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Berman unapologetic about timing of secret document's release

Aziz Haniffa | September 04, 2008 09:05 IST

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The disclosure

The office of Congressman Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- which released the secret -- but not classified -- correspondence between the US State Department and Berman's predecessor, the late Congressman Tom Lantos that revealed that the Bush administration would immediately halt nuclear trade with India if New Delhi [Images] conducts a nuclear test, was unapologetic about the timing of this release on the eve of the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in Vienna [Images] to consider the US-India civilian nuclear agreement.

While denying, along with the non-proliferation lobby in the United States, that it conspired to deliberately release this correspondence on the eve of the NSG meeting to scuttle the US-India deal as administration and diplomatic sources had contended, Berman's office and Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, which has been in the forefront of opposing the agreement, said the fault lay with the Bush administration and the Manmohan Singh [Images] government that had conspired to not level with their own people and their own Parliament.

Berman's office also denied that the Congressman had gone back on a pledge he had made earlier that he would not release the contents of this correspondence since the State Department had held Lantos to secrecy and hence he was bound by it, even though the non-proliferation lobby had been hammering away at it and slamming the State Department for imposing a gag order on the answers it had provided to Congressional concerns raised by Lantos and the ranking Republican on the committee Congressman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Berman's press secretary and the communications director of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Lynne Weil told rediff.com, "The Bush administration always knew that this material would be made public prior to Congress considering the US-India civilian nuclear agreement. So, the release of the information should come as no surprise to the administration."

"From the beginning, the arrangement between the committee and the State Department to keep this information confidential was tied to the schedule for Congressional consideration of the US-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement," she reiterated.

"Chairman Berman respected the State Department's request for confidentiality -- as had his predecessor Lantos --which had been granted with the understanding that the questions and answers could be released when Congressional consideration of the US-India civilian nuclear agreement was imminent," Weil said.

Weil pointed out that in "late July, the Bush administration notified the committee that after the Nuclear Suppliers' Group meeting in August, the agreement would be submitted to the US Congress."

She said Berman had "decided to release the answers in the first week of September, just as the US Congress is about to go back into session, because he wants to ensure that his colleagues have all of the relevant information."

But, obviously in an effort to re-emphasise that Berman was not anti-India or anti the deal, despite the fact that he had several 'killer amendments' during the debate on the House floor in 2006 that had preceded the vote on the enabling legislation known as the Hyde Act, Weil asserted, "Howard Berman voted for the Hyde Act and continues to support the US-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement."

During a lengthy and exclusive interview with rediff.com before the first meeting of the NSG in August, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Richard Boucher denied that the administration was trying to "hide" the facts by having negotiated a secrecy pledge with Lantos -- a strong supporter of the deal and author of the Hyde Act.

Boucher, however, acknowledged the administration had done so at the time because Washington did not want these responses to interfere with and complicate "the democratic process," in India that was underway in the Indian Parliament (where the Manmohan Singh's Congress was being assailed by its then Left coalition allies and the opposition BJP that were both against the deal and could have resulted in the unravelling of the Dr Singh government).

However,  when this correspondent pressed Boucher as to why the administration would not lift the lid on the alleged 'gag order' and give Berman the go-ahead to release the correspondence since Lantos was deceased and holding it secret only exacerbated the allegations of the administration having something to hide, the reply was it would be done at the appropriate time when the 123 Agreement reverted to the Congress after the NSG endorses the deal and consensus is achieved.

Kimball, in an interview with rediff.com, said, "I think what the State Department and the Dr Singh government would have liked is the answers to have come out when it was too late to do anything about it."

Also, dismissing the assertion that Berman -- a darling of the non-proliferation lobby, who had recently keynoted the ACA Convention -- and the ACA and other non-proliferation groups that were part of the coalition led by the ACA had carefully orchestrated the release of this correspondence, timing it to coincide with the NSG meeting, Kimball agreed, "Yes, it was released on September 2 and a couple of days before the meeting."

"But the questions were asked on October 2007, the responses came in January, and the State Department held back the responses. It is their fault that we are hearing about it today, because their instructions to the request or the ban -- I don't know what it was exactly to Chairman Lantos -- was not to share the responses until the 123 was before or about to be before the US Congress."

"So, Berman has been faithful to Lantos' agreement with the State Department. It came out on September 2 basically because the US government continues to insist that the NSG is going to agree to a waiver and the 123 will be before the Congress this fall," Kimball argued.

"So, it's more a coincidence and luck than design quite frankly. But, it turned out to be perfect timing," he said.

"It's the State Department's own responsibility for holding the answers back to this point and the problem here is even deeper. It's that the US government and the Indian government have been explaining the deal in slightly different terms to their respective domestic audiences and they've been trying to have it both ways," he maintained.

"Everyone should be grateful that we have earlier in the process (before the NSG meeting on September 4-5) a clear understanding of where the respective governments stand on this issue. Democracy is supposed to be an open process," Kimball said.

"So, neither government should be afraid of their own answers to specific questions on critical issues," he added.

Congressional sources told rediff.com that why September 2 was chosen to release the correspondence was "simply because the staff was back in office."

"How were they supposed to know weeks ago that the NSG was scheduled a meeting on September 4-5. They had no concept. So, it more a coincidence than anything deliberate," one source said.

"It is clear that Congressman Berman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others in the House and the Senate have sought clarity about key issues for a ling time from the administration. And, so, it should be no surprise that these members of Congress are exercising their authority to ask questions and release answers when they see fit. So, I don't quite understand this sense of outrage comes from. They knew these answers were there -- they had been sitting in the inbox for months," Kimball argued.

He expressed confidence that it was highly unlikely that the NSG would provide the consensus for a clear and unconditional waiver as the US was seeking, and said he had spoken to a number of diplomats in Vienna, particularly those states that have put forward amendments on August 21 and 22nd.

"They said their concerns have not been addressed and so I don't see how at this meeting the different parties are going to find any compromise, especially because the Dr Singh government is trying to maintain this position of demanding a clean and unconditional waiver," he said.

"Stranger things have happened, but it simply does not seem likely (that the NSG would endorse the exemption for India during this meeting)," he acknowledged.






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