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Nuclear legacy. A U.S. government guard stands watch over gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment seized in 2003 from a ship bound for Libya.

Nuclear legacy. A U.S. government guard stands watch over gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment seized in 2003 from a ship bound for Libya.

U.S. Department of Energy

Plan to Allow Libyan Nuclear Scientists to Study in U.S. Draws Fire in Congress

Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives are raising objections to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plan to lift a 1983 ban on Libyan nationals receiving pilot training or studying nuclear science in the United States. At a hearing last week, supporters of lifting the ban said the move is needed to help Libya rebuild global ties after decades of international sanctions during the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Critics, however, worried it could help train potential terrorists.

The regulations at issue were created by President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the early 1980s, when Libya hosted terrorist training camps and sought to procure nuclear weapons. Libya was already included on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, but the Reagan administration wanted to make sure that Libyans were not able to come to the United States to learn to fly or repair aircraft, or study the nuclear sciences. Wanting to improve foreign relations with the United States, in 2003 Libya voluntarily ended its nuclear program, which was still in the early stages of uranium enrichment. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice removed the country as a state sponsor of terrorism in 2006.

In 2010, the Defense Department formally requested that DHS rescind the ban, hoping to improve foreign relations with Libya. Rebel forces killed Gaddafi and toppled his government the next year, but Pentagon officials have reiterated their request, in large part because they want to help rebuild the Libyan air force by training Libyan pilots at bases in the United States. The Pentagon says a renovated air force could help the country combat militant groups, such as those that killed four Americans at the U.S. embassy in Benghazi in 2012.

But some lawmakers expressed doubts at the 3 April joint hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. For instance, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) argued that the newly formed Libyan government cannot adequately assist the United States in vetting visa candidates. “When we go to give somebody a visa, we rely on the host nation to help us identify that person and understand their background,” he said. “That does not happen in Libya—they don’t have the infrastructure or the ability to do this.”

Administration officials disputed that idea. DHS officials adequately considered potential security risks when creating the draft proposal, said DHS Assistant Secretary of International Affairs Alan Bersin. He also noted that nationals of no other country except Iran are comprehensively banned from studying nuclear sciences in the United States. Instead, immigration and security officials consider such applications on a case-by-case basis.

Allowing Libyan nuclear scientists to study in the United States could provide a security benefit, said Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). “Historically we have sought to take weapon scientists from potential enemies and teach them something useful to do other than weapon science,” she said. “Because if that’s all you know how to do, that skill is for sale in the world.”

Before the ban can be lifted, DHS officials must publish a formal proposal and allow a period for public comment. Chaffetz suggested he would support a bill reaffirming the comprehensive Libyan ban while at the same time extending the ban to cover other nations with terrorist activity, but has proposed no specific legislation. Neither DHS nor Chaffetz established a timeline for any action.