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State Department Pushes Back on Claims that Officials Lied to Congress over Emergency Arms Deals

The U.S. State Department’s top official overseeing arms sales has pushed back against claims that he misled Congress concerning emergency multibillion-dollar weapons transactions to Middle Eastern countries, after two Democratic lawmakers accused him of lying while testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year. 

In letters sent to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel and Rep. Andy Levin, both Democrats, and obtained by Foreign Policy, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper insisted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was justified in invoking an emergency declaration to expedite arms sales to the region based on months of increasing threats from Iran. Cooper refuted claims he attempted to mislead lawmakers on the subject.

In letters to both Engel and Levin, Cooper also indicated that Congress has held up additional weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and he urged lawmakers to expedite their review of the proposed sales. 

“It is bewildering you continue to call into question the basis for such an emergency with such a compelling public (and substantive classified) record,” Cooper wrote to Engel and Levin on Monday. He cited two months of security incidents both before and after President Donald Trump’s May 2019 declaration that allowed more than $8 billion in sales to move forward, including precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that had long been blocked by Congress.

The letter marks the first time Cooper has addressed claims he misled Congress. It represents the latest turn in spiraling tensions between Pompeo’s State Department and the Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee.

On Tuesday, Engel accused the State Department of throwing a “temper tantrum” with its decision to halt staff-level briefings with U.S. diplomats on counterterrorism and China issues because of an escalating dispute over the committee’s investigation into the abrupt firing of the State Department’s top watchdog, Steve Linick, in May. 

A State Department spokesperson defended the decision to cancel briefings with congressional overseers on issues unrelated to the Saudi arms sales, saying it was based on the committee’s treatment of State Department officials, including Cooper. “At least one has been accused of lying before Congress without being given the opportunity to clear his name in an open hearing,” the spokesperson said, claiming the State Department officials were being unfairly treated across a range of issues—which is why all briefings were halted. 

But a Democratic committee aide said in response that the State Department doesn’t get to dictate how Congress conducts oversight. 

“Their half-truths and falsehoods are a distraction. The record is clear that they’ve tried to thwart this committee’s oversight efforts at nearly every turn,” said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The “briefings they canceled have nothing to do with the committee’s oversight efforts. They’re playing games with issues that bear on our national security,” the aide added.

In a letter to the State Department earlier this month, Engel and Levin suggested Cooper offered false testimony on the emergency weapons sales during a June 2019 hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Pompeo gave a classified briefing to members of Congress on May 21, 2019, in which he made no reference to an emergency that would necessitate expediting arms sales. Three days later, on May 24, Pompeo declared the emergency. 

“Within three days, an emergency was created that required that declaration?” Levin asked Cooper. “Congressman, yes. Yes,” Cooper responded. Levin replied: “So, your testimony here is that in those two or three intervening days, an emergency arose that required a declaration?”

“I would—yes. And I would parallel this to also imposition of sanctions,” Cooper responded, before Levin cut him off and said, “Sir, with all due respect, I just do not think that is credible.”

A State Department Office of the Inspector General report released earlier this month determined that Pompeo acted within his legal authority to declare an emergency and expedite the arms sales, but the department did not adequately take into account the humanitarian impact of those arms sales, given the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen’s devastating civil war. An unredacted version of the report obtained by Politico found that Pompeo’s team began laying the groundwork for declaring an emergency beginning in April 2019, more than a month before the emergency declaration was made—not in the three-day period Levin questioned Cooper about. 

“In short: Mr. Cooper lied. Secretary Pompeo directed the invention of an emergency more than two weeks before he briefed Congress. One did not arise over the course of three days, as Mr. Cooper told me,” Levin said in a statement on Aug. 11. Engel and Levin suggested that Cooper potentially committed a federal crime if he lied to Congress. 

Cooper, in his letter, outlined a dozen examples of the Trump administration raising alarm bells over Iranian aggression in the months leading up to the emergency certification, including what the Defense Department characterized as “a credible threat” from Iranian forces to U.S. forces in the Middle East. Cooper also referred to “compelling” classified information the administration relayed to Congress. 

“Your letter alleges I testified the emergency only arose between May 21-24, 2019. I did not intend to suggest that was the case,” Cooper wrote. “If you view my exchange with Representative Levin, during which he interrupted me several times, as inconsistent in any way with the facts as described in the Secretary’s certification, my full testimony including my opening statement, or this letter, please rest assured there was no intent to obfuscate the necessity to address the threat,” Cooper wrote. “In sum, it is time for this matter to be closed.”

Notably, Cooper’s letter also makes reference to other arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia that are being held up by congressional review, including the transfer of small arms and M230 chain guns to the UAE, and Paveway IV laser-guided bombs and a command and control system to Saudi Arabia.  “Although the deadline for informal review of these cases ended between two and eight months ago, the Department and our Gulf partners would welcome your support at the earliest opportunity,” Clarke wrote. He commended lawmakers for recently supporting another $154 million in new sales to the UAE in a separate deal.   

“Mr. Cooper’s letter contains many words, but none of them explain why his actual testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee—that an emergency arose between May 21 and May 24 of 2019—was not false,” a Foreign Affairs Committee aide told Foreign Policy in response to questions about the letter. “We’ve given him an opportunity to clear this up on the record. We hope he takes it.” 

The aide added that the committee has “outstanding questions” about how the weapons on hold from Congress will be used by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “We look forward to the department clarifying those questions, hopefully with a focus on American values as well as interests,” the aide said. Foreign Policy reported in June that the Trump administration is in discussions to end the informal process through which Congress reviews arms sales, a practice that dates back decades. 

An unusual coalition of conservative Republican and progressive Democratic lawmakers have banded together in recent years to curtail the president’s ability to engage in military actions abroad without prior congressional approval, including U.S. military support for the Saudi-led fight in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Human rights groups have accused the Saudi military of indiscriminately bombing civilians with U.S.-made munitions.

Lawmakers objected to the administration’s emergency declaration, but did not muster enough of the two-thirds vote required in each chamber to override Trump’s decision. The emergency waiver reportedly provoked internal dissension within the ranks of the administration.   

The exchange of letters marks a new low in the relationship between the State Department and congressional Democrats. Both Engel and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, have accused Pompeo of stifling lawmakers’ requests for testimony and transparency.

Pompeo, for his part, has said that Congress had rejected State Department offers for testimony after Linick’s surprise firing. Linick was looking into the administration’s deliberations concerning the emergency declaration and Pompeo’s alleged misuse of staff resources for private errands when he was fired.

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