At Thursday’s hearing on the sale of 36 F-16 aircraft to Pakistan, Assistant Secretary of State John Hillen endured tongue-lashings from several members of the House International Relations Committee (HIRC), who objected to the manner in which his bureau has managed the $5.1 billion arms package. Of particular concern was the administration’s unilateral decision to waive the customary 20-day pre-notification for major arms sales, which many members viewed as a deliberate attempt to circumvent the committee’s authority. The decision – and the confrontation it provoked – could have far-reaching consequences, not only for Congressional oversight of arms sales but also several key State Department initiatives.
Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL) set the stage by calling the administration’s decision to waive the pre-notification a “deliberate and wholly inappropriate maneuver to diminish Congress’ lawful oversight of arms sales.” He vowed to “take all appropriate actions to prevent the reoccurrence of the flouting of the Arms Export Control Act.” Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the committee, was equally resolute. “[T]his outrage will not stand,” he declared during his opening statement, “Our oversight of arms sales will not be compromised.”
Under the Arms Export Control Act, the Departments of State and Defense are required to notify Congress 30 days in advance (15 days for NATO countries, Australia, New Zealand and Japan) of arms sales that exceed certain dollar value thresholds. To ensure that Congress and the administration are on the same page when the formal (public) notification is submitted, a 20-day pre-notification period was established. The pre-notification period helps to prevent embarrassing public confrontations over arms sales, which reflect poorly on the administration and alienate recipient governments. The State Department decided to forego pre-notification after its third unsuccessful attempt to receive a waiver from the HIRC.
Dr. Hillen defended the administration’s handling of the sale, asserting that the level of cooperation with Congress had been “unprecedented.” According to the Assistant Secretary, the State Department has provided several briefings to HIRC members, shared highly sensitive executive branch documents with them, and invited them on trips to Pakistan. Waiving the 20-day pre-notification period, asserted Dr. Hillen, allows the two countries to sign an agreement this calendar year, allowing Pakistan to avoid price increases.
He also defended the arms package itself. The weapons, claimed Dr. Hillen, would give the US “access and influence” to the Pakistani government, allowing them to “shape the choices of a country at the crossroads.” It would also strengthen Pakistan’s ability to fight the War on Terrorism, improve interoperability between the US and Pakistani militaries, and satisfy Pakistan’s “legitimate self-defense needs.” He concluded by assuring the committee that the pre-notification waiver was “not intended to be a pattern.”
Rather than placating committee members, Dr. Hillen’s statement seemed to aggravate them, particularly Rep. Lantos. In a tense exchange with the Assistant Secretary, the ranking Democrat berated him for refusing to admit that the pre-notification waiver was “a colossal mistake,” and complained bitterly about the State Department’s inability to answer even basic questions during briefings and about long delays in responding to the committee’s concerns. Other members also railed against the sale, calling attention to Pakistan’s poor human rights record, the military coup that brought President Musharraf to power, the danger of diversion of sensitive US military technology to China, and the Pakistani government’s refusal to give US investigators access to AQ Khan, who led a nuclear proliferation ring that delivered blueprints and hardware for nuclear weapons to North Korea, Iran and Libya.
The hearing was significant for several reasons. First, Dr. Hillen revealed details of the plan for safeguarding defense trade technology exported to Pakistan – information that is rarely made public. According to the Assistant Secretary, the plan requires
· site surveys and end-use monitoring, including annual inventories of all equipment related to the F-16s, by US officials;
· dedicated facilities for storage of spare parts and maintenance;
· strict limitations on access to the planes;
· complete segregation of the F-16s from third country-origin aircraft;
· express permission from the US government before Pakistan can fly the planes outside of its own airspace;
· full compliance with the security plan before the planes, weapons and equipment can be delivered.
Secondly, the hearing – and the legislation that has (and will) follow – is a dramatic counter-example of the passivity and abrogation of oversight responsibility that critics of Congress assert has plagued the body during the Bush Administration. In fact, HIRC has provided many such counter-examples over the past few years. In 2004, Rep. Hyde teamed up with Duncan Hunter, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, to kill two key Bush Administration initiatives aimed at loosening US arms export controls. In May of that year, they published a scathing report on the Bush Administration’s proposal to exempt the UK and Australia from licensing requirements for commercial arms exports. The report, and the threat of public hearings similar to the one on Thursday, prompted the administration to abandon the proposal. Similarly, the committee’s tenacious opposition to National Security Presidential Directive 19 – a secretive plan to revise US defense trade controls launched by the Bush Administration in 2002 – led to its demise last year.
Reps Hyde and Lantos have already introduced a bill (H.R. 5847) aimed at “reinforce[ing] longstanding oversight practices,” and more legislation is on the way. Rep. Ackerman has pledged to introduce a resolution of disapproval that, if passed by veto-proof majorities in both chambers, would block most of the sale. The chances of passing such a resolution in less than a week are slim to none, however. More modest but also more realistic is a resolution planned by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) that would nullify the sales notifications submitted in late June, which would force the administration to resubmit the notification and (presumably) honor the 20-day pre-notification requirement.
Finally, the hearing does not bode well for Dr. Hillen’s “ten strategic initiatives,” two of which involve defense trade controls. The Assistant Secretary announced the initiatives at the annual meeting of the Defense Trade Advisory Group in April, well before the dust up over the F-16 sale. Any significant changes to the arms export process require at least the tacit cooperation of the HIRC. If Thursday’s hearing is any indicator, the trust and goodwill that are required for such initiatives are now in short supply on the Hill.
For more on the F-16 sale and the hearing, see
Dr. Hillen’s Testimony
Rep. Henry Hyde’s Opening Statement
“Pakistan to receive 36 F-16 Fighters,” Strategic Security Blog, 6 July 2006.
“Hyde, Lantos Criticize State Department for Failing to Consult Congress Adequately on Arms Sales, Introduce Legislation,” News Advisory, House International Relations Committee, 20 July 2006.
William Matthews, “US Lawmakers Rip State Over Pakistan F-16 Process,” Defense News, 21 July 2006.