Senator Ben Cardin, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said ‘he had ended his ‘hold’ on the agreement now that President Joe Biden’s administration agreed to fully investigate an Indian assassination plot on U.S. soil and that he would hold the administration to this commitment.
By Vikas Gupta
New Delhi, 3rd Feb 24
The Biden administration’s proposal to make a major armed drone sale to India – blocked by Congress two months ago over allegations that an Indian government agency sought to assassinate a US national on American soil – is finally going to move ahead, but only after a key Senator said he received assurances from the White House that the plot would be properly investigated.
“My approval of this sale was the result of months of painstaking discussions with the Biden administration,” Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland who chairs the pivotal Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement shared with The Wire on Friday:
“While I’m fully aware of the significance of this sale for U.S. national security and strategic interests, I have consistently conveyed my concerns regarding the timing of this sale to administration officials in light of the alleged murder-for-hire plot involving Indian officials to attempt to assassinate an American citizen on U.S. soil. I have been assured by the Administration that the Indian government is committed to thoroughly investigating the situation and fully cooperating with the U.S. Department of Justice investigation so that there is credible accountability in this case. As the Chairman of this committee, I fully intend to hold the Administration to these commitments.”
On Thursday Reuters quoted Senator Cardin, as saying he had released his ‘hold’ on the agreement now that the administration had agreed to fully investigate an Indian assassination plot on U.S. soil against Sikh activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.
“I’ve had direct conversations with the administration. The administration has demanded that there be investigations and accountability in regards to the plot here in the United States and that there is accountability within India against these types of activities … and that has to be demonstrated,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday. “So I’m confident that that process has been initiated by the Biden administration. And I have released my hold with regards to the sale of the drones.”
On January 31, The Wire reported on how the Pannun assassination plot had become an obstacle to the drone sale on the hill, quoting a source in Washington as saying, “The purchase is stuck in the US Congress because of anger over the brazen attempt to assassinate Pannun. US representatives have frozen the legislative movement needed for proceeding with the sale.”
Though the Indian information and broadcasting ministry was quick to label the story ‘fake news’, the ministry of external affairs – which knew the full picture – struck a more circumspect note. “See, this particular matter relates to the US side,” the ministry spokesperson said, when asked what was holding up the drone sale clearance. “They have their internal processes in place and we are respectful of that. So that is where I would like to leave my comment.”
Clearance came day after news of linkage emerged in public
On Thursday, February 1, the US State Department notified the US Congress about the “possible Foreign Military Sale to the Government of India of MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) and related equipment for an estimated cost of $3.99 billion.”
The Biden administration’s decision to issue its mandatory notification to Congress about the drone sale came just one day after this reporter broke the news about the Pannun linkage.
American legislative process requires the US Congress to be formally notified in advance of all significant defence sales.
“The proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by helping to strengthen the US-Indian strategic relationship and to improve the security of a major defence partner…” the February 1, 2024 notification to Congress stated, according to a press release issued by the Defence Security Cooperation Agency of the Pentagon on February 1.
India’s proposed purchase of US drones was first mooted way back in 2016. In December 2017, India’s defence minister at the time, Nirmala Sitharaman, told Parliament in response to an MP’s question: “Request for Information (RFI) for Predator ‘B’ Sea Guardian [drones] was issued to the US Office of Defence Cooperation on 14.11.2017 (November 14) and response is awaited.” The drone quest moved into high gear last June when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington on a state visit, with the government’s Defence Acquisition Council clearing the purchase.
State Department acknowledged questions raised by US Congress
Pannun, who holds dual US and Canadian citizenship, is a New York-based Khalistan activist accused by India of terrorism, and the federal indictment – on conspiracy to murder charges – of an Indian national allegedly working at the behest of an Indian security agency has raised concerns about the policies of the Modi government on Capitol Hill. Cardin himself spoke about the issue during Congressional hearings on transnational repression last December.
In its only formal reaction to The Wire’s story, the US State Department on January 31 referred to questions members of Congress had raised but refused to confirm or deny the claim that the drone deal had ended up getting linked to the Pannun matter.
