Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission

Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: President Biden ordered his first major military action Thursday night, and Washington spent Friday digesting it.

Biden ordered strikes on facilities used by Iranian-backed militias in Syria after several rocket attacks in Iraq in recent weeks targeted U.S. interests.

Operational details: The strike was conducted by two F-15E fighter jets, which dropped seven precision-guided munitions, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Friday.

It completely destroyed nine facilities and partially destroyed two others, making them "functionally destroyed," Kirby added.

The Pentagon had "preliminary indications" Friday there were casualties, but Kirby declined to elaborate because the damage assessment was not finished.

What's the message?: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One that Biden authorized the strikes to send an "unambiguous message" to Iran that "he's going to act to protect Americans."

"The president is sending an unambiguous message that he's going to act to protect Americans, and when threats are posed, he has the right to take an action at the time, and in the manner of his choosing," Psaki said. "He also is going to take those actions in a manner that's deliberative, and that has the objective of de-escalating activity in both Syria and Iraq."

Republicans cheer: Republicans have been critical of Biden's approach to Iran, but they applauded his airstrikes.

"Last night, the U.S. showed that attacks on American personnel and interests will not be tolerated," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. 

"I called for the administration to respond to the recent attacks on U.S. and coalition targets, and I commend them for doing just that," House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement. 

"Appreciate Biden Administration striking Iranian-backed militia groups in Syria who've been pushing attacks against American forces in Iraq and other locations," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted. "It is imperative that our enemies know that attacking Americans comes at a cost."

"Yesterday's strikes were the correct, proportionate response to protect American lives, and I look forward to more information on the administration's response to Iran's aggression," Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

But progressives jeer: Some Democrats, particularly progressives, were less than thrilled, with the strikes reviving a debate about seeking congressional authorization before military action.

"There is absolutely no justification for a president to authorize a military strike that is not in self-defense against an imminent threat without congressional authorization. We need to extricate from the Middle East, not escalate," Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "I spoke against endless war with Trump, and I will speak out against it when we have a Democratic President."

"The American people deserve to hear the Administration's rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a statement. 

"I have inherent trust in the national security decision making of President Biden, and I know how seriously he takes Congress's war making powers," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement. "But Congress should hold this administration to the same standard it did prior administrations, and require clear legal justifications for military action, especially inside theaters like Syria, where Congress has not explicitly authorized any American military action."

Top Dems on board: Despite the Democratic criticism, top lawmakers in the party supported Biden's move.

"While the military strike was necessary to protect our personnel in the region and deter further attacks, I have spoken with the Biden administration's national security team and they are committed to using diplomacy and engagement with Iran, and also working with our allies and partners in the region to de-escalate tensions going forward," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a statement.

"Today's airstrike demonstrates President Biden's resolve to prevent Iran from targeting America's personnel and allies with impunity," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement. "It was a strong act that will surely send a message to Tehran that our country will not abide destabilizing actions from its forces or its proxies."

Congress to get full briefing: The Pentagon briefed congressional leadership before the strike, and administration officials were briefing individual members and staff Friday, the White House said.

There will also be a full classified briefing to Congress early next week or "sooner if Congress wants it," a National Security Council spokesperson said.

 

KHASHOGGI REPORT RELEASED: MBS APPROVED

The long-awaited U.S. intel report on Jamal Khashoggi's death was released Friday and it confirmed what many suspected it would: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved Khashoggi's 2018 slaying.

The report, released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), said the crown prince, the kingdom's de facto leader, "approved an operation ... to capture or kill" Khashoggi.

"We base this assessment on the Crown Prince's control of decision-making in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman's protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi," the report said.

"Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom's security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince's authorization," it continued. 

Findings: The report on Friday listed the names of 21 individuals U.S. intelligence officials have "high confidence ... participated in, ordered, or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for" Khashoggi's murder "on behalf of" Crown Prince Mohammed. Still, it says the United States can't confirm if the individuals knew the operation would result in the journalist's death. 

