Michael KreponSy Hersh and Pakistan’s Nukes

Seymour Hersh deserves every one of many awards for investigative journalism he has received, but not for his reporting on Pakistan, where his sourcing is weak and his conclusions are suspect.

Hersh’s latest, Defending the Arsenal, Can Pakistan’s nuclear weapons be secured? (The New Yorker, November 16, 2009) has one headline grabbing assertion:

Current and former officials said in interviews in Washington and Pakistan that [the Obama] Administration has been negotiating highly sensitive understandings with the Pakistani military. These would allow specially trained American units to provide additional security for the Pakistani arsenal in case of a crisis.

In return, Hersh says, “the Pakistani military would be given money to equip and train Pakistani soldiers and to improve their housing and facilities.”

If there were any truth to Hersh’s story, those “specially trained American units” can now forget about helping Pakistan to secure its arsenal: Public revelation of such an agreement makes it about as palatable within Pakistan as changing that nation’s religious preference. But there are many good reasons to seriously doubt Hersh’s headline, and the sources he relied upon to reach this conclusion.

First, Pakistan’s military establishment doesn’t need to provide access to its most sensitive nuclear sites in order to receive money for equipment and training from the United States. Second, there is a wide trust deficit at present between Pakistan and the United States. Pakistan’s military does not trust the United States to get up close and personal with its crown jewels, which is why offers to provide help along these lines have been rebuffed in the past. (Perhaps this has something to do with other press reports, Hersh’s included, of plans for “specially trained American units” with a mission to swoop in and remove Pakistan’s nuclear assets in the event of government takeover by extremists or other dire scenarios.) If special units of the US military were to visit nuclear-related facilities in Pakistan, it is highly unlikely that they would be served tea and treated as guests. Third, the very few individuals in Pakistan who know truth from fiction regarding nuclear safety and security don’t speak to journalists about particulars.

The authoritative Pakistani rebuttal to Hersh’s article was provided to the Pakistani media by Gen. Tariq Majid, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee:

There is absolutely no question of sharing or allowing any foreign individual, entity or state any access to sensitive information about our nuclear assets. Our engagement with other countries … to learn more about international best practices for security of such assets is based on two clearly spelt out red lines – non intrusiveness and our right to pick and choose.

Pakistan has accepted, and hopefully will continue to accept, assistance to increase security of its nuclear assets – as long as it is provided at a safe distance.

Hersh’s previous work on Pakistan has also been faulty, especially his reporting on a crisis between India and Pakistan in 1990 (The New Yorker, On the Nuclear Edge, March 29, 1993) that, in his estimation, came very close to a nuclear exchange. This crisis was generated by a significant increase in turbulence within Kashmir, and by military exercises near fighting corridors carried out by both Pakistan and India. What gave Hersh’s article great credibility was a quote by Richard J. Kerr, then Deputy Director of the CIA, that the 1990 crisis “may be as close as we’ve come to a nuclear exchange. It was far more frightening than the Cuban missile crisis.”

This is an astounding quote that is presumably based, as Hersh reported, on evidence of a mass evacuation of Kahuta, the movement of a heavily guarded truck convoy from a suspected nuclear weapon storage facility in Balochistan, and the arming of F-16s with nuclear weapons on strip alert.

The 1990 crisis clearly had a serious potential for escalation, as did an earlier crisis in 1986-7 sparked by large-scale Indian exercises involving heavy armor and live ammunition. During the 1990 crisis, Pakistan resumed production of highly-enriched uranium and signaled its readiness to employ nuclear weapons if matters spiraled out of control. But were India and Pakistan close to a nuclear conflagration, as Hersh’s sources believed? The Stimson Center convened a meeting of crisis managers who were stationed in Islamabad, New Delhi and Washington to assess what actually transpired. (See Conflict Prevention and Confidence-Building Measures in South Asia: The 1990 Crisis, Michael Krepon and Mishi Faruqee, eds. April 1994.) The US defense attachés based in Islamabad and Delhi participated in this post mortem. They played a key role in crisis management, as the governments of India and Pakistan allowed them to visit areas where they could directly assess the level of Pakistani and Indian military readiness for warfare.

