Senators on both sides of the aisle are increasingly calling for an end to U.S. military aid to Saudi forces in Yemen and a hold on weapons sales to the Middle Eastern country, and demanding independent investigations into the disappearance of a Saudi writer living in the United States and two recent airstrikes on civilians in Yemen.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said Oct. 17 that a “thorough and independent investigation” into the disappearance of Saudi dissident and Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi is necessary, but that the United States should “terminate” its role in providing air refueling capabilities to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and reconsider providing offensive weapons to Riyadh regardless of the investigation’s outcome.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) at a 2015 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Photo: Sen. Jack Reed
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) at a 2015 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Photo: Sen. Jack Reed

With regards to aerial refueling, “I don’t think it provides any controls over their behavior, and I think what it does is involve us in activities and actions that we can’t control and we have no knowledge of,” he said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Reed, who serves as the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), said an independent investigation is likely to “paint a very critical picture” of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman – also known as MBS – and other country officials. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident since 2017, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul Oct. 2 to retrieve personal documents and never came out.

Multiple reports have since emerged alleging involvement from Riyadh, but officials in President Trump’s administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump himself, have continued to state that the Saudi government denies any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, or possible murder.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week issued a report to the Trump administration demanding the White House impose sanctions on high-level Saudi officials if it turns out they were involved in the murder (Defense Daily, Oct. 12). As reports on Khashoggi’s alleged final moments continue to come in and civilian deaths increase in Yemen, more lawmakers are speaking out against U.S. military aid to Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday that “The United States must send a message that this killing will not go unpunished. As for me, I will not vote to support any arms sale to Saudi Arabia at this time nor will I support U.S. assistance for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.”

Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) said in a statement that same day: “If the administration cannot credibly make the NDAA Section 1290 certification, it is time to end U.S. refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft engaged in the civil war in Yemen.” Young and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) sent a bipartisan letter that day to the secretary of state, co-signed by five other senators, expressing concerns regarding Pompeo’s certification last month that Riyadh had taken “demonstrable actions” to reduce the risk of targeting civilians in its civil war in Yemen.

The letter was co-signed by Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Young and Shaheen worked to include Section 1290 in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which required the State Department to submit unclassified certifications of the efforts of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to protect civilians and end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), vice chairmanr of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a longtime opponent of U.S. support in Yemen and military aid to Saudi Arabia, said in a statement Wednesday that “If Mr. Khashoggi was tortured and murdered by, or with the knowledge of, the Saudi government, it will be long past time to treat the Saudi royal family as the criminal enterprise that it is.”  

The calls come as Pompeo met with Saudi Arabian and Turkish officials Tuesday and Wednesday to assess the situation. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a “Fox and Friends” segment Tuesday morning that the U.S. government should “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia” and vowed never to work with Riyadh’s crown prince as long as he leads the country.

The White House would be wise not to bring up a Saudi arms deal to Congress in the current environment, Reed said Wednesday.

“The mood of the Congress on both sides of the aisle is this outrageous act can’t be followed by a business-as-usual arms deal,” he said. “They have to look at the legitimate needs of the Saudis – what they need, not what they want. Sometimes what they want is more for show than for actual use.”

Reed noted that he voted against the last sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, “because there were already indications at that point that the Saudis were not conducting themselves in a professional manner.” That sale has been blocked by Menendez as the Senate conducts an informal investigation of an August bomb strike that struck a school bus in Yemen, killing and wounding dozens, including children.

But he noted that selling defensive systems to Riyadh may still be an option in the future.

“There is a much more legitimate claim for … air defense systems, because the reality is they have suffered missile attacks” from Houthi rebels in Yemen, he said. “Self-defense is a lot different that conducting offensive operations and conducting them in a way that doesn’t meet our standards.”

Trump on Wednesday told reporters that he was wary of jeopardizing a 2017 agreement to sell $110 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia over 10 years by pushing for an independent investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance. Reed noted that the Saudis rely heavily on U.S. support, and are unlikely to find comparable equipment from other countries, should Congress move to block more arms sales in the future.

“To replace their equipment with equipment from other countries is not only expensive but is a long-term and difficult challenge,” he said. “The reality is, in terms of who has the leverage, we do. And that’s why it’s surprising [Trump] is so accommodating to their point of view.”

The U.S. government also needs to regain its diplomatic presence in the region, Reed said, noting that the ambassador positions to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt remain open.

“We can’t let that area of the world be sort of a place where [Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser] Jared Kushner and MBS are sort of plotting these grand schemes without any input from career professionals and thoughtful individuals,” he said.