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Why this U.S. government arms dealer resigned over weapon transfers to Israel

U.S. President Joe Biden, joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, delivers remarks on the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel in the State Dining Room of the White House October 10, 2023 in Washington, DC.  (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden, joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, delivers remarks on the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel in the State Dining Room of the White House October 10, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

For more than a decade, Josh Paul oversaw arms deals for the U.S. government. But in mid-October, he suddenly resigned.

“I resigned on October 18th because I don’t believe that U.S. arms should be provided into a context when they are going to kill thousands of civilians,” Paul says.

Under Paul’s tenure, the U.S. provided arms to numerous governments that went on to use those weapons to violate human rights, including the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Honduras.

But he says that when it comes to current arms sales to Israel, the entire process has been different.

“What was different here was that there was just no interest in the administration or in Congress in having any sort of discussion or debate, Paul says. “And therefore, there was absolutely no difference that I could make in this arms transfer process for Israel.”

Today, On Point: We’ll talk with the man who can no longer look the other way.


Josh Paul, former director in the Bureau of Political Military Affairs in the State Department, the Bureau responsible for U.S. security assistance and arms transfers. He resigned on Oct. 18, 2023, due to a policy disagreement concerning the U.S.’s continued lethal assistance to Israel.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: For 11 years, Josh Paul was a director in the State Department’s Bureau of Political Military Affairs, the office that is responsible for U.S. security assistance and arms transfers to other countries. He resigned on October 18th. During Paul’s tenure at the State Department, the U.S. provided arms to many countries around the world, including governments that have violated human rights and committed significant civilian harm, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines and Honduras.

Paul wrote in his resignation letter, quote, “In my eleven years, I have made more moral compromises than I can recall, each heavily, but each with my promise to myself in mind and intact.

I am leaving today because I believe that in our current course with regards to the continued, indeed expanded and expedited provision of lethal arms to Israel, I have reached the end of that bargain.” End quote. And Josh Paul joins us now. Josh Paul, welcome to On Point.

JOSH PAUL: Hello. Thank you very much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So in the 11 years that you’ve been in this position or were in the position at the State Department, that crosses over three administrations, right? Obama, Trump and Biden. And I understand that there was some version of a resignation letter in your desk for years. Why was it there in the first place?

PAUL: Yes, that’s correct. It was there because as you say, the transfer of arms is always a morally perilous business. There are always difficult decisions to be made and outcomes that you may not particularly agree with. And I drafted that letter and held it in my desk under the previous administration, under the Trump administration. Where, in particular, we were focused on the transfer of arms to some partners in the Middle East with autocratic governments, with poor human rights records.

And so I drafted this letter feeling that if the time ever came where I could not make a difference, I would submit it and resign. I tore it up at the end of the administration, and said, “Phew, won’t need that anymore.” Yet here I am, so maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to do.

CHAKRABARIT: Now, specifically, your job was to convince Congress to provide military grant assistance, military aid, the kind of aid that right now is going to Israel and other countries around the world, essentially to convince Congress to support the transfers. Is that correct?

PAUL: To do two things. Yes. So on the one hand, to convince Congress to provide the military grant assistance that we provide to many countries around the world, of which Israel is on an annual basis, the most significant in terms of dollar value. And to convince Congress to approve arms transfers, major arms transfers, which are notified to Congress under the law.

And then as part of that, as well, for myself to be a part of the approval process for those major arms transfers. So this is not a situation in which I was standing by and watching others do work that I had a problem with. This was a situation in which I was very actively being asked both to approve arms transfers and then to convince Congress to approve them as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So we’re going to get into that process a little bit later. But on October 7th, of course, the day that Hamas attacked Israel, killed over 1,200 took more than 200 hostages. What happened on that day? Maybe not specifically that led to your resignation, but that felt different. Because you’ve said once an Israeli request came in on that day, something felt different from the start.

What was that?

PAUL: Yes, and let’s be clear, Hamas’s attack on October 7th was an atrocity, and it was an atrocity of a scale unlike any that Israel has seen in certainly many decades. And I think Hamas therefore bears a significant amount of the blame for what has happened since then, as well as what happened on that day, of course.

So my first reaction, I think, like everyone’s, was absolute shock and dismay at the bloodshed on the ground, at the tragedies that we were seeing unfolding. My second feeling was just this sort of sickness or feeling in the pit of my stomach. Of, “Oh no, I know what’s coming next.” And we all knew what was coming next because we’ve seen this before. Again, not at the scale that we see today, either, in terms of Israel’s operations or, again, of Hamas’s attack. But it was clear that the Israeli response would be massive and result in many civilian casualties. And indeed, as those Israeli requests began to roll in, as soon as that evening, I thought to myself, “Are we going to be complicit in what is certain to be a massive loss of civilian life?”

Or is this an opportunity to say, not only is there a better way of doing this, and we shouldn’t be a part of this sort of massive loss of life, but what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years has led to this point, and it has clearly not worked, has not provided security, obviously, for Palestinians, but also for Israelis.

