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State Department Official Resigns, Says Israel Is Using U.S. Arms to Massacre Civilians in Gaza

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We speak with Josh Paul, a former State Department official who resigned last month to protest continued arms sales to Israel amid its bombardment of Gaza, writing in a viral letter that one-sided U.S. support for Israel is “shortsighted,” “destructive” and “contradictory.” Media reports say many others inside the State Department are equally frustrated with the U.S. role in the conflict. Paul tells Democracy Now! he tried to raise his concerns with his superiors but found “no appetite for that discussion” and that unlike all other U.S. arms sales that take humanitarian concerns into account, Israel gets a blank check. Paul says the overall message inside the Biden administration is: “Don’t question the policy because it’s coming from the top.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Amidst growing international condemnation of Israel’s monthlong assault on Gaza, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is back in Israel today to meet with Israeli officials, where he continued to emphasize Israel’s right to defend itself following the October 7th Hamas attack. Meanwhile, the White House continues to dismiss calls for a full ceasefire, saying instead any pauses in fighting should be temporary and localized.

This comes as the independent news outlet In These Times reports the White House has requested an unprecedented loophole in arms spending to allow it to, quote, “be able to conduct arms deals with Israel in complete secrecy, without oversight from Congress or the public,” unquote, “even as experts say Israel has been using U.S.-supplied weapons to commit war crimes,” unquote.

Meanwhile, a new HuffPost report cites five current and one recently departed State Department official who say their, quote, “expertise and standard decision-making processes are being treated as largely irrelevant to President Joe Biden’s strategy on the war, which prioritizes support for Israel,” unquote. One official described, quote, “particular concern about the town hall for the department’s branch on human rights. Managers, who described the branch as ’State’s conscience,’ indicated that they aren’t sure if they are getting through to more senior officials.”

For more, we’re joined by Josh Paul, the State Department official who resigned last month in protest of Biden’s push to increase arms sales to Israel amidst its siege on Gaza, calling it “shortsighted,” “destructive” and “contradictory.” In his resignation letter, that went viral, Josh Paul wrote, quote, “We cannot be both against occupation, and for it. We cannot be both for freedom, and against it. And we cannot be for a better world, while contributing to one that is materially worse. … I believe to the core of my soul that the response Israel is taking, and with it the American support both for that response, and for the status quo of the occupation, will only lead to more and deeper suffering for both the Israeli and the Palestinian people — and is not in the long term American interest,” unquote. Josh Paul is former director of congressional and public affairs for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs in the State Department, which oversees arms transfers to Israel and other foreign nations.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Josh Paul.

JOSH PAUL: Thank you very much for having me. I’m glad to join you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you elaborate on why you decided to resign — you’re a veteran State Department official — why you said no?

JOSH PAUL: Yes, thank you. I decided to resign for three reasons, the first and most pressing of which is the very, I believe, uncontroversial fact that U.S.-provided arms should not be used to massacre civilians, should not be used to result in massive civilian casualties. And that is what we are seeing in Gaza and what we were seeing, you know, very soon after the October 7th horrific attack by Hamas. I do not believe arms should be — U.S.-provided arms should be used to kill civilians. It is that simple.

Secondly, I also believe that, you know, as your previous guest identified, there is no military solution here. And we are providing arms to Israel on a path that has not led to peace, has not led to security, neither for Palestinians nor for Israelis. It is a moribund process and a dead-end policy.

And yet, when I tried to raise both of these concerns with State Department leadership, there was no appetite for discussion, no opportunity to look at any of the potential arms sales and raise concerns about them, simply a directive to move forward as quickly as possible. And so I felt I had to resign.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk more about that. Talk more about what kind of dialogue goes on at the State Department and if you, for example, have met with Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, not to mention President Biden, to voice your concerns. And what about other veteran State Department officials?

JOSH PAUL: So, typically, there is a very robust policy process in the State Department for arms transfers. And there are a lot of those, right? So, we’re talking about about 20,000 arms sale cases a year that the State Department processes, which could be anything from bullets to radios to fighter jets. And for each of those, there is a lengthy process, sometimes, that looks at, you know, what are the pros and cons of the sale, what are its human rights implications. That has not happened in this context for Israel. And as I say, when I raised those concerns against the existing laws, against the existing policies, there was no appetite for that discussion.

I have not personally spoken to Secretary Blinken about this, nor, certainly, to President Biden. But I know that in the time since I left, there has been increasing discussion within the State Department, but has not led to any change of policies. In fact, as you heard earlier on your show, Vice President Harris was just saying yesterday that we will not place any conditions whatsoever on our arms to Israel. And that is unlike any arms transfer decision I’ve ever been a part of. There’s always discussion about should we condition this to address human rights issues.

