A report revealed the Trump administration didn’t break the law when it expedited $8bn in arms sales to the Gulf nations but concluded it failed to fully assess the humanitarian impact associated with the transfers.
The US State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has found that president Donald Trump’s administration skirted laws regulating arms sales to evade concerns about civilian casualties in the war in Yemen.
Publicly released yesterday, the OIG report established that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the proper procedures to push through 22 arms sales worth $8.1bn to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Jordan last year.
In an unclassified portion of the report, the OIG found that Pompeo’s certification of an emergency “was executed in accordance with the [Arms Export Control Act].”
Pompeo originally invoked a national security emergency in May 2019 to force through the weapons deals, citing threats to US interests from Iran in the region.
The move enabled the administration to bypass the traditional congressional notification process and was opposed by Democrats and some Republicans. Both the House and Senate passed resolutions aimed at blocking the sales, but Trump vetoed them.
In a statement issued Monday, the state department said that the arms sales “were essential to bolster the security of the Gulf region and our ally Israel against the sharp increase in Iranian aggression in 2019.”
The 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA) gives the president and secretary of state wide-ranging powers to determine what constitutes an emergency.
While upholding the legality of the emergency sales, the internal watchdog concluded 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.”
Additionally, the inspector general found that the department “regularly approved arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that fell below” legal thresholds that required congressional notification.
The OGI found that the department approved 4,221 such transfers, with an aggregate value of approximately $11.2bn since January 2017.
These approvals included precision-guided munition (PGM) components that congress had placed holds on but for which the law did not require notification “below those thresholds”.
The report recommended that the US government take more measures to reduce civilian casualties in relation to arms exports to the Gulf Arab nations, an issue at the heart of political opposition and human rights advocates.
The US government regulates the sale, export and re-transfer of defence articles and services in line with its national security and foreign policy objectives. All defence-related transfers are governed by US law, principally the AECA and any decision to approve or deny proposed transfers are based on criteria outlined in the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy (CATP).
Under the CATP, the US is expected to reduce the risk that supplying defence services to foreign allies and partners will harm civilians and prohibits the state department from approving arms transfers in cases where the US has knowledge that the arms will be used to commit intentional attacks against civilians.
American bullets, Yemeni blood
Since 2015, a Saudi-led coalition has waged a devastating war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians often with the help of US-made weapons, particularly from Raytheon.
The United Nations estimates that from March 2015 to November 2018, there were 17,640 combat-related civilian casualties in Yemen, including 10,852 caused by the coalition airstrikes.
Open-source reporting stated that the PMGs used in each of these airstrikes may have been manufactured by US defence firms and would therefore be subject to the state department’s arms transfer review process.
At the start of 2017, as reports of mounting civilian deaths garnered international criticism, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers put a freeze on exports of arms to the Gulf states, citing humanitarian concerns.
This continued through 2018 and Riyadh’s state-sanctioned murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post, became an additional factor in bipartisan opposition to arms transfers.
Pompeo’s use of an emergency declaration to clear the 2019 arms sales prompted political backlash and the OIG probe.
In May, Trump abruptly fired Steve Linick, the inspector general who led the probe and was investigating allegations that Pompeo and his wife misused state department staff for personal favours.
In June, Linick told lawmakers that he was “bullied” into ending his inquiry.
Democrats are investigating whether Linick’s removal may have been designed to quash the findings of the OIG report, as well as other internal state department investigations.
The OIG report mentions three other instances of the seldom-employed emergency authority being used: in 1979 to support North Yemen during the Yemenite war; in 1984 to deter hostilities against Saudi Arabia during the Iran-Iraq War; and in 1990 to protect Saudi Arabia following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.