Nov. 19, 2010 -- The Obama administration has quietly forged ahead with its proposal to sell $60 billion worth of fighter jets and attack helicopters to Saudi Arabia unhampered by Congress, despite questions raised in legislative inquiries and in an internal congressional report about the wisdom of the deal.
The massive arms deal would be the single largest sale of weapons to a foreign nation in the history of the U.S., outfitting Saudi Arabia with a fully modernized, potent new air force.
"Our six-decade-long security relationship with Saudi Arabia is a primary security pillar in the region," Defense Sec. Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in a Nov. 16 letter to congress. "This package continues that tradition."
But some critics are questioning the deal, and the stealthy effort by the Obama administration to avoid a more probing congressional review by notifying Congress last month, just as members were headed home for the November elections. Congress had 30 days to raise objections -- a review period that concludes Saturday. With most members leaving Washington today, any significant effort to block the deal appears dead for now, officials said.
"I do not think there will be any action" to hold up the sale, Rep. Howard Berman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Bloomberg News Thursday.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, submitted a resolution this week to try and block the deal, and was among those who objected to the way the administration approached the required congressional review.
"Hiding this in a recess announcement is a sign of how unpopular it is," he said. "It's bad policy that now is further tainted by shameful process."
Clinton: Saudis Helped Thwart Cargo Bomb Plot
The Obama administration has touted the deal as a boon for American jobs, and as a move to solidify the alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia at a time when American intelligence is dependent on the Islamic nation for help in the war on terror. Earlier this month, it was a tip from Saudi intelligence that helped foil an al Qaeda plot to hide a bomb in a desktop printer aboard a UPS cargo plane.
The arrangement would ship 84 F-15 fighter jets and more than 175 attack helicopters to the Saudis over the next 15 years. The choppers, in particular, would "bolster Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism capabilities," Gates and Clinton wrote in their letter this week to congressional leaders.
Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican who will soon retire as his party's ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, supports the arms sale, and told ABC News that the Saudis offered ample evidence of the value of the alliance when they provided tracking numbers for the parcels that contained the concealed bombs.
"If any of my colleagues have doubt that they can be friendly, I suppose this would send a strong signal that they can be friendly," Bond said. Gates and Clinton also touted Saudi Arabia's "significant" counterterrorism cooperation in their letter to congressional leaders, specifically citing help in thwarting the cargo bomb plot.
Morris J. Amitay, a former head of the Pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, told ABC News a chief aim of the sale is insuring that Saudi Arabia can serve as another regional military counterweight to Iran.
"It is an attempt to bolster the Saudis at a time when the Iranians are trying to be a hegemonic power for the entire region," he said.
In part for that reason, he said, Israel has not been raising significant objections to the deal, even though he suspects Israel will push hard to insure the aircraft are not equipped with weapons systems as advanced as those held by Israel's own military.
That said, Amitay argued the record-breaking military deal is not without risks.
"As long as Saudi Arabia is stable and considers itself a friend of the United States, there is not that much concern," he said. "The problem is, how stable is a regime run by people in their 80s, with unrest in the south, where neighboring Yemen is harboring al Qaeda?"
The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for an interview.
'Saudi Arabia Has Not Behaved Like An Ally'
Similar concerns were echoed in an Oct. 20 internal memorandum prepared by the Congressional Research Service outlines several significant issues attached to the arrangement. For instance, the weapon sale would require what the memo called "a significant expansion" of the American presence in Saudi Arabia, by perhaps as many as 1280 contractors and military personnel. It's a presence that the report says could stoke internal political tensions in a country that has not warmly welcomed American workers in the past.
"It remains unclear what consideration the Administration or the Saudi Arabian government have made for countering likely al Qaeda narrative responses to the proposed sales and the expansion of the U.S. presence they could entail," the report says.
Weiner was among the few to raise vocal alarms.
"Saudi Arabia has not behaved like an ally of the United States," he wrote in one of two letters sent by groups of concerned lawmakers. "Saudi Arabia has a history of financing terrorism, is a nation that teaches hate of Christians and Jews to their school children, and offered no help to the U.S. as gas prices surged during the spike in oil prices. Furthermore, this deal would destabilize the region and undermine the security of Israel, our one true ally in the region."
Another concern, Weiner added, is the potential for the weapon sale to erode Israel's military edge in the Middle East, an advantage the U.S. has fostered as an essential element of its Middle East policy for decades. A second letter, prepared by Berman and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican expected to take charge of the foreign affairs committee in January, and signed by 196 other members, raised similar questions about the proposal.
"While we understand the Administration has worked productively with Israel to address Israeli security concerns, we would like to know how these arms sales will affect Israel's [military edge]," the letter said.
The letter stopped short of outright opposing the sale, but noted "the potential repercussions for our friends and for our own forces in the region in the event of political change in Saudi Arabia."
The response by Clinton and Gates countered those assertions, saying the sale would deepen U.S.-Saudi ties "beyond the senior political level, minimizing the chance that political change will negatively impact our relationship." The Gates-Clinton letter arrived Nov. 16, three days before members departed for the Thanksgiving holiday.