Musk’s Denial of Ukraine’s Starlink Request Prompts Senate Probe

(Bloomberg) -- The Senate Armed Services Committee is looking into national security issues raised by Elon Musk’s decision not to extend the private Starlink satellite network to aid a Ukrainian attack on Russian warships near the Crimean coast.

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Chairman Jack Reed said in a statement that the reports on the use of Starlink exposed “serious national-security liability issues and the committee is engaged on this issue.”

“The committee is aggressively probing this issue from every angle,” he said Thursday.

Musk’s SpaceX also has become a major US contractor, launching spy satellites for the Defense Department and operating the Starlink network. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reed added that the committee would look at the broader satellite market, government contracting and “the outsized role Mr. Musk and his company have taken here.”

“Neither Elon Musk, nor any private citizen, can have the last word when it comes to U.S. national security,” Reed said.

Other Democratic senators on the committee, including Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, pressed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a letter Friday for answers on why it was Musk — and not a US government official — deciding when Ukraine could use the satellite network.

“SpaceX is a prime contractor and a critical industry partner for the DoD and the recipient of billions of dollars in taxpayer funding,” they said. “We are deeply concerned with the ability and willingness of SpaceX to interrupt their service at Mr. Musk’s whim and for the purpose of handcuffing a sovereign country’s self-defense, effectively defending Russian interests.”

The senators asked for a detailed accounting by Oct. 31 of incidents where SpaceX or others disabled services in Ukraine, what obligations the Defense Department puts on contractors like SpaceX, and whether the Defense Production Act or other provisions could play a role in ensuring continuity of service. The senators also raised concerns about the potential for disruption of Starlink or other commercial services by other allies and partners, including Taiwan.

Musk said earlier this week on the All-In Podcast that he would have extended Starlink for the Ukrainians in Crimea if President Joe Biden had directed him to do so, but no such directive came.

Musk said on the podcast that Starlink had been turned off over Crimea originally because of US sanctions on Russia.

At the time of Ukraine’s request last year, Musk wasn’t getting any US funding for Starlink’s operations in Ukraine, although it currently is supported with Pentagon funds.

A congressional aide who asked not to be named to discuss internal deliberations said the panel is not yet launching a formal investigation but rather gathering information.

Shaheen said in a brief interview she has asked administration officials during classified briefings about control over the use of Starlink in Ukraine and has not gotten answers.

--With assistance from Loren Grush.

(Updates with senators’ letter, starting in seventh paragraph.)

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