WASHINGTON - The United States has ramped up its surveillance of Pakistan’s nuclear arms, according to top-secret US files that show Washington’s new level of distrust of the South Asian country.
Citing the files, the Washington Post reported Tuesday that the CIA has also expanded its effort to gather intelligence in a bid to address US concerns about ‘biological and chemical sites’ in Pakistan.
The spying operation was also seeking “to assess the loyalties of counterterrorism sources recruited by the CIA,” the newspaper said, quoting from the 178-page summary of the US intelligence community’s whopping 52.6 billion ‘black budget’ that also keep tabs on Al-Qaeda, North Korea and Iran, among others.
“Pakistan appears at the top of charts listing critical US intelligence gaps. It is named as a target of newly formed analytic cells. And fears about the security of its nuclear programme are so pervasive that a budget section on containing the spread of illicit weapons divides the world into two categories: Pakistan and everybody else,” the Post said.
The disclosures are based on documents provided to the American paper by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who first leaked US surveillance programmes in June and subsequently fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he remains after being granted temporary asylum.
The United States has delivered nearly $26 billion in aid to Pakistan over the past 12 years, with the money aimed at stabilising the country and ensuring its cooperation in counterterrorism efforts, according to the Post. But now that Osama bin Laden is dead and Al-Qaeda is weaker, US spy agencies appear to be shifting their attention to dangers that have surfaced outside Pakistani areas patrolled by CIA drones.
The CIA spying operation exposes broad new levels of distrust between the two allies.
“If the Americans are expanding their surveillance capabilities, it can only mean one thing,” said Husain Haqqani, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US until 2011. “The mistrust now exceeds the trust.”
On other issues, the Post said other classified documents provided to it by Snowden reveal new allegations of human rights abuses in Pakistan.
US spy agencies reported that senior Pakistani military and intelligence officials knew of and possibly ordered a broad campaign of extrajudicial killings of militants and other adversaries, the Post said.
These reports were based on communications intercepts from 2010 to 2012 and other intelligence.
Public disclosure of the reports could have forced the administration of President Barack Obama to sever aid to the Pakistani armed forces. This is because of a US law that prohibits military assistance to human rights abusers.
But the Post said the documents indicate that administration officials decided not to press the issue so as to preserve an already frayed relationship with Pakistan.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council (NSA) said the United States is “committed to a long-term partnership with Pakistan, and we remain fully engaged in building a relationship that is based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
“We have an ongoing strategic dialogue that addresses in a realistic fashion many of the key issues between us, from border management to counterterrorism, from nuclear security to promoting trade and investment,” said the spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden.
“The United States and Pakistan share a strategic interest in combating the challenging security issues in Pakistan, and we continue to work closely with Pakistan’s professional and dedicated security forces to do so.”
The Post said it agreed to withhold some details from the budget documents after consultations with US officials, who expressed concern about jeopardising ongoing operations and sources.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Detailed spreadsheets in the files contain dozens of line items that correspond to operations in Pakistan, the Post said.
After years of diplomatic conflict, significant sources of tension between the United States and Pakistan have begun to subside, the newspaper noted.
Although Pakistani anger has abated, Haqqani was cited as saying the fallout from the raid had broader consequences than widely understood.
“The discovery of bin Laden [in Pakistan] made the Americans think that the Pakistani state’s ability to know what happens within the country is a lot less than had been assumed,” said Haqqani.
“US intelligence agencies are focused on two particularly worrisome scenarios: the possibility that Pakistan’s nuclear facilities might come under attack by militants, as its army headquarters in Rawalpindi did in 2009, and even greater concern that militants might have penetrated the ranks of Pakistan’s military or intelligence services, putting them in a position to launch an insider attack or smuggle out nuclear material.”
Pakistan has dozens of laboratories and production and storage sites scattered across the country, according to the newspaper. After developing warheads with highly enriched uranium, it has more recently tried to do the same with more-powerful and compact plutonium, it said. The country is estimated to have as many as 120 nuclear weapons, and the budget documents indicate that US agencies suspect that Pakistan is still adding to that stockpile.
Little is known about how it moves materials among its facilities, an area that experts have cited as a potential vulnerability.
“Nobody knows how they truly do it,” said Feroz Khan, a retired Pakistani military officer and director of arms control who lectures at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “Vehicles move in a stealthy manner and move with security. But it’s not clear whether the cores are moved to the warheads or the warheads are moved to the core locations.”
The budget documents indicate that US agencies are also focused on the security of the nuclear programme in India.
American interdiction operations targeting other countries have stumbled into connections with Pakistan, it said. In one case, a US effort to block an Iranian shipment through a Turkish port “proved to be even more successful when aluminum powder destined for Pakistan was also discovered and detained,” according to the documents. Aluminum powder can be used to increase the power of explosives, the Post said.
About human rights abuses, the Post said that in May 2012, US agencies discovered evidence of Pakistani officers plotting to ‘eliminate’ a prominent human rights activist, Asma Jahangir, according to the summary of a top-secret Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) report. Jahangir had been a leading public critic of the ISI for years, the newspaper pointed out.
The DIA report did not identify which officers were plotting to kill Jahangir, but it said the plan “included either tasking militants to kill her in India or tasking militants or criminals to kill her in Pakistan.”
The US agency said it did not know whether the ISI had given approval for the plot to proceed. Although the report speculated that the ISI was motivated to kill Jahangir “to quiet public criticism of the military,” the DIA noted that such a plot “would result in international and domestic backlash as ISI is already under significant criticism for intimidation and extrajudicial killings.”
“News of the alleged plot became public a few weeks later when Jahangir gave a round of interviews to journalists, revealing that she had learned that Pakistani intelligence officials had marked her for death. The plot was never carried out”.