By Nick Schwellenbach
While details on spending on specific national-security programs are sometimes kept from the public, such secrecy is not supposed to extend to Congress. Lawmakers are supposed to have detailed information on Executive-Branch activities so it can knowledgeably exercise its constitutional power of the purse.
But that is not always the reality.
Both the House armed services and appropriations committees, as well as the Senate Armed Services Committee, are seeking more information from the military’s secretive Special Operations Command, whose budget has grown markedly since 9/11. SOCOM engages in a wide variety of activities from direct actions—small-scale offensive strikes—to special reconnaissance activities to training of foreign military forces.
The U.S. government has given SOCOM lots of latitude to operate in the shadows, but it may finally be pushing the limits of what congressional overseers are willing to accept.
The House Appropriations “Committee is unable to conduct meaningful oversight of SOCOM’s budget requirements as the current justification does not include the necessary level of detail,” said the committee’s report, issued along with its Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 defense appropriations bill June 7.
Normally, a budget-justification document gives Congress details about program funding requests and the rationales for changes in funding from year to year. Since 2006, the Department of Defense has exempted SOCOM from the normal budget-justification requirements.
SOCOM’s base operation and maintenance budget – the part of its budget that pays for it to function as a fighting command (as opposed to research projects or buying new gear) – has grown 143% since the Pentagon scaled back the information made available to Congress.
“Due to the failure of the budget justification to provide such information, the Committee is unable to analyze changes and trends over time in SOCOM’s budget requirements, conduct comparative analysis with similar Department of Defense budget requirements, or have any understanding or visibility into changing requirements in the year of execution,” the House appropriators’ report says.
Both the House and Senate armed services committees also have expressed concerns about SOCOM’s murky reasoning for its plans to further expand.
SOCOM, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., is seeking money to create three new “Regional Special Operations Forces Coordination Centers” in Washington, D.C., Hawaii, and the nation of Colombia. They’d support what SOCOM chief Admiral William McRaven has dubbed a “global network of special operations forces.”
The House and Senate versions of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act would bar funding for these centers. The House version requires the Pentagon to provide “an explanation of why existing regional centers and multilateral frameworks cannot satisfy the requirements and needs of the Department of Defense and geographic combatant commands.” The Senate bill, released Tuesday, contains similar language.
The Pentagon recently gave SOCOM greater authority over special operations forces. Until recently, special operators assigned to specific areas of the world – such as the broad swath of the Middle East and southwestern Asia under the auspices of U.S. Central Command – were under their respective geographic combatant commander. SOCOM now has direct command authority over these forces. As Inside the Pentagon reported last month:
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, “before he departed,” signed a directive “that put those theater special operations commands under my combatant command,” while also reporting to the geographic combatant commands, McRaven said during a May 2 speech at the Wilson Center in Washington. Panetta was in office until late February.
A similar command relationship previously did not exist, leaving the theater special operations commands “kind of on their own” to support the regional commander, according to McRaven.
It’s telling when Republicans on the House congressional panels overseeing the U.S. military — who tend to be enamored of U.S. special forces — think there is too much secrecy. That’s when you know it’s time for a little more light to shine on this dark corner of the U.S. military.