Gold Bar Menendez, Egypt’s #1 Lobbyist in DC

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Last Updated on October 3, 2023.

The Headline 

Days ago, Senator Robert Menendez and his wife pleaded not guilty to bribery charges stemming from a recently unsealed federal indictment. The indictment accuses the senator of accepting bars of gold, nearly $500,000 in cash, and a Mercedes convertible from Egyptian businessmen in exchange for using his position as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to help direct military aid and weapons to Egypt and provide the Egyptian government with private information about staff at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The FBI is probing whether Egyptian intelligence played a direct role in the scheme.

This is a serious allegation: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is known for his brutal treatment of human rights activists, refugees, women, political opponents, and others — including denial of due process and extrajudicial executions. To make matters worse, on top of the billions of dollars the United States has already sent to the Egyptian government over the course of Menendez’s chairmanship, Congress is set to send another nearly $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt in the next year. However, Congress legislated that $320 million of that aid should be withheld if the Egyptian government doesn’t meet certain human rights benchmarks — but, as Congress too frequently does, it added a provision by which the administration could “waive” these conditions on $235 million of that pot. The Biden administration used that waiver just a few weeks ago, further enriching authoritarians in Cairo. 

Where does Sen. Menendez fit in? As Foreign Relations chair, he could’ve placed a hold on these funds at any time — and even a quiet word with the White House, under a Democratic administration, would have had officials thinking twice about taking full advantage of the waiver. It’s now up to the courts to uncover the extent to which Sen. Menendez not failed to block, but instead actively encouraged this aid to go through, and whether bribes played a role in his actions. In the meantime, though, the $235 million in aid has more than the appearance of impropriety — it’s the spitting image of impropriety. Congress can take a step toward prioritizing accountability by placing a hold on the $235 million that Senator Menendez refused to block. House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Rep. Gregory Meeks has just requested a pause on the funding, so watch this space to see if others join him — and if the administration respects the request of the leading House Democrat on foreign affairs.

What’s next: Thankfully, pressure is growing from Senator Menendez’s colleagues for him to step down. More than half of his Democratic Senate colleagues and an ever-growing number in the House have called for his resignation. Here at Win Without War, we couldn’t agree more. People in New Jersey, and across the country, deserve better than to be represented by someone credibly accused of using his public office to line his own pockets (literally). Senator Menendez should have his day in court, but there’s no reason for him to remain in the Senate between now and then. If Democrats of all stripes can keep the pressure up, there’s a real chance to both secure Menendez’s resignation and reduce the flow of money to the Egyptian government that he helped guarantee.

The Happenings 

October 3rd, 10:30-11:00 am ET: “Transatlantic Collaboration on the Energy Transition,” CSIS

October 5th, 12:00-1:30 pm ET: “Critical Perspectives on U.S., Concessions for the Abraham Accords: Saudi Arabia – Israel – United States,” Center for International Policy

The Spotlight 

In today’s spotlight, we interview Katherine Ebright, Liberty and National Security Counsel at the Brennan Center. You can follow her at @EbrightYon.

1): What was the first moment you realized you were interested in the crossover of law and U.S. foreign policy? What is one thing you wish people in the United States better understood about war powers?

I have long been interested in the role of the United States in the world, and as a woman of Southeast Asian descent who has studied Vietnamese language and history, I have perhaps had more occasion than most to reflect on how our military interventions can be counterproductive and can even betray our democratic values. I went to law school because I believed that law played an important role in structuring our decision-making around foreign policy, including the use of military force. Never known for brevity… I’ll offer two thoughts on war powers and the law: First, how we use our military has tremendous implications for racial justice, both because of who we’re affecting on the ground and because of how foreign conflicts shape discourse and civil liberties at home. Second, there are areas of law, like war powers, that are rarely reviewed by courts and where legal meaning is created by Congress, the executive branch, and the public in dialogue. Please be a part of that dialogue!

2): You’ve argued that the Secretary of State should have oversight over security assistance in Niger, not just the Ambassador and the Pentagon. Can you explain the loopholes surrounding the coup designation and security assistance in Niger and why it is important to close them?

For the past several years, I have researched “security cooperation” authorities, or the laws on the books that allow U.S. forces to work “by, with, and through” foreign militaries and paramilitaries. Two laws of particular concern are the 127e authority and the 1202 authority, which allow U.S. forces to train, equip, and pay salaries to state and non-state groups. The Department of Defense refers to these 127e and 1202 groups as “surrogate forces” because U.S. forces can command them to conduct operations, including combat operations, with or instead of U.S. forces themselves. The way that the Department of Defense has used its surrogate forces in Africa and Asia raises real war powers and congressional oversight challenges. 

