The Complex

Pentagon, Congress Left in Dark About Obama’s $5 Billion Counterterrorism Fund

With the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as his backdrop, President Barack Obama unveiled a new $5 billion fund to fight terrorism in May. Although the announcement was welcomed at the Pentagon and State Department, there were immediate questions about what exactly the money was for. Four months later, those questions remain largely unanswered. ...

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as his backdrop, President Barack Obama unveiled a new $5 billion fund to fight terrorism in May. Although the announcement was welcomed at the Pentagon and State Department, there were immediate questions about what exactly the money was for. Four months later, those questions remain largely unanswered.

In his speech, Obama said the money could be used to pay for everything from "training security forces in Yemen" to "train[ing] a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya." He even mentioned "facilitating French operations in Mali." In an accompanying fact sheet, there were few details about how much each country would get and why.

The most specific proposal was for $500 million to train and equip vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition. With few details available, Congress is reluctant to throw quite so much money at something so vague.

According to multiple sources — both inside the military and on Capitol Hill — the fund’s purpose is murky because it was mostly conceived by National Security Council staff within the White House with little input from budget or policy experts at either the Pentagon or Foggy Bottom.

A few days after the West Point speech, while visiting Poland, Obama announced another new fund. This one was $1 billion for a European Reassurance Initiative, again taking Pentagon officials by surprise, Defense Department and congressional sources told Foreign Policy.

In both instances, the Pentagon was given pots of money and was basically told to figure out how to spend the money, rather than asked what it really needed, one Pentagon official said.

If the Pentagon had proposed the counterterrorism fund, it would have been "dead on arrival" at the White House, a former senior Defense Department official said.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were no more in the loop. Like the public, they learned about the fund from the media. Legislators admonished Pentagon officials for not briefing them sooner.

Speaking to Pentagon brass at a hearing this summer, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon said, "You have an unenviable task of explaining a late [overseas contingency operations] request that has little detail and contains new funds and authorities that Congress heard about for the first time in the press, rather than from the department, an occurrence that has become all too frequent."

But he also sympathized with their plight, adding, "We understand that these initiatives were levied on the department by the White House without coordination, and you’re now working to develop spending plans."

Meanwhile, the White House denies creating the initiatives out of thin air and without input from the appropriate stakeholders.

"I’m not going to get into the exact details of our interagency deliberations, but it is fair to say that these ideas evolved out of months of coordination from across senior levels of departments and agencies," National Security Council (NSC) spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told FP.

The Pentagon’s official line is that it spent "multiple weeks" working with National Security Council staff and budget planners to formulate the plans.

"The department’s senior leadership was actively engaged in developing the strategy for both," a Pentagon official told FP.

Planners in the Pentagon’s comptroller and policy offices "extensively consulted with financial managers and operators in the individual military services and with counterparts at the NSC and the State Department to refine the plan and identify the best uses for each fund," the official said.

It’s possible that the grumbling comes from "bitter folks who weren’t themselves personally involved," as one former Defense Department official put it. But the complaints are widespread enough that the perception remains that the plans were not coordinated at a level of detail that enabled agency officials to speak in detail about the funds when Obama announced them.

A White House fact sheet from June provides the broad outlines about how the money is intended to be distributed.

In total, $4 billion of the $5 billion counterterrorism fund is for the Defense Department, and $1 billion is for the State Department. That is further broken down with $3 billion for "enabling and supporting partners" being split between the two departments, with the Pentagon getting the lion’s share, $2.5 billion, and Foggy Bottom receiving just $500 million.

"The Administration is requesting $2.5 billion for engagement to train, equip, and enable international partners to counter terrorist threats that pose the greatest challenge to U.S. and allied interests and to enhance DoD counterterrorism capabilities," the fact sheet states. The paper doesn’t list partner nations, let alone delineate how much each will receive.

Meanwhile, the State Department could use its share for myriad projects ranging from strengthening countries’ penal and justice systems to disrupting terrorist financing to promoting economic development.

Another $1.5 billion of the counterterrorism fund is dedicated to the White House’s "Regional Stabilization Initiative," which is supposed to help Syria’s neighbors handle the ongoing flood of refugees who have been pouring across the borders during the civil war that started in the spring of 2011 there. Included in this tranche is $500 million to arm and train vetted members of the Syrian opposition.

A final $500 million is earmarked for "crisis response," or "unforeseen contingencies."

"The current situation in Iraq is one example that underscores the importance of reserving funds that can be allocated quickly based on unforeseen needs," the fact sheet states.

In response to a request for more information, the Pentagon shared with FP a budget document from June that outlines more details but does not break the money out into country-specific budget lines.

About the European Reassurance Initiative, the Defense Department said that it’s "aimed at reassuring European partners and allies by bolstering European defenses in response to Russian provocations in Ukraine." The budget document breaks this down further. For example, $260 million is to deploy an armored brigade combat team to Europe, and $27 million is to support the Navy and Marine Corps’ participation in exercises in the Black Sea.

Congress has yet to approve any of the funding, as it’s wrapped up in the budget debate around fiscal year 2015, which starts Wednesday, Oct. 1. However, it did grant the Defense Department authority to begin the Syrian training program with money provided in the temporary measure keeping the federal government running that was passed on Sept. 18.

But lawmakers are already vocalizing their concerns about the broader counterterrorism fund and appropriating money with so few strings attached. Plus, Congress hates to hand over its power of the purse to the executive branch, which is essentially what it’s doing when it greenlights money with such broad parameters.

"I’m telling you, this is really, really poorly drafted in terms of narrowing it down to a specific set of purposes," Washington state’s Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said at a hearing with Pentagon officials in July.

Smith and committee colleagues asked the Pentagon for more details on how it envisions spending the money, which almost equals the State Department’s entire annual foreign military financing account.

"It’s a natural reaction from Congress to say, ‘Wait a minute.’ This is a very large chunk of change with not a lot of detail," said Gordon Adams, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at American University and a former official with the Office of Management and Budget during Bill Clinton’s administration.

Plus, the Defense Department’s budget already provides for similar programs and initiatives. In 2005, Congress created what it called "1206 funding," which allows the Pentagon to train foreign militaries to fight terrorism. Congress has regularly extended this authority and appropriated the necessary money.

Despite grousing about the funds’ rollouts, both the Pentagon and the State Department are more than happy to accept more money.

"My guess is the Pentagon welcomed the additional resources, given there is a lot the military would like to do in this arena," said Atlantic Council Vice President Barry Pavel, who served on the National Security Council staff under both George W. Bush’s and Obama’s administrations.

There is no problem with policy being very White House-driven — oftentimes it’s totally appropriate, Pavel said. "But it shouldn’t be centralized without coordination across the government; then you run into problems."

On the other hand, top-down is sometimes the best way to go to get the ball rolling, one government official said.

"It can be hard to get the bureaucracies to focus on the details of a package that is just notional and that may or may not be announced. By announcing it, the president made it real from a bureaucratic standpoint, forcing folks to scramble and come up with the package," a source familiar with the process told FP.

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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