WASHINGTON — The State Department’s internal watchdog has found that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not act improperly last year when he approved billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia without the consent of Congress.
The State Department Office of Inspector General concluded in a report released Tuesday that Pompeo had the legal authority to declare an emergency and bypass Congress under the Arms Export Control Act.
Republicans joined with Democrats in Congress to oppose the sales, but President Donald Trump, who has made close relations to Saudi Arabia a priority, vetoed resolutions in July 2019 to block the transfers and there were not enough votes to override him.
The inspector general report itself has become the focus of congressional scrutiny after former Inspector General Steve Linick, who was removed from his post in May by Trump, testified to Congress that senior State Department officials had sought to block his inquiry.
Senior State Department officials have said Linick was removed from his watchdog position for leaking another report and not because of his probe of the arms sales, which came amid bipartisan congressional concerns about civilian casualties in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
At least one prominent congressional critic, New York Rep. Eliot Engel, cautioned before the report’s release that it should be treated with skepticism. He noted that it features a classified annex that the public can’t read and that the State Department official in charge of arms sales review has declined to answer questions from a committee investigating Linick’s ouster.
Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, dismissed the emergency certification used to authorize the sales as “phony.”
The report examined the process that Pompeo used to make the emergency certification. Pompeo cited the threat posed by Iran and its support for rebels in Yemen to justify approving arms sales totaling $8.1 billion to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
The report concluded that the law grants the secretary the discretion to decide what constitutes an emergency, something three previous administrations have done with respect to arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
It also noted that the State Department did not “fully assess” the risks of civilian casualties from the sale of certain types of weapons, and that it “regularly” approved arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that fell below the reporting threshold to Congress.
A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters Monday on condition of anonymity to preview the report, said there was disagreement on the threshold for reporting to Congress and that there was already an effort underway to try to reduce the potential for civilian casualties with American weapons provided to allies.
The official said the “big takeaway” from the report is that Pompeo and the department acted “in accordance with the law” as it sought to aid the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The report notes that the grinding, five-year-old civil war in Yemen has led to what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.