US intel shows Saudi Arabia has expanded its ballistic missile program

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The Trump administration did not initially disclose its knowledge of this classified development to key members of Congress, the sources said, infuriating Democrats who discovered it outside of regular US government channels and concluded it had been deliberately left out of a series of briefings where they say it should have been presented.The previously unreported classified intelligence indicates Saudi Arabia has expanded both its missile infrastructure and technology through recent purchases from China. The development comes amid growing tensions between Congress and the White House over Saudi Arabia. Despite bipartisan criticism over the Kingdom’s war in Yemen and its role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the White House has sought an even closer relationship with the Saudis, as evidenced by its recent decision to sell the Kingdom billions of dollars in weapons and munitions despite opposition in Congress.While the Saudis’ ultimate goal has not been conclusively assessed by US intelligence, the sources said, the missile advancement could mark another step in potential Saudi efforts to one day deliver a nuclear warhead were it ever to obtain one.The Kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, has made clear that should Iran obtain a nuclear weapon, Saudi would work to do the same, telling 60 Minutes in a 2018 interview that, “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”Though Saudi is among the biggest buyers of US weapons, it is barred from purchasing ballistic missiles from the US under regulations set forth by the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal, multi-country pact aimed at preventing the sale of rockets capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction. Yet the Saudis have consistently taken the position that they need to match Iran’s missile capability and have at times sought help on the side from other countries, including China, which is not a signatory to the pact.Saudi Arabia is known to have purchased ballistic missiles from China several decades ago, and public reports speculated that more purchases may have been made as recently as 2007. The Kingdom has never been assessed to have the ability to build its own missiles or even effectively deploy the ones it does have. Instead, the Saudis’ arsenal of Chinese-made ballistic missiles was a way to signal its potential military strength to regional foes, primarily Iran.That, the sources told CNN, has shifted based on the new intelligence. US-supplied air powerFor decades, the US worked to ensure that Saudi Arabia had air supremacy in the region, largely through its purchases of American military aircraft, precisely so that it wouldn’t seek to go around the US to upgrade its missile capabilities. “Saudi Arabia needn’t race Iran to produce or procure ballistic missiles. It already has a significant conventional military advantage,” said Behnam Taleblu of the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.But questions have arisen in recent months about whether that rationale still stands, particularly as the Trump administration has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Kingdom faces ballistic missile threats from Iran proxies in Yemen.Satellite imagery, first reported by the Washington Post in January, suggested the Kingdom had constructed a ballistic missile factory. Analysts who viewed the images said they appeared to match technology produced by the Chinese. A second image of the same missile facility obtained by CNN shows a similar level of activity at the site on May 14, 2019, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute. “Saudi Arabia’s reported interest in domestic ballistic missile production should rightly raise eyebrows,” Taleblu said. “Both the reported missile base and Riyadh’s interest in a domestic fuel cycle indicates, however nascent, a desire to hedge against Iran.” The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on any intelligence related to Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile activity or whether the US believes the Kingdom is contracting in that area with foreign partners.A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in the US did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that China and Saudi Arabia are “comprehensive strategic partners,” and that both countries “maintain friendly cooperation in all areas, including in the area of arms sales. Such cooperation does not violate any international laws, nor does it involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”A State Department official declined to comment on classified intelligence matters, but told CNN that Saudi Arabia remains a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has accepted an obligation never to acquire nuclear weapons. The spokesperson also pointed to a recent statement by a US State Department official reaffirming the US commitment to “the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems.” Sources said there has been no indication from the administration that there has been an explicit policy shift as it relates to non-proliferation of ballistic missiles in Saudi, but noted the administration’s awareness of the intelligence — and lack of concrete action to halt the advances since it was obtained.Beyond satellite imageryUS intelligence agencies constantly monitor foreign ballistic missile development and the flow of materials around the world. Related intelligence is analyzed on a daily basis and any significant change would likely make it into the Presidential Daily Briefing, according to two former senior US intelligence officials.The Senate Intelligence Committee has been given access to the Saudi intelligence, though it has not received a specific briefing on the subject, according to two sources familiar with the matter.But the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has oversight of the State Department and US foreign policy broadly, learned about the Saudi intelligence earlier this year only after it was discovered by Democratic staff on the committee, including in one instance when a staff member on an unrelated trip to the Middle East was informed of details through a foreign counterpart, two of the sources told CNN.There had already been at least two classified briefings on issues related to the topic where the information could have been disclosed to senators, according to one source.When the staff brought the new information to the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, he immediately requested– and was granted– a classified, senators-only briefing for committee members on the details, a rare occurrence that underscored the importance of the discovery and the administration’s failure to initially brief the committee on the matter.Several sources said the analysis presented in the classified briefing, held on April 9, went far beyond the January Washington Post story about the satellite images, and provided concrete evidence that Saudi Arabia has advanced its missile program to a point that would run in direct conflict with long-established US policy to limit proliferation in the region.The day after the classified briefing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified publicly in front of the committee as part of a routine hearing on the State Department budget. Over the course of a few hours, the dispute over intelligence sharing began to spill out into the open, turning a relatively benign budget hearing into a debate over a potentially crucial shift in US policy over missile proliferation in the Middle East. Though at the time, it was hard to notice.Without going into specifics, Menendez castigated Pompeo for the administration’s decision not to share classified information with the committee until it was brought to the administration by the senator himself.”That’s simply unacceptable,” Menendez told the country’s top diplomat, adding that if Congress is to perform its constitutional duties, the State Department “needs to do a better job of engaging with us, briefing us and responding to our requests.” Later in the hearing, three other Democratic senators obliquely referenced the issue in their questions to Pompeo, citing public reports related to Saudi ballistic missile ambitions. Neither the senators nor Pompeo mentioned the previous day’s briefing, or that their questions or answers were based on specific intelligence. But in hindsight, the exchanges shed light on the Trump administration’s hardline position that countering Iran is the ultimate priority in the region — regardless of long-held US non-proliferation positions.In his responses, Pompeo made clear the administration’s preference that Saudi Arabia buy US technology, a possible nod, multiple US officials said, to internal opposition inside the Trump administration to restrictions on US sales of ballistic missiles to the Kingdom.”There’ve been those who’ve urged the United States to take a different posture with respect to Saudi Arabia, not to sell them technology,” Pompeo said. “I think you see the risks that are created. It would be better if the United States was involved in those transactions than if China was.”While Pompeo acknowledged under questioning that it is still US policy to oppose proliferation of ballistic missile technology in the Middle East, a telling exchange occurred later. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, citing the Washington Post report on the satellite images, asked what the US was doing to prevent foreign sales of ballistic missile technology to Saudi Arabia. Pompeo made clear, intentionally or not, a prevailing administration position that has guided much of its policy in the region — including its knowledge of the expanding Saudi ballistic missile program. “This is certainly something that we all need to keep an eye on,” Pompeo said, before adding that…



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