Senior congressional leaders yesterday called for hearings to investigate secret deals between Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin that included keeping Congress in the dark on Moscow’s nuclear cooperation with Iran.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott expressed “deep concern” about a report in yesterday’s editions of The Washington Times that revealed a secret 1995 deal between the vice president and the Russian leader not to reveal to Congress the details of a plan by Russia to build a reactor for Iran.
Notification was required under U.S. weapons proliferation law.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms also has begun an investigation into back-channel arrangements between Mr. Chernomyrdin and Mr. Gore, which appeared directed at avoiding sanctions for nuclear-related transfers and conventional arms sales, a senior aide said.
House leaders also are considering an investigation of Mr. Gore’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy on Russia, staff aides said.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush also questioned Mr. Gore’s judgment in the arrangement with Mr. Chernomyrdin, who was Russia’s No. 2 leader in the early 1990s.
Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said yesterday that the Republican presidential nominee believes that Mr. Gore showed “incredibly bad judgment” in striking a deal in 1995 with the Russian prime minister not to tell Congress the details of Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran.
“The vice president owes the American people and the Congress an explanation,” she said. “It’s always a concern to learn that the vice president of the United States was involved in secret agreements with a foreign country secret agreements that apparently allowed Russia to send weapons to Iran for almost five years with no sanctions and were designed to keep Congress in the dark.”
Gore spokesman Jim Kennedy said yesterday that the vice president’s discussions with Mr. Chernomyrdin “were not a secret” because Mr. Gore mentioned he was holding “private discussions” during a news conference in 1996.
As for notifying Congress, Mr. Kennedy said: “The administration has kept Congress fully informed on Iranian nuclear cooperation with Russia and any reported advice from Prime Minister Chernomyrdin had no effect on our determination to keep the Congress fully informed.”
Senior aides from both the House and Senate disputed the assertion and said there was no notification of the 1995 nuclear deal to build the reactor.
Classified documents obtained by The Times show that Mr. Chernomyrdin provided Mr. Gore in a Dec. 9, 1995, letter with details on Russia’s deal with Iran to build a nuclear reactor. The Russian leader stated in the letter that the information could not be disclosed to “third parties, including the U.S. Congress,” adding that “I am counting on your understanding.”
A separate 1995 agreement, called an aide memoire and signed by Mr. Gore and Mr. Chernomyrdin, states that the United States would “take appropriate steps to avoid any penalties to Russia” under “domestic law” for conventional arms transfers to Iran.
Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and chairman of a critical assessment of the Clinton administration Russia policy, said six House committees looked into the matter during their investigation but were never informed of the Russian nuclear deal.
Mr. Cox said the story in The Times reveals “a second secret Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement allowing not only conventional weapons but nuclear technology to go to Iran.”
“There was no evidence of these recently revealed Gore-Chernomyrdin exchanges” in the investigation by the Speaker’s Advisory Group on Russia, he added.
A third document disclosed by The Times yesterday was a letter labeled “secret” that was sent in January by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
It states that the United States used the 1995 Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement to avoid applying U.S. weapons proliferation laws.
“Without the aide memoire, Russia’s conventional arms sales to Iran would have been subject to sanctions based on various provisions of our laws,” Mrs. Albright stated in the Jan. 13 letter.
“This is very disturbing,” said Lott spokesman John Czwartacki. “It appears that this administration by the admission in Madeleine Albright’s letter, allowed the Russians to evade U.S. sanctions.” Senate hearings on the issue are “under active consideration,” he said.
The Albright letter also drew sharp criticism from Mr. Helms, North Carolina Republican, who said it showed Mr. Gore agreed to help Russia evade U.S. law.
“The letter is a clear admission by Albright that Gore promised not to implement sanctions required by U.S. law a charge that has been vigorously denied by the vice president’s office,” Helms spokesman Marc Thiessen said.
National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger stated in a television interview Sunday that one U.S. sanctions law, the 1992 Iran-Iraq Nonproliferation Act, did not apply to Russian weapons sales.
“Albright’s letter to Ivanov shows that to be a lie,” Mr. Thiessen said.
Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush’s foreign policy adviser and a national security official under President Bush, backed a congressional investigation.
“I think the question really is about this series of deals and whether congressional oversight was followed,” said Miss Rice, an authority on Russia. “It’s troubling when you see something this secret. It’s an odd way of dealing.”
A senior staff member of the House International Relations Committee also stated that the Clinton administration failed to provide information contained in the Chernomyrdin letter to Mr. Gore to that committee, as required by a provision of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act.
The aide said the secret deals help explain why the Clinton administration has failed to provide two reports to Congress on Russian arms sales to Iran under a proliferation law passed last year.
“The reports would have shown the Russians were violating the 1995 aide memoire,” he said.