The US pours around $1.3 billion into the Egyptian military each year, financing its massive arsenal of US-made weapons: F-16s, Apache helicopters, M1A1 tanks, and a flood of small arms, missiles, and equipment. Strict requirements are in place to keep tabs on where exactly such aid goes and to make sure weapons don't fall into the hands of human rights abusers.
But the State Department and the Department of Defense don't have a fully functioning systems to track the flow of weapons, according to a report released to the public last week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that examines the past five years of US security support for Egypt.
The GAO described how the Egyptian government stymied or delayed efforts to monitor US-furnished hardware such as stinger missiles, night vision equipment, and riot control gear. Additionally, it found that the State Department lacks a rigorous protocol to ensure that US equipment doesn't find its way into the hands of Egyptian units flagged as human rights abusers, even as the State Department has itself criticized Egypt's rights record.
The weak vetting procedures suggest that the State Department may be running afoul of the so-called "Leahy Law," an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act named after Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, which tasks State with keeping equipment out of the hands of units guilty of gross human rights violations.
A longtime critic of US military aid to Egypt, Leahy told VICE News that the new GAO report confirmed many of his suspicions about lax oversight.
"This report confirms what I and others have suspected for some time, that the Leahy Law is not being implemented as it should be in Egypt," he said. "There is no excuse for providing aid without adequate monitoring of its use by the security forces of a repressive government in a country where abuses are often reported, but almost never credibly investigated or punished."
Congressman Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, requested the report along with Republican Congressmen Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. "This troubling report details a security assistance program in Egypt that is not in full compliance with established US government policy," Connolly said. "Furthermore, it is apparent from this report that the Egyptian government has routinely hindered efforts by the State Department and the Department of Defense to ensure that US security assistance is being used for its intended purposes and not facilitating the brutal crackdown on human rights we are witnessing in [President Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi's Egypt."
Over the past five years, the US has provided Egypt with more than $6.5 billion in security assistance, the vast majority of it in the form of cash that Egypt must spend on US-made arms.
US law requires that this security assistance be subject to a complex regime of vetting, tracking, and end-use monitoring — a process designed to ensure that the weapons are used properly and only by approved security forces.
The level of oversight varies. For certain types of assistance, such as commercial purchases of riot control gear from a US company, the State Department merely asks the Egyptian government for a written report. But when the Egyptian government uses US money to buy more serious systems such as stinger missiles, the equipment should be subject to in-person inspections by US personnel in Egypt.
Security assistance is also subject to human rights vetting. The US Senate requires all units trained by the US to be screened for "credible" and "gross" human rights abuses, and US equipment is supposed to be kept from units suspected of violations.
The GAO report found that the human rights vetting has significant "weaknesses" and "gaps," raising the possibility that US is directly funding human rights abuses in Egypt.
The department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the GAO report.
"We welcome the work of the GAO and we're obviously — we take the report seriously," said State Department spokesperson John Kirby at a pubic briefing on Friday. "We accept the GAO's recommendations for strengthening end-use monitoring, and we intend to utilize available programs to help improve the completeness and timeliness of responses from the Egyptian Government."
Revelations about the dysfunctional arms-tracking system is worrying human rights advocates.
"This is really problematic in a country like Egypt," Sarah Margon, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said following the GAO report's release. "They may well be using US equipment for the wrong purposes. You have a government that's increasingly using its military institutions to crack down on civilians."
The report covers the period beginning with the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 through to the current regime led by Sisi, the former head of the country's armed forces. Though the US briefly suspended military assistance in 2013, for the past five years Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of US military aid next to Israeli. Over this span, human rights organizations have documented a steady stream of abuses: thousands of forced disappearances, rampant torture at the hands of security forces, violent crackdowns on demonstrations, and a harsh counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai Peninsula, where journalism and human rights monitoring are banned.
The State Department's own annual rights assessments routinely note that Egyptian security forces are complicit in human rights abuse.
"Given the magnitude of US aid to Egypt, it's impossible to imagine that it's not going to units that have been implicated in human rights abuses," said Lora Lumpe, advocacy director for security sector governance at the Open Society Foundation. "At present, the US apparently has no idea where the weapons it finances actually go."
Some of the uncertainty appears to stem from a reluctance on the part of Egyptian officials to cooperate with their US counterparts. In one instance outlined in the report, the Egyptian government ignored a communication by the US Embassy in Cairo that asked about the use of US-manufactured riot-control gear, including rubber bullets, and smoke grenades. Egyptian security forces often use such riot control to break up peaceful demonstrations, which are currently illegal in Egypt without official government permission.
Instead of raising a red flag, however, the embassy reported back to Washington that the equipment had been adequately accounted for.
The State Department did block training for a handful of Egyptian units suspected of rights violations between 2011 and 2013, the year that the Egyptian military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in a coup. But the US has not rejected a single Egyptian military unit for training since then. Over the five-year period covered in the report, State vetted 5,500 individuals or units in the Egyptian security forces and refused a total of 18. But it's not clear what portion of Egyptian security forces did not receive any vetting at all — that number was excluded from the public version of the report at the request of the State Department.
The flow of US arms flowing into the country — coupled with a weak monitoring system, and an often uncooperative Egyptian government — has made insulating US weapons from human rights violations nearly impossible, human rights advocates say.
"The system is broken," said Raed Jarrar, a government relations manager at the American Friends Services Committee who has been pushing for security assistance reform for the past five years. "There has to be an intervention to fix it. It's not going to fix itself."
In his remarks on Friday, Kirby asserted that the State Department is "in complete compliance with requirements for end-use monitoring in Egypt." But the GAO found that this effort is alarmingly inadequate in Egypt. Its report says that the State Department drafted memos promising that US equipment would not find its way into the hands of human rights abusers without establishing a thorough vetting system to back that up.
"State does not have policies or procedures specifically requiring vetting of Egyptian security forces slated to receive U.S.-funded equipment," the report found. "For Egypt, State uses memos to attest to its compliance with the Leahy laws for equipment provided to Egyptian security forces. While the memos declare State's compliance with the Leahy laws, State officials acknowledged that there is no required process used to support the statements in the memos."
While Egypt receives an outsized portion of military aid, there doesn't appear to be a parallel investment in human rights and arms monitoring. The GAO found that staffing shortages at the US Embassy in Cairo hampered weapons monitoring. US officials failed to maintain records of previous inspections, and the State Department didn't use the approved department database to log human rights abuses.
"As President al Sisi continues to crack down on dissent, it is all the more necessary for the State Department to do its job and apply the Leahy Law as intended," said Leahy. "The law can protect American taxpayers and uphold American values by preventing our aid from being used to commit abuses, and by encouraging governments to hold perpetrators accountable."
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