NEW YORK The Bush administration has spent almost $100 million in the past six years on a classified program to help Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf secure his country's nuclear weapons, The New York Times reported in Sunday editions.
Citing current and former senior administration officials, the Times said the aid was buried in secret portions of the federal budget and was used to fund training of Pakistani personnel in the United States and construction of a nuclear security training center in Pakistan which is still far from operational.
"Everything has taken far longer than it should," the Times quoted a former official involved in the program as saying. "And you are never sure what you really accomplished."
Recent unrest in Pakistan and questions over Musharraf's staying power have rekindled internal administration debate over the program, the Times said.
Pakistan, locked in regional rivalry with its nuclear-armed neighbor India, emerged as a nuclear power in 1998 when it carried out six underground tests.
Equipment ranging from helicopters and night-vision goggles to nuclear detection equipment was given to Pakistan to help secure its nuclear material, warheads, and laboratories that were "the site of the worst known case of nuclear proliferation in the atomic age," according to the Times.
U.S. officials said they believed the arsenal is safe at present and accept Pakistan's assurances that security has been greatly improved, although Pakistan has often held back on providing details about how or where the equipment is being used.
The newspaper said it knew about facets of the secret program for more than three years through contacts with U.S. officials and nuclear experts, but held off on reporting about it when the Bush administration argued that disclosing it could damage efforts to secure the weapons.
The secret U.S. program was put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks as Washington debated sharing with Pakistan U.S. nuclear protection technology known as "permissive action links," which protects against weapons detonating without proper coding and authorization, the Times said.
But the Bush administration decided against sharing this technology -- some officials cited risks that Pakistan might learn too much about U.S. arms -- and instead agreed on other types of assistance. A legal analysis also determined that aiding Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, even with just protective gear, would violate U.S. and international law, the newspaper reported.
The leader of Pakistan's nuclear safety effort, Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, has since acknowledged receiving "international" help as he sought to assure Washington that Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure was secure, the newspaper said.
The Times said it informed the Bush administration last week it was reopening its examination of the program, in part due to Pakistan's current instability, and the White House withdrew its request to withhold publication, while also refusing to discuss the program.
The less than $100 million spent on the classified nuclear security program makes up less than 1 percent of some $10 billion in known U.S. aid to Pakistan since the 2001 attacks.
The secret program, designed by the Energy and State Departments, drew heavily from efforts over the past decade to secure nuclear weapons, stockpiles and materials in Russia and other former Soviet states, the Times reported.
Much of the money for Pakistan was spent on physical safeguards such as fencing, surveillance systems and tracking equipment for nuclear material that might leave secure areas.
A second phase of the program to provide more equipment, helicopters and safety devices is being discussed, the newspaper said.
(Reporting by Chris Michaud; editing by Mohammad Zargham)