GAO tasked with assessing Pentagon reorganization

Amid serious concerns Pentagon officials have been unable to alleviate thus far, Senate defense authorizers are tasking the congressional watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), with assessing the impact of a sweeping reorganization of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

One of authorizers’ most pressing concerns is that that the overhaul of the Pentagon’s policy shop could enfeeble the mission of a congressionally mandated civilian office charged with oversight and support of special operations.

The policy shop’s reorganization is designed to bring the office in line with the U.S. military’s need to respond to transnational threats, manage international military coalitions and equip partner countries to fight terrorists.

Lawmakers repeatedly have attempted to gain clarity on the reorganization plan, but the policy office leadership has been unable to assuage congressional concerns in multiple meetings on the Hill.

Now, the independent investigative arm of Congress must step in. As part of the Senate’s version of the 2008 defense authorization bill and report, the Armed Services panel is directing the GAO to look into the efficacy of a reorganization that has been in the works for more than a year.

Among other requests, the GAO is being asked to assess the ability of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD SO/LIC) to carry out his principal duties.

The ASD SO/LIC supervises all special operations and low-intensity activities within the Department of Defense.

Congress initially mandated the creation of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for SO/LIC as part of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, which also created the United States Special Operations Command.

The Special Operations Command (SOCOM) oversees each military service’s elite warriors.

The assistant secretary’s office, which is run by civilians with extensive special-operations background, was created to ensure that special-operations forces would receive the attention and resources from the Pentagon deemed necessary by Congress.

The Senate’s concerns over the policy shop’s reorganization come as a new assistant secretary of defense for SO/LIC awaits confirmation.

President Bush nominated Michael Vickers to replace the former head of SO/LIC, Thomas O’Connell. The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold Vickers’s nomination hearing next Tuesday, grilling him on the reorganization.

Vickers, a former Green Beret and CIA officer, is the senior vice president of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Vickers is a frequent writer and presenter on future warfare and transformation strategy.

Vickers could face an uphill battle in an office that has had its share of tension with Ryan Henry, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, one of the architects of the reorganization.

Apart from the impact the reorganization could have on SO/LIC, Vickers would inherit an office that lost much of its muscle years ago, according to a former government official.

SO/LIC missed a chance to transform the special-operations forces with policy on how to fight future wars and the appropriate mix of forces to do so. The secretary of defense and the SOCOM commander often bypassed SO/LIC, according to a government official with good knowledge of the dynamic.

Under the reorganization, SO/LIC would be called SO/LIC Interdependent Capabilities and would oversee special operations, strategic capabilities (nuclear and missile issues), stability operations and forces transformation and resources.

Previously, SO/LIC oversaw several functions, such as special operations/combating terrorism, counter-narcotics, information operations and so-called stability operations. The counter-narcotics function, highly regarded by Congress, has been shifted to a new Office of Global Security Affairs, prompting congressional concern over the execution of the counter-narcotics program.

Defense authorizers worry that strategic capabilities (i.e., nuclear and missile issues) under the new SO/LIC require a different skill set and knowledge base and could result in an overall dilution of the statutory mission of the assistant secretary of defense for SO/LIC.

Moreover, moving strategic capabilities away from the office responsible for chemical and biological weapons would affect coordination, authorizers fear.

Plus, a completely different skill set would be needed to oversee transformation, potentially further diminishing the assistant secretary’s statutory mission.

As part of the bill and report language, the Senate panel is asking GAO to determine whether the Pentagon leadership developed detailed implementation plans and inquire as to the status of all aspects of the overhaul.

The watchdog will have to find out whether the Pentagon worked to mitigate congressional concerns and if the proposed reorganization adheres to generally accepted principles of effective organization, such as establishing clear goals, identifying clear lines of authority and accountability and developing an effective human capital strategy.