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Pakistan: Did U.S. Intelligence Fail On Islamabad's Nuclear Proliferation Too?

U.S. concern about Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons was heightened after the terrorist attacks in America on 11 September 2001. Shortly afterward, President George W. Bush even sent his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to Islamabad to make certain that Pakistan was keeping its weapons secure. At that time Rumsfeld concluded that the program was safe. But now the founder of Pakistan's atomic-bomb program has admitted sharing nuclear-weapons secrets with Iran, North Korea, and Libya. RFE/RL spoke with military and intelligence experts about how such a proliferation could escape the scrutiny of both the Pakistani authorities and the United States.

Washington, 3 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Rumsfeld did not wait until he returned to Washington to reassure the world that Pakistan's government took its nuclear weapons seriously and was not about to use them without good reason -- or share them.

Speaking with reporters in New Delhi, India's capital, nearly two months after the 11 September attacks, Rumsfeld said: "I do not, personally, believe that there is a risk with respect to the nuclear weapons of countries that have those weapons. I think those countries are careful and respectful of the dangers that they pose and manage their safe handling effectively."

Now it appears that Rumsfeld, and perhaps even Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, were fooled by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the man credited with developing Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program.

"You can't remove uncertainty and risk -- you can't get perfect transparency. In fact, sometimes you see so [incompletely] that your conclusions are going to be deeply misleading."
Pakistan's government says it should have known that, given his lavish lifestyle, Khan was selling equipment and technical knowledge to some very well-paying customers. The question is whether U.S. intelligence also blundered in letting Khan's free-spending behavior escape notice.

Judith Kipper says it is too early to say just what happened. Kipper studies the Middle East and Islamic issues at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based policy research center. Kipper works from the group's Washington offices. In an interview with RFE/RL, she questioned whether the United States should have been expected to know the details of Khan's activities. But regardless of what Washington's involvement ought to have been, she says it is clear that Washington accepted Islamabad's assurances that its nuclear-weapons program was tightly guarded. "We accepted that Pakistan has a nuclear weapon, we put them under sanctions for a long period of time, we checked that they were keeping their nuclear secrets and nuclear stuff safe -- and apparently that was not the case," she said.

Kipper says she hopes that the bipartisan commission investigating the apparent intelligence failure on Iraq's suspected weapons programs also will look into what happened regarding Pakistan. She says its conclusions could be far-reaching. "It really needs to be investigated," she said, "because if we were wrong about Iraq and we were wrong about Pakistan, what else are we wrong about?"

Anthony Cordesman expresses some impatience with questions about possible intelligence failures, especially regarding weapons proliferation. Cordesman -- a former intelligence analyst with the U.S. State and Defense departments -- says intelligence can sometimes uncover illegal weapons programs, but adds that no one can expect it to work all the time.

Cordesman says weapons proliferation can defy not only the trust between friendly nations like the United States and Pakistan. Even formal international treaties, he says, are not enough to prevent a government, or a rogue government official, from developing banned weapons or sharing them with third parties. "This isn't simply an intelligence problem," he told RFE/RL. "The warning here is basically that [it will be as difficult to enforce] arms-control agreements in detail as it will be to get detailed intelligence on every aspect of proliferation."

Cordesman says there are ways of improving intelligence. The best way, he says, is to have reliable agents -- perhaps officials of a suspect country -- on the U.S. intelligence payroll. According to Cordesman, this is not always feasible. In that case, he says, Washington can rely on technology, but that, too, can also provide incomplete intelligence. "There are ways intelligence can try to cope," he said. "There are new types of sensors being developed, ranging anywhere from different kinds of satellite-carried radar to sensors that can be unattended and covertly placed on the ground. But the duel at the moment favors the proliferator."

Cordesman says the best way for a government to cope with the quirks of intelligence gathering is to be realistic: Be aware that spy agencies only rarely get a complete understanding of something that another government wants to hide. He says that to believe in the vast intelligence capabilities portrayed in popular fiction and film can only lead to disappointment and, worse, to misinformed security decisions. "The real problem here is, in some ways, the problem of coping with uncertainty and coping with risk," he said. "You can't remove uncertainty and risk -- you can't get perfect transparency. In fact, sometimes you see so [incompletely] that your conclusions are going to be deeply misleading. If we don't understand that that's as true of intelligence as of every other aspect of human endeavor, of course we're going to be in trouble."