USA

State Dept. Says Report Defends Pompeo on Arms Sales. But It Finds Fault Over Mass Deaths.

WASHINGTON — The State Department said on Monday that its inspector general had found Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the proper procedures in declaring an “emergency” last year to push through $8.1 billon of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

But a statement issued by the department hailing that determination made no mention of another key finding: that the State Department failed to fully assess the humanitarian risks of selling the weapons to the Gulf nations, which have used American bombs to wage a devastating war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.

The inspector general also found that the State Department did not take steps needed to reduce civilian casualties and limit possible legal liability associated with selling the arms, according to a U.S. government official who viewed a draft of the report.

Neither the State Department nor its inspector general’s office, which investigates corruption and waste in the agency, released the final report on Monday, so there was no way to independently assess its findings. A spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office said the unclassified part of the report would be released to Congress on Tuesday. The report has a large classified section with heavy redactions, according to U.S. officials.

The statement from the State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, was an unusual effort by the agency to characterize the report for the public before its release. A department official also held a telephone briefing with reporters around 5 p.m. as part of the effort to provide the agency’s perspective on the report. Journalists on the call asked repeatedly for the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, to release the report so they could write about it with full accuracy, but the official declined to do so.

The official did say the report recommended that the U.S. government take more measures to reduce civilian casualties in relation to the use of the arms by the Gulf Arab nations, the issue at the heart of bipartisan opposition in Congress and among human rights advocates to the exports. The official said the government had been trying to make greater efforts to achieve that.

On Monday night, Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the State Department’s actions, saying, “This obvious pre-spin of the findings reeks of an attempt to distract and mislead.” He named the official doing the briefing, R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.

Saudi Arabia has been leading an air war in Yemen that has resulted in what the United Nations has called the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. American-made munitions, particularly from Raytheon, have helped kill thousands of civilians, many of them women and children. The United Arab Emirates played a central role in the Saudi-led coalition, but has drawn down its presence recently.

Beginning in 2017, as reports of civilian casualties became more widespread, lawmakers from both parties put a freeze on further exports of arms to the Gulf Arab nations, citing urgent humanitarian concerns. They continued that hold throughout 2018, and their fury at Saudi Arabia increased after the gruesome killing that fall by Saudi agents of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post who was a Virginia resident.

But in May 2019, Mr. Pompeo announced an “emergency,” citing Iranian activity in the Middle East, to justify bypassing the congressional hold and pushing through the arms sales. President Trump had strongly advocated the sales.

The next month, Mr. Engel asked the State Department inspector general at the time, Steve A. Linick, to open an investigation into Mr. Pompeo’s action. A central question was whether Mr. Pompeo had acted illegally in making the “emergency” declaration.

Mr. Pompeo refused to be interviewed by Mr. Linick, instead submitting a written statement to questions from the inspector general. Mr. Linick was also conducting a separate investigation into whether Mr. Pompeo and his wife, Susan, had used department resources for personal matters.

Mr. Trump fired Mr. Linick in May at Mr. Pompeo’s urging. Democratic lawmakers have opened an inquiry into whether Mr. Pompeo did that as an act of retaliation over the investigations. Mr. Pompeo said Mr. Linick was “undermining” the State Department, but did not give details.

In June, Mr. Linick told lawmakers that Brian Bulatao, a senior department official who is an old friend of Mr. Pompeo, tried to “bully” him into ending the investigation.

Last week, the department said Mr. Linick’s replacement in an acting capacity, Stephen J. Akard, had resigned.

Mr. Linick’s staff briefed State Department officials on his findings in November 2019 and this March, and a draft report was widely circulated this summer. The language in the draft report about the department’s failure to assess the humanitarian risks of forcing through the arms sales is expected to appear in the final version.

The State Department statement on Monday cited three short phrases from a single page in the final report. One phrase said the “emergency certification was properly executed.”

The statement also criticized Mr. Engel and Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, for remarks they had made questioning the “emergency” declaration. And it criticized The New York Times for an article that mentioned Mr. Linick was investigating whether Mr. Pompeo had acted illegally.

“The role of the Office of the Inspector General is to investigate allegations of wrongdoing,” said Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, a Times spokeswoman. “In the story referenced, The Times reported on an ongoing inquiry. We stand by our reporting, the facts of which have not been disputed.”

That article also said U.S. officials were considering ending the decades-old informal process by which Congress reviews proposed arms sales, which would help push through notable packages now being scrutinized by lawmakers.

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

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