On November 18, as the Musharraf régime’s hold on power began to look more tenuous, The New York Times published an article by David Sanger and William Broad on a “secret program” of U.S. nuclear security aid to Pakistan. It was the day’s big story, played above the fold:
Over the past six years, the Bush administration has spent almost $100 million on a highly classified program to help Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, secure his country’s nuclear weapons, according to current and former senior administration officials.
The American program was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the Bush administration debated whether to share with Pakistan one of the crown jewels of American nuclear protection technology, known as “permissive action links,” or PALS, a system used to keep a weapon from detonating without proper codes and authorizations.
The eleventh paragraph held another revelation: The Times had known details of the story for “more than three years,” but had agreed to keep it from readers after the Bush administration argued disclosure would jeopardize the program. The article raises the possibility that the White House’s Pakistan request came before the 2004 presidential election, at the same time as another, more famous hold, also on a sensitive matter of national security: the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program.
And as with that hold, the Times’s Pakistan decision helped keep a legally controversial initiative and nuclear policy debate from full public light.
As time passed, the decision to keep the hold seems increasingly odd, since the article’s biggest points came out in reports by NBC and in The New Yorker.
In February of 2004, the NBC Nightly News had an “exclusive” on what Tom Brokaw called “an American program to protect Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.” While the script left out technical language and many details—inevitable in stopwatch-timed broadcast writing—the point was clear. The United States was spending millions, in cooperation with Pakistan, to protect that country’s nuclear weapons. And some of that money, NBC reported, was helping the Pakistanis develop “secret authorization codes”—a vernacular phrase experts would know meant PALs.
Steve Coll wrote about the plan for The New Yorker in February of 2006. While his article stopped short of saying that the Pakistanis had accepted the aid, it described, in about as much detail as the Times would twenty-one months later, the sort of basic dual-use equipment (“Kevlar blankets, high-grade fencing”) being offered, and also described administration struggles over the legality of going further and sharing PALs.
Even after these two pieces—which mostly let the cat out of the bag—the Times stayed quiet. As a result, Times readers missed out on a significant policy and legal debate.
The administration’s internal debate over PALs centered around two questions: Would sharing the technology be a security risk? And would it be in violation of U.S. or international non-proliferation law?
To understand the debate, you need to know something about PALs. Writing on PALs involves some guesswork, but all indications suggest the devices are some combination of advanced cryptography equipment, cleverly assembled and protected so as to avoid tampering. In theory, bombs with PALs won’t cause harm without the right code, and can’t be short-circuited. Experts agree that they have no real use besides the protection of nuclear weapons.
And that’s the tricky fact. Ever since the U.S signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 1968, the government has entered into a complicated series of international obligations that in many cases prohibit the transfer of nuclear knowledge and technology. Some of these obligations are echoed in domestic law.
It’s a complicated legal arena, but there’s one red line. Sharing equipment that has some non-nuclear weapons usage—like radiation detectors or fencing—is often allowed. But sharing equipment that can only be used in weapons is verboten, even if that technology is, like PALs, intended to improve nuclear safety.
On first read, there seem to be shades of disagreement between the reports on what exactly the U.S. decided to do on the PALs question. While Coll and the Times are in agreement that the government concluded that sharing PALs equipment would be legally problematic, the 2004 NBC report said that the that the United States was, in fact, “helping Pakistan develop” PALs.
The Times leaves this possibility open. Without being clear about the time period, or if it is referring to China, Russia, Pakistan, or some other state, the Times reported that officials say the United States “has shared ideas—but not technologies—about how to make the safeguards that lie at the heart of American weapons security.”
There’s linguistic (and perhaps legal) wiggle room between “ideas” and “technologies”, lying in the difference between providing the actual physical devices and providing briefings on their logic and construction.