WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States is helping Pakistan keep its nuclear weapons secure in a top-secret program that has cost Washington almost 100 million dollars since 2001, The New York Times reported Sunday.
But Pakistan still refuses to allow US experts into its nuclear sites, the newspaper said, revealing information it first obtained three years ago but, due to a White House request, had not reported until now.
Debate is intensifying here about whether Pakistan's reluctance to reveal "critical details" about its arsenal has undercut the cooperation's effectiveness, the report said.
Without addressing the report's substance, White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told AFP: "At this time, we believe that Pakistan's nuclear weapons and facilities are under the appropriate control of Pakistani authorities."
The US program was reportedly created after the attacks of September 11, 2001 when the United States enlisted President Pervez Musharraf as the main ally in its "war on terror."
Pakistan has been in turmoil since General Musharraf imposed a state of emergency two weeks ago.
The Times report came as US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte warned Musharraf in Islamabad that Washington will review its 10-billion-dollar military aid to his regime unless he lifts the emergency ahead of elections.
Amid the turmoil, some critics have suggested that Pakistan's nuclear arms are at risk of falling into the wrong hands -- at a time when Islamic extremist insurgencies are intensifying in lawless regions near Afghanistan.
Musharraf has dismissed the risk and Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday he was "confident" that Pakistan's nuclear arms remain secure, while stressing he remained "watchful."
The New York Times, citing unidentified current and former senior officials, said that for six years, the United States has provided high-tech equipment and trained Pakistani personnel to ensure that security remains tight.
"I am confident of two things," former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin told the paper, "that the Pakistanis are very serious about securing this material, but also that someone in Pakistan is very intent on getting their hands on it."
The sites where Pakistan keeps its ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads remain off-limits to US experts, the Times said.
It said Musharraf's government has also been unwilling to inform Washington about how or where the US equipment -- including helicopters, night-vision goggles and detection sensors -- is being used.
And US experts have little information on laboratories where weapons-grade uranium is produced -- including one named after disgraced chief scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who sold nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
The report said that after the 9/11 attacks, Washington considered sharing cutting-edge technology with Pakistan designed to prevent misuse of nuclear weapons.
But the administration of President George W. Bush decided "that it could not share the system with the Pakistanis because of legal restrictions," the report said.
"In addition, the Pakistanis were suspicious that any American-made technology in their warheads could include a secret 'kill switch,' enabling the Americans to turn off their weapons."
The New York Times said the nuclear aid program was buried in secret portions of the federal budget.
It said it had known about it for more than three years but had held off publication on a request from the Bush administration, which feared repercussions for national security.
But Pakistani media reports had shed light on the program and the White House had withdrawn its demand against publication last week, while remaining unwilling to discuss details of the program, the paper said.
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