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The language in the 1985 law seems clear enough: "No military equipment or technology shall be sold or transferred to Pakistan" unless the president certifies to Congress that "Pakistan does not possess a nuclear explosive device." Sensibly, the aim of the law is to curb the spread of nuclear weapons since Pakistan has refused to sign the International Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In 1990, the administration was unable to certify Pakistan's compliance and some $570 million in military aid to Pakistan was frozen. Yet Congress began hearing rumors of arms sales to Pakistan by commercial outlets. When questioned, the administration admitted such sales had taken place.However, officials said the sales were limited and were intended only to help Pakistan maintain its current arsenal. That is merely dissembling and avoiding the issue.

Such private end-runs around the law are wrong, both ethically and legally. It was the government winking at such deals that resulted in embargoed U.S. military equipment being acquired by Iraq before the Persian Gulf war.

Incredibly, Secretary of State James A. Baker III has argued before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the clearly stated arms embargo does not apply to commercial sales. He also claimed such sales to Pakistan did not violate either the letter or spirit of the law.

How's that again? The law simply says "no military equipment or technology shall be sold or transferred to Pakistan." Even if legalistic hairs are split over government vs. private sales, the spirit of the law clearly is being violated.

The excuse offered by administration officials that a total ban on military technology would damage U.S.-Pakistani relations is not acceptable.

Surely, restricting the spread of nuclear weapons has a higher priority than keeping Pakistan happy - and even rewarding it with back-door arms sales.