Watchdog Says State Dept. Failed to Limit Civilian Deaths From Saudi Arms Sales

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WASHINGTON — The State Department inspector general issued a report on Tuesday criticizing the agency as failing to take proper measures to reduce civilian deaths from American-made bombs used by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the catastrophic Yemen war.

The report, released 14 months after Congress asked the inspector general to start an investigation into the agency’s role in arms sales, “found that the department did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties and legal concerns associated with the transfer” of precision-guided bombs to the Gulf Arab nations.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed the $8.1 billion sale of those munitions, mostly made by Raytheon, despite a two-year bipartisan congressional hold on the proposed transfer of the arms, comprising 22 packages. Mr. Pompeo did that by declaring an “emergency” in May 2019 over Iran’s activities in the region. The move infuriated Democratic lawmakers, who asked the inspector general at the time, Steve A. Linick, to open an investigation.

In addressing the issue of civilian casualties, which is at the heart of the intense political debate in Washington over the arms sales, the report indicates the investigation was much broader than previously known. Its finding is the first conclusion from an internal administration inquiry into the impact of the weapons exports. In May, The New York Times published the results of its own investigation into how the Trump administration had contributed to civilian casualties in Yemen with the sales.

The report also highlighted how the State Department appeared to be doing an end run around the congressional notification process on arms sales.

Investigators found that the department had approved 4,221 arms transfers worth $11.2 billion to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since January 2017. But because each was a relatively small package, the individual transfers did not meet the threshold for congressional notification — even though lawmakers had put holds on the same types of weapons or technology, including components of precision-guided bombs, when they were part of a larger package.

Mr. Linick’s investigation into the arms sales was one of at least two that he began into Mr. Pompeo, the other one centered on potential misuse of taxpayer resources. Both got attention in Congress and among the public after President Trump fired Mr. Linick in May at Mr. Pompeo’s urging.

On one central question, the inspector general’s report said Mr. Pompeo acted in accordance with a law that regulates the sale of American weapons and defense systems to foreign entities. But investigators addressed that as a narrow procedural issue: The report said they did not examine whether an actual “emergency” related to Iran existed or the policy decisions based on that.

The American-made bombs are central to the Saudi-led air war against Yemeni rebels that has resulted in what the United Nations calls the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis. Thousands of civilians have been killed since 2015, many of them women and children. Reports of the mass deaths have outraged Republican and Democratic lawmakers, leading to one of the biggest rifts between Congress and Mr. Trump, who strongly advocates the arms sales.

Congress passed a measure last year to end government support for the war, but Mr. Trump vetoed it.

The inspector general’s finding that the State Department fell short in trying to reduce civilian casualties is likely to fuel greater scrutiny by lawmakers of the arms sales. Lawmakers have put holds on some other notable proposed arms packages, including to the Gulf Arab nations, but U.S. officials are discussing whether to end Congress’s decades-old informal review process in order to push through the sales.

“The O.I.G. report vindicates congressional concerns regarding the impact of these sales on innocent civilians,” said Andrew Miller, a former State Department official who is deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

But the report also shows that investigators “punted on the most important issue, which is whether the threat stream cited by the administration rose to the level of an ‘emergency.,” he added.

The report included an Aug. 5 letter from R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, the bureau that oversees arms sales, responding to the findings. He said reducing civilian casualties and addressing legal concerns was “part of an ongoing interagency process” and that the department continued to carry out “due diligence” on all sales.

The report has an unclassified section with some redactions, which was released publicly on Tuesday, and a classified annex, which some U.S. officials said was unusual for a report on a public action. The annex has detailed discussions of civilian casualties and is heavily redacted, which means even lawmakers and their aides cannot see the material. The report made a single recommendation on the issue, which is in the classified section.

The report said the State Department insisted on the redactions during a review in part because of “potential executive privilege concerns” — a rationale criticized by congressional aides.

On Monday night, anticipating the report, Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement, “We will review the entire product with an eye toward ensuring that the classified annex hasn’t been used to bury important or possibly incriminating information.” He wrote in a letter to other lawmakers on Tuesday that the State Department “may have inappropriately redacted certain sections of the classified annex sent to Congress.”

The State Department tried to obfuscate the report’s findings on Monday, the day before its release, by putting out a statement that focused on three short phrases in one page of the report that said Mr. Pompeo had taken the proper technical steps in issuing his “emergency” certification — an exoneration of his action, in the agency’s telling. The statement from the agency spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, made no mention of the harsh criticism of the department over civilian casualties, which appears in the line at the top of the report right after the one on the certification. Nor did it say that the report’s single recommendation was on this issue.

A State Department official also gave journalists an anonymous briefing to try to shape news coverage ahead of the report’s release, and the journalists pointed out the absurdity of hearing lines about a report they had not seen.

In a blistering statement, Mr. Engel identified the official as Mr. Cooper and said the department’s effort was “pre-spin” that “reeks of an attempt to distract and mislead.”

“Mike Pompeo is pulling directly from the Bill Barr playbook,” Mr. Engel said, referring to Attorney General William P. Barr’s attempts last year to favorably characterize the report of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating 2016 election interference by Russia, shortly before a redacted version of it was released.

An unredacted version of the unclassified section of the State Department report obtained by The New York Times lays out two timelines that call into question whether an “emergency” on Iran existed. In the first, investigators found that State Department officials first discussed on April 3 the use of an “emergency” declaration to bypass the congressional holds. That was a month before the White House began issuing statements about troubling signals around Iranian activity in the region. And Mr. Pompeo did not issue his “emergency” certification to Congress until May 24.

The second timeline involves the slow schedule of the arms transfers. The investigators found that only four of the 22 packages had been delivered by the time of their inquiry last year. They were told that five would not be delivered until 2020.

That information was redacted from the public report at the request of the State Department. Mr. Engel got the unredacted version and sent it to other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

In a memo that accompanied the report, Diana R. Shaw, who became acting inspector general last week after Mr. Linick’s successor suddenly resigned, wrote that the State Department had “withheld significant information” from the classified portion sent to members of Congress that was necessary to understand the inspector general’s conclusion that the department had failed to do enough to ensure American weapons would not be used to harm civilians.

The memo described a weekslong back and forth between the department’s legal office and the inspector general over what information should be held back from Congress on the grounds of executive privilege. In the end, Ms. Shaw wrote, her office concluded it could not overrule the State Department’s claims and instead had to “rely on the good faith of the department” in seeking to withhold the information.

The legal office that sought the redactions was led by Marik String, who closely oversaw the process of declaring the emergency in the spring of 2019 before he was elevated to become the State Department’s top lawyer.

In congressional testimony in June, Mr. Linick identified Mr. String as one of two officials who attempted to pressure him into dropping the arms sale investigation. The other was Brian Bulatao, the under secretary of state for management and a longtime friend of Mr. Pompeo’s. “He tried to bully me,” Mr. Linick said.

Edward Wong reported from Washington, and Michael LaForgia from Spokane, Wash.

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