Sources: Defense bill stripped of tougher Saudi Arabia measures

When an annual defense spending bill was passed by the House of Representatives this week, it was stripped of multiple measures to compel tougher consequences on Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses, three congressional sources familiar with the legislation told CNN.

The removal of these measures was spearheaded by congressional Republicans leading the negotiations, who found themselves under pressure from the White House, the sources said.

The final version gave Democrats and Republicans victories, and authorized paid parental leave of 12 weeks for federal workers for the first time.

But it prompted deep frustration among those who have been critical of President Donald Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Trump has consistently touted Saudi purchases of US weapons systems and sought to shield the kingdom’s leadership from being vilified by the murder Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Washington Post journalist who lived in the US.

A measure to immediately revoke the visas of those responsible for the Khashoggi murder was yanked from the final version of the spending bill, called the National Defense Authorization Act. The measure was included in the Saudi Human Rights Accountability Act — bipartisan legislation that would have implemented this move — that passed in the House by a vote of 405-7 earlier this year.

The final version of the defense spending bill requires the intelligence community to provide a full official list of the people responsible for, or complicit in, Khashoggi’s murder to be given to Congress within 30 days of being signed.

The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered and monitored Khashoggi’s murder, according to members of Congress who have been briefed on the matter, but this will be a formal declaration of that assessment.

Yet without the teeth of visa restrictions, or any other immediate tangible consequence, members of Congress worry about the limited impact the list will have.

“It is a list, but with no explicit consequences,” explained a source who was frustrated with the way it turned out. “We needed more than that.”

The passage of the bill, which Trump has said he will sign, comes as the FBI continues to investigate the shooting at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, which was carried out by a Saudi national.

The bill also contains cuts to provisions that would have banned the sale of defensive weapons systems to Saudi Arabia — like precision-guided munitions, which the Saudis are using in Yemen — and the sharing of intelligence and logistical support that the Saudis use in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has led a coalition, in close partnership with the United Arab Emirates and including various militia groups, to fight Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015.

When specifically asked by CNN why banning arms sales to Saudis was cut from the bill, Republican senators declined to comment on the record.

The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to vote on the bill by the end of next week before sending it to Trump’s desk. It is likely to pass the Senate, given the fact that the majority of the negotiations occurred with involvement of both House and Senate leadership.

The final version of the bill left Saudis satisfied, explained a source familiar with the Saudis’ perspective this week. The Saudis engaged with lawmakers as they were drafting the final version.

As Democrats looked at the watered-down version, they pointed fingers directly at the White House. Jared Kushner, a senior adviser and the President’s son-in-law, was one of the White House negotiators at the table and advocated against any tough on Saudi measures, two sources said.

The White House declined to comment on Kushner’s role or the specific negotiations involving measures related to Saudi Arabia.

Kushner is viewed as the White House’s point person on the US-Saudi relationship and is known for having a close relationship with the crown prince.

“This is a President who has a Saudi Arabia first foreign policy,” said New Jersey Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski, when speaking about the bill’s passage this week. “This is a President who is mysteriously submissive to (bin Salman), to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, whose first instinct whenever Saudi Arabia does anything contrary to US interests is to defend the Saudis rather than defending America. That makes me very, very angry.”