AMY GOODMAN: So, who is leading this, Josh Paul? Who is preventing this? Who is suppressing all of this discussion within the State Department?

JOSH PAUL: I honestly think, in some ways, that it’s coming from the very top of the U.S. government and from the Biden White House. You know, there are many in the State Department, and across government, who have reached out to me in recent weeks, since I left, to express their support, but also to say how difficult and how horrific they are finding U.S. policy, and yet are being told, when they try to raise these concerns, “Look, you can get emotional support if you’re finding this difficult. We’ll find you something else to work on. But don’t question the policy, because it’s coming from the top.”

AMY GOODMAN: The HuffPost has this new piece that reports, “A task force on preventing atrocities did not meet until two weeks into the war, and officials say department leaders are telling them their expertise won’t affect policy.” Explain what goes on.

JOSH PAUL: So, whenever there is a crisis, as there is right now in Israel and Gaza, the department sets up a task forces or multiple task forces that are uniquely shaped to address that crisis. So, for example, in the context of an earthquake, they might bring in experts on refugee issues, on weather issues, on disease issues, you know, that sort of broad swath of people.

In the context of Gaza, they have set up a task force to look at this problem, but, according to the report you cite, it does not include the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, who are responsible for U.S. support to refugee issues. So, it is either a stunning oversight, or it is an intentional disregard for the humanity of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: At a meeting on October 26th, a State Department source told you they recalled a top official advising staff to shift their focus away from Israel-Palestine and seek to make a difference in other parts of the world?

JOSH PAUL: So, I don’t believe that that was a conversation that I had with someone, but that is in the same report in The Huffington Post that you cite, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they’re directing them not even to make comments on this, just stop talking about Israel-Palestine.

JOSH PAUL: Yes, that’s right. And I think, look, I mean, that reflects a tension or a censorship — right? — that we are seeing not only in the U.S. government. I think what’s interesting here is this censorship that has existed and expanded to colleges and universities, where you talked about the doxing. I’ve also heard from many people across the American private sector, both from the Arab American community but also more broadly, from all sorts of diverse communities, who have said, “We are afraid to speak up on this, because we are in fear of our jobs.” It’s the same climate in government. And that is just not American.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to ask you about this In These Times report that the White House has requested an unprecedented loophole in arms spending to allow it to be able to conduct arms deals with Israel in complete secrecy, without oversight from Congress or the public.

JOSH PAUL: Yeah. So, we provide Israel with $3.3 billion a year in foreign military financing, which is the State Department and U.S. government’s primary functional — primary mechanism for funding the sale of arms to other countries. Of note, you know, we typically provide — setting aside Ukraine — about $6 billion a year in foreign military financing around the world. So Israel already gets more than half of that.

The language in the supplemental request that the Biden administration set up — sent up would remove the requirement to notify Congress of any arms sales conducted under that funding. Typically, there is a process where, for any major defense sale, Congress is notified of it. And there’s actually a process prior to the formal notification where Congress gets to ask questions, poke, prod, delay, and then, if it wishes to oppose the sale, can raise a joint resolution of disapproval on the floor. What this proposal would do is, essentially, destroy all of that, remove all of that, remove that congressional oversight, remove that congressional ability to object. It is unprecedented. I have never seen anything like it. And I cannot imagine that the committees of jurisdiction are viewing it very favorably, because it is just such a damaging approach that also sets horrible precedent for other countries with whom future administrations may decide they don’t want Congress to be involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Since you were in charge of arms sales, what does this $14 billion that — well, it looks like both houses want to send it to Israel.

JOSH PAUL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s just that the House one is controversial because they want to take that $14 billion from the IRS, and also they want to sever the funding for Israel from the funding for Ukraine. And Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, says he won’t consider this bill. But it sounds like there is enough support in both houses for that extra — not the $3.8 billion or $3.3 billion yearly aid to Israel, but an extra $14 billion. You’re the expert on arms sales. What would it be used for?

JOSH PAUL: Yeah, and let me just say, I think there is, you know, almost or near-unanimous congressional support for this further military assistance to Israel. And I think what’s fascinating about that is also there’s a massive disconnect between where Congress is on these issues and where, I think, if you look at the polling, the American public are. And I think the current crisis is really crystallizing that difference. I don’t think it will make any difference in terms of the passage of this package, but it may do down the line.

With regards to this package specifically, it includes $3.5 billion in foreign military financing. Israel can draw on that to purchase essentially what it wants. And what’s unusual about this, as well, in addition to the removal of the notification, is that Israel would be entitled, under the proposal sent to Congress, to spend all of this money within its own defense industry. Israel is, of course, a top 10 exporter of arms around the world, often competing with the United States. And the idea that we will be providing funding to subsidize that competition is really unimaginable.

