Speaker's staff presses DoD

Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) staff is pressuring the Pentagon not to go forward with a proposal to shut down the civilian office overseeing counterterrorism, counternarcotics and other special operations.

A well-placed congressional source said Hastert aides were warning the Department of Defense (DoD) to tread warily.

“We hope that the [Pentagon] won’t do something that the Speaker would have to unscrew for them,” the source said.

Until the 2007 defense budget comes out, the dispute will remain at staff level, but, the source said, Hastert’s aides “are preparing the Speaker to weigh in because they think the proof [of the office’s removal] will be in the budget.”

A Pentagon spokesperson said the department does not comment on conversations or contact with staff or members of Congress.

The Hill first reported yesterday that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is considering a recommendation to close the office of the assistant deputy secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict (ASD SO/LIC) and dividing its responsibilities among other Pentagon offices.

Several lawmakers and professional staff members do not want to lose the office because it would mean the money appropriated to the Pentagon for counternarcotics work would be scattered rather than centralized in the office under dispute.

The office oversees missions related to special operations, counterterrorism, counternarcotics information operations and so-called stability operations.

Capitol Hill has been concerned for several months about the rumored changes. Lawmakers are concerned the changes would damage the national strategy to combat drugs.

Hastert was copied on a letter sent to Rumsfeld on Monday by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), chairman of the Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources. Joshua Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget, also was copied on the letter.

The subcommittee has been involved in oversight of the Pentagon’s role in counternarcotics. The letter sent several days ago is one of three sent since September, when Souder first expressed his concerns.

The only answer so far to the subcommittee was “a brush-off” saying it was “an internal matter,” the GOP aide said. The Pentagon said it would let the panel know when it had made its decision, the aide said.

In his most recent letter, Souder wrote, “We are deeply concerned about the rumored elimination of the Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Counternarcotics program within the Fiscal Year 2007 budget and its impacts on the National Drug Control Strategy.”

Souder is demanding an explanation of how the Pentagon will ensure that counternarcotics money is not diverted to other missions. Under the office’s current structure, there is a so-called central transfer account for the Pentagon’s part in the drug war.

“The proposed dilution of counternarcotics funds within the [central transfer account] would substantially reduce the Department’s ability to account for funds specifically allocated for counternarcotics programs,” the letter said.

Under the 2006 defense authorization, counterdrug money can be used to combat terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, for example in Afghanistan, where enemies fund their operations with drug money. U.S. operations in Afghanistan have been financed through supplemental funding and not through the regular budget.

“The U.S. Central Command has still not acknowledged in their plans down the chain of command that all their enemies fund their operations through drugs,” the GOP aide said.

By law, the Pentagon is the lead agency for the detection and monitoring of shipments of interest to the United States, including drugs. The military is trained to detect shipments of enriched uranium, for example, and the same procedures are used to detect shipments of cocaine.

The counternarcotics function of the oversight office receives about $1 billion a year.

Last year was a record year of cocaine seizures, with more than 300,000 pounds intercepted by the Coast Guard, according to the letter sent by Souder.

“The Department of Defense, as the lead agency for detection and monitoring, played a vital role in enabling the Coast Guard to make those seizures,” he wrote. “We cannot afford to have the Department withdraw, in whole or in part, from the national counter drug effort.”

The Pentagon never liked its mission, the GOP aide said, “because there is no real endgame and you are always having to respond to a dynamic situation. DoD likes something of a more defined endgame.”

The only way to get rid of the counternarcotics function may be to get rid of the office. “There is an intentional effort to reduce morale within SO/LIC and therefore make it easier to destroy the office.”

It is not clear whether Rumsfeld signed off on any kind of recommendation to eliminate counternarcotics or the entire office.

A DoD official, when asked about the plan, told The Hill that “there are always efforts within the DoD to achieve economies of scale, to consolidate similar work and cut through bureaucracy.” He was not aware of any specific plans to eliminate the oversight office.

Saying that he hopes the rumors about the elimination are unfounded, Sounder concluded his letter by adding that, “Congress cannot and will not stand by and let the administration effectively gut carefully developed anti-drug efforts that took years to build.”