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Findings that General Zia Had “Lied” About Pakistani Nuclear Activities Conflicted with U.S. Afghanistan Priority

Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons has been a significant goal for U.S. presidents but there are instances when diplomatic and other interests have overridden concerns about nuclear proliferation. Israel since 1969 is one example and Pakistan during the 1980s is another. 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.

According to documents published today for the first time by the National Security Archive and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, Walters told Zia that Washington had “incontrovertible intelligence” that Pakistani representatives had “transferred designs and specifications for nuclear weapons components to purchasing agents in several countries for the purpose of having these nuclear weapons components fabricated for Pakistan.”

Confronted with the evidence, Zia acknowledged that the information “must be true,” but then denied everything, leading Walters to conclude that either Zia “did not know the facts” or was the “most superb and patriotic liar I have ever met.” While Zia restated earlier promises not to develop a nuclear weapon and made pledges to avoid specific nuclear “firebreaks,” officials from Secretary of State George Shultz on down would conclude time and time again, that Zia was breaking his word.

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.

Among the disclosures in today’s publication:

  • By the early summer of 1981, State Department intelligence estimated that the Pakistanis were “probably capable of producing a workable device at this time,” although the Kahuta enrichment plant was unlikely to produce enough fissile material for a test until 1983.
  • 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 June 1986 ACDA director Kenneth Adelman wrote that Zia has “lied to us again" about violations of agreements not to produce highly-enriched uranium above a five-percent level. If Washington did not apply real pressure it would reinforce Zia’s belief “that he can lie to us with impunity.”
  • In the spring of 1987, senior State Department officials wrote that Pakistani nuclear development activities were proceeding apace and that General Zia was approaching a “threshold which he cannot cross without blatantly violating his pledge not to embarrass the President.”

Until 1990, after the Soviets had left Afghanistan, Washington never allowed events to reach a point where public controversy over Pakistani nuclear weapons activities could force a decision to cut off aid and threaten Pakistan’s role as a go—between to the Afghan resistance. The tough sanctions that have been used in recent years against countries like Iran and North Korea were never given serious consideration because the Reagan administration believed that embracing close associates like Pakistan in a “broader bilateral relationship” could discourage them from testing a nuclear device. U.S. policymakers unsuccessfully tried to jawbone their Pakistani counterparts from enriching uranium and building a nuclear weapon.

The other side of U.S. policy was the organized multilateral effort, begun during the Carter administration, to prevent sensitive technology from reaching Pakistan. This largely consisted of efforts to persuade other nuclear suppliers to bar exports of dual-use technology. While international export controls could not stop the Pakistani program, U.S. officials believed that they could “delay” and even “set [it] back.” Those activities were at a high tempo during the early 1980s but whether they continued at the same pace during the rest of the decade is not clear. More declassifications may shed light on that.

The White House and the State Department worked successfully at offsetting Congressional pressures to impose tough nonproliferation standards, although arrests by the U.S. Customs Service raised inconvenient questions. The first major case was Nazir Ahmed Vaid’s arrest in June 1984 for trying to purchase nuclear weapons technology. U.S. government officials may have interfered in the case to minimize adverse publicity that could weaken Congressional support for aid to Pakistan. Nevertheless, Congressional pressure continued. In 1985, Senator John Glenn (D-Oh), among others, wanted the administration to certify, as a condition for further aid, that Pakistan neither possessed nor was developing a nuclear weapon. But the White House and its supporters in Congress won support for a weaker version: an amendment, supported by Senator Larry Pressler (R-SD), requiring annual certification that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear device and that U.S. aid would reduce the risk that Pakistan would acquire one.[1]

In 1986 Reagan certified that Pakistan was in compliance with the Pressler amendment, but months later participants in the A.Q. Khan network were caught again. In July 1987 U.S. Customs officials arrested Arshad Pervez for trying to buy supplies for the Kahuta enrichment plant. Nevertheless, the administration insisted that nothing was amiss, arguing that it was too early to conclude the Pervez had official support in Pakistan.[2] Even after Pervez was convicted later that year, Reagan certified again that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear device, thereby ensuring that aid flowed without interruption. Congress, however, showed its concern by letting the five- year Symington amendment waiver expire, which temporarily halted “new commitments of aid.” When Congress reinstated a new waiver, it would be only for two-and-a- half years, instead of the six years that Reagan had proposed. 1990 would become a year of decision for future U.S. aid to Pakistan.[3]

This is the third in a series of National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Books on U.S. policy toward the Pakistani nuclear program and the second co-published with the NPIHP Research Update series. The first was on the Carter administration’s policy; the second was on the efforts to work with allies to prevent the export of sensitive technology to Pakistan. The National Security Archive has filed numerous declassification requests to U.S. government agencies on important developments during the 1970s, 80s, and early 1990s, and as significant material becomes declassified the Archive and NPIHP will update this series.

