WASHINGTON — Four Saudis who participated in the 2018 killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi received paramilitary training in the United States the previous year under a contract approved by the State Department, according to documents and people familiar with the arrangement.
The instruction occurred as the secret unit responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing was beginning an extensive campaign of kidnapping, detention and torture of Saudi citizens ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, to crush dissent inside the kingdom.
The training was provided by the Arkansas-based security company Tier 1 Group, which is owned by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. The company says the training — including “safe marksmanship” and “countering an attack” — was defensive in nature and devised to better protect Saudi leaders. One person familiar with the training said it also included work in surveillance and close-quarters battle.
There is no evidence that the American officials who approved the training or Tier 1 Group executives knew that the Saudis were involved in the crackdown inside Saudi Arabia. But the fact that the government approved high-level military training for operatives who went on to carry out the grisly killing of a journalist shows how intensely intertwined the United States has become with an autocratic nation even as its agents committed horrific human rights abuses.
It also underscores the perils of military partnerships with repressive governments and demonstrates how little oversight exists for those forces after they return home.
Such issues are likely to continue as American private military contractors increasingly look to foreign clients to shore up their business as the United States scales back overseas deployments after two decades of war.
The State Department initially granted a license for the paramilitary training of the Saudi Royal Guard to Tier 1 Group starting in 2014, during the Obama administration. The training continued during at least the first year of former President Donald J. Trump’s term.
Louis Bremer, a senior executive of Cerberus, Tier 1 Group’s parent company, confirmed his company’s role in the training last year in written answers to questions from lawmakers as part of his nomination for a top Pentagon job during the Trump administration.
The administration does not appear to have sent the document to Congress before withdrawing Mr. Bremer’s nomination; lawmakers never received answers to their questions.
In the document, which Mr. Bremer provided to The New York Times, he said that four members of the Khashoggi kill team had received Tier 1 Group training in 2017, and two of them had participated in a previous iteration of the training, which went from October 2014 until January 2015.
“The training provided was unrelated to their subsequent heinous acts,” Mr. Bremer said in his responses.
He said that a March 2019 review by Tier 1 Group “uncovered no wrongdoing by the company and confirmed that the established curriculum training was unrelated to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Mr. Bremer said that the State Department, “in collaboration with other U.S. departments and agencies,” is responsible for vetting the foreign forces trained on U.S. soil. “All foreign personnel trained by T1G are cleared by the U.S. government for entry into the United States before commencement of training.”
In a statement, Mr. Bremer said that the training was “protective in nature” and that the company conducted no further training of Saudis after December 2017.
“T1G management, the board and I stand firmly with the U.S. government, the American people and the international community in condemning the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” he said.
A 2019 column by David Ignatius of The Washington Post first reported that members of the Khashoggi kill team had received training in the United States. He wrote that the C.I.A. had “cautioned other government agencies” that some special-operations training may have been conducted by Tier 1 Group under a State Department license.
The issue was central to Mr. Bremer’s contentious confirmation hearing and the written questions from senators, asking him what role, if any, Tier 1 Group had in training Saudis who had participated in the Khashoggi operation.
A State Department spokesman declined to confirm whether it awarded licenses to Tier 1 Group for the Saudi training.
“This administration insists on responsible use of U.S. origin defense equipment and training by our allies and partners, and considers appropriate responses if violations occur,” said the spokesman, Ned Price. “Saudi Arabia faces significant threats to its territory, and we are committed to working together to help Riyadh strengthen its defenses.”
A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not comment.
Mr. Trump weighed installing the head of Cerberus, Stephen A. Feinberg, in a top intelligence post last year, but the appointment was never made. While the Trump administration had appointed Mr. Feinberg to lead the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board in 2018, questions emerged about potential conflicts of interest. Cerberus formerly owned the military contractor DynCorp, which among other things provides intelligence advice to the United States and other clients.
It is unclear which members of the Khashoggi kill team participated in the Tier 1 Group training. Seven members of the team belonged to an elite unit charged with protecting Prince Mohammed, according to an American intelligence report about the assassination declassified in February.
The role of operatives from the so-called Rapid Intervention Force in the Khashoggi killing helped bolster the American intelligence case that Prince Mohammed approved the operation.
“Members of the R.I.F. would not have participated” in the killing without his consent, according to the report. The group “exists to defend the crown prince” and “answers only to him,” the document said.
