Senior Administration Officials on Bahrain
MODERATOR: Thank you, and thanks to everyone for joining us on a Friday afternoon. We certainly appreciate it. As you’ve all seen from the statement we released earlier today, the State Department has informed Congress that it’s in our national security interest to release additional items and services to the Bahrain Defense Force, the Coast Guard, and National Guard. And this is for the purpose of helping Bahrain maintain its external defense capabilities.
And here to talk with you all about that decision, we have three senior Administration officials. For your records, they are [Senior Administration Official One]; we also have [Senior Administration Official Two]; and [Senior Administration Official Three]. Just a reminder this is an on-background call and these individuals should be referred to in your reporting as senior Administration officials.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to [Senior Administration Official One] for some brief opening remarks, and then we’ll get to your questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Hi. Good afternoon, everybody. I think you know that, given the unrest in Bahrain over the past year and pending further progress on reform, the United States has maintained a pause on most arms sales and licenses to the Government of Bahrain, while at the same time continuing to supply some items on a case-by-case basis that directly affected our own national security interests.
Bahrain is an important security partner in a region that’s facing enormous challenges and complications, and maintaining our and our partners’ ability to respond to these challenges is an important component of our commitment to Gulf security. I think many of you might have been on the Secretary’s trip to Riyadh on March 31st when we launched the Strategic Cooperation Forum, which is another example of this commitment we have to Gulf security.
Now in light of our own U.S. national security interests, the United States has decided, as the press statement noted, to release additional items and services for the Bahraini Defense Forces, Bahrain’s Coast Guard, and Bahrain’s National Guard. And the purpose of this is to help Bahrain maintain its external defense capabilities. We have informed Congress of this decision today and we’ll continue our close consultation with Congress on Bahrain in general, including our security cooperation.
We are continuing to maintain our hold on some items. And the items that we’re not moving forward with are those that aren’t typically used for crowd control and – or, I’m sorry. The items that we are moving forward with are those that are not typically used for crowd control and we would not anticipate would be used against protestors in any scenario. But sales of items that are sort of predominantly or typically used by police and other security forces for internal security, things used for crowd control, we’re not moving forward with at this time. That would include things like tear gas, tear gas launchers, stun grenades – those sorts of things.
Now we’ve made this decision, I want to emphasize, on national security grounds. We’ve made this decision mindful of the fact that there remain a number of serious unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain which we expect the Government of Bahrain to address. The Government of Bahrain has begun to take important steps to implement some of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report. But at the same time, we’re concerned by the increasing polarization that you can see on the Bahraini streets. We are concerned by what has now become almost daily street violence, and we urge in this context Bahrain’s political opposition to call for an end to the violence against police.
At the same time, we are continuing to talk to the Bahrainis about our concerns about the excessive use of force and tear gas by police. We have areas of ongoing concern that include the cases of several individuals, the lack of accountability for some of the events of last year, the lack of forward momentum in a dialogue about the larger political reform questions, and we’ll continue to engage with Bahrain to encourage the meaningful progress on these issues in the days and weeks ahead.
So with that, I think I’ve concluded what I would like to say at the opening.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks, [Senior Administration Official One], and we’ll open up for your questions now. Go ahead, Operator.
OPERATOR: Thank you. If you would like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. Please un-mute your phone and record your name and company when prompted. One moment, please.
Our first question comes from Arshad Mohammed. Please state your company name.
QUESTION: Hi, it’s Arshad Mohammed of Reuters. What items precisely are you selling to the Bahraini military?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: This is [Senior Administration Official Two.] This – just to be clear, this is not a new arms package. We’re releasing additional items for sale and transfer to Bahrain, and so we’ve decided to resume the implementation, sale, and delivery of most external security articles and services for the Bahraini Defense Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard.
