The Cable

Holdout Senator Frees Up Military’s Ebola Funding

This story has been updated.  The Pentagon is deploying up to 4,000 troops to West Africa to fight the raging Ebola epidemic that has claimed nearly 4,000 lives. Yet, a key Republican senator wasn’t ready to fund the mission until the Obama administration detailed its plan for using military personnel to combat the deadly virus. ...

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This story has been updated. 

The Pentagon is deploying up to 4,000 troops to West Africa to fight the raging Ebola epidemic that has claimed nearly 4,000 lives. Yet, a key Republican senator wasn’t ready to fund the mission until the Obama administration detailed its plan for using military personnel to combat the deadly virus. On Friday,  the holdout senator, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, relented and released the majority of funding requested by the administration. 

The Pentagon’s request to shift $1 billion around to pay for the effort was met with resistance on Capitol Hill in mid-September, when three of the four relevant committees decided to freeze most of the funding until the Defense Department provided more information on its plans.

At the time, the House Armed Services Committee informed the Pentagon in writing that it could only spend $100 million until it outlined to lawmakers its deployment plans and force-protection measures for U.S. troops, a congressional source told FP.

The account to which the Pentagon asked to move the $1 billion already had a $70 million balance, so the congressional assumption was that $170 million is more than enough for the Defense Department to start the operation, the source said. The Senate Armed Services Committee also decided to release only $100 million until its questions are answered.

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee limited the Pentagon to $50 million of the $1 billion. 

So Defense officials hit the Hill this week to assure lawmakers that the proper precautions would be taken during this dangerous mission. On Thursday, both House committees agreed to release a total of $750 million, which should fund the Pentagon for up to six months, the committees stated.

"While I maintain concerns, particularly regarding the safety and security of our military personnel supporting this mission, DoD has provided us with much of their force protection plan and the other information requested," stated House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).

"Releasing these funds marks the beginning of the committee’s oversight of this important mission, not the end," he added.

But even after the briefings from Pentagon officials, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee were still concerned. Until they were satisfied and approved of the full funds transfer, the Pentagon is still restricted in how much it can spend on its Ebola efforts.

"I raised numerous concerns about the lack of a coherent strategy, insufficient details on how our men and women in uniform would be protected, and a failure to consider a transition of financial and operational responsibility from our military to a more appropriate entity," Inhofe, who had a "hold" on the funding, stated on Friday. "In response, the Defense Department came forward Wednesday with additional information regarding the protocol to care for the health of our servicemembers serving in the region. As a few thousand of our troops will be sent into harms way, I am deeply committed to continuing to conduct rigorous oversight of this mission to ensure our men and women are provided the protection they deserve and I will hold the Administration accountable."

However, Inhofe’s signoff is only for the $750 million the other committees agreed to. Congress must still approve of transfering the remaining funds before the Pentagon is free to use the full $1 billion. 

The Pentagon’s contribution to the U.S. government’s response to the Ebola epidemic has been steadily growing since the military first announced it would send a field hospital to Liberia on Sept. 8.

The number of troops being deployed climbed from 3,000 to 4,000 last week. Then on Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that about 100 Marines based in Spain will deploy to West Africa to support the mission. Gen. David Rodriguez, head of Africa Command, told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. military could be involved in this effort for up to a year.

However, he also said the funds requested so far only cover six months, which raises questions about how high the Pentagon’s total Ebola-response costs could go.

Although the mission is expanding almost daily, what hasn’t changed is the directive that no U.S. personnel will directly treat Ebola patients. Instead, they’ll set up treatment units, provide logistics and transportation support, and train health-care workers.

However, the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center is running three Ebola testing labs where highly trained U.S. personnel are handling disease samples. Rodriguez said there’s already a request for four more of those labs.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon says it’s taking every precaution to protect its troops and to prepare for the event that one of them contracts the disease. To keep personnel safe, the military is relying on pre-deployment training, personal protective equipment, strict medical and hygiene protocols, and constant monitoring to mitigate the soldiers’ risks of becoming infected, Rodriguez said.

In its latest report on Wednesday, the World Health Organization confirmed 8,033 cases thus far and 3,865 deaths. The WHO said conditions in West Africa, the center of the outbreak, continue "to deteriorate, with widespread and persistent transmission of" Ebola. The disease’s spread continues to ravage Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Inhofe’s spokeswoman, Donelle Harder, said the urgency of the situation should prompt the administration to consult with Congress more quickly. "The senator recognizes that there is a critical timeline for when the military will need more money to continue its mission, and he has urged the administration to quickly resolve these basic concerns," she said.

Congress is technically in recess until after the Nov. 4 elections, with most lawmakers back in their home districts and states campaigning.

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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