Document 1:“Reached a Dead End”
U.S. Department of State Cable 145139 to U.S. Embassy India [repeating cable sent to Embassy Pakistan], “Non-Proliferation in South [Asia],” 6 June 1979, Secret
Source: MDR request
By the spring of 1979, the Carter administration decided that it had “reached a dead end” in its efforts to stop the spread of nuclear technology to South Asia and that a “new strategy” was necessary to check the spread of nuclear weapons in the region. Given close security ties with Pakistan and concerns about that country’s stability, the State Department was not going to take a hard-line approach, such as embargoes, to force a nuclear roll-back. Thus, Washington would maintain “vigilance” to ensure that sensitive supplies did not reach Pakistan, but the administration no longer saw it possible to reverse Pakistan’s efforts to construct uranium enrichment facilities. More serious dangers were a South Asian nuclear arms race and the threat to U.S. nonproliferation policy which “will collapse under the weight of two additional nuclear-weapons states.” By playing the role of an “honest broker,” and offering appropriate inducements, Washington would make a “sincere attempt to convince South Asians that nuclear weapons are not a viable option.”

Three interrelated actions were necessary. Pakistan would have to be persuaded not to stage a “peaceful nuclear explosion,” along the line of India’s 1974 test, because that would push India to develop a nuclear arsenal and even consider preemptive action. The U.S. would have to seek assurances from Prime Minister Desai that India would not produce nuclear weapons. Finally, Washington would need China’s support, e.g. security assurances to India. To make these arrangements work, Washington would have sell nuclear fuel to India and lift the Symington amendment sanctions against Pakistan that the enrichment program had triggered. Policy success was by no means assured--China might not cooperate--and other uncertainties could complicate matters, for example, if Pakistan helped other Muslim states develop an “Islamic bomb.”

Document 2: “Two-Step Carrot-Stick Approach”
Anthony Lake, director, Policy Planning Staff, to Secretary of State Vance, “The Pakistan strategy and Future Choices,” 8 September 1979, Secret
Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Records of Anthony Lake, box
The previous document was a marker for policy change, but carrying it out was difficult because of the difficulty of balancing “good relations” with Pakistan with global nonproliferation interests. Concerns about a nuclear test and the transfer of sensitive technology to other states had crystallized into a “no-test/no-transfer” approach, but Washington needed help from other Western aid donors to persuade General Zia’s government to accept those parameters. To try to forge an understanding with Pakistan, Lake describes a “two-step carrot-stick” approach, involving pressures by aid donors. As Lake’s report to Vance makes clear, there were significant divisions in the Carter administration over what “carrots” could be offered and under what conditions, for example, whether sale of F-16 fighter-jets could win the military’s support for scaling back the nuclear program, and how to deal with the Symington amendment. If the “two-step” approach failed Washington might have to consider a “third step” which could either be a resumption of pressure or a waiver of the Symington amendment in exchange for a no-test/no-transfer understanding.

The next month, Secretary of State Vance and Ambassador Gerard C. Smith met with Foreign Minister Shahi, warning him that a nuclear test would harm U.S. –Pakistani relations, with Smith arguing that Pakistan was "entering the valley of death" because India "can utterly destroy you." Apparently Shahi responded that "he did not have to be a nuclear expert to understand that 'the value of a nuclear capability lies in its possession, not in its use." Smith soon traveled to Europe and discussed Pakistan with donor governments, but found little support for applying pressure.[4]

Document 3: “Set the Nuclear Issue Aside”
Secretary of Defense Harold Brown to Ambassador-at-Large Gerard C. Smith, 31 January 1980, enclosing excerpts from memoranda of conversations with Geng Biao and Deng Xiaoping, 7 and 8 January 1980, Top Secret
Source: FOIA release
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 had an immediate impact on U.S. policy toward Pakistan as indicated by Secretary of Defense Brown’s talks with top Chinese officials. In light of the high priority of funneling aid through Islamabad to the anti-Soviet resistance and concern that Moscow might put Islamabad under pressure, interest in improved relations with Pakistan further lowered the nuclear issue’s priority, although efforts to block sensitive exports continued. As Brown explained to Deng, “we will set [the nuclear issue] aside for the time being and concentrated on strengthening Pakistan against possible Soviet action.” In other words, Cold War objectives had priority over nonproliferation concerns.[5] While Deng claimed that Beijing opposed Pakistan’s nuclear program, China and Pakistan had already developed a special nuclear relationship and ambivalence was evident in Deng’s advice that the United States “not mention” the nuclear issue in talks with Pakistan.

Document 4: “Pakistan Will Not Give up This Program”
Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State, “Pakistan and the US: Seeking Ways to Improve Relations,” Report 97-PA, 23 March 1981, Secret
Source: Department of State FOIA release, copy courtesy of Jeffrey Richelson
According to INR analysts, the Pakistani leadership wanted to improve relations with Washington and certainly get a bigger aid package than the “peanuts” offered by the Carter administration. Nevertheless, INR recommended caution about getting too close to General Zia; he would be gone someday and “too close a US tie … might harm future relations.” Moreover, better relations would not make the nuclear problem go away: “Pakistan will not give up this program.” There was some chance that Pakistanis could be persuaded not to test a device but this “would be difficult to accomplish.” The Indians might react badly if Washington gets too close to Pakistan: “they might well retaliate by moving closer to the Soviets.”

