State denies improper IG firing, defends Saudi arms sales

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens during the third annual U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue at the State Dept., Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 in Washington....

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens during the third annual U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue at the State Dept., Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 in Washington....

WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department on Wednesday rejected Democrats' charges of improperly firing its independent inspector general and defended its weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Democrats say the two are connected because Steve Linick, the former IG, told lawmakers in June that at the time of his firing, his office had been probing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's emergency declaration that sped up the $8 billion in arms sales. Democrats and some Republicans complained that the move improperly bypassed Congress and that Linick's firing was part of a “cover up.”

Three of the department's top officials testified Wednesday during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that Pompeo had asked President Donald Trump to fire Linick for a variety of management and ethical malpractice practices. Previously, they had blamed him for not advancing the department's mission and leaking details about the probe. Linick was fired in May.

“If there is due cause, as been laid out,” said R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, “there is no cover-up.”

But Democrats insisted the allegations against Linick are after-the-fact excuses for dismissing an independent investigator who was probing allegations that could embarrass Pompeo. Linick was also investigating complaints that Pompeo and his wife, Susan, improperly used department staff to perform personal tasks for them.

“We have real concern on this committee that the firing of Mr. Linick was an abuse of power," said Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. "The fact that we had to drag you up here kicking and screaming itself makes me think that the department has been trying to hide the truth.”

The session was an election-season effort by the Democratic-led House to challenge the Trump administration's well-documented refusal to cooperate with oversight. The struggle has played out across the courts and the committees of Congress since Trump took office in 2017, most notably during investigations that led to the president's impeachment by the House and his acquittal by the GOP-led Senate.

Cooper, Undersecretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao and the department’s acting legal adviser, Marik String, testified only after the committee prepared to subpoena Pompeo.

Linick’s firing was one of several dismissals by Trump of people charged with preventing fraud and abuse in the government. The series of abrupt ousters concerned members of Congress, including some Republicans, who questioned whether Trump was interfering with legitimate oversight.

The State Department officials told the committee that Pompeo acted appropriately on all counts. The IG concluded that the arms sales did not violate the letter of the law but said the department did not take enough action to limit civilian casualties.

Cooper agreed with this criticism, a rare acknowledgment from the administration.

“That is a finding I not only accept, but which I, my bureau, the department, and this administration take to heart, which we were working to address before the IG even put pen to paper, and which we will continue to address,” he said.

Congress had pushed for a probe into administration’s May 2019 decision to proceed with $8 billion in sales to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Jordan. To clear the way past lawmakers' objections, the administration declared a “national emergency” due to tensions with Iran.

Members of Congress had been blocking some of the sales because they might contribute to the human rights disaster in Yemen. A Saudi-led series of bombings there caused significant civilian casualties.

___

Associated Press Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.