This Passes for Journalism?

Eli Lake, national security correspondent for the Washington Times, has written a terribly awful story on concerns about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.  Lake’s overzealousness in pursuit of a sexy Pakistani angle in the wake of the Osama bin Laden (OBL) raid comes to trump his journalistic professionalism.

There are five sources in the piece.

Three are unnamed U.S. officials who simply comment on the OBL raid.  They do not make any statements regarding Pakistan’s nuclear program, though this is the article’s focus and they would be the ones who’d have the best access to the latest intelligence that would raise fresh concerns over the safety of Pakistan’s nukes.  Their purpose in the piece is to give it some meat with their sheer presence, though they do not offer Lake any information on Pakistan’s nuclear program.  Their presence, in a way, allows Lake to write this in his lede:

…while U.S. officials and analysts raise concerns about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear materials.

U.S. officials never actually raise those concerns with Lake.  But Lake cites concerns about Pakistan’s nukes expressed in 2009 State Department cables revealed by WikiLeaks.  So no U.S. officials ever say anything to him about Pakistan’s nukes after the OBL raid.

So who actually makes comments to Lake about Pakistan’s nuclear program? The remaining two sources. And they prove to be quite weak.

The two remaining sources are Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA official, and Steve Rothman, a congressman who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

In light of allegations that the ISI or elements within it helped OBL hide, Heinonen expresses his concern that similar personnel within Pakistan’s security apparatus could assist al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations in gaining access to “sensitive nuclear materials.”  It is a legitimate concern, but it is laden with assumptions (e.g. that a person who would help OBL hide would also give him access to nuclear material and have the ability to do so).  And it is not based on any new information.

Rothman’s quote is really the heart of the piece.  And it’s completely wrong.

Lake writes:

Mr. Rothman said al Qaeda operatives in 2009 “came within 60 kilometers of what is believed to have been Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal,” though he could not elaborate on the incident.

Rothman — a consumer, not a producer, of intelligence analysis — incorrectly relates information he heard in a briefing two years ago. Blame it on fuzzy memory.  And though Rothman “could not elaborate on the incident,” Lake certainly could have done his own research.  Unfortunately, some journalists become overly dependent on governmental sources (especially unnamed ones).

In the spring of 2009, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (not al-Qaeda) came within 60 kilometers of Islamabad (not Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal — components of which are dispersed across the country). While the TTP represented a grave threat at that point, there is no available evidence that they had contacts with security personnel or the organizational ability to access Pakistani nuclear material.

The enroachment of the TTP may have “resulted … in new safeguards and new measures taken by the United States and Pakistan and others to minimize any possibility of anyone acquiring the Pakistani nuclear weapons or material.” But there is no evidence that these changes were made on the basis of specific threats to the nuclear program, rather than fears based on an overall deterioration of security.

Lake’s packaging of the article is very clever. But once one takes it apart, it becomes clear there’s nothing inside.


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U.S. Personnel Inside Pakistan ‘Securing’ Nuclear Weapons

Weeks ago, I wrote that the extent of the U.S. presence inside Pakistan is often underestimated.  Days after that, Sen. Diane Feinstein [re-]revealed that the Predator and Reaper drones are launched from a base inside Pakistan.

Here comes another bombshell from Richard Sale:

“…under the terms of secret [U.S.-Pakistan] agreements, U.S. personnel have been stationed in Pakistan whose sole function is to guarantee and secure the safety of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal and keep it out of the hands of terrorists, according to several serving and former U.S. officials.

Some of the American technicians have had direct access to the nuclear weapons themselves, these sources said….

The United States then used Special Forces ‘snatch teams’ to kidnap Pakistani scientists who were peddling Pakistan’s nuclear technology or knowledge of it to undesirables. For example, a group of such scientists abruptly disappeared while traveling in Burma, these sources said.

Under U.S. pressure, within two days of the [9/11] attacks, Pakistan’s military began to secretly relocate critical nuclear weapons components to six new secret locations, U.S. sources said…”

Playing dumb, I ask, “Why are all these revelations coming out now?”

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Washington and Pakistan’s Nukes After Musharraf

If former Army Chief of Staff Gen. (retired) Mirza Aslam Baig is correct, parliament will soon move to repeal article 58(2)(b) of the constitution, which gives the president the broad authority to dissolve the National Assembly. But in a post-1998 Pakistan, there is a presidential power that is of greater concern to others, including Washington: that over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

After taking power in his 1999 coup, Pervez Musharraf moved immediately to establish a nuclear command and control system. He has succeeded in doing so and should be credited for this. Washington has also been discretely helpful, providing over $100 million since 2001 to help Pakistan safeguard its nuclear assets. Its helpfulness, however, could now be verging on interference.

Pakistan is in a state of political and constitutional flux. Currently, the National Command Authority (NCA) maintains ultimate control over Pakistan’s nukes. It is chaired by the president, Pervez Musharraf, a known and reasonably trustworthy entity in the eyes of Washington. At this point, there has been no indication that parliament will make changes to the NCA. But if Musharraf goes, then that power would transfer on to his successor, whoever that might be. A post-Musharraf president would likely be a nominal figure. Parliament would probably move to make the prime minister head of the NCA.

Amidst this uncertainty, Washington is seeking to develop a direct link to the NCA. The News reports that Washington wants to place a “permanent official” at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad who would have “direct access to the National Command Authority secretariat.”

The request has not been received well in Pakistan (what has?). Senior defense analyst and retired general Talat Masood, who is generally favorable to the U.S., tells The News:

“This is outright interference in Pakistan’s affairs. On what basis does the US want direct access to the NCA? Does the US have any particular fears or apprehensions? The US laws do not allow any transfer of nuclear technology or assets to Pakistan, so why should there be any such officer in the US embassy in Islamabad? There would be very grave implications if such a proposal is given serious thought by our government.”

Senior Bush administration officials have repeatedly expressed their confidence in Pakistan’s command and control system. That is clearly not the issue. Washington’s problem is not with the system, but the future of its leadership. It apparently has little faith in a president or prime minister other than Musharraf with ultimate control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Rather than cultivating a relationship with a broad spectrum of Pakistan’s civilian elites, Washington all too often skirts those it dislikes and could very well be antagonizing a future master of Pakistan’s nukes. This NCA liaison position is the Bush administration’s lazy way of getting around the more time consuming challenge of pro-actively engaging Pakistan’s politicians.

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On Emergency’s Last Day, Musharraf Issues Some Decrees

Emergency rule will likely end tomorrow and so Pervez Musharraf has been busy utilizing his soon-to-be-gone self-given powers to amend the constitution by decree.

Last night, he issued an ordinance formally institutionalizing the National Command Authority (NCA)– established in February 2000. The ten-member body “exercise[s] complete command and control over all nuclear and space related technologies, systems and matters.”

The president chairs the NCA with the prime minister as vice chairman. Its remaining members are the foreign, defense, and interior ministers; chiefs of the army, naval, air force staff; the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee; and the director general of the Strategic Plans Division, who also serves as secretary general of the group.

Musharraf will also issue five other ordinances, one of which will reportedly satiate Benazir Bhutto (and indirectly Nawaz Sharif) by lifting the bar on a third prime ministerial term.

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Benazir Bhutto on IAEA access to A.Q. Khan

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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