Advocates Demand Oversight and Accountability for U.S. Arms Trade

The war in Ukraine has proven that transparency is possible when it comes to weapons transfers. The Arms Sales Accountability Project wants to make it the norm.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 25:  U.S. President Joe Biden makes an announcement on additional military support for Ukraine as Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 25, 2023 in Washington, DC. President Biden said the U.S. will send 31 M-1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine to aid in their fight against Russia after Germany approved the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden makes an announcement on additional military support for Ukraine as Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Jan. 25, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

April Corley was an elite athlete, a national champion roller skater who appeared in movies, television shows, and commercials. She worked with celebrities like Katy Perry and Madonna. Her life, she said, “was about glitter and rhinestones.”

Then, while vacationing with her boyfriend in 2015, Corley and the rest of her tour group stopped for lunch on a roadside in the Egyptian desert. A U.S.-supplied Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter appeared overhead, and, moments later, rockets began to rain down. As tourists ran for their lives, the Apache opened up with its 30 mm cannon.

Corley was burned and peppered with shrapnel. She suffered numerous broken and fractured bones in her shoulder, arm, and ribs; a lung contusion; and permanent nerve damage in her extremities, among other injuries detailed in a report by her lawyer. To survive, she played dead, hiding beneath the bodies of her boyfriend, Rafael Bejarano, and 11 others who were killed.

Following the September 2015 attack by the Egyptian military — which claimed the massacre was a “mistake” but never compensated Corley — then-Sen. Patrick Leahy repeatedly blocked Egypt from buying or refurbishing Apache helicopters and buying their armaments, like hellfire missiles. “The senator felt it was untenable to continue business as usual given what had happened to April Corley, and the long history of reports of indiscriminate attacks by U.S.-made Apaches in the Sinai Peninsula against civilian targets,” said Tim Rieser, a senior staffer for the Senate Appropriations Committee and longtime foreign policy adviser to Leahy, who was chair of the committee until he retired last month.

“The bullets and explosives pierced, lacerated and shredded my body. Even after eight surgeries so far and hundreds of medical appointments, I will never recover,” Corley wrote in a 2019 Washington Post op-ed, as part of a media campaign to press the Trump administration to hold Egypt accountable and impose stricter conditions on military aid. While Donald Trump treated Egypt with kid gloves, waiving provisions to restrict some aid on human rights grounds, the Biden administration pledged to take a harder line.

“President Biden has committed to putting human rights back at the center of American foreign policy, and that’s a commitment that I and the entire Department of State take very seriously,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced in March 2021. But just months later, the Biden administration circumvented Leahy’s hold on Apaches as Blinken quietly announced that Egypt would pay for the attack helicopters with its own money as opposed to an often-used financing program by which the U.S. subsidizes foreign nations’ weapons and equipment purchases through grants and loans. For years, Congress, which can exercise control over the U.S.-subsidized program, had effectively prevented the Egyptians from acquiring the helicopters. “But when the Biden administration negotiated the sale of the Apache helicopters,” Seth Binder of the Project on Middle East Democracy, or POMED, noted, “it provided a workaround.”

To Rieser, the $1 billion Apache deal, which received almost no media attention, was a betrayal of President Joe Biden’s pledge. “It is disappointing for an administration that claims human rights are at the center of its foreign policy,” Rieser told The Intercept. “The sale of Apache helicopters to a military that is abusive and unaccountable should be of great concern. There is not enough transparency about our military-to-military relations with foreign countries and the ways in which we support undemocratic governments that fail to respect human rights and the rule of law.”

The Arms Sales Accountability Project — launched Thursday by a consortium of 10 nongovernmental organizations, led by the Center for Civilians in Conflict, or CIVIC — seeks to change this and prevent future tragedies like the 2015 Egyptian attack by pressing the U.S. government to fundamentally alter its arms sales and security assistance policies. Through research, advocacy, and public engagement, ASAP aims to educate Americans and encourage them to press their congressional representatives to better police arms sales and transfers and prevent weaponry from ending up in the hands of abusive militaries, criminals, and terror groups; fueling conflicts around the world; and wounding and killing civilians from El Salvador to Yemen.