Members of the team that killed Mr. Khashoggi were involved in at least a dozen operations starting in 2017, according to officials who have read classified intelligence reports about the campaign.
Mr. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Post, was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, his body dismembered using a bone saw. The assassination brought widespread condemnation on Prince Mohammed, who has publicly denied any knowledge of the operation.
Eight defendants were sentenced to up to two decades in prison last year, but human rights advocates criticized the punishments as aimed at lower-level agents while sparing their leaders.
The C.I.A. concluded that the prince directed the operation, but Mr. Trump said that the evidence was inconclusive and that America’s diplomatic and economic relationship with the kingdom took priority. After President Biden took office and debated the issue with his advisers before the release of the declassified intelligence report, his administration announced sanctions on Saudis involved in the killing, including members of the elite unit who protect Prince Mohammed, but chose not to directly punish the crown prince.
The earlier iteration of the training, which took place during the Obama administration, occurred before Prince Mohammed consolidated power in the kingdom. His predecessor as crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, was a close ally of the United States and in particular John O. Brennan, who served as C.I.A. director under President Barack Obama.
Prince bin Nayef was the Saudi counterterrorism chief and collaborated closely with Obama administration officials in working to dismantle Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s affiliate based in Yemen.
In 2017, Prince bin Salman pushed Prince bin Nayef from power and executed a broader campaign to wrest power from his rivals — including a notorious episode of imprisoning Saudi royals and businessmen at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.
The Trump administration considered him a valuable partner in the Middle East — especially for the administration’s strategy to isolate Iran — and Prince bin Salman developed a close relationship with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law who served as a senior adviser to Mr. Trump.
Prince bin Salman, the son of King Salman, is the next in line to the Saudi throne. Prince bin Nayef remains under house arrest in the kingdom.
The Tier 1 Group website lists numerous American special operations and intelligence units as clients, along with “specialty units that do not require recognition.” It said it also trains “OGA special operator teams” — one pseudonym for C.I.A. paramilitary units — as well as “international allied forces.”
Under federal rules that restrict foreign sales of American arms and military expertise, Tier 1 Group was required to apply for licenses to train the foreign operatives. Those license applications were examined by State Department officials — who were processing tens of thousands of licenses per year — and approved.
The approval would have allowed members of the Saudi Royal Guard to enter the United States on visas processed by the American Embassy in Riyadh. The path is similar to the one followed by Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, a Royal Saudi Air Force officer who opened fire in 2019 at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla., where he was receiving military flight training. The attack killed three people and wounded eight.
Tier 1 Group was founded to train U.S. military personnel, taking advantage of an expanded Pentagon budget for military personnel training in basic counterinsurgency skills, according to former American officials familiar with its operations.
One of the company’s founders, Steve Reichert, a former Marine, was working as an instructor for the security contractor then known as Blackwater when he met Mr. Feinberg. With Mr. Feinberg’s backing, Mr. Reichert set up Tier 1 Group, according to Mr. Reichert’s 2020 account of the company’s founding and former intelligence officials familiar with the efforts.
But as U.S. military training budgets began to shrink, the company, like other private security firms, began searching for new clients. By 2014, it was beginning to train foreign military units, including Saudis.
Decisions about granting licenses to American firms to train foreign nationals are usually made after getting input from numerous government agencies, said R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs during the Trump administration. The Pentagon and intelligence agencies often play a role, he said.
“These things don’t just come out of the ether,” he said.
Mr. Cooper said he could not recall any discussion about the Tier 1 Group training of Saudis, even after Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. He said there were intense deliberations inside the Trump administration about how to respond to the killing after the government concluded that Prince Mohammed most likely approved it.
In the end, he said, administration officials did not want to squander America’s relationship with the kingdom — and the strategy of isolating Iran — khashoggi
“No government is going to flush a significant bilateral relationship over this murder, no matter how horrific it was,” he said.
Adam Goldman contributed reporting.
An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to Louis Bremer’s nomination for a Pentagon position. Mr. Bremer’s nomination never received a Senate vote and expired at the end of President Donald J. Trump’s term; it was not withdrawn. The error was repeated in a photo caption.
Former defense secretary Jim Mattis rejoins General Dynamics board
Mattis served on the board from 2013 to 2017 before joining the Trump administration.
Former defense secretary Jim Mattis has been elected to the board of General Dynamics, the company announced after a vote on Wednesday, allowing him to reclaim a powerful position at the top of America’s defense industry.
