On Tuesday, the Senate voted on a new, $5 billion slimmer version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that just breezed through the House. With its passage, the Pentagon’s foreign military aid budget will rise for yet another year. But there is no way to tell if that money—which some estimates put around $10 billion a year now—is used effectively, as the defense budget is insulated from scrutiny.  

Since 2001, the United States has spent almost $225 billion on military and police aid to foreign security forces, according to the Security Assistance Monitor. Though traditionally the State Department’s territory, these programs are increasingly being handled by the Pentagon, with more and more funds allocated to the defense budget for security assistance each year.


But recent expensive and high profile failures in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have cast doubt on military assistance, a strategy that has become a core part of U.S. military policy

Likely prompted by these setbacks, House Armed Services Committee (HASC) held its first ever “military assistance week” last month. The highlight of the week was a public hearing, featuring testimony from non-governmental witnesses, to examine the Pentagon’s foreign military aid programs.  

In response to a question from Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) on how to justify security assistance expenditure, Christopher Paul, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who testified, said that, “If we were doing more and better assessment and evaluation, we would have something to show.”

Program evaluation is obviously necessary, and the fact that it has to be brought up at a congressional hearing speaks to the Pentagon’s enormous accountability deficit.  

But assessment rubrics alone will not ensure smart spending. As Douglas Fraser, a retired Air Force general and the former commander of U.S. Southern Command, told lawmakers, there is no incentive within the Pentagon for honest assessment and accountable behavior.  “Sometimes at least within the Department of Defense, if you give money back or you hold money, then somebody else takes it.”  

To make sure billions more in taxpayer dollars are not wasted, Congress could start by requiring the military to make its military aid spending more transparent.  

Right now, the Pentagon is not required to provide comprehensive public information on foreign military aid spending until well after the money has been spent. Sometimes, it can be more than a year before the public knows how that money was spent. And insulated from public scrutiny, flawed security assistance programs can bleed money and cost lives for years.  

Congress should require that the Pentagon, like the State Department, spell out in detail how it intends to use taxpayer money to assist foreign security forces. It should be required to do this on a country-by-country and program-by-program basis. With timely and comprehensive information at their disposal, civilian leadership and civil society would be equipped to gauge the effectiveness of DOD foreign aid against stated objectives. 

Congress has already demonstrated that it understands the principle of transparency, because it has applied it rigorously to other forms of foreign aid. In fact, Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioJeb Bush calls for Broward County official to be removed from post Florida Dem rep: Scott is 'spinning conspiracy theories' Gillum retracts concession in Florida governor's race MORE (R-Fla.) and Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinPro-Israel organizations should finally seek payback against Iran deal Dems Cardin wins reelection in Maryland Election Day: An hour-by-hour viewer’s guide MORE (D-Md.) just introduced the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATA), which would tighten the already considerable transparency and accountability controls on development assistance.

“Although it is less than 1 percent of our budget, [development] assistance plays an important role in advancing American interests in the world,” said Rubio in a press statement, “but taxpayers have a right to see where and how American dollars are being used overseas.” 

The bill, scheduled for mark up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, would apply to the billions of dollars spent on providing economic assistance, fighting HIV/AIDS, and supporting democracy throughout the world. But it would not apply to military assistance programs, which cost the American taxpayer $20.1 billion in 2015.  

As the administration continues to contend with both a war-weary populace and the multiplicity of U.S. national security interests, assistance to foreign armies and police is bound to be integral to its foreign and military policy. But Congress needs to hold the military accountable for its budget, and ensure that every dollar spent on security assistance is a dollar well spent.

Ravinsky is a program assistant at the Open Society Foundations, working on issues relating to U.S. security assistance and Department of Defense spending.