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Top aides to Pompeo grilled at Congress over US arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Top aides to Mike Pompeo listen to a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington DC, US, on September 16, 2020. (Photo by Reuters)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s top aides have been questioned by Congress over President Donald Trump’s dismissal of a top administration official while he was investigating billions of dollars of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Top aides to Pompeo went before a congressional panel on Wednesday to defend Trump's decision to fire former Department of State inspector general Steve Linick.

In May, Trump abruptly fired Linick from his position as the State watchdog, while he was probing the administration’s last year’s decision to allow $8 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Jordan despite congressional opposition.

Congress had objected to the transactions, warning that providing the Saudis with more weapons could contribute to the human catastrophe in war-torn Yemen, where the Kingdom has been waging a devastating war for more than five years.

An estimated 100,000 people have lost their lives in the Saudi war.

Congress had also expressed concern that the military transaction would possibly leave US officials vulnerable to war crimes charges.

“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.

Linick, who was responsible for preventing government waste, fraud and abuse, was also investigating allegations that Pompeo and his wife misused government resources by having department staff handle personal matters.

Representative Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee asked if Linick was fired “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." Engel said.

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

A Pompeo confidant, Brian Bulatao, however, accused Linick of a “variety of lapses and shortfalls,” denying that his dismissal was a retaliation.

Linick, who served as the State Inspector General (IG) for seven years, has denied any wrongdoing, Reuters said.

A report issued by the IG office found last month that the State Department failed to “fully assess” the risk of civilian deaths in Yemen.

Secretary of State Pompeo, however, defended the work of his department which he claimed “prevented the loss of lives” in Yemen.

This is while, the secretary of state was accused of abuse of power over the arms sales last year.

Saudi Arabia is the largest buyer of American-made weaponry. Trump signed an arms deal worth $110 billion with Riyadh in May 2017 on his first foreign trip since assuming office.

Before his presidency, Trump described the kingdom as "a milk cow" which would be slaughtered when its milk runs out.

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