Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pakistan's Quest for the Bomb in the 1970's

More interesting than most of the Wikileaks cables, this series of US documents published by the National Security Archives of the George Washington University on how Pakistan acquired the bomb.

Let us not forget that Bhutto had said that Pakistan was ready to eat grass to possess the coveted gadget.
Thanks to A.Q. Khan who managed to steal the blueprints for a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility, the Pakistani dream became a reality under the eyes of the Americans who "wanted to maintain good relations with that country, a moderate state in an unstable region". 
The same old story, yesterday like today. 
Though the Carter Administration was upset for some time with Zia-ul-Haq's regime, the arrival of the Soviets in Afghanistan by the end of the decade made them 'forget' that Pakistan had become nuclear.
Later, it was too late to stop the nuclear train. 
Another E-briefing of National Security Archives points out: "the China’s role as a leading provider of sensitive technology to Pakistan has repeatedly strained U.S.-China relations, and has complicated efforts to expand U.S.-China trade."
Business may have been more 'complicated' for the Americans, the fact remains that China has been Pakistan's main support to acquire the bomb.
Another document dated June 1983 reported that "there is unambiguous evidence that Pakistan is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons development program.” 
The document admits  that the U.S. has information indicating that Pakistan began to develop a nuclear explosive device “soon after the 1974 Indian nuclear test.” Pakistan has obtained technology for its research in Europe [The Netherlands], using procurement agents and front organizations [Mr Khan's network]. The U.S. has also concluded that China is assisting Pakistan’s nuclear program: it believes that they have cooperated in the production of fissile material, and possibly also in 'nuclear device design'.
It also acknowledges that during the 1980s, "the U.S. was criticized for providing massive levels of aid to Pakistan, its military ally, despite laws barring assistance to any country that imported certain technology related to nuclear weapons. President Ronald Reagan waived the legislation, arguing that cutting off aid would harm U.S. national interests".

The United States and Pakistan's Quest for the Bomb
Newly Declassified Documents Disclose Carter Administration's Unsuccessful Efforts to Roll Back Islamabad's Secret Nuclear Program
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 333
Washington, D.C., December 21, 2010 - The Wikileaks database of purloined State Department cable traffic includes revelations, published in the Washington Post and the New York Times about tensions in U.S.-Pakistan relations on key nuclear issues, including the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and the disposition of a stockpile of weapons-grade highly-enriched uranium. (Note 1) These frictions are not surprising because the Pakistani nuclear weapons program has been a source of anxiety for U.S. policymakers, since the late 1970s, when they discovered that Pakistani metallurgist A.Q. Khan had stolen blueprints for a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility.  U.S. officials were alarmed that a nuclear Pakistan would bring greater instability to South Asia; years later, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban produced concerns about the nuclear stockpile's vulnerability to terrorists.  Since 2002-2004 the discovery that the A.Q. Khan's nuclear supply network had spread nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea, and elsewhere raised apprehensions even more. (Note 2) Last week, before the Wikileaks revelations, the recently disclosed North Korean gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant raised questions about the proliferation of sensitive nuclear technology by the Khan network. (Note 3)
Recently declassified U.S. government documents from the Jimmy Carter administration published today by the National Security Archive shed light on the critical period when Washington discovered that Pakistan, a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] hold-out, had acquired key elements of a nuclear weapons capability.  Once in power, the Carter administration tried to do what its predecessor, the Ford administration, had done: discourage the Pakistani nuclear program, but the CIA and the State Department discovered belatedly in 1978 that Islamabad was moving quickly to build a gas centrifuge plant, thanks to "dual use" technology acquired by Khan and his network.   The documents further disclose the U.S. government's complex but unsuccessful efforts to convince Pakistan to turn off the gas centrifuge project.  Besides exerting direct pressure first on President Zulkifar Ali Bhutto and then on military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Washington lobbied key allies and China to induce them to pressurize Islamabad, but also to cooperate by halting the sale of sensitive technology to Pakistan.
Declassified government documents show that the Carter administration recognized that export controls by industrial countries could not sufficiently disrupt Pakistan's secret purchases of uranium enrichment technology, so it tried combinations of diplomatic pressure and blandishments to dissuade the Pakistanis and to induce them to reach an understanding with India.  Washington's efforts met with strong resistance from top Pakistani officials; seeing a nuclear capability as a matter of national survival, they argued that Pakistan had an "unfettered right" to develop nuclear technology.  The Indians were also not interested in a deal.  Senior US officials recognized that the prospects of stopping the Indian or the Pakistani nuclear programs were "poor"; within months arms controller were "scratching their heads" over how to tackle the problem.

