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US Congress to question Pakistan's F-16 jet deal

Bush administration has pushed to conclude the deal before consulting the Congress and answering security concerns.

india Updated: Jul 10, 2006 01:23 IST

The Bush administration has pushed to conclude a landmark $5 billion sale of F-16 jets to Pakistan before completing traditional consultations with the US Congress and fully answering security concerns, a congressman and other congressional sources say.

The move is being seen by some lawmakers as the latest example of the administration's distaste for consulting Congress on security issues and they said the relevant committees would probe the deal further in the coming weeks.

Among Congress' concerns about the deal are how Pakistan intends to ensure that its long-time defense ally China will not have access to advanced US technology and whether there has been any diversion of such technology already in Pakistani hands, several sources said in recent interviews.

"I have deep concerns about the process or the lack thereof, which the Bush Administration used to inform Congress about the pending sale of F-16s to Pakistan," said Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, a member of the House International Relations Committee and a leading congressional supporter of India.

"The administration has shown time and time again that they are not interested in congressional oversight on sensitive deals," he said in an e-mail to Reuters.

The State Department announced last week that consultations with lawmakers had been concluded and that formal notification had been given to Congress, paving the way for the deal with US aerospace company Lockheed Martin Corp. to proceed.

But Democrat and Republican congressional sources tell a different story, and the Republican-controlled committees with jurisdiction over the sale -- the House panel and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- have scheduled hearings in the next two weeks to probe the matter further.

Several sources, who spoke anonymously because of the issue's sensitivity, said it was unlikely Congress would block the deal, which supporters say would keep open Lockheed's F-16 production line employing 5,000 people and which may close in 2008.

But public debate over the sale could prove awkward for the administration and Pakistan, a front-line US ally against Islamic terrorism. A previous F-16 sale was halted in 1990 because of concerns over Pakistan's nuclear program.

In addition to selling 16 new F-16s to Pakistan and refurbishing used ones, the current deal involves an option on an additional 18 aircraft and a support package for up to 26 used F-16s, missiles and other munitions, and an upgrade package for Pakistan's current fleet of 34 F-16s.

Democracy, nuclear concerns

A new report by Congressional Research Service, Congress's analytical arm, said the single-engine Block 50/52 Falcon being sold to Pakistan is the most modern F-16 flown by the United States and may be better suited to air-to-air combat against India than fighting terrorists.

Crowley also expressed concern that "Pakistan has not moved forward with promises of democracy, fighting its internal extremists, enforcing human rights, or respecting minorities" and has not let US interrogators question Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani former head of an international nuclear black market.

A senior State Department official said the administration had gone to "extraordinary lengths" to meet Congress' concerns. "We have briefed on nine occasions, answered countless written questions and detailed an extensive security plan for the sale," the official said.

The United States said in March 2005 it would resume sales of F-16s to Pakistan after a 16-year break intended to sanction the country for its nuclear program.

Congressional sources say administration officials did begin consulting last year but were slow to deal with security concerns. Consultations halted when the sale was delayed after devastating earthquake in Pakistan, but resumed in May.

Congressional sources said they were still seeking answers to security questions when the administration on June 28, gave formal notification of the sale, setting in motion a 30-day period for Congress to review the sale and decide whether to block it.

In doing so, the administration ignored a 20-day informal consultation period that has been observed by presidents for decades, congressional sources said.