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U.S. Denies Talks With Pakistan on Nuclear Security

Alex Wagner

Bush administration officials have denied claims that the United States has recently held discussions with Pakistan on the security of its nuclear weapons and facilities.

Reports of U.S.-Pakistani nuclear security talks surfaced September 30 in The New York Times, which cited two Pakistani officials as saying that U.S. military and intelligence officials had spoken with the Pakistani government about the security of its nuclear weapons and two nuclear power reactors.

The two officials also said that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had “discussed nuclear safeguards” with Pakistani officials in Washington shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Such safeguards could involve a range of options, from offering safety and security training for personnel to helping to protect nuclear facilities physically.

In recent weeks, analysts have expressed concern that political instability in Pakistan resulting from Islamabad’s cooperation with the U.S. campaign against terrorism could result in the Pakistani government losing control over its nuclear weapons or facilities.

Since Pakistan conducted nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, Washington has held talks with Islamabad on a variety of nuclear issues, including the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. During an interview October 10, a South Asian diplomat said that those talks have continued since September 11 and that there is a strong likelihood of such talks taking place again.

However, an administration official bluntly refuted these assertions in an interview that same day, saying that, although Washington has conducted broad nuclear-related talks with Islamabad since the 1998 tests, the administration has “not had discussions” with Pakistan on nuclear security since September 11. A State Department official also asserted that no such discussions have occurred.

According to another U.S. official, domestic and international legal constraints could limit the type of nuclear assistance Washington could provide to Pakistan. On this matter, the administration official said that the Bush administration is “mindful” of its “legal obligations under the Atomic Energy Act and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

The Atomic Energy Act restricts how the United States can cooperate with other countries on nuclear-related matters, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty restricts nuclear-weapon states, such as the United States, from assisting non-nuclear-weapon states, such as Pakistan, with their “control over such weapons.”

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher downplayed any concern over the security of Islamabad’s nuclear infrastructure during an October 29 briefing. The United States believes that Pakistan “is well aware of the importance of securing any nuclear material, components, and weapons that it has,” he said. “We are confident that Pakistan is taking steps to assure the safety of those assets.”

During a September 30 interview with CNN, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf also expressed confidence in the security of his country’s nuclear weapons. “I am very, very sure that the command and control setup that we have evolved for ourselves is very, very secure,” he said, adding, “There is no chance of these assets falling into the hands of extremists.”