Among the disclosures in the documents:
▪  U.S. requests during mid-1978 by U.S. diplomats for assurances that Pakistan would not use reprocessing technology to produce plutonium led foreign minister Agha Shahi's to insist that was a "demand that no country would accept" and that Pakistan "has the unfettered right to do what it wishes."
▪ By November 1978, U.S. government officials, aware that Pakistan was purchasing technology for a gas centrifuge enrichment facility, were developing proposals aimed at "inhibiting Pakistan" from making progress toward developing a nuclear capability.
▪ By January 1979, U.S. intelligence estimated that Pakistan was reaching the point where it "may soon acquire all the essential components" for a gas centrifuge plant.
▪   Also in January 1979, U.S. intelligence estimated that Pakistani would have a "single device" (plutonium) by 1982 and test a weapon using highly-enriched uranium [HEU] by 1983, although 1984 was "more likely".
▪ On 3 March 1979, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher spoke in "tough terms" with General Zia and Foreign Minister Shahi; the latter claimed that the U.S. was making an "ultimatum."
▪  On 23 March 1979, senior level State Department officials suggested to Secretary of State Vance possible measures to help make the "best combination" of carrots and sticks to constrain the Pakistani nuclear program; nevertheless, "prospects [were] poor" for realizing that goal.
▪ The decision in April 1979 to cut off aid to Pakistan because of its uranium enrichment program worried State Department officials, who believed that a nuclear Pakistan would be a "new and dangerous element of instability," but they wanted to maintain good relations with that country, a "moderate state" in an unstable region.
▪ During the spring of 1979, when Washington made unsuccessful attempts to frame a regional solution involving "mutual restraint" by India and Pakistan of their nuclear activities, Indian prime minister Morarji Desai declared that "if he discovered that Pakistan was ready to test a bomb or if it exploded one, he would act at [once] 'to smash it.'"
▪ In July 19799, CIA analysts speculated that the Pakistani nuclear program might receive funding from Islamic countries, including Libya, and that Pakistani might engage in nuclear cooperation, even share nuclear technology, with Saudi Arabia, Libya or Iraq.
▪    By September 1979 officials at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency said that "most of us are scratching our heads" about what to do about the Pakistani nuclear program.
▪  In November 1979, ambassador Gerard C. Smith reported that when meeting with senior British, French, Dutch, and West German officials to encourage them to take tougher positions on the Pakistani nuclear program, he found "little enthusiasm … to emulate our position."
▪ In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when improving relations with Pakistan became a top priority for Washington, according to CIA analysts, Pakistani officials believed that Washington was "reconciled to a Pakistani nuclear weapons capability."

