Top 5 Questions for Ashton Carter’s Confirmation Hearing | National Security Network

Later this week, the Senate is scheduled to consider Ashton Carter’s nomination for Secretary of Defense. New leadership at the Pentagon provides an opportunity for policy changes that require careful thought and effective dialogue with Congress. The nomination hearing can begin this process by digging into some of the critical questions facing the Department of Defense and its role in foreign policy, including the future of Overseas Contingency Operations funding, fiscal discipline at the Pentagon, the way forward on the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, the fight against the Islamic State, and potential changes with U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine. On these critical issues to the future of U.S. defense policy, key questions include:

With the Oversees Contingency Operations (OCO) budget having become a slush fund to pay for base budget functions, what will Carter do to stop it and restore fiscal discipline at the Pentagon? The Department of Defense is expected to ask for $51 billion in OCO funds, originally intended to pay for wars. But in past years, the Pentagon and Congress has transferred billions of dollars from OCO back to the base budget in order to skirt the Budget Control Act cap, which does not apply to OCO accounts. Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments explains, “The incentive…is to reclassify anything you can as being OCO funding.” He continues, “How much base budget funding is DoD actually getting through the OCO appropriations? If it’s to the tune of $30 billion or so per year, as this data would suggest, then that largely offsets the reductions they’ve had.” Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concern about OCO abuse. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) said in a past budget report that the “Abuse of the OCO/GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] cap adjustment is a backdoor loophole that undermines the integrity of the Budget process.” Even Republicans from the House Armed Services Committee have expressed concern that “the Department of Defense is accepting high levels of risk in continuing to fund non-contingency related activities through the OCO budget.” [Todd Harrison via Reuters, 1/30/15. Budget Committee Report for FY 2015. Chairman’s Mark, Sec. 332]

How will Carter steer the Pentagon to realize billions in savings from inefficient practices that could be reinvested in combat power? The Department of Defense is sending a budget to Congress that breaks the spending caps and would trigger another round of sequestration while not fully pursuing savings that could release enormous fiscal pressure. In a recent report, the Defense Business Board analyzed DOD’s inefficient business practices and found “more than 1 million people [contractors] working in the DoD’s human resources, health care, financial, logistics, acquisition and property management fields” for an annual cost of about $100 billion. “By renegotiating contracts with vendors, offering early retirements and retraining employees to be more efficient, the building could save about $125 billion between fiscal 2016 and 2020, or about $25 billion a year,” Defense News reported. Additionally, “Those savings could then be pumped back into the force, the board claims, and would equal the funding it takes to field 50 Army brigades, 10 Navy carrier strike groups or 83 Air Force F-35 fighter wings.” [Defense News, 1/23/15]

How will Carter transfer cleared detainees from Guantanamo Bay and work towards closing the detention facility? Congressional conservatives have proposed new legislation that would freeze the transfer of all individuals from Guantanamo Bay for the next two years, including the 54 individuals cleared for release. Advocates of the bill have justified the measure by citing inaccurate statistics about recidivism and have seized on a recent report that a transferred detainee attempted to contact “suspected Taliban associates,” despite the fact that the individual is unable to travel and is kept under surveillance in Qatar under the terms of his transfer. “What I can say with confidence is this individual has not returned to the battlefield, this individual is not allowed to travel outside Qatar, and this individual has not engaged in any physical violence,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday. Claims that “about 30 percent” of released detainees “have reentered the fight” are false and stem from misinterpretations of a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The 30% claim includes the 12% of released detainees who have met the minimum standard to be “suspected [but not confirmed] of reengaging” in terrorist or insurgent activities, and many others who have subsequently died or been recaptured. But even these statistics are misleading; they’re skewed by significantly higher recidivism rates under the Bush Administration, before President Obama ordered a review of remaining detainees in 2009. As Cliff Sloan, former State Department Envoy for Closing Guantanamo, explained in January, “The percentage of detainees who were transferred after the Obama-era review and then found to have engaged in terrorist or insurgent activities is 6.8 percent. While we want that number to be zero, that small percentage does not justify holding in perpetuity the overwhelming majority of detainees, who do not subsequently engage in wrongdoing.” [Josh Earnest, 1/30/15. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 9/5/14. Cliff Sloan via New York Times, 1/5/15]

How can the United States effectively combat the Islamic State without being drawn into a costly quagmire? There has been a vigorous debate over the U.S. strategy to confront the Islamic State within the Administration, in Congress, and in the broader analytical community, as the United States tries to formulate a response commensurate to the threat. As Congress prepares to debate a new authorization for use of military force (AUMF) tailored to the Islamic State, it will have to heed the lessons of the overly broad 2001 AUMF and decide how to prosecute the war effectively while including reasonable limits on scope and duration of authorization. As NSN noted in a policy brief in September 2014, the 2001 law was unprecedented in its scope and any new AUMF should put in place legal parameters that hedge against mission creep and make the war subject to political assessments, while preventing the authorization from abuse by future administrations. This is all the more true now as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) suggested this weekend that the United States deploy 10,000 ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. President Obama spoke against large troop deployments in an interview broadcast on Monday. “If we don’t have inside of Iraq or inside of Syria or inside of Afghanistan both the capacity and will of people to fight for themselves, then any gains that are made eventually dissipate,” he said. “So this takes longer, but it’s the right way to do things.” This limit on troops, as well as geographic limitations and robust reporting requirements, should be made law. [Barack Obama, 2/2/15]

As the United States considers lethal aid to Ukraine, how exactly will that step compel Russia to support a negotiated solution and what are the risks of setting the stage for an even more counterproductive outcome? The United States has so far not offered lethal assistance to Ukraine, but as Russia continues to intervene in the eastern portions of the country, the Obama Administration is reportedly considering a change of policy. Former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and former Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer explain the background: “To date, the United States and European Union have responded to Russia’s aggression with economic sanctions. These have inflicted serious damage on the Russian economy but have not yet achieved their political goal: turning Moscow toward a genuine negotiated settlement. The United States has also provided military assistance to Kiev. But it amounts thus far to only $120 million and has been limited to nonlethal aid.” However, it is not clear how U.S. defensive arms would affect the order of battle. Moreover, what are the risks of becoming a co-belligerent in a war against Russia? Will deeper U.S. involvement serve as a pretense for greater Russian escalation? What impact will this course of action have on maintaining a united front with America’s partners in Europe? What specific role does providing lethal assistance to Ukraine serve in compelling Russia to support a negotiated solution? [Strobe Talbott and Steven Pifer, 1/29/15]

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