Numerous questions have emerged over President Barack Obama's proposed counterterrorism proposal. (JEWEL SAMAD/ / AFP)
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WASHINGTON — The first congressional panel to take action on a White House-proposed counterterrorism program breathed life into the effort — but also raised a slew of questions the Obama administration is struggling to answer.
The Senate Appropriations Committee refused to approve the $5 billion the administration wants for the CT program, which is aimed at training and equipping American allies to fight violent extremist groups. Instead, the panel approved $1.9 billion in seed money.
In trimming the White House’s request by over half, the panel handed President Barack Obama a partial victory. The proposed allocation amounts to the panel’s approval — if lukewarm — of the program. But it also underscored members’ frustrations with how the administration has handled the rollout of the CT program.
A report accompanying a 2015 Pentagon spending bill the panel approved Thursday endorses creating more “effective partners which can take responsibility for new security threats … in the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and other regions.”
But the committee’s concerns are many.
“The committee is concerned with several aspects of the proposal. In particular, the committee does not support broad exemptions from current laws that could result in the training of foreign security services that would otherwise be ineligible for such assistance,” states the panel’s report. “The committee similarly does not support waiving the statutory caps on the amount of funds that may be used for cooperative counterterrorism activities.
“Additionally, the committee has not been satisfied that there is a sufficiently specific plan in place to execute $4 billion over the next three years for the requested activities,” the panel says. “Additional policy questions should be raised as to whether the Department of Defense or the Department of State would be in the lead over the long term for training and equipping foreign security forces.”
The Senate bill’s language, if adopted in the final version of a 2015 Pentagon spending bill, would mandate that dollars eventually allocated to the CT effort could be moved only between “certain appropriations which are actually related to counterterrorism missions that that human rights vetting must occur for any train-and-equip program for foreign security services.”
And where the White House wanted the funds available for three years, the Senate committee only proposes giving it two years.
CongressWatch reported in early June that some Democrats wanted more information about the program, while Republicans called it merely a political move by Obama.
That continued this week. On Thursday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she is concerned the administration “has no plan” for the CT program or how it would use the funds.
The Appropriations panel, the first to approve language on the proposed program, overwhelmingly approved the bill.
But the report language is far from the first instance of members objecting to exactly what the White House wants.
House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., usually an Obama administration ally, took aim at the program during a Wednesday hearing.
She said she supports “the larger strategy for this money,” but quickly added she is “very, very concerned about its specifics.”
“My understanding is that to increase flexibility, the administration wants [counterterrorism partnership program] funds to be available for three years and to be able to transfer them to any DoD account or to a specified State Department account or to transfer the money between the two departments,” she said.
“And these monies could be spent anywhere overseas,” Duckworth said. “This seems like a lot of leeway that really hampers Congress’ oversight mission.”
“It seems this has become yet another slush fund where you can just transfer it between accounts without accountability,” she told a panel of Pentagon witnesses, “and you can transfer it even between departments and you’re asking for $5 billion, which seems like a large amount of money to have that little oversight on.”
Since it was rolled out, many of Obama’s fellow Democrats have criticized the plan and its apparent blurring of the lines of budgetary and operational authorities that lawmakers and two administrations have spent 13 years ironing out in the wake of 9/11.
HASC Democrat Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington bluntly told the Pentagon officials the new proposed program “seems backward.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert 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.” ■