Energy Secretary Rick Perry told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Energy Department has approved 37 nuclear applications since January 2017, including nine in the Middle East. Besides the seven to Saudi Arabia, two were approved for Jordan. Perry said in his testimony that six applications were approved to Saudi Arabia, but a spokeswoman later said he misspoke.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Perry whether the applications were approved after Oct. 2, when Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, lived in Virginia.
Perry said he did not know the specific date.
"We sign a lot of papers," he said. "I've got a pretty good memory, but to remember every date that I sign a piece of paper might be above my ability to recall."
Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns that Saudi Arabia could develop nuclear weapons if the U.S. technology is transferred without proper safeguards.
Congress is increasingly uneasy with the close relationship between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia. President Donald Trump has made the kingdom a centerpiece of his foreign policy in the Middle East as he tries to further isolate Iran, a regional rival to the Saudi regime. In the process, Trump has brushed off criticism over the killing of Khashoggi and the Saudis' role in the war in Yemen.
The nuclear approvals, known as Part 810 authorizations, allow companies to do preliminary work on nuclear power ahead of any deal to build a nuclear plant. They do not allow transfer of nuclear material, equipment or components. The authorizations were first reported by The Daily Beast before Perry confirmed them in public testimony.
Perry disputed media accounts describing the authorizations as secret, saying, "These U.S. companies that are going to be doing this work want to keep that proprietary information from being out in the public domain."
But Democrats said nuclear authorizations are normally made public. They accused the Trump administration of trying to conceal its negotiations with Saudi Arabia.
"It appears to me that this is an end run around the law in an effort to achieve a policy," Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Pompeo said U.S. officials were "working to ensure that the nuclear power that (the Saudis) get is something we understand and doesn't present that risk" of allowing them to make nuclear weapons.
Sherman called the U.S. response to Khashoggi's murder inadequate and said officials must do everything in their power to prevent Saudi Arabia from getting a nuclear weapon.
"If you cannot trust a regime with a bone saw, you should not trust them with nuclear weapons," Sherman said, referring to reports from the Turkish government that Saudi agents used a bone saw to dismember Khashoggi after he was killed last year.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a member of the Armed Services Committee, told Perry it was "a bad idea to even consider passing on nuclear technology to the Saudi government," given the possible role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi's murder.
"The last thing we should be doing is giving the Saudi government the tools to produce nuclear weapons," said Warren, a Democratic candidate for president.
The announcement of the nuclear approvals came as Republican and Democratic senators requested that the Government Accountability Office review the Trump administration's negotiations with Saudi Arabia.
Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., asked the GAO to investigate reports that some negotiations have been conducted without oversight required under the federal Atomic Energy Act. The senators, who both serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, said it was unusual that the Energy Department apparently was leading the negotiations, rather than the State Department.
The senators said they were "troubled by the administration's lack of consultations with Congress" and concerned that specific proposals presented by Energy officials may not have been fully vetted with other agencies.
The Trump administration had previously opened talks with Riyadh on what's known as a "123 agreement." The name comes from the section of the law that establishes the parameters for major nuclear cooperation between the United States and other countries. Without one, U.S. nuclear energy companies such as Westinghouse would lose out on business opportunities with the Saudis.
The Democratic-led House Oversight Committee, meanwhile, has opened an investigation into claims by several whistleblowers who said they witnessed "abnormal acts" in the White House regarding a proposal to build nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia.
Associated Press writers Richard Lardner and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this report.
This story corrects that the U.S. has approved seven applications for U.S. companies to sell nuclear power technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said earlier that six applications had been approved; an Energy Department spokeswoman later corrected him.
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