The State Department knew as early as 1983 that Pakistan was engaged in an active nuclear weapons project, but the U.S. government continued to provide military aid to the Islamabad regime for seven more years before cutting it off in 1990, a newly declassified memo showed Tuesday.
The continuing aid was in apparent violation of a U.S. law that required the Reagan and Bush administrations to suspend all foreign aid to Pakistan unless the President certified in writing that the Islamabad government "does not possess a nuclear explosive device" and that the assistance would reduce the risk that it might develop one.
The newly declassified memo, dated June 23, 1983, and released by the National Security Archives, a nonprofit research institute and library of declassified government documents, said: "There is unambiguous evidence that Pakistan is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons development program.
"Pakistan's long-term goal is to establish a nuclear deterrent to aggression by India, which remains Pakistan's greatest security concern," according to the memo, written by an unnamed State Department official.
The report said this information indicated that Pakistan began nuclear weapon design work shortly after India tested a bomb in 1974. The Indian government, which maintained that the test explosion was for peaceful purposes, has not conducted another test, although it is widely believed to have the technical capability of producing nuclear arms if it decides to do so.
The publicly stated policy of the Reagan Administration in 1983 was to provide increased military aid to Pakistan to permit the government, then headed by President Zia ul-Haq, to buy sufficient conventional weapons to assure its security without resort to nuclear arms. Pakistan also was used as a conduit for military assistance to anti-Communist rebels in Afghanistan.
In 1985, Congress enacted legislation, proposed by Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), that required the Administration's certification that Pakistan was not producing nuclear weapons. Reagan filed the required certification for the rest of his term, and President Bush did so until October, 1990, when he concluded that Pakistan had developed a nuclear bomb. The Pakistani foreign minister confirmed the nuclear program late last year.
The National Security Archives released the memo, which it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
"This clarion call of warning about Pakistan's nuclear program was muffled by national security secrecy at the time," said Tom Blanton, the institute's deputy director. "The resulting silence allowed the Administration to minimize the nuclear danger and pursue its policy of militarizing Pakistan" to help support the Afghan rebels.
The memo detailed Pakistan's nuclear program, including cooperation with China's nuclear weapons industry. It asserted that Pakistan's centrifuge facilities for uranium enrichment were probably obtained illegally. "The program uses European technology (the designs for the machines were stolen by a Pakistani national) and has involved energetic procurement activities in various countries," the memo said.
Since 1990, the U.S. government has not provided direct military aid to Pakistan. But the State Department confirmed recently that private defense contractors have been permitted to continue selling equipment, primarily spare parts for F-16 warplanes and other U.S.-supplied weapons. Pressler maintains that the private sales violate the law.