The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 prohibits the export of American nuclear technology without congressional approval. The rationale behind this law is simple: If an American firm sells a foreign regime a nuclear power plant, said regime could plausibly use that technology to advance a nuclear weapons program (if adequate safeguards aren’t in place).
Saudi Arabia is an Islamist autocracy, and an exceptional aggressively and paranoid geopolitical actor. The kingdom has spent much of the past three years organizing a blockade against a U.S. ally, using American-made technology to bomb Yemeni schoolchildren, and engineering a famine in the Middle East’s poorest country.
And yet, high-ranking Trump administration officials have been trying to transfer nuclear technology to the Saudi government — without congressional approval — since the day Donald Trump took office, according to a new report by House Oversight Committee chairman, Democrat Elijah Cummings.
Drawing on the testimony of whistle-blowers and various documents, Cummings claims that senior White House officials repeatedly promoted the sale of nuclear power plants to Riyadh, over the persistent objections of the National Security Council and other Executive branch staff. These objections were both legal (the sale required congressional authorization), and strategic (giving nuclear technology to the Saudis could trigger a Middle East arms race). Nevertheless, certain administration officials persisted; the prospective sale was reportedly discussed during an Oval Office meeting just last week.
The report suggests the administration’s resilient interest in approving the sale might not have been driven by the purest of motives. While serving as an adviser to the Trump campaign and transition team, Michael Flynn also worked as a consultant to a subsidiary of IP3, the company organizing the sale of nuclear equipment to the Saudis. Throughout that period, Flynn reportedly advocated for IP3’s sale in internal discussions — and continued to do so, after he became White House national security adviser.
Meanwhile, Brookfield Asset Management, the parent company of one nuclear manufacturer involved in the proposed deal, recently offered much-needed financial assistance to Jared Kushner’s family: Last year, Brookfield took a 99-year lease on the Kushner’s disastrously indebted building at 666 Fifth Avenue.
Trump’s longtime associate Thomas Barrack and National Security Council member Derek Harvey were also key backers of the nuclear sale. As Cummings writes:
[J]ust days after the President’s inauguration, IP3 officials sent documents directly to General Flynn for President Trump to approve, including a draft Cabinet Memo stating that the President had appointed Mr. Barrack as a special representative to implement the plan and directing agencies to support Mr. Barrack’s efforts.
… According to the whistleblowers, Derek Harvey, the Senior Director for Middle East and North African Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC) from January to July 2017, stated during the first week of the Trump Administration that the decision to adopt IP3’s nuclear plan, which it called the Middle East Marshall Plan, and develop “dozens of nuclear power plants” had already been made by General Flynn during the transition — while he was serving as an advisor to IP3. 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.
According the report, the deal’s opponents included former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
The most controversial claim in Cummings’s missive, however, might be this: “Further investigation is needed to determine whether the actions being pursued by the Trump Administration are in the national security interest of the United States, or, rather, serve those who stand to gain financially as a result of this potential change in U.S. foreign policy.”
Given this administration’s track record on serving those who stand to gain financially from its policies, further investigation hardly seems necessary to determine that the White House hasn’t been pursuing the nuclear sale for our nation’s health.