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WASHINGTON - The Biden administration wants to keep a controversial Trump policy that jump-started sales of armed drones to countries whose human rights records are under scrutiny in the United States and elsewhere, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
When former President Donald Trump's administration reinterpreted the Cold War-era arms agreement between 35 nations known as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to increase drone sales, arms control advocates and some top Democratic lawmakers feared it would worsen global conflicts.
While it's too early to tell if that is the case, sales have risen.
Keeping the policy could also be at odds with President Joe Biden's campaign pledge to "make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms". When Biden was vice president under President Barack Obama, human rights groups criticized their administration for armed drone attacks on Taliban militants in Afghanistan that also killed civilians.
From 2018 to 2020 Washington had been renegotiating the 33-year old MTCR to lift agreed-upon limits on the proliferation of drone technology. But last year Trump shelved an effort to rewrite the pact and decided to offer U.S. drones to nearly any country that wanted to buy them. https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL2N2EV1JW
Biden wants to renew those talks, the sources said.
While stealthy jets such as the $79 million F-35 grab headlines, drones are far less expensive but can still execute high-risk missile strikes and surveillance missions without endangering a pilot. Many of the U.S.-made aerial vehicles fly fast and carry big payloads, making them highly sought after while strengthening a country's ties with the U.S. military.
The White House National Security Council (NSC) is studying how to keep the policy in place while the Department of State is asking allies and other countries that sell drones to adopt the U.S. position, people familiar with the matter said.
Though no decision has been passed up to the undersecretary cabinet level, people briefed on internal administration talks said it was leaning towards keeping Trump's more expansive export policy.
"They are not going to walk it back," one of the people said of the policy that Trump had hoped would take market share from Chinese-made drones.
An official at the NSC said, "the U.S. government will continue to invoke its national discretion" and treat large drones as though they fall outside the purview of the MTCR, which was written to control the proliferation of cruise missiles.
HOLDING DOOR OPEN
Keeping the policy holds the door open for hundreds of millions and eventually billions of dollars in U.S. sales to governments in Taiwan, India, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates that in the past have been prohibited from buying them.