Images: Arms Sales Accountability Project

“The impetus behind the campaign was a real frustration with a lack of systemic reform to the very broken arms trade,” wrote Ari Tolany, the U.S. program manager at CIVIC. “Despite very clear recommendations, including from within government, that more publicly accessible information is critical, we’ve seen a weakening of congressional oversight and a collapse in transparency measures. When you have decades of evidence of regimes using U.S. weapons to silence dissent and protest or when you watch the government keep selling weapons to forces who use U.S. bombs to strike schools and hospitals, it’s clear that piecemeal reforms aren’t enough. That’s the purpose of the campaign—to push for stronger oversight, transparency, and accountability for what weapons we sell where, and who uses U.S. weapons and how.”

The Intercept was given exclusive access to ASAP’s website, materials, and experts prior to the campaign’s launch.

The world is awash in weaponry. Last year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that worldwide military spending hit an all-time high of $2.1 trillion in 2021. It was the seventh consecutive year that spending increased. The United States accounted for $801 billion of that total and was responsible for 39 percent of all weapons sales. Between 2017 and 2021, the U.S. sold more arms than the next three nations — Russia, China, and France — combined.

America’s weapons consistently stoke conflicts around the world. A 2018 report by CIVIC and the Washington-based Stimson Center, another ASAP partner, found that the U.S. had delivered arms to 27 of 34 countries at war in 2016. A 2022 analysis by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, also an ASAP member, found that roughly two-thirds of current conflicts — 34 out of 46 — involve one or more parties armed by the U.S. Of those U.S.-supplied nations at war, 15 received $50 million or more worth of U.S. arms between 2017 and 2021. In recent years, there has also been a clear association between U.S.-made weapons and human rights abuses in Cameroon and Nigeria; the spread of arms to terrorist groups like the Islamic State and criminal gangs in Central America; and the deaths of children in Yemen.


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Biden made the latter country a foreign policy priority even before he won the White House. After Trump vetoed a 2019 bipartisan congressional resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war there, the Biden-Harris campaign pledged their administration would “not check its values at the door to sell arms.” Indeed, Biden’s first foreign policy speech included a promise to halt assistance for Saudi-led “offensive operations” in Yemen. Since then, though, the U.S. has continued to sell weapons to the Saudis and their partners; when Sen. Bernie Sanders sought late last year to introduce a war powers resolution aimed at blocking U.S. support for that war, the White House pushed back, threatening that Biden’s aides would recommend a veto, and Sanders quickly withdrew his resolution.

“The administration has continued to maintain that no ‘offensive weapons’ have been transferred to Saudi Arabia, justifying sales on this offensive/defensive distinction,” said CIVIC’s Tolany. “There’s no consistent definition or policy application of what constitutes a ‘defensive weapon,’ so it’s a distinction without a difference.” As a result, the United States remains an integral party to a conflict that has killed, directly and indirectly, an estimated 377,000 people since 2015, left almost 25 million Yemenis in need of aid, and created what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

SANA'A, YEMEN - JANUARY 10: Yemeni displaced children affected by the cold weather are seen outside their shelters at an internally displaced camp on January 10, 2023 near Amran province, Yemen. According to the Yemeni executive unit for managing camps for the displaced, as a result of the severe cold in the past two months, 7 children died in a displacement camp in Yemen's northeastern province of Marib. Yemen's conflict is entering its eighth year, leading the humanitarian situation across the country to a further exacerbate with more than 23.4 million people (including 12.9 million children) needing humanitarian assistance and protection. The war forced more than 4.3 million internally displaced people since 2015, which put Yemen remains home to one of the largest internal displacement crises globally. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images.)

Yemeni children suffer during cold weather at a camp for Yemen’s internally displaced on Jan. 10, 2023, near Amran province, Yemen.

Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

Sales to Saudi Arabia and Egypt are not, however, anomalies. Tolany explained that the quantity and recipients of U.S. foreign military sales in 2022 and 2023 show little substantive difference between Biden and his predecessors.

“U.S. law recognizes that security assistance, including arms sales, may be beneficial in advancing U.S. national security interests,” wrote Binder of POMED, another ASAP partner organization. “But it also directs the government to provide assistance so that it ‘will promote and advance human rights and avoid identification of the United States… with governments which deny to their people internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.’” It has, however, become increasingly difficult to track U.S. arms transfers and security assistance — and therefore almost impossible to guarantee that the U.S. is living up to its legal requirements to restrict weapons sales to bad actors.

