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Trump Admin’s Secretive Talks to Sell Saudi Arabia Nuclear Technology Spark New Fear of Arms Race

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House Democrats are accusing the Trump administration of moving toward transferring highly sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of U.S. law. Critics say the deal could endanger national security while enriching close allies of President Trump. Saudi Arabia is considering building as many as 16 nuclear power plants by 2030, but many critics fear the kingdom could use the technology to develop nuclear weapons and trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. We speak with Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna of California and Isaac Arnsdorf, a reporter with ProPublica. Arnsdorf first wrote about the intense and secretive lobbying effort to give nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in 2017. His reporting was cited in the House report.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: House Democrats are accusing the Trump administration of moving toward transferring highly sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of U.S. law. Critics say the deal could endanger national security while enriching close allies of President Trump. Saudi Arabia is considering building as many as 16 nuclear power plants by 2030, but many critics fear the kingdom could use the technology to develop nuclear weapons and trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. During an interview with 60 Minutes last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made clear that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would do the same.

CROWN PRINCE MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: [translated] Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb. But without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Thursday, the House Oversight Committee issued an interim report on the proposed Saudi deal, after multiple whistleblowers came forward accusing several top White House advisers and Trump allies of attempting to push through the transfer of the nuclear technology despite legal and ethical warnings. At the center of the controversy is the company IP3, which was formed to help U.S. companies build nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region, in what they dubbed a “Middle East Marshall Plan.” Former national security adviser Michael Flynn worked as an adviser for a subsidiary of the firm before entering the White House, and reportedly continued to advocate on behalf of the company once in office. IP3 was co-founded by former Reagan official Bud McFarlane, who pleaded guilty to participating in the Iran-Contra cover-up in 1988.

AMY GOODMAN: The House report also names several other high-ranking Trump officials and allies reportedly involved in the proposed Saudi deal, including Trump’s son-in-law, his adviser Jared Kushner; Energy Secretary Rick Perry; and Trump’s billionaire friend Tom Barrack, who served as chair of Trump’s inaugural committee. According to the report by the congressional committee, the White House may still be discussing the plan.

We’re joined now by two guests. In Washington, D.C., Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna of Silicon Valley in California joins us. He serves on the House Oversight Committee. And here in New York, Isaac Arnsdorf is with us, a reporter with ProPublica. He first wrote about the intense and secretive lobbying effort to give nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in 2017. His reporting was cited in the House report.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Congressmember Ro Khanna, let’s begin with you. What are you doing on the House Oversight Committee? What is the leadership doing there?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it’s a very serious matter. Here’s why people should care. The Saudis have been giving arms to al-Qaeda in Yemen. There’s reports of that. And the last thing we want to do as a country is to transfer nuclear secrets to Saudi Arabia, which could lead to proliferation and a threat to our security.

And as the journalist you have on has reported, there is a lot of financial conflict of interest here. Tom Barrack, who headed up the president’s inaugural committee to raise $100 million-plus, is also pushing for this deal and has financial interest in the deal. So the Oversight Committee is going to have an investigation to see what are the financial interests that are driving this administration to potentially sell nuclear secrets to the Saudis and what laws have been violated, because, as you know, they have to come to Congress, under the Atomic Energy Act, and offer certain guidelines, which they haven’t done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congressman, this attempt by the administration is still very much alive. There was a meeting February 12th, just last week, in the White House between President Trump and some nuclear power developers. What do you know about that meeting and what came out of there?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, we need to find out more facts. That’s why we need an investigation. We need to know who was in that meeting, what was discussed, whether they followed the law that the Atomic Energy Act requires. I mean, even when we transfer nuclear technology to allies, such as India, when George Bush did that, it requires years of process. It requires the consultation of Congress. Here you’re talking about the potential sale of nuclear secrets to the Saudis, who aren’t an ally, who have engaged in the proliferation of weapons that are being used against our own troops, and there is no process for notification of Congress. And you have extensive reporting of people who gain—stand to gain billions of dollars from these investments.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Isaac Arnsdorf, the report of the House Oversight Committee cites your reporting. You did a piece yesterday. You did a piece last year. Explain first what the “Middle East Marshall Plan” is and then the financial interests of people like, well, Trump, a close confidant, spoke at the Republican National Convention, Tom Barrack, headed the inaugural committee, Michael Flynn and others.

