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Context of 'May 1990: US Embassies Underestimate Risk of Nuclear War Due to Suppressed Intelligence'

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Ronald Reagan and Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq.Ronald Reagan and Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and 1988 and President George Bush in 1989 continue to certify that Pakistan does not have a nuclear weapon, a condition of continuing aid to Pakistan under the law (see August 1985). These certifications began in 1985 (see August 1985-October 1990) and are thought to be important because Pakistan is a key base for the CIA-backed Afghan mujaheddin, and cutting off aid to Pakistan might curtail CIA support for the anti-Soviet forces. According to journalist Seymour Hersh, the rationale behind the certifications is that there is “no specific evidence that Pakistan [has] indeed done what it was known to be capable of doing,” and produced a nuclear weapon. In addition, it is apparently thought that if the US continues to supply conventional weapons, Pakistan will not need a nuclear bomb, although Hersh says this is “a very thin argument, as everyone involved [knows].” However, CIA officer Richard Kerr will later say, “There is no question that we had an intelligence basis for not certifying from 1987 on.” By this time there is mounting evidence of Pakistan’s nuclear program (see 1987, (1987), and July 1987 or Shortly After). [New Yorker, 3/29/1993]

Entity Tags: Seymour Hersh, George Herbert Walker Bush, Richard Kerr, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, A. Q. Khan's Nuclear Network

Richard Barlow, a WMD analyst at the Pentagon, is commissioned to write an intelligence assessment for Defense Secretary Dick Cheney about Pakistan’s nuclear program. The report is apparently “stark,” indicating that the program is ongoing and Pakistan has configured US-made fighters to drop nuclear bombs, despite promising not to do so. Barlow also says that Pakistan is still trying to procure components and will start selling its technology to other nations (note: it is already doing so—see 1987). Barlow’s analysis is supported by a separate Defense Intelligence Agency study, which reaches the same conclusion. Barlow will later say, “Officials at the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] kept pressurizing me to change my conclusions.” When he refuses to do so, however, files start to go missing from his office and a secretary tells him a senior official has been intercepting his papers. In July, one of the Pentagon’s top salesmen criticizes him for trying to scupper a forthcoming deal to sell another 60 F-16s to Pakistan (see August-September 1989). Barlow refuses to change the report, but after he is fired he finds that it has been rewritten to say that continued US aid to Pakistan will ensure the country stops its WMD program. [New Yorker, 3/29/1993; Guardian, 10/13/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Richard Barlow, Pakistan

Timeline Tags: A. Q. Khan's Nuclear Network

Arthur Hughes.Arthur Hughes. [Source: Middle East Institute]The US agrees to sell Pakistan 60 more F-16 fighter jets in a deal worth $1.5 billion. The US previously sold forty F-16s to Pakistan and Pentagon analyst Richard Barlow believes they were adapted to carry nuclear weapons, in conflict with a promise made by the Pakistanis (see 1983-7). Despite this, shortly before the sale goes through, the Pentagon falsely claims to Congress, “None of the F-16s Pakistan already owns or is about to purchase is configured for nuclear delivery.” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Arthur Hughes also tells Congress that the nuclear wiring has been removed from the planes and that to equip them to deliver nuclear bombs, “it first would be necessary to replace the entire wiring package of the aircraft.”
Testimony Known to Be False - However, this is contradicted by Pentagon analysis and the US intelligence community is well aware that the Pakistani air force has already practiced delivery of nuclear weapons by F-16s. [New Yorker, 3/29/1993; Guardian, 10/13/2007] Barlow will later say the US intelligence community was certain Pakistan had nuclear weapons (see 1987): “The evidence was unbelievable. I can’t go into it—but on a scale of 1 to 10, in terms of intelligence evidence, it was a 10 or 11. It doesn’t get any better than that.” Regarding the F-16 fighters, he will add: “All the top experts had looked at this question in detail for years, and it was a cold hard engineering question. There was no question about it—the jets could easily be made nuke-capable, and we knew that Pakistan had done just that.” [Raw Story, 4/30/2007] Barlow therefore urges that the testimony be corrected, but he is fired from his position two days later (see August 4, 1989). The US should not agree to the sale, as it has passed a law saying it will not sell such equipment to countries that obtain nuclear weapons, but President Reagan has repeatedly and falsely certified that Pakistan does not have a nuclear device, so the contract is signed. However, the deal will collapse the next year when President Bush fails to certify that Pakistan does not have a nuclear weapon (see October 1990). [New Yorker, 3/29/1993; Guardian, 10/13/2007]
Motivation Said to Be Profit - Given that the Soviet-Afghan War is over and there is therefore no need to be friendly with Pakistan to ensure it supports the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, Barlow believes that Hughes is lying not to support US national interests, but simply for the profits to be made by the planes’ manufacturer. “They sold out the world for an F-16 sale,” Barlow will comment. [Raw Story, 4/30/2007]

