U.S., Pakistan Play 20 Questions on Nukes America is helping Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons, but under tight legal restrictions that include the doctrine of "negative guidance." A variant on "20 Questions", the strategy was used by U.S. officials in the 1970s to share sensitive information with France without breaking the law.
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U.S., Pakistan Play 20 Questions on Nukes

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U.S., Pakistan Play 20 Questions on Nukes

U.S., Pakistan Play 20 Questions on Nukes

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Alison, let's play a little game. I'd like you to guess what our next segment is about.



PESCA: Cold.

STEWART: Terduckin.

PESCA: Very cold.

STEWART: French begets.

PESCA: Okay, now you're getting a little warmer.

STEWART: Really?

PESCA: Yeah, well, it's not actually about any of those things. Our next question is about what we're engaged in, the game 20 Questions.

In the 1970s, America shared nuclear information with the French, using a method called negative guidance, which was nicknamed 20 Questions. The reason we're talking about that now is that the New York Times recently wrote about how the United States and its current frenemy Pakistan are undergoing something similar.

What happens is Pakistani has nuclear weapons. The United States would very much like those nukes to, you know, not explode in the silos, but it has to be very careful about what kind of advice and instruction can be given. So there's this international guessing game where the United States can't really give any advice, but can sort of confirm advice. It's very weird.

Leslie Gelb is the president emeritus and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's been a Times columnist. But most important to the discussion, he worked in the State Department in the unit that was doing negative guidance with the French.

Hi, Les. How are you?

Dr. LESLIE GELB (President Emeritus and Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Good morning.

PESCA: And you worked for the Carter administration, correct?

Dr. GELB: I did.

PESCA: So why did this minuet go on? Is it because of treaties didn't allow us just to talk honestly?

Dr. GELB: Well, it wasn't treaties. It was the Atomic Energy Act, which prescribed exactly what you could do or couldn't do in sharing information and technology with other countries. The act was very forthcoming in terms of doing anything with the British, but very tight in dealing with anyone else, including with a NATO ally like France.

PESCA: And at this - you were at the State Department at the time. What did…

Dr. GELB: I was the assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, and I was responsible for this discussion with the French and the program with the French. But it was actually run by the Pentagon.

PESCA: And did you - was it a classic State-Pentagon dispute, where the Pentagon really wanted the U.S. to share information, and the State Department said more like honor the agreements?

Mr. GELB: Well, I don't know about classic, but there was a dispute.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. GELB: And the Defense Department wanted to go ahead with the French, because they wanted to establish a new level of military cooperation with the French, particularly because the French were stiffing us on cooperating in NATO on conventional force issues. So they figured that if we could help them out a little with their nuclear program, that they might be more forthcoming on the conventional side with us.

PESCA: So take me inside one of these discussions, if you heard any, or as much as you can, because I know there's national security still at stake to some extent. But would a Frenchmen - a French nuclear official get on the line and say, well, will our missiles work at three kilometers? And then the U.S. would say nothing. And then say, how about two kilometers?

Dr. GELB: It would be issues like that. Look, the basic problem for the French was this.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. GELB: The Soviets were building a defense system around Moscow. And the French were worried that their missiles wouldn't be able to get through that defense system and they would lose their deterrent. If they - Soviets could strike France and Paris, but the French couldn't strike Moscow, the French would be out of business. So they wanted to develop missiles that had a lot of warheads on them. And it would be costly in long-term process unless we up them. But by law, we really couldn't help them very much.

PESCA: Right.

Dr. GELB: So we got into this game of providing them information, while pretending we weren't.

PESCA: Did they get all the information they would have gotten if we had just given it to them, sat down in the same room?

Dr. GELB: I think it amounted to the same thing, yes. Yeah.

PESCA: Now it's a little different - it seems to me that it's a little different, at least as reading the Times article about Pakistan, because that - at least as the Times reported, it seemed part of the issue there was literally securing the nuclear weapons. Pakistan is a young nuclear power, and so we can't even - or at least the stumbling block is to tell them how to secure their weapons so they don't explode or, you know, are fired indiscriminately.

Dr. GELB: Nobody could fire them without the permission of the president of Pakistan.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. GELB: These are kind of electronic locks. And unless the president of Pakistan would press in a certain code, whoever was sitting next to that missile wouldn't be able to fire it. So it's a protection. It's a very important one.

PESCA: In everyone - in the world's interest, to do this.

Mr. GELB: Yeah.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. GELB: The problem comes in here. If you'd given that kind of know how, that means they know how we do it. If they know how we do it, there's a possibility they could interfere in our decision-making process, too.

PESCA: And there's also a symbolism issue with the United States saying we really don't want you to develop nukes. I can't believe you've developed nukes. But once they get them, if we just come, okay, now here's all the information we have, welcome to the club. It does sort of give the wrong message.

Dr. GELB: Yeah, it does give the wrong message, but we already gave the wrong message. And, in fact, once India and Pakistan crossed into the nuclear club, we traded with both and rewarded both. And the message to a lot of other countries, including a country like Iran, was, look, the United States will fight you tooth and nail before you acquire nuclear weapons, but once you have them, the United States will deal with you.

PESCA: Yeah, this is sort of the argument which is that we make the prize of nuclear weapons so important that it, in fact, spurs some countries to amp up their nuclear program.

Dr. GELB: Some may view it that way, but I think India and Pakistan have their own reasons for acquiring this capability, anyway.

PESCA: And so from what you know about Pakistan's nuclear program, and given the fact that Pervez Musharraf is, you know, he might be deposed or he might step down, who knows what's going to happen in any number of days. How worried are you about the state of that program?

Dr. GELB: Well, I'm much more worried than I hear the administration letting onto. They're expressing great confidence that right now, they think the weapons are secured. I think anytime you have a country that's as volatile as that one, you shouldn't be that confident.

PESCA: Well, you - as a diplomat, you know the importance of, you know, sometimes the difference between public pronouncements and private worries. Do you think that's going on here?

Dr. GELB: I don't know. It's very hard to tell what the Bush administration, whether it understands the problem or doesn't.

PESCA: All right.

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus on the Council of Foreign Relations. He worked in the State Department in the '70s with the unit that was doing negative guidance with France and missiles.

Thanks very much, Les.

Mr. GELB: Okay. Take care.


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