Foreign relations panels of both houses of the US Congress have scheduled hearings next week to review the proposed sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan as part of a $5.1 billion arms package, after the Bush administration expressed readiness to address any Congressional concerns.
"If staff members or members of Congress have concerns about the sale, we are certainly ready to provide more briefings on that, have more discussions with it. They have a say in this," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told a regular news briefing.
But while the House committee chairman Henry Hyde, who had indefinitely postponed an open hearing Thursday, rescheduled it for July 20, his counterpart on the Senate panel, Richard Lugar, announced a "closed briefing" for members only on July 18.
The 18-member Senate Foreign Relations Committee has called Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and Air Force Lt Gen Jeffrey Kohler, head of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency as, witnesses.
The 50-member House Committee on International Relations will hear Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs John Hillen on the deal notified by the Pentagon on June 28.
Unless stopped by Congress within 30 days, the deal will get Pakistan 36 new F-16C/D fighter, 200 sidewinder missiles, 200 air-to-air missiles, 500 kits for ground-attack satellite-guided bombs and 36 advanced pilot helmets that can display targeting information on the visor.
At Thursday's briefing McCormack said consultations with Congress had been going on for the last 14 months and all bilateral and regional concerns including those over proliferation, illicit sharing of US technology, had been taken into account before Congress was notified of the sale.
"We think that this is the right proposal for Pakistan and for our bilateral relationship," McCormack said, adding, "We're going to work closely with the Capitol Hill on it and we certainly hope it does go through."
Earlier, Tom Lantos, the top Democrat on the House panel, suggested that Thursday's scheduled hearing had been postponed at State Department request. "There is no reason to proceed with a public hearing when we have substantive security concerns with respect to the sale," he said.
Lantos said both he and Republican chairman Hyde, were pressing the State Department to build new safeguards into the deal to ensure "the non-leaking of any of our high-tech capabilities to any other party".
"We have reason to be concerned that all security conditions be in place before we approve the sale," he said noting that "We are dealing with a country that gave us A.Q. Khan", - a reference to the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, accused of running a private nuclear black market on the side.
"In view of the very unfortunate AQ Khan history, we have to be absolutely convinced that the provisions in place will prevent any conceivable leakage of technology to anybody," he said.
Lawmakers were also concerned that China, which has close military ties to Pakistan, might get access to the Block 50/52 -- the most modern F-16 flown by the United States.
"That is the most obvious and most logical concern," Lantos said, but he favoured the sale once "all of the security provisions are in place".
Lantos faulted the State Department for ignoring a traditional 20-day period for conferring with Congress on arms sales in addition to the 30 days during which a sale may be blocked. Congressional security concerns could have been eliminated during such "pre-notification" talks, he said.
Lantos said that move went against 30 years of precedent in dealings between the administration and Congress. "We are a co-equal branch of government, and we, for the sake of national security, need to be treated as such," he said.