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House Panel: Trump Officials Tried To Rush Nuclear Technology To Saudis


How far was the Trump administration seeking to go to sell nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia? House investigators say administration officials, including the onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn, pushed this sale. And their source is an administration whistleblower. They're asking if the plan would be illegal. Bill Richardson served as energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, and he's on the line. Mr. Richardson, good morning.

BILL RICHARDSON: Good morning. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Haven't the Saudis wanted nuclear technology from the United States for a long time?

RICHARDSON: Yes. And I don't see the problem with the Saudi-American relationship, in terms of energy. When I was energy secretary, they were critical to us. Nuclear power exchanges, that's fine.

But the issue here is, did the Trump administration rush the transfer of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of the Atomic Energy Act, which requires an approval by the Congress? That's the issue. That's the sensitivity. Because a number of officials in the White House and National Security Council raised repeated legal and ethical warnings that this should not happen.

INSKEEP: Is this just a technicality then, Governor Richardson, or is this a real danger, that nuclear technology would be sent abroad without proper safeguards?

RICHARDSON: Well, the danger is that you've got a very troublesome Middle East situation. You've got Iran possibly enriching uranium again because the nuclear deal with the United States is off. And then the Saudis are trying to be the linchpin of our Middle East policy. And what happens if they get some of this very sensitive nuclear technology without adequate safeguards, and the Saudis race to build a nuclear weapon? I mean, that's the last thing we want, a nuclear Middle East with the two top rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia. I mean, that's the long-term danger.

I think what needs to happen here is the Congress needs to ensure a bipartisan group of lawmakers have introduced legislation, that the Congress find a way to give congressional approval to any U.S.-Saudi nuclear deal. That's what needs to happen.

INSKEEP: Is it legally essential, so far as you know, for Congress to sign off, for this deal to happen at all?

RICHARDSON: Yes. Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act says that you cannot transfer sensitive nuclear technology, export U.S. technical - technology - can't be transferred without the approval of Congress. And there has to be nine arms-control-specific recommendations met.

Now, the good thing is that in the administration, National Security Adviser McMaster, the national security adviser, the legal counsel, said this can't happen. The issue is, is it's still happening. That's what the subcommittee is uncovering and continue to investigate.

INSKEEP: Governor Richardson - and I keep calling you Governor, by the way, because people should know, if they didn't, that you were governor of New Mexico in addition to being U.N. ambassador - is it possible that the Saudis and their U.S. allies don't want to go through the process because the Saudis would not agree, ultimately, to the terms that would be demanded of them?

They're facing this confrontation with Iran. They don't know if Iran might get a nuclear weapon sometime. They don't want to commit themselves to never build a nuclear weapon, but they want nuclear technology.

RICHARDSON: Well, that's the danger. This whole American-Saudi relationship is shrouded in a lot of secrecy. Look what the U.S. government did not submit, despite a requirement by Congress, a report on the Khashoggi murder.


RICHARDSON: Look what happened with the Saudi invasion of Yemen. Look what happened with the Saudis that getting involved in a number of anti efforts against Qatar, another U.S. ally. I mean, look. The Saudis are making very strong geopolitical moves. That's their prerogative. But the issue is, is it in U.S. interest?

Now, this is a very important relationship that we have with the Saudis. The issue is, let's not overdo it. Let's be transparent. Let's find ways to make sure we're not shipping highly sensitive nuclear technology without the approval of Congress and without real safeguards. That's the danger.

INSKEEP: Governor Richardson, thanks so much.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He was secretary of energy under President Bill Clinton, held many other positions, including governor of New Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.