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Defense bill nixes sanctions on Jamal Khashoggi’s killers

Changes protect US relationship with important ally — Saudi Arabia

Protests against the Saudi government for the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi have continued, including earlier this year in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
Protests against the Saudi government for the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi have continued, including earlier this year in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Armed Services Committee leaders stripped from this year’s defense authorization bill every provision their colleagues had included to limit U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia over human rights concerns, even a proposed ban on selling weapons to the Saudi government unit whose members killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

The provisions at issue were passed by the House or Senate Armed Services Committee in their versions of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act but left out of the final bill that was negotiated by the leaders behind closed doors. (The full Senate never passed its version because of a dispute over amendments.)

One of the six legislative proposals was weakened, while five of them were completely deleted with only this explanation in the report accompanying the measure: “The agreement does not include this provision.”

One of the House-approved measures would have barred funding for the sale or transfer of certain weapons — including handcuffs, tasers or any sort of military training — to the Rapid Intervention Force, also known as the “Tiger Squad.” 

Seven members of that force were on the team that killed and dismembered Khashoggi, who was a Washington Post columnist, in a diplomatic facility in Turkey in 2018, according to a declassified U.S. intelligence report made public earlier this year.

In that report, officials concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally approved the plan to capture or kill Khashoggi. The report named 21 other individuals who the intelligence officials believed with “high confidence” shared responsibility for the murder.

A second provision removed without explanation set forth sanctions for Khashoggi’s killers. 

That section, which was part of the House-passed bill, would have prohibited the 21 individuals who helped kill Khashoggi from getting or keeping U.S. visas. And it would have required a State Department report to Congress on any entity controlled in whole or in part by one of the suspects. Now no such restrictions are in the offing.

Blank check?

House and Senate negotiators writing a final bill always jettison numerous provisions passed by one or more chambers as they write a compromise measure. However, the NDAA negotiators’ removal of every section of either bill that would have gotten tough on Saudi Arabia is a noteworthy statement of reluctance to allow even grievous human-rights abuses to complicate an important strategic relationship.

“I stand with our partners especially when they face threats from Iran and Iran-backed groups,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate panel, in a statement to CQ Roll Call.

A Senate Armed Services Committee Republican aide said retaining the provisions “would have jeopardized timely passage of the NDAA.”

Other Armed Services leaders did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

But three House Democrats announced Tuesday they voted against the NDAA agreement because, they said, unnamed senators had eliminated the Saudi provisions. The House members did not elaborate on all the provisions that were removed.

In a joint statement, Ro Khanna of California, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia wrote that “a small group of senators — for reasons that are not publicly explained or challenged — exercised a veto over these measures, even though most have repeatedly gone through regular order, have been passed by the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, and enjoy bipartisan backing in the Senate.”

The members said the provisions at issue would have told the Saudis that U.S. support is not a blank check.

“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia will not be improved if every time its rulers defy U.S. concerns, we take it upon ourselves to sweep those concerns under the rug,” they added.

All weapons bans nixed

Yet another House-passed provision removed from the final bill would have barred the transfer of weapons to a Saudi intelligence, internal security, or law enforcement agency, unless the U.S. president certified that the Saudi government was no longer taking actions such as imprisoning, torturing or killing its citizens. The presidential certification would have had to be produced every 120 days.

That same rejected provision would also have required reports to Congress on Saudi intimidation or harassment of people in the United States or Saudi use of its diplomatic facilities as cover for such actions. 

The measure included authority for the U.S. government to waive the requirement if security concerns were deemed to justify a waiver. 


Reports of a Saudi-led military coalition’s human rights abuses in its six year old war against Houthi rebels in Yemen have also deeply concerned many U.S. lawmakers. But the final NDAA is now silent on that issue as well.

Two sections removed from the NDAA would have restricted U.S. support for Saudi military operations against Houthi rebels in Yemen. 

One of the provisions was in the Senate Armed Services Committee bill, one was in the House bill. But neither made it into the final measure — a somewhat unusual occurrence, given that each chamber had indicated its support for taking some action.

In fact, this was the third year in a row negotiators writing the final NDAA had removed such a limitation, according to Khanna, the author of the House-passed provision, who has long pushed for tying U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia to signs of improvement in that country’s human rights record. 

“The removal of my amendment to prohibit U.S. military support for the war in Yemen from the NDAA highlights the power that the Saudi regime along with defense contractors have over Congress,” Khanna told CQ Roll Call via email. “This was our best chance to end our complicity in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and we failed to act.”

One other part of the bill pertaining to Yemen was kept in the final NDAA but in significantly diluted form. It originally would have required a U.S. government report on whether Saudi military aircraft are causing civilian casualties in Yemen. If the answer was yes, the provision would have barred funding to buy, service or support such planes. 

The final bill would only require the report, not the consequence. 

Senate pulls a punch

The House passed the final NDAA on Tuesday, the same day the Senate, too, cast a vote showing its reluctance to withhold additional U.S. government support for the Saudi government. 

The Senate voted 30-67 against a ban on a sale to Saudi Arabia of $650 million worth of American-made air-to-air missiles and missile launchers.

The U.S. government has reduced its military support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen in recent years, but such aid continues in many forms.

The Trump administration declared in 2018 that U.S. tanker aircraft would no longer refuel Saudi warplanes deployed to fight in Yemen. But Trump continued intelligence support to Saudi Arabia and arms sales to the kingdom.

When President Joe Biden took office, he blocked the sale of “offensive” weapons to the Saudis, though news reports have indicated that U.S. contractor support continues for American-made combat aircraft in Saudi squadrons. And in a statement issued in advance of Tuesday’s Senate vote, the White House said Biden strongly opposed barring the missile sale because the weapons were defensive in nature.

Senators disagreed this week on whether the missiles in the pending sale were defensive or not, but those who supported the sale carried the day. 

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued not selling the missiles would reduce U.S. influence, and he predicted U.S. adversaries would likely just sell the arms to Saudi Arabia anyway.

In 2019, Congress displayed a rare rebuff of the Saudis when both chambers voted to block a proposed sale of munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates amid concerns about the strikes in Yemen. But Trump vetoed that resolution and Congress lacked the votes to override it. 

Human rights concerns

The reluctance to buck Saudi Arabia is due largely to the fact that the kingdom is a pivotal U.S. ally in a troubled region. And the Saudi regime remains a bulwark against Iran, a country that America has been at loggerheads with for more than four decades.  

Yet Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights has not improved, according to advocates. 

“Virtually all known Saudi Arabian human rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned at the end of the year,” said Amnesty International in a 2020 report.

And Human Rights Watch observes that a Saudi-led coalition’s “unlawful” military strikes in Yemen “have killed and wounded thousands of civilians.”

Meanwhile, the day after the House voted for the final NDAA and the Senate approved the latest arms deal, the city council of Washington, D.C., voted to rename the street in front of the Saudi embassy in the city. It will be called, “Jamal Khashoggi Way.”

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