The CIA Was Saudi Arabia’s Personal Shopper

Saudi missile deal
The spy agency held secret meetings with Saudi air force officers, overseeing the technical details of the kingdom’s purchase of East Wind ballistic missiles Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Saudi Arabia has long been a back-room player in the Middle East’s nuclear game of thrones, apparently content to bankroll the ambitions of Pakistan and Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) to counter the rise of its mortal enemy, Iran.

But as the West and Iran have moved closer to a nuclear accommodation, signs are emerging that the monarchy is ready to give the world a peek at a new missile strike-force of its own-which has been upgraded with Washington’s careful connivence.

According to a well-placed intelligence source, Saudi Arabia bought ballistic missiles from China in 2007 in a hitherto unreported deal that won Washington’s quiet approval on condition that CIA technical experts could verify they were not designed to carry nuclear warheads.

The solid-fueled, medium range DF-21 East Wind missiles are an improvement over the DF-3s the Saudis clandestinely acquired from China in 1988, experts say, although they differ on how much of an upgrade they were.

The newer missiles, known as CSS-5s in NATO parlance, have a shorter range but greater accuracy, making them more useful against “high-value targets in Tehran, like presidential palaces or supreme-leader palaces,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, tells Newsweek. They can also be fired much more quickly.

The poor accuracy of the old DF-3s rendered them impotent during the first Gulf War as a counter-strike to Saddam Hussein’s Scuds, according to a 1996 memoir by Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan, then-commander of the Riyadh’s Air Defense Forces. King Fahd declined to fling them at Iraq because the likely result would have been mass civilian casualties, and “the Coalition’s air campaign being waged against Iraq was sufficient retaliation,” Khaled wrote in Desert Warrior.

When that war ended, the Saudis went looking for something better. In China, they likely found it. But unlike in 1988, when they royally annoyed Washington with their secret acquisition of DF-3s, this time they decided to play nice. And the CIA was their assigned playmate.

CIA and Saudi air force officers hammered out the ways and means for acquiring the new Chinese missiles during a series of secretive meetings at the spy agency’s Langley headquarters and over dinners at restaurants in Northern Virginia during the spring and summer of 2007, a well-informed source tells Newsweek. The arrangements were so sensitive that then-Deputy CIA Director Stephen Kappes ordered the CIA’s logistical costs, estimated at $600,000-$700,000 buried under a vague “ops support” heading in internal budget documents-prompting loud complaints from the head of the agency’s support staff.

Aside from technical personnel, among the few CIA officials let in on the deal were the agency’s then-number three, Associate Deputy Director Michael Morrell, a longtime Asia hand; John Kringen, then-head of the agency’s intelligence directorate; and the CIA’s Riyadh station chief, who Newsweek is not identifying because he remains undercover. Two analysts subsequently traveled to Saudi Arabia, inspected the crates and returned satisfied that the missiles were not designed to carry nukes, says the source, who asked for anonymity in exchange for discussing the still-secret deal.

The CIA declined to comment, as did current and former White House officials. The Chinese and Saudi embassies in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.[Full story]