What You Need to Know About Trump’s $8 Billion Saudi Arms Deal

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(Photo by Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images)

July 16, 2019
by
Marcia Robiou Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

The House raised the stakes in its standoff with the White House last week when it voted to block a major arms sale and end American involvement in the war in Yemen. These are only the latest moves in a months-long effort to rein in presidential war-making powers and reshape defense policy.

In May, the Trump administration issued an emergency declaration to push through an $8.1 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan without congressional approval. Proponents of the deal contend that a fresh supply of weapons is necessary to counter mounting Iranian aggression that threatens to destabilize the region and put U.S. security interests at risk. However, the declaration provoked anger from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who have criticized civilian deaths caused by Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen.

“There is no emergency to the United States or to UAE or to Saudi Arabia regarding the war in Yemen,” Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who introduced the measure to stop the deal, said on the House floor before the 246-180 vote. “It is a horrific humanitarian problem. The Saudi-led coalition has killed countless civilians. But it is not an emergency that would justify weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE that bypasses congressional procedure.”

Both chambers have registered their disapproval of the emergency declaration — the Senate voted to block the sale in June. President Trump, however, has pledged to shoot down the measure when it arrives at his desk.

The emergency package has generated controversy and become entangled in a number of headline-dominating issues. Here is what you need to know about the multi-billion-dollar arms deal roiling Congress.

Do presidents have the authority to fast-track major weapons sales?

Yes, but it is not commonly used. An obscure provision under the Arms Export Control Act allows a president to expedite weapons when there is an emergency that threatens U.S. national security interests.

In this case, the administration circumvented Congress by declaring an emergency over Iran.

The provision has been used four times before: twice to Saudi Arabia (1984 and 1990); one to North Yemen (1979); and one to Israel (2006).

What is the emergency with Iran that requires an immediate arms sale?

The short answer? We don’t know.

The Trump administration has justified the emergency arms sale by claiming that Iran poses an urgent and imminent threat to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Although the declaration comes amid mounting tensions with Iran, there is deep skepticism that an emergency is warranted.

Congressional scrutiny has homed in on the timeline of the decision-making process and the justification memo – a key document that spells out the rationale behind the emergency arms sale.

“I think getting the memo, who wrote it, who approved it, who cleared it — these are all pertinent questions because people should be held accountable and called into Congress to justify this radical act,” said Max Bergmann, a former State Department official who negotiated arms sales. “What was the decision making? Why did you call this an emergency? Was there pressure from defense companies?”

Three days before the emergency was announced on May 24, there was an intelligence briefing with Congress and the State and Defense departments. There was no mention of an escalating threat from Iran.

During intense grilling at a hearing in June, R. Clarke Cooper, a top State Department official whose bureau licenses arms exports, maintained that the congressional members were not intentionally left in the dark. He claims that he received new intelligence about Iran right after the May meeting.

What is inside the emergency arms deal?

There are approximately $8.1 billion of military equipment in the emergency transaction. It includes some of the world’s most sophisticated warfare aircraft, including precision-guided bombs, advanced F-15 fighter jets and laser-guided missiles. There is also about $1 million of small arms, such as semi-automatic rifles.

The deal includes a coproduction provision that allows Raytheon, a top U.S. weapons manufacturer, to team up with Saudi Arabia and build high-tech bomb parts, potentially sharing technology that has been closely guarded for national security reasons.

During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in June, Cooper downplayed concerns raised by Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., that Saudi Arabia might steal sensitive U.S. defense information as a result of the coproduction. He said that the technology was already in the “ecosystem” and “not new to the partner.”

An official with the State Department confirmed with FRONTLINE that this arms deal would not introduce new technologies or capabilities to Saudi Arabia.

“If the Saudis were to really get significant capabilities to produce weapons as a result of these partnerships, that would be a longer-term problem,” said Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at Center for International Policy. “They’re not going to stand up a full-fledged arms industry overnight, but it’s still concerning.”

Raytheon did not respond to FRONTLINE’s request for an interview, but spokesperson Mike Doble stated that their weapons sales reflect the foreign policy and national security interests of the U.S.

Cooper has indicated that some of the munitions, including thousands of the advanced Raytheon bombs, may already be on their way to the Gulf countries. Much of the other equipment will take months or years to be delivered to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The munitions package also includes technical support to countries not directly impacted by the supposed Iranian threat, such as India and the United Kingdom.

Why does Congress want to stop the arms deal?

It’s a combination of three main reasons.

Cutting out Congress: The administration is required to allow lawmakers 30 days to review proposed weapons sales. As a matter of courtesy, there is typically a pre-notification period. The congressional review process is one of the only instances that allows the public to scrutinize major arms sales to foreign countries.

The emergency declaration, however, derails that process.

“What the Trump administration has done is basically work around the will of the American people, which is expressed through Congress,” said Bergmann. “It’s finding a loophole in the law and using it in a way that wasn’t intended. I think that’s really quite worrying.”

Some see the emergency arms sale as a dangerous precedent that could empower future presidential administrations to undermine Congress’s constitutional authority.

