US issues ‘gag order’ on India nuclear deal: Washington Post

May 9th, 2008 - 10:12 pm ICT by admin  

By Arun Kumar
Washington, May 9 (IANS) With the India-US civil nuclear deal stalled, the US State Department has asked lawmakers to keep secret its answers to their queries about the agreement, fearing that public disclosure may torpedo the deal. Lynne Weil, a spokesperson for the House Foreign Affairs committee, said the State Department provided a lot of information, but the committee has agreed not to disclose the answers because “some data might be considered diplomatically sensitive”.

She said the nuclear deal still must come back to the Congress for final approval, and, at that point, public hearings will be held and “the questions will come up again”.

The civil nuclear deal is “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”, the Washington Post said Friday.

The State Department made the request, even though the answers are not classified, because officials fear that public disclosure would torpedo the deal, the daily said citing unnamed sources.

Given the pointed nature of the questions, the Post said, the State Department had little choice but to be candid with lawmakers about the answers, in ways that senior State Department officials had not been in public.

The State Department said it had no plans to make the answers public.

“We’ve handled answers to sensitive questions in an appropriate way that responded to congressional concerns,” said spokesman Tom Casey. “We’re going to continue with that approach.”

The Post said Tom Lantos, the late Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed to the request in February, and the current chairman, Howard L. Berman, has abided by that commitment, though Berman is not considered a strong supporter of the deal.

The nearly 50 questions posed by the Congress are highly technical, but they were carefully crafted to get to the heart of the balancing act the administration has performed between adhering to the letter of US non-proliferation law and assuaging Indian concerns that it was not being treated like a true nuclear power.

The Congress passed the Hyde Act to enable the deal, but some US lawmakers have raised concerns about whether the implementing 123 agreement negotiated by the administration fudges critical details.

For instance, one of the questions pertains to whether the US would terminate nuclear trade if India resumed nuclear testing. This is a sensitive point in India and is required under US law, but the answer is not entirely clear from the text of the US-India agreement, the Post said.

Another series of questions addresses the commitment by the US to supply India with a “reliable supply of fuel” for its reactors, including a pledge to take steps to “guard against the disruption of fuel supplies”.

A series of questions asks whether these commitments are legally binding, whether the two governments agree on the definition of a “fuel supply disruption” and whether the commitments would be affected by an Indian nuclear test.

At one point, the lawmakers question whether these commitments in the implementing 123 agreement are consistent with the Hyde Act.

A group of prominent non-proliferation experts has decried the “virtual ‘gag’ order”, but thus far, the answers have not leaked, in part because only a handful of congressional officials have been able to read them, the Post said.

“The administration’s unwillingness to make their answers more widely available suggests they have something to hide from either US or Indian legislators,” it said, citing Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association.

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