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N-deal: Non-proliferation lobby critical of 'gag order'

May 16, 2008 12:32 IST

The non-proliferation lobby in the US, which is strongly opposed to the US-India civilian nuclear agreement, is hopping mad over the State Department's obtaining a pledge from the Congressional leadership to keep secret the answers it has provided to questions on the deal for fear that if it became public it could unravel.

However, members of this powerful lobby that has sought to torpedo this deal as much as the Indian-American community and the pro-India lobby -- comprising groups like the US-India Business Council -- have worked assiduously to consummate the accord, were confident that when this 'cover-up' by the State Department ultimately becomes public, it would kill the agreement.

These sources told rediff.com that the reason for their optimism was because the answers to two main questions asked by members of Congress -- which the State Department wanted kept secret -- made clear that the fuel supply assurances contained in the 123 Agreement "were only politically and not legally binding," and that the US would terminate all nuclear trade with India if that country goes ahead and tests another nuclear weapon.

One source said, "Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would like members of the Lok Sabha to think that those are binding commitments (of fuel supplies in perpetuity). But, it reality, the State Department is telling Congress that these are only political commitments and that they are not legally binding and the United States doesn't have to follow through on it if they don't want to."

"To another of the two main questions," the source disclosed, "the State Department has assured Congress that the US will not continue nuclear trade with India if India conducts a nuclear test explosion. And, this is not what the Congress Party wants the Lok Sabha to believe and that's why the State Department wants these answers kept secret."

Last week, The Washington Post reported that the US-India civilian nuclear deal was "in such desperate straits that the State Department has imposed unusually strict conditions on the answers it provided to questions posed by members of Congress: Keep them secret."

It said that the State Department had made the request, even though the answers are not classified, "because officials fear that public disclosure would torpedo the deal."

Congressman Tom Lantos, California Democrat, the late chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who had posed these questions to the State Department, along with the ranking Republican on the Committee Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, had acquiesced to the State Department request in Feburary, and the current chairman, Congressman Howard Berman, California Democrat, even though opposed the deal, and who had in fact introduced killer amendments to the enabling legislation -- the Hyde Act -- during the time it was being debated in mid-2006 before the vote, had abided by that commitment.

The Post quoted the State Department spokesman Tom Casey as saying that the administration had no plans to make the answers public. "We've handled answers to sensitive questions in an appropriate way that responded to congressional concerns," Casey said, adding, "We're going to continue with that approach."

Lynne Weil, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Affairs Committee, who was earlier Lantos' press secretary, told rediff.com, that Lantos had "agreed to a State Department request for a confidential exchange of information because the matter involved issues that could be diplomatically sensitive. Chairman Berman has abided by that agreement."

She said that "in accordance with the Hyde Act, the administration must submit the US-India civilian nuclear agreement to Congress only after certain conditions have been met. The Foreign Affairs Committee will have hearings at that point, and questions and answers during the course of a hearing are public."

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association and the coordinator of the coalition of non-proliferation and disarmament groups opposing the deal, who have continued to slam the administration for its "virtual 'gag' order" in not making the answers to the 48 questions posed by the Congress public, saying it definitely proves that the administration has "something to hide", told rediff.com that they do not feel betrayed by Berman in not releasing the answers.

"Tom Lantos reluctantly agreed to accept the answers under the condition that it will be kept secret, and then Tom Lantos passes away unfortunately. Howard Berman takes over (as head of the committee), and he being a person of integrity that he is, decides he is not going to break the promise that his predecessor made to the State Depatment."

Kimball said, "So, the problem is the State Department. They set the conditions under which the Congressional Committee could get the answers. Lantos and his staff were foolish to accept these answers under those terms, but those were the terms. It is the administration that is holding back the answers."

"So, I don't feel a sense of betrayal by Howard Berman whatsoever," Kimball reiterated. "Berman would be breaking a trust and he's got to work with the State Department on a whole bunch of stuff."

He asserted that "if there is nothing to hide, then the administration should be willing to provide these answers to all the questions that have befuddled critics of the deal in the United States and in India."

Kimball said he knows for sure "that the answers to these questions are going to ruffle the feathers of either the (US) Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left parties and possibly even the Congress Party in India."

"The State Department is basically talking out of both sides of the mouth. They are telling politicians in India one thing and then they are telling Congress another thing," he added.

"It's a no-brainer that it's because of the political sensitivity that the State Department has not released the answers because they know that so long as the Left parties are holding up progress and threatening to break up the United Progressive Alliance, they can ill-afford to be truthful about their answers to the Congress questions because it could upset the apple-cart."

He said, "The Congress party leadership in India has the same responsibility to the public and to democracy as the State Department has to the taxpaying public here to make these answers public."

Kimball also blasted the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its Chairman Senator Joe Biden, Delaware Democrat, for not asking the same questions of the State Department. "The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hasn't done its job. They have not asked the same types of questions about the 123 agreement they should."

He said, "My point has been for sometime that if the US Congress is going to make an informed decision about the 123 Agreement, it needs to know the answers."

Kimball argued that similarly, "If the Indian political establishment is going to make an informed decision, they need to have straight answers to some of the obvious questions. That's the bottom line."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC