Reagan overlooked Pakistan’s nuclear program in 1987

Pakistan’s nuclear procurement was exposed as early as 1987 with the arrest of a Pak national, resulting in sharp divisions in the US government, but then Reagan Administration decided to ignore it in lieu of the Islamabad’s contribution in Afghanistan against the Russians, the latest set of declassified documents revealed. The NSA released a set of declassified documents Friday related to the arrest of Arshad Pervez in July 1987 on charges of illegal nuclear procurement, which among others reflects the divisions within the then Ronald Reagan administration.

Concerned by new intelligence about the Pakistani nuclear program, in July 1982, the Reagan administration sent former CIA deputy director General Vernon Walters to meet secretly with Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. U.S. intelligence had detected an upswing of clandestine Pakistani efforts to procure nuclear weapons-related technology and unwanted publicity could jeopardize U.S. government economic and military aid to Pakistan, a key partner in the secret war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

* A few months later, U.S. officials began to worry that India might take preventive action against the Pakistani nuclear program, especially because Pakistan was slated to acquire F-16 fighter-bombers from the U.S. That prospective sale troubled Indian leaders because a nuclear Pakistan with advanced fighter bombers would be a more formidable adversary.

* During the spring of 1982 U.S. diplomats and intelligence collectors found that Pakistani agents were trying to acquire “fabricated shapes” (metal hemispheres for producing nuclear explosive devices) and other sensitive technology for a nuclear program. Suggesting that Pakistan was starting to cross the line by building a nuclear weapon, these discoveries contributed to the decision to send former CIA deputy director Vernon Walters to meet secretly with General Zia in July and October 1982.

* During Walters’ October 1982 visit, Zia told him of his meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd who had told him that agents from an unspecified country had attempted to sell him a nuclear device for $250 million. Zia advised Fahd not to “touch the offer with a barge pole.”

* A controversial element in the F-16 sale was whether the U.S. would comply with Pakistani requests that it include the same radar system as the most advanced U.S. model. While top CIA officials warned that the Pakistanis were likely to share the technology with China, Secretary of State George Shultz and other officials believed, ironically, that denying Pakistani requests would make that country less responsive to U.S. nonproliferation goals.

* With Pakistan’s efforts to acquire sensitive technology continuing, in December 1982 Secretary of State Shultz warned President Reagan of the “overwhelming evidence that Zia has been breaking his assurances.” He also expressed concern that Pakistan would make sensitive nuclear technology available to “unstable Arab countries.”

In 1986, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) director Kenneth Adelman wrote in a memorandum to the White House that Zia “has lied to us again,” and warned that failure to act would lead the General to conclude that he can “lie to us with impunity.” While the Reagan administration was concerned about nuclear proliferation, it gave a greater priority to securing aid to Pakistan so it could support the Afghan anti-Soviet insurgency. The White House and the State Department leadership hoped that building a strong bilateral relationship would dissuade Pakistan from building nuclear weapons.

Top levels of the U.S. government let relations with a friendly government supersede nonproliferation goals as long as there was no public controversy that could “embarrass” the President the documents show. Indeed, Reagan administration officials feared that if the Pakistanis had told them the “truth” about the purpose and scope of their nuclear activities, it would have made it impossible for the administration to certify to Congress that Pakistan was not developing nuclear weapons. On that certification rode the continued flow of aid to assist the Afghanistan resistance. For the sake of that aid, senior Reagan administration officials gave Pakistan much slack by obscuring its nuclear activities, but that they wrote about lying and “breaking … assurances” suggests that lack of trust and confidence was an important element in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, as it is today.

Ken Adelman, the chief of Arms Control & Disarmament Agency (ACDA), according to the documents, wanted to come down hard on Pakistan. But the State Department hesitated, unwilling to jeopardize US-Pakistan relations, particularly as General Zia-ul-Haq was supporting the Afghan mujahideen. “We are particularly concerned about weakening the President’s hand in discussions with the Soviets on Afghanistan, which [are] at a critical stage.”

The documents show the indictment of Pervez and Inam ul-Haq, a key figure in the A Q Khan nuclear procurement network, were important because they provided vital links to Pakistan’s nuke programme. The key element in the case was the illegal effort to acquire 350 tons of maraging steel that would be “used in a uranium enrichment plant to manufacture nuclear weapons,” and beryllium, used specifically for the neutron initiator in a nuclear weapon, the export of which was controlled in the US government’s Commodity Control List.

In its report, the National Security Archive says, “For the Reagan administration, aiding the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan trumped nonproliferation policy interests. The high priority given to a close US-Pakistan relationship may have encouraged, as some journalists have alleged, State Department officials to warn the Pakistanis of the imminent arrest of their agents. Indeed, Haq, who was working closely with Pervez, evaded arrest by slipping out of the United States at the last minute.” To ensure a Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, the US watched and indirectly helped to create a nuclear weapons state in Pakistan. Adelman is on record in the new documents, protesting “Zia will conclude once again that he need do nothing about his bomb program.” The Americans spent many months trying to locate Haq, who, a later telegram stated, was being moved around between locations in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Another ACDA memo concluded, “there is no plausible end-use for 25 tonnes of grade 350 maraging steel other than in the manufacture of centrifuges” for producing highly-enriched uranium and “for which Pakistan has no use except in nuclear explosives.” Even the indulgent State Department balked at what was happening inside Pakistan. The undersecretary Michael Armacost even traveled to Pakistan to ask Zia to control his illegal nuclear program. Armacost is quoted as saying that US government “information” indicated that “enrichment levels above 90[percent] have been achieved at Kahuta,” the site of a secret gas centrifuge facility. Pakistan was openly violating a commitment to keep to a 5% ceiling, by producing weapons-grade material.

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