Obama administration using loophole to quietly sell arms package to Bahrain

By Josh Rogin

President Barack Obama‘s administration has been delaying its planned $53 million arms sale to Bahrain due to human rights concerns and congressional opposition, but this week administration officials told several congressional offices that they will move forward with a new and different package of arms sales — without any formal notification to the public.

The congressional offices that led the charge to oppose the original Bahrain arms sales package are upset that the State Department has decided to move forward with the new package. The opposition to Bahrain arms sales is led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), and also includes Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee chairman Robert Casey (D-PA), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Wyden and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) have each introduced a resolution in their respective chambers to prevent the U.S. government from going through with the original sale, which would have included 44 armored, high-mobility Humvees and over 300 advanced missiles.

The State Department has not released details of the new sale, and Congress has not been notified through the regular process, which requires posting the information on the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) website. The State Department simply briefed a few congressional offices and is going ahead with the new sale, arguing it didn’t meet the threshold that would require more formal notifications and a public explanation.

At today’s State Department press briefing, The Cable asked spokeswoman Victoria Nulandabout the new sale. She acknowledged the new package but didn’t have any details handy.

Our congressional sources said that State is using a legal loophole to avoid formally notifying Congress and the public about the new arms sale. The administration can sell anything to anyone without formal notification if the sale is under $1 million. If the total package is over $1 million, State can treat each item as an individual sale, creating multiple sales of less than $1 million and avoiding the burden of notification, which would allow Congress to object and possibly block the deal.

We’re further told that State is keeping the exact items in the sale secret, but is claiming they are for Bahrain’s “external defense” and therefore couldn’t be used against protesters. Of course, that’s the same argument that State made about the first arms package, which was undercut byvideos showing the Bahraini military using Humvees to suppress civilian protesters.

Regardless, congressional opponents to Bahrain arms sales are planning to fight back. Wyden is circulating a letter now to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that Bahrain’s government continues to commit human rights violations and should not be rewarded with U.S. arms sales.

“The Bahraini government has shown little progress in improving their human rights record over the last few months and in some ways, their record has gotten worse,” Wyden told The Cable on Friday. “Protesters are still being hurt and killed, midnight arrests are still happening and the government continues to deny access to human rights monitors. The kingdom of Bahrain has not shown a true good faith effort to improve human rights in their country and the U.S. should not be rewarding them as if they have.”

“Supplying arms to a regime that continues to persecute its citizens is not in the best interest of the United States,” Wyden said. “When the government of Bahrain shows that it respects the human rights of its citizens it will become more stable and a better ally in the region; only then should arms sales from the U.S. resume.”

That point was echoed by McGovern, who pledged to oppose any arms sales to Bahrain.

“The government of Bahrain continues to perpetrate serious human rights abuses and to deny independent monitors access to the country,” McGovern told The Cable. “Until Bahrain takes more substantial and lasting steps to protect the rights of its own citizens, the United States should not reward its government with any military sales.”

A State Department official declined to give specifics of the new arms package to The Cable but said that Bahrain was moving in the right direction.

“We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations, but more needs to be done,” the official said. “We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation.”

Cherif Bassiouni, the chair of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry that investigated the government crackdown on protests in 2011, recently said in an interview that the administration is not doing enough to pressure the Bahrain regime. “There is merit in naming and shaming and embarrassing, in pushing, in enlisting public opinion, domestic and international. This is not the style of Secretary Clinton or President Obama, and I’m not sure they are necessarily doing the right choice,” he said.

Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told The Cable on Friday that the new sale will be perceived by both the government of Bahrain and those in the opposition as a green light for the government to continue its repression.

“In the broader picture of the Arab Spring, this further erodes the credibility of U.S. rhetoric about democracy and human rights in the region,” he said. “Rewarding regimes that repress peaceful dissent with arms sales simply does not square with the administration’s rhetoric. The administration can no longer afford to endorse the status quo in Bahrain.”

Maryam al-Khawaja, the head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told The Cable on Friday that the sale of U.S. arms to the Bahraini regime sends the wrong message to the people of Bahrain, and the region in general.

“This message of ‘business as usual’ will only strengthen the regime’s belief that there will continue to be lack of consequences to their human rights violations internationally,” she said. “At a time when the United States is already being criticized for practicing double standards when it comes to the so-called Arab spring, to the protesters in Bahrain, the U.S. selling any arms to the government of Bahrain is exactly like Russia selling arms to Syria. Bahrain has become the United States’ test on how serious they are about standing against human rights violations, and they are failing miserably.”

UPDATE: Late Friday evening, the State Department sent out a lenghty statement on the arms sales:


We are maintaining a pause on most security assistance for Bahrain pending further progress on reform.

During the last two weeks, representatives from the State Department and Department of Defense briefed appropriate Congressional staff on our intention to release some previously notified equipment needed for Bahrain’s external defense and support of Fifth Fleet operations.  This includes spare parts and maintenance of equipment.  None of these items can be used against protestors.

This isn’t a new sale nor are we using a legal loophole.  The items that we briefed to Congress were notified and cleared by the Hill previously or are not large enough to require Congressional notification.  In fact, we’ve gone above and beyond what is legally or customarily required by consulting with Congressional staff on items that do not require Congressional notification.

We have and will continue to use our security assistance to reinforce reforms in Bahrain.  We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) recommendations, but more needs to be done.  We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation.

We will continue to consult extensively with Congress on this policy.