Donald Trump’s administration rushed to reach a deal to provide Saudi Arabia and its despotic government with protected U.S. nuclear technology, despite numerous legal and ethical warnings that such a deal was ill-advised and possibly in violation of the law, Democrats in the House of Representatives alleged in a report on Tuesday.
Per the New York Times, a 24-page document released by Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee implicates Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who resigned and later faced federal charges over his undisclosed financial ties to foreign governments, as well as former National Security Council (NSC) aide Derek Harvey. However, the president’s son-in-law (and wannabe power broker) Jared Kushner was also reportedly involved to some degree in the plan, which involved private company IP3 International and attempts to secure government backing for U.S. firms to build “dozens of nuclear power plants across Saudi Arabia.”
The Times wrote:
Claims presented by whistle-blowers and White House documents obtained by the committee show that the company backing the nuclear plan, IP3 International, and its allies in the White House were working so closely that the company sent a draft memo to the former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, to circulate just days after the inauguration. Mr. Flynn had worked on the plan for IP3 during the Trump campaign and transition, the Democrats said, and continued to advocate for it in the White House.
Another prominent backer of the effort was allegedly Thomas Barrack, the chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee, whose company the Democrats alleged has raised over a billion dollars in investments from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as considered investing in bankrupt U.S. nuclear manufacturer Westinghouse. Barrack played a “central role” in “promoting the IP3 nuclear plan to the White House” and was even appointed a special adviser for its implementation, the Democrats wrote.
Officials involved in the plan attempted to brand it as part of a “Middle East Marshall Plan,” a massive effort to rebuild European countries ravaged by World War II. An unnamed senior federal official described it rather differently, according to the Democratic report:
Career staff warned that any transfer of nuclear technology must comply with the Atomic Energy Act, that the United States and Saudi Arabia would need to reach a 123 Agreement, and that these legal requirements could not be circumvented. Mr. Harvey reportedly ignored these warnings and insisted that the decision to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia had already been made.
Both career and political staff inside the White House reportedly agreed that Mr. Harvey’s directive could violate the law. One senior political official stated that the proposal was “not a business plan,” but rather “a scheme for these generals to make some money.” That official stated: “Okay, you know we cannot do this.”
Federal attorneys told the NSC that Flynn had “a possible conflict of interest that could violate the law” and that the project needed to stop, per NPR. IP3 was also advised it was inappropriate to directly pitch the White House. Yet the plan persisted even after Flynn was fired in February 2017, the Times reported, and in March 2017 Harvey urged its revival “so that Jared Kushner can present it to the President for approval.” Flynn’s successor, former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, then put a halt on the plan, according to CNN—but a national security official with Vice President Mike Pence’s office was still requesting meetings with IP3 the next month.
As the Wall Street Journal noted, Democrats alleged that elements of the plan may still be under “ongoing” consideration by the White House. (A recent Bloomberg report noted that retired Army general and IP3 co-founder Jack Keane was heading up a lobbying effort to export U.S. nuclear technology to Middle Eastern countries.) The Journal also reported that IP3 International, whose subsidiary Iron Bridge Group Inc. brought on Flynn as an adviser from June to December 2016, denied that the former adviser was ever “compensated or reimbursed for expenses by IP3.” However, the Democrats also alleged that Flynn misrepresented or failed to mention two trips he took to Saudi Arabia in 2015 during his security clearance renewal process.
At least one of the whistleblowers brought up the possibility that any deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia without a legally mandated congressional review, as well as an agreement to abide by certain conditions including a ban on nuclear weapons development, would violate the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, according to the Times. More broadly, there is ample reason to be skeptical that exporting nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia—whose ruling royal family is infamously brutal and was recently implicated in the torture and murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi—would actually enhance the security of the Middle East or end up being a disastrous move.
Trump has steadfastly continued to sell the Saudis weapons despite the nation waging a war in Yemen outside observers have claimed has been rife with war crimes and other atrocities. Kushner has been widely reported to be the administration’s point man when dealing with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who controls the nation’s day-to-day government including security and intelligence forces. The prince has launched sweeping crackdowns on real and perceived rivals to his power, to little criticism (and in some cases encouragement) from the White House.
Saudi Arabia has long been reported to be interested in purchasing a nuclear weapon from an outside source. They are not currently known to hold any nukes in their arsenal, though they have threatened to develop or acquire them if regional rival Iran does. The sale of U.S. nuclear technology without any restrictions would, of course, help them speed up that process if they so chose. Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that a new facility at al-Watah, southwest of Riyadh, was suspected to be building ballistic missiles that could potentially carry nuclear warheads.
“This is more about Trump wanting to do favours for the Saudis for financial reasons and to buttress the Saudis against Iran in the region,” Tom Collina, a policy director at DC-based non-proliferation firm Ploughshares Fund, told Al Jazeera. “But the Saudis do not need nuclear power, and if they get it, will only push Iran to restart its nuclear programme... This is Trump picking favourites in the Middle East which will not end well.”