Like the Israeli bomb, the Pakistan case illustrates how difficult it is to prevent a determined country, especially an ally, from acquiring and using nuclear weapons technology.  It also illustrates the complexity and difficulty of nuclear proliferation diplomacy: other political and strategic priorities can and do trump nonproliferation objectives.  The documents also shed light on a familiar problem: a US-Pakistan relationship that has been rife with suspicions and tensions, largely because of Washington's uneasy balancing act between India and Pakistan, two countries with strong mutual antagonisms, a problem that was aggravated during the Cold War by concerns about Soviet influence in the region. (Note 4)
The Pakistani nuclear issue was on Jimmy Carter's agenda when he became president in early 1977 because he brought a significant commitment to reducing nuclear armaments and to checking nuclear proliferation.  His initial, though unrealized goal, of deep cuts of strategic nuclear forces, and his support for the comprehensive test ban treaty were of a piece with his support for the long-term abolition of nuclear weapons, suggesting that his concerns about proliferation were not the usual double standard of "what's good for us is bad for you."  Carter made the danger of nuclear proliferation one of his campaign themes and during his presidency government agencies and Congress tightened up controls over nuclear exports; this led to the 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, whose unilateral features were controversial with some allies, especially Japan and West Germany. The administration also engaged in a protracted, but generally successful, attempt to curb the Taiwanese nuclear weapons programs, although the effort to tackle South Africa's met with less short-term success.  Another tough challenge was a West German contract to sell uranium enrichment and reprocessing plants to Brazil, although technical problems would ultimately undercut the agreement. (Note 5)
Pakistan's successful drive for a nuclear arsenal was perhaps the most significant frustration for the Carter administration's nonproliferation policy.  Five years before Carter's inauguration, following Pakistan's defeat in the 1971 war with India, President Bhutto made a secret decision to seek nuclear weapons which he followed up in 1973 with negotiations to buy a nuclear reprocessing facility (used for producing plutonium) from a French firm. (Note 6)  Apparently U.S. intelligence did not seriously examine the prospects for a Pakistani bomb until after India's May 1974 "peaceful nuclear explosion." In the following months, the authors of Special National Intelligence Estimate [SNIE] NIE 4-1-74, "Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," expected Pakistan to "press ahead" with a nuclear weapons program, which they projected as "far inferior to its prime rival, India, in terms of nuclear technology." (Note 7)  In August 1974, US intelligence estimated that Pakistan would not have nuclear weapons before 1980 and only as long as "extensive foreign assistance" was available.  Over a year later, however, a new prediction emerged: that Pakistan could produce a plutonium–fueled weapon as early as 1978, as long as it had access to a reprocessing plant.
By 1978 Pakistan did not have a reprocessing plant or the bomb.  Nevertheless, that same year a pattern of suspicious purchases detected by British customs officials led to the discovery that Pakistan was secretly acquiring technology to produce highly-enriched uranium as an alternative path to building the bomb.  The "extensive foreign assistance" postulated by the SNIE turned out to be the theft of plans for a gas centrifuge enrichment technology from the Uranium Enrichment Corporation [URENCO] in the Netherlands.  The perpetrator was metallurgist Abdul Q. Khan who founded a worldwide network to acquire sensitive technology for his country's nuclear project and later for providing nuclear technology to Pakistan's friends and customers. (Note 8)
Recent studies of the U.S.–Pakistan nuclear relationship see moments during the mid-to-late 1970s when it may have been possible to bring the Pakistani program to a halt by preventing Khan from acquiring sensitive technology. The Dutch may have had the best chance in 1975 when they suspected that Khan was a spy; whether the U.S. and British governments had similar opportunities to nip the Pakistani nuclear effort in the bud remains a matter of debate. (Note 9)  For example, when British officials learned that Khan and his associates were trying to purchase high frequency electrical inverters needed to run centrifuges, they acted too late to stop the Pakistani from acquiring this technology, which they soon learned how to copy and manufacture.   So far declassified documents do not shed light on when the British told the U.S. government about this development and how Washington initially reacted to it, or what else U.S. intelligence may have been learning from other sources.  In any event, some of the documents in this collection suggest that the U.S. intelligence establishment may have had a mindset that prevented it from acquiring, or looking for, timely intelligence about the Pakistani secret enrichment program. 
A significant problem was U.S. intelligence's assumption during 1974-1978 that Pakistan would take the plutonium route for producing the bomb.  SNIE 4-1-74, "Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," (published by the National Security Archive in January 2008) and two documents in this collection, a "Memorandum to Holders" of SNIE 4-1-74 and a 1978 CIA report, shed some light on the former assumption.  Both documents give virtually exclusive emphasis to the plutonium route for acquiring the fissile material required for building the bomb.  Thus, intelligence analysts assumed that countries like Pakistan would try to try to acquire reprocessing technology so that they could chemically extract plutonium from the spent fuel rods taken from nuclear power reactors.  This was a reasonable premise because plutonium has played a central role in modern nuclear arsenals.   Nevertheless, during the early 1960s, U.S. intelligence had assumed that China would first build and test a plutonium weapon, but as it turned out, Beijing found it more expedient to produce highly-enriched uranium for the nuclear device which it tested in October 1964.  This surprised Washington, but if the intelligence community conducted any postmortems, they did not yield long-lasting lessons. (Note 10)
That Pakistan could try to acquire and develop advanced gas centrifuge enrichment technology was not an element in intelligence analysis. While the authors of SNIE 4-1-74 recognized the possibility that interested nations could secretly undertake a gas centrifuge enrichment program for producing highly-enriched uranium, they posited that it was "highly unlikely" that it could be undertaken "without our getting some indications of it."  The possibility that "indications" might come too late was not discussed, but the tight secrecy controls over the gas centrifuge technique may have created a certain confidence that it would not leak out.  Thus, the "Memorandum to Holders" did not include any discussion of what it would require for a country to build a gas centrifuge plant by purchasing "dual use" or "gray area" technology; no doubt its authors assumed that poor countries such as Pakistan were unlikely to pull off such a stunt.  Indeed, according to some accounts, U.S. intelligence analysts dismissed Pakistan's competence to take the enrichment route. (Note 11) Whether such thinking may have made U.S. intelligence somewhat less watchful when Khan and his associates were creating their network will require more information than is presently available.
So far no U.S. government reports on the actual discovery of the enrichment program and the Khan network have emerged, although a few declassified CIA items in this collection include estimates how far Pakistan could go with the stolen technology.  Most of the documents published today reflect the thinking of State Department officials— ambassadors and assistant secretaries--who worried about the Pakistani bomb, but were less than wholehearted supporters of a rigorous nuclear nonproliferation agenda because it might interfere with securing Pakistan's cooperation on regional issues.  This collection does not tap the resources of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, but several documents at the National Security Council-level provide insight into high-level policy debates and strategy discussions.  A few items provide some insight into President Carter's thinking because they include his observations in handwritten marginalia (see documents 2 and 36).  No documents from the files of the former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency are yet available, although a few forceful memoranda by special ambassador on nonproliferation Gerard C. Smith may have dovetailed with ACDA views.

To read the documents, click here.

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