The participants of Stimson’s crisis evaluation, including the US Ambassadors to Pakistan and India in 1990, believed that there was no credible evidence for the most hair-raising of Hersh’s conclusions. Despite — or perhaps because of — the potential for escalation, both India and Pakistan refrained from mobilizing their ground forces during this crisis. India did not put armor in the field that would be required for a military campaign, and Pakistan held its strike corps in their cantonments.

The United States has been a trusted crisis manager for India and Pakistan since both countries acquired nuclear weapon capabilities. This role is becoming harder to play. Overblown reporting doesn’t help matters.


  1. FSB

    Sy is hyperventilating.

    I think Pakistani nukes are probably better looked after than American ones.

    At least their warheads are still kept apart from their delivery vehicles.

    Maybe the Pakistanis can sweep into Minot and care for our nukes?

  2. Lurking Observer (History)

    I don’t understand.

    You start by saying that Hersh deserves all his accolades. Then you say this report is overblown.

    If THIS story is an example of over-blown reporting, why couldn’t/wouldn’t we assume that other stories by Sy Hersh be equally overblown?

    Conversely, if other Hersh stories have proven overblown (the claim that Barry McCaffrey ordered his forces to continue firing on Iraqi forces after the cease-fire comes to mind, or that Dick Cheney kept a death squad on call), why should anyone give this story any more credence? In which case, why start by saying that he deserves all his awards?

  3. Andy (History)

    Hersh was interviewed on the NPR radio program “Fresh Air” last week about this article. Here is a transcript. Much of it made me cringe when I listened, so I think your assessment of Hersh’s credibility here is correct.

  4. Murray Anderson (History)

    If Pakistani officials gave special U.S. teams access to their nuclear weapons they would be traitors, who had most likely sold out for money. In that case they could be bought by somebody else just as well, which is the most dangerous situation of all.
    The only thing you could do if you bought some traitors like that is to seize the weapons at once, destroy Pakistan, and hand the territory over to India. But you could never know it wasn’t a scam by Pakistani intelligence, and the surviving Rambos you sent would be dispatched to another world or held hostage.

    Murray Anderson

  5. Bob (History)

    Well done! Yellow journalism and nukes are a dangerous mix.

  6. Anon (History)

    Michael makes a good point about the need (and liklihood) of U.S. assistance from a polite distance. But the part of the article I found troubling was the reported depth of animus toward the United States among the mid-and senior-level officer corps (not to mention enlisted-equivalents). There was a time when U.S. training, cooperation and outreach was successful in cultivating a professional military in Pakistan. How ironic that Pressler-type legislation, intended to support nonproliferation objectives, may have given rise to the current situation where the next generation of officers feels such deep hostility toward the U.S. If Sy got this wrong, great. If not, we could be in real trouble.

  7. Robin Walker (History)

    Thanks Michael for your take. You know more of Hersh’s history on the subject, especially regarding the 1990 crisis.

    I’ve heard various Pakistanis worry that if we give them technical help on nuclear security we (at the behest of the Indians), will include some kind of device that will/could disable their nukes. (I’ve heard similar paranoia from Indians regarding Pakistanis of course).

    My take on Sy Hersh’s article is at Smart Influence: Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Haven’t I Refuted This Before

  8. Drew (History)

    Agree that Hersh has a checkered reporting history in this region. The article has much less than meets the eye, but it is sensationalized, and got reaction in Pakistan, which will further complicate relations between Washington and Islamabad/Rawalpindi. The only interesting bit is the negotiations there were said to be underway. If one reads the article carefully, there is no indication that the negotiations were successful. Indeed it sounds as though they were ongoing. Also, the language of the article on the content of the negotiations plus the Pakistani denial leaves plenty of room for how the US could supplement security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in a crisis without actually knowing much more or getting inside the compounds where they are stored. There could be ways that the US could help with security in a crisis that would still leave the Pakistanis very much in sovereign control of their arsenal and not giving the US more information. What is not clear from Hersh’s reporting is whether the negotiations were actually going anywhere. The Paks could be sitting, listening, and nodding their heads without agreeing to anything, figuring this is the price they have to pay to get more US assistance. South Asians (both Indians and Pakistanis) have always thought that the US was much too alarmist about nuclear safety and stability in that region and that they had things perfectly under control. If such negotiations (for specific US assistance with security of the Pak nuclear arsenal in a crisis) were indeed going on, and if there was actually any chance for them to potentially succeed, then they likely have slowed or even been derailed by the article. A pity. The US and Pakistan need to slowly build trust and see more clearly their mutual interests. It will be a long, slow slog.

