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Congress Pushes State Department Over Misused American Tear Gas In Spending Bill

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WASHINGTON -- The 2012 omnibus spending bill released Thursday morning includes tough new language about the way American tear gas has been used against protesters in countries like Egypt and Bahrain, despite resistance from the Department of State.

Under terms laid out in the foreign operations portion of the spending bill, the State Department would have 90 days to submit a report "detailing any crowd control items, including tear gas, made available with appropriated funds or through export licenses to foreign security forces that the Secretary of State has credible information have repeatedly used excessive force to repress peaceful, lawful, and organized dissent."

The omnibus bill still needs to be formally voted on and signed by the president, but the provisions in the foreign operations section are the product of completed negotiations between ranking members.

Last month, protesters in Egypt's Tahrir Square found themselves under a barrage of tear gas for several days during demonstrations ahead of the country's first democratic elections. Many of the tear gas canisters recovered in the square bore the words "Made in the USA," prompting outrage from Egyptian protesters and American human rights groups alike.

The State Department condemned the excessive use of tear gas during the protests, and said it would look into claims that it had been used in violation of the terms of the licenses.

But the Department declined to detail the sales, and earlier this month, Amnesty International discovered that even amid the continued foment in Cairo, the Department continued to approve more shipments of suppressive materials to Egypt. One of the shipments arrived at a port in Egypt just a few days after an incident that involved tear gas attacks on protesters, sparking renewed outrage in the Egyptian press.

The tough language in the 2012 spending bill doesn't actually introduce new restrictions to the sale of tear gas or rubber bullets to suppressive regimes, but in requiring the State Department to report on the sales, it satisfies one fundamental concern of several advocacy groups.

"It's a good thing that this issue is breaking out into the open," said Sanjeev Bery, the Middle East and North Africa advocacy director for Amnesty. "It's going to force the State Department to answer these questions. The big concern is that the U.S. government is a massive funder of the Egyptian government and military, and the U.S. government should neither be funding these transfers, nor approving them."

A spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) confirmed that the senator, who has long expressed his concern about reports of misused tear gas and rubber bullets, had advocated for the language currently in the bill.

The foreign operations budget also includes a handful of specific conditions that must be met by Egypt's military before it receives the $1.3 billion in aid that the United States sends it every year.

The conditions, which had been in the Senate's version of the bill but omitted from the original House one, mean that the military must show it is fully "supporting the transition to civilian government" and other tenets of a free society before the funds would be approved.

But the bill also includes a wide provision that would allow the secretary of state to waive any of those requirements should she find it to be "in the national security interest of the United States."

Some democracy advocates were disappointed by the waiver, saying that it sent a mixed signal to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which currently rules Egypt.

"This was an opportunity for Congress to really make a statement and to let the SCAF know that we are supportive of a full transition to democracy," said Sarah Trister, of the democracy-promotion group Freedom House. "So while the language is good, it's not as good as it could be."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has long made it clear that the administration opposes imposing any conditions on aid to the Egyptian military.

"We are against conditionality," Clinton told reporters during a September meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister in Washington. "We will be working very hard with the Congress to convince the Congress that that is not the best approach to take. We believe that the long-standing relationship between the United States and Egypt is of paramount importance to both of us. We support the democratic transition, and we don't want to do anything that in any way draws into question our relationship or our support."

A State Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the conditions in the omnibus bill.

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