Open Letter on Saudi Arabia
Anthony B. Newkirk
|Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) ChairmanHouse Committee on Foreign Affairs||Howard L. Berman (D-CA)Ranking MemberHouse Committee on Foreign Affairs|
June 22, 2012
On October 20, 2010, the Obama administration announced approval of projected arms transfer agreements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia totaling over $60 billion in value. On February 16, 2011, I wrote a letter to you requesting further information. As I have not yet received a response, I am resubmitting my questions in a more public forum.
It is not hard to fathom why the United States and Saudi Arabia have very close ties. The perception that our country is dependent on “Arab oil” is firmly implanted in popular opinion. But the topic of security assistance for Saudi Arabia is not, an example being the 2010 Saudi arms deal. Of course, this is hardly the only problem facing our nation in this time of assaults on job security, social services, and civil liberties. It is also far from being the only problem in the Middle East. However, the Saudi arms deal focuses attention on a range of issues related to America’s fiscal soundness, security, and defense of human rights.
Last year Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro called the Saudi arms deal “the largest defense trade deal in history with Saudi Arabia.” In a letter dated November 10, 2010, you and 196 other members of the House of Representatives had expressed concern about the transaction to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. But I am aware of no formal congressional action after the one-month deadline was reached on November 20, 2010, in keeping with the Arms Export Control Act (AECA).
During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on May 12, 2011, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller testified the events of the Arab Spring put defense trade agreements with the Gulf Cooperation Council “on hold” and details could be discussed in “closed hearing.” While only fragments of information are openly available, notices issued by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency from the very day of your hearing through the end of 2011 indicated otherwise. In this period, the DSCA confirmed Saudi intentions to buy over $2 billion of night vision equipment, armored vehicles, cluster bombs, howitzers, and Humvees from American defense contractors in line with the 2010 announcement. This is besides on-going DSCA notices of proposed sales of advanced weapons systems to all GCC countries.
In November, the Wall Street Journal reported and the DSCA confirmed that the Obama administration was shipping advanced weaponry to GCC members, including Joint Direct Action Munitions systems to the United Arab Emirates. This was not unprecedented because Israel, the UAE, and Oman got JDAMs in the past. But the lack of congressional and, curiously, Israeli opposition to 1,000 JDAM kits in the 2010 arms deal was unprecedented (to be precise, they were tucked into a $30 billion transaction sealed last Christmas Eve for 84 new Boeing F-15SA fighters plus repairs to F-15s in the Saudi air force; the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute judges this the world’s single largest arms transfer in the past two decades and in 2011 alone). Another part of the 2010 arms package has attack helicopters for Saudi internal security forces, which will increase “sustainability and interoperability with the U.S. Army, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and other coalition forces.” Defense Industry Daily reports many agreements between the Saudis and U.S. arms contractors approved in 2010 have gone through, with the rest waiting in the pipeline.
The arms deal does not apply only to land and air forces. In response to questions submitted to Congressman Tim Griffin, a committee member and my congressional representative, his office had emailed me the following message on February 24, 2011:
The $60 billion Saudi deal for F-15 fighters has already cleared Congress but prospective sales of naval ships and missile-defense systems to Saudi Arabia and other regional partners have yet to be completed and could run into congressional hurdles.
It later came to my attention that this passage appeared verbatim in a report published in the Wall Street Journal the previous day, a fact not pointed out in the email. However, the reference to “naval ships” in the newspaper report was interesting if only because there are not yet been any DSCA notices to this effect. But it is also a matter of public record that we have backed the “Saudi Naval Expansion Program II” since it was established in the 1990s.
It is often said that arms transfers to the Persian Gulf are needed to defend the United States and its allies from Iran. This argument rests in a frame of debate encompassing enhanced sanctions, legislation you yourselves introduced a year ago that would hamper diplomatic contact with Iran, or the wild card of general war. A big argument for sanctions is they will forestall Iran’s nuclear weapons program – assuming such a program exists, which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has his doubts about – and the threatening presence of late of the Iranian navy in the Persian Gulf and surrounding waters. But claims about Iranian designs lack persuasiveness, particularly in comparison with Saudi behavior in the region. It would therefore be wiser to spell out the economic reasons why the United States should protect Saudi Arabia, as a recent Heritage Foundation report attempted to do.
Another argument is that some details concerning talks between arms contactors and foreign nations, facilitated by the federal government, are private and this is necessary in the War on Terror. Still another argument is arms deals bring jobs. But besides using its declining resources to care for our veterans, America must bear the costs incurred by special interests justifying their actions in terms of “privacy.” And while U.S. citizens in effect guarantee the risks of profit-driven defense trade, it has played a small role in increasing sustained employment in the current economic downturn. If I am mistaken, please set me straight.
