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Pakistanis dismiss criticisms of nuclear security released by WikiLeaks

Pakistan High Commissioner Riaz Khokhar (L) leaves the Indian Foreign Ministry office along with an unidentified Pakistani official in New Delhi October 30.

Kamal Kishore/Reuters/Kamal Kishore/Reuters

Pakistanis reacted with scorn to leaked diplomatic cables that reveal the depth of international concern about whether their country can keep its nuclear arsenal away from terrorists.

Among the documents released by the website Wikileaks so far are several memos that show top officials around the world fretting privately about Islamabad's nukes. Israel's intelligence chief is quoted saying his biggest worry is Pakistan - a notable statement, from a country that usually focuses on Iran as the world's most dangerous country. Russian security officials made a detailed presentation to U.S. officials about Pakistan's nuclear security arrangements, finding them inadequate.

The Pakistani government also confirmed that the United States secretly lobbied Islamabad for the return of a U.S. nuclear reactor and its fuel. American diplomats reportedly wanted to remove highly enriched uranium from the 1960s-era research reactor for safekeeping, fearing that it could slip into the wrong hands.

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"We dismissed this, reiterating that the reactor was our property, so there was no question of it being returned," Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abdul Basit, said in a BBC interview.

Current and retired government officials also tried to brush off the criticisms of Pakistan's nuclear security, saying the system is safe and foreign officials who complain must lack adequate intelligence.

"Quite frankly, we don't give a damn," Riaz Khokhar, Pakistan's former foreign secretary, told The Globe and Mail. "Our nuclear security is excellent."

That was not the assessment of Meir Dagan, director of Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency, when he sat down with U.S. officials in July, 2007. In an informal discussion of threats in the region, comparing notes on several countries, the Israeli spy chief emphasized that al-Qaeda or other global jihadists could obtain nuclear weapons if the existing government falls in Pakistan.

"Dagan characterized a Pakistan ruled by radical Islamists with a nuclear arsenal at their disposal as his biggest nightmare," the memo says.

The Israeli intelligence chief repeated his concern in another meeting with U.S. officials the following month, saying Pakistan's future would be uncertain without then-president Pervez Musharraf. "He is facing a serious problem with the militants," he was quoted as saying.

"Pakistan's nuclear capability could end up in the hands of an Islamic regime."

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Those fears continued after Mr. Musharraf lost his job as president; Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak confided similar concerns to U.S. diplomats in 2009. "He described Pakistan as his 'private nightmare,' suggesting the world might wake up one morning 'with everything changed' following a potential Islamic extremist takeover," a memo said.

While the Israelis worried about regime change, the Russians pressed their U.S. counterparts about the details of Pakistani nuclear precautions. One cable describes senior Russian security officials asking the Americans about their joint arrangements with Islamabad for safeguarding Pakistan's arsenal.

"There are 120,000-130,000 people directly involved in Pakistan's nuclear and missile programs, working in these facilities and protecting them," a Russian official said, according to a memo.

"However, regardless of the clearance process for these people, there is no way to guarantee that all are 100 per cent loyal and reliable."

Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent security analyst based in Lahore, said that such concerns are well-known but no concrete evidence has yet surfaced of security lapses around Pakistani nuclear sites. Nor would the country's powerful military allow the weapons to fall into the wrong hands, he said, as a matter of self-preservation.

"The army will protect these weapons to the last, because any group getting hold of fissile material would threaten not only the whole world, but especially Pakistan itself," Mr. Rizvi said.

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