The report highlighted that members of the hit team included officials linked to the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs, whose leader publicly said in 2018 he did not make decisions without the crown prince's approval.

The team also included seven members of Crown Prince Mohammed's elite personal protective detail, who the U.S. officials "judge would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without Muhammad bin Salman's approval," the report said.

Penalties: After the report's release, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced visa restrictions against 76 Saudi individuals believed to be engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to those connected to Khashoggi's murder.

"While the United States remains invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, President Biden has made clear that partnership must reflect U.S. values," Blinken said in a statement. "To that end, we have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents, and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States."

Called the "Khashoggi ban," the visa restrictions can be imposed on any individual believed to be directed by a foreign government to seriously harass and threaten people perceived as dissidents.

The Treasury Department also announced sanctions on Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al Asiri, Saudi Arabia's former deputy head of the General Intelligence Presidency, who the department said was "assigned to murder" Khashoggi and was the "ringleader" of the operation.

Treasury also slapped sanctions on Saudi Arabia's Rapid Intervention Force, the elite personal protective detail whose members are understood to be part of the hit squad. But the sanctions notably did not target the crown prince himself.

Administration officials have not detailed whether punitive measures would be taken against Crown Prince Mohammed.

Calls for more: Rep. Gerry Connolly (D), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who represents the Virginia district where Khashoggi resided, called for a "reevaluation" of the U.S. and Saudi relationship in the wake of the crown prince's responsibility.

"This report lays the blame for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, my constituent, directly at the feet of the Crown Prince. Saudi Arabia must be held accountable, and that demands a careful and complete re-evaluation of the US relationship with the Kingdom," Connolly said in a statement. 

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also urged the Biden administration to follow the report's release with "serious repercussions against all of the responsible parties it has identified, and also reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia."

Saudis deny: Saudi Arabia, unsurprisingly, said it rejects the report.

The statement was issued by tweet from the Saudi Press Agency, the official news agency of the government of Saudi Arabia.

"The Government of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Completely Rejects the Assessment in the Report Submitted to US' Congress Regarding Murder of Saudi Citizen Jamal Khashoggi," the tweet reads.

"The Ministry reiterates what was previously announced by the relevant authorities in the Kingdom, that this was an abhorrent crime and a flagrant violation of the Kingdom's laws and values," the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in its statement. "This crime was committed by a group of individuals that have transgressed all pertinent regulations and authorities of the agencies where they were employed."

The ministry added, "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs affirms that the partnership between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America is a robust and enduring partnership."

 

SEXUAL ASSAULT COMMISSION LAUNCHED

The Pentagon on Friday launched a civilian-led commission to address the pervasive problem of sexual assault in the military.

The Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault, ordered by Biden, will take 90 days to review Defense Department policies and processes already in place to address the issue and then give recommendations directly to the commander in chief.

Lynn Rosenthal, formerly the first-ever White House adviser on violence against women and a well-known gender violence expert, will lead the effort.

"This effort, this commission, is dedicated to those service members who've suffered from sexual assault," Rosenthal told reporters on Friday at the Pentagon. "Both those who have come forward and shared their stories at great personal cost, and those who've suffered in silence and who continue to suffer in silence alone, and also at great cost."

 

ON TAP FOR MONDAY

Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, will provide keynote remarks at 3:30 p.m.at the virtual Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association TechNet Indo-Pacific 2021. https://bit.ly/2NKlQdF

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Intelligence official says Khashoggi report 'obviously' will challenge Saudi relationship

-- The Hill: Democrats demand Saudi accountability over Khashoggi killing

-- The Hill: Navy reports 2 ships in Middle East facing coronavirus outbreaks

-- Stars and Stripes: Active-duty women pay up to 10 times more than men for mandatory uniform items, GAO report says

-- Associated Press: Explosion strikes Israeli-owned ship in Mideast amid tension

-- Navy Times: After historically long deployment, Nimitz is almost home

-- Reuters: Syria condemns 'cowardly' U.S. air strikes on Iran-backed militias

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