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Administration sneaks in arms sale to Bahrain

February 7, 2012

 In response to push back from human rights groups and members of Congress, the Obama administration held off on an arms sale to the Bahraini government, pending an independent report on the crackdown on peaceful protesters that came out late last year.

Despite lingering concerns about implementation of any changes by the Bahraini government, the Obama administration used a sneaky move to proceed with a limited arms sale to Bahrain, circumventing Congress. Josh Rogin reports:

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.

Sanjeev Bery of Amnesty International USA explains why this sale is so troubling:

Given this record, Amnesty International finds these additional US arms sales to the Bahraini government troubling. Because the details are secret, it is difficult to independently determine whether the US government is providing the kinds of weapons, ammunition, and/or equipment that Bahraini security forces could use in the commission of further human rights violations.

It is worth noting that just four months ago, the Obama Administration proposed a $53 million arms sale (PDF) to Bahrain that included armored Humvees, tow missiles, and night vision goggles. In October of 2011, the State Department’s Victoria Nuland described that proposed sale as “designed to support the Bahraini military in its external defense function.”

Note the use of that same phrase – “external defense.”

For a Bahraini government with a track record of violating human rights, the difference between “external defense” and internal crackdowns may be less than obvious. Bahraini security forces already used military vehicles in the commission of human rights violations when they surrounded a hospital with tanks. Inside the hospital, doctors were treating wounded protestors. The doctors were arrested.

Eighteen representatives and three senators wrote to Secretary of State Clinton opposing the sale and arguing that the administration has not justified sending the arms given the documented human rights violations in Bahrain.

From both a security and a moral perspective, it is shortsighted (though unfortunately not atypical) for the US to reward countries that repress their own people. With a meeting on an international Arms Trade Treaty coming up this July, which would set global standards for weapons sales, it’s an important time to show our support for a policy that respects human rights.

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