Lawmakers leery of counterterrorism fund

President Obama is seeking $5 billion for a counterterrorism fund that will boost deployment of special operations forces to combat terrorists in hotspots such as Libya, Somalia and Syria. But Congress is balking at providing the funds without more details on how it will be spent.

With the war in Afghanistan drawing to a close, the administration is increasingly relying on special operations forces to stamp out terrorist threats around the globe.

According to the administration, the forces would train and partner with foreign militaries in those nations as they take on terrorist threats. 

The administration also wants the funding to bump up conventional support forces, to provide intelligence, transportation and logistics for those foreign militaries.  

White House adviser Lisa Monaco said the initiatives are "vital tools to help our military and counterterrorism professionals confront this challenge" in a "turbulent and uncertain world." 

The initiatives are part of the president's $58.6 billion overseas contingency operations request for 2015. The fund was created in 2006 to pay for operations related to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, but has expanded to include counterterrorism operations in various places such as the Horn of Africa and Yemen. 

The new counterterrorism initiative would expand train and equip programs, currently undertaken by mostly special operations forces. 

Gen. Joseph Votel, nominated to become the next commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, has endorsed the idea.

“I think the Counterterrorism Fund could certainly help us with some of our partnership activities,” he said, during his July 10 confirmation hearing. 

“I do think it is important that we continue to have SOF forces forward deployed in locations where they can assess, they can understand, and they can, most importantly, work with our international partners who share our interests," he said. 

Monaco said the initiative “ultimately" would lead to less reliance on the U.S. military.

But in the short term, the effort would rely heavily on special operations troops who, commanders say, are facing strain after 13 years of war.

Defense officials say that special ops personnel could train vetted Syrian opposition forces, as one facet of the new counterterrorism initiative.

Officials say details of this $500 million plan are still being put together and are classified, though they said the training would likely occur outside Syria. 

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the program could train a force of 2,300, and that defense officials have promised to increase those numbers. 

Training and equipping Syrian rebels would be a new authority, defense officials said. The CIA is currently training and equipping small numbers of rebels, but the initiative would see the Pentagon taking over the mission to ramp up the program.

There is also in the request $500 million "to address unforeseen contingencies related to counterterrorism or regional instability."  

"The current situation in Iraq is one example that underscores the importance of reserving funds that can be allocated quickly based on unforeseen needs," according to a White House fact sheet. 

Training and partnering with foreign militaries would not require any new Pentagon authorities -- but would be an expansion of existing authorities: under Section 1206 — which allows for training and equipping partner military forces; Section 1207 — which allows the Pentagon to transfer materials to State to train and equip partner forces; and Section 1208 — which allows for training and equipping partner forces for classified operations. 

However, the initiative would increase current funding for these activities by $2.5 billion.

The spending request sparked a heated debate Thursday over increased funding and presidential authority, as the Senate Appropriations Committee marked up the draft bill.

"There is just too much of a chance that those weapons will land in the hands of extremists, just like in Iraq," said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

Pryor., who is looking at a tough re-election battle this fall, proposed an amendment to quash the Syrian training program. His measure failed 9-21. 

Obama’s proposal also received sharp reactions in the House.

“If the president had this authority a year ago, we’d be involved in a war with Syria right now ... Americans are tired of being at war," said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday. 

Lawmakers at a House Budget Committee Thursday hearing also grilled defense officials on why the administration did not put its request for the counterterrorism initiative into its base defense budget request due in March, so lawmakers could scrutinize the proposal before drafting their defense authorization and spending bills. 

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said that the request could not be made earlier, because war funding depended on knowing troop numbers in Afghanistan, and those figures were not clear until May. 

“We were caught by a time issue,” he said. 

Rather than try to predict which account would need more money next year, it made more sense to have a generic fund they could tap into based on emerging needs, Work said. 

“We felt that this would be -- actually provide us with more flexibility,” Work said. 

Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, who testified alongside Work, said the Pentagon also was too constrained by Congress-imposed defense budget caps under sequestration. 

“See, most of the authorities that Congress has provided, sir, have caps on them. And the whole purpose of the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund was to use those existing authorities in a flexible way,” he said.

Lawmakers, however, said the details were lacking and accused officials of trying to create a “slush fund” they could tap into to spend without congressional scrutiny. 

“This seems like a lot of leeway that really hampers Congress' oversight mission,” said Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) at the Armed Services Committee hearing. 

“It seems this has become yet another slush fund where you can just transfer it between accounts without accountability and you can transfer it even between departments and you're asking for $5 billion, which seems like a large amount of money to have that little oversight on,” she said. 

Work responded that officials did not believe it was a “slush fund that will allow us to just go willy-nilly.” 

“We think there are going to be all sorts of checks and balances,” he adding that there is a 15-day notification for Congress for use of the funds. 

But Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member on the committee scoffed, referencing the administration’s decision to ignore a 30-day notification period in advance of releasing Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for  Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. 

“I'm not sure arguing right now about notification requirements is the best approach with this committee,” he said. 

--This story was updated 7/20/14 at 8:35 p.m.