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US government watchdog proposes measures to deter Khashoggi-style attacks

On fifth anniversary of journalist's murder, Government Accountability Office says review and strengthening of US laws needed to tackle transnational repression
Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to a portrait of him in Washington, DC in October 2021 (AFP)
Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to a portrait of him in Washington, DC in October 2021 (AFP)

The US government could hold foreign states that intimidate or murder their citizens on American soil accountable using an existing law allowing it to impose restrictions on arms sales, a government watchdog has found.

But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the decades-old statute has never been invoked while “tens of billions of dollars” worth of US arms transfers has been approved to countries accused of engaging in transnational repression

In a report released this week, the GAO recommended that Congress consider amending the law to shed more light on why repeat offenders, which include Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, still receive arms from the US.

It's the first time the watchdog has looked into the federal government's response to the threat of transnational repression, acts of intimidation and harassment by governments attempting to shutdown dissent abroad.

There is no one definition of transnational repression. Examples of acts include abuse of Interpol red notices, cyberstalking, surveillance through spyware, trying to coerce individuals to return home, attempted kidnapping and assassination.

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This week marked the fifth anniversary of the most prominent recent case, the murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of Saudi journalist and Middle East Eye contributor Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident, in an operation US intelligence officials assessed was approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"High-profile incidents - such as the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, US permanent resident, journalist, and vocal critic of Saudi authorities by Saudi agents in Turkey - highlight the threat of transnational repression (TNR) to US national security," the report noted.

Patchwork of laws

The watchdog found that a lack of common understanding of transnational repression, particularly among state and local law enforcement agencies which are often the first to encounter victims, has hindered efforts to fully track incidents.

Transnational repression is not currently defined as a crime in US law and this has left federal agencies to adapt existing laws, like those prohibiting money-laundering or murder-for-hire, to investigate and penalise individuals for such acts.

For example, in February 2021, the State Department issued visa bans under a newly created Khashoggi Ban policy to 76 Saudi individuals believed to have engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including some implicated in his murder.

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Last year, in recognition of the rise in transnational repression, the FBI established a dedicated unit to working specifically on violations of this nature.

But FBI officials told the GAO that gaps in the law have limited their ability to tackle transnational repression, and the watchdog noted that the Department of Justice has yet to conduct a department-wide analysis to know whether existing laws are sufficient.

"A coordinated, department-wide position in DOJ that contains applicable details from FBI’s informal analysis could help ensure that DOJ, the administration, and Congress are fully informed of all potential gaps in current legislation for addressing transnational repression," the GAO report said.

The report also suggested that the US government could use a 1981 statute of the Arms Export Control Act to halt arms transfers to countries accused of engaging in acts of transnational repression.

Under the existing law, it is the sole responsibility of the president to determine if the statute should be used against an offending country and then report those findings to the Speaker of the House and the House and Senate foreign affairs committees.

But the GAO says no president has ever taken that step. Meanwhile, federal agencies say they have not been providing information or assessments to help implement it, and lawmakers are not being told if or when the statute is being considered.

“If Congress wants more insight into why a government that has repeatedly engaged in transnational repression still receives arms from the US, Congress should consider an amendment to the law to make sure they receive that information,” Chelsa Kenney, the GAO’s director of international affairs and trade and author of the report, said this week.

The State Department told the GAO that it is developing new procedures for considering transnational repression in the context of arms transfers.

“Coordinating with other agencies that collect information on TNR could help ensure [the] State [Department] has the information it needs to make informed decisions for these new efforts,” the report said.

'The United States cannot wait for a Khashoggi-type incident to occur here at home before responding'

- Todd Ruffner, Freedom Initiative

Todd Ruffner, advocacy direction with the Washington-based Freedom Initiative, said the GAO's report "lays bare that federal, state and local governments are woefully uninformed about [transnational repression] and thus unprepared to recognise and fight it".

He agreed that adding stronger reporting requirements to the provision in the Arms Export Control Act could provide lawmakers with further insight into the government's decision-making.

But given the US government's history of ignoring the act, he said he believes "a fresh, transnational repression-specific approach is necessary" and pointed to a bipartisan act introduced in the House and Senate earlier this year which he said "would take big strides in defining and helping combat the practice".

"Congress needs to pass it urgently and perform oversight to ensure robust implementation," he said.

"The United States cannot wait for a Khashoggi-type incident to occur here at home before responding. This is not a partisan issue - both parties should be invested in protecting US persons on American soil."

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