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Saudi arms sales: Watchdog finds State Department followed law but failed to address civilian deaths

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo delivers a speech on “Human Rights and the Iranian Regime”, at the U.S. Department of State, in Washington, DC, on December 19, 2019. (U.S. State Department photo by Freddie Everett)

In selling U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration failed to adequately assess and prevent the risk of civilian casualties, according to the State Department’s top watchdog.

In a report released Tuesday, the State Department’s Inspector General said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed the law in declaring an “emergency” to push through an $8.1 billion weapons deal to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Pompeo’s spokeswoman portrayed the report as a complete exoneration, saying it shows the agency “acted in complete accordance with the law and found no wrongdoing in the Administration’s exercise of emergency authorities.”

Lawmakers in Congress had tried to block the deal amid concerns about the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians and created a horrific humanitarian crisis.

Congress normally has to sign off on such deals, but Pompeo bypassed lawmakers by declaring a national security “emergency.” Pompeo argued that “Iranian aggression” required the U.S. to help Saudi Arabia, a pivotal ally in the region, defend itself.

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Democrats said there was no emergency and accused Pompeo of using a “phony” declaration to fast-track the weapons deal. They asked the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) to investigate Pompeo’s decision.

The IG’s office did not examine whether there was a true “emergency” – because the federal law at issue, the Arms Export Control Act, gives the secretary of state broad discretion in making that determination.

“Accordingly, OIG did not evaluate whether the Iranian malign threats cited in the Secretary’s May 2019 certification … constituted an emergency, nor did OIG make any assessment of the policy decisions underlying the arms transfers and the associated emergency,” the watchdog stated in its report.

In its statement on the IG’s report, the State Department said “the transfers were essential to bolster the security of the Gulf region and our ally Israel against the sharp increase in Iranian aggression in 2019.”

The report does not fully explain the IG’s findings on civilian casualties, because that was detailed in a classified annex. The report implies that State Department leaders pushed to keep more material classified than the IG thought was necessary.

The IG also said the State Department quietly approved more than $11 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE – in smaller tranches that did require the agency to notify Congress and get lawmakers’ sign off.

“The records show the Department approved a total of 4,221 below-threshold arms transfers involving Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with an estimated total value of $11.2 billion since January 2017,” the IG concluded. Those items included components for U.S.-made precision guided missiles, which have killed civilians, including children in Yemen.

The Trump administration sold the weapons to the Saudis despite bipartisan outrage over the kingdom’s conduct in Yemen and its role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist, American resident and Saudi citizen who was a sharp critic of the kingdom.

Saudi agents brutally murdered Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence officials told lawmakers that the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, directed the operation.

Even staunch Trump allies, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, opposed the arms sale. And Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had put a hold on the deal.

But Pompeo accused lawmakers of “caterwauling” about Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record and ignoring the kingdom’s pivotal role in helping the U.S. counter Iran.

The Saudi arms deal gained fresh prominence in May, when Trump fired the State Department’s Inspector General Steve Linick – at the behest of Pompeo.

Linick had sought to interview Pompeo about the Saudi arms sale but was rebuffed. Pompeo submitted written answers to the IG’s questions instead, Linick told lawmakers in June as part of a probe into whether his firing was retaliatory.

Linick also testified that one of Pompeo’s top aides, Brian Bulatao, tried to “bully” him and to derail the Saudi probe. “He told me that it wasn’t an appropriate review,” Linick told lawmakers.

After Linick was ousted, the State Department installed an acting IG, Stephen Akard, who was forced to recuse himself from the Saudi investigation. Akard left the IG post last week.

Diana Shaw, the State Department’s deputy inspector general, oversaw the Saudi investigation.

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© 2020 USA Today