But on top of that, the package also provides further funding from the Defense Department side for air and missile defense for Israel, for Iron Dome. And let me be clear: My concern here is on lethal assistance to Israel. When it comes to protecting civilians from rocket attacks, I believe that they should be. I don’t believe anyone should have to live in fear of their homes — in their homes from rockets raining down on them, although I believe that’s the case whether they are in Israel under the Iron Dome or whether they are in Gaza, for example. And, of course, we never ask that question.

The funding, finally, would also include research and development funding for equipment, such as there is an experimental laser project called Iron Beam, which the U.S. and Israel are working together on, an air and missile defense system. If this is an emergency request, why are we looking at research and development for projects that have not even materialized yet? That doesn’t sound like an emergency to me. So, as with the arms transfers I saw when I was departing from the department, I think there is just a rush to push everything they can while they feel there is a window of political opportunity here where there will be no significant opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of response was there to your resignation?

JOSH PAUL: So, to my resignation, I would say there has been an overwhelming response that I have heard from folks or from colleagues inside not only in the State Department, but across the U.S. government, actually, on the Hill, in the Defense Department, in the uniformed military services, including in combatant commands around the world. People have reached out to me to say, you know, “We fully agree with you.” You know, obviously, everyone has their own personal circumstances. You know, I think if we had universal healthcare, it would make it a bit easier for people to stand up on principle. I myself am, you know, trying to figure out what I do next on healthcare. But the point is that so many people have reached out to say, “We hear you. We agree with you.”

And I think, you know, one of the things I found is that a lot of people can be in individual offices and say, “There is no — I can’t speak up, because I will lose my job. I will put my career in jeopardy. And there’s no one else here I can talk to.” And yet I’m hearing from someone else just a few desks over who is saying the same thing. So I think there really is a communications crisis, a transparency crisis within the U.S. government, and a policy crisis, because when you can’t talk about foreign policy, when you can’t debate, when you can’t criticize, you don’t end up with good policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh Paul, why was this the last straw for you? I mean, for example, if you were in charge of weapons sales, presumably you were dealing with Saudi Arabia, notoriously authoritarian. U.S. agencies concluded, even in just one case, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for this. You oversaw arms sales to them, presumably. Why Israel?

JOSH PAUL: So, let me just be clear: I was one of multiple people involved in the arms sales process. Arms sales themselves are a presidential authority that is delegated to the secretary of state, and then, through the secretary of state, to the undersecretary, who is actually responsible for approving them, for the most part. But you’re right. And as I said in my resignation letter, in my time in the department, I dealt with many morally challenging, controversial arms sales.

I think what made the difference for me here is that for all of those previous instances, even under the Trump administration, mind you, there was always room for discussion and debate and the ability to mitigate some of the worst possible outcomes, to delay sales until crises had passed, so that they weren’t contributing immediately into a humanitarian crisis, to work with Congress and be confident that once the policy debate had ended in the State Department, there would be a congressional piece to it, too. And Congress generally has stood up in the past repeatedly on matters of human rights and arms sales. What was different here was that there was none of that. There was no debate. There was no space for debate. And there was also no congressional appetite or willingness to have debate.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s going to be a major march in Washington tomorrow. Three hundred fifty people were arrested in Philly. We’re going to play some clips of a major protest in Boston that happened last night. How much does grassroots protest like this, the thousands of people who are protesting around the country, the shutdown of Grand Central by Jewish groups just last Friday night, have on the State Department, on the White House?

JOSH PAUL: So, I don’t think it has much impact on the State Department. And that’s OK, because I think policy processes are meant to happen within a policy framework, [inaudible] and the problem is they’re not happening.

I think it does have an impact on the White House. I think we’ve seen a significant change in tone in the last few weeks, not because there is a sudden deep care, frankly, for Palestinian civilian casualties on their own merits, but because there is a sense that there is a political crisis here developing for the Biden administration, that many people are saying, you know, “We’re just going to sit out the next election. We have lost faith in this White House, in this administration.” So, I think that does have an impact.

And let me also say I have found it incredibly moving, as well, to watch these protests. You know, I was up on the Hill for meetings this week and last week and came across, in one office, a sit-in that was happening, where there was a group of Jewish students singing peace songs and holding up signs that said “Save Gaza.” I found that incredibly moving. And I think it also tells Congress and it tells this administration that they are not in line with much of American public opinion. I think it’s a much-needed message.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh Paul, veteran State Department official who worked on arms deals and resigned last month in protest of a push to increase arms sales to Israel amidst the attack on Gaza, thanks so much for joining us.

JOSH PAUL: Thank you very much for having me.

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