RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — The nation's nuclear chief Saturday dismissed concerns that Pakistan's nuclear weapons might go astray, saying that crack squads have a foolproof grip that would never allow bombs to fall into the hands of Islamic militants or rogue military officers.
"Pakistan's nuclear weapons ... are absolutely safe and secure," said Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, chief of the nation's nuclear programs.
Kidwai offered an unprecedented briefing for foreign journalists following months of political turmoil here that have raised global fears over the safety of its nuclear weapons, even elevating the issue into the U.S. presidential campaign.
"We are capable of thwarting all types of threats, whether these be insider, outsider or a combination," Kidwai said.
The Bush administration, a strong ally of President Pervez Musharraf, says it believes Pakistan is keeping adequate safeguards on its nuclear program, even as it has offered assistance to tighten security.
But the chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, has joined a chorus of private critics who cite the recent political violence here as raising concerns about the safety of the weapons. Sen. Hillary Clinton said, if elected, she would propose to Musharraf that a U.S., and possibly British, team be deployed to safeguard the weapons.
One critic, David Albright, a physicist who heads the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington D.C., said Pakistan should display a less cocksure attitude that its nuclear weapons are safe.
"Kidwai and others make statements — they are almost like platitudes — 'We do it perfectly,'" Albright said. "Their way of doing things just creates more suspicions."
In his presentation at a military base in this garrison city near the capital, Kidwai, a retired army officer, declined to say how many nuclear weapons Pakistan has.
The Muslim nation is presumed to have 50 nuclear warheads, enough to deter rival India, a nuclear state on its border with which it fought wars in 1965 and 1971.
"Around 10,000 well-trained soldiers are guarding our nuclear assets and we have a foolproof multi-tier security system," said Kidwai, who heads the Strategic Plan Division, the entity that oversees nuclear weapons design, deployment and security.
Kidwai outlined several scenarios in which Pakistan's "nuclear weapons could fall in the hands of extremists or fundamentalists" but then dismissed each one.
He said it was "an impossible proposition" that radical Islamists would take control through elections, given Pakistan's moderate electoral makeup.
Another scenario would be a breakdown of law and order, or a violent revolution, which Kidwai called "an exaggerated fear" because "Pakistanis are a non-revolutionary people." Nor is it likely that radicals within the military would seize power given the army's "moderate outlook, with middle-class makeup," he said.
Several U.S. researchers dispute that point.
"The biggest risk posed to the arsenal's safety is not from the external Islamists we hear so much about, but Pakistan 's own army," said Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank with offices in Arlington, Va.
News reports here say authorities arrested a retired army major, Ehsan-ul-Haq, in Lahore last month on suspicion he masterminded two suicide bombings.
Kidwai acknowledged that al Qaida and radical Taliban militants, who are active in border regions with Afghanistan, could try to target nuclear facilities.
"We are conscious of the threat," he said. "The state of alertness has gone up."
Kidwai said about 10,000 scientists work on aspects of the nation's nuclear programs, and about 2,000 of them concentrate "on the most sensitive programs."
A special directorate keeps close tabs on them, vetting when they go abroad, and watching their political and financial status, even offering informal jobs once they retire "to preclude their access to undesirable attractions," Kidwai said.
He said that nuclear sites have multiple layers of defense, including blast-proof gates, constant foot and dog patrols, closed-circuit monitors, huge security vaults and use of a "two-man rule" that prevents any single person from acting alone.
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Kidwai said Pakistan accepted U.S. offers of some "$8- to $10 million" in what he called "rudimentary equipment," such as locks, cameras and perimeter fencing, to safeguard its nuclear arsenal.
But he said "no outsiders, and certainly no Americans," have been permitted to examine Pakistan's nuclear programs up close, potentially breaching its national security.
"We have no desire to be labeled as traitors within our own country," he said.