The Complex

Pentagon to Congress: Give Us $500 Million — We’ll Tell You How We Spent It Later

The Pentagon has found the money, but it’s still formulating a plan for how to actually spend it to help fight the rapidly escalating Ebola crisis in West Africa. Earlier this week, the Defense Department announced that it would be spending $22 million to send a 25-bed, field-deployable hospital to the Liberian capital of Monrovia, ...

SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images
SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images

The Pentagon has found the money, but it’s still formulating a plan for how to actually spend it to help fight the rapidly escalating Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Earlier this week, the Defense Department announced that it would be spending $22 million to send a 25-bed, field-deployable hospital to the Liberian capital of Monrovia, where sick patients are being turned away on a daily basis because of a lack of medical resources. With the World Health Organization estimating that more than 1,000 beds are needed to treat patients across Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, the three hardest-hit countries, the Pentagon’s plan to send a small hospital that’s exclusively for use by health care workers and which won’t be staffed by American troops struck many as little more than a token gesture. The WHO estimates that 20,000 people will be infected with Ebola before the current outbreak ends. At least 2,200 have already died since the disease first flared up in Guinea over six months ago.

But now it appears that hospital may just be an initial step in an expanding effort by the U.S. military to help fight the spread of the disease. The Pentagon is also deploying two fully equipped diagnostic labs to Liberia that will help track transmission, a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said this week.

Perhaps more importantly, the Pentagon has asked permission from Congress to redirect up to $500 million toward fighting Ebola in West Africa. Just one problem: The Defense Department plans to also use at least a portion of those funds to respond to the growing refugee crisis in Iraq.

When the Pentagon wants to shift that much money between its accounts, it’s required to send what’s called a reprogramming request to Congress. The Defense Department has offered no details about the breakdown, which means it’s theoretically possible the United States could spend $1 on Ebola and $499,999,999 on Iraq.

"The situations in both Iraq and West Africa are dynamic, and the funds we are seeking to reprogram will help enable [the Defense Department] to be responsive to needs on the ground in both areas as they arise," a defense official told Foreign Policy. "Therefore, the total amount that may be used in either West Africa or Iraq under this reprogramming request may not be determined at this time."

Without more information, one is left guessing about the scale to which the Pentagon plans to respond to either problem.

"We always have to balance our response, just like everybody else does, with ongoing world events and current issues," Michael D. Lumpkin, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict, said in a call with reporters about the Ebola crisis earlier this week.

Even if the money is equally divided between Ebola and Iraq, it would mark a dramatic increase in support from the Pentagon for either effort.

Between April 1 and September 10, international donors provided more than $96 million to support the Ebola response, according to a fact sheet from USAID. The agency itself has provided a total of $30 million in assistance. It has also pledged $100 million more. The fact sheet, dated Sept. 10, includes no mention of the new Pentagon money, which Pentagon comptroller Michael McCord signed off on Sept. 8.

While there is still no indication about how much it plans to spend on its Ebola effort, the Pentagon said the money could be used to provide military air transportation of defense and nondefense personnel and supplies, as well as to purchase personal protective equipment, medical supplies, and medical treatment facilities like isolation units.

On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the Defense Department did have capabilities that could prove useful, but noted that U.S. military medicine tended to focus on battlefield trauma, suggesting that its experience in handling something like Ebola might be limited.

This echoed a comment from earlier in the week from Nancy Lindborg, USAID’s assistant administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, who told reporters that Doctors Without Borders (also known by its French acronym, MSF) was the only organization that knew how to handle Ebola outbreaks.

"One of the issues about treating Ebola is there isn’t an existing cadre of people who have experience treating it other than MSF," Lindborg said. "One of the things that we are moving forward is supporting the training capacity for the very specific, very disciplined protocols that are critical to effectively treating Ebola without further transmission."

MSF has repeatedly said that Ebola care requires discipline, but that it’s not overly complicated and that foreign governments and militaries have the expertise in handling biological disasters that is so desperately needed on the ground in West Africa. The Pentagon has the money, too. It’s just not clear yet how much it’s willing to spend on the Ebola fight.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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