“There is going to be further diplomatic pressure down the road. ‘Oh, just declare an emergency and provide them with this weapons system, just work around Congress, move, move, move faster,’” Bergmann said. “If Congress doesn’t exert its role, then what we have is simply an administration that has no accountability except to the president.”

Anger over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi: The Trump administration’s mysterious relationship with the Saudi royal family has come under increased scrutiny in the wake of U.S. resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in October.

The overarching concern is the message the U.S. is sending by deepening ties to Saudi Arabia instead of taking concrete actions to hold the kingdom accountable for Khashoggi’s murder.

“This sale is telling the Saudis that the U.S. is firmly in their corner,” Hartung said. “That might be the worst element of it, particularly in the post-Khashoggi murder period, to say the Trump administration more or less supports you to the hills.”

During a recent CNN interview, Trump said he was “extremely angry and very unhappy” about the Khashoggi murder, but — despite findings of the CIA and U.N. — claimed that nobody has directly implicated the crown prince Mohamed Bin Salman.

In the past, Trump has dismissed U.N. requests for the FBI to investigate the murder, suggesting it would get in the way of pending weapons transactions. The U.N. implicated the crown prince in the Washington Post columnist’s death, calling it a “premeditated execution.”

Trump’s first official foreign visit was to the royal kingdom – an early sign that he would place a high value on his relationship with the House of Saud. As a candidate, he made Saudi weapons deals a campaign issue, promising they would generate American jobs and boost the U.S. economy.

“Saudi Arabia is a big buyer of America product,” Trump said when NBC’s Chuck Todd asked him about the decision to override Congress and push through the weapons deal. “That means something to me.”

Congress has also zeroed in on the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is known to be close to the crown prince.

Mounting concerns over U.S. involvement in Yemen: Experts believe that the weapons are likely to be diverted to the frontlines in Yemen, where a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia has raged for nearly five years. In April, the House voted to end American involvement in the war in Yemen, sending a stinging rebuke to the Trump administration’s support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in the war-battered country.

“There’s sort of an implication that the Saudi-led coalition have used up their weaponry and are in desperate need of a resupply,” said Jeff Abramson, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association. “There are probably targets left which they have yet to hit, in which case you could expect these weapons to be used in those cases.”

Since 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out nearly 20,000 airstrikes, according to the Yemen Data Project. Over 6,000 of those have been non-military air raids, with close to 7,000 more strikes of unknown nature. American-made warplanes and bombs have played a central role in the coalition’s extensive air campaign.

The Trump administration maintains that direct engagement with Saudi Arabia can improve their ability to discriminate between civilian and military targets.

Under President Barack Obama, there was a sense that U.S. efforts to improve Saudi targeting capabilities were working until 2016, when the coalition bombed a crowded funeral home. The attack killed at least 155 people and wounded about 600, including the mayor of the capital city, who had been playing a significant role in negotiating a peaceful end to the war.

Discomfort over U.S. involvement in Yemen grew after the incident, and Obama blocked sales of precision-guided munitions to the coalition after the high-profile incident.

“We tried engagement, and their behavior didn’t improve,” Abramson said. “The track record shows that it is more by showing the Saudis that we are willing to criticize them and walk away that they get the message that they need to improve their behavior.”

However, a State Department official told FRONTLINE that U.S. engagement with the Saudi-led coalition has contributed to a decrease in civilian casualties.

“We remain committed to working with Saudi Arabia to improve processes which mitigate the risk of civilian harm during combat operations,” the official said. “Sustained engagement with the Coalition is the best way to do this.”

Kori Schake, a top national security official in the George W. Bush administration, said that without U.S. assistance and support, the Saudis are likely to be even less capable of achieving a military objective without causing exorbitant civilian damage.

The conflict’s total death toll is fast approaching the 100,000 mark, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. The U.N. attributes 65 percent of civilian deaths in Yemen to coalition airstrikes.

“Even if tomorrow the Saudis were to improve their targeting practice, people would continue to die at an unacceptably high rate,” said Scott Paul, Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor at Oxfam.

Yemen is currently experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In March, the U.N. declared that 10 million Yemenis are “one step away from famine.”

The House vote on the weapons deal is coming at a significant moment in the fragile peace process in Yemen. On July 8, the Emiratis agreed to “a strategic redeployment” of its forces from the port city of Hodeidah – the first official confirmation of a withdrawal.

Will Congress be able to stop the emergency weapons deal?

It’s unlikely.

Last month, the Senate passed three bipartisan resolutions blocking the weapons deal but did not generate enough votes to override a presidential veto — neither did the House.

However, lawmakers have taken other paths to curb the president.

At the end of June, the Senate advanced bipartisan legislation that would limit the president’s authority to greenlight emergency arms sales without congressional input. The proposed law, the descriptively named Saudi Arabia False Emergencies Act, restricts such transactions to situations in which most of the weapons can be delivered within 60 days and that pose a clear physical threat.

The House also voted last month to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, a law that has been criticized for granting the president too much power to authorize war. Trump’s administration has been escalating tensions with Iran, leading to concerns that it will use the 9/11-era law to justify war. Presidents from both parties have invoked the AUMF at least 30 times to authorize troop deployments and other military actions across the globe.

This is the first time the House has successfully passed a repeal of the law since it was enacted in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

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