Intelligence analysts are sifting through phone numbers and email addresses found at Osama bin Laden’s compound to determine potential links to Pakistani government and military officials while U.S. officials and analysts raise concerns about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear materials.
According to three U.S. intelligence officials, the race is on to identify what President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, has called bin Laden’s “support system” inside Pakistan. These sources sought anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to reporters.
“My concern now is that we cannot exclude the possibility that officers in the Pakistani military and the intelligence service were helping to harbor or aware of the location of bin Laden,” said Olli Heinonen, who served as the deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 2005 to 2010.
“What is to say they would not help al Qaeda or other terrorist groups to gain access to sensitive nuclear materials such as highly enriched uranium and plutonium?”
The U.S. has worried quietly about the infiltration of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and military for years. Those concerns heightened in recent months when the CIA learned that bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad was a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s military academy.
Politico first reported this week that CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told members of Congress that bin Laden’s clothing had two phone numbers sewn into it at the time of the raid. Those numbers and other contacts found at the compound are key clues in an effort to determine what elements of Pakistan’s national security establishment provided support to bin Laden and al Qaeda.
“I can tell you that concern about al Qaeda and other terrorists’ infiltration into the ISI is not new on the part of the Congress or the [George W.] Bush and Obama administrations,” said Rep. Steve Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat who serves on two House Appropriations subcommittees that fund defense and foreign aid.
Mr. Rothman has attended top-secret briefings on the Abbottabad raid and the impact of the raid on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“As a matter of course, and for good reason, the materials that were removed from bin Laden’s home in Pakistan are being run down for leads that could assist the United States in apprehending individuals or entities who have sought to harm Americans or who have enabled others to harm Americans,” he said.
Another U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times that other phone numbers and emails were recovered in the raid.
Mr. Rothman said al Qaeda operatives in 2009 “came within 60 kilometers of what is believed to have been Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal,” though he could not elaborate on the incident.
“Two years ago, al Qaeda came close, too close for comfort,” Mr. Rothman said. “That resulted … in new safeguards and new measures taken by the United States and Pakistan and others to minimize any possibility of anyone acquiring the Pakistani nuclear weapons or material.”
Pakistan is neither a member of the IAEA nor a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nonetheless, it has agreed to some IAEA safeguards on its civil nuclear program, but nothing comprehensive.
Analysts estimate Pakistan to have more than 100 nuclear weapons. The latest estimate by Princeton University’s International Panel on Fissile Materials, which takes account of the world’s nuclear material, estimates that Pakistan possesses between 1.6 tons and 3.8 tons of weapons-grade uranium and between 132 pounds and 286 pounds of plutonium.
“Up to now, the Pakistanis have said the nuclear material is under military and ISI control and particularly the plutonium and highly enriched uranium,” Mr. Heinonen said. “These are from facilities that are not under IAEA control at all.”
A Feb. 19, 2009, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said the nuclear arsenal is “under the control of the secular military, which has implemented extensive physical, personnel and command and control safeguards.”
“Our major concern has not been that an Islamic militant could steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in [Pakistani government] facilities could gradually smuggle enough fissile material out to eventually make a weapon and the vulnerability of weapons in transit,” said the cable, which was released Wednesday by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
The cable was prepared in anticipation of the February 2009 visit to Washington of Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who is chief of staff of Pakistan’s military. In it, the cable also acknowledged how the ISI and Pakistani army have elements that still support terrorist groups.
“We need to lay down a clear marker that Pakistan’s Army/ISI must stop overt or tacit support for militant proxies. … We should preface that conversation with an agreement to open a new page in relations; Kayani, who was ISI Chief from 2004-2007, does not want a reckoning with the past,” the cable said.
The details on bin Laden’s compound already have led some members of Congress to threaten to cut off military aid to Pakistan, which receives more than $3 billion annually from the U.S.
Mr. Rothman said he wants to use U.S. military aid to gain more leverage with Pakistan’s government.
“We should continue to use whatever foreign and military aid to Pakistan … in order to help guide the Pakistanis into creating the kind of stability and cooperation we are looking for from them on a consistent basis,” he said.