Lawsuit targets State Department over $23 billion weapons sale to UAE
A foreign policy research organization is suing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department in an effort to block the sale of $23 billion in advanced military systems to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), arguing the U.S. government did not meet the requirements of the law.
The New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs (NYCFPA), a think tank and research group with headquarters in New York and an office in Washington, D.C., filed its lawsuit in federal district court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday.
The move follows a failed attempt in Congress this month to block the sale. Opponents of the deal fell short of the votes needed to pass two resolutions that said the Trump administration did not go through the proper congressional review process and left unanswered questions about the purpose and security of the transfer, which included F-35 advanced fighter jets and MQ-9 reaper drones.
The Trump administration pushed ahead with the weapons sale following the UAE’s agreement to open diplomatic relations with Israel in September. The multibillion-dollar weapons package drew sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers who said it would contribute to a dangerous arms race in the region and was not given the proper congressional oversight.
The lawsuit makes similar arguments.
It is likely the first time a nongovernmental organization has sued to stop foreign military sales, said Justin Russell, the NYCFPA’s principal director.
He said the group felt that litigation was the last option following the failed attempt on Capitol Hill to block the deal.
“We thought, if no one else is going to try and do this, we’re going to stand up and try,” Russell said in an interview.
“This is a continuing operational move by the State Department to fast-track these arms sales,” he added.
NYCFPA alleges that the State Department’s actions violate the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to provide a reasoned explanation for its decision to sell the F-35’s.
The group also alleges that the State Department has not shown “a rational connection between the facts considered and the ultimate conclusion” in the decision to move forward with the weapons sale.
Litigation involving the Administrative Procedure Act usually concerns an organization or company suing the federal government for blocking a company’s sale to a foreign government that they say has met the letter of the law, not that the government has failed to meet legal requirements.
Matthew Collete, the lead attorney for NYCFPA and a partner at the Washington-based firm Massey & Gail LLP, called the lawsuit precedent-setting.
“This is definitely a unique situation in the sense of trying to stop an arms deal approval,” Collette said. “I have not seen a case like this one.”
Collette said the next step will be for the court to serve the State Department, at which the agency will have the chance to respond, likely with a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
A State Department spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit comes just three weeks before President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in on Jan. 20. While the president-elect has not commented on the UAE arms sale, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a co-sponsor of the failed legislation to block the arms sale, has said he hopes to work with the incoming administration to look more closely at the sale before any transfers are completed.
It’s unclear when the Trump administration will deliver the weapons. Assistant Secretary of State R. Clarke Cooper said earlier this month that following the congressional notification period, which ended on Dec. 11, the two countries will draft letters of offers and acceptance that, if concluded, will finalize the deal.
“Only at the end of this process will the Department of Defense be able to work with U.S. industry to hammer out the production schedules and delivery timelines,” Cooper said in a briefing with reporters at the time.
Russell said his hope is that the court blocks the weapons sale, but that his group is prepared to continue the legal fight into the next administration.
The Biden transition team declined to comment.
Russell said his group could drop the case if the Biden administration cancels the sale outright.
“We are hopeful that this will get the attention of the Biden national security team and they will do the right thing in striving to seek peace in the region,” he said. “We are hopeful that the Biden administration will stop the beginning stages of an arms race in the Middle East.”