Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: White House defends not punishing MBS after Khashoggi report | Pentagon says one militant killed in Syria strike | $125M military aid package for Ukraine announced

Happy Monday 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.

3 stories tonight...

1) THE TOPLINE: Despite publicly releasing the U.S. intelligence assessment that the Saudi crown prince ordered the operation that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration isn't penalizing the kingdom's de facto ruler.

On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the Biden administration's decision not to penalize Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, saying last week's sanctions were "a series of strong steps" the administration believes will prevent such a crime from happening again.

The Treasury Department, you'll recall, sanctioned Saudi Arabia's rapid intervention force and a former intelligence official, but not the crown prince himself.

"This is a crucial step because it structurally addresses an unacceptable pattern of targeting, monitoring, harassment and threats to dissidents and journalists," Psaki told reporters at a briefing Monday afternoon. "Our national security team believes this going after the network responsible for these actions is the best way to prevent a crime like this from ever happening again."

While she would not rule out sanctions against Prince Mohammed in the future, Psaki noted that the United States does not typically sanction leaders of countries with whom it maintains diplomatic relations.

Balancing act: The Hill's Laura Kelly over the weekend took a look at President Biden's decision to hold off on penalizing the crown prince and the competing interests he is trying to manage as Democrats and human rights groups push him to do more.

Regional experts said the Biden administration is balancing trying to show a tougher hand while preserving a critical relationship with the Gulf ally.

"The administration has signaled a certain distance from the crown prince," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But that's not sustainable over the long run because the crown prince is the most significant decision maker in the kingdom and we should have an authoritative high level engagement with him."

Khashoggi's fiancee speaks: In a statement posted to Twitter early Monday morning, Khashoggi's fiancee at the time of his death, Hatice Cengiz, said it would be a "stain on humanity" if Prince Mohammed isn't punished.

"It is essential that the crown prince ... should be punished without delay," she said in the statement. "If the crown prince is not punished, it will forever signal that the main culprit can get away with murder which will endanger us all and be a stain on our humanity."

"Starting with the Biden administration, it is vital for all world leaders to ask themselves if they are prepared to shake hands with a person whose culpability as a murderer has been proven, but not yet punished," she added.

At the Pentagon: One of the official titles Prince Mohammed holds is defense minister, and the Pentagon reiterated Monday that there has been no change in the military-to-military relationship following the release of the Khashoggi report.

"It remains robust, as it should remain robust," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said at a briefing. "Militarily speaking, we have obligations there in Saudi Arabia, and we're going to continue to meet those."



At the Pentagon briefing, Kirby also provided an update on casualties from last week's U.S. airstrike in Syria on facilities used by Iranian-backed militias.

One militant was killed and two were injured, Kirby said.

"We will continue to assess, as you know we do, and if that changes, we'll certainly let you know," he added.

Militia officials had said Friday one fighter was killed, though the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 22 militant deaths.

Another balancing act: With last week's strike, Biden tried to walk a fine line between sending a message to Iran and avoiding further escalation, as we examined over the weekend.

The target appeared calibrated to tell Iran to knock it off without the situation spiraling out of control as the administration seeks to save space for diplomacy with Tehran in order to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

"Somewhere there's a nice, happy middle between taking out someone like [Qassem] Soleimani and showing that you mean business," said Barry Pavel, director of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, referring to the Iranian general killed in a drone strike ordered by former President Trump.

"This was meant to say, 'we mean business, you can't continue to push us around and attack us through proxies. You will pay a price,' " Pavel added of Biden's strike. "It's a very different approach than the Trump administration. As I said, discriminate, calibrated and focused use of force for particular military interests."



Ukraine is getting a couple more patrol boats and other equipment as part of a $125 million security assistance package the Pentagon announced Monday.

The $125 million package for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative "includes training, equipment, and advisory efforts to help Ukraine's forces preserve the country's territorial integrity, secure its borders, and improve interoperability with NATO," the Pentagon said in a statement.

The military aid is meant to help Ukraine to better defend itself against Russian aggression and is funded through foreign military financing with the State Department.

What it buys: According to the statement, the package includes:

  • Two armed Mark VI patrol boats
  • Counter-artillery radars and tactical equipment
  • Support for a satellite imagery and analysis capability
  • Equipment for military medical treatment and combat evacuation procedures

Certification needed for more: Another $150 million, appropriated by Congress in fiscal 2021, is conditional on Ukraine's progress on defense reforms. 

The Pentagon "encourages Ukraine to continue to enact reforms that strengthen civilian control of the military, promote increased transparency and accountability in defense industry and procurement, and modernize its defense sector in other key areas in line with NATO principles and standards," the statement said.

Reminder: This is the same program that was thrust into the spotlight during Trump's first impeachment after Trump froze the aid in what Democrats charged was a plot to force Kyiv to tarnish Biden.



The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on "Global Security Challenges and Strategy" with testimony from outside experts, including former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, at 9:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/3q2odpz

The superintendents of the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy and U.S. Military Academy will testify before the House Appropriations Committee's defense subpanel at 10:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/302qh6h


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