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U.S. House Democrats attack Pompeo aides on Saudi weapons, cite war crimes concerns

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top aides to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went before a congressional committee on Wednesday to defend President Donald Trump’s dismissal of the former State Department inspector general as he investigated weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and allegations that Pompeo misused department funds.

R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs at the U.S. Department of State, Brian Bulatao, under secretary of state for management at the U.S. Department of State, and Marik String, acting legal adviser at the U.S. Department of State, listen during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing looking into the firing of State Department Inspector General Steven Linick, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 16, 2020. Stefani Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

Trump abruptly fired Steve Linick from the State watchdog position on May 15, as he probed the administration’s decision to approve billions of dollars in military sales to Saudi Arabia despite congressional opposition.

Members of Congress had objected to the transactions, concerned they would exacerbate the huge humanitarian cost of the war in Yemen, possibly leaving U.S. officials vulnerable to war crimes charges.

“Did Mr. Pompeo fire (Linick) because he was getting closer and closer to matters that were embarrassing for Mr. Pompeo and his family… matters that implicated the State Department in a scheme to bypass Congress and sell lethal weapons that might be used for war crimes?” asked Representative Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

Linick was one of five inspectors general - officials responsible for preventing government waste, fraud and abuse - fired under the Trump administration within six weeks. The firings prompted concern among members of Congress, including some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, over whether Trump was interfering with legitimate oversight.

“The news of Inspector General Linick’s firing did come as a surprise... Any time one is terminated, it naturally will raise some questions,” said Representative Michael McCaul, the committee’s top Republican.

However, McCaul noted that Inspectors general (IGs), like other executive branch officials, serve at the pleasure of the president.

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Linick was also investigating allegations that Pompeo and his wife misused government resources by having department staff handle personal matters, such as picking up cleaning and walking their dog.

‘LAPSES AND SHORTFALLS’

Three officials - Brian Bulatao, Under Secretary for Management, acting legal adviser Marik String and Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary for political-military affairs - testified.

Bulatao, a Pompeo confidant, insisted Linick’s firing was not retaliation. He accused the longtime government official of a “variety of lapses and shortfalls,” including improper email practices and failure to complete an important audit on time.

Linick, who served as State IG for seven years, has denied wrongdoing.

Underscoring tensions between Congress and the administration over Linick’s firing, Bulatao and String agreed to testify only after the panel announced subpoenas.

Wednesday’s hearing lasted for more than three hours and often lapsed into acrimony, as Democrats attacked the department for refusing to cooperate. “The Foreign Affairs Committee is investigating? Blow them off. Cancel their briefings. Call them names,” Engel said.

Congress had requested an investigation into the Trump administration’s May 2019 decision to allow $8 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Jordan by declaring a “national emergency” over tensions with Iran.

Lawmakers had blocked many of the transactions for months out of concern the Raytheon smart bombs and other equipment might contribute to the human catastrophe in Yemen, where bombings by a Saudi-led coalition have caused heavy civilian casualties.

A report issued by the IG’s office in August found State did not fully evaluate the risks to civilians when it pushed through the huge precision-guided munitions sale, although it did not violate the law.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Mary Milliken and David Gregorio

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