Report

Congress Fears U.S. Intelligence Leaks in Saudi Case

The ongoing detention of the children of a key U.S. counterterrorism partner is just the latest irritant in U.S.-Saudi relations.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Sen. Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on April 5, 2017. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Top U.S. lawmakers are urging President Joe Biden to personally advocate for the release of two children of a former top Saudi official who are being detained by authorities in Riyadh, yet another sign that ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia continue to be fraught with concerns over crackdowns on human rights and political opposition to the throne.

In a bipartisan letter to Biden sent on Wednesday and obtained by Foreign Policy, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy, Tim Kaine, and Ben Cardin told Biden they had “deep concern” about the arrest and abduction of two adult children of Saad al-Jabri, an exiled longtime top advisor to Mohammed bin Nayef, a former Saudi crown prince and interior minister. 

The move comes as the Biden administration has sought to intervene in lawsuits in Canadian court where Saudi-owned companies have accused Jabri of embezzling billions of dollars, according to Agence France-Presse. Jabri helped design a modern forensics system in Saudi Arabia, and lawmakers credited him as a “highly valued partner” of U.S. intelligence agencies in dealing with such terrorist groups as al Qaeda. The lawsuits could risk the revelation of U.S. secrets, they added.

Top U.S. lawmakers are urging President Joe Biden to personally advocate for the release of two children of a former top Saudi official who are being detained by authorities in Riyadh, yet another sign that ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia continue to be fraught with concerns over crackdowns on human rights and political opposition to the throne.

In a bipartisan letter to Biden sent on Wednesday and obtained by Foreign Policy, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy, Tim Kaine, and Ben Cardin told Biden they had “deep concern” about the arrest and abduction of two adult children of Saad al-Jabri, an exiled longtime top advisor to Mohammed bin Nayef, a former Saudi crown prince and interior minister. 

The move comes as the Biden administration has sought to intervene in lawsuits in Canadian court where Saudi-owned companies have accused Jabri of embezzling billions of dollars, according to Agence France-Presse. Jabri helped design a modern forensics system in Saudi Arabia, and lawmakers credited him as a “highly valued partner” of U.S. intelligence agencies in dealing with such terrorist groups as al Qaeda. The lawsuits could risk the revelation of U.S. secrets, they added.

“We are gravely concerned with his children’s arrest,” the lawmakers wrote to Biden. “The Saudi government is believed to be using the children as leverage to blackmail their father and force his return from Canada, where he currently resides in fear of possible retribution for his previous support for a rival of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin [Salman].”

“The prolonged prosecution of Dr. Aljabri and his family members has now evolved to risk the exposure of classified U.S. counter-terrorism projects,” the lawmakers added.

Rubio is the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, one of two congressional panels overseeing U.S. spy agencies. The four senators, including Leahy, who previously pushed the Trump administration for answers on the case, are hoping for Biden’s help facilitating a resolution that frees 23-year-old Omar al-Jabri and 21-year-old Sarah al-Jabri, and prevents the outing of U.S. intelligence findings in a flurry of lawsuits in Canadian court.

Jabry was a key link in our relationship with Muhammed bin Nayef, who was the single most important [counterterrorism] partner in the Muslim world,” said Bruce Riedel, a Saudi Arabia expert and three-decade veteran of the CIA who now runs the intelligence project at the Brookings Institution. “They literally saved hundreds of American lives.”

Both of Jabri’s children were held incommunicado until January, around 10 months after they were first arrested, according to the New York-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch. The organization also said that Saudi authorities have detained as many as 40 other Jabri family members and associates. Omar and Sarah al-Jabri were sentenced to nine and six years in prison, respectively, and extensive travel bans in a secret Saudi court proceeding, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Trump administration had previously told Congress last August that the persecution of Jabri’s children was “unacceptable.” The State Department had repeatedly asked for clarification on the detentions and urged for the immediate release of the children, then-acting Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Ryan Kaldahl wrote in a letter to Leahy in August 2020.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has denied allegations that he sent a hit squad to kill Jabri, but Wednesday’s letter is a sign that congressional pressure could throw another wrench in relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia that have been on a turbulent track during the Biden administration, as frustration mounts over the Saudi royalty’s targeting of political opponents. Mohammed bin Nayef, a close counterterrorism ally of U.S. and Western intelligence services, has also been held under arrest by Saudi authorities since last year. He was relieved as crown prince and replaced by Mohammad bin Salman in June 2017. 

Biden said on the campaign trail that he would treat Mohammed bin Salman as a “pariah.” But the administration opted not to sanction the de facto Saudi leader for the 2018 killing of the journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi after releasing a report from the U.S. intelligence community alleging the crown prince’s role in ordering the murder. The Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s drive to extend normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab world.

But some longtime Saudi watchers are worried that torture and shakedowns of political opponents are becoming par for the course for the Saudi authorities, disrupting any chance of a honeymoon under Biden.

“The Jabry case inevitably is linked to the incarceration of [Mohammed bin Nayef],” Riedel said. “Biden should demand his release and threaten to sanction [Mohammed bin Salman] if he is not freed.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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