Hagel, Syria and side-stepping the law

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

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The passage of this provision was a significant step and one that signaled that the United States would not do business with an enabler of a mass atrocity that threatens U.S. interests in the Middle East. So, end of story, right? Not so. The Pentagon recently went ahead as if it wasn’t constrained by the NDAA and, instead, notified Congress that  it will go ahead and purchase over 30 additional helicopters from the banned arms dealer. They say the helicopters are for the Afghan military and the purchase is legal if they use funds allocated in 2012. This absurd assertion is thanks to a  loophole in the NDAA that comes in the form of a national security waiver.
 
Congress was clear: No further business dealings with Rosoboronexport. The Pentagon’s plan contravenes that. No loophole should enable the U.S. government to do business with the enablers of mass atrocities that have resulted in the deaths of more than 70,000 people.
 
Secretary of Defense Hagel will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee today to talk about next year’s NDAA and then later to provide the full committee with a briefing on current U.S. activities in Syria. As he comes before the committee to discuss U.S. military options in Syria, he should answer these questions:
 
    •    The loophole in the 2013 NDAA that allowed the Department of Defense to exercise its waiver authority of Section 1277, prohibiting further arms deals with Rosboronexport, required the Pentagon to certify to Congress that conducting business with Rosoboronexport is “in the national security interests of the United States.” What steps has the Pentagon taken to ensure that it has complied with this section of the bill?
    •    What is the national security justification of continuing business with Rosoboronexport? Just last year, the Pentagon notified Congress that it would purchase 33 Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan military. What is the national security justification for the additional 30 helicopters this year? How does this justification balance against our interest in Syria and the national security priority of preventing the mass murder of more civilians?
    •    What steps is the Pentagon taking to ensure that it does not support – financially or otherwise – enablers of mass atrocities, such as Rosoboronexport?  In other words, what else is the United States doing to try to influence Russia’s role in Assad’s atrocities? Do you think those policies are succeeding?  Why or why not?
 
If he’s going to sidestep the law using a waiver, Secretary Hagel should have a clear justification of why. The situation in Syria is a national security concern for the United States in itself. The purchase of weapons from Rosoboronexport seems completely counter-productive considering that Secretary Kerry is trying to facilitate an end to the violence and an exit of Assad. The U.S. government is working against itself here and doing so to the detriment of U.S. national security and its status as a leader in human rights. When Secretary Hagel testifies before the Armed Services Committee tomorrow, he should be asked why, and we are eager to hear his answer.
 
Hameed is director of Human Rights First’s Crimes Against Humanity Program.
 

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