U.S., U.K. feared for safety of Pakistan’s nuclear material

WASHINGTON—The WikiLeaks site came under renewed cyber attack Tuesday as a fresh batch of secret documents revealed the depth of American and British fears over Pakistan’s nuclear material falling into the wrong hands.

The latest disclosures show that even as President Barack Obama was offering assurances on Pakistan last year, senior U.S. diplomats and their U.K. counterparts fretted about a downward spiral that left the safety of a stockpile of bomb-grade uranium in doubt.

The Pakistan files were detailed in near-simultaneous reports released Tuesday afternoon by The New York Times, The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, which said the secret U.S. diplomatic dispatches “provide deep insights into the true extent of Pakistan’s volatility.”

But hours later, the actual cables behind the stories still had yet to appear at cablegate.wikileaks.org, which sustained its most severe cyber attack since Sunday, when the stolen U.S. communiqués first became public.

WikiLeaks used social networking sites to announce the denial-of-service attack, saying its computer servers were flooded with massive waves of data “exceeding 10 gigabits a second.”

But with five major news outlets in possession of the raw data, it appears unlikely the attacks will hamper more weeks of daily revelations.

The developments came as Interpol issues a warrant for Julian Assange, 39, the Australian-born newsmaker behind the WikiLeaks phenomenon.

Assange has come under intense scrutiny in the United States and beyond as the disclosures mount, including calls for his capture or assassination by a succession of conservative commentators. But the Interpol warrant was issued on sex charges stemming from complaints made by two Swedish women in August. Assange has denied the allegations.

The government of Ecuador, meanwhile, appeared to be backing off its earlier offer to provide an unconditional safe harbour for Assange. On Tuesday, Ecuador’s foreign minister said any such offer “will have to be studied from the legal and diplomatic perspective.”

The embattled Assange won endorsement Tuesday from Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the release of the Vietnam-era’s blockbuster Pentagon Papers, who countered U.S. warnings that the WikiLeaks onslaught will put lives on the line.

“That’s a risk they roll out every time there’s a leak of any sort,” Ellsberg told the BBC. But because WikiLeaks and the news organizations in possession of the documents are heavily redacting and in many cases withholding risk-fraught information, Ellsberg said, the danger appears negligible.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after spending the past week in damage control mode, resumed her international travels, raising the prospect of awkward face-to-face encounters with leaders freshly stung by commentary in the diplomatic cables. Her arrival Tuesday in Kazakhstan, for example, brought her within range of a senior Kazak minister described in one cable as a man who enjoys “drinking himself into a stupor.”

But despite widespread media fixation on the gossipy elements of the WikiLeaks disclosures, each day also comes with at least some degree of gravitas — and Tuesday, it was all about Pakistan and its potentially loose nukes.

Beneath the public assurances, the secret cables show, senior American diplomats are especially unnerved by a stockpile of highly enriched uranium that has sat for years near an aging research reactor in Pakistan in volumes sufficient to build several “dirty bombs” or possibly even an actual nuclear bomb, according to Anne Patterson, the former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan.

In one cable from May, 2009, Patterson described her frustrations after repeated attempts to persuade Pakistani leaders to allow U.S. experts to collect and dispose of the stockpile. She said one senior Pakistani official warned that if word leaked out, the local press would “certainly portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”

Other cables showed Britain shared similar anxieties. One September 2009 message from the U.S. embassy in London quotes Mariot Leslie, a senior British Foreign Office official, telling U.S. diplomats that “The U.K. has deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”

In another cable, Patterson reported to Washington: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance that someone working in government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”

Taken as a whole, the Guardian said, the U.S. diplomatic correspondent “exposes in detail the deep tensions between Washington and Islamabad” over a broad range of issues, including counter-terrorism, Afghanistan, finance and the nuclear question.

The New York Times concluded the cables “portray deep skepticism that Pakistan will ever cooperate fully in fighting the full panoply of extremist groups.

“This is partly because Pakistan sees some of the strongest militant groups as insurance for the inevitable day that the United States withdraws form Afghanistan — and Pakistan wants to exert maximum influence inside Afghanistan and against Indian intervention.”

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