Document 5: A “Broader Bilateral Relationship”
Special Assistant for Nuclear Proliferation Intelligence, National Foreign Assessment Center, Central Intelligence Agency, to Resource Management Staff, Office of Program Assessment et al, “Request for Review of Draft Paper on the Security Dimension of Non-Proliferation,” 9 April 1981, Secret, excised copy
Source: MDR release
A new presidential administration wanted to put its own stamp on nonproliferation policy and the Department of State helped begin the process with a draft paper on the “security dimensions of nonproliferation.” Convinced that further spread of nuclear capabilities could have an adverse impact on U.S. security, the report emphasized the importance of perceptions of insecurity as a motive leading states to opt for a nuclear explosive program. While denial of sensitive technology and equipment remained “fundamental,” State Department officials believed that a “broader bilateral relationship” based on the integration of political incentives and security assistance could persuade friendly threshold states that they did not need nuclear weapons. By contrast, “more negative methods of dissuasion” would apply to countries which had poor relations with Washington.

The State Department’s review of threshold states, from Argentina and Brazil to Libya and Iraq, include a discussion of Pakistan, where the “broad bilateral relationship” approach was taken into account. The U.S. objective should be a “closer security relationship which builds confidence in us and makes the Paks feel more secure.” Such a relationship would be “more likely to provide Pakistan with incentives to forego, or at least delay, a nuclear test than any alternative approach.” Following the Carter administration, the Reagan team had minimal goals: preventing a Pakistani nuclear test, not dismantling the enrichment program, had become the key objective. Nevertheless, State’s politico-military analysts argued that Washington should not give the impression that was acquiescing in Pakistan nuclear activity: it was necessary to “lay down a marker” by making Pakistani officials understand the “political costs” of continuing a weapons program.

Document 6: More “Carrots and Sticks”
Lewis A. Dunn, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, “Implications for U.S. Policy of a Pakistani Nuclear Test,” 11 June 1981, Secret
Source: FOIA release
Signs of the Reagan team’s emphasis on propitiating Islamabad are evident in a memorandum that incoming ACDA official Lewis Dunn had prepared just before he left Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute. Seeing Pakistan as likely to test a weapon once it had enough fissile material (a test site had already been discovered[6]) Dunn believed that prospects for halting a test were “dimming.” If Pakistan did test, however, there could be a range of U.S. responses, but he favored a “muted” one, owing to regional security considerations and the importance of “holding down” Pakistani nuclear activities. In that regard, Dunn saw “carrots and sticks” as relevant; if Pakistan tested, offers of military assistance or civilian nuclear technology might discourage further nuclear activities. He identified no “sticks.” Dunn also believed it useful to encourage Indian-Pakistan dialogue and regional arms control measures (e.g., no first use pledges and confidence building activities). Pakistan did not test for years, but the Reagan administration would hope in vain that “yes” was the answer to one of Dunn’s questions: “Would the prospect of access to U.S. arms enhance Pakistani incentives for nuclear restraint?”

Document 7: “Probably Capable of Producing a Workable Device at this time”
Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State, “India-Pakistani Views on a Nuclear Weapons Options and Potential Repercussions,” Report 169-AR, 25 June 1981, confidential
Source: Department of State FOIA release, copy courtesy of Jeffrey Richelson
This report provides an overview of the state of the Indian and the Pakistani nuclear programs, reviewing motivations, the technical situation, possible decisions to test, and the implications of a Pakistani test. According to INR, the Pakistanis are “probably capable of producing a workable device at this time,” but the Kahuta plant was unlikely to produce enough fissile material for a test until 1983. While the Indians had stated publicly that they were preparing their test site that declaration may have been for political effect because they may have wanted the Pakistanis to make the “first move.” If Zia decided to do so, he would have to decide whether to risk worsening relations with Washington and a heightened regional nuclear arms race. Indira Gandhi would likely order retaliatory nuclear tests and quiet work on a weapons program. But if Pakistan went further and began an active nuclear weapons program, India was not likely to take risky preventive action because of the difficulty of taking out “Pakistan’s well-defended nuclear facilities” and the risk of “antagonizing China.” INR analysts opined that a nuclear South Asia would not be a stable region: “it is difficult to be optimistic that a stable, long-term mutual deterrence relationship would be established.”

Document 8: A “Great Security Threat” to India
Acting Special Assistant for Nuclear Proliferation Intelligence, National Foreign Assessment Center, to Director and Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, “Warning Report – Nuclear Proliferation,” 20 August 1981, Top Secret, Excised Copy
Source: Mandatory Review Request
An International Atomic Energy Agency report that Pakistan may have diverted plutonium from the Karachi nuclear power plant was raising questions about the adequacy of safeguards, but intelligence reports suggested that the Pakistanis “were not overly concerned.” More serious were the implications of U.S.-Pakistani discussions of the sale of advanced F-16 fighter-bombers as part of a larger U.S. aid package to secure Pakistan’s collaboration in the covert war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi worried that Pakistan’s nuclear program and its slated acquisition of F-16s posed a “great security threat” that raised the risk of war.

