Saturday, July 22, 2006

Govt defends Pakistan jet sale to angry Congress

Govt defends Pakistan jet sale to angry Congress
By Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The proposed $5 billion sale to Pakistan of F-16 fighter jets will help shore up ties to a key American ally in the war on terror, a senior State Department told a Congressional hearing on Thursday.

John Hillen, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, came under fire from lawmakers who cited Pakistan's past nuclear proliferation record and raised fears that warplane technology could be leaked to China, a close military ally of Pakistan.

"This sale will send a very clear signal of our commitment to a long-term relationship with Pakistan ... and strengthen the hand of President (Pervez) Musharraf and his government in supporting us in the war on terror," Hillen said.

He told the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee that concerns about leakage of technology from Pakistan were being addressed by "an extraordinary security plan" imposed on the planes and components and accepted by Pakistan's Air Force.

Despite the assurances and safeguards, New York Democrat Gary Ackerman, introduced in the House of Representative on Thursday legislation to block the sale, his office said.

"I have a hard time believing that whatever security arrangements Pakistan has agreed to won't be violated by someone with an interest in earning a little ready cash," he said in a written statement.

Congress has the power to block such a sale by enacting a resolution of disapproval in both houses within 30 days of the notification date. It was not clear if Ackerman's legislation could be passed before that deadline, which falls next week.


On June 28, the Bush administration formally notified Congress of plans to sell Pakistan up to 36 F-16C/D Block 50/52 Falcon fighters built by Lockheed Martin Corp. in a deal worth up to $5 billion if all options are exercised.

Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chairs the House panel, said he was "troubled" by the idea that the deal would help China and by extension Chinese arms customers such as Iran and Iran's clients in the Middle East, including Hizbollah.

"We don't think China will be advantaged by this sale at all," said Hillen.

"In fact, the best thing that could happen for the Chinese military is for a sale like this not to go through because then it is they who will have access to influence the Pakistan military as opposed to the United States," he said.

"We want to build this relationship precisely to help them get better at combating terrorism, Hillen later added.

Rep. Tom Lantos, the top Democrat on the Committee, said he supported the sale to Pakistan but had concerns about how to "protect the U.S. technology in these aircraft and missiles to a country that produced the A.Q. Khan nuclear network."

Khan is the Pakistani scientist who confessed in 2004 to flouting international safeguards and selling banned nuclear technology to states including North Korea and Iran. Pakistan pardoned Khan, whom it said acted on his own.

Hillen faced bi-partisan anger for ignoring a traditional 20-day "pre-notification" period for conferring with Congress on arms sales in addition to the 30 days in which the sale can be blocked.

Lantos, of California, who lambasted what he called the "arrogance" of the State Department, joined Hyde in introducing a bill requiring quarterly updates on possible arms sales and formal enforcement of the 20-day pre-notification period.