Senators demand answers on Trump administration backing of Saudi coalition in Yemen

Senators demand answers on Trump administration backing of Saudi coalition in Yemen
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A bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday questioned the Trump administration on its certification that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are taking steps to protect civilians in the Yemeni civil war and are complying with U.S. laws on arms sales.

“While we appreciate your timely submission, after reviewing the unclassified and classified components and receiving updates from our staffs regarding the administration’s September 20 briefing, we find it difficult to reconcile known facts with at least two of your certifications,” the senators wrote in a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoNPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' NPR sends letter to State Dept. demanding answers for reporter's removal from trip Trump allies throw jabs at Bolton over book's claims MORE.

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The letter was organized by Sens. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Defense: White House threatens to veto House Iran bills | Dems 'frustrated' after Iran briefing | Lawmakers warn US, UK intel sharing at risk after Huawei decision Biden: 'I sure would like Michelle to be the vice president' Foreign Relations Democrats 'deeply frustrated' after Iran briefing MORE (D-N.H.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungRestlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Impeachment trial forces senators to scrap fundraisers Iran resolution supporters fear impeachment will put it on back burner MORE (R-Ind.). It was co-signed by Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP confident of win on witnesses Republicans signal renewed confidence they'll avoid witness fight Trump's team rests, calls for quick end to trial MORE (R-Maine), Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsGOP Foreign Affairs leaders join pushback against potential troop drawdown in Africa Foreign Relations Democrats 'deeply frustrated' after Iran briefing Democrats rally in support of bill to repeal Trump travel ban MORE (D-Del.), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranRepublicans signal renewed confidence they'll avoid witness fight McConnell struggles to maintain GOP unity post-Bolton Schiff closes Dems' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump MORE (R-Kan.), Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyLawmakers warn US, UK intel sharing at risk after Huawei decision Democratic senator on proposal to read Bolton manuscript in classified setting: 'Total bulls---t' Republicans show little enthusiasm for impeachment witness swap MORE (D-Conn.) and Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyOvernight Defense: White House threatens to veto House Iran bills | Dems 'frustrated' after Iran briefing | Lawmakers warn US, UK intel sharing at risk after Huawei decision White House Correspondents' Association blasts State for 'punitive action' against NPR Senate Democrat demands State Department reinstate NPR reporter on Pompeo trip MORE (D-Ore.).

Shaheen and Young authored the provision of the annual defense policy bill that required Pompeo to make the certification on Saudi and Emirati behavior in Yemen's civil war.

If Pompeo did not make the certification, U.S. refueling of Saudi-led coalition aircraft would have had to stop.

U.S. lawmakers have increasingly expressed concern about the Yemeni civil war, which has been raging since 2015 and has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths. Those deaths have been largely blamed on airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition.

While lawmaker concern has been boiling over for months, the most recent letter comes as anger at the Saudis is reaching a fever pitch after the disappearance of a journalist and prominent Saudi critic.

Last month, as required by the National Defense Authorization Act, Pompeo certified that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are taking steps to end the war, alleviate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and protect civilians.

In their letter, the senators took issue with Pompeo’s certification that the Saudi and Emirati governments are taking “demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations” in Yemen.

They specifically highlighted that Pompeo’s memo to Congress says the administration continues “to press the need for additional actions to reduce civilian casualty incidents.”

“In short, we are skeptical a certification that the two governments have undertaken demonstrable actions to reduce the harm to civilians is warranted when the Saudi coalition has failed to adopt some U.S. recommendations while civilian deaths and casualties due to coalition airstrikes have increased dramatically in recent months,” they wrote.

The senators also raised concerns about the fact that Pompeo’s memo says the Saudis and Emirates are complying with U.S. laws on arms sales “with rare exception.”

“We do not understand a certification that the Saudi and Emirati governments are complying with applicable agreements and laws regulating defense articles when the [memo] explicitly states that, in certain instances, they have not done so,” they wrote.

The senators specifically asked for answers by the end of October on what percentage increase in civilian casualties and deaths from November to August is because of coalition airstrikes; how administration can credibly certify that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are working to reduce civilian harm when the death toll is rising; what the exceptions are to the Saudis and Emirates complying with U.S. laws on arms sales; and how the administration credibly certify that those countries are complying with U.S. law given those exceptions.

“We know you share our goals of ending the civil war, alleviating the humanitarian crisis, and protecting civilians,” the senators concluded. “We also agree that the continuing civil war, worsening humanitarian crisis, and ongoing killing of civilians by the Saudi coalition only serves the interests of Iran and emboldens extremists who seek to harm Americans and our partners.

“Those are some of the reasons we are concerned that your initial certification, despite several troubling facts, leaves the Saudi-led coalition with the fundamental misunderstanding that the American people and their representatives in Congress are willing to accept the status quo in Yemen.”