Senate balks on using defense spending bill to change counterterrorism rules

Senate defense lawmakers balked on several key national security issues in their version of the Pentagon's fiscal year 2014 budget plan.  

The $625 billion budget for the Department of Defense (DOD), passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, included measures to address rampant sexual assault in the military and set the stage for the closure of the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

But members simply refused to weigh in on a number of high-profile defense issues facing the department, including possible changes to the rules in the war on terror, shifting U.S. drone operations to the Pentagon and the upcoming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Committee members passed their version of the DOD budget blueprint, which finances the department's annual operations and the war in Afghanistan, on Thursday by a vote of 23 to 3.

When asked why the Senate committee had opted to leave those issues untouched in their markup of the FY 2014 DOD budget blueprint, Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters on Thursday those matters simply "did not come up" during the panel's deliberations. 

After Thursday's briefing, Levin told The Hill that the committee was forced to defer on some of the issues due to the panel’s jurisdictional limits.

Congressional oversight for many counterterrorism operations are spread across several Senate panels, including Armed Services, Intelligence and Homeland Security. 

The Armed Services panel’s decisions, particularly on changing the rules of the war on terror -- known on Capitol Hill as the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) -- ran counter to language approved in the House version of the DOD spending plan. 

The House defense panel approved their $638 billion version of the DOD budget on June 6. 

In the House version of the Pentagon budget bill, defense lawmakers approved plans to roll back the 9/11-era counterterrorism rules, which critics claim provide the White House and Pentagon unprecedented powers to strike al Qaeda and other militant groups worldwide. 

President Obama vowed to repeal the standing war on terror rules in a May speech at the National Defense University, saying he feared that unless the 12-year old law was changed, Congress would be giving future presidents unprecedented powers.

“I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s [Authorization for Use of Military Force] mandate,” Obama said at the time. 

If approved, the House language would impose new congressional oversight on U.S. counterterror operations known as "kill/capture" missions. 

Those operations include drone strikes and night raids similar to the Navy SEAL assault that killed al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in 2011. 

Prior to Thursday's Senate committee vote, defense panel member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters he was weighing amendments to the Pentagon budget bill, as a vehicle to change the AUMF. 

The Obama administration's aggressive counterterrorism campaign against top-level al Qaeda leaders, highlighted by the increased use of armed drones, has "far exceeded [the] charter" set by the AUMF, McCain told reporters in May. 

"We will have to revisit it . . . the whole issue" he added at the time. 

Levin called hearings that same month, to explore whether counterterror mandates under the AUMF needed to be reined in, over a decade after the 9/11 attacks. 

At the time, Michael Sheehan, head of special operations and low-intensity conflicts at the Pentagon, told the Senate panel he sees no need to change the current rules of war.

“At this point we're comfortable with the AUMF as it is currently structured. Right now it does not inhibit us from prosecuting the war against al Qaeda and its affiliates,” he said during the May 16 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. 

On Thursday, Levin told The Hill that revisions to U.S. counterterrorism rules is still an issue that needs to be addressed by Congress and the Obama administration. 

But the Michigan Democrat explained the counterterrorism rule changes passed by the House could not be replicated in the Senate, since his committee is not the only Senate panel with jurisdiction over counterterrorism operations. 

Levin said efforts to introduce wide-scale changes to the AUMF by the committee could force the Senate defense panel to stray into the jurisdictions of those other committees. 

Senate defense lawmakers ultimately decided to leave the counterterrorism rule changes on the table, rather than risk a turf war on Capitol Hill, Levin said. 

Aside from counter terrorism, Senate defense lawmakers also refused to press the Obama administration to release its postwar plans for Afghanistan. 

House defense lawmakers approved language demanding the White House report to Congress details of the Afghan postwar plan, including troop numbers and specific missions after the U.S. withdrawal in 2014. 

That report must also outline details "about the draw down of U.S. forces, closure of coalition bases, and tasks that are being transitioned to other [government] agencies," according to language in the House version of the Pentagon's fiscal 2014 defense spending bill. 

The Obama administration has yet to publicly announce a postwar troop number despite increasing calls from the Pentagon and Capitol Hill to issue a final force projection. 

On Thursday, Levin declined to comment on why similar mandates were absent in the Senate committee's version of the DOD spending bill. 

However, Levin and Ranking Member Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told reporters that panel members were preparing amendments to bring to the floor, once the defense spending bill reached the full Senate later this year.