Lawmakers Concerned About U.S.-India Nuclear Trade Deal

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Congressional leaders requested a secret intelligence assessment of India's nuclear program and its government's ties to Iran in January amid concerns about a White House effort to provide nuclear technology to New Delhi. Ten months later, as the Senate prepares to vote on nuclear trade with India, the intelligence assessment has yet to be seen on Capitol Hill, congressional and intelligence sources say.

The pending nuclear deal with India would reverse years of U.S. policies aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. U.S. law forbids selling civilian nuclear technology to countries such as India that have refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Arms-control experts, concerned that the deal would have major ramifications for U.S. efforts to stop nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, said yesterday that the White House plan would allow India to rapidly increase its nuclear arsenal.

For the Bush administration, the deal is part of a strategy to accelerate India's rise as a regional counterweight to China. Further, officials have argued that a nuclear arsenal in the hands of democratic India, which conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, would not be a threat to the United States.

The White House wants legislation for the deal approved by the lame-duck Congress and is hoping the Senate will vote on it by Friday. The bill would carve out an India-specific exception to long-standing laws that forbid nuclear trade with countries that have not signed the NPT. Sen. Harry M. Reid (Nev.), who will become majority leader when Democrats take control of the Senate in January, has said that he wants the India bill to come up before the current Congress ends in December.

In July, the House voted in favor of a similar bill. Lawmakers did not know at the time that the Bush administration was planning to sanction two Indian firms for selling missile parts to Iran -- a fact that seemed to undercut administration assurances that India's nonproliferation record is excellent.

Democrats later accused the administration of deception, and Senate and House staff members said yesterday that they are concerned that the White House is still pushing for congressional approval without providing needed information, such as the intelligence report.

In a Jan. 23 letter to John D. Negroponte, director of national intelligence, the ranking chairmen of the House and Senate foreign relations panels asked for "an interagency assessment" of India's nuclear program, its record of proliferation and its ties to Iran. The letter was signed by Reps. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) -- all of whom have been generally supportive of the India deal but have raised concerns about the proliferation implications and about India's relations with Iran.

The four asked Negroponte to assess how India is implementing its nonproliferation commitments, the adequacy of its export controls and the movement into and out of India of materials to make weapons of mass destruction.

Much of the deal rests on assurances that India will separate its nuclear and civilian facilities so that the United States can be certain that the nuclear technology it provides will go only to the civilian energy side. With a population of 1 billion, India has vast energy needs and civilian technology would help it to modernize. But the arrangement would also free up India's nuclear infrastructure so that it could be devoted solely to weapons.

The letter asked the intelligence community to gauge the extent to which the deal "may enhance India's ability to produce fissile material for weapons." The senators also asked for a full assessment of India's positions on Iran.

In a Feb. 9 response to the letter, Negroponte wrote: "We look forward to providing the necessary information in the near future." Copies of both letters were read to The Washington Post. Negroponte's office said yesterday that it could not comment on the letters or the status of the assessment.

Several congressional sources said that the National Intelligence Council provided two oral briefings, in March and April, that focused on the history of U.S.-India relations as well as the beginnings of India's nuclear program, but that the briefings did not address the specific information requested in the letter. "We expect a written intelligence product," one Republican said. Four other staff members -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- also said that they expected a complete intelligence assessment that responds point by point to the issues raised in the letter. All spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing that public comment would put their congressional jobs at risk.

The terms of a U.S.-India accord, worked out in secret in 2005, took Congress by surprise. Congress must approve any final deal before it can be implemented. While both parties support a strategic alliance with India, some have voiced concerns about its strong ties to Iran.

Tehran and New Delhi signed an extensive agreement in 2003 and their military, scientific, political and economic ties are growing.

A report issued yesterday by the Congressional Research Service, which does in-depth analysis for Congress, said that "India's long relationship with Iran" made it unlikely that India would take a hard line on Tehran. India does not support nuclear weapons for Iran, but "its views of the Iranian threat and appropriate responses differ significantly from U.S. views."

The report also found that entities in India and Iran "appear to have engaged in very limited nuclear, chemical and missile related transfers over the years."

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