We’re not prepared to outline an exhaustive list of what we will or will not allow to be supplied, but some examples of the kinds of items that are being moved forward include, for example, we’re going to include Bahrain in draft legislation to allow for a future decision on whether to transfer a U.S. Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigate to replace Bahrain’s existing frigate, scheduled for 2014. We’re – other types of items are excess harbor security boats for the Coast Guard and support for an upgrade for Bahrain’s existing turbo fan engines, which are used in F-16s. So those are some of the examples of the types of things that will be allowed to move forward.
QUESTION: And why are you not prepared to identify more than just those three items? What is the harm in disclosing the other items that are being transferred or sold?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I think just at this time, as we work out the details with the Bahrainis and brief them, as well as we’ve been having ongoing conversations with Capitol Hill, we’re not in a position right now to discuss the full list of items publicly right now.
QUESTION: Well, you’re going to brief the Bahrainis. They don’t know what they’re buying or what they’re going to get?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: We’ve already begun discussions with them, but --
QUESTION: Have you not already disclosed the items to the Congress?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: We are engaged in consultation and discussion. We had meetings with Congress on Capitol Hill. We anticipate there’ll be follow-up questions as well.
QUESTION: So – but you didn’t tell Congress what you are selling or transferring to them?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not going to get into the full details of what we did and did not brief to Congress, but we did offer a robust briefing today on what our plans are.
QUESTION: Well, then I don’t understand why it should – why if the Bahrainis presumably know what they are going to be transferred or what they’re going to acquire and if Congress has gotten a robust briefing, I don’t understand why the public should not also be able to know what is being sold. What is the reason for that if Congress has been robustly briefed (inaudible).
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’ll just say for the purposes of this call, we’re not prepared to disclose. We’ll go back and look and see what else we can, but for the purposes of this call, I’ve disclosed all that we’re able to disclose.
MODERATOR: Right. Thanks. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Josh Rogin. And please state your company name.
QUESTION: Thanks. This is Josh Rogin with Foreign Policy magazine. Could you please tell us the approximate value of the items being sold or transferred to the Bahraini Government? And is it your analysis that Congress has the rights or the ability to hold up this sale, or is it your position that the sale is not subject to congressional disapproval? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Hi, Josh. I’ll say on both of those – a number of these are licenses for which the value is subject to the negotiation between the Bahrainis and the private contractor. So to give you a precise number value, we’re not able to do.
In terms of reaching congressional notification thresholds, I did mention that one of the items will be – we’ll be submitting legislation to Congress regarding the excess defense article transfer of a frigate, which will require congressional approval. To my knowledge, none of the other items that we’re discussing require – reach the thresholds for congressional notification. But if any do, of course, we would follow the Arms Export Control Act and notify Congress as required under the Act.
QUESTION: Okay. I understand you can’t give me an exact number. How about an approximate number? Ballpark it for us.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not in the position to do that right now, particularly given, as I said – a lot of these are licenses that would require a negotiation between the buyer and seller over the amount and what will be included.
QUESTION: Okay. And very quickly, could you tell us: The crown prince is in town. Did you guys meet with him? Did he meet with the Secretary? What were the nature of those interactions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Hi. Yeah. The Secretary met with the crown prince two days ago, along with his delegation. The crown prince today met with the vice president at the White House. And in just a few minutes, the crown prince will begin his meeting with Secretary of Defense Panetta.
So there were a number of meetings in which the United States was able to discuss with the crown prince and his delegation some of the same issues that we’ve talked about at the beginning of this call. We’ve talked about where it is that we’ve seen some progress. The crown prince outlined the king’s vision for reform and progress. We underscored our concerns, both about individual cases and about sort of the questions of principles, questions like accountability. We had the opportunity to have very good exchanges with him on these issues that are of deep concern with us.
We also, of course, reiterated our commitment to Gulf security more generally, that this decision that’s being taken today is part of our commitment to Gulf security. We also told the crown prince that we agree with the Bahraini Government that protests need to be peaceful, that we are concerned about the violence on the street, that the attacks by protestors against the Bahraini police and the police use of excessive force are both things that need to be addressed.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Once again, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1.
I am showing no further questions. Excuse me, we do have a question. One moment.
