WASHINGTON — I imagine that high on the White House preelection "to-do" list - way up there along with "transfer power in Iraq" - is "get Osama bin Laden."
Nothing would help President Bush's poll ratings more than nailing the terrorist leader credited with masterminding the 9/11 assault and plunging America into an era of security alerts. But the hunt for the Al Qaeda leader may carry a painful price - that is, swallowing Pakistan's involvement in a dangerous international nuclear black market.
The American military is reportedly preparing for a large-scale spring offensive, moving in a covert commando team, Task Force 121. According to an article by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, the unit would be deployed on the Pakistani side of the mountainous Afghan border, an area where bin Laden is believed to have been operating. But that requires Pakistani permission and cooperation, which President Pervez Musharraf has been reluctant to give, fearing extremist reprisals.
Mr. Musharraf has another American problem. Last October, the Bush administration advised him it had learned that Abdul Qadeer Khan, "father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb," was involved in a huge international black market in nuclear know-how and technology, supplying at least Iran, North Korea, and Libya.
Musharraf professed to be shocked. Dr. Khan made a full confession on television. And the president pardoned him, on television. Curiously, the US government took no action to punish this huge breach of nonproliferation guidelines. The willingness to overlook this transgression stands in marked contrast to 1979, when the US imposed sanctions on the Pakistani regime when it became known that Pakistan had developed what was hailed as "the Islamic bomb."
Mr. Hersh writes, under the headline "The Deal," that an unnamed former senior intelligence officer told him, "It's a quid pro quo. We're going to get our troops inside Pakistan in return for not forcing Musharraf to deal with Khan."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied that there was any such deal. And in Islamabad, a Pakistani military spokesman said, "There is no such deal." He did not deny that American troops hunting for bin Laden will be deployed on the Pakistani side of the border, nor has the US administration explained why it reacted so mildly to the spread of nuclear potential to countries of the "Axis of Evil."
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.