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U.S. program to protect Pakistan's arsenal

NBC's Andrea Mitchell has an exclusive look at an American program to protect Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, at the United Nations on Friday, refused to join widespread criticism of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s pardon of nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.

When asked to respond to charges that it seems as if the United States is sending the wrong signal to proliferators around the world with Khan as the biggest, Powell responded, saying: “The biggest is now gone. We don’t have to worry about proliferation from A.Q. Khan or his network.”

In fact, NBC News has learned, since 9/11, the United States has been working secretly with Pakistan to protect its nuclear weapons from getting in the hands of terrorists or rogue commanders, even as Khan was selling Pakistan’s nuclear secrets.

Last month, President hinted at the covert cooperation, “Yes, they are secure,... and that’s important.”

It’s called the U.S. Liaison Committee: American nuclear experts spending millions to safeguard Pakistan’s more than 40 nuclear weapons.

They meet at least every two months and are helping Pakistan develop state-of-the-art security — including secret authorization codes for the arsenal.

“The chances for leakage are very, very slim, and the chances for accidents are very, very slim,” according to former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley.

But there is a huge risk: Helping Pakistan get nuclear codes could make its leaders more willing to use them in a crisis.

“So, the assistance, if it’s not done very carefully, could end up actually increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange,” said David Albright, former U.N. nuclear inspector.

Still, the United States feels President Musharraf, despite his flaws, is more reliable than the country’s Islamic radicals.

But Musharraf barely escaped two recent assassination attempts.

The big fear is that, even after protecting Pakistan’s weapons, its leader is so vulnerable that no one can be sure who will end up with those secret nuclear codes.