Document 9: The Danger of Indian Preventive Action
John N. McMahon, Deputy Director for National Foreign Assessment, to Ambassador Richard T. Kennedy, Under Secretary of State for Management, “Special National Intelligence Estimate on Indian Reactions to Nuclear Developments in Pakistan,” 21 September 1981, enclosing SNIE 31-32/81, Secret, excised copy
Source: FOIA release
The heightened Indian concerns about Pakistan discussed in the August “Warning Report” raised enough hackles in the Reagan administration for the CIA to produce a Special National Intelligence Estimate on the possibility of Indian preventive action against Pakistan’s nuclear program. While the estimators could not be sure, they believed that Prime Minister Gandhi would take a “wait-and-see” approach as to whether Pakistan 1) was going to test a device and 2) keep producing fissile material for weapons. India would have to decide whether to stage an “answering test” (for which preparatory work had already been undertaken), but also whether to take preventive action before Pakistan had a weapons stockpile.

Israel’s use of F-16s to destroy Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981 and Washington’s announcement on 14 September of the F-16 sale to Pakistan made Indian defense officials wonder whether preventive action against nuclear facilities was necessary before Islamabad had the fighter-bombers (for which nuclear-capable versions existed). If India took such action it would have to face the prospect of a “severe” international reaction as well as the possibility that China might intervene on Pakistan’s behalf. One alternative for India was to develop a nuclear stockpile superior to Pakistan’s. That would take a high-level decision to produce nuclear weapons, while financial, technological, and other considerations might encourage Gandhi to move slowly. Nevertheless, the possibility that India (or even Israel) would take preventive action against the Pakistani nuclear program would be a continuing concern.

Document 10: “In All Probability We Would Choose to Cut off Assistance”
Secretary of State Alexander Haig to Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), 21 November 1981, Confidential
Source: State Department FOIA release
While concerned about what India might do, the Reagan administration focused on working with Pakistan to weaken the Soviet position in Afghanistan. Facilitating that involved a multi-billion military and economic aid package to Pakistan which included a five year waiver of the Symington amendment to eliminate automatic triggers that would cut aid if Washington detected evidence of nuclear weapons work. Nevertheless, Congress imposed some conditions, namely that aid would stop if Pakistan tested a nuclear weapon. To confirm that the administration was on board, Senator Mark Hatfield, who had long been concerned about nuclear proliferation, asked Secretary of State Alexander Haig how the U.S. government would react to a Pakistani nuclear test. Haig replied that “in all probability”, Washington would cut aid. Haig might have thought that there would be no problem because General Zia had assured Under Secretary of State James Buckley that he would not develop or test a nuclear weapon (See document 11A for that assurance). On human rights, another of Hatfield’s concerns, the Reagan administration was departing from the human rights emphasis of its predecessor. Haig would make no commitments because of Pakistan’s “limited tradition of representative government.”

Document 11: “Significant” Chinese Aid on Nuclear Design
Note for [name excised] from [name excised], “State/INR Request for Update of Pak SNIE, and Assessment of Argentine Nuclear Program,” 4 June 1982, Secret, excised copy
Source: CREST
A planned update of a Special National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the Pakistani nuclear program was keeping its momentum and that new evidence, apparently acquired by British intelligence, suggested a “significant” Chinese role, at least in providing assistance on weapons design. [7] CIA was apparently adjusting its earlier estimate---late 1982/1983-84--for the availability of fissile material for weapons. The implication was that a Pakistani test was not imminent, thus reducing pressure on India.

Document 12: Discoveries and Demarches
Terry Jones, Office of Nonproliferation and Export Policy, Department of State, to J. Devine et al., enclosing summaries of State Department cable traffic during 1981-1982 relating to demarches on attempted purchase of sensitive nuclear-related products, 17 June 1982
Source: State Department FOIA release
The Reagan administration gave Pakistan some slack, but it continued the campaign of demarches, begun under Jimmy Carter, to try to prevent the export of sensitive nuclear technology to Pakistan, among others. (See EBB “Demarches and Non-Papers”) As before, Pakistan was a special target of concern, but these summaries of State Department telegrams, some in the sensitive intelligence-related “Roger” channel, show that Washington was also trying to prevent sales of nuclear-related technology to a host of countries: Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Iraq, Israel, Korea, Libya, Romania, South Africa, and Syria. For example, cable traffic on Syria showed concern about Damascus’s interest in acquiring a research reactor, while messages on Libya show U.S. government efforts to discourage Belgian sale of a plant to produce uranium tetraflouride (the precursor to uranium hexaflouride, used for uranium enrichment).

