November 19, 2007


Watching the Warheads: The risks to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. (Seymour M. Hersh November 5, 2001 , The New Yorker)

The crisis may bring into play the élite unit, operating under Pentagon control with C.I.A. assistance, whose mission it is to destroy nuclear facilities, past and present government officials told me. "They're good," one American said. "If they screw up, they die. They've had good success in proving the negative"—that is, in determining that suspected facilities were not nuclear-related.

The American team is apparently getting help from Israel's most successful special-operations unit, the storied Sayeret Matkal, also known as Unit 262, a deep-penetration unit that has been involved in assassinations, the theft of foreign signals-intelligence materials, and the theft and destruction of foreign nuclear weaponry. Sayeret Matkal's most memorable operation took place in June, 1976, when Lieutenant Colonel Jonathon Netanyahu, brother of the future Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, led a team that stormed a hijacked Air France airliner that was forced down by Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe International Airport, in Uganda, after taking off from Tel Aviv with two hundred and fifty-seven passengers. Jonathon Netanyahu was killed in the raid, along with two of the hostages, but the operation is still considered one of the most successful and audacious in modern history. Members of the Israeli unit arrived in the United States a few days after September 11th, an informed source said, and as of last week were training with American special-forces units at undisclosed locations.

In recent weeks, the Administration has been reviewing and "refreshing" its contingency plans. Such operations depend on intelligence, however, and there is disagreement within the Administration about the quality of the C.I.A.'s data. The American intelligence community cannot be sure, for example, that it knows the precise whereabouts of every Pakistani warhead—or whether all the warheads that it has found are real. "They've got some dummy locations," an official told me. "You only get one chance, and then you've tried and failed. The cat is out of the bag."

Some senior officials say they remain confident that the intelligence community can do its job, despite the efforts of the Pakistani Army to mask its nuclear arsenal. "We'd be challenged to manage the problem, but there is contingency planning for that possibility," one Bush military adviser told me last week. "We can't exclude the possibility that the Pakistanis could make it harder for us to act on what we know, but that's an operational detail. We're going to have to work harder to get to it quickly. We still have some good access."

A senior military officer, after confirming that intense planning for the possible "exfiltration" of Pakistani warheads was under way, said that he had been concerned not about a military coup but about a localized insurrection by a clique of I.S.I. officers in the field who had access to a nuclear storage facility. "The Pakistanis have just as much of a vested interest as we do in making sure that that stuff is looked after, because if they"—I.S.I. dissidents—"throw one at India, they're all cooked meat." He was referring to the certainty of Indian nuclear retaliation: India's nuclear warheads are more numerous, more sophisticated, and more powerful than Pakistan's; its Army is twice as large; and its population is more than seven times as large.

The skeptics among intelligence and military officials, however, worry that there may not be enough reliable information about the location of all elements of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. The C.I.A., they note, provided effective information on the warheads in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties, when it worked closely with the Pakistani military in Afghanistan. At that time, the United States was a major supplier of arms and military technology to Pakistan. The agency recruited informants inside the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, and the National Security Agency found a way to intercept the back-channel communications of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the German-educated metallurgist who had run Pakistan's nuclear laboratories since the nineteen-seventies and is known as the father of the Pakistani bomb. But those assets no longer exist.

"We lost our interest in that area, and we do not have the same level of contact or knowledge that we once did," a former high-level C.I.A. officer said. "Today, there is a whole set of information that, when it comes down to it, we don't have. We can't count warheads. We never had the capacity to count. What we did have was a capacity to produce unusual material"—on the general state of the Pakistani arsenal. "The idea that you know where the warheads are at any given moment is not right," he said. "As the operation approaches and the question 'How certain are you?' is asked, it becomes more difficult. The fact is, we usually know hours later. We never could do it in real time."

Now we can.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2007 7:18 AM
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