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 Nuland about 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 by videos 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."
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
"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
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.