By Seymour Hersh / Substack
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During the first year of the Obama administration, I spent months in the summer and fall of 2009 reporting about the Pakistani nuclear arsenal from here in Washington; from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital; from New Delhi, the Indian capital; and from London, where Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan as well a former army chief was living in exile. The story I eventually published in the New Yorker was edited slightly in accordance with a White House request that I did not contest.
The issues then and today are the same: Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation. So is India, its rival, an on-and-off ally of both Russia and America that rarely, if ever, discusses its own nuclear capability. Pakistan did not perfect the process of enriching raw uranium ore to the level needed for weapons-grade uranium—more than 90 percent—until the mid-1980s, a decade after India had tested its first nuclear bomb, at which point it began producing bombs with no American interference. The Pakistani military is now estimated to have untold hundreds of nuclear bombs, some of which have been miniaturized and are capable of being delivered by a fighter bomber. The hypocrisy of American presidents in ignoring the Pakistani progress while constantly urging nonproliferation elsewhere has been noted again and again by journalists here and elsewhere around the globe. Pakistan’s bomb became known in the worried West as the “Islamic bomb.”
Throughout this process, working at various times with Indian and Israeli intelligence, the United States has been in a constant cat-and-mouse game with Pakistan to keep count of the weapons, many stored in special containers known to US intelligence as igloos. The American fear, as I was told decades ago, is that some of the Pakistani warheads have been hidden in “the tall grass along a runway” on a Pakistani military airbase.
I finished my reporting and wrote a long piece—reporters always write stories that are too long—and it went through the usual processes of editing and fact checking and more editing.
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As usual, I had promised anonymity to most of those on the inside, here and in Pakistan and India. My sources did their best to answer my questions. The exiled and reviled General Musharraf, whose eight years as president had been marred by allegations of unnecessary brutality and murder, surprised me—I had written critically about the Pakistani nuclear program—by agreeing to see me inLondon. He was outspoken in his talk with me—we met in his modest flat—and boasted about his success in having had a huge tunnel system constructed deep underground for the storage of nuclear weapons and their separate trigger mechanisms. The tunnels, he said, had the advantage of making it impossible for American satellites and our intelligence community—“Big Uncle,” as a Pakistani nuclear-weapons expert called our spying—to monitor what was going on below ground. Musharraf, while in the Pakistani army, had been in charge of the Special Services Group that, among other duties, was responsible for the security of the many nuclear weapons depots scattered at military bases and elsewhere around the nation.
Musharraf’s bragging about his success in hiding the nuclear arsenal was included in the revised edition of my story, as was a very tough lecture I received from one of the most prominent senior aides in the Pakistani government, who told me that he and others at the top were convinced that what the Obama really wanted was “control of our day-to-day deployment. But why should we give it to you? Even if there was a military coup d’état in Pakistan, no one is going to give up total control of our nuclear weapons. Never. Why are you not afraid of India’s nuclear weapons? Because India is your friend, and the longtime policies of America and India converge. Between you and the Indians, you will fuck us in every way. The truth is that our weapons are less of a problem for the Obama administration than finding a respectable way out of Afghanistan.”
The story closed—a common industry term meaning that it had been checked and edited and proofread—two days before the Friday midnight deadline to ship the magazine. I was called Thursday morning and told there was “high-level worry inside the White House” about the story, as edited, with all of the tough talk in itand concern that if it was published as it was there might be riots and protests throughout Pakistan. I was told that the White House was considering shutting US consulates throughout Pakistan and ordering the temporary removal of all American dependents from the embassy in Islamabad. None of this made sense to me—anxiety about the Pakistan arsenal was a constant and my story showed that American intelligence was on the job.
Nonetheless,given these concerns, an edit was quickly made and the story was published in early November 2009 without much fanfare, and no demonstrations of any kind in Pakistan. Recently, while I was moving files in a new office, I found my original draft of the story and compared it to the published report. None of the hardcore details I had initially included was deleted, and the tone of the piece remained grim. What changed was the opening of the story. The initial draft began with a long quotation from an April 2009 news conference with Obama. When asked if he could reassure the American people that the Pakistani arsenal could be kept away from Al Qaeda, he spoke bluntly about American worries. He made it clear that he saw the biggest threat to the Pakistani arsenal coming from the fragility of the civilian government in Pakistan and from internal dissent. He added that he was convinced that the United States could “make sure” that the Pakistani arsenal was secure.
The revisedarticle was edited in a hurry. It began with a retelling of a recentbloody attack by ten gunmen on the Pakistani army’s main headquarters in a suburb of Islamabad that left twenty-three dead and the army “thoroughly embarrassed.” Hillary Clinton, then secretary of State, was quoted as saying the administration still had “confidence in the Pakistani government and the military’s control over nuclear weapons.”
Obama’s earlier statement followed, and seemed to be more prescient. I thought the edit was fine. Obama, with his wit, wisdom, and style, was a relief after eight years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney with their bellicose rhetoric and constant wars. Obama could do no wrong, or so it seemed.
I decided to ask a former intelligence official who was in a position to know a great deal about nuclear policy back in 2009 what was going on with the White House‘s seemingly off-the-wall insistence that our original story would create potential violence inside Pakistan.
