( Los Angeles Times ) - Facing mounting international concern over how Pakistan safeguards its nuclear arsenal, military officials Saturday insisted their system was fail-safe and that the weapons would never fall into the hands of extremists.
Retired Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai said his nation's nuclear security apparatus is "second to none," with a strictly controlled military chain of command, checks and balances, and monitoring of scientists and others with sensitive knowledge.
"There is no conceivable scenario that Pakistan's military weapons are going to fall into the hands of extremists," he told foreign journalists in a briefing at the Chaklala military garrison here. "The weapons are absolutely safe and secure."
Kidwai, who heads the Strategic Plans Division that handles Pakistan's nuclear program, acknowledged that officials had become more alert to threats posed from within the volatile South Asian nation -- including political turmoil and a rising terrorist threat. Some international experts have questioned whether Pakistan's security is adequate to prevent nuclear material from falling into the hands of extremists.
The country was shaken by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month, an attack many here believe was carried out by government forces. The crime is under investigation, though officials have blamed Taliban militants. Meanwhile, the military has been waging waged war with Taliban and other Islamic extremists along its border with Afghanistan.
President Pervez Musharraf, on an eight-day trip to Europe, has faced questions about Pakistan's nuclear program. He has said that the only way weapons could become endangered is if religious militants were to rout the army or come to power in elections. He said neither was "remotely possible."
Pakistan's nuclear question has been an issue in U.S. presidential debates. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that Pakistan's estimated 50 nuclear warheads should be safeguarded by a joint U.S.-British security team.
On Saturday, Kidwai said Pakistan's arsenal was in the safe hands of 10,000 soldiers who secure facilities and provide intelligence under a control system headed by top military and political leaders.
"We are capable of thwarting all types of threats, from insider, outsider, or a combination," he said.
The military has also improved its transportation of nuclear materials. Kidwai said there are 800 incidents a year internationally involving the illegal transportation of illicit radioactive materials.
"None of them," he said, "are in Pakistan."
Pakistan detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1998.
Its security program was tightened in light of a scandal in 2003 involving the father of the Pakistani bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who sold nuclear weapons designs and components to Iran, North Korea and Libya in the 1980s and 1990s for personal gain.
Many experts believe senior Pakistani military and intelligence officials were complicit in Khan's ring. His voice touched with anger, Kidwai on Saturday vehemently defended his military brethren.
"Don't you think that after all these years, at least one name would have surfaced if that was true?" he asked.
Pakistan, a staunch ally in the Bush administration's battle against al-Qaida, has recently launched a public relations campaign to reassure the international community about the safety of its nuclear stockpile. Several U.S. lawmakers visited Pakistan and met Kidwai and other officials.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, said he was reassured that there was no danger of the Muslim nation's weapons falling into the hands of militants.
Others question that assessment.
"I don't think we can rest easy given the situation in the country as a whole," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
In the past, he said, some Pakistani military officers had collaborated with extremists plotting to assassinate Musharraf. "If we can't trust the people guarding the president, how can we trust the people guarding the nuclear weapons?" Bunn said. "I believe that their security is impressive, but I also believe it faces impressive threats. I remain worried."
Kenneth Luongo, executive director of the Partnership for Global Security, a Washington-based research organization focusing on weapons of mass destruction, said his group had published an article on the strides Pakistan's nuclear program has made since 1998.
"Their No. 1 vulnerability is people," he said. "It's clear that people in military and physics departments in various universities are more fundamentalist than in the past."
On Saturday, Kidwai said two Pakistani nuclear scientists had met with Osama bin Laden prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but they were later cleared of wrongdoing. After the attacks, he said, his nation accepted an American offer of what he called basic training and some materials totaling less than $10 million.
He said Pakistan's nuclear warheads and missiles are so complex that some have 20,000 working parts.
"Even if terrorists got a hold of one of these things, they couldn't use it," Kidwai said. "They're not do-it-yourself kits."