A junior officer asks: Tell me, just what is this ‘authorities’ of which you speak?

A junior officer asks: Tell me, just what is this ‘authorities’ of which you speak?

By Erick Waage
Best Defense guest columnist

One of the many challenges my organization and other DOD organizations are facing is understanding the scope of operational and strategic level authorities, which allow and fund tactical action, enough to leverage them in support of our mission priorities in sensitive environments. I’m far from an expert on authorities, but I’m hoping some in Tom’s readership are, or that at a minimum some constructive dialogue will grow from this post to add awareness to the issue. Though in a discombobulated 5Ws, to preserve reader bandwidth I’ll keep the content to short, dense blocks.

What are authorities?
I say "allow and fund" as some authorities are operationally based, some are fiscally based (i.e. tied to funding streams), and others are both operationally and fiscally based. To set the legal and fiscal conditions to take tactical action (DA, FID, Intel Collect, etc.), one needs to understand the operational environment and what cocktail of authorities is required to fund and allow one to execute a tactical action.

Where are authorities derived from?
In broad terms, authorities are often derived from the Code of Law of the United States of America (U.S. Code), separate executive orders, some other legal document endorsed and recognized by the U.S. government, or a combination of all three. Some U.S. Codes and orders can operationally limit an element, while others can fiscally enable an element, or vice versa. Many authorities or families of similar authorities both allow and fund tactical action. So mix your cocktail to taste.

Who uses/needs authorities?
Most government entities draw their base authorities from U.S. Code. To highlight a few of the authority-based relationships, for the most part DOD drives the Title 10 highway, the intelligence community skulks in Title 50, and the State Department cajoles through Title 22. As described earlier, due to legal and fiscal friction, DOD entities and other agencies and departments will need to continue and to expand the use of each other’s operational and fiscal authorities to meet national ends in more operationally and fiscally complex environments.

Why do we need to understand authorities?
With the impending conclusion of active armed conflict overseas and Overseas Contingency Operations funding drying up, future operational environments are looking similar to those experienced by government agencies and departments during the Cold War. Unlike the Cold War, social effects from the advancement of communications and other technologies over the last two decades has increased pressure on political, government, and military decision-makers to have their administrative ducks — authorities — in a row and, in some cases, maintain classified compartmentalization of their more surreptitious tactical actions. Additionally, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have catalyzed the blurring of responsibilities between the DOD and other government agencies and departments making the step to a sort of "crowdfunding" approach to the authorization and funding of tactical actions more logical.

When do we need to understand authorities?

The ‘so-what’ for DOD bros like me?
Expectation management: A tactical action that might have taken a three-slide CONOP to gain approval from an O-6 with approving authority is now a rather extensive administrative process that touches multiple echelons of civilian and military decision-makers. Though frustrating and intellectually taxing at times, it is what the Cold War greybeards before us did and it is how many government agencies have operated and will operate in the future. We can talk about how undesirable it is, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Embrace the process and learn to understand the system. 

Erick Waage is a Special Operations junior officer who busily maps authorities while other men sleep safely in their beds at night. This article reflects his own opinions, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the U.S. government, nor even the late-shift bartender at Mickey’s Bar & Grill.