OPERATOR: Karen DeYoung, your line is open. And please state you affiliation.
QUESTION: Washington Post. You mentioned the upgrades of F-16 engines, and I’m assuming – and please correct if it’s not true – that these were planned sales that were paused, as you said, earlier. Can you tell me how many that is? And you must have a dollar figure on that, if it’s something that had already been approved.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t have that information for you at the tip of my fingertips. So we will look and see if there’s any that we provide – that we can provide and get back to you. But at the tip of my fingertips, I don’t have that information.
QUESTION: And also, can you just talk a little bit about – whichever of you is appropriate – about how this fits into some of the issues that were discussed at the forum in Riyadh? In other words, what – you spoke about the Gulf countries having a tighter relationship, tighter security relationship with the United States, and that also included sales of a number of items. You talked about the establishment of a regional missile defense system. Could you talk about what role Bahrain plays in general in that kind of regional defense and cooperation that you talked about during the forum?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Karen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Can you hear me?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. We have strong defense and security relationships with all six of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. So we start with a foundation of six very strong bilateral relationships. And what the Secretary and her Gulf counterparts were talking about on March 31st in Riyadh was how to build on these six very strong individual bilateral relationships a multilateral framework in which we can discuss shared interests, we can discuss shared security concerns, that we can have a multiplier effect by working together through working groups that address specific issues such as, for example, maritime security, by looking at the possibility of increasing joint exercises, of comparing notes together on how we might address some of the challenges that we face in that region.
So I would look at this as – in two ways. One is the U.S. interest in helping Bahrain maintain a strong external defense capacity, which is in our interest, and second, Bahrain’s role as one of six countries that’s working in partnership with us through the new Gulf strategic forum, that these are all elements of how we’re addressing these shared challenges in the Gulf.
QUESTION: If I could just follow up on that, would – is it fair to say, then, that as you tried to establish this partnership, that it was made more difficult by the fact that one of the countries involved was prohibited from getting certain defense items that would have let it participate? In other words, is that part of the motivation of deciding to do this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Like I said, we made this decision to allow these transfers to proceed on U.S. national security grounds. It is in the U.S. national interest that we work as closely as we can with our six Gulf countries, our six Gulf partners, on security issues. At the same time, internal stability is also a part of maintaining an effective security posture, and that’s why the reform element comes in. It comes in because we’re concerned about the human rights aspects of it, but we’re also concerned that the Bahrainis are able to address their internal challenges in a way that enhances our overall bilateral relationship, and particularly the security partnership.
MODERATOR: Okay. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Rosalind Jordan, and please state your affiliation.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m with Al Jazeera English. Thanks for taking the call and the question. I actually have three questions, but the first couple are related.
Why release these particular items now? Is there some sort of imminent threat that the Bahraini Government feels that it needs to have this equipment for, or is this simply a matter of ongoing maintenance and maintaining the status of the Bahraini armed forces? And then I have a separate question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: It is linked to our desire to help the Bahrainis maintain their external defense capabilities, and the determination that it’s in the U.S. national security interest to let these things go forward at this point.
QUESTION: And then going back to the meeting that the Secretary had with the crown prince on Wednesday, did she raise, in terms of individual cases, the case of the al-Khawaja family? Can you be more specific about which individual cases and what demands the U.S. Government is making on Bahrain to safeguard these and other people’s well-being right now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Yes, we – the Secretary and we, in a number of settings, have raised a series of cases. The al-Khawaja case is one. We’ve also raised repeatedly the cases of the 20 medical professionals who are still on trial and whose case has just been continued. There are a number of cases of prisoners who are charged with offenses relating to speech and public protest, and our view has been that the government – it’s imperative for the government to address those cases and to resolve them appropriately.
QUESTION: And a quick follow-up, [Senior Administration Official Three]. Is there a sense that the government is actually trying to do better in terms of its training of police forces, since that was something that was noted in the BICI report?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: I think it’s a – there are two pieces to that. As you know, or as many of you know, the government has enlisted the services of two experts, John Timoney, who served for many years in Philadelphia, New York, and Miami, and John Yates from Scotland Yard and they’ve been giving, I think, good advice to the police in terms of training needs, command and control and the like, and there’s a receptivity.
