly detailed, deeply held concerns from U.S. spy agencies that the weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

"The NCA [National Command Authority] reaffirmed the centrality of Pakistan's nuclear programme for the defence of the country," the government said in a written statement following the meeting, which included Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and a handful of government ministers and military leaders. "The NCA repose full confidence in Pakistan's robust nuclear Command and Control structure and all the security controls related to strategic assets of the country."

Today's meeting took place three days after The Washington Post published a report detailing the emphasis U.S. intelligence was placing on Pakistan-oriented surveillance operations, based on fears over the security of the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The Post said its report was based on Top Secret intelligence budget documents passed to it by former NSA contractor and American fugitive Edward Snowden. Much of the $52.6 billion intel "black budget" is directed at operations pertaining to U.S. adversaries such as al Qaeda, Iran and North Korea, but The Post reported a healthy portion was to be dedicated to gathering intelligence on Pakistan, ostensibly an ally to the U.S.

The Post reported that "fears about the security of [Pakistan's] nuclear program are so pervasive that a budget section on containing the spread of illicit weapons divides the world into two categories: Pakistan and everybody else." Pakistan, the documents reportedly say, is at the top of charts listing U.S. intelligence gaps.

FULL STORY: Top Secret U.S. Intelligence Files Show New Levels of Distrust of Pakistan (WaPo)

The documents show the U.S. intelligence community fears that Pakistan's nuclear sites could be attacked by Islamists who could then smuggle out weapons, or that Pakistani government agencies, including its intelligence and military, could be penetrated by the same extremist groups. The documents also lay out the creation of an intelligence group called the Pakistani WMD Analysis Cell to track nuclear materials, the Post said.

In response to the Post's report, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry released a statement the next day saying the country is "fully committed to the objectives of disarmament and non-proliferation."

"The [ministry] spokesman added that Pakistan has established extensive physical protection measures, robust command and control institutions under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, comprehensive and effective export controls regulatory regimes to ensure safety and security of nuclear installations and materials," the statement said. "We follow best international practices and standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)."

The U.S. State Department followed that declaration with their own Wednesday, saying the U.S. is "confident that the Government of Pakistan is well aware of its responsibilities and has secured its nuclear arsenal accordingly."

"While there is room for improvement in the security of any country's nuclear programs, Pakistan has a professional and dedicated security force that fully understands the importance of nuclear security," the statement said.

The Pakistani government's statement today did not mention the Post's report or the U.S. documents, but Pakistan's chief of the Strategic Plans Division, Lt. Gen. Khalid Ahmed Kidwai (Ret.) appeared to respond to general criticism to the Pakistani news outlet Dawn, saying, "Doubts regarding the safety of the nuclear facilities are groundless."

"Our nuclear facilities are in safe hands," Prime Minister Sharif said, according to Dawn.

Though concerns over Pakistan's estimated 100-plus nuclear weapons have been discussed publicly before, many top U.S. officials have historically followed the line now toed by the State Department -- publicly expressing confidence in Pakistan's improving safeguards, even as the intelligence community secretly requested millions to figure out exactly how confident everyone should really be.

MORE INFO DOWNLOAD: Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues (PDF)