More than two months after progressive members of Congress asked President Joe Biden to explain what forms of military support he will continue to offer the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, the administration has replied with a two-page letter that sidesteps the question — and provides almost none of the other details members sought.
Biden won plaudits from Democrats when he announced in February that he would end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” But since then, progressives in Congress have been pressing the administration to explain precisely what that means, particularly how the administration will draw a distinction between “offensive” and “defensive” weapons and operations by the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition.
Forty-one members of Congress asked the administration to clarify what forms of “military, intelligence, logistical, or other” aid the U.S. was providing under President Donald Trump, which of those would continue, and how the administration would define “offensive operations.”
The two-page State Department answer — which finally arrived Wednesday, more than two months after the date by which members of Congress asked the administration to respond — appears to offer no new information. It references the suspension of “two air-to-ground munitions sales and an ongoing review of other systems,” all of which has previously been reported, and fails to address what other forms of “offensive” support have been discontinued, if any, or which arms sales are ultimately likely to go forward.
In a statement to The Intercept, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called the response a “disappointing non-answer from the Biden administration” and said he would continue to seek further details.
“It’s been months since I pressed them for answers on how they plan to end ‘offensive operations’ aiding the Saudi-led coalition, and what legal authority they have to continue U.S. involvement in a conflict that has not been authorized by Congress — as required under the Constitution,” DeFazio said. “Yet the Saudi blockade of Yemen and the resulting humanitarian crisis continue to linger on with no end in sight. It’s disheartening to receive such a contrived response from the State Department, and I will continue to press for actual answers.”
“It’s disheartening to receive such a contrived response from the State Department.”
The U.S. has supported the intervention by Saudi Arabia and the UAE since it began in 2015. Under both President Barack Obama and Trump, the U.S. has provided intelligence, arms sales, and other forms of logistical support. The Trump administration discontinued mid-air refueling for Saudi planes, but it’s unclear what other support has continued. Defense Department spokespeople confirmed to Vox that the DOD may be allowing U.S. contractors to service Saudi warplanes and some arms sales, including a $23 billion sale of advanced air hardware to the UAE that is expected to continue.
“To protect against the very real threat to Saudi Arabia from aerial and maritime attacks, the United States will continue to support Saudi Arabia with its defense against inbound threats to the Kingdom, its people, and the more than 70,000 U.S. citizens resident in Saudi Arabia,” the State Department letter says.
The conflict in Yemen has led to one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, and aid groups have criticized both sides of the conflict for restricting the free flow of vital goods into the country. The letter emphasizes that Biden is seeking a diplomatic solution to the conflict, noting the administration’s appointment of a special envoy, Tim Lenderking, to seek a diplomatic end to the conflict. Lenderking “continues to engage with our partners in the region and continues to stress that the United States opposes restrictions on the flow of commodities into and throughout Yemen,” the letter says.
Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu of California and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey asked Lenderking during an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month whether U.S. military support to the Saudi and UAE-led coalition has been discontinued. Lenderking said that he was “not totally in that information loop” and did not provide an answer. Lieu and Malinowksi sent a follow-up letter asking for clarification, but a Democratic aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told The Intercept that the administration has not yet responded to the query.
(On Friday, after this story was published, Naz Durakoglu, the State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, wrote in a second letter that the department continues to adjudicate contracting requests for U.S. companies to provide “logistics, spare parts, maintenance, and other support for Saudi-led coalition aircraft.” That letter characterized such support as defensive in nature. “These aircraft play an important role in defending Saudi Arabia against cross-border attacks, including an onslaught of armed UAVs,” the letter says.)
California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, another author of the February letter, expressed frustration last month about the administration’s sluggish response. “There is growing frustration among House members and Senators about the Admin response to the blockade and potential continued intelligence and spare parts to Saudis,” he tweeted. “Letters unanswered. Talk on the hill if a [war powers resolution] needed,” referencing past measures directing Trump to end U.S. support for the intervention.
In a statement to The Intercept, Khanna said he would use the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress’s annual defense policy bill, to press the Biden administration further on the issue. “I’m working with Senator [Bernie] Sanders and other colleagues to ensure we use our leverage with Saudi Arabia to end the blockade, end U.S. military support for the coalition, and move toward a peaceful solution that ends the conflict,” Khanna said.
Update: June 2, 2021
This story has been updated to include material from a second letter sent by the State Department after the article was originally published.