Members of Congress need to pay attention when President Obama delivers a speech: He could be urging support for an initiative they’ve never heard of.
During a commencement address to West Point cadets last month, Mr. Obama called on Congress to fund a new $5 billion counterterrorism plan to “train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines” of the war on terror.
Sounds like something Congress could get behind, if they only knew what it was.
The staff for the Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, has yet to be briefed by or receive details from the White House about the new initiative. The committee has been drafting the National Defense Authorization Act, which presumably would fund the initiative from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget.
The committee has put on hold approval of the OCO budget until the White House provides details about its $79 billion placeholder request. Senior staffers say they haven’t been told by the White House when that briefing will take place.
Typically, the Armed Services Committee works hand-in-hand with the administration in preparing the Defense Department budget, with any big-ticket items or new initiatives sought by the White House communicated early in February.
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But no mention of the counterterrorism fund was made by the White House until the president delivered his speech in May. (Mr. Obama mentioned the initiative again during a brief address Wednesday on the U.S. response to violence in Iraq.)
In addition, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations — which also deals with and funds counterterrorism efforts — has been left in the dark.
Similarly, senior budgeting officials in the State Department and the Pentagon also were oblivious to the new counterterrorism fund before the president’s announcement.
Ned Price, a press secretary for the National Security Council, told The Washington Times in an email:
“The president in his West Point speech announced that he would ask Congress to support a new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, intended to allow us to more effectively train, equip, advise and assist our allies in our shared fight against terrorism. The idea for this fund evolved out of months of coordination from across senior levels of departments and agencies. It would be premature to address questions regarding authorities or the mechanics of funding before the president sends his official request to Congress. As a general principle, however, the White House announced, concurrent with the president’s speech, that the fund would build on existing tools and authorities to allow the administration to respond to evolving terrorist threats.
“The funding will be included in the forthcoming OCO request, which is still being developed,” Mr. Price said.
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Mr. Obama blindsided Congress and some agencies in his West Point announcement of the new initiative at a time he was weathering criticism for being weak in combating terrorism. Only now does the White House appear to be scrambling to decide what the counterterrorism fund is about.
“My sense is this proposal was put together at the very senior level in the White House and was not vetted by any of the interagency task forces,” said Gordon Adams, who served as the top national security budget official in the Clinton White House.
“The administration was looking for something to announce in his speech and knew it wanted more money to throw at terrorism,” Mr. Gordon said. “What they’re doing now is creating the content that wasn’t there when the president announced it. They literally have to create something.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the devil is in the details, expressing frustration that those details haven’t been revealed by the White House — especially as they’re closing in on finalizing budgets before the August recess. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Staffers and officials familiar with the issue said they don’t know whether the counterterrorism funds would be used to train and equip Syrian rebels, pay for airstrikes in Iraq, help Ukraine defend itself against Russia or provide humanitarian aid — or which Third World countries would be chosen for support given Mr. Obama’s stated aim of aiding nations from South Asia to Africa.
“Not surprisingly, the White House still hasn’t consulted Congress or provided a legislative proposal nearly three weeks after it was announced by the president at West Point,” Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said in an email. “It’s clear the threat from al Qaeda and other terrorist groups is growing, and more must be done to stop their spread.
“However, I still have unanswered questions about the size and scope of the proposal, including what, if any, new legislative authorities may be required. I intend to get answers to these questions when the Armed Services Committee receives the request.”
A senior administration official who took questions from reporters after the president’s announcement on May 28 said that any effort to train the Syrian rebels would be funded via the new initiative if Congress authorizes it.
According to a transcript released by the White House, the official said the initiative is affordable because of the president’s decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan.
“We want a fund like this precisely so we have flexibility, so that if we need to surge particular resources to a particular counterterrorism partner, we can do that,” the official said.
A White House fact sheet says the fund will be used for three broad purposes: to expand, train and equip activities; to facilitate and enable the counterterrorism capabilities of our partners on the front lines; and to support efforts to counter violent extremism and terrorism ideology.
Still, much needs to be sorted out.
Iraq and Mali
Currently, there are at least four other lines of funding within the budget that have similar goals as the president’s new counterterrorism fund. Some officials are worried the new program may interfere with these ongoing measures, while others see this as an opportunity to better fund those initiatives with a fresh influx of capital.
“I can’t evaluate a proposal just based on a single speech and a one-page fact sheet; the president needs to send the actual request to us,” Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an email. “It is unclear to me what specifically the president wants to accomplish that our other counterterrorism programs aren’t achieving.”
Already included in the defense budget is the so-called “1206” fund, which is capped at $350 million per fiscal year and is set aside to “train and equip foreign military forces for two specified purposes — counterterrorism and stability operations and foreign security forces for counterterrorism operations,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
Additionally, the “1208” fund was authorized by Congress in 2005 to provide authority and funds for U.S. special operations to “train and equip regular and irregular indigenous forces to conduct counterterrorism operations,” according to the research service.
There also are several joint funds administered by the State Department and the Pentagon, such as the Global Security Contingency Fund, that aim to combat terrorism around the world.
The administration hasn’t specified whether the $5 billion would be added to these existing programs or be set aside as a separate fund, said Mr. Adams, currently a foreign policy professor at American University.
He said that Congress granting the funding under the vague guidance so far provided by the White House would be like issuing the president a blank check.
Meanwhile, some senior congressional staffers and administration officials question the effectiveness of the initiative. The U.S. has a poor track record in arming and training foreign governments to fight terrorism or to defend themselves without U.S. assistance, they say. Case in point: Iraq.
The U.S. has spent nearly a decade and $25 billion to train and equip the Iraqi army to defend the nation against radical insurgents. Last week, Sunni militants seized Iraqi cities nearly as far south as Baghdad in a few days and with little resistance.
In another example, U.S. special operations troops were assigned to train and assist forces in Mali to defend their country. In 2012 those U.S.-trained forces were overthrown by Islamist militants.
“We’re throwing another $5 billion at something we’ve proven we don’t do very well,” said Mr. Adams. “Once you’re in for a dime, you’re in for a dollar. You become, to some degree, responsible for the effective performance of that force. If they fail, you’re then faced with a draconian choice: Do we have to go in and save them? We’re not necessarily creating states; we’re creating obligations.”