In terms of America-Saudi relations, little is truly secret. There is a well-documented history of Saudi-U.S. defense cooperation going back to World War II, information Congress already possesses thanks in part to the work of the Congressional Research Service. It is therefore hard to understand why so many elected officials from both parties are hesitant about sharing public information with American taxpayers.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is to be commended for its attention to the terrible events in Syria. But the human rights implications of arms sales to Saudi Arabia are receiving short shrift. In fact, both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations have been silent when questions about the House of Saud’s commitment to human rights and the sovereignty of neighboring countries arise.
The death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud reminds us Saudi Arabia is one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world. It is public knowledge that campaigns of repression against dissidents have been underway across the country for a very long time. A report recently issued by Amnesty International claims the Saudi government has meted out harsh prison sentences to hundreds of people, including intellectuals, workers, and professionals, young and old, male and female, citizens and guest workers. The victims are of all tendencies within Islam and well as other faiths. The gross economic inequality between the scions of the House of Saud and the bulk of the Saudi population has even gone viral.
The Saudis staged air strikes in northern Yemen in 2009 against insurgents fighting the country’s president who was a close Saudi ally, a move supported by the United States according to a diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks. In 2011, Saudi troops entered Bahrain, another close ally. As demonstrated by on-going construction at the local U.S. Navy base and renewed arms shipments, Bahrain’s shocking human rights crisis is by no means affecting our deep commercial and strategic ties with that country’s rulers. Like former administrations, the White House claims it has no position on Saudi-Bahraini cooperation.
No one likes to consider matter of Saudi involvement in 9/11, which is understandable as this was truly a day of infamy and Saudi Arabia is a close ally. But there are many unanswered questions and the public has a right to know the truth – a matter incidentally being taken up in Manhattan District Court. Surely the death of Army First Sergeant David Robinson in the Kingdom in October also deserves closer attention.
In light of the enormity of these matters, to say nothing of the seeming contradictions in relation to them, I have eight questions:
1. If JDAMs were considered too controversial to include in the Bush administration’s $63 billion arms package for the GCC in 2007, why were they inserted in the Saudi arms deal three years later?
2. In terms of Saudi Arabia’s internal defense, what is the exact meaning of “sustainability and interoperability with the U.S. Army, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and other coalition forces”?
3. Why are littoral combat ships under consideration for sale to Saudi Arabia?
4. What is the current status of the proposed sale of littoral combat ships?
5. Although its existence is not classified, why doesn’t the American public know more about the United States Military Training Mission that has functioned in Saudi Arabia for the past 63 year?
7. What were the circumstances of Sergeant Robinson’s death?
8. Why won’t the U.S. government comment on Saudi-Bahraini ties?
Americans have a right to know how, and for what purposes, our tax money is spent in Saudi Arabia. American taxpayers subsidize arms producers like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin with little benefit accruing to general living standards. One might be tempted to wonder if defense trade in general is merely a bailout of the defense industry. But if there is a larger context to defense trade, the American people can come to terms with it. That is, as long as there is nothing dishonest about the larger context. I am sure you agree.
I am sure you also agree that attention should never be distracted from what are obvious contradictions with emotion-laden appeals to prejudice, racial, national, religious, or otherwise (during the Dubai Port World controversy, it was often forgotten some Dubai-based companies have Pentagon contracts). And under no circumstances do random and disjointed pieces of information constitute transparency. Even if my questions are irrelevant in our world of power politics, concern for the democratic process impels me to request frank answers.
Since the inception of our republic, the House of Representatives has been the most open branch of government. The House Foreign Affairs Committee can help to perpetuate this proud tradition by, among other things, backing reform of the AECA. It is true that AECA reform is a source of concern to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. You nevertheless seem to be preoccupied with how to service what you, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, have termed “our American businesses.” But what needs reforming the most is accountability to the general public that pays for arms contractors’ profits and losses.
When the White House has discussions with congressional staff, Congress should relay these discussions to the public. Or at least the reason why the conversations must be kept confidential should be promptly explained. Information about the public subsidy of private activities with serious human rights implications should not be buried in official hearings or press handouts. My concerns are not unprecedented. For instance, a report issued by the General Accountability Office two years ago addressed problems with defense trade record-keeping practices in the framework of the Gulf Security Dialogue.
Hence, I call for the insertion of unambiguous clauses in a revised ACEA that:
- require the White House to submit its defense trade endorsements to both Congress and the general public for approval;
- grant U.S. citizens enough time to give defense trade endorsements informed consideration, and to vote on them in special referendums;
- deny U.S. approval or funding of private arms sales to governments that violate universally-recognized human rights standards in any context.
If these suggestions are a bit impractical, the fact remains that the Saudi arms deal highlights the dangerous state our foreign and domestic affairs have fallen into. Nor is this specific issue an isolated or unprecedented phenomenon, another fact that should alone give rise to outrage. For the reasons I have outlined and for others you are doubtless much more intimately aware of than I am, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs should demand full transparency about the Saudi arms deal. Let the chips fall where they may.
Sincerely, Anthony B. Newkirk