Pentagon gets new office

After weeks of intense discussions, congressional defense authorizers approved the Pentagon’s request for a 10th assistant secretary of defense — a pivotal position in a big reorganization planned to take place over the next year.

After weeks of intense discussions, congressional defense authorizers approved the Pentagon’s request for a 10th assistant secretary of defense — a pivotal position in a big reorganization planned to take place over the next year.

But the nod for an assistant secretary for global security affairs comes with strings attached.  And as the Pentagon planned to start implementing its preliminary phase of reorganization yesterday, it also had to start preparing a report to answer several congressional concerns by February 1. 

Conferees on the 2007 defense authorization bill said they agree with adjusting roles and responsibilities within the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy, headed by Eric Edelman, but that they had serious concerns about the plan as it stands.

The details have been very closely held within the Pentagon, according to a House source familiar with the discussions during the bill’s conference. 

But defense authorizers are “trying to keep an open mind and giving them [the policy shop] a chance to explain,” the source said.

The policy shop shake-up required legislation to add a 10th assistant secretary.  The new secretary will have to be confirmed by the Senate, but that is not expected until January.

The reorganization is meant to bring a key Pentagon office into line with the U.S. military’s need to respond to a widening array of transnational threats, to manage international military coalitions, and to equip partner nations to fight terrorists.

But among other concerns, the current overhaul plan touches on one of Congress’s soft spots: the U.S. military’s counter-narcotics mission. 

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has cast doubt on the reorganization because he fears it will hurt congressional oversight and the military’s counter-drug mission.

Staff from the House Government Reform panel, the International Relations panel, the Armed Services committee, and several Senate staff members have also grilled Pentagon officials about the plan.

The Pentagon wants the deputy assistant secretary of defense for counter-narcotics to report to the new assistant secretary of defense for global security affairs.

At present, counter-drug missions are overseen by the civilian Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Office (SO/LIC), which is also part of the policy shop.

Under the new arrangement, SO/LIC would lose counter-narcotics and be renamed as SO/LIC and Interdependent Capabilities.

This sparks congressional fear that the counter-narcotics office would lose direct access to money slated for counter-drug operations in a central transfer account.

This allows the office to move quickly and avoid a lengthy approval process if money is needed urgently. It also allows Congress to know exactly what the money is spent on.

Under the Pentagon’s plan, the counter-narcotics office would also oversee counter-proliferation missions and other global threats, including avian flu.

Initially the Pentagon intended to move money from the central transfer account for counter-drug operations to a subordinate agency, raising fears that counter-narcotics would lose financial flexibility, with money trapped in bureaucracy.

But according to a Senate source, the Pentagon gave way to congressional pressure and agreed during conference talks to keep the money within the policy shop. 

The expanded counter-narcotics office will have oversight of the money and call the shots on program execution, according to the House source.

Conferees expressed concern that the counter-drug office’s enlarged portfolio and reorganization would dissipate its focus.

“The large number of significant issues that would reside in this organization could mean that insufficient personnel and resources are devoted to the critical and diverse issues assigned to this assistant secretary of defense,” including critical missions of counter-proliferation and combating weapons of mass destruction, according to the conference report.

Lawmakers also warned that management of counter-narcotics policy must remain consistent with congressional intent and the effective use of the central transfer account. “Separating [counter-narcotics] oversight from the administration of the central transfer account would likely reduce the effectiveness and responsiveness” of the office, conferees wrote.

The Pentagon will probably face pressure from Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and one of the brains behind the Nunn-Lugar program designed to eliminate the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

In a letter to Edelman last month, Lugar called the merger of counter-narcotics and counter-proliferation missions “a mistake,” adding, “these jobs are too big and too important for any one person.”

It will be the deputy assistant secretary who will have to split the attention for the two large missions, he said.

The Pentagon planned to start its major reorganization yesterday, mostly reshuffling regional policy offices.