Pompeo’s claims of urgency in Saudi arms deal called into question by new report
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Pompeo’s claims of urgency in Saudi arms deal called into question by new report

Government watchdog finds secretary of state had right to use special powers in rushing weapons sales to Middle East, but timeline indicates he took his time in doing so

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a speech during a ceremony at the General Patton memorial in Pilsen near Prague, Czech Republic, August 11, 2020. (Petr David Josek/AP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a speech during a ceremony at the General Patton memorial in Pilsen near Prague, Czech Republic, August 11, 2020. (Petr David Josek/AP)

The State Department’s internal watchdog has found that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not act improperly last year when he approved billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia without the consent of Congress, an unredacted version of the findings still raises questions about the alleged urgency that justified the move, Politico reported Tuesday.

The State Department Office of Inspector General concluded in a report released Tuesday that Pompeo had the legal authority to declare an emergency and bypass Congress under the Arms Export Control Act.

A redacted version of the report was published online but an unredacted version, distributed to lawmakers, was obtained by Politico, which said findings on the timeline of events, not in the public report, showed the emergency powers had been under consideration several weeks before Pompeo first briefed Congress on the matter.

The IG report examined the process that Pompeo used to make the emergency certification. Pompeo cited the threat posed by Iran and its support for rebels in Yemen to justify approving arms sales totaling $8.1 billion to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

The report concluded that the law grants the secretary the discretion to decide what constitutes an emergency, something three previous administrations have done with respect to arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Then State Department Inspector General Steve Linick leaves a meeting in a secure area at the Capitol, in Washington, October 2, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A timeline published in the unredacted version showed that State Department staff first proposed using the emergency measures on April 3, 2019, drafts of the emergency certification were circulated 20 days later, and that only on May 4 did Pompeo order that the emergency situation be certified by May 24.

The online, redacted version of the report shows only that Pompeo briefed Congress on May 21, approved the measures two days later and sent the emergency certification to Congress by the next day.

“In essence, the public version gives the impression that Pompeo moved quickly on an urgent issue, whereas the unredacted version shows a much longer timeframe of deliberation and action, undermining the argument that an emergency existed at all,” Politico wrote.

In addition, another redacted detail from the report showed that even by October, only 4 of 22 arms transfer cases had been received by purchasing states, a fact that “raises questions about how much of an emergency was in play in the first place,” the website said.

A congressional aide told Politico that “the concern all along was that Pompeo concocted the emergency to bypass Congress. A few key details in the report verify that, and those are the details State tried to bury. It looks like a cover-up.”

The IG report also noted that the State Department did not “fully assess” the risks of civilian casualties from the sale of certain types of weapons, and that it “regularly” approved arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that fell below the reporting threshold to Congress.

The inspector general report itself has become the focus of congressional scrutiny after former Inspector General Steve Linick, who was removed from his post in May by Trump, testified to Congress that senior State Department officials had sought to block his inquiry.

Senior State Department officials have said Linick was removed from his watchdog position for leaking another report and not because of his probe of the arms sales, which came amid bipartisan congressional concerns about civilian casualties in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, listens during a committee hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 30, 2019. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

At least one prominent congressional critic, New York Rep. Eliot Engel, cautioned before the report’s release that it should be treated with skepticism. He noted that it features a classified annex that the public cannot read and that the State Department official in charge of arms sales review has declined to answer questions from a committee investigating Linick’s ouster.

Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, dismissed the emergency certification used to authorize the sales as “phony.”

The report examined the process that Pompeo used to make the emergency certification. Pompeo cited the threat posed by Iran and its support for rebels in Yemen to justify approving arms sales totaling $8.1 billion to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters Monday on condition of anonymity to preview the report, said there was disagreement on the threshold for reporting to Congress and that there was already an effort underway to try to reduce the potential for civilian casualties with American weapons provided to allies.

The official said the “big takeaway” from the report is that Pompeo and the department acted “in accordance with the law” as it sought to aid the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The report notes that the grinding, five-year-old civil war in Yemen has led to what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Republicans joined with Democrats in Congress to oppose the sales, but US President Donald Trump, who has made close relations to Saudi Arabia a priority, vetoed resolutions in July 2019 to block the transfers and there were not enough votes to override him.

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