Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress 

1) Legislation

Biden Signs Bill Increasing Benefits for Veterans Exposed to Toxic Fumes. On August 10, President Biden signed the PACT Act into law, expanding healthcare and disability benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits that were commonly used by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. This represents one of the largest expansions of veterans healthcare in recent history, and will cover over 3.5 million veterans. The bill was briefly blocked by Republicans after they had initially promised to back it, leading veterans to protest outside the Capitol.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

 Senator Menendez Issues Statement on Gaza Conflict. On August 8, Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), Chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement affirming Israel’s right to defense against “Iranian-backed terrorists committed to annihilating the State of Israel, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ),” and called for the immediate cessation of PIJ’s rocket launches. Additionally, he expressed condolences for the families of civilians killed in Gaza. Menendez also highlighted efforts from the United Nations and other peacekeeping organizations that will continue to allow humanitarian access to Gaza and avoid a “spiraling and prolonged” conflict.

Representative Omar Narrowly Wins Primary. On August 9, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) defeated primary challenger Don Samuels by just 2,500 votes in Minnesota’s 5th congressional district. Representative Omar, one of the most prominent pro-Palestine voices in Congress, won her 2020 primary by more than 20 points, even with heavy opposition spending from pro-Israel groups, which did not target her race this year.


 II. Executive Branch

 1) White House

 President Biden Urges Syrian Government to Release Austin Tice. On August 10, President Biden released a statement commemorating the 10th anniversary of the kidnapping of former US Marine Austin Tice and urging the Syrian government’s cooperation to secure his release. Tice traveled to Syria in 2012 to cover the Syrian Civil War as a freelance investigative journalist, but was soon abducted. President Biden’s statement said that the administration knows “with certainty” that Tice has been held by the Syrian government since his kidnapping.

President Biden Supports Gaza Ceasefire, Affirms Israeli Right to Defense. On August 7, President Biden released a statement welcoming the ceasefire in Gaza and thanking Egyptian and Qatari officials for their diplomatic roles in bringing it about. He reaffirmed US support for Israel’s right to defend itself against “indiscriminate rocket attacks” launched by PIJ and hailed the success of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. He also expressed support for the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to live safely and to enjoy freedom and prosperity. In addition, the statement called for a “timely and thorough” investigation of reported civilian casualties in Gaza. Forty-four civilians in Gaza were killed by rockets before the ceasefire, sparking condemnation from UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet. However, Israel maintains that some of the casualties were caused by PIJ rockets that misfired.

National Security Advisor Sullivan Condemns Iran’s Targeting of US Citizens. On August 10, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan highlighted recent Justice Department allegations that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attempted to assassinate former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Sullivan condemned the IRGC plot and promised “severe consequences” if Iran attacks any US citizens, including those who currently or formerly serve the US.

2) Department of State

Special Envoy Lenderking Begins Middle East Trip. On August 11, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking embarked on a trip to Oman, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, while members of his team also traveled to Jordan. During this trip, Lenderking aims to expand the current UN truce in Yemen, highlight recent instability in Yemen’s Shabwa Governorate, advocate for increased funding pledges from donors, and make progress toward a permanent peace process. He will also meet with regional leaders to discuss the FSO Safer oil tanker crisis, as the tanker holds an estimated 1.14 million barrels of crude oil and has been moored off the coast of Yemen with no maintenance since 2015. An oil spill would be disastrous to the ecosystem of the Red Sea, and there is currently a $20 million funding gap holding up a salvage mission.

Secretary Blinken Welcomes Ceasefire Between Israel and Gaza. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement on August 8 welcoming the ceasefire agreement that ended the recent conflict between Israel and PIJ. Blinken thanked Egypt, Qatar, the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations, and Jordan for their efforts in securing the ceasefire. The secretary reiterated the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security and pledged to improve quality of life for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

3) Department of Defense

US al-Tanf Base in Syria Attacked. On August 15, the US base at al-Tanf in Syria was attacked by multiple drones. No casualties or damages were reported in the attack. Al-Tanf sits on the Syrian-Iraqi border and is close to a highway that stretches between Damascus and Baghdad and that is sometimes used to smuggle Iranian weapons to Syria and Hezbollah. It houses US troops and about 300 members of a Syrian opposition force.

