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Watchdog clears Pompeo in arms sales, but faults him on risks to civilians

Watchdog clears Pompeo in arms sales, but faults him on risks to civilians
© Greg Nash

The State Department’s internal watchdog on Tuesday said Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo warns any arms sales to Iran will result in sanctions as embargo expires Trump turns his ire toward Cabinet members Azerbaijan accuses Armenia of missile strike that killed at least 13 MORE was within his authority last year to push through billion-dollar arms sales to allies in the Middle East, but faulted him for not ensuring American weapons weren't used against civilian populations.

The findings are part of a controversial investigation launched at the request of Congress to probe Pompeo’s use of an emergency declaration in May 2019 to sell more than $8 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan and without the approval of Congress.

The report’s publication is also a key part of Democrats' probe into the ousting of Inspector General Steve Linick, whom President TrumpDonald John TrumpPolice say man dangling off Trump Tower Chicago demanding to speak with Trump Fauci says he was 'absolutely not' surprised Trump got coronavirus after Rose Garden event Biden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus MORE abruptly fired in mid-May at the request of Pompeo.

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Linick had launched the investigation in June 2019 at the request of Congress — and in particular Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelIs Trump a better choice for Jewish voters than Biden? Overnight Defense: Trump says he's leaving Walter Reed, 'feeling really good' after COVID-19 treatment | White House coronavirus outbreak grows | Dems expand probe into Pompeo speeches House Democrats push forward on probe of Pompeo's political speeches MORE (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs — over the legality of the arms sales.

Congress was working at the time to block sales of weapons to those countries over concerns of human rights abuses and civilian casualties in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition as well as to hold Riyadh accountable over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Pompeo issued the declaration under authority in the Arms Export Control Act and said the weapons sales were necessary to “deter Iranian aggression,” a move the State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) found was within his authority.

Yet the agency “did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties and legal concerns associated with the transfer of [Precision Guided Missiles] included in the May 2019 emergency certification,” acting Inspector General Diana Shaw, who took over the investigation, wrote in the summary.

The watchdog offered a recommendation on this matter in a classified version of the report.

Assistant Secretary of Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper, who briefed reporters on the report the day before it was released, said the agency agreed with the inspector general’s recommendation and had already been taking steps to reduce the risk of harm to civilians.

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“So we agree with that, of course,” Cooper said. “This is not a position that was of any surprise.”

The report's release comes as Pompeo is on travel to Europe over the next four days, in the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Austria and Poland.

The inspector general’s conclusions are sure to receive pushback from Democrats, who have raised concerns that Linick’s firing could have undermined the investigation, pointing to the State Department’s “pre-spin” of commenting on the report before it was released

Democrats are concerned that Pompeo pushed for Linick’s firing to obstruct at least two investigations, including the Saudi arms sales and an additional investigation over the secretary and his wife’s possible misuse of federal resources for personal benefit.

Pompeo has maintained that he was not aware he was part of investigations when he pushed for Linick’s ouster, but that he had provided written answers related to an investigation earlier in the year.

Shaw confirmed in the report that the secretary’s written answers were in relation to the Saudi arms investigation, saying the Office of Inspector General had requested an interview with Pompeo beginning in late 2019 but the secretary provided written answers because his travel schedule did not allow a sit-down interview.

Linick testified in front of lawmakers in June that Under Secretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao, a close and longtime aide to Pompeo, attempted to “bully” him over the report.

Linick’s replacement, Stephen Akard, recused himself from the arms sales investigation and passed it on to Shaw, his deputy.

Shaw has since taken on the position of acting inspector general following Akard’s resignation last week from the State Department.

The next battleground on the report is likely to focus on the redacted portions of the classified report that were made at the request of the State Department.

Shaw wrote in her summary that she pushed for as little redactions as possible but the determination was ultimately with the leadership of the agency.

“Although the Department withheld relatively little information in the unclassified portion of the report, it withheld significant information in the classified annex necessary to understand OIG’s finding and recommendation,” Shaw wrote.

“The Department asserted that the redactions made to the classified annex should be withheld from Congress because the underlying information implicates ‘executive branch confidentiality interests, including executive privilege.’

“While OIG continues to favor release to the greatest extent possible, the privilege belongs to the Department and OIG is not in a position to overrule the assertion but must instead rely on the good faith of the Department,” Shaw continued.

Engel, one of the committee heads probing Linick’s firing, said ahead of the reports release that he will focus on whether the redacted parts aim to “bury important or possibly incriminating information.”

“Understanding the conclusions of this report will likely require reading the unclassified and classified sections together,” Engel said in a statement late Monday night. “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.”

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.