And so if what you’ve been doing hasn’t worked, maybe it’s time to think about doing something different.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s a very important point that I want to pick up with you a little later in the show. But you’re a very rare voice coming out of a critically important office in the State Department.

And I wonder if you could help shine a light on a little bit of the process that goes on. First of all, in emergency situations like this, when Israel began rolling in the requests, as you said, that first evening. What does that look like? How does that happen? Who receives those requests?

PAUL: Sure. So there are a couple of different channels through which military requests or requests for military equipment can come. The two main ones are through the foreign military sales process, which is a government-to-government process, in which case the ministry of defense of the partner or perhaps their embassy in Washington will reach out directly to the department of defense who will then channel those requests to the state department for review.

Or there is the direct commercial sales process, which is less transparent, I would say, to the public process, but actually accounts for about two thirds to three quarters of us arms exports and is which a U.S. company will apply to the state department for a license to export defense articles or services.

Immediately after the October 7th attacks, we started hearing from the Israeli government with outlines of what they were going to be asking for, with requests to expedite some pending cases that were already with the department for review. And these all go through a very considered process typically. The way the department is structured essentially is that for any issue, there are a number of stakeholders. So in the case of arms transfers, there is the Bureau I used to work for, Political Military Affairs, that oversees them globally. There is the Regional Bureau. In this case, the Middle Eastern Bureau, NEA.

There’s the Human Rights Bureau. And there is a process of debate and discussion that goes on in almost every case, to make sure everyone is okay based on their expertise and equities.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now Prior to October 7th, the U.S. was already the largest supplier of military assistance and equipment to Israel, more than 90% of Israeli imports which totals to, what, $3.8 billion in U. S. military aid annually to Israel.

And as folks likely know, President Biden has also requested $14.3 billion for further arms. Now, of course that request is meeting some resistance in Congress. But as far as I understand, the request includes, and perhaps also some of this equipment has been transferred already, things such as small diameter bombs, joint direct attack munition, 155-millimeter artillery shells, a million rounds of ammunition, among others.

Now, is that what Israel requested, or the United States had already had in the pipeline to send there?

PAUL: It’s a combination. And the reason for that is that in addition to the mechanisms I’ve described, the U.S. also maintains a stockpile in Israel called the War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition-Israel or WRSA-I. And this is a U.S. military stockpile theoretically for U.S. military use, in the event of a regional contingency that Israel is allowed to tap into. If the secretary of defense, U.S. secretary of defense asserts that there is a need for them to do, which was done in this case very quickly.

And so in addition to funneling its requests through the U.S. government for the regular process. Some of which require notification to Congress. There are a couple of notifications now pending before Congress, one of which now faces a joint resolution of disapproval. So we’ll see how that goes.

But in addition to those, Israel was able to draw directly from U.S. stocks, a lot of the munitions that you’ve just been describing.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So on October 7th, that evening, I presume there begins a flurry of activity, right? In the office that you were at and through other diplomatic channels, between the United States and Israel and the Defense Department.

You resigned because you say the process was different versus normal protocol, when it came to U.S. arms sales to other countries around the world. What’s different?

PAUL: What’s different is the absence of debate. As I said, there’s always been discussion, under the previous administration, under previous administrations about requests when there are concerns, whether it be myself raising them, others within the department, frequently the Human Rights Bureau. What was different here is that there was no space or time for those debates.

A request would come in, at 10 o’clock in the morning, and they’d say, “We need to get this issued and authorized by three o’clock in the afternoon.” And I tried, the week after October 7th, to raise some of the concerns we’ve just been discussing, about the moribund policy, about the risk of civilian casualties.

And it was met with silence or directions just to set those concerns aside and to move forward.

CHAKRABARTI: Did you hear the argument that there was no time for the normal discussion, because of the emergency situation in Israel?

PAUL: So no one made that argument specifically. I think that argument could be made, except that, of course, Israel has significant stockpiles of arms for its own, in its own stockpiles, and it had the access to the WRSA-I stockpile.

So the idea that there is some urgency to some of the requests we were getting, I think, was more premised on the political, and I know this sounds cynical, but on the political opportunity. On the sense that the barn doors were now open, no one was going to raise concerns or object, as they had in the past, in the context of immediately post October 7th.

And I think we see that reflected as well in the president’s request for supplemental funding. You were just requesting, there’s $4 billion in there for Iron Beam, which is a laser air defense system that doesn’t exist yet. This is funding requests for developmental funding. How can that be an emergency?

CHAKRABARTI: Huh. So why do you think this was different this time? What do you think the reasoning was? I think, first of all, there was a natural and emotional response to what happened on October 7th. I think, as well, once that response was there, it was very difficult, particularly for senior officials, to push back on it, no matter what they felt.

Criticism of Israel is often a third rail in American politics, and certainly no less for those who have to go before the Senate or imagine a career in which they will eventually be Senate confirmed. So I think for all of those reasons, it was difficult for anyone to say no.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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