WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers grilled a top State Department official over arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Turkey and the Philippines in light of human rights and other concerns.
Following news that the Trump administration is seeking to ease export rules for American small arms, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin, said it looked like an effort to skirt oversight for gun sales to Turkey and the Philippines and their accompanying controversies.
The administration is mulling plans to shift oversight of international non-military firearms sales from the State Department to the Commerce Department. The changes, which can be enacted without congressional approval, are part of a Trump administration overhaul of weapons export policy nearing completion, Reuters reports.
“If Commerce is making the decision, this committee loses all oversight — that is human rights, and other considerations are gone if you don’t have congressional review,” said Cardin, of Maryland. He called the move “a direct affront” to congressional oversight and said, “It does look like an end-run around Congress.”
The comments came amid testimony before the panel from the State Department’s acting assistant secretary of political-military affairs, Tina Kaidanow; DoD’s acting assistant secretary for strategy, plans, and capabilities, Thomas H. Harvey III; and the chief of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper.
Cardin, in a key exchange, questioned why it would help to remove congressional review for sales of weapons like sniper rifles. Kaidanow defended the as-yet unpublished plans as preserving congressional and State Department oversight for the most sensitive American-made weapons, while removing it for weapons “available at retail outlets here in the United States.”
“Our strong feeling is that we want the State Department to do what we believe the regulations were intended to do, which is focus on highly sensitive technologies where our edge or our troops would be endangered,” Kaidanow said.
Under pressure, the administration effectively canceled the sales to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security guards on Sept. 18, after his bodyguards were filmed in May assaulting Washington protesters.
Cardin also raised concerns over the proposed sale of 27,000 assault rifles to the Philippine National Police, which continues summarily executing civilians in the streets.
“I would just remind you that the people of this country probably have focused more on [Turkish attacks] against peaceful protesters and the extra-judicial killings in the Philippines than any of the other issues we have been talking about today,” Cardin said. “They look to their elected officials to represent their views.”
Though most of the questions over human rights and arms sales came from Democrats, Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., joined Sen. Patrick Murphy, D-Conn., in raising objections to arms sales to Riyadh in light of its alleged human rights violations in Yemen’s civil war. Some invoked the $100 billion-plus U.S.-Saudi arms deal the president announced in May.
When Kaidanow pointed to Riyadh’s acknowledgement of its problematic conduct, Murphy cut her off: “Who cares what they say?”
Kaidanow highlighted a $750 million U.S.-Saudi deal that includes training for the Saudi Royal Air Force with content on the law of armed conflict.
“They’re going to have to show that their actions comport with what they say. That is what we are committed to doing,” Kaidanow said.
Murphy got the last word, calling U.S. policy in Yemen “an epic failure.”
“I understand the Saudis spend a lot of money coming up here and making promises about how they will change the conduct of the war. They have not,” Murphy said. “We as a country — these are my words, not anyone else’s — but we are complicit in some of the worst things happening over there.”
Both Cardin and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., took aim in their questions at a $593 million U.S. sale to Nigeria that includes 12 A-29 Super Tucano light-attack aircraft, to be used against the militant group Boko Haram.
Booker and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in June urging him to require the Nigerian government to probe incidents in which its military “flouted the rules of war.”
On Tuesday, Booker and Cardin vented frustration with State Department stonewalling Congress on these issues.
Booker, echoing Murphy, said senators need the ability to exercise oversight, when the U.S. is “complicit in some of the most horrific things that are going on on the planet Earth right now by regimes that are not acting in any way in accordance with our values as a country or our national security interests.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.