Entity Tags: Richard Barlow, Arthur Hughes, Pakistan

Timeline Tags: A. Q. Khan's Nuclear Network

Richard Barlow, an analyst who has repeatedly insisted that Pakistan has a nuclear weapons program (see July 1987 or Shortly After and Mid-1989), is fired from his position at the Pentagon. Barlow will later say, “They told me they had received credible information that I was a security risk.” When he asks why he is thought to be a security risk, “They said they could not tell me as the information was classified,” but “senior Defense Department officials” are said to have “plenty of evidence.” His superiors think he might leak information about Pakistan’s nuclear program to congressmen in favor of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. He spends the next eighteen months in the Pentagon personnel pool, under surveillance by security officers. Apparently, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and two officials who work for Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz are involved in the sacking. It is also rumored that Barlow is a Soviet spy. Barlow’s conclusions about Pakistan’s nuclear program are unpopular with some, because if the US admitted the nuclear program existed, this would lead to a break between the US and Pakistan and endanger US aid to the anti-Soviet mujaheddin and US arms sales (see August 1985-October 1990 and August-September 1989). After he is fired, rumors are started saying that Barlow is a tax evader, alcoholic, adulterer, and in psychiatric care. As his marriage guidance counseling is alleged to be cover for the psychiatric care, the Pentagon insists that investigators be allowed to interview his marriage guidance counselor. Due to this and other problems, his wife leaves him and files for divorce. [New Yorker, 3/29/1993; Guardian, 10/13/2007] Barlow will later be exonerated by various investigations (see May 1990 and Before September 1993).

Entity Tags: Paul Wolfowitz, Pakistan, US Department of Defense, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Richard Barlow

Timeline Tags: A. Q. Khan's Nuclear Network

Tensions rise in India and Pakistan due to a crisis in Indian-held Kashmir, and the situation escalates to such a degree that strikes with nuclear weapons are considered. In January, Indian police open fire on pro-independence demonstrators in the province, killing fifty, which prompts the Pakistani government to step up support for pro-Pakistani militants operating there. There are also large protests and India blames Pakistan for the unrest, a charge which is partially correct and leads Indian authorities to try to suppress the protesters. India also moves offensive units to the Pakistan border, prompting the Pakistani army to mass on the other side. A US official will later say that the Pakistani military knew it could not hold out against the Indian army using conventional means: “The only way for the Pakistanis to deal with the Indians is to be able to take out New Delhi.… There’s no way that sending ten F-16s with conventional bombs is going to do it. Only the nukes could strike back.” Richard Kerr, a deputy director at the CIA, will later comment: “It was the most dangerous nuclear situation we have ever faced since I’ve been in the US government. It may be as close as we’ve come to a nuclear exchange. It was far more frightening than the Cuban missile crisis.” [New Yorker, 3/29/1993] The crisis is resolved by National Security Council member Robert Gates, who persuades the two sides to disengage (see May 1990).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Richard Kerr, Robert M. Gates

Timeline Tags: A. Q. Khan's Nuclear Network

Staff at the US embassies in India and Pakistan underestimate the seriousness of a crisis between the two countries (see January-May 1990), because they have been given manipulated intelligence about Pakistan’s nuclear capability. As they think Pakistan does not have nuclear weapons, they assume the crisis will not escalate into war. The US has been aware that Pakistan does have a nuclear weapons program and a nuclear weapon for some time (see 1987-1989 and May 1990), but has been suppressing this knowledge so that it could continue to support anti-Soviet mujaheddin and sell fighters to Pakistan (see August-September 1989). An example of the way the seriousness of the crisis is not appreciated is that US ambassador to India William Clark learns that the Pakistani air force is practicing dropping nuclear bombs, but is wrongly told that this is not important because the intelligence suggests Pakistan does not have nuclear weapons. The CIA, State Department, Pentagon, and White House are actually aware that this is a serious warning sign (see May 1990), but the intelligence has been altered to indicate Pakistan does not have nuclear weapons. For example, a report to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney by Pentagon analyst Richard Barlow was completely rewritten and Barlow’s conclusions were reversed to say Pakistan did not have nuclear weapons (see Mid-1989). Barlow was later fired from his job due to his opposition to an arms deal (see August 4, 1989). [Levy and Scott-Clark, 2007, pp. 209-210]

Entity Tags: William Clark, Richard Barlow, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of State, US Department of Defense, Bush administration (41), Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: A. Q. Khan's Nuclear Network

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