Pentagon's possible move to eliminate special ops oversight office could trigger Hill ire

A Bush administration proposal to fold a civilian office tasked with oversight of the Pentagon’s special-operations forces could face stiff resistance in Congress.

Sources tell The Hill that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is considering a proposal to eliminate the office of the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (ASD SO/LIC) and spreading its responsibilities across other Pentagon offices.

The proposal comes from Ryan Henry, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, according to a source familiar with the plan.

It is unclear whether Rumsfeld would sign off on such a suggestion or would reject it. If he agrees to the idea, the Pentagon would face an uphill battle in getting the plan endorsed by Congress.

Many lawmakers would be unwilling to go along with the idea — especially at a time when special-operations forces are growing and have primary responsibility in the war on terrorism.

It is not the first time such a proposal has been floated. In 2001, then-Defense Undersecretary for Policy Doug Feith tried to disenfranchise the position. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) thwarted Feith’s proposal and could play a role in killing the Pentagon’s recycled proposal.

The position was included as part of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, which also created the United States Special Operations Command.

The Special Operations Command oversees each military service’s elite warriors, such as the Army’s Green Berets, Rangers and Delta Forces, the Navy SEALs and the Air Force special operators.

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

The idea of folding and devolving the responsibility of the office is “something that we would have to look at very closely,” a Senate Armed Services Committee aide said. “I do not see a rationale for that. DoD [the Department of Defense] has no convincing argument right now.”

The office is one of several offices under the umbrella of the undersecretary of defense for policy, now headed by Eric Edelman.

Thomas O’Connell is in charge of assistant secretary’s office and is Rumsfeld’s principal civilian adviser on matters regarding special operations and low-intensity conflict.

In broad terms, O’Connell’s office oversees several functions: information operations, counternarcotics, stability operations and the so-called “special operations/combating terrorism.”

Under that last function, the office provides the first civilian signatures on operations against high-value targets, according to a former government official familiar with the office. It is unclear who would take over this function if the office is dissolved.

The assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict is one of four assistant secretaries of defense mandated by statute. To dissolve or reorganize that office without congressional authorization would be impossible, sources said.

“It has never gone so far” as this new proposal, the former official said. The official said that so far the proposal has not been signed or rejected by Rumsfeld. If he decides to sign off, he would need congressional approval to dissolve the office.

Even though not aware of the specific proposal to fold ASD SO/LIC, “there are always efforts within the DoD to achieve economies of scale, to consolidate similar work and cut through bureaucracy,” said a Pentagon spokesperson who asked not to be quoted by name. “Especially in the policy office there have been ideas how to streamline the policy office including the ASD SO/LIC.”

The official added that the Pentagon cannot get rid of the office “without congressional approval and without a detrimental effect to the Special Operations Command.”

The official acknowledged that there are ideas on the table to “minimize the policy footprint.” In the case of this office, however “you pinch too hard and the baby screams,” the DoD official said.

Cutting away at the office’s responsibility would “influence their ability to do their work and Congress will be concerned,” the official added.

John Ullyot, spokesman for Warner, said, “SO/LIC has been useful in the past,” However, he declined to comment further because the committee had not been briefed on the Pentagon plan.

Sources familiar with the dynamic in the office of the undersecretary for policy said that infighting and tension between Henry and the assistant secretary’s office could have led to the several proposals made so far to change or disenfranchise the office. However, others point out that the office is not without its own faults.

“A lot of the SO/LIC problems are self-inflicted,” the former government official said. “SO/LIC has missed opportunities to transform the special-operations forces,” with policy on how to fight wars 20 years from now and how to have the appropriate mix of forces to fight those wars.