A US soldier instructs soldiers from Liberia (US Army)
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WASHINGTON — The White House is defending a proposed multibillion dollar counterterrorism (CT) program against questions over its need and claims it was hastily conceived.
President Barack Obama wants Congress to approve a $5 billion counterterrorism fund designed to help US officials train and equip American allies and support indigenous forces’ efforts to take out al-Qaida and associated elements from southwest Asia to northern Africa.
The proposed CT program is “intended to allow us to more effectively train, equip, advise and assist our allies in our shared fight against terrorism,” said Edward “Ned” Price, assistant press secretary and strategic communications director for the White House’s National Security Council
Republican lawmakers and national security budget sources paint a picture of the counterterrorism program’s conception that is chaotic and conjures a list of questions.
“There is still a big tug of war going on over what this is,” said one former White House budget official with knowledge of internal deliberations and who spoke anonymously to be candid. “The White House is coordinating a very informal, very ad-hoc process to figure out what in the hell this is.
“There is an intense search for what does this thing even look like?” the former official said, adding he has been told the Defense and State Departments were not consulted before Obama announced the fund late last month. “Is it train-and-equip money for Syrians rebels? Is it for humanitarian aid on the outskirts of Syria? Is it to spread among African countries?”
The former official and lawmakers said it is unclear if existing counterterrorism program authorities can simply be applied to the new effort, largely because the new fund would be included in the military’s 2015 overseas contingency operations (OCO) request.
“We’re looking at that question,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., told CongressWatch. “We’re also waiting for some briefings to take place. We’ll make that determination then.”
“I’ve got to hear the totality of the program to understand what it is,” Menendez said. “In concept, it’s something I support but I’ve got to know the specifics.”
His GOP colleagues are questioning just what Obama has in mind — and whether it’s even needed.
“I don’t know what it is!” exclaimed Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., when CongressWatch asked him about whether he would support the new CT program. “The president doesn’t say what it is!”
Armed Services and Appropriations Defense subcommittee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the new program and fund “seems like more of a political talking point than an actual solution.”
But the White House tells CongressWatch the CT partnership program is the product of a deliberative process that included multiple national security agencies.
Price said “the idea for this fund evolved out of months of coordination from across senior levels of departments and agencies.”
The former White House budget official and some lawmakers questioned whether the new CT program is needed because of the existing “1206” and “1207” initiatives.
“The capacity to do this already exists,” Graham said.
Inhofe sounded a similar note: “We already have … train and equip programs.”
“The Section 1206 program was established to build the military capacity of foreign countries to conduct counterterrorism and stabilization operations,” according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO).
And the 1207 program “was established to transfer DoD funds to state for non-military assistance related to stabilization, reconstruction, and security,” according to GAO.
Senior State Department and Pentagon officials spent years negotiating the specific authorities that govern those programs.
Republican lawmakers warned last week that Obama’s new CT program — because the OCO account is a Pentagon-controlled pot of money — could leave Foggy Bottom on the outside looking in on a new and high-profile foreign-assistance program.
The former budget official said White House, State Department and Pentagon officials are engaging in a yet-to-be-settled process of deliberations about which agency will control what, how the $5 billion will be doled out, and who will decide which countries get US funds for counterterrorism efforts.
“It’s kind of like a guy walking down the street throwing out $20 bills and everybody’s scrambling for it,” the former budget official said. “No one in Washington is going to run away from more money. So they’re all like, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll fund a way to spend it, boss.’ ”
The White House bluntly called such charges “absolutely false,” adding the program will use existing CT authorities.
“As a general matter, however, this program is envisioned to build upon the excellent cooperation between state and defense and would incorporate existing tools and authorities that have proven instrumental in our counterterrorism efforts to date,” said Price, the White House spokesman. “The charge that it would undermine such coordination is absolutely false.”
As for specifics of how the proposed $5 billion would be divvied up among US partners, Price said it would be “premature to address questions regarding authorities or the mechanics of funding” because the program “remains subject to coordination with Congress.”
To be sure, it will take some persuading by White House officials to convince some on Capitol Hill that, for Washington, the proposed CT dollars would equal a wise investment.
“The problem with the theory of a $5 billion fund,” Graham told CongressWatch, “is if you don’t have stable governments, you can’t invest.” ■