Pentagon Nominee Questioned About Company’s Reported Ties to Khashoggi Killers

Louis Bremer is on the board of a company that may have trained the Saudi team that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

WASHINGTON, USA - OCTOBER 10: A member of the Organization 'Justice for Jamal Khashoggi' holds a picture of Khashoggi as she and other members hold news conference for disappearance of Saudi journalist in front of The Washington Post headquarters in Washington D.C. with the attendance of Congressman Gerry Connolly and figures from CAIR and Pen America spoke, in Washington D.C., United States on October 10, 2018. (Photo by Umar Farooq/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A member of the organization Justice for Jamal Khashoggi holds a picture of Khashoggi in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 10, 2018. Photo: Umar Farooq/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Trump administration’s nominee for a top special operations post at the Pentagon is facing questions about whether a company he helps oversee trained members of the Saudi team who killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In May, President Donald Trump nominated Louis Bremer — a former Navy SEAL turned investment banker — to serve as assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. In that role, Bremer would be the top civilian in the Defense Department overseeing the special operations community.

Bremer is currently a managing director at Cerberus Capital Management — a private equity company whose founder, Stephen Feinberg, has close ties to the Trump administration and was once considered for a high-up job in the intelligence community. Bremer also sits on the board of directors of Tier 1 Group, an Arkansas-based special operations training company that is owned by Cerberus.

In March 2019, the Washington Post — where Khashoggi was also a columnist — published a column by David Ignatius, which, citing “Saudi and American sources,” claimed that members of the Saudi rapid response team that killed Khashoggi in October  2018 had been trained in the United States. The column said that the CIA had warned other government agencies “that some of this special-operations training might have been conducted by Tier 1 Group” under a State Department license.

A U.S. government source confirmed the account at the time to The Intercept, saying that the CIA warning was intended to stop members of the Saudi team from being granted U.S. visas again for further training as part of defense liaison programs with the U.S. (The official asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.) The CIA did not respond to an email requesting comment.

At a nominations hearing on Thursday, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Bremer about the allegations, and whether Tier 1 Group or Cerberus ever investigated them. In response, Bremer said that he was unfamiliar with the article, and said neither company had investigated the allegation “to my knowledge or recollection.”

“I do know that we train Saudi nationals as part of our engagements with the Kingdom as an allied nation,” Bremer said. “We train other nations as well. But I have no knowledge of that.”

“So until today,” Kaine asked, “you were not aware that an allegation had been made that a company on which you sit as a director, with a small board of directors, had potentially been involved in training Saudis who were participants in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi?”

“I find it incredibly hard to believe that a five-person board of this company would not have had a fire drill when this allegation arose.”

Bremer said he would check his records and follow up with Kaine.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, responded to Bremer’s account with skepticism.

“Having served on a number of corporate boards myself, it’s hard for me to believe that a mention of your company by name in a column by David Ignatius — one of the leading foreign affairs commentators in the country — would not come to your attention nor to the attention of the board,” King said. “I find it incredibly hard to believe that a five-person board of this company would not have had a fire drill when this allegation arose.”

“We have a culture of compliance at Cerberus,” Bremer said. “That culture is pushed down into our portfolio companies. So as I sit here and think about it in real time, I think it’s probably likely that we did do some sort of investigation, I just don’t recall the specifics of that.”

Cerberus did not respond to a request for comment, and calls to Tier 1 Group’s office went unanswered.

Bremer’s nomination was first reported by Politico, which noted that in a now-deleted Instagram account, he described himself as a “Harley riding, tequila-drinking Navy SEAL and White House Fellow who buys companies on occasion.” His nomination was criticized by former officials who questioned his ability to reset the culture of the special operations community, which has come under fire after a number of high-profile scandals, including a Green Beret being strangled to death, sexual assault charges, drug abuse, and the war crimes trial of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher.

“When the President’s nominee to be the chief civilian Pentagon leader over U.S. special forces operations is a director of a company that may have trained those who assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it is critical that the Senate understand all the facts about the claim and whether Mr. Bremer or his colleagues took any steps in response to such a shocking allegation,” Kaine said in a statement after the hearing.

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