  9. Waheed Haider (History)

    Sy Hersh is working against everybody. He sure is not helping US & Pakistan. May be he is helping himself. This will create mistrust between Pakistan & US.

  10. scud

    Excellent job, Michael – a very healthy rebuttal. What is particularly dangerous about Sy Hersh’s piece is that it will be no doubt be taken by some Pakistanis as the truthful proof of Washington’s evil intentions. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that this sort of piece may contribute to endangering the safety of US nationals in the country and elsewhere.

  11. adil (History)

    Krepon is right once he says that such insinuations are unhelpful

  12. FSB


    I do not wonder why there is so much enmity towards the US in Pak. officer corps.

    Our foreign policy engenders anti-Americanism.

    We have indirectly killed >1 million muslim civilians in Iraq and Af/Pak.

    The US-led war on terrorism has left in its wake a far more unstable world than existed on that momentous day in 2001: Rather than diminishing, the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates has grown, engulfing new regions of Africa, Asia, and Europe and creating fear among peoples from Australia to Zanzibar. The US invasions of two Muslim countries have so far failed to contain either the original organization or the threat that now comes from its copycats in British or French cities who have been mobilized through the Internet. The al Qaeda leader is still at large, despite the largest manhunt in history.

    Afghanistan is once again staring down the abyss of state collapse, despite billions of dollars in aid, a hundred thousand Western troops, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The Taliban have made a dramatic comeback. The international community had an extended window of opportunity for several years to help the Afghan people—they failed to take advantage of it.

    Pakistan has undergone a slower but equally bloody meltdown. In 2007 there were 56 suicide bombings in Pakistan that killed 640 people, compared to just 6 bombings in the previous year.

    In 2009, American power lies shattered, US credibility lies in ruins. Ultimately the strategies of the Bush administration have created a far bigger crisis in South and Central Asia than existed before 9/11.

    Eight years of neocon foreign policies have been a spectacular disaster for American interests in the Islamic world, leading to the rise of Iran as a major regional power, the advance of Hamas and Hezbollah, the wreckage of Iraq, with over two million external refugees and the ethnic cleansing of its Christian population, and now the implosion of Afghanistan and Pakistan, probably the most dangerous development of all.

    This is what the US government’s Defense Science Board has to say on the situation

    “American efforts have not only failed in this respect: they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended.

    American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies.

    • Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies.

    The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.

    • Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that
    “freedom is the future of the Middle East” is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World — but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.

    • Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim selfdetermination.

    • Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have
    elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims. Fighting groups portray themselves as the true defenders of an Ummah (the entire Muslim community) invaded and under attack — to broad public support.

    • What was a marginal network is now an Ummah-wide movement of fighting groups. Not only has there been a proliferation of “terrorist” groups: the unifying context of a shared cause creates a sense of affiliation across the many cultural and sectarian boundaries that divide Islam.”


    Our messing around overseas (witness our clear involvement with the terrorist murder of 5 Iranian revolutionary guards recently) causes blowback terrorism. It does not matter whether or not AQ has any safe havens or not or whether Hezbollah is rearming— regular people — heck, even US army officers, it appears — can become radicalized by the sheer extent of our injustice abroad.

    Note I am not justifying what they did. Their means are WRONG. But their cause is, at least partly, just.

    We need to stop our addiction to oil and leave the middle east.

    Force — even when wielded by the seemingly strong against the nominally weak — continues to be an exceedingly uncertain instrument. The United States’ penchant for projecting power has created as many problems as it has solved. Genuinely decisive outcomes remain rare, costs often far exceed expectations, and unintended and unwelcome consequences are legion.

    The pursuit of US military dominance is an illusion, the principal effect of which is to distort strategic judgment by persuading policymakers that they have at hand the means to make short work of history’s complexities. The real need is to wean the United States from its infatuation with military power and come to a more modest appreciation of what force can and cannot do.

    We have to come to the painful conclusion that we have created much of the terrorism and anti-Americanism that we are subject to via our terrible foreign policies. It will be difficult to protect us from our (well-earned) blowback without fixing our own foreign policy.

