The Hillary Clinton Russia Uranium One Conspiracy Theory Doesn't Make Any Sense

Information is displayed on a website that sells uranium, on November 30, 2006, in London. Experts are deeply skeptical of a conspiracy theory that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed through the sale of a uranium mining company. Photo illustration by Scott Barbour/Getty Images

A conspiracy theory involving uranium, Russians, bribery and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton managed to trigger a congressional probe this week. But if the story seems unbelievable, well, that's exactly what it is, some expert observers said.

"I have to say that this is one of those things where reasonable people cannot disagree: There just aren't two sides," said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear materials and nonproliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

The controversy centers around a 2010 deal that allowed a Russian company to take over management of uranium mines in Wyoming and Utah, and it gained steam after The Hill reported on October 17 that the FBI had been investigating allegations that American trucking companies offered bribes to Russian nuclear officials tied to the deal.

According to documents released by The Hill, the bribes were organized by Vadim Mikerin, who managed U.S. operations for the Russian firm Rosatom and its subsidiary Tenex—the company that would buy Uranium One, the manager of the mines—and allegedly helped the American companies secure deals to truck Russian nuclear material in the U.S. through kickbacks to Russian officials.

The Hill described the bribes as "designed to grow [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's atomic energy business inside the United States," although the alleged bribes, which totaled about $2 million, covered only transport contracts for Russian nuclear material and didn't actually increase Russian uranium sales in the U.S.

The U.S. produces very little uranium—about 2 million pounds in 2015, a year nuclear power plants imported 57 million pounds of the element. The vast majority of the uranium comes from Kazakhstan and Australia.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Obama administration's "reset" with Russia on September 8, 2012. JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages

But the idea that Russia had bought control of one of the larger uranium mines in the U.S. led some imaginations to run wild, even if that uranium isn't being used for weapons. Russia and the U.S. have worked to shrink nuclear stockpiles in recent years.

Conservative media outlets have been circulating theories about the deal for years, and Donald Trump even brought it up while campaigning for the presidency. Trump claimed that Clinton "approved the transfer of 20 percent of America's uranium holdings to Russia, while nine investors in the deal funneled $145 million to the Clinton Foundation."

The Hill article sent such coverage into overdrive. Lou Dobbs ran a segment on his Fox Business show under the banner "Russia Collusion" and featuring a photo of Clinton the day the story was published. Trump hyped the theory again several times in the past week, calling the deal a "modern-day Watergate" and the "real Russia story."

The guilt by association theory centers on Clinton's role on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). The committee reviews deals that would transfer to foreign ownership companies that might be sensitive to national security.

According to the conspiracy theory, Clinton received money from several people affiliated with the uranium mine deal, and then pushed the CFIUS to approve it in return.

The problem is, that's not how CFIUS works. Clinton's vote would have been only one of nine, as the reviews are run by the Treasury Department and other Cabinet secretaries get to weigh in.

"The secretary of state is one, and frankly not usually a very powerful, member of the committee," said Steve Grundman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who dealt with CFIUS reviews while serving in the Pentagon in the 1990s. "You have to remember with CFIUS, the first letter stands for the committee."

Also, Cabinet secretaries almost never deal with the committee themselves, instead delegating to underlings. For Clinton, that delegate was the assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, Jose Fernandez.

"Secretary Clinton never intervened with me on any CFIUS matter," Fernandez told Time in 2015. Two former State Department officials who served under Clinton told Newsweek that Clinton would have been notified of a CFIUS decision only if there were disagreement among members of the committee, which would push a final decision to the president. The CFIUS decision on the Uranium One deal, however, was unanimous—all nine representatives agreed to approve it.

Inside a uranium mine in Canada, July 2007. DAVID BOILY/AFP/Getty Images

"For this conspiracy theory to be true, she would have to twist the arms of all these other eight Cabinet secretaries, which is completely absurd and completely implausible," said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who specializes in U.S.-Russia relations and who worked at the State Department under both Clinton and her successor, John Kerry.

The claim that Clinton received big money for the Clinton Foundation from those tied to the Tenex–Uranium One deal is also tenuous. PolitiFact reviewed that claim, which was floated in a book by an editor at the far-right media outlet Breitbart, and found that almost all the money came from Frank Giustra, who sold his stake in Uranium One before Clinton became secretary of state.

Bergmann said the claim "just doesn't make any sense. It's just frankly a vehicle for distraction."

According to the experts, even if Clinton had somehow managed to tilt the CFIUS decision in favor of Russian buyers, it wouldn't matter: The mine isn't very important.

The Russian-owned company does not have a license to export the uranium, and the actual mining process is not sensitive at all.

"It's just a mine," Lewis said. "There's no technology that's special. There's no shortage of uranium around the world."

Also, the deal took place during a period when the U.S. was trying to rebuild economic ties to Russia after Clinton and President Barack Obama initiated a "reset" with that country. The U.S. was buying helicopters from Russia for Afghanistan's army, as well as rockets for U.S. satellite programs. It was a time before Russia had invaded Ukraine and meddled in the U.S. election.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a Republican, announces that his committee and the House oversight committee are starting the investigation into the uranium deal on October 24. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Lewis said that even if he were asked to review the sale today, his security assessment would not change.

"We might refuse it to be bloody minded because we wouldn't want to engage in any economic action, but it's not a national security issue," he said. "The uranium, it's harmless."

Still, all the hubbub about it has triggered a probe. Announced Tuesday, it is being led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. Nunes became a household name when he handed over the responsibility for running the committee's probe into Russian election meddling after word of his secret visits to the White House came to light.

Nunes said the Uranium One probe would focus on the FBI investigation into the bribery scheme, and whether it should have affected the CFIUS decision. Although Clinton's name has appeared in nearly every conservative media segment discussing the deal, and appeared repeatedly in the article published by The Hill, Nunes did not mention the former presidential candidate when announcing the probe.

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