WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon and the State Department failed to investigate whether U.S. arms or other defense equipment were used in Saudi or Emirati attacks alleged to have killed civilians in Yemen, a U.S. government probe released Wednesday says.
The findings may call into question a pledge from the Biden administration that it would withhold any U.S. offensive military aid to Saudi Arabia over a Saudi-led coalition's seven-year war against Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen.
News organizations and rights groups have cited repeated civilian deaths blamed on airstrikes by the coalition. That includes a 2018 strike on a school bus that killed at least 26 children, according to Human Rights Watch. The United Nations estimates that from March 2015 to August 2021 there were about 23,000 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, killing or injuring more than 18,000 civilians.
Publication of the critical report comes as President Joe Biden plans a July trip to Saudi Arabia, in a bid to restore relations with the oil-producing kingdom. That's after Biden took office denouncing Saudi Arabia over civilian deaths in Yemen and the 2018 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The General Accounting Office examined how well the U.S. government has tracked any role that extensive U.S. military aid to its two Gulf strategic partners, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, played in civilian deaths.
The U.S. has provided more than $54 billion in military support to Saudi Arabia and the UAE during the course of the war. State Department officials told the GAO investigators they consider civilian harm and how equipment is used when weighing U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the report said.
“In addition, (Department of Defense) and State officials said they have made some efforts to understand the extent to which U.S.-origin defense articles were used in Yemen,” the report said.
“However, despite several reports that airstrikes and other attacks by Saudi Arabia and UAE have caused extensive civilian harm in Yemen, DOD has not reported and State could not provide evidence that it investigated any incidents of potential unauthorized use of equipment transferred to Saudi Arabia or UAE,” GAO investigators said.
In a written response to GAO investigators, State Department comptroller Jeffrey Mounts disputed the GAO's overall conclusion. Mounts wrote that the State Department had provided documentation of government oversight of any U.S. arms' involvement in attacks that claimed civilian lives or hit civilian infrastructure.
GAO investigators said the documents provided by the State Department did not change their conclusion, however.
The report also quoted officials with the U.S. military's Central Command saying “they do not know how DOD security cooperation officials in Saudi Arabia and UAE would obtain the information necessary to determine whether U.S.-origin defense articles were used in Yemen by Saudi Arabia or UAE against anything other than legitimate military" targets.