This Tool Exposes How U.S. Security Assistance Is Being Spent Overseas
By Colby Goodman
As the humanitarian situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate, the international community is increasingly questioning the involvement of external government actors there. Particularly under the microscope is the U.S. government, whose support to Yemen over the past decade has largely been in the form of military and police aid to fight al-Qaeda. Despite this scrutiny, however, the lack of transparency in U.S. security cooperation hasn’t received the attention it deserves.
Since 9/11, U.S. security assistance has surged to $17 billion per year. Much of this is supplied to unrepresentative, sectarian governments that use it to consolidate their grip on power and clamp down on dissent. Yemen is one such example—a country in which hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been squandered in failed attempts to work with an undemocratic regime to stamp out terrorism.
While there are many reasons for these failures, the lack of adequate transparency and oversight around U.S. security assistance is an important one. Unlike U.S. military aid funded by the State Department, security assistance is increasingly funded by the Defense Department and comes with few public reporting requirements. The lack of data on security assistance to foreign countries makes it difficult for government officials and the public to get a clear picture of the U.S. government’s activities in conflict regions.
Having a clear picture of U.S. security assistance is critical for ensuring it is not misused. As a recent report showed, the U.S. government took a particularly risky approach to providing counterterrorism aid to Yemen under former President Saleh. This assistance included tactical military training and weapons for Yemeni security forces that were loyal to the regime.
Instead of effectively addressing al-Qaeda, however, these forces helped Saleh secure power, sometimes violently, undermining the country’s stability. Following the fall of Saleh in 2011, the United States continued its cooperation with Yemen’s security apparatus. Very little is known about this assistance, hindering an informed public debate about the United States’ involvement in Yemen.
This and other related gaps in public information prompted the Center for International Policy to create the Security Assistance Monitor (SAM) in 2014. SAM is the first and most comprehensive resource housing all publicly available official data on U.S. security assistance in one place. Drawing upon hard-to-get government sources, its interactive online databases cover military aid, economic aid, arms sales, and military training. It provides journalists, civil society, and policymakers in the United States and abroad with key information needed to conduct oversight.
The databases are searchable by country, region, and subregion. In many cases, users can see the specific purpose of the aid. In 2014, for instance, the database shows that the U.S. provided $17.5 million to Yemen for an unmanned aerial system. Also, SAM’s database on training provides highly specific information on some of the recipients, which can help identify aid to particularly problematic security force units.
Users can also see how many bombs and missiles the United States has authorized for sale to Saudi Arabia. This is particularly important given the mounting evidence of grave human rights violations committed by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. An investigation by Human Rights Watch found that at least two deadly airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition used munitions supplied by the U.S. One attack on a town in northwestern Yemen killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children. There have been concerns about several other attacks as well.
The lack of transparency around U.S. drone strikes in Yemen appears to have caused significant public opposition to American-led efforts in the country. As SAM highlighted in a country profile, Yemen’s parliament passed a nonbinding motion calling on President Hadi to ban the United States from using drone strikes after civilians were killed. In response, the United States could have provided information to the Yemeni parliament on its strategy for using drone attacks and engaged them in a conversation about the benefits and costs of such approaches. It did not.
While increasing the transparency of U.S. security assistance and engagement will not necessarily prevent the United States from supplying assistance to security forces that seek only to support officials in power, it’s a critical first step toward broader understanding and oversight. By increasing awareness of U.S. assistance among officials and citizens alike, more analysis can be done to identify its pitfalls and failures and improve U.S. efforts.
SAM’s online databases are helping to create a broader analysis, but more government transparency is needed. Without it, future U.S. efforts to address terrorism in fragile countries like Yemen will continue to be counterproductive, and at times, disastrous.
The Center for International Policy is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.
Colby Goodman is acting director for the Security Assistance Monitor.