State Department officials testify before Congress on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said the May 2019 sale did not warrant an emergency certification, but a State official cited the threat from Iran.

al-monitor House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel arrives on Sept. 16, 2020, for a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington investigating the firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.  Photo by Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images.

Sep 16, 2020

State Department officials defended the May 2019 arms sale to Gulf countries in Congress today, but some House members continued to take issue with the department’s actions.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel said many in Congress thought that the US arming of Saudi Arabia led to unnecessary civilian deaths in Yemen but that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disagreed.

“Many of us here in Congress saw the situation on the ground in Yemen and said, 'Enough,'’’ the New York Democrat said during a hearing today. “Pompeo’s State Department didn’t see it that way.”

The hearing focused on the firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick in May. Congressional Democrats are concerned that Linick was fired for looking into the Trump administration's weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as allegations that Pompeo improperly used the department’s resources for his personal benefit. In May 2019, Pompeo issued an emergency certification to allow the arms sales in question to go through. This bypassed a hold Congress placed on them due to concerns over civilian casualties.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are part of the coalition supporting the UN-recognized Yemeni government against Iran-backed Houthi forces in the country. The Saudi-led coalition has been widely criticized for its actions in Yemen. In 2018, a coalition airstrike on a bus killed 38 schoolboys there.

During the hearing, Engel said the Donald Trump administration did not sufficiently research whether the sale of US weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE would lead to innocent deaths in Yemen. “Didn’t assess the risks, didn’t try to reduce civilian casualties,” said Engel. “This isn’t describing the Saudis or the Emiratis; it’s describing our State Department under the Trump administration.”

Engel also said he doubts the transfer constituted an emergency because the weapons have yet to arrive to the Gulf. “There was no emergency,” he said.

State officials defended the decision to use emergency powers to push through the sale. R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said the sale was based on “the significant increase in intelligence reporting on threat streams related to Iran.”

Cooper cited pro-Iran militias' attacks on US forces in Iraq and Houthi forces' firing of missiles into Saudi Arabia since May 2019 to justify the emergency sale. “Events since that time serve only to magnify the challenge Iran poses to the region and demonstrate the administration is on the right side of history,” said Cooper at the hearing.

“Iran, and the partners and proxies it supports, continue to threaten not only US partners, but have directly targeted US personnel and military forces and facilities in the region,” he added.

Cooper said he would be willing to provide a classified briefing to the Foreign Affairs Committee on threats from Iran.

The controversy surrounding the arms sale is likely to continue. In August, a State Department inspector general report said Pompeo acted within the law when he skirted Congress to push the weapons sale through. The report also found that the department did not put in place measures to reduce civilian casualties with the sale.

On Tuesday, Engel released documents showing correspondence between the inspector general and the State Department. Engel said the documents show the department tried to hide information on the sale from Congress.