The name A. Q. Khan was not mentioned in these cables, but his fingerprint showed up, for example, in the attempted purchases of electrical inverters (used for gas centrifuges). These attempts were probably by the Khan network.  But the group of Pakistani agents seeking to purchase nuclear-related technology was broader than Khan’s.  For example, the nuclear reprocessing technology program was directed by Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission chief Munir Ahmad Khan, who had a procurement network in Europe directed by S.A. Butt.  The cable summaries for Pakistan showed a number of attempted and completed purchases by Pakistani agents from suppliers in a variety of countries, including Belgium, Finland, Japan, Sweden, and Turkey.  Besides the inverters, agents were seeking to acquire such items as fabricated shapes” (metal hemispheres for producing nuclear explosive devices), coaxial cables, fuel chopping machines (to help reprocess plutonium), nuclear power plants, and “flash X-ray units” (diagnostic instrument used in tests of neutron initiators for nuclear weapons).[8] Suggesting that Pakistan was starting to cross the line into producing a nuclear weapon, these efforts raised alarm bells in Washington. [Updated 4 May 2012. Thanks to Mansoor Ahmed for information]

Documents 13A-B:“The Most Superb and Patriotic Liar”
A. U.S. Embassy Pakistan cable 10239 to State Department, “My First Meeting with President Zia,” 5 July 1982, Secret

B. U.S. Embassy Pakistan cable 10276 to State Department, “My Final Meeting with President Zia,” 6 July 1982, Secret
Source: State Department MDR release
Much needs to be learned about White House decision-making but evidently the alleged Pakistani efforts to purchase sensitive technology discussed above, and possibly the intelligence on Chinese weapon design assistance, prompted concern that Congress would find out and stop aid if it believed that Pakistan was developing a capability for a nuclear test. To keep the situation in check, Reagan sent General Vernon Walters, former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence and personal translator for U.S. presidents, among other high-level and sensitive positions, to take a presidential letter to General Zia. During their 4 July meeting, Walter told Zia that Washington had “incontrovertible intelligence” that Pakistani representatives had “transferred designs and specifications for nuclear weapons components to purchasing agents in several countries for the purpose of having these nuclear weapons components fabricated for Pakistan.” Under the law, Walters told Zia, the administration would have to inform the U.S. Congress. Zia denied everything: Pakistan did not have a weapons development program and repeated assurances made to Under Secretary of State James Buckley that Pakistan would not develop or test a nuclear weapon. Zia said that he was sure that no one was buying nuclear equipment, but he would check with his subordinates to be sure. Walter later commented: “either he really does not know or is the most superb and patriotic liar I have ever met.”

In what Walters saw as a diversion from the main discussion, the conversion turned to the problem of the IAEA inspection of the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant and recommendations on safeguards to prevent diversion of spent fuel. Zia repeated his earlier assurances on nuclear weapons and insisted that Pakistan would not “embarrass” the U.S. government. Walters reported that Zia “took the matter somewhat better than I had expected.”

The conversation the next day showed that Zia was a master of double-talk. Verbally, he admitted that U.S. intelligence was on to something: “The president must be right. Your information must be right. I accept its authenticity.” But he would not put that in writing and in a formal response to Reagan’s letter, Zia argued that the U.S. information was a “total fabrication.” This, Walter argued, was a matter of keeping “face”: what Zia was saying was “it did not happen but you can be sure it won’t happen again.” “I think he has the message,” Walter concluded, although he did not explain whether he believed that there would be any changes in Pakistani policy.

Documents 14A-B: “Word of Honor”
A. U.S. Embassy Pakistan cable 15696 to State Department, “Pakistan Nuclear Issue: Meeting with General Zia,” 17 October 1982, Secret

B. State Department cable 299499 to U.S. Embassy Islamabad, “Pakistan Nuclear Issue: Meeting with General Zia,” 25 October 1982, Secret
Source: State Department MDR release
What Zia said to Walters was irrelevant because U.S. intelligence detected continuing efforts to procure sensitive technology and materials (see next document). Thus, Walters returned to Islamabad for another demarche in October, to warn Zia that U.S. aid was in “grave jeopardy.” (see document 16 below). Walter showed drawings of Chinese-influenced nuclear weapons designs that U.S. intelligence had obtained, but Zia denied that there was anything untoward: Pakistan’s reprocessing and enrichment programs were entirely peaceful and there was “nothing” in the nuclear weapons field. Pakistan would do nothing that would jeopardize its aid and other relationships with Washington. Any information on clandestine nuclear activities, he suggested, had been concocted by Pakistan’s “enemies.” As for the items that Pakistan was allegedly attempting to procure, such as “spheres”, Zia argued, there was nothing that could not be produced internally. Walter said he would review the U.S. evidence, but observed that intelligence advisers had assured him that there was “no possibility of fabrication or disinformation.”

The delivery of the F-16s to Pakistan was nearing and Zia wanted to make sure that they were equipped with the ALR-69 radar warning receiver, the most advanced radar warning technology in the U.S. Air Force’s inventory. What had held up delivery was concern in Washington that Pakistan might give the Chinese access to this advanced technology. Walters said he would look into it.

Zia concluded the meeting with a story based on conversations with Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd. The latter had told him that agents from an unspecified country had attempted to sell a nuclear device to Saudi Arabia for $250 million. He had advised Fahd not to “touch the offer with a ‘barge pole.’”