Defense Secretary Austin Voices Concern for Tunisian Democracy. On August 9, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III commented that, “Tunisia’s dream of self-government is again in danger,” during his remarks at the US Africa Command’s Change of Command Ceremony in Stuttgart, Germany. His statement comes after Tunisian President Kais Saied was able to push through a new constitution that vastly expands his presidential powers, despite only 30 percent voter turnout in a July 25 constitutional referendum. Both Secretary of State Blinken and incoming US Ambassador to Tunisia Joey Hood have previously criticized Saied’s move, but their comments were labeled as “unacceptable interference” by Tunisian authorities.

US Marines Begin Military Exercise in Saudi Arabia. On August 10, the US and Saudi militaries began their annual Native Fury naval exercises in the Red Sea. The drills aim to support regional security collaboration and crisis responses.

4) Other US Departments and Agencies

DoJ Charges Iranian National for John Bolton Assassination Attempt. On August 10, the Department of Justice announced charges in absentia against Shahram Poursafi, an Iranian national accused of plotting to kill former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Poursafi, a member of the IRGC, was charged with the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire and with both providing and attempting to provide material support to a transnational murder plot. He faces up to ten years in prison if convicted. US authorities believe the assassination plot was likely retaliation for the 2020 killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, then commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force.

US Renews Sanctions Waiver for Iranian Civilian Nuclear Activities. On August 9, the State Department announced the renewal of a sanctions waiver allowing international collaboration for some Iranian civilian nuclear projects. The waiver specifically allows foreign companies to conduct non-proliferation activities at some nuclear sites in Iran without being targeted under US sanctions. Nuclear locations covered by the waiver include the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Arak heavy water reactor and the Tehran research reactor. While this renewal comes as the Biden Administration continues nuclear talks with Iran and seeks to re-enter the JCPOA, the State Department clarified that this development “is not a signal that we are about to reach an understanding on a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA.”

US Officials Attend Trial of Jamal Khashoggi’s Attorney in UAE. In early August, several US officials attended the trial of Asim Ghafoor, the former attorney of murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, as he faced charges of money laundering and tax evasion in the UAE. Ghafoor’s previous three year prison sentence was overturned on August 10, but he was ordered to pay a $1.36 million fine and to hand over more than $4.9 million in assets to the Emirati government. Emirati authorities claim that the US ordered Ghafoor’s detention and investigation, but the State Department denies these accusations, and numerous US officials have criticized Ghafoor’s charges as unclear and lacking due process. Ghafoor, who is active in the human rights monitoring organization Democracy for the Arab World Now, was detained in May while transiting through Dubai on his way to a family wedding.

Former Twitter Employee Convicted of Spying for Saudi Arabia. On August 9, former Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo, who has been accused of spying for Saudi Arabia, was convicted on six criminal counts by a San Francisco court, including for acting as a foreign agent and trying to disguise payment from an official tied to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Abouammo, a dual US-Lebanese national, previously oversaw Twitter relations with celebrities and public figures based in the Middle East. Bader al-Asaker, an advisor to Mohammed bin Salman, recruited Abouammo to use his position at Twitter to share information about Saudi dissidents. In return, Abouammo received at least $320,000 in cash and gifts.

Morocco Approves US Plans to Extradite French Hacker. On August 8, Morocco’s highest appeals court announced plans to deport Sébastien Raoult, a French student accused of numerous cybercrimes against American companies. Raoult was detained on an Interpol notice while passing through the Rabat airport on May 31 and has been held in Morocco ever since. If tried in the US, he faces over 100 years in prison for crimes including conspiracy to commit wire fraud and abuse, wire fraud, and identity theft.