By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — US House Armed Services Committee leaders struck a skeptical — and bipartisan — tone about a $5 billion counterterrorism program proposed by President Barack Obama.
Obama first proposed the CT program, designed to help train and equip US allies to fight violent extremist groups, during a major foreign policy speech at West Point in May. Since, Republicans have criticized him for providing scant details of what he envisions with the CT program and another proposal aimed at “reassuring” European allies.
The new program was codified in a $58.6 billion overseas contingency operations (OCO) request the White House recently sent to Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, the first panel dug into the request in a public setting.
“We understand that these initiatives were levied on the [Defense] Department by the White House without coordination, and you’re now working to develop spending plans,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., told a panel of senior Pentagon officials.
“But while counterterrorism partnerships and reassuring our European allies are important and necessary, the president’s approach lacks detail and is too broad in scope,” McKeon said.
The panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, joined McKeon, as did numerous members of Obama’s own party.
“Most members of Congress are broadly supportive of building the capacity of our international partners and understand the necessity of providing a fair amount of flexibility to the department to carry out these activities,” Smith said.
“Nonetheless, the legislative proposal for the [CT program] the department submitted to the Congress can fairly be described as unconstrained — it is written so that it could be used for almost anything the department does,” Smith said, “up to and including refueling an aircraft carrier while circumventing all the normal reprogramming and transfer rules.”
HASC Vice Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, viewed as the frontrunner to replace McKeon, also criticized the proposed CT fund.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, considered another contender for HASC chairman, said, “The reason people are concerned this a slush fund” is, in part, because “the detail is lacking.”
Moments earlier, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., questioned the Pentagon witnesses on how they could prevent the account from becoming a slush fund.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work told the panel he sees a number of “checks and balances,” including a need to get White House Office of Management and Budget approval for any spending plans, which would prevent the Pentagon from “going willy-nilly” with the OCO monies.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, raised concerns that some of the requested OCO funds might go toward new initiatives that would be “duplicative” with existing programs.
Another Democrat, Rick Larsen of Washington, told Work “you’re not doing a very good job of explaining it.”
Work responded by saying the proposed CT fund would give the Pentagon greater flexibility to spend monies when crises happen around the world.
Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Adm. Sandy Winnefeld said the department “is running out of” funds allocated for CT operations under existing programs.
Larsen said lawmakers spent the last decade ensuring a number of post-9/11 CT programs function as the executive branch wanted and in a way that suited Congress.
The new proposed program, he said, “seems backward.”
Work described the aims of the proposed CT program this way: “The overall goal of the CTPF is to increase the ability of partner countries to conduct counterterrorism operations, prevent the proliferation of terrorist threats from neighboring states, and participate in multinational counterterrorism operations.”