In a follow-up message, prepared after he was back in Washington, Walters noted that at the end of the conversation, Zia had given his “word of honor” that Pakistan “will not develop a nuclear device or a weapon.”

Document 15A-B: “A Serious Blow to U.S. Worldwide Nonproliferation Efforts”
A. Excerpt from Intelligence Report, “Pakistan-US: Demarche on F-16 Equipment,” 8 November 1982, enclosed with memorandum from Deputy CIA Director John N. McMahon to Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, “Risk Assessment of the Sale of AN/ALR-69 Radar Warning Receiver to Pakistan,” 8 November 1982, with excerpt from National Intelligence Estimate on Pakistan attached, n.d., Secret
B. Henry S. Rowen, National Intelligence Council, to DDCI [Deputy Director of Central Intelligence McMahon], 19 November 1982, with attached memorandum from National Intelligence Council staffer [name excised], “Pakistan,” same date, Secret
Source: CREST
Whether the Pakistanis, and presumably the Chinese, should get access to advanced F-16 technology was hotly contested. CIA officials acknowledged that, despite an agreement not to disclose military information, the Pakistanis were likely to give Beijing access to the AN/ALR-radar warning system, especially if “major strains” in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship developed. Because ALR-69 technology would allow a “potential adversary” to use radar equipment to defeat an F-16, Deputy CIA Director McMahon advised against releasing it to Pakistan. Secretary of State George Shultz wanted to meet Pakistani requirements and an official at CIA’s National Intelligence Council, supported by Henry Rowen, provided supporting arguments. Sanguine about the risk of disclosure to Beijing, they argued that failure to supply the F-16 with “USAF radar” would deprive Washington of “leverage” that made possible General Walter’s access to Zia. Highly sanguine about the political influence associated with arms sales, CIA analysts argued that failure to meet Pakistani demands would constitute a “serious blow to U.S. worldwide nonproliferation efforts.” This optimistic view prevailed and the Air Force was constrained to provide the AN/ALR-69 to Pakistan.[9]

Document 16:“Overwhelming Evidence that Zia Has Been Breaking His Assurances”
Secretary of State George Schultz to President Reagan, “How Do We Make Use of the Zia Visit to Protect Our Strategic Interests in the Face of Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Activities,” 26 November 1982, Secret
Source: CREST
George Shultz probably saw the ALR-69 issue as a minor problem compared to the “overwhelming evidence that Zia has been breaking his assurances” on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Shultz may have accepted the interpretation that Zia was a patriotic liar” but this raised a tough diplomatic problem because the General would soon be in Washington to meet President Reagan. Citing an interagency report on issues and options, Shultz saw high risks because good relations with Pakistan, especially while the war in Afghanistan was in progress, were a major strategic interest. Yet, if Pakistan continued its nuclear weapons work, Congress could cut off aid. Moreover, a South Asian nuclear arms race could destabilize the region, not to mention the dangers of Indian and/or Israeli preemptive action against Pakistan, and the possibility that the latter could transfer nuclear technology to “unstable Arab countries.”

Options presented to Reagan ranged from cutting off aid directly if Pakistan kept trying to procure sensitive technology to warning Zia that continued activities would “seriously jeopardize our security relationship.” Shultz did not make a recommendation in this paper, but he it was evident that he wanted to avoid action other than a warning so as not to jeopardize the relationship. Records of his talks with Zia on 6 December and Zia’s meeting with President Reagan the next day are not yet available, but the Kenneth Adelman memorandum produced below (see document 20) discloses that Reagan laid out specific parameters to Zia: no assembly or test of nuclear devices, no transfer of technology for such devices, no violation of international safeguards, and no unsafeguarded reprocessing.[10]

Document 17: “Punish an Indian Attack So Severely that it will be Deterred to Begin With”
Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State, “Pakistan: Security Planning and the Nuclear Option,” Report 83-AR, 1983 [full date cut off copy], Limited Official Use
Source: Department of State FOIA release, copy courtesy of Jeffrey Richelson
Based on a contract study prepared by University of Illinois political scientist (presently affiliated with Brookings) Stephen P. Cohen, after he had made three visits to Pakistan, this report focuses on the Pakistani military’s approach to deterrence. While the Pakistani military had once emphasized the value of using force first, the danger of war with India has produced a strategic doctrine that stresses the “use of military force to deter an Indian attack.” This doctrinal shift was creating a consensus in the military on the value of a “modest, ‘limited’ [nuclear] weapons program.” Pakistani military leaders did not like nuclear weapons, but they believed that they would “enable them to do what their armored divisions and air force can no longer” do in conventional terms: “punish an Indian attack so severely that it will be deterred to begin with.”

On the problem of Pakistani command-and-control over nuclear weapons, the summary of Cohen’s report observed that “Pakistan’s military has done self-destructive things in the past, and one cannot assume that it will not do them in the future.” Yet with greater professionalism in the Army, it was not “likely to make [decisions on nuclear weapons] any more irresponsibly than other states confronted with the same perplexing set of security constraints.” Cohen did not believe that Washington could do much to reverse nuclearization in South Asia, but U.S. influence could help ensure that proliferation did not lead to greater instability, for example, by limiting the buildup of stockpiles and supporting regional “mutual balanced force reductions” arrangements.

