Firing of State Watchdog May Be Related to Saudi Arms Sales, Senior Democrat Says

As Saudi Arabia closes in on paying off its Yemen debt, it has been pulled into Friday’s shock dismissal of Steve Linick, who was probing the Trump administration’s effort to evade congressional approval of arms deals to Riyadh.

Now-ousted U.S. State Department Inspector General Steve Linick departs the U.S. Capitol on October 02, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Now-ousted U.S. State Department Inspector General Steve Linick departs the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Oct. 2, 2019. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is expected to pay off the balance of its overdue bills for flight hours in the controversial U.S.-led refueling campaign in Yemen by June, Foreign Policy has learned, even as Riyadh has been roped into the fallout over U.S. President Donald Trump’s firing of the State Department’s top watchdog.

An unusual coalition of conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats have banded together to try to halt U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen, now considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It has led to pitched battles between Capitol Hill and the Trump administration that strike at constitutional debates over a president’s ability to use military force without prior congressional approval. Despite Trump’s close relationship with the Saudi government, lawmakers across the aisle have soured on U.S.-Saudi ties and sharply rebuked Saudi Arabia for not paying its bills for U.S. military support on time. 

On Monday, U.S.-Saudi ties were unexpectedly dragged into a new political scandal, one that could put U.S. support for the Saudi coalition back in the crosshairs of Congress. Trump abruptly fired the State Department’s top watchdog on Friday evening, and now the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, says the watchdog was probing the U.S. decision to sell precision-guided munitions to the Persian Gulf kingdom over the disapproval of Congress last year. 

Engel said in separate statements that Trump’s sacking of Inspector General Steve Linick may have been related to both his inquiry into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s misuse of staff for personal errands and his inquiry into U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

“I have learned that there may be another reason for Mr. Linick’s firing. His office was investigating—at my request—Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia,” Engel said in a statement to Foreign Policy.

“We don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed,” he added. Trump has said he lost confidence in Linick’s ability to do his job but declined to elaborate why. 

Though lawmakers have fallen short on challenges to constrain U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Trump’s war powers to carry out strikes against Iran, including an effort led by Sen. Tim Kaine vetoed by the White House this month, Riyadh appears to be yielding to sustained congressional pressure to pay back refueling bills. 

The Saudis made a third reimbursement payment to the United States for flight hours for the mission at the end of March, a Senate aide confirmed, leaving Riyadh with a balance of $6.3 million, which it is scheduled to pay off in June.

The first reimbursements for $38 million in U.S. flight hours from Riyadh came in late September, a Senate aide said, nearly a year after the mission ended. Congress stated in a War Powers Resolution vetoed by Trump last year to terminate Defense Department involvement in the conflict that U.S. refueling of coalition aircraft constituted involvement in “hostilities.”

Saudi Arabia has made two subsequent payments, for $75.7 million in February and $37.8 million in March. By law, the Defense Department is required to provide monthly reports on the status of Saudi repayments every 30 days, though the coronavirus pandemic and lower staffing levels in the Pentagon have delayed processing of those reports, an agency spokesperson said.

“We continue to work with the Saudi-led Coalition to secure the remaining reimbursements for aerial refueling, to include $6.3 million in flight hour payments,” said Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesperson. “These payments are ongoing.”

The Saudis also owe $23 million to the Defense Department for fuel provided during the mission. The State Department stopped adhering to a legal certification requirement from Congress last year that calls on the agency to ensure that the Saudi-led coalition is making a “good faith effort” to reduce civilian casualties in the five-year war, a move that would prevent the U.S. administration from resuming the refueling campaign.

Congress had been hearing for at least nine months that repayment was in process before the first paid bills came back in September, the Senate aide said. The Defense Department presented a finalized $299 million bill for the mission last year, not including the tab for U.S. fuel for the Saudis, which had not been completed at the time. In total, Saudi Arabia owes the United States $158 million for flight hours and $23 million for fuel.

The United Arab Emirates, which also received refueling support from the Pentagon from the conflict before it scaled back combat operations last year, paid back the full $118 million it owed the Pentagon by last spring. The Defense Department confirmed the UAE has no outstanding bills for the mission.

Then-Defense Secretary James Mattis framed the end of the refueling mission as one made by Riyadh and supported by the Pentagon, though he said the effort would continue with “the coalition’s own military capabilities.”

But the long effort for the Trump administration to get Saudi Arabia to reimburse the mission, which Democrats in Congress said was not legally authorized, comes amid fears that the White House has given Riyadh unjustly cozy treatment despite Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s crackdown on dissenters to his rule.

“It is overwhelmingly clear that this administration is willing to disregard the Constitution and Congress in order to hand over sweetheart deals to the Saudi dictatorship as it carries out its horrific war in Yemen,” said Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who championed the 2019 War Powers Resolution. “For years, the White House has misrepresented the nature of U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war, falsely claiming improvements in minimizing civilian harm and concealing the nature of thousands of U.S. midair refueling missions for Saudi airstrikes without reimbursement.”

The World Food Program estimates that 14.4 million Yemenis are in dire need of food assistance to survive. 

Expectations for repayment from Saudi Arabia could run into further trouble, however, as a U.S. troop surge to the Gulf kingdom is beginning to be rolled back. CNN reported early this year that Riyadh had paid $500 million to cover the cost of the deployments, which were scaled up after the United States blamed Iran for a cruise missile attack on Saudi Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais.

The reimbursement for the troop surge is part of a Defense Department plan to create a mechanism for Saudi Arabia to help compensate the cost of U.S. deployments to the region, officials said, using a Pentagon account that allows U.S. allies to offset “burden-sharing” support in their home countries.

“The Saudi government has agreed to help underwrite the cost of these activities and has provided burden-sharing contributions to DoD’s activities that support regional security,” said Lodewick, the Pentagon spokesperson. 

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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