By Tony Bertuca
Top-ranking Pentagon officials are defending the $58.6 billion overseas contingency operations request against claims from lawmakers that it has become a “slush fund.”
Critics have singled out the proposal’s $5 billion request for a new Counterterrorism Partnership Fund (CTPF) in Africa and $1 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI).
Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld and DOD Comptroller Michael McCord told the House Armed Services Committee on July 16 that the OCO request was mostly geared toward operations in Afghanistan, with some of it intended for non-Afghanistan activities that indirectly supported the effort. Meanwhile, President Obama’s new $5 billion CTPF and $1 billion ERI were needed to give DOD “flexibility” to address the counterterrorism operations in Africa — $500 million of which would train and equip Syrian rebels — and Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
“We do not believe that this is a slush fund that will allow us to just go willy-nilly,” Work said. “We think there are going to be all sorts of checks and balances.”
However, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the committee’s ranking member and an Obama administration ally, criticized the Pentagon and the White House for what he said was a haphazard request to create vague pots of cash without restrictions or parameters.
“My staff tells me . . . if you wanted to take this money and use it to refuel an aircraft carrier there is nothing in this language that stops you from doing that,” he said. “We’ve got to fence it in somehow. My understanding is it’s not terribly well fenced.”
Aside from the structural issues behind the proposal, Smith said it was “a concern that it wasn’t as well thought-out as it should have been.”
McCord attempted to defend the requests by saying it was not DOD’s intent to spend the funds on anything other that what was broadly described in the administration’s proposal, but Smith countered that DOD’s intent was irrelevant.
“It’s a piece of legislation,” he said. “I’m telling you this is really, really poorly drafted in terms of narrowing it down. This has got to be fixed.”
McCord said the Pentagon was looking forward to working with Congress to make the terms of the request more clear if that was what was required.
Smith said he had similar concerns with how DOD was selling its plan to train and equip “vetted” Syrian rebels opposed to the regime of Bashar al Assad.
“If the White House is going to push a policy like this they have got to frigging push the policy,” he said. “Sell it. Because if you don’t, there ain’t no way we’re going to pass it.”
Other committee members were more harsh.
“I don’t know why you need this money; it’s nothing but a slush fund anyway,” Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) said. “I do not understand how you can sit here and ask for this money with such waste, fraud and abuse going on in Afghanistan. We got no more business going into Syria than I do walking from here to China.”
Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) took issue with the proposal that CTPF money remain active for three years and could be transferred anywhere within DOD.
“It seems like this is yet another slush fund,” she said. “I support the larger strategy for this money, but I’m also very, very concerned about its specifics. This seems like a large amount of money to have that little oversight.”
Work said transfers would occur after Congress was provided with 15-day notification. “We do not consider this a slush fund,” he said. “We want to work with Congress to provide us flexibility in authorities that we already have to respond to a very, very fast-moving situation.”
Winnefeld said the CTPF, and in particular the strategy for training and equipping Syrian rebels, was designed quickly. “This has to do, candidly, with clocks,” he said. “The clock for putting the fine details on the approach here and getting it approved where it needs to be approved, and the congressional clock and the need to have hearings — those clocks did not match up very well. I hate it, but it is where it is right now.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) took issue with DOD officials’ claims that the ERI was likely to be a temporary expenditure if it was really intended to reassure NATO allies against Russian aggression.
“Russia obviously has declared itself an adversary,” he said. “Certainly you don’t believe that Russia’s new posture is temporary. You do believe that this is going to have to be sustained, right?”
Winnefeld said the activities scheduled to be carried out under the ERI — increasing NATO exercises, sustaining an armored brigade combat team presence, training partner nations and weapons storage — were included in the OCO request because the base budget request had already been submitted to Congress in February. Some of those activities, he said, would likely move into the base budget request next year.
“Some of those are going to be enduring,” he said. “We’re going to have to, perhaps, pull those in next year’s base budget submission.”
Work agreed with Turner that “what’s happened in Europe has caused us to look longer-term over what our investments will be.”
While most of the debate was focused on the CTPF and the ERI — less than 10 percent of the total OCO request — some lawmakers questioned the DOD officials on what would happen if the supplemental budget simply disappeared given that the congressional criticism it has endured.
“You will have a broken force at the end of the day,” Winnefeld said. “We will not be able to execute even close to what the strategy calls for us to do.”