  13. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    ….Well, I don’t know how to avoid sub-continental distress at American ‘assistance’ in securing Pakistani nuclear weapons. As for the sub-contintnetal chip on the proverbial shoulder it is rather delicate. I have run into it twice such that upper management had to intervene. Once at a gentle hint that the North American sense of smell is tuned for a daily bathing regimen (Those were the spoken words). Well it turns out this poor chap had been subjected not being able to drink from the glasses of the Hindu canteen back home and India and was not going to take anything along the same line again. Given what the Brits delt the sub-continent and what they deal themselves I’d say a quite a lot of it comes from themselves and the buttons to elicit ire, are many.

    Who knows how accurate the article is. All I can say is I hope it is. Because those weapons need to be secured one way or the other. In the face of a failed Pkaistani state, sub-continental pride can go to hell in the face of loose nukes. If even the rumor of American assistance is a factor in the existence of the Pakistani state, then that just goes to show how much help they really need.

  14. Andy (History)


    While there is some general truth in your essay on anti-Americanism in the Muslim world generally, there are more important factors at play for Pakistani officers than a simplistic reaction to US foreign policy. There are even substantial generational differences within the officer corps, so generalizations about the whole force aren’t easy to make, much less sweeping generalizations about the influence of US foreign policy on Muslims.

  15. FSB

    Yes, Andrew, it would be nice if America had global hegemony and freedom of movement and power projection to whatever we want.

    As I recall, it is called United States of America. Not United States of the Earth.

    “Fix thine own house”
    -2 Kings

  16. FSB

    OK, I did not try to offer a 100% explanation of why Americans are hated in much of the muslim world — just a few points to provoke thought. Points which are largely suppressed by the PC-police in much of the media at large, to our own detriment.

    What is your theory of why some in the Pak army corps, and much of Pak society, hate American policies?

    It is a generational thing, because the new generation hates American policies more than the previous. Why? Because American policies and intervention in the Muslim world has gotten worse and worse over time.

    Killing more than a million muslim civilians is a recent consequence of US policies.

    Our suppression of the Goldstone report and tacit support of the settlers is also more recent.

    I would recommend reading “The Limits of Power” by Andrew Bacevich, in case you have not already.

  17. Andy (History)


    The topic isn’t the “Muslim world” it is the Pakistani officer corp. Their interests are much more parochial than the sweeping generalizations about Muslim outrage you’ve provided thus far. They are, first and foremost, nationalists and their main complaints are about real and perceived incursions on Pakistani sovereignty. They are also resentful that the US has long been an ally of convenience – only engaging Pakistan when forced to do so. Although there is the perception that the US is “attacking Islam” in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the greater fear is that US intervention would allow encirclement by India. India is foremost in the minds of most Pakistani officers for obvious reasons. The US-India nuclear deal (and the absence of one for Pakistan) is another factor. Compared to these and other strategic problems facing the Pakistani state, events in Palestine are, at best, tertiary concerns for the Pakistani military.

  18. archjr (History)

    @FSB: Usually I don’t agree with much that you say, but I have found your recent comments especially useful, even though I still don’t agree completely.

    One thing I would add to these thoughts is that the Pressler amendment was singularly unproductive when measured against its stated goals. The only thing it really accomplished was to keep US-Pakistani military relations in limbo at a time the US did not need to lose its connections to the most stable institution in Pakistan since partition, namely the Army. There is of course no way to prove that undamaged relations would have given the US more influence. but Americans generally have been woefully uneducated as to Pakistan’s strategic view for the generation of officers now in command. This has led only to consistent misapprehension as to what the Paks were up to, and this really dates until the imposition of the Pressler cutoffs in 1989, which, incidentally, also damaged commercial relationships and thus diminished the American presence there.

    To prove my point, does anybody on this blog understand the concept of “the greater Hindu Kush?” I really do not mean to sound condescending, but without that knowledge, it is impossible to divine either Pakistani interests in Afghanistan or, more indirectly, its strategic nuclear policy.

    Steves Cohen and
    Coll are the best writers on this subject, IMHO.

    @Krepon: thanks for the great post!

  19. SMJ (History)

    The issue with such reports is that they are not double checkable or confirmable. But investigative reporting hardly is. You have to guess the validity of such reports from its contents and situation on the ground. Pakistan is obviously becoming a very dangerous country where people live in a constant fear of militants and their suicidal strikes. Economy is downtrodden and chaos has set in. It can be regarded as a classic example of democracy failure in modern history. In the light of these developments, I would be inclined to assume that Sy Hersh’s analysis and conclusions are unfortunately right. I think a doomsday scenario can be averted with a greater US involvement. It all needs to be waited and seen.