Document 18: “Supplying Conventional Weapons … Can be a Positive Force Against Proliferation”
Hugh Montgomery, director, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State, to Ambassador Ronald Spiers, 17 February 1984, enclosing “India-Pakistan: Pressures for Nuclear Proliferation,” Report 778-AR, 10 February 1984, Limited Official Use
Source: Department of State FOIA release, copy courtesy of Jeffrey Richelson
This interesting review of the South Asian nuclear problem starts by exploring the India-Pakistan nuclear dynamic. If Pakistan tested a weapon, India might resist following through on a weapons option, but might begin a series of tests. Both countries could covertly begin a weapons program. Despite speculation about an Indian preemptive strike against Pakistani nuclear installations, such an occurrence was unlikely because of the serious risks for India, not least the spread of “deadly radiation poisoning.” While New Delhi had resisted internal pressures for weaponization, changes in the security environment could weaken resistance, for example, if relations with Beijing worsened or if Chinese-Soviet relations improved (which would make the Indians more worried about Moscow’s reliability). The INR analyst believed that Washington had the most “leverage” with Pakistan because of the latter’s dependence on U.S. supplies of conventional weapons. “Supplying conventional weapons to Pakistan can be a positive force against proliferation” because they “can give Pakistan sufficient confidence in its own security that it would find the nuclear option less attractive and unnecessary.” This may have been the basis of State Department thinking that not meeting Pakistani desiderata on such issues as the F-16 would be a blow to nuclear non-proliferation policy. The challenge, however, was to not over-arm Pakistan because that could threaten Indian security and “increase the danger of nuclear proliferation in South Asia.”

Document 19: Pakistan Has “Produced an Atomic Weapon”
Defense Intelligence Agency cable to [excised location], “Pakistan-China: Nuclear Weapons Production and Testing,” 7 December 1985, Secret, excised copy
Source: DIA FOIA release
Only months after Congress enacted the Pressler amendment, an intelligence source claimed that Pakistan with Chinese assistance had “produced an atomic weapon in early October.” DIA had received similar reports and was trying to confirm this one. That U.S. intelligence believed that Pakistan was producing enough HEU for at least one device becomes evident in the next document.

Document 20: “He Lied to Us Again”
Kenneth Adelman, director, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, o Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Programs and U.S. Security Assistance,” 16 June 1986, Top Secret
Source: MDR release
More declassification actions will elucidate what the United States discovered during 1982-1986 about the Pakistani nuclear program, the renewed efforts to prevent procurement of sensitive technology, and high-level pressures to discourage secret nuclear work, but this memorandum by ACDA director Adelman gives perspective on some developments after the Reagan-Zia meeting in late 1982. The points that President Reagan made to Zia in December 1982 were re-stated in a May 1984 “non-paper” and then refined the following September when Reagan informed Zia that enriching uranium above 5 percent would be just as problematic as unsafeguarded plutonium reprocessing. But Reagan never put serious pressure on Zia to comply.

According to Adelman, the Pakistanis had been producing enriched uranium above the five percent level and, after overcoming an important “hurdle,” were enriching uranium at levels high enough (presumably close to 90 percent) to produce “one or more nuclear devices.” Adelman insisted that Zia was lying to Washington about this and that these activities jeopardized U.S. aid to Pakistan. The problem was that Washington had only “jawboned” General Zia instead of applying real pressure, thus undermining Reagan’s credibility and reinforcing “Zia’s belief that he can lie to us with impunity.” This raised serious problems for Congressional approval of aid, not only for certifying that Pakistan did not “possess” an explosive device, but also for renewing the 1982 Foreign Assistance Act that had exempted Pakistan from more rigorous nonproliferation standards.

Adelman recommended the precise application of pressure—to give Zia the “stark choice” of continued aid or the enrichment program. The possibility that Zia might resist could make it necessary to “tough it out” with Congress to assure the continuity of aid. But Adelman thought it possible that pressure would work and that Zia would conclude that “payoff” of U.S. aid and military sales was too high to forego.

Document 21: “Annual certification … very problematic”
Briefing Book, “Visit of Prime Minister Junejo of Pakistan, July 15-21, 1986,” Secret
Source: MDR Release
With Prime Minister Junejo about to visit Washington ACDA director had suggested that the U.S. tell him that pending a policy review on the Pakistani nuclear program “all actions involving military sales” have been halted . But this harder-line view apparently found no takers because the State Department briefing book for the Junejo visit only suggested tacit threats, not the “stark choice” that Adelman had recommended, that certification was “very problematic” without “positive Pak actions to help convince the Congress” which meant “quiet Pak actions to restrain [the enrichment] program.”