He told me that I had failed to understand why Musharraf had agreed to see me and what his message to me really was. “Musharraf was telling you, and the White House, that the deep tunnel system he had built meant that Obama and the White House had no control over what Pakistan could do” if faced with what it saw as a potential nuclear threat or attack from India. “He had been digging deep so the Pakistani nuclear arsenal could withstand an Indian first strike, if one was planned,” and be able to respond in kind.
“Obama had to tell Remnick,” the editor-in-chief of the New Yorker, then and now, David Remnick, “to back off.” Musharraf “was a danger to Obama, who had just told the world that the Pakistani arsenal was secure,” the former intelligence official said. “Obama or his aides who made the contact could not tell Remnick why he could not put all of the Musharraf quotes in print. They had to have an excuse.” Hence the warning of riots inside Pakistan if the story, as initially edited, was published.
At the time, Pakistan was the only declared nuclear power to not agree to a no-first-use understanding. (Israel, of course, was a nuclear power at the time but had not declared itself to be such.) “We knew,” the former intelligence official said, “that the Pakistani SIOP”—the American acronym for its nuclear planning regime—“called for a first-strike capability.” He added that Musharraf was enraged that Washington had not supported him when he was forced out of office, amid complaints about corruption and authorized targeted assassinations. The former intelligence official explained that Musharraf fled to exile in London to avoid prosecution, and was bitter that his longtime allies in the American military made no move to protect him. It was widely believed inside the American intelligence community, the former intelligence official said, that Musharraf had played an indirect role in the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and frequent critic of Pakistan’s nuclear program who was running for another term.
And so, the former intelligence official said, “Musharraf wanted to give the finger to Washington and you”—I had written critically in the past about the Pakistani nuclear arsenal—“were the vehicle.” His message through me, I was told, was: “Here you thought you were responsible for the little brown men inside Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal but you were wrong. I had the control. Do you think for one minute I could not decide whether or not to use a nuclear bomb? No way.”
“The White House did not have the leverage,” the former intelligence official concluded. And so it turned to the New Yorker.
There is no evidence that Musharraf ever publicly discussed the existence of a nuclear tunnel complex, aside from his interview with me, before his death earlier this year. In October 2017 an Indian news outlet reported that Pakistan was digging underground tunnels for the storage of nuclear weapons at a military base in Mianwali, southwest of
Islamabad, but provided few details and no photographs. One complication in the hunt for such storage complexes is the fact that many of Pakistan’s command-and-control centers are known to be built deep underground. A potential crisis over the Pakistani arsenal never came to pass.
Obama’s early days were full of promise. On January 20, 2009, two days after taking office, our new Democratic president signed an executive order calling for the closing of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, where alleged terrorists had been detained without due process in the aftermath of 9/11. He talked about finding a way out of the ongoing war in Afghanistan and took issue with those army officers who sought more troops and more money for that war. He gave an interview with an Arab media outlet in which he said he wanted to tell the Muslim world that “Americans are not your enemy.” He talked about his support for the creation of a Palestinian state in the Middle East and said that he opposed continued Israeli settlements. He said he was willing to engage in negotiations with Iran. A few months later he traveled to Cairo and made a speech he called “A New Beginning,” in which he called for improved mutual understanding and a better relationship between the Arab world and the West. He stunned many by equating the Palestinian desire for statehood with the Israeli desire for a Jewish homeland.
Hopes were high by late October, and the White House’s view that changes were needed in my story to mitigate possible violence in Pakistan was taken seriously and acted upon. I was not sure then, or today, what was accomplished by placing Obama’s tough talk in April into a different context but had not a second thought about the editing.
Of course, little of Obama’s early promises came to fruition. His administration did negotiate with Iran, but Guantánamo remains open; the Arab world is more alienated than ever from America; any notion of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is long gone; and the war in Afghanistan continued murderously and uselessly unabated, and unsuccessful, until Obama’s vice president ended it late last summer. Obama’s foreign policy failures, as dramatic as they were, remained essentially unremarked upon by major media outlets, especially as the Democratic terror of a Trump presidency grew late in his second term.
And now, ironically, it’s Joe Biden, faced with the continuing threat of a Trump or a Trump-like Republican challenger, who is escaping any significant reporting about his foreign policy misadventures with Russia in Ukraine, with China, and with much of the rest of the world that has been turning away from American moral and economic leadership.
I was a visitor and minor contributor last week to a private conference on energy policy that involved a few dozen leading American and international experts in the oil and gas world—all under Chatham House rules, which means nothing was on the record. I heard little but condemnation, and sometimes worse, about America’s failing energy, economic, and foreign policies under Biden. Yes, Biden accomplished a great deal early in his presidency on domestic issues, but the possibility of further success dwindled after the Republicans took the House.
There is little talk about Biden’s foreign policy failures in the newspapers and television news stations I follow. Fear of a Trump or a Trump-like Republican presidential candidate next year has insulated the president, as it did back in 2009 with Obama, from any serious mainstream media criticism about America’s wrongheaded foreign policies that have caused much of the world, if not to turn against America, to wonder what is going on here.
© 2023 Seymour Hersh
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Seymour M. Hersh’s fearless reporting has earned him fame, front-page bylines, a staggering collection of awards, and no small amount of controversy. His story is one of fierce independence. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker and The New York Times and established himself at the forefront of investigative journalism in 1970 when he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize (as a freelancer) for his exposé of the massacre in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. Since then he has received the George Polk Award five times, the National Magazine Award for Public Interest twice, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the George Orwell Award, and dozens of other accolades.
He lives in Washington, D.C.