LEGISLATORS on Capitol Hill are furious with the State Department. In the corridors of the Rayburn House Office Building, they are whispering that the State Department was fully aware of the CIA report regarding China's sale last year of sensitive nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan, but deliberately withheld information from Congress.
This glaring omission occurred when the Administration was lobbying Congress to get the Brown Amendment passed. Under the Amendment, which was passed last fall, Pakistan will receive $368 million worth of US military equipment under a one-time exemption to a law that bars military cooperation with Pakistan because of its nuclear programme. In fact, Representative Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, has accused the State Department of a pro-Pakistan tilt.
Members of Congress are reportedly 'scan-dalised' by the Administration's flagrant disregard for American law. Representative Eliot L. Engel, a New York Democrat, has written to President Bill Clinton asking him to use his "discretionary authority to suspend the transfer" of arms until Congress has "an opportunity to carefully and thoroughly review these allegations". And Senator Alfonse D'Amato, a New York Republican, has written to the Foreign Operations Subcommittee demanding "the Administration...share with the Senate what it knows about these reports, and whether the Administration had intelligence reports of these transfers before passage of the Amendment".
Meanwhile, sources say Deputy National Security Adviser Samuel 'Sandy' Berger warned senior Pakistani officials during a recent visit to Islamabad that Pakistan's purchase of Chinese nuclear equipment could interfere with US plans to proceed with the arms transfer. But so far, despite news reports that the transfer might be deferred, the Administration has taken no official action against Islamabad. Pakistani Ambassador to the US, Maleena Lodhi, said US officials had raised the CIA report with her government and "talked about the difficulties" of proceeding with the arms transfer at this time. However, she emphasised: "The Brown Amendment is law, and we obviously expect its early implementation."
Washington is trying to avoid a direct confrontation with China and Pakistan. Ever since it was reported on February 5 that China had secretly sold nuclear ring magnets to Pakistan—for use in equipment that enriches uranium—the Administration has been grappling with the problem of how to penalise China without undermining American business ties with Beijing. The sale violates US anti-proliferation law requiring the imposition of economic sanctions or a presidential waiver.
In a rather weak reaction that stumped observers, the State Department announced on February 27 that it had asked for Beijing's help in investigating the reports and had told the US Exim Bank to defer for 30 days all loans to American companies doing business with China until a decision was reached. The loan freeze could hold up to $10 billion in credits that the bank plans to use in financing US deals in China. No action against Pakistan was announced.
Non-proliferation experts are dismayed. Observed an Administration insider: "To seek Chinese help in investigating a Beijing-to-Islamabad nuclear transfer is completely bizarre."
Senator Larry Pressler, a South Dakota Republican who has sworn to introduce legislation to repeal the Brown Amendment, is equally baffled: "The Administration seems to be grasping at straws here. Given China's track record on proliferation, it would be inappropriate, if not amazing, for the US to be asking China to investigate itself." He added that the Administration "seems to be second-guessing its own intelligence community" by seeking China's assistance with its probe. "The director of the CIA confirmed the validity of the magnet ring transfer in a public hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee," he noted. "Is the Administration going to give communist China the benefit of the doubt over American intelligence officials? I hope not."
Observers believe that the Clinton Administration has merely bought itself time to avoid a confrontation with China and Pakistan and that the issue will need to be dealt with more firmly after the 30-day period is over. But whether the arms will eventually be transferred or not is far from clear.