Pompeo’s Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia Were Legal—but Heightened Risks of Civilian Casualties in Yemen

A State Department watchdog report concludes that Pompeo followed proper channels in sending arms to Saudi Arabia but faults the State Department for not assessing the humanitarian risks of such a move.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials speak to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he boards a plane in Riyadh on Feb. 21. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

A keenly awaited report from the U.S. State Department’s internal watchdog found that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used proper procedures to expedite arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last year over congressional attempts to block the move.

But the report also found that the State Department did not properly assess the humanitarian impacts of shipping more weapons to Riyadh in the midst of the Saudi-led coalition’s involvement in Yemen’s ongoing civil war, marked by the indiscriminate bombing of civilians with U.S. munitions and by devastating humanitarian impacts.

The report, and the Office of Inspector General (OIG) itself, has become a key battleground between the Trump administration’s foreign-policy team and U.S. lawmakers ever since Pompeo overrode congressional opposition and approved the arms sales using an emergency declaration last year.

The Trump administration, greenlighted by Pompeo, invoked a national security emergency in May 2019 to force 22 arms sales worth $8.1 billion to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan that led to widespread congressional opposition and eventually the inspector general’s probe. Pompeo invoked the emergency sale by citing vague threats to U.S. interests from Iran in the region.

In May of this year, U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly fired the State Department inspector general, Steve Linick, amid his office’s probe into the arms sales and other investigations into allegations of impropriety by Pompeo. Linick later told members of Congress in an interview that senior members of Pompeo’s team attempted to “bully” him into dropping the investigation, though it was requested by Congress. His acting replacement, Stephen Akard—a political appointee and associate of Vice President Mike Pence with no prior investigative experience—abruptly stepped down from his post this month after less than three months on the job. Akard recused himself from the arms sales investigation following pressure from Capitol Hill.

The OIG report found that the secretary’s emergency certification of the arms sale was properly executed under the Arms Export Control Act, which gives the president and secretary of state wide-ranging authorities to determine what constitutes an emergency, even if the OIG didn’t weigh the merits of Pompeo’s Iran-related emergency.

The report found that the State Department “did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties and legal concerns associated with the transfer of [precision-guided munitions] included in the May 2019 emergency certification.”

The watchdog clarified that its investigation was narrowly focused on that aspect of the controversial measure. OIG “did not evaluate whether the Iranian malign threats cited in the Secretary’s May 2019 certification and associated memorandum of justification constituted an emergency, nor did OIG make any assessment of the policy decisions underlying the arms transfers and the associated emergency,” the report noted. The report also includes a classified section, which will be made available to lawmakers.

The administration’s move allowed the United States to sell billions of dollars’ worth of precision-guided munitions to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen despite mounting civilian casualties from air raids in that conflict, after Trump vetoed three bills that Congress used to attempt to block the transfer, which had been in the works for more than a year. A rare coalition of conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats banded together to try to curtail presidential authority to engage in military actions abroad without prior congressional approval.

In response to the OIG report, Clarke Cooper, the State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs who oversees weapons transfers, said Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the first two countries to sign up for a Pentagon-led initiative to reduce innocent deaths by improving bomb targeting.

The fight is part of an ongoing tit for tat between the Trump administration and Congress over arms sales. The State Department’s inspector general said State officials had reported that the review process in Congress had been hindering arms exports, a key foreign-policy priority of the Trump administration. The inspector general reported that the State Department had since 2017 sent another $11.2 billion in arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that flew below the threshold of congressional notification, including components for precision-guided bombs and munitions.

In the wake of the congressional uproar, Foreign Policy reported in June that the Trump administration was mulling ending informal notifications of weapons sales to Congress, a move that could provoke further ire from Capitol Hill.

Before the report’s release, a senior State Department official told reporters in a phone briefing on Monday that “the big takeaway” from the report was that OIG determined that Pompeo used his authorities “in accordance with the law.” The State Department organized the briefing before the public or Congress had access to the OIG report and declined to make it available. The senior official declined to speak on the record.

“The people briefing the press were the subjects of the [inspector general’s] probe, not the report’s authors. This obvious pre-spin of the findings reeks of an attempt to distract and mislead. Mike Pompeo is pulling directly from the Bill Barr playbook,” Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement on Monday, referring to the U.S. attorney general’s similar whitewashing of an earlier investigation into Trump administration wrongdoing.

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

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

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