The U.S is not sufficiently vetting the sale of weapons to the repressive government of Egypt, and doesn’t know enough about how those weapons are being used – including night vision goggles and riot control weapons.
According to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, the State Department also fails to consistently conduct legally required review of the Egyptian forces that are supplied and trained by the U.S.
The U.S. government has sent Egypt more than $6.4 billion in military aid since 2011, which has been used to purchase F-16 jets, Apache helicopters, tanks, explosives, and police equipment.
The U.S. government has bankrolled the Egyptian military for decades, propping up the rule of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. But the aid was widely criticized after 2013, when a military coup deposed Egypt’s new democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi. To skirt a law banning aid to coup regimes, the State Department has refused to call what happened a “coup.”
After the military regime came to power, led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, it immediately cracked down on protestors and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the political party of the former president. One morning that August, government forces killed 900 people. In the year that followed, the government detained at least 41,000 people and sentenced citizens to die hundreds at a time. But U.S. aid continued.
Congress has passed several laws restricting military aid to countries that systematically violate human rights. One such law, called the “Leahy Law,” named after its sponsor in the Senate, requires the State Department to suspend military aid to any individual, unit, or country that it determines “has committed a gross violation of human rights.”
But the GAO’s new report alleges that the State Department regularly makes that certification without any justification. “While the memos declare State’s compliance with the Leahy laws,” the report says, “State [Department] officials acknowledged that there is no required process used to support the statements in the memos.”
Additionally, the report alleges that “officials with information about human rights violations in Egypt are not involved in [the] drafting” of the memos, and that the officials who normally manage Leahy vetting at the embassy “do not play a role in the development of these memos.”
The report also found that the embassy was repeatedly failing to conduct end-use checks on weapons shipments. Between 2010 and 2015, the State Department has issued 1,280 weapons export licenses to Egypt, but it has only conducted four post-shipment checks in the past five years. In one check on riot control gear – including rubber bullet cartridges and smoke grenades – the Egyptian Interior Ministry simply did not respond to the State Department’s repeated requests for information. But the State Department nonetheless closed the request as “favorable.”
The GAO also reports that the U.S. “did not complete all required vetting” for recipients of U.S. training “prior to providing training.” Between 2011 and 2015, the U.S. Embassy vetted more than 5,500 individuals or units in the Egyptian security forces and rejected only 18 – far less than 1 percent. The State Department did not reject a single case after the military coup in 2013.
The State Department’s internal regulations require embassies to upload information on “gross human rights violations” into a computer system, so that future employees can conduct vetting. But the GAO found that since 2011, only three reports of human rights violations had been uploaded, and none since the military coup in 2013.
Under current law, 15 percent of U.S. aid to Egypt can be withheld if it doesn’t meet certain human rights conditions. There is an exemption, however, based on the U.S.’ “national security interest,” which was invoked last year to send the full amount.
Despite that fact, as my colleague Zaid Jilani reported, President Obama has proposed stripping out human rights restrictions on aid sent to Egypt.