US addressing ‘questions’ lawmakers have on drone deal with India

A US State Department Spokesperson confirm that the proposed sale of MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones to India was being blocked by lawmakers.

Washington:  A US State Department Spokesperson on Wednesday did not deny or confirm a news report that the proposed sale of MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones to India was being blocked by lawmakers but did say that officials “routinely consult” with members of the foreign relations committees of the US Congress and address any “questions” that they may have before they are formally notified in the final stage of the approval process.

News site ‘The Wire’ reported that the sale of 31 of these armed drones to India for $3 billion was being blocked by lawmakers to ensure India cooperated with US investigation into allegations that an Indian businessman had tried to arrange the killing of a US-based Khalistani activist at the direction of an official in India.

Although the report cited a joint statement issued by the five Indian-descent members of US Congress that threatened long-term damage to the relationship if India came up short in cooperating with the US investigation, the outrage felt on Capitol Hill, home to US Congress, over the alleged assassination attempt was much broader.

The proposed sale of these SeaGuardian drones was among two big-ticket announcements by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden in June. The other was the joint production of GE jet engines in India.

“Congress plays — as you know — an important role in the US arms transfer process,” Mathew Miller, the Spokesperson, said in response to a question at the State Department’s daily briefing.

“We routinely consult with members of Congress with the foreign — on the foreign affairs committees before our formal notification to — so we can address questions that they might have, but I don’t have any comment on when that formal notification might take place.”

While the Spokesperson said no more, the deal may be in some jeopardy — delays more likely than cancellation — as lawmakers seek to convey their consternation over Indian involvement in a plot to kill a US-based Khalistani activist, as alleged in an indictment filed in a federal court in New York in June, the same month as Modi’s state visit, but unsealed last November.

People with knowledge of such consultations said that in the period before the State Department notifies Congress of a proposed sale, informal discussions do indeed take place. Lawmakers of the foreign affairs committees of the two chambers of US Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate — may raise concerns at this stage.

The chairpersons and ranking members of two committees can convey at this time their intention to put a “hold” on the proposed sale, which essentially means they are opposed to the deal as proposed and either want changes in it or block it.

This information pre-notification discussion started early January, according to people in the know.

Both committees — the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — have an unspecified number of days to raise concerns and convey their intention to put a hold on the deal.

If the administration fails to allay their concerns or is indifferent to them, the State Department’s Defence Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees the sale of American weapons to international allies and partners, will go ahead and notify Congress — directly to Speaker of the House and Chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. Lawmakers have a statutory period of 15, 30 or 45 days (depending on the size of the deal and the purchasing country) to approve it by doing nothing or or oppose it by passing a resolution.

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