State Department Officials Defend Firing of Inspector General

State Department officials, from left, R. Clarke Cooper, Brian Bulatao and Marik String testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Officials from the State Department staunchly defended President Donald Trump on Wednesday for his abrupt firing of a federal watchdog investigating weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and possible abuse of power by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

For months, Democratic lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have investigated whether Pompeo egged the president on to oust Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general, in May.

Trump fired Linick without warning, citing only a “lack of confidence” in the agency watchdog appointed by President Barack Obama some seven years ago to prevent waste and fraud in the department.

But on the night Linick was fired – a decision he later told members of Congress blindsided him – it was New York Congressman Eliot Engel, Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who publicly revealed that Linick was nearly done working on a probe into Pompeo and his wife Susan at the time of his firing.

Linick had questions over Pompeo’s potentially improper use of a political appointee in the State Department, like reportedly asking the aide to take a family dog to the groomer or for walks. Reports, including one by NBC, also unearthed evidence of lavish dinners hosted by the secretary and his wife where less than a quarter of invited guests were diplomats or actually involved in or affiliated with the U.S. federal government.

As inspector general, Linick also initiated a probe into whether Pompeo had properly invoked an emergency declaration approving an $8 billion arms sales from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia without Congress’ consideration.

A report published in August by Linick’s successor concluded that the emergency declaration allowing for the arms deal was not technically illegal. But Pompeo’s decision did generate legitimate concerns over what the inspector general described as an apparent disregard for civilian casualties that would likely result from the transaction.

Pompeo has denied knowing Linick was investigating him or his wife. The secretary has also refused to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to face questions on Linick’s ouster but has openly criticized the former watchdog in the months since his firing.

Effectively in Pompeo’s place before the committee on Wednesday was Brian Bulatao, the undersecretary of State for management. Like his boss, Bulatao insisted Linick’s termination was just and that Pompeo’s decision to approve the arms deal was the proper response given the threat posed to Saudi Arabia by nearby Iran.

Bulatao – a longtime friend of Pompeo, as a former West Point classmate and onetime private business associate – was flanked at the hearing by the State Department’s acting legal adviser Marik String and R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of State for political military affairs.

Bulatao was adamant it was Linick’s performance, not his, that warranted scrutiny. He claimed Linick was late to start audits as and even later to finish them, and that morale was low under Linick’s watch. He also suggested it may have been Linick who leaked draft inspector general reports to the press, but investigations into leaks from the watchdog’s office have not turned up evidence to support those claims.

Congressman Brad Sherman, a California Democrat and former tax auditor, did not accept Bulatao’s characterizations of Linick.

“The Defense Department and other departments including the State Department being a few weeks late is tiny compared to their otherwise months late or even non-existent audit reports” on other matters, Sherman said. “But if being late is reason enough to fire someone, why are we focusing on audit reports? They are not matters of life or death.”

Sherman argued instead that foreign policy leading to civilian casualties by way of U.S. weapons sold to Saudi Arabia is a matter of life or death.  

“If you had any integrity, you would also call for the resignation of Secretary Pompeo,” he told Bulatao.

Republicans on the committee defended the Trump administration and heaped criticism on Linick. Congressman Scott Perry of Pennsylvania said the only mistake Trump made when firing the watchdog was “not doing it sooner.”

“He was a threat to accountability, plain and simple,” Perry said.

Congressman Ted Lieu, a California Democrat and former military judge advocate general with experience advising commanders on the law of armed conflict, emphasized Wednesday that his criticism for “any Saudi-led coalitions that support war crimes in Yemen” was not limited to Trump. He was equally critical of the Obama administration’s engagement with the Saudis.

“It is clear to me that officials at the Department of Defense have potential legal liability for aiding and abetting war crimes,” Lieu said. “The Obama administration halted the shipping of precision guided munitions because they realized Saudis were using them to target and kill civilians at weddings or hospitals. The Trump administration reversed these sales and these are the kind of weapons being used in war crimes today.”

Munitions experts confirmed in August 2018 that it was in fact a U.S.-provided bomb manufactured by Lockheed Martin that was dropped by the Saudis on a children’s school bus in a crowded public market in Yemen. Over 50 children were killed in the attack. The majority of them were under 10 years old, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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