Pakistan's nuclear program has "foolproof" and "second to none" security, the head of the program insisted today, calling doubts about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal "inaccurate" and "based on a lack of understanding."
Retired Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, the director-general of Pakistan's Strategic Plans Division, did acknowledge that as militants have increased their attacks in the last six months "the state of alert has gone up," but insisted there were no specific threats to the nuclear program.
His assertions come as politicians in the United States and the head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog have questioned the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Mohammed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat that he feared "nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of extremist groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan."
Today Kidwai said that ElBaradei had "no business to talk like that. If you open and shoot your mouth without any information -- that is very bad."
"The security mechanism in place is functioning efficiently and we are capable of thwarting all types of threats -- whether these be insider, outsider, or a combination," he told a group of mostly foreign journalists.
In the last year militants based along the volatile border with Afghanistan have launched a string of assaults aimed mostly at the military and the police, but also politicians and civilians. That has fueled fears that the militants may have their eyes on a larger goal: nuclear sabotage.
But the man who Pakistan blames for masterminding the attacks, most notably the one that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said on Friday that he had no intention of attacking the nation's nuclear institutions.
"We are afraid on the American bomb, not the Pakistani bomb. At least the Paksitani bombs are in the hands of Muslims," Baitullah Mehsud, the head of a coalition of militant groups known as the united Taliban of Paksitan group, told Al-Jazeera in his first television interview.
In response, Kidwai warned that "words mean nothing. [Mehsud] could change his mind tomorrow. He has a capability. We are ready for him."
But the government has some doubters. Pervez Hoodbhoy, the chairman of the physics department at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University, says the program's safeguards are not foolproof.
"They may well have taken good care of certain things like electronic locks and safety devices, and they probably do keep the weapons disassembled. But they cannot know for sure that, in the times ahead, the custodians of the weapons will always be responsible to the government," he told ABC News.
"Following U.S. practices, they now do psychological screening of personnel," he said. "But I would find it hard to believe that such tests can spot the difference between those men who are merely strong in faith versus those who believe, in addition, that nuclear weapons are needed for defending the faith."
Before ElBaradei made his comments, which he later backed away from, Sen. Hillary Clinton suggested that Pakistan should be willing to give up control over its own nuclear program.
"I would try to get [President Pervez] Musharraf to share the security responsibility of the nuclear weapons with a delegation from the United States and, perhaps, Great Britain, so that there is some fail-safe," she said during a debate last month.
The Pakistani government has responded angrily to such proposals, and Kidwai said that Pakistan would "never" give up control over its nuclear facilities, saying there was "no conceivable scenario, political or violent, in which Pakistan will fall to the extremist."
Pakistan's weapons, he said, are "not on hair trigger alert," and are safer because of that than they would otherwise be, though he did mention that they could be ready in "no time."
For nearly two hours inside a barracks in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of Pakistan's military, Kidwai used a PowerPoint presentation to describe exactly how the nuclear program is run and safeguarded.
He said that ultimate control of the program is held by a group known as the National Command Authority, whose chairman is the Pakistani president and whose vice-chairman is the prime minister. The Strategic Plans Division, which he heads, then handles "anything and everything that has to do with the nation's nuclear capability," including storage, safety, security, training, even running its own counter intelligence service.
A third tier, known as the Strategic Forces Commands, is the chain of command within the air force, army and navy that is responsible for actually launching the weapons.
After receiving a similar briefing earlier this month, Sen. Joseph Lieberman said he was "impressed by the specific explanation I had about the system that is in place here... Overall I felt reassured."
Kidwai said 10,000 soldiers were deployed to defend nuclear facilities, and the 2,000 scientists working in particularly sensitive areas were subject to intense inspection, including their political beliefs, their financial situation and their moral backgrounds.
He acknowledged that two Pakistani scientists had met with Osama bin Laden before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but he said they had ultimately been cleared of any wrongdoing. And he said one scientist had been fired after giving an anti-Musharraf speech in a mosque.
But the program is perhaps best known for the world's most famous scientist-turned-proliferator.
Pakistan's nuclear capabilities exploded into the public in May 1998, when the country announced it had conducted as many as six successful nuclear tests in response to Indian tests carried out just weeks before.
It took almost six years after that for the government to publicly acknowledge the actions of A.Q. Khan, known as the father of the Paksitani bomb. Khan sold nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and Syria, and was only caught, Kidwai said, when Pakistan created its nuclear controls in 1999.
Today, when asked about Khan, Kidwai was adamant that Pakistan had long since eliminated the loopholes Khan exploited to sell technology.
"A.Q. Khan happened in an era when there were no tight controls," he said. When Khan headed the nuclear program, Kidwai said, "he was given the trust. He betrayed it. It's as simple as that."