On the status of the Pakistani program, the briefing book included an intelligence finding [page 39 of pdf] that if the Kahuta plant operated at capacity it could produce enough m for “several nuclear devices per year.” Nevertheless, it was “our assessment … that Pakistan does not possess a device.” The highest levels of the Department were taking the position that Pakistan was in compliance with the Pressler amendment.

Document 22: “Absolute Criticality … of Restraint”
State Department cable 229696 to U.S. Embassy France et al., “Visit of Pakistani Primin Mohammad Khan Junejo to Washington – 15-18 July 1986,” 23 July 1986, Secret
Source: MDR Release
The only record of the meetings with Junejo that is available so far is this telegram that went out to a number of embassies. Impressing administration officials who found him “astute and well briefed,” Junejo professed to be responsive to the U.S. emphasis on the “absolute criticality” of “restraint” in Pakistani nuclear activities. In meetings with the press, Junejo “specifically affirmed” commitment not to enrich uranium above the five percent level, but this would continue to be a problem.

Document 23: “He Has Approached a Threshold”
Fred McGoldrick, Acting Director, Office of Nonproliferation and Export Policy, to John Negroponte, Assistant Secretary of State for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, “Pakistan,” 9 April 1987, Secret, enclosing memorandum from Richard Murphy, Assistant Secretary for Near East and South Asian Affairs, “Action Plan on Pakistan Nuclear And Security Problems,” to Secretary of State, n.d., Secret
Source: MDR Release
In the fall of 1986, Reagan certified Pakistan’s compliance with the Pressler amendment although it was manifest that U.S. aid was not preventing Pakistan from doing what it could to produce a nuclear device. With the White House’s request for a new assistance program under review, Congress was contemplating a shorter, two-year, waiver of the Symington amendment or possibly tying aid directly to a halt of enriched uranium production. In early 1987 the Pakistani nuclear program was getting in the news again----statements by A.Q. Khan about a “nuclear weapons capability,” Zia declaring that “Pakistan can build a bomb whenever it wishes,” and a speech by Ambassador Dean Hinton stating that Pakistan’s nuclear efforts were “inconsistent” with a peaceful program—which could only raise Congressional objections to aid to Pakistan.[11] In this context, according to Assistant Secretary Murphy, the danger was that Zia “has approached a threshold which he cannot cross without blatantly violating his pledge not to embarrass the President.”

Arguing that the administration needed “to obtain specific actions demonstrating restraint,” Murphy acknowledged that Pakistan was “unlikely” to do so, especially because Zia had “not so far responded constructively” to previous requests. Nevertheless, he proposed an “action plan” that included a new demarche on enrichment and other “nuclear firebreaks,” a message to India also asking for “restraint,” a “Congressional game plan,” and a presidential envoy to “engage” both India and Pakistan in the nuclear issue.

With the U.S. considering sales of airborne early warning aircraft (AEW) to Pakistan, Richard Kennedy, the ambassador-at-large for nonproliferation matters, had suggested that Washington directly link the sales to “Pakistani action on nonproliferation,” but other officials opposed such linkage. Perhaps Murphy raised the issue to see if Shultz had any interest in pursuing it.

What action Shultz may have taken on Murphy’s proposal remains to be learned, but any pressure exerted was likely to have been weak. Later in 1987, Reagan certified that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear advice; the aid kept flowing.


[1] Dennis Kux, The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 276-277; Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons (New York: Walker & Co.: 2007), 116; David Armstrong and Joseph Trento, America and the Islamic Bomb: The Deadly Compromise (Hanover NH: Steerforth Press, 2007), 122-137.

[2] Armstrong and Trento, America and the Islamic Bomb, 142-153.

[3] Kux, The United States and Pakistan, 282-286; Armstrong and Trento, America and the Islamic Bomb, 142-154, and Levy and Scott-Clark, Deception, 156-163,

[4] For details on the Shahi-Vance-Smith talks, see Kux, The United States and Pakistan. 240-241. For Smith’s report on his talks, see, document 45.

[5] See Armstrong and Trento, America and the Islamic Bomb, 95.

[6] For detection of Pakistan’s test site, see Jeffrey Richelson, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 341.

[7] David Albright, Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies (New York: Free Press, 2010), 50.

[8] For the Pakistani purchasing networks, see Bruno Tertrais, “Not a ‘Wal-Mart’, but an ‘Imports-Exports Enterprise’: Understanding the Nature of the A.Q. Khan Network,” Strategic Insights (August 2007).See also Albright, Peddling Peril, 48.

[9] T. V. Paul, “influence through Arms Transfers: Lessons from the US-Pakistani Relationship,” Asian Survey 32 (Dec. 1992), 1086.

[10] Shultz does not mention his 1982 meeting with Zia in his memoir, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years As Secretary of State (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), although at 493-494, he covers a 1984 discussion after Indira Gandhi’s funeral. Zia said that Pakistan was “nowhere near” building a nuclear weapon and that “We have no intention of making such a weapon.”

[11] Kux, The United States and Pakistan, 282-285.

About the Author

William Burr

William Burr

Former Senior Scholar;
Senior Analyst, National Security Archive
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