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Opinion Why the State Department rejected a plan to train Saudi intelligence

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a session of the Shura Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 20.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a session of the Shura Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 20. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy Of Saud/Reuters)
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The State Department recently rejected a proposal by DynCorp to train the Saudi intelligence service because of fears that the kingdom doesn’t yet have proper safeguards to prevent lawless covert operations like the killing last year of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

What has disturbed State Department and CIA officials, and led them to argue against the proposal, are reports that Saudi Arabia is continuing abusive practices, including attempts to force dissidents back to the kingdom, surveillance abroad of Khashoggi’s family and arrests of human rights activists.

U.S. officials worry that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman still hasn’t recognized that intelligence accountability and reform are necessary to stabilize the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Officials are upset, for example, that Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser to the crown prince named by the Treasury Department as an organizer of the operation that killed Khashoggi, still hasn’t been charged — and continues to operate behind the scenes.

Among the abuses this year that concerned U.S. officials was an effort to lure a young Saudi dissident living in the United States back to the kingdom. A U.S. official said the FBI concluded that he would be arrested if he returned home and warned him against traveling; the official wouldn’t identify the Saudi. The official also cited reports that Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, and one of his sons were under Saudi surveillance in London last summer.

Modernizing the General Intelligence Presidency, or GIP, as the Saudi spy service is known, is a goal widely supported by current and former U.S. officials. They argue that the security of both the kingdom and the United States would benefit from better management, ethical standards and performance at the GIP. The question is how to achieve this good goal without enabling bad behavior.

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“We want the GIP to be stronger, but we don’t think this is the way,” said a State Department official, confirming that the DynCorp proposal was rejected. State must review and certify all major foreign military and security sales or training programs.

The State Department, responding to strong Saudi requests to reverse the rejection of the training program, is studying alternatives that might provide better oversight and controls on intelligence activities, as a condition for licensing the training program. The goal is to help the kingdom, while ensuring that U.S. training doesn’t unintentionally enable lawless operations, as appears to have happened in the Khashoggi murder.

Controlling intelligence activities is a riddle for any country. One idea discussed by the State Department is to insulate intelligence activities from the royal court, which is directed by the crown prince. Another is to install formal oversight mechanisms, such as those that limit intelligence activities in the United States, though it’s not clear how these controls would work in a traditional monarchy such as Saudi Arabia where the crown prince effectively has total power. A third possibility is that the CIA could do the training directly.

If workable safeguards could be formulated, State might solicit a new training proposal from DynCorp or another U.S. contractor, several officials said. One concern is that if Washington won’t help Saudi Arabia modernize the GIP, the kingdom might seek such training from another country. That could derail the traditionally close liaison relationship between the CIA and the GIP, a breach U.S. officials want to avoid.

DynCorp first requested State Department approval in mid-2018 for the training plan, to be managed by a subsidiary called Culpeper National Security Solutions. But after Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018 by a rendition team sent from Riyadh, the State Department suspended the license, pending review. DynCorp soon resubmitted a revised proposal, specifying a lower contract value. This revised proposal was formally rejected by State several months ago, officials said. DynCorp didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The quiet internal debate over training and modernization for the GIP has become a litmus test for a wider question: How can the United States press the Saudi government to surmount the crown prince’s foot-dragging and develop new procedures that could reassure Congress, the Pentagon and the intelligence community that the abuses that surfaced in the Khashoggi murder won’t happen again?

The U.S.-Saudi security relationship needs a reset — but the only way to rebuild shattered trust is a new system of accountability and controls to prevent abuses. The GIP training issue reminds us of what went so badly wrong in the kingdom with Khashoggi’s murder a year ago, and the urgent need to begin fixing it.

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Read more:

Read a letter to the editorial responding to this column: ‘Modern’ won’t mean ‘ethical’ for Saudi intelligence

The Post’s View: Mohammed bin Salman has learned nothing

The Post’s View: Saudi authorities said she’d go free if she denied being tortured. She refused.

Hatice Cengiz: My quest for justice continues. It’s not too late.

David Ignatius: Saudi Arabia’s leader must reset his relationship with the U.S. as Iran tensions soar

Kirk Rudell: The tragedy of Fahad Albutairi and Loujain al-Hathloul