ISAAC ARNSDORF: So, the “Middle East Marshall Plan” was this idea that bubbled up in this company that you mentioned, IP3, which was that they can strengthen economic and political ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia by having the U.S. companies export nuclear power technology to Saudi Arabia. And they started lobbying the Trump administration, and initially the Trump transition, about how this would fit with Trump’s ideas about his approach to the Middle East and make America great, restoring American jobs in American industry.

And Tom Barrack was very receptive to this idea, because he was promoting a similar kind of economic outreach to the region. He had a lot of ties with the leaders there. And thanks to the support of Tom Barrack and also General Flynn, who was involved in the project before he was in the White House, the project, the idea, gained a lot of traction in the early days of the administration.

AMY GOODMAN: And take it through to now.

ISAAC ARNSDORF: So, initially, in the first three months, as detailed by the whistleblowers who spoke to the House Oversight Committee, this was really something that was happening in kind of a—kind of being rushed through the National Security Council, and that wasn’t complying with the requirements of the Atomic Energy Act, that requires all kinds of review, because, obviously, the U.S. very tightly controls this technology, because it can be misused to build nuclear weapons.

More recently, the administration has been taking steps to go through that formal process and have negotiations with the Saudis about reaching a formal agreement to share nuclear power technology. If that were to happen, Congress would not have to actually ratify the treaty, but it would have 90 days to pass a joint resolution that could block it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you would think, though, with all the stuff that’s happened in relationship to Saudi Arabia—the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the decision by Congress to cut off military aid to the war in Yemen—that there would be some reconsideration of the Trump administration of such a controversial move. What’s your sense of what the thinking is, going on here?

ISAAC ARNSDORF: Well, there was already a lot of bipartisan skepticism about the idea of sharing nuclear power technology, and calls to tell Congress more about what was happening in those negotiations, or even call off those negotiations. And you’ve certainly seen an escalation, since all the things that you mentioned, of members of both parties saying, “We need to put a pause on this. We need to get some more information.”

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Energy Secretary Rick Perry speaking last year at a meeting of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Energy Secretary Perry was asked to respond to concerns about nuclear proliferation in light of U.S. negotiations with Saudi Arabia on nuclear energy.

ENERGY SECRETARY RICK PERRY: That goes right to the point that we tried to make with the Saudi crown prince in our conversations with him and with his team, that not only will it send a powerful message if they go into an acceptable one, two, three, with additional protocols, but that we—that they do that, because if they don’t, the message that’s sent—if the Chinese or the Russians, which don’t require any of that, not only does it send the message—I think the wrong message—by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but it also sends the message to the United States that we’re no longer the leader in the world when it comes to civil nuclear power—Westinghouse, best reactor builder in the world. … The second point that we tried to really drive home to the crown prince was that if you want the best reactors in the world, you have to come to the United States, and you have to use Westinghouse.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Ro Khanna, the significance of the testimony of Rick Perry, the energy secretary, and his involvement here?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I think it’s a worldview into how the Trump administration looks at the relationship with the Saudis. It’s all about money, whether it’s selling them arms sales or selling nuclear secrets. There’s no moral consideration. I mean, Tom Barrack, as recently as a week ago, was out there defending the Khashoggi murder and defending the Saudi regime’s murder of Khashoggi. He actually said, appallingly, that the United States has done worse, which I totally disagree with. But it gives you a sense of what’s driving this. It’s financial interests. It’s selling interests into the Saudis for money, and no concern for our security and no concern for the morality of the Saudis’ policies.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Isaac, in that clip, the energy secretary referred to the one, two, three. A lot of people are not familiar with that. Could you talk about the legal limitations on what the administration can do or can’t do in terms of transferring nuclear power technology?