The announcement comes at a time when General Dynamics ― one of the last military-industrial conglomerates remaining from the industry’s Reagan-era heyday ― is trying to remake itself for the information age. Last year, the company sealed a deal to buy CSRA, a massive Beltway IT contractor, for almost $10 billion. It is the fourth-largest corporate recipient of U.S. government contract dollars.
“Jim is a thoughtful, deliberate and principled leader with a proven track record of selfless service to our nation,” chief executive Phebe Novakovic said in a statement. “We are honored to have him on our board.”
Mattis’s compensation and benefits package is to be detailed in a later financial disclosure form.
Mattis is the latest influential military official to join a major defense contractor, part of the “revolving door” between business and government that has long concerned government ethics experts.
A report released late last year by the Project on Government Oversight found that defense contractors had hired at least 50 high-level government officials since Trump became president, among more than 600 such instances in the past decade.
Mattis began his first stint on the board of General Dynamics in 2013 after more than 40 years with the U.S. Marine Corps. From 2010 to 2013, he led U.S. Central Command, which spearheads the military’s operations in the Middle East, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.He commanded a rare respect bordering on reverence among many members of the armed services, and cultivated a public image defined by uncompromising toughness.
He never married, and is often described as a “warrior monk” for his bookish devotion to military strategy and history. He adopted the call sign “chaos,” which stands for “Colonel Has An Outstanding Solution,” he told an audience at the National Harbor in 2017.
Mattis led the Defense Department during the first two years of Trump’s presidency. Trump frequently expressed admiration for him in public, referring to him as one of “my generals,” and calling him by his other nickname, “Mad Dog” Mattis.
Behind the scenes, Mattis often seemed to check the president’s instincts. According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s 2018 book “Fear: Trump in the White House” Mattis once told an associate that “we’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured,” after Trump had told the defense secretary by phone to kill Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.Mattis left government for the second time in December. He had clashed with the president over a plan to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, saying Trump should appoint someone who was “better aligned” with his views.
As defense secretary, he led numerous initiatives designed to make the Defense Department more efficient and business-friendly, an approach that was helpful to defense contractors such as his former employer.
When Mattis became defense secretary in early 2017, he resigned from numerous positions in the private sector — including one at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank — and a handful of charities. When he stepped down from General Dynamics’s board, he promised to divest all stock associated with his seat. He also forfeited stock holdings and options that had not yet vested at the time he rejoined the government, which must have added up to several hundreds of thousands of dollars, based on financial disclosure forms.Additionally, Mattis pledged that he would not “participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that to my knowledge has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of General Dynamics” as defense secretary until he had divested of his holdings or obtained a written waiver, according to an ethics pledge he submitted at the time.
Mattis also promised not to participate personally or substantially in any matter concerning the now-disgraced Silicon Valley blood testing start-up Theranos, in which he was an investor. According to his ethics pledge at the time, Mattis was not required to divest of his Theranos stock. The company began plans to dissolve in September.
Board members at General Dynamics are given lucrative stock holdings and options, and are often closely involved in major business decisions. Board member responsibilities at General Dynamics include “reviewing, approving and monitoring the company’s business strategies, annual operating plan and significant corporate actions,” according to the company’s corporate governance guidelines. Board members also have responsibility for “advising and counseling management” and ensuring that appropriate ethics policies are in place with respect to the company’s relationship with customers.Separately, a new provision included in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018 prohibits retired officials such as Mattis from engaging in “lobbying activities with respect to the Department of Defense.” Such lobbying activities could include “any oral or written communication … to a covered executive branch official or a covered legislative branch official that is made on behalf of a client” with regard to a range of federal policies.
Currently, six of General Dynamics’s 12 board members are former high-ranking government officials.
- Rudy deLeon served as deputy secretary of defense from 2000 to 2001;
- retired Navy Adm. Cecil Haney led the U.S. Strategic Command from 2013 to 2016;
- retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles led the Air Force Material Command from 2000 to 2003;
- retired British Army Gen. Peter Wall was chief of the general staff for the British Army from 2010 to 2014; and
- chairman and chief executive Novakovic has worked for the CIA, the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget.
General Dynamics is not the only company packing its board with former military and government officials. Former deputy undersecretary of defense Bob Work joined Raytheon’s board in 2017, and Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, joined Boeing’s board this year.
