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Pakistani Nuke Security in Question After Assassination

The United States' relationship with Pakistan and its insistence that the nuclear-armed state is a key ally in the fight against terrorism is being called into question following considerable public support for the man accused of assassinating a high-profile Pakistani politician last week, the New York Times reported (see GSN, Jan. 6).

Pakistani police officer and bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri is charged with the gun slaying of Punjab state Governor Salman Taseer, evidently for the politician's outspoken stance against Islamabad's blasphemy law. Qadri has been showered with support in the wake of the killing, which demonstrated that the battle with militants is not restricted to the nation's fringes.

"Everything about what’s happened in the past few days is a reminder of how we’re still losing ground in Pakistan," said an unidentified Obama official with considerable experience dealing with the South Asian state. "It's trouble on many different levels."

Central to the Obama administration's stance on Pakistan is its stated belief that the South Asian nation's growing nuclear arsenal could never be compromised by a member of the military establishment with ties to extremist groups such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

Pakistani officials routinely insist that security surrounding their nuclear arsenal is foolproof and Washington has publicly accepted these assurances. However, Taseer's assassination has once again thrown doubt on Islamabad's assertions.

As a bodyguard for a senior public official, Qadri would reportedly have been evaluated by the government's Personnel Reliability Program, which also vets personnel with access to the nation's nuclear weapons program. That Qadri passed inspection has raised questions over whether other extremists might have obtained nuclear clearance.

In the past, Islamabad officials had said the screening process used for the security detail of government officials was akin to that used for scrutinizing the personnel charged with guarding the nation's nuclear sites. The background checks are intended to ensure the loyalty of guards in these key positions.

When Qadri allegedly opened fire on Taseer in a populated marketplace -- firing off more than 20 shots -- not one of the other security personnel in the vicinity moved to shoot him to stop the attack, according to the Times. It is not known how the elite police officer passed the screening process.

"It's one more reason to give pause" when contemplating what might occur should a Pakistani scientist or a guard with a similar mindset seek to appropriate nuclear assets, a U.S. official said.

Nearly two years ago, then-U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson expressed reservations about the security of nuclear materials in the country in a diplomatic dispatch leaked by the transparency group Wikileaks: "Our major concern is ... the chance someone working in GOP [government of Pakistan] facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon."

Following the cable's publication, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry asserted that U.S. nuclear security fears were "misplaced and doubtless fall in the realm of condescension" (see GSN, Dec. 1, 2010).

Officials in Islamabad speculated the leak was part of a scheme by Washington to build a case for grabbing the nation's nuclear weapons in the event the Pakistani government collapses. The officials pointed to the strength of the nation's Personnel Reliability Program and its screening of nuclear workers and security personnel to underline their argument that the arsenal was safe from infiltration.

Since 2003, when chief Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was exposed for running a black market proliferation ring, Islamabad's vetting system has appeared to function appropriately.

"This assassination raises further questions about the vetting process in the Pakistani security system," ex-CIA official Bruce Riedel said. "And it's worth remembering that on their list of potential threats to their nuclear assets, the United States is No. 1, and terrorists and religious fundamentalists are further down the line" (David Sanger, New York Times, Jan. 8).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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