Rep. Eliot Engel, Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday that an inspector general report revealed the State Department's claim last year of an "emergency" to sell billions of dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates "was a sham" and accused the department of deploying "scare tactics to try to keep a lid on the report."
"This report is deeply damning for Secretary Pompeo and the administration. The lengths to which the State Department has gone in the last day to spin and obscure the facts show how desperate they are to hide the truth," Engel said in a statement.
The comments follow the release of an Office of Inspector General report (pdf) into the 2019 weapons transfer, for which the Trump administration dodged congressional oversight by invoking a provision in the Arms Export Control Act that allows the president to take such action if "an emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States."
The sale prompted swift ire from lawmakers who'd blocked similar sales over justified concerns such weapons were being used to kill civilians in Yemen.
The OIG review of the matter began under IG Steve Linick, who was ousted in May by Pompeo and who told lawmakers State Department Undersecretary Brian Bulatao tried to bully him into dropping the probe.
A redacted version of the watchdog's report was published online Tuesday, with acting IG Diana Shaw noting in an accompanying memo that the document reflects redactions requested by the State Department.
Shaw wrote, in part:
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. 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. Accordingly, OIG will make available to Congress a version of its classified annex with the Department's redactions applied.
As detailed by Politico on Tuesday,
The inspector general determined that, on a technical level, Pompeo carried out his use of emergency authorities in accordance with the legal regulations, which give him considerable discretion in, among other things, determining what counts as an emergency.
Yet the IG also said the department "did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties and legal concerns."
In his statement, Engel said the report suggested that Pompeo overreached in his authority.
"No one ever doubted that the law provides for the authority to expedite the sale of weapons in the case of an emergency. The question was always, 'Did the administration abuse that authority in order to ram through more than $8 billion in sales to Gulf countries?' The IG didn't offer an opinion on that. But the report's details signal a resounding, 'Yes.'"
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The lawmaker said that was likely behind the Department's insistence "on redacting the most salient information and trying to tell us what the report said before it was out," similar to Attorney General Bill Barr's public take on the Mueller report ahead of its release.
What's more, Politico reported that the differing timelines of events between the redacted and unredacted versions of the report were telling, writing that the uncensored version gives "a fuller picture of the timelines involved and rais[es] questions as to whether an emergency existed."
From the outlet:
For instance, an unredacted timeline shows that State Department staffers proposed using emergency authorities on April 3, 2019, that drafts of the emergency certification were circulated 20 days later, and that it wasn’t until May 4 that Pompeo directed that the emergency be certified by May 24.
The report released online, however, said Pompeo briefed Congress on Iranian threats on May 21, approved the paperwork two days later and then certified that the emergency authorization was transmitted to Congress the next day.
In essence, the public version gives the impression that Pompeo moved quickly on an urgent issue, whereas the unredacted version shows a much longer timeframe of deliberation and action, undermining the argument that an emergency existed at all.
The differing timelines were seized upon by Engel as well.
"Beneath those pesky redactions, we find that nearly two months went by from when the Department first began considering an emergency declaration until Mr. Pompeo signed it. The draft emergency certification circulated more than a month before its actual declaration. And Mr. Pompeo decided on the exact date to declare an emergency 20 days ahead of time," said Engel.
"The Office of Inspector General also found that at the time of its review, the foreign countries had completely received only four of 22 arms packages that were part of the deal and that five of the weapons packages wouldn't even begin delivery until this year or later," he said, adding that "some of the agreements weren't even signed by the time the IG issued his report."
"What sort of emergency makes itself known a few months in advance and can be resolved with weapons delivered years later?" Engel said.
The evidence of the administration's wrongdoing regarding the weapons sale is now clear, the congressman said.
"This report tells us everything we suspected: the emergency was a sham," he said. "It was cooked up to get around congressional review of a bad policy choice. And ever since Mr. Pompeo declared that 'emergency,' he and his top lieutenants have worked to bury the truth."
The State Department, for its part, said the OIG report "confirms no wrongdoing" by Pompeo.