Big tech companies have benefited from the revolving door as well; Amazon recently hired Victor Gavin, the former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, to assist with its cloud computing business. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Tech companies can now bid on the Pentagon’s $10B cloud contract (techcrunch.com)
AWS was originally awarded this contract but Safra Catz (co-CEO Oracle) is on Trump advisory committee. She planted the seeds that Bezos can’t be trusted due to his ownership of Washington Post and what that publication has been saying about Trump.
Fully expect Oracle to make a huge run at this business. And don’t forget, Oracle was started as a company from an initial contract with the CIA. There’s not a single tech company more aligned with the US government than Oracle.
Google Engineers Refused to Build Security Tool to Win Military Contract
It’s ironic on so many levels. The first level is, of course, the irony of refusing to do military work at a company that only exists because of defense contractors working on a military project (ARPANET).
More generally, the irony is that the U.S. military has made a far greater positive contribution to the world than Google. Under the Pax Americana, we have seen the greatest number of people rise out of abject poverty in human history. The stable, liberal world order that has been beneficial to so many people has been bankrolled by the U.S. and backed by the U.S. military.
This world where people in India and Pakistan are using Gchat Facebook to talk to each other instead of waging nuclear war against each other is not the result of Google or Facebook. It’s not the result of humans evolving beyond their tendencies towards warfare. It’s because the U.S. military has made entire classes of armed conflicts untenable... This country only exists because of Puritan persecution in England, but you don’t see me thanking the Anglican church for America. Bad means result in good ends all the time; that doesn’t mean we should celebrate bad means.I agree that the US military has made positive contributions to the world, but I don’t think it’s the main source of the Pax Americana — strong international bodies (NATO, UN, &c), the tendency for democratic nations (the dominant sort in the 20th century) to avoid wars with each other, and advancements in crop science are all individually more responsible for the relative global stability of the last 30 years.
I don’t deny that the military had a role (usually financial) in any or all of the above, but I wouldn’t call it a causal role: virtually all academic research funding hits the defense world eventually (“food security”, “ecological security”, &c), especially during the Cold War. That’s the result of political contrivances, not any sort of deep connection between the U.S. military and scientific progress.
Finally, I wonder about drawing comparisons between the past U.S. military and current ventures. The Google engineers in question probably wouldn’t be designing waterproof radios for fastboats; they’d be training models that “recognize” “terrorists” from afar and systems that pass that information to drones for remote killing. Put another way: the shift away from conventional warfare changes the moral dimensions of working for the military.
.. It’s not that NATO and the UN are powerful or effective as bodies independent of the US, it’s that their greatest achievements have occurred without direct US military intervention.NATO and the UN both benefit (and suffer) from the power and presence of the US military, but their proudest moments (the German economic miracle, smallpox eradication, historic decreases in child mortality and malnutrition) all stem from smart policy and liberal principles, not from the looming threat of American tanks... The fact that people are spurred into action by violence doesn’t mean that we ought to be violent, or that violence is even the most effective way to get people to act in the way you want.
.. At the risk of sort of invoking Godwin, I’m curious if you’d apply the same logic to Stalin and the fall of Nazi Germany. What does the victory in the Battle of Berlin say about whether Stalin was good or bad?.. an academic institution is a public institution focused on advancing science and teaching it to the public. A corporation or contractor is in it for the profit. Notably, the academics involved were able to publish their work as the TCP/IP standard (and others), and anyone was able to use it.If it had actually been military contractors we would not have the internet as it is today... Cerf (Stanford) and Kahn (DARPA) designed TCP. But BBN (now a subsidiary of Raytheon) built ARPANET... The best the military does is keep stability. Google changed everything. One is static; the other, change. I don’t see them as comparable at all.Anyway I’ve heard it said that the container ship has done more to lift the world standard up, than all the political action of the last 1000 years. By distributing goods to all the corners of the world at a cheap price.
.. > Under the Pax Americana, we have seen the greatest number of people rise out of abject poverty in human history. The stable, liberal world order that has been beneficial to so many people has been bankrolled by the U.S. and backed by the U.S. military.It’s perfectly coherent to support the overall ends (relative world peace) and oppose the means (extrajudicial drone strikes, invasion of Iraq, etc.)
Without US Navy and its 10 carriers, we will be back to 19th century mercantilism and how much fun colonialism which is its off-shoot has been.