Surface-to-air missiles stand on display at a War Memorial. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

U.S. to Allow Sale of Missile Defense System to Saudis

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration has agreed to allow Saudi Arabia to acquire a sophisticated missile defense system despite a growing congressional outcry about President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The completion of a deal to allow the kingdom to spend up to $15 billion for an anti-ballistic missile system made by Lockheed Martin Corp. was confirmed by a State Department official on Wednesday night, hours after a bipartisan group of senators demanded stronger action against the Saudis.

U.S. to Allow Sale of Missile Defense System to Saudis

Earlier Wednesday, senators from both parties rebuffed the administration’s attempt to placate lawmakers demanding action and took steps toward opening a free-wheeling debate next week over a resolution that could bar U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen and impose additional sanctions.

The White House sent Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to the Capitol, but the move backfired after senators emerged from a closed-door briefing even angrier than before, in part because CIA Director Gina Haspel didn’t participate.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a frequent ally of Trump, vowed that he won’t vote to wrap up key legislative business this year -- including a spending bill needed to avert a partial government shutdown -- until he receives a briefing from Haspel on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s possible role in Khashoggi’s death.

The final arms agreement -- which completed the sale of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, launchers, missiles and other equipment -- was signed earlier this week, according to the State Department official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the matter. The official argued that deployment of the Thaad system in Saudi Arabia would bolster U.S. security against the threat of Iranian and extremist groups supported by the Tehran government.

Trump has repeatedly ruled out cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia as punishment for the Khashoggi killing, arguing that the kingdom would simply purchase weapons from other nations.

Talks that led to this weapons deal began late in 2016, and Congress was notified in October 2017, the official added. The Thaad system has also been deployed in South Korea, over the strong objections of China, which considers it a threat.

Khashoggi, a critic of the kingdom’s leadership and a columnist for the Washington Post, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October. The crown prince has denied any role in the killing even as his government’s explanations of what happened have shifted.

Prince Mohammed has been on a foreign tour in recent days and has traveled to Buenos Aires for the G20 summit. He has no formal meeting scheduled with Trump, who has largely been supportive of him over the Khashoggi affair.

The Senate on Wednesday voted to allow a debate, which may take place next week, on a measure to restrict U.S. support for the Saudi military campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, where a humanitarian disaster is unfolding.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.