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Congress must know about special operations before tragedy strikes

Congress must know about special operations before tragedy strikes
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Given the questions members of Congress have asked about what U.S. special forces are doing in Niger, and perhaps elsewhere, they should apparently be conducting closer oversight of a law they authorized six times since 2004. They should certainly delay adopting a provision in this year’s massive defense spending bill that would allow even more special forces “train and assist” missions until an investigation into the Niger incident is completed.

It is deeply troubling that so many members of Congress have said they didn’t realize that there are nearly 1,000 American troops in Niger and a total of 8,000 service members in Africa. It should be a signal that Congress should slam on the brakes rather than continue providing more and more authority for U.S. special forces to advise, train and assist foreign militaries in counterterrorism missions, something our lawmakers have done repeatedly over the last 12 years.

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In 2005, Congress first authorized U.S. special forces to assist foreign militaries in counterterrorism operations in Section 1208 of the National Defense Authorization Act. The program started with a $25 million spending limit, which quadrupled to $100 million by this year. Though the specifics are classified, as only lawmakers and staff with clearance can see the details, military operations in Africa likely have accounted for the bulk of this spending because U.S. special forces units training the Afghan and Iraqi armies are funded elsewhere in the federal budget.

In May testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Theresa Whelan, the assistant secretary at the Department of Defense overseeing special operations, said this provision “provided our war fighters a powerful tool to employ to support our allies, attack our enemies and protect our force. And it is a great example of interagency synergy enabled by strong congressional support and oversight.”

Apparently there’s been more support than oversight. Following the firefight in Niger, many lawmakers told journalists they were not aware of U.S. military operations there. The Pentagon should be providing members of congressional defense committees with regular updates about any deployments of U.S. special forces under Section 1208. The law requires the Pentagon to notify the defense committees about these engagements 15 days before they begin and to produce an annual comprehensive report. Someone is failing at the job, or perhaps everyone is. Either the Pentagon has not been informing Congress, or it is sending updates and reports, but nobody is reading them.

Whatever the cause of this state of affairs, it should be out of the question to actually expand these deployments, at least until this is straightened out. The tragic deaths of four Americans in Niger suggests that a thorough reexamination of Section 1208 missions would be wise. Yet the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018, currently being conferenced with the House, would allow the Pentagon to spend up to $10 million a year to “provide support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, or individuals engaged in supporting or facilitating ongoing irregular warfare operations by U.S. special operations forces.”

The bill’s definition of irregular warfare is so broad as anything “short of traditional armed conflict” that it seemingly could authorize operations anywhere in the world for any reason. Congress is right to do everything in its power to learn what happened on the ground in Niger, but it shouldn’t take a tragedy for lawmakers to conduct rigorous oversight of its authorization to engage in the U.S. special forces operations. If members of Congress are serious about understanding what happened in Niger, they won’t expand these operations until those questions are answered and the situation has been examined thoroughly under the law.

Lora Lumpe is advocacy director for security governance at Open Society Foundations, an organization focused on building civil society.

Jacob Marx is a policy associate at Open Society Foundations.