“I will say that generally the U.S.-Indian Defense Partnership has seen significant growth over the past decade, State Department spokesman Mark Miller said in response to a pointed question about the veracity of the news report. “This is a proposed sale that was announced during Prime Minister Modi’s visit last year. We believe it offers significant potential to further advance strategic technology cooperation with India and military cooperation in the region. Of course, Congress plays – as you know – an important role in the U.S. arms transfer process. 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.” (Emphasis added)
The US embassy in New Delhi stuck to the same formulation: “We continue to discuss with U.S. Congress the potential sale consistent with standard processes and policies guiding such arm sales decisions.”
There is normally a gap of 20 to 40 days between the tiered review process – an informal notification exercise for a proposed major arms sale – and the State Department’s formal notification to Congress. . In a January 2024 report on the Congressional review process for arms sales, the Congressional Research Serviced cited the State Department Insector General as noting, “The State Department generally will not formally notify an arms transfer if a member of Congress raises significant concerns by placing a hold during the informal review stage… [though] the Department is not precluded from proceeding with an arms transfer subject to a congressional hold.”
Pannun plot as problem
Congressional sources say the tiered review began in December, and resulted in a hold. The fact that the State Department chose not to override the Congressional hold placed by Senator Cardin but to instead find ways to address the concerns he was raising suggests the Biden administration too was looking for ways to push the Modi government to properly address the Pannun matter. Conversations were taking place at various levels but the public airing of the linkage on January 31 appears to have raised the stakes and speeded the process.
On the morning of February 1, Shishir Gupta reported in the Hindustan Times that General Atomics – the California-based manufacturer of the drones – had been told by the State Department “that the US Congress today has cleared the ‘tiered review’ of the 31 MQ9B drone sale to India and [that an] official Congressional notification will be submitted within 24 hours.” The company reportedly informed the Indian government of this “at the highest levels”.
“My sense is the GOI is embarrassed, not so much about the sale issue but the lack of resolution of the Pannun issue…,” the Washington-based source told this reporter on Thursday, hinting at the possibility that high level bilateral conversations may have been held soon after the story came out to ensure the drones and other weapons purchases do not become a casualty of Congressional opposition, foot-dragging or inter-agency disagreements over a murder plot that India has publicly committed itself to investigating.
Cardin’s own remarks about the seriousness of the Pannun issue – that the Biden administration “has demanded … that there is accountability within India against these types of activities… and that has to be demonstrated” – are a clear confirmation that the clearance process for the drone sale has involved some blunt speaking with the Modi government.
In his statement on Friday, Cardin emphasised the importance of human rights:
“The U.S.-India partnership plays a key role in Indo Pacific stability, including through regional mechanisms such as the Quad. I support deepening our bilateral relationship with India as long as that partnership is based on mutual trust and respect. Championing human rights and democratic values globally is one of my top priorities. Progress on these issues requires difficult discussions about our own democracy, as well as discussions with our closest allies and friends. I will continue raising human rights issues with the Administration, as well as our Indian counterparts, because I believe that our shared values are fundamental to the growth and longevity of our partnership.”
The Sea Guardian, built by US firm General Atomics, is the naval version of the storied Predator B armed drone (also termed the MQ-9 Reaper), with which the US has killed terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
India had asked for the armed version, but Washington initially offered only the unarmed Sea Guardian, which performs maritime surveillance. However, the armed version now features in the notification issued to Congress.
There is some confusion over the nomenclature of the drone, with even the US government using different names — MQ-9, MQ-9A and MQ-9B — apparently interchangeably.
Travelling at 300 kilometres per hour at 50,000 feet, the Sea Guardian flies 14-hour missions to monitor waters 1,800 kilometres from base. It sends imagery in real time to a ground control room on base, which flies the drone through a two-way data link.
Being a “Category 1” system under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Sea Guardians drones are tightly controlled because of their presumed ability to deliver nuclear weapons.
Biden’s tightrope walk
The Biden administration has so far walked a tightrope between the strategic imperative of getting the Indian military to work more closely with it in the Indo-Pacific region and the concerns raised by its own officials about issues relating to religious freedom and human rights.
Against this backdrop, the Pannun murder plot has added a new complexity to the equation. Unlike in India, federal prosecutors are usually not known to follow the government’s instructions on how to handle a case.
The US and India clearly want the issue to go away but it is not clear what assurances, if any, the Modi government has given about its promised investigation or what demands the Biden administration is making.
The indicted Indian, Nikhil Gupta, is currently in Czech custody and the high court there has cleared his extradition to the United States.