But that’s not all: The 127e and 1202 authorities have the potential to undermine the “coup restriction,” a law that prohibits the provision of “assistance” to a coup government, like the government that we now see in Niger. To get around a separate law that requires foreign militaries receiving U.S. “assistance” to undergo human rights vetting, the Department of Defense has already assessed that 127e and 1202 training, equipment, and payments do not constitute “assistance.” This means that, if the Department of Defense wanted to provide support to members of the Nigerien military despite the coup, it could do so under the 127e or 1202 authority. To use the authority, the Department of Defense needs to get the sign-off of the relevant ambassador, but ambassadors are rarely well-versed in military affairs and decision-making. Far broader reform is needed for the 127e and 1202 authorities, but at an absolute minimum, these programs should be viewed as “assistance” — and thus subject to the coup restriction and human rights vetting — and should be reviewed by experts at the highest levels of the Department of State.

Buried Ledes

More than 88,000 ethnic Armenians have fled Nagorno-Karabakh over the past week, and United Nations authorities say the total number of refugees could reach 120,000 — Nagorno Karabakh’s entire population. The self-declared republic’s separatist president Samvel Shakhramanyan signed a decree just two days ago to dissolve all state institutions by the new year. This all comes after Azerbaijan suddenly seized the region through a swift military operation on September 19, following more than three decades of wars and stalemates known as the “longest-running conflict in post-Soviet Eurasia.” While Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom told Reuters that Azerbaijan is not encouraging ethnic Armenians to leave, “years of mutual distrust, violence, and war” leaves many Armenians fearful of the prospect of staying. While the U.S. and E.U. have pledged relief aid to Armenia, the international reaction to the crisis is too late for most. “For nine months [of an Azerbaijan-imposed blockade], the world did nothing. Now, the catastrophe is here,” said Davit Azaryan, a refugee from the Nagorno-Karabakh village of Haterk.

Despite ongoing discrimination against Palestinian and Arab Americans at Israel’s points of entry, the Biden administration has admitted Israel into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program this week. The program allows citizens and nationals of certain countries to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa. A central requirement for qualification is that of ‘reciprocity’, which means countries must allow visa-free travel for American citizens in exchange for a similar easing of visa requirements for their own nationals traveling to the U.S. But this has not been the case at Israeli ports of entry, where Israeli authorities often turn away U.S. nationals of Palestinian or other Arab descent. In opposition to the decision, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee filed a lawsuit challenging Israel’s designation, arguing that “Israel failed to meet all of the legal requirements for admission.”

The debris of a missing advanced fighter F-35 jet was finally found by military search teams after the $80 million aircraft temporarily went missing. The Pentagon even had to ask people on social media to share related information. The difficulty in tracking it drew “questions, amazement, and ridicule” from people across social media. Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort is calling the crash a mere “mishap,” but if you listen to the 911 call from a South Carolina resident’s home reporting the military pilot parachuting into their backyard, you’ll hear the puzzlement of people trying to work out why they’re the first line of defense when the military can’t make a $110 million plane fly.

A highschooler-led campaign spanning more than fifty schools nationwide is calling for a Green New Deal for Schools: a program for districts to, among other things, teach climate justice, create post-graduation pathways to green jobs, and plan for climate disasters. The campaign, coordinated by the youth-driven climate justice collective Sunrise Movement, is also urging school buildings and buses to run on 100% clean energy. This week, about 150 students joined Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Senator Ed Markey as the two reintroduced their Green New Deal for Public Schools Act

The U.K. is installing the world’s first-ever sculpture celebrating women who decide to wear the hijab. The one-tonne, 16-foot steel statue will be set up in Birmingham. Engraved in the statue are the words: It is a woman’s right to be loved and respected whatever she chooses to wear. Her true strength is in her heart and her mind.” 

Mike Check!

A GOP-led House means a Congress in which congressmen named Michael outnumber women as committee chairs. Here’s Mike Check, an occasional series dedicated to keeping track of what the Mikes are doing with all that power. 

In a renewed effort to close down the space for diplomacy AND target women of color working in government, Republican leaders are actively trafficking in the latest right-wing disinformation campaign. Responding to a hatchet job article from Semafor and Iran International, Chair of the House Armed Services Committee Mike Rogers (R-AL) jumped at the opportunity to target Ariane Tabatabai, an Iranian-American working at the Pentagon, in a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The accusations of dual loyalty in the letter are not only false but highly problematic and discriminatory. This is not the first time Iranian-Americans who work for the federal government have been targeted by smear campaigns: long-time State Department employee Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who was originally hired under the Bush administration, was reassigned away from an Iran-specific position in 2017 after racist protests from the likes of Newt Gingrich and right-wing media circles. Chairman Rogers is, of course, still fuming that the Iran nuclear deal was a success and his preferred “maximum pressure” policy an abject failure. Instead of reckoning with that, he’s trying to run the people who supported that deal out of public service, and starting with those he thinks are most vulnerable.

September 29, 2023