Overnight Defense

Defense & National Security – Khashoggi question looms over Biden trip

It’s still unclear if President Biden will raise the topic of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this week, a question that the White House has dodged repeatedly ahead of the commander-in-chief’s highly watched trip to the Middle East. 

We’ll share why that matters and what the White House has revealed compared to what it has told Khashoggi’s widow.

Plus: We’ll look at Biden’s latest remarks on the Iran nuclear deal, the amendments that made it into the House’s version of the annual defense authorization bill and the latest on the bill meant to expand benefits for veterans who suffer illnesses from toxic exposures. 

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Biden won’t commit to bringing up Khashoggi murder

President Biden on Thursday indicated he would raise the topic of human rights during his meeting with Saudi Arabian leaders this week, but would not commit specifically to bringing up the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday. 

“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely positively clear, and I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” Biden said at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid. 

  • When Biden was pressed again on whether he would specifically bring up Khashoggi’s killing with the crown prince, Biden did not directly answer. 
  • “I always bring up human rights. But my position on Khashoggi has been so clear. If anyone doesn’t understand it, in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven’t been around for a while,” Biden said. 

A direct role: U.S. intelligence has concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed played a direct role in ordering the 2018 killing of Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who was critical of the crown prince as a columnist for The Washington Post. 

Flipping positions: Biden pledged on the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the global stage for its human rights record, but political realities such as high gas prices, tensions with Iran and efforts to foster collaboration in the Middle East led to this week’s trip. 

“There are so many issues at stake that I want to make clear that we can continue to lead in the region and not create a vacuum, a vacuum that is filled by China and/or Russia,” Biden said Thursday. “And so the purpose of the visit is to coordinate with nine heads of state, whether in U.S. interests and I believe in Israel interests as well.” 

Read more here 

WIDOW: WH SAID KHASHOGGI’S DEATH WOULD COME UP IN MEETING

Khashoggi’s widow, meanwhile, says the Biden administration promised to bring up her husband’s death during his visit to Saudi Arabia later this week.  

Hanan Khashoggi told Spectrum News Wednesday that she’s sure the president will bring up during key meetings U.S. intelligence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 killing, saying the administration assured her that her husband’s case would be discussed. 

“This is [an] opportunity for me to thank President Biden and his administration. He did keep his promise by bringing [the] report of intelligence out in February last year, and he did take action, assertive action against [those involved] in my husband tragedy,” Hanan Khashoggi said in her Spectrum News appearance. 

Khashoggi called Biden’s visit “practical” diplomatically, adding that “Jamal would not like it” if the diplomacy was disrupted. 

Read that story here 

Biden says US won’t ‘wait forever’ on Iran

President Biden on Thursday in Jerusalem affirmed his administration’s desire to return to the nuclear deal with Iran but warned he wouldn’t “wait forever,” as Israel expressed its continued opposition to reviving the agreement.   

In opening remarks at a press conference alongside Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Biden maintained that diplomacy represented the best chance to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.   

  • What’s the deadline?: Biden declined to say whether the United States would set a deadline for Iran to return to the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), after months of talks failed to achieve Biden’s desired outcome.   
  • “We’ve laid out for the leadership of Iran what we’re willing to accept in order to get back into the JCPOA,” Biden said in response to a reporter’s question. “We’re waiting for their response. When that will come, I’m not certain, but we’re not going to wait forever.”  

Reassurances: Biden, who met one-on-one with Lapid earlier Thursday on his first trip to the Middle East as president, sought to assure Israel throughout the visit of the U.S. commitment to its security and preventing a nuclear Iran.   

“We mean what we say. They have an opportunity to accept, this agreement has been laid down. If they don’t, we have made it absolutely clear: We will not — let me say it again — we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Biden said later during the press conference.   

An opposition: Israel has consistently opposed the Obama-era nuclear deal, from which former President Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2018. Biden pledged to revive the deal as president but talks have stalled, raising fresh doubts about the prospect of a breakthrough.    

  • On Thursday, Lapid made clear his belief that diplomacy was not the answer to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, telling Biden at the press conference that only a credible threat of force would stop Tehran.
  • A ‘last resort’In an interview with Israel’s Keshet 12 on Wednesday, Biden said the U.S. would use force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon only as a “last resort.” He also labeled Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement a “gigantic mistake.” 

Read the full story here 

House Dems want DC mayor to control city’s Guard

The House adopted an amendment to the annual defense spending bill on Wednesday that would give the mayor of Washington, D.C. authority over the capital city’s National Guard

  • Who backed it: The measure — sponsored by Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Anthony Brown (D-Md.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who represents the District of Columbia — was approved in a mainly party-line vote of 218-209 to be added to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). 
  • And who opposed: Democratic Rep. Jared Golden (Maine) voted with Republicans in opposing the measure, while GOP Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.) supported the amendment. Two Republicans and one Democrat did not vote. 

What it would do: The measure calls for giving the D.C. mayor, currently Muriel Bowser, command over the D.C. National Guard. While governors are in charge of the national guards in their respective states, the president currently oversees the force in Washington, D.C. 

Why it matters: Conversations about who has authority over the D.C. National Guard moved into the spotlight after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. 

  • Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, testified in March 2021 that former President Trump’s Defense Department took roughly three hours to authorize the force to send personnel to the Capitol during the riot. 
  • At the Jan. 6 select committee’s first public hearing last month, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the vice chair of the panel, said Trump “gave no order to deploy the National Guard that day,” explaining that former Vice President Pence urged the National Guard to go to the Capitol. 

Norton’s argument: During debate on the House floor Wednesday, Norton referenced the Capitol riot as reason why the amendment is needed. 

“During Jan. 6, the Trump administration delayed deploying the D.C. National Guard to the Capitol for several hours, likely costing lives and prolonging the attack,” she said. 

She also said the D.C. mayor is best equipped to make decisions for the nation’s capital, noting that the president would still have the ability to federalize and deploy the force if needed. 

Read more here 

Also from The Hill: 

HOUSE PASSES BILL EXPANDING CARE FOR VETS EXPOSED TO TOXINS

The House passed much-anticipated legislation Wednesday to expand benefits for veterans who suffer illnesses from toxic exposures during their military service. 

The Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act largely aims to expand access to care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to 3.5 million veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and were exposed to toxic burn pits. 

  • The measure passed by a bipartisan vote of 342-88, a much wider margin than when the lower chamber initially passed the bill in March. The bill gained much more Republican support, with 123 joining Democrats in advancing the measure. 
  • The Senate later passed the bill in June by a vote of 84-14. The revised legislation heads back to the upper chamber, with technical drafting error corrections to the measure passed last month 

‘A new standard’: Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in floor remarks that Congress was “setting a new standard with the PACT Act.” 

“We’re telling our veterans the burden of proof is not on you,” Takano said. “Because of your sacrifice to our country, this Congress and the American people are giving you the benefit of the doubt you have earned.” 

The legislation also expands presumptions related to Agent Orange — used largely during the Vietnam War — to veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Guam. 

Some background: Burn pits were used in the post-9/11 era for open-air combustion of medical waste, human waste and anything else that needed to be disposed of. Over time, exposure to the toxins can lead to illnesses such as asthma, rhinitis and cancer, some of which can take years after exposure to develop. 

In April, the VA added nine rare respiratory cancers that are presumed service-connected due to exposures, including five different lung cancers.   

Read the full story here 

WHAT WE’RE READING

That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you tomorrow!

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