With many arcane programs, a confusing lexicon, and almost impenetrable processes, it’s never been easy for the public to understand the intricacies of U.S. arms sales and transfers. Today, even experts complain they’re unable to find basic information about, let alone assess, the Pentagon and State Department’s many programs. “Through the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, there has been a diminishing level of access to the necessary information,” said Elias Yousif, a research analyst with the Stimson Center’s Conventional Defense Program, noting that previously accessible reports are now, by default, often classified or otherwise unavailable.

Yousif drew specific attention to so-called 655 reports, which summarize the direct commercial sales of military weapons and equipment. Prior to 2010, these reports included detailed information about the type of defense articles exported to a specific country, but they now contain little more than the value and quantity of transferred items without explaining what they actually are. “It’s so aggregated as to be useless,” Yousif told The Intercept. “And this is a trend across all security cooperation reporting.”

The Defense Department’s 2022 “Justification for Security Cooperation Program and Activity Funding” request included, for example, a summary table that provided combined budgetary data for several capacity building authorities, including the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative, making it impossible to disentangle even how many dollars are allocated to each program, let alone each country. “If you’re telling me that this funding is going to the ‘Africa Region,’ I have no idea what that means. It makes a big difference if it’s going to Egypt or Mali or if it’s going to someplace else,” Yousif said. “This is especially true for researchers trying to understand the impacts of security assistance.”

The State Department also regularly approves arms transfers that fall below thresholds that trigger a notification to Congress under the Arms Export Control Act. Experts say that these sales can be considerable but are almost completely unknown. A 2020 inspector general’s report provided a rare glimpse of the scale of transfers to just two countries, mentioning “4,221 below-threshold arms transfers involving Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with an estimated total value of $11.2 billion since January 2017.”

The war in Ukraine has proven that transparency is possible when it comes to foreign arms transfers, with the White House making regular announcements about military aid packages and providing detailed breakdowns of the exact weapons, ammunition, and equipment provided. “The reporting by the administration of arms transfers to Ukraine has been imperfect but it’s still a really good example of what’s possible if you are trying to be transparent,” Yousif said. “If you can provide that level of information for a country that’s in an active war against a great power then you should be able to provide similar levels of transparency for Egypt or anywhere else. There’s been a lively public debate about arming Ukraine, but it’s impossible to do for other countries because transfers frequently occur below the radar.”

“There’s been a lively public debate about arming Ukraine, but it’s impossible to do for other countries because transfers frequently occur below the radar.”

The Arms Sales Accountability Project wants to make that level of transparency the norm. Most Americans want more oversight too. A 2022 nationwide poll by the University of Maryland found bipartisan support — 68 percent of Democrats, 61 percent of independents, and 56 percent of Republicans — for requiring all U.S. weapons sales over $14 million to be approved by a congressional majority. Comparable levels of support are found in both deep blue and deep red congressional districts.

The White House did not respond to questions about the attack that wounded April Corley, its 2021 agreement with the Egyptian government for refurbishing Apache helicopters, or how that deal squares with Biden’s professed foreign policy goals. The administration also failed to say if it would agree to levels of transparency for other countries that are akin to those employed in arms transfers to Ukraine.

On Thursday, the Biden administration is expected to unveil a long-delayed overhaul of its arms export policy. In early briefings to experts, U.S. officials indicated that the Conventional Arms Transfer policy would place a greater emphasis on human rights, but the White House did not respond to The Intercept’s questions about whether future arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be affected.

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not reply to multiple queries by The Intercept. Since 1978, the United States has provided Egypt with over $50 billion in military and $30 billion in economic assistance. In May 2022, the State Department approved a possible foreign military sale of TOW “heavy assault” missiles and related equipment to Egypt for $691 million. And just last month, the U.S. Army awarded Boeing a $426 million contract to produce 12 new CH-47F Chinook helicopters for the Egyptian Air Force.

The State Department declined to comment for this article.

“This administration, like its predecessors, prefers to do arms sales out of the public eye,” wrote Rieser, the Senate Appropriations Committee senior staffer. “The role of Congress should be to [ensure] that doesn’t happen and that decisions are made in the open, subject to public scrutiny, to the maximum extent practicable. Given the quantity of armaments provided and sold around the world, people should know who is getting what and for what reasons, and be able to weigh the pros and cons.”
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