State Department Officials Defend Saudi Arms Sales Despite Civilian Deaths

Wednesday's Congressional hearing focused on Trump's firing of the inspector general that was investigating Pompeo and the State Department

State Department officials defended US arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a Congressional hearing on Wednesday, despite the Kingdom’s long history of killing civilians with airstrikes in Yemen. The hearing was mostly focused on the firing of an inspector general (IG), who was investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for allegedly misusing department funds.

Another part of the IG’s probe was focused on a 2019 emergency certification the State Department used to push through $8 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. The excuse the administration used to justify the arms sale was the threat Iran posed in the region, something the officials reiterated in Wednesday’s hearing.

President Trump fired IG Steve Linick during the investigation in May at the behest of Pompeo. The final report on the emergency arms sale, which was prepared by the office of the acting IG who replaced Linick, found that Secretary Pompeo’s emergency certification for the arms sales did not break the law.

A recent report from The New York Times said officials from the State Department made sure a specific section of the report that addressed the legal implication of arms sales relating to civilian casualties was made classified and not included in the public report. This reporting was confirmed when Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) released documents ahead of the hearing that show State Department officials asking the IG’s office to make a certain section of the report classified.

Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper is one of the officials who asked for sections to be classified.

Rep. Engels’s statement on Cooper’s efforts reads: “Mr. Cooper also recommends that the IG should ‘consider removing’ the entire section on civilian casualties ‘from the unclassified report in order to allow that Report to be finalized, briefed to Congress, and released to the public.’ In other words, Mr. Cooper suggests omitting key facts, creating an incomplete report, and then releasing it.”

Cooper defended arming and supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen during Wednesday’s hearing, maintaining that the administration has taken efforts to mitigate civilian casualties. During his testimony, Cooper pointed to the Trump administration’s update of the US Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) Policy.

This CAT, which was updated in April 2018, included a section that said the US shall facilitate efforts with partners “to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm.” But as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) pointed out in her questioning, some of the Saudi-coalitions worst atrocities took place after the CAT was updated.

One example Rep. Omar used was a Saudi airstrike that destroyed a Doctor’s Without Borders Cholera treatment center in Abs, Yemen, in June 2018. Another example the congresswoman used was a coalition airstrike in August 2018 that hit a school bus with a US-supplied bomb in Dahyan, Yemen. The strike killed 40 children.

The school bus bombing did not phase Secretary Pompeo, who told Congress shortly after the strike that the coalition was taking “demonstrable action” to minimize civilian casualties. Pompeo’s statement was needed for arms sales to continue. But since Pompeo made that claim, the coalition has continued to bomb Yemen indiscriminately.

Throughout 2019, Saudi airstrikes continued to kill civilians. One of the deadliest bombings occurred in September 2019, when Saudi airstrikes pummeled a detention center operated by the Houthis, killing over 100 people.

Now in 2020, the coalition shows no sign of mitigating civilian deaths. In July, Saudi airstrikes on Yemen’s al Jawf region killed at least 25 civilians, mostly children, who were attending a party in a residential district. This is just one example of many airstrikes that have killed civilians in Yemen this year.

Cooper insisted the US was on “the right side of history” in this conflict in his testimony on Wednesday. Despite Cooper and other officials insisting they’ve done nothing wrong, the New York Times report on the matter said State Department officials involved in these arms sales fear being arrested overseas for war crimes.

The Times said that legal scholars believe the International Criminal Court could charge US officials based on their knowledge of the pattern of indiscriminate killing by the parties the US supports in the conflict.

Author: Dave DeCamp

Dave DeCamp is the assistant news editor of Antiwar.com, follow him on Twitter @decampdave.