Pompeo Overlooked Civilian Risk of Saudi Arms, Watchdog Says

A long-disputed inspector general’s report found that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo didn’t “fully assess” the risk of civilian casualties or take steps to reduce it when he approved $8.1 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Mideast allies over congressional objections.

The State Department’s watchdog office “found that the department did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties and legal concerns” in approving the transfer of precision-guided munitions -- weapons that use targeting systems to improve accuracy -- last year.

The criticism in the report sent to Congress on Tuesday wasn’t mentioned when State Department officials portrayed the report as a total exoneration in a briefing the previous day. The inspector general’s office did find that Pompeo used his “considerable discretion” under a 1976 law governing arms sales to other countries to determine that an emergency justified breaking congressional holds on the sales so that they could be completed.

“The IG has fully vindicated the dedicated professionals” of the State Department, Pompeo said in a tweet from Prague, the first stop on an Eastern European tour.

The arms sales were pushed through over the objections of Congress due to concerns with civilian casualties in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is carrying out a campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. As recounted by the inspector general, 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 coalition airstrikes.

The investigation into the arms sales became highly charged because of the role it might have played in Pompeo’s decision to get President Donald Trump to fire State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was leading the inquiry. A State Department official said Monday that the initial findings were made before Linick was removed.

Democratic lawmakers have suggested a connection to Linick’s firing, and pointed to testimony he gave saying Pompeo had refused a face-to-face interview to discuss the issue -- agreeing only to submit answers to written questions.

Pompeo has repeatedly denied Linick’s firing was politically motivated, saying Linick was a “bad actor” who “didn’t take on the mission of the State Department to make us better.”

Weapons Approved

The public version of the partially classified report included an appendix of the approved sales that blacked out their individual values but not their descriptions. It showed an array of advanced weapons.

They include Raytheon Technologies Corp.’s smart-bomb kits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as systems to the UAE including Raytheon’s AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile, an advanced “Guidance Enhanced” version of the Patriot missile and Boeing Co.’s Scan Eagle drone.

Also on the list of systems for the Saudis are a new electronic smart-bomb fuse system called the Aurora made by Thales Missile Electronics Ltd. For the UAE, the list includes .50-caliber rifles and silencers typically used by U.S. military snipers to attack hard targets.

In addition to the $8.1 billion in sales that Pompeo exempted from congressional approval, the inspector general found that under the Trump administration, the State Department “regularly approved transfers” to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that fell below statutory thresholds requiring notification to lawmakers. It said the 4,221 transfers of arms and components were valued at $11.2 billion.

It said the approvals included precision-guided munition components “on which Congress had placed holds in cases where the transfers reached the thresholds requiring congressional notification.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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