I think there’s a second broader question which is still to be resolved, which is the lack of real integration with the police, and those subjects – both of those subjects are very much part of our discussion with the government, and we’ve both offered to be helpful but also urged that these are questions that need to be resolved. The issue of the police and the increased tension and violence on the street are related.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Great, thanks. We have I think enough time for a few more questions. So next question, Operator?
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Dana Hughes. And please state your affiliation.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m Dana Hughes from ABC News. Thank you for having this call and taking my question. I just wondered if you put any conditions besides urging that the Bahraini – the Bahrain Government implement these reforms. Did you put any conditions on releasing these things that you’re giving to them in terms of that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: Well, let me again try – take this first, and others can join. There are two pieces to this. One is that there were – there still are a number of things that [Senior Administration Official One] outlined at the beginning that we have not released. And they’re mindful in particular of some of the concerns about the ongoing tension and violence on the street. A number of those items relate to potential crowd control items. But I think the more important point is that our conversations have been very focused on the need for reform and the need for addressing issues of the polarization that’s actually growing in the society – issues of prisoners, issues of accountability. These issues matter a lot to us, but more importantly, they matter to the people of Bahrain.
And we want a stable, secure partner in Bahrain. And these issues – the resolution of these issues is critical to our getting there. So this is very much part of our relationship now, and it will continue to be, and it’s frankly more important to the Government of Bahrain and the people that these things get resolved.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: This is [Senior Administration Official Two]. Just to follow-up on [Senior Administration Official Three]’s point, first of all, what we’re releasing is for – we believe is appropriate for external security, and all articles that are sold by the United States Government are subject to end use monitoring to make sure that they’re used for the purposes for which they were sold. And so we will continue to do that for these articles as well, and if there is any misuse that can impact our future willingness to sell. But for – we intend for these items to be monitored the way we would monitor any items that are sold by the U.S. Government.
MODERATOR: I think we have time for just one more question then, Operator.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Elise Labott, and please state your affiliation.
QUESTION: CNN. Thank you. Even though I know you said that they’ve made some progress in implementing some of the reforms, I mean, prominent human rights activists continue to be arrested and detained. For instance, Nabeel Rajab was just arrested. The Gulf Center for Human Rights and the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights was arrested earlier this week, and he was – for illegal assembly. So what is – even though they’re moving towards reform, are you confident that the Bahrainis are going to allow protests if they continue to come up, and what is your position on this? Because even though they might have kind of clamped down on the protests immediately, it doesn’t seem as if the opposition is going away, and it does seem as if there will be future episodes of this.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: I think if you read what we’ve said publicly and what we’re saying here, we made a decision today on the basis of U.S. national security interests. We’ve said very explicitly that we are mindful of the fact that there are a number of serious, unresolved human rights issues, among them these cases that you’re raising and a number of others. The situation in the country – the violence on the street is continuing. In some respects it may be even increasing; it’s going in ebbs and flows. But there is an increasing polarization in the society where both – demonstrators are throwing Molotov cocktails, which we condemn. They’re attacking the police, and the police are sometimes using excessive force, using tear gas and the like and injuring demonstrators.
We are very mindful of the seriousness of the situation. We’ve been very direct with the government that these issues need to be addressed. And at the end of the day, what’s most critical is that there be an environment where all sides – the government, the opposition, and others – are part of a national dialogue or negotiation which leads to a reconciliation of their differences. Right now they’re at an impasse, and the violence is in part a result of that. So we’re very mindful of the seriousness of the situation. We’ll continue to raise these issues in the days and weeks ahead.
MODERATOR: Thank you, [Senior Administration Official One]. And thanks to everyone for joining us, as I said, so late on a Friday afternoon. Certainly appreciate it. That’s all we have time for today, so everyone have a very good weekend. Take care.