  20. FSB

    I would also add that the increased support of the US for India of late (witness the NPT-flaunting nuclear deal) has not helped American popularity in Pakistan.

  21. FSB

    why do you think that Pakistan is failing? Because of the militants? If so, why do think there is greater traction for militancy now, there and in the region in general?

    The CIA ex-station chief in Kabul seems to think we need to get out of the region.

    Do you really think more American involvement in the region is healthy?

  22. FSB

    Folks may be interested in Robin Wright’s OpEd in NYTimes today about how people are getting radicalized — it underscores my point about why the Pakistani officer corps are becoming more and more anti-American. It turns out it may be the same reason that some muslims in the US Army may be getting radicalized.

  23. Andy (History)


    We are getting off-topic here but the root of militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas is primarily due to the decline and failure of 100+ year old tribal administration system. This system, begun by the British and maintained after Pakistan became a state in 1948, is, for a variety of reason I won’t belabor here, no longer viable. The tribal structures and patronage upon which the system depended failed, creating a power vacuum which the Pakistani Taliban filled.

  24. FSB

    I suggest you read Coll’s book “Ghost Wars” to appreciate the truth behind why the tribal regions are radicalized since it is rather lengthy history and implicates the CIA, the Saudis and the Pakistanis.

    I thought you may like this on how the CIA printed Korans to radicalize the muslims.

    The root of militancy in Pakistan has nothing to do with the failure of the tribal administration system and everything to do with foreign meddling.

  25. FSB

    I also suggest you read the link above to the CIA ex-station chief in Kabul’s view about how US policy is radicalizing Af/Pak.

    I think he may know a thing or two about the situation.

  26. SMJ (History)


    I think Pakistan is a failing state because of the wrong foundation. Remember, only two states in the world were founded upon religion; Pakistan and Israel. I am not optimistic about either unless they change their basis for existence. Pakistan is a worse case for several reasons,one of which you touched upon in your latest comments about tribalism. Other reasons I believe are ethnoprovincial differences, widespread illiteracy, poor and inconsistent economic policies, short sighted foreign policies and of course, emphasis on religion and religious education particularly during the Zia era (1978 – 1987 – Zia used to call Pakistan ‘Laboratory of Islam’). I do not think US engagement so far has been negative – like all other states US has finely pursued its own national interest in the region. Even the current US engagement is driven by national interest. The intents and purposes of course constitute another topic.

  27. SMJ (History)


    On the other two points, I do agree with you that the current US engagement in the Afpak region and in the ME region as a whole is flawed – unless there is a hidden policy which I believe may be aimed at China and India (another very interesting point of debate – remember, Pakistan is the only country in the world that has borders with both China and India; if you get Pakistan, you can play havoc with both India and China through use of Islamic militancy against them). So, I agree with you and the ex-CIA station officer’s comments that USA should quit before its too late. But I also believe that USA officials are not stupid; they know what awaits them and when you do something knowing about it, you must have a very good plan. Obviously none of us is privvy to such plan, if it exists. We can, as I said earlier, guess about this plan from the developments on the ground. I think what the US should do however, if it is keen to stay in the region, is stop taking sides, stop behaving as a foreign dictator and most importantly, create a people to people link and cooperation in these countries. I have for instance never seen US helping with constructing schools in Pakistan or creating forums where ordinary US citizens can come in contact with ordinary Pakistanis to discuss the issues. It’s all government to government and given that people of Pakistan have little faith in their stooge governments, they have also lost faith in the US that deals with them instead of approaching the people. I think if the US wants to win the battles it must win the hearts and minds first. Otherwise, I can only see more chaos and more bloodshed as long as the US remains in the region – unless that is very much part of the long term strategy vis a vis India, China and Russia.

  28. fred lapides (History)

    I had read the New Yorker piece and I believe Sy made it very clear that the higher ups in Pakistan would not share info; felt they had things under wraps; distrusted American interference..thus this criticism seems a bit off. Further,it has come out later that we are now financing 1/3 of the money used for their equivalent of CIA to maintain friendship and closeness.