Defense Department seeks new authorities for counterterrorism fight

As the Pentagon begins to wind down the war in Afghanistan, the smaller conflicts elite U.S. forces are fighting around the world are heating up.

But DOD needs more than just men and materiel to meet these challenges — it needs additional authority from Congress to do so. 

"Most of the authorities that we have right now are narrowly construed to counterterrorism ... [but] I think for some countries we may need a little bit more flexibility to go in there," Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told lawmakers on Tuesday.

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The majority of counterterrorism missions by U.S. special forces have been focused on al Qaeda and Taliban cells in Afghanistan and the Middle East region.

But growing numbers and types of threats, particularly in Africa and South America, require a new approach to U.S. counterterrorism operations, Sheehan told members of the Senate Armed Services’ subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities. 

"If we have a broader range of authorities, we can respond with more agility to each country with a different set of programs," Sheehan said. "I think that's the direction we're thinking." 

Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay HaganKay Hagan10 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2016 Senate Republicans are feeling the 'Trump effect' Washington's lobby firms riding high MORE (D-N.C.) and subpanel member Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanJuan Williams: Electoral map looks grim for Trump McConnell touts 'Senate squad' in Wes Anderson-style video Liberal super-PAC hits Johnson for supporting Trump MORE (R-Ohio) pressed Sheehan on what exactly DOD was looking for, in terms of legislative authorities. 

While not going into too much detail, Sheehan said the lines between terrorism and crime have become increasingly blurry and current U.S. statutes to address either have not kept up. 

Under current federal authorities, counterterrorism is strictly a military operation conducted by DOD. Pursuing transnational criminal groups falls to law enforcement and is done by the Department of Justice. 

"Some of these threats are not pure terrorism," Sheehan explained. DOD needs to be able to go after groups that straddle the line between terrorism and organized crime. 

Terror groups like Boko Haram and al Shabab have begun to align themselves with al Qaeda's Africa cell, al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb and the group's cell in Yemen. 

The Yemen cell, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has become the group's most active and arguably its most dangerous. 

But those groups in Africa also reportedly provide security to South and Central American cartels who move cocaine and heroin into Europe via smuggling routes in Africa.

Iranian-backed groups like Hezbollah are reportedly expanding their influence in South America, using Tehran's allies like Venezuela and Ecuador as conduits, U.S. commanders told Congress this month.

Hezbollah has also linked up with narcotraffickers in South America as a way to raise funds for operations in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

"We are looking for some legislative authority ... that might be able to give us some broader authorities, legislative authorities and multiyear funding for some of the types of activities that I'd like to do in terms of building coalitions to take on these complex threats," Sheehan said. 

DOD will hand over a slate of potential legislative options being drafted by Sheehan's office to lawmakers "in the weeks and months ahead," he added. 

However, the Pentagon is already beginning to move ahead with its plans for both continents. 

U.S. special forces have been in Uganda since October, providing support to local forces going after Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army. 

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in February that U.S. special forces and counterinsurgency specialists returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will be redeployed to a number of global hot spots, specifically those in Africa and South America. 

The move was included in the White House's new national security strategy unveiled that month. 

These small bands of special forces and counterinsurgency experts will lean upon "innovative methods" learned in Southwest Asia to support local militaries and expand American influence in those two continents, Panetta said at the time. 

The U.S. military is pushing more troops into Colombia to assist in that country's war with insurgent groups and narcotraffickers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Friday. 

U.S. forces plan to set up a number of joint task forces inside the country to train and assist the Colombian military. The Pentagon has similar task forces in the Horn of Africa, the Trans-Sahara, Southern Philippines and elsewhere around the world. 

American military trainers will assist Colombian forces in their ongoing counterinsurgency against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist separatist group bent on overthrowing the government in Bogota.