ISAAC ARNSDORF: So, that refers to the section of the Atomic Energy Act that requires these negotiations and these agreements before sharing this technology. And what the secretary was describing there is really a very challenging policy problem, where the Saudis want nuclear power—maybe they have a legitimate interest in diversifying their economy from oil, but, as you heard the crown prince describe in the clip that you played, maybe they also want to keep up with their neighbor Iran, with potential military implications. So, the Saudis want nuclear power. They’re pursuing it. If the U.S. doesn’t help them get it, are they going to turn around and go to Russia or China? And then there are going to be even less security assurances than they would have with the U.S. So, that’s a very real policy problem that security experts struggle with.

But what you’re seeing with the Trump administration is that they are arriving at an answer to that policy problem that, based on what we’ve seen out of the House Oversight Committee, was, to a large extent, based on people with conflicts of interest promoting this for other reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: I also want to talk about Jared Kushner’s connection to this. The House report states, “In January 2018, Brookfield Business Partners, a subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management, announced its plans to acquire Westinghouse Electric for $4.6 billion. Westinghouse Electric is the bankrupt nuclear services company that is part of IP3’s proposed consortium to build nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, and which stands to benefit from the Middle East Marshall Plan. In August 2018, Brookfield Asset Management purchased a partnership stake in 666 Fifth Avenue, a building owned by Jared Kushner’s family company.” Isaac?

ISAAC ARNSDORF: This is especially interesting given that Jared Kushner is on his way to the region very shortly. And there’s a lot of discussion in the House Oversight Committee’s report about materials being prepared for conversations between Kushner and the president, and obviously Jared Kushner has developed a very close relationship with MBS, the crown prince, and was reportedly described as “in his pocket.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ro Khanna, would you like to add to this?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I would just say we need transparency. But here is one thing that the president and the administration could do to show some distance from the Saudi regime, and that is to sign the War Powers Resolution that will stop U.S. support for the Saudi war crimes in Yemen. As you know, we passed it through the House; next week, the Senate is going to take it up. And I hope that the president will sign it and at least put some distance between U.S. policy with the Saudis. But we need to understand all of the financial interests that administration officials and their friends have with the Saudis and what’s driving our policy.

AMY GOODMAN: One last thing, Congressmember Ro Khanna. You’re a leader in the Congress around the issue of Yemen. Talk about the legislation that was just passed and how getting nuclear power to Saudi Arabia, which could conceivably be turned into nuclear weapons, plays into this picture of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I appreciate your reporting on this. There are nearly 14 million Yemenis who face the potential of famine. That is because the Saudis have been bombing the port cities, and food and medicine isn’t being allowed in. It’s being inspected, and that’s leading to hyperinflation in Yemen. People don’t have food and medicine.

We passed in the House the War Powers Resolution that would stop the U.S. support for the Saudi bombing in Yemen. It’s expected to pass the Senate next week or in the next couple weeks. That will be the first time in the history of this country that the War Powers Resolution has ever passed, since 1973. And what that will do is make it unambiguously clear that the United States doesn’t support the Saudi bombing. As it is, since we passed the House resolution, we’ve seen a temporary ceasefire in the bombing campaign, and some hopeful signs that food and medicine will go in.

I think it would be the exact wrong message for us to be selling nuclear secrets to the Saudis, especially given the reporting that the Saudis are transferring some of these weapons to al-Qaeda in Yemen. And in terms of the point that Russia or China may supply the Saudis, the United States has prevented that type of action when we want to. We prevented it in Iran. We’re trying to prevent it in other countries. There’s no reason the United States should tolerate any sale of nuclear weapons to the Saudis.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there but continue to follow this issue. Ro Khanna, Democratic congressmember from California, member of the House Oversight Committee, that’s going to be investigating this Saudi nuclear issue. Also with us, in New York, Isaac Arnsdorf, a reporter with ProPublica, who first wrote about the intense and secretive lobbying effort to give nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in 2017, his reporting cited in the House report. And we’ll link to your latest report, “House Panel Probes Trump Advisers’ Push for Saudi Nuclear Deal.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll be joined by a man whose father possibly faces the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. He’s in prison. Stay with us.

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