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Did Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) divulge classified information in discussing the vulnerability of Pakistani nuclear sites to jihadists at Tuesday's GOP presidential debate?
Asked by CNN debate moderator Wolf Blitzer if the United States should continue providing foreign aid to Pakistan, Bachmann--a member of the House Intelligence panel--showed she knows her Pakistan brief.
"Pakistan has been the epicenter of dealing with terrorism," she said. "It is one of the most violent, unstable nations that there is."
Then--perhaps prompted by the fairly fluent and informed response on Pakistan given by former China envoy Jon Huntsman on the issue--Bachmann went on to cite some eyebrow-raising concerns posed by the unstable, nuclear-armed south Asian nation:
"We have to recognize that 15 of the sites, nuclear sites are available or are potentially penetrable by jihadists," Bachmann said. "Six attempts have already been made on nuclear sites. This is more than an existential threat. We have to take this very seriously."
Live-blogging the debate last night, your Yahoo News correspondent wondered if that information might have come from a classified intelligence briefing. And evidently, said correspondent did not wonder alone:
Bachmann's contention that Islamist jihadists have made six attempts to seize Pakistani nuclear sites "is not information that's ever been made public!" Gawker wrote, linking to a debate post by National Journal's Yochi Dreazen. "Which raises the question: did Bachmann just leak classified information to a national audience?"
Well, apparently the answer is no.
The information came not from a classified intelligence briefing but, rather, from a recent article by Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder in the Atlantic Monthly--a sister site of the National Journal--according to the Huffington Post.
As Goldberg and Ambinder reported in their Pakistan dispatch:
"At least six facilities widely believed to be associated with Pakistan's nuclear program have already been targeted by militants. [...] If jihadists are looking to raid a nuclear facility, they have a wide selection of targets: Pakistan is very secretive about the locations of its nuclear facilities, but satellite imagery and other sources suggest that there are at least 15 sites across Pakistan at which jihadists could find warheads or other nuclear materials."
Bachmann concluded her Pakistan response at Tuesday's debate by characterizing the troubled south Asian nation as "too nuclear too fail." That phrase apparently originated with Brookings South Asia expert Stephen P. Cohen, who shared the coinage with Ambinder and Goldberg, the Huffington Post notes.
In any event, government secrecy expert Steve Aftergood waved off concerns that Bachmann would have gotten herself in much trouble with the disclosure, regardless of its genesis.
"Ironically, I think Bachmann may be protected by the presumption that whatever the candidates say in this campaign is likely to be exaggerated and unreliable," Aftergood, with the Federation of American Scientists, told Yahoo News by email Wednesday. "So any official action to rebuke her for disclosing classified information would backfire. It would tend to validate her statement."
"I don't know whether there are '15 nuclear sites' in Pakistan that may be at risk," he added "And having heard Rep. Bachmann's remarks, I still don't know."
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