Policy

Defense Bill Gives State Department More Authority to Oversee Security Aid

For years, Congress nudged the State Department toward the sidelines of the foreign security assistance game while giving the Pentagon more authority to provide weapons and training to allies and partners. Now, for the first time in decades, lawmakers are putting diplomats back in the middle of the action.

The annual Pentagon policy bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law last month, gives Foggy Bottom greater oversight over security assistance programs and also requires the Pentagon be more transparent about and closely track the tens of billions of dollars it provides annually to security forces in more than 100 countries.

Foreign assistance experts and human rights advocates welcome the changes, which were mandated by the fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill. But they also caution the State Department remains the junior player in its relationship with the Pentagon, and the success of the new arrangement depends largely on the Defense Department not resisting the changes. Also critical is the willingness of the incoming Trump administration to implement the new policies.

“We think State has some challenges now to really get its house in order,” said Lora Lumpe, advocacy director for security sector governance at the Open Society Foundations, which was established by liberal mega-donor George Soros. “It’s really going to be dependent on how faithfully the Pentagon implements the Congress’s intentions.”

For months, State Department officials and their Senate overseers on the Foreign Relations Committee were concerned the defense bill would decrease State Department oversight of some security aid activities. But a late push by Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have helped sway key lawmakers to instead require Foggy Bottom to be involved in both the formulation of all security cooperation projects and in signing off on them, a committee staffer said.

“It seems to be an expansion of the secretary of State’s authority in this regard,” said the staffer, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “It’s definitely a positive step in making sure that at least this form of security assistance is a whole-of-government approach.”

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress has accelerated its decades-old trend of assigning the Department of Defense greater authorities to develop and execute security cooperation programs with an ever increasing number of nations’ militaries, border forces, and law enforcement agencies. The State Department’s authority and resources, meanwhile, have not kept pace.

The defense law streamlined into a single authority a number of different authorizations, something the Pentagon had long sought and that policy analysts believe will go a long way toward easing bureaucratic hurdles to executing security assistance projects in a timely manner. There were previously over 100 distinct congressional authorities for security assistance that the department had to juggle.

The Pentagon also received some new authorities, including permission to provide defense aid to countries that are otherwise banned by law from receiving U.S. assistance, which is a concern for liberal foreign policy advocacy groups like the Center for International Policy.

Colby Goodman, who directs the center’s research on security assistance activities, expressed concerns about the bill loosening restrictions on the provision of lethal aid and its broad authorization for the Pentagon to train foreign nations’ civilian police forces. Police training programs must be jointly developed, coordinated and approved by the State Department, under the new authority.

Goodman applauded the law’s authorization of the Pentagon to transfer as much as $75 million to other U.S. agencies to help them implement their own foreign security cooperation programs. Another positive was its requirement that the Pentagon provide human rights and institution-building aid as a component of the security assistance it provides to every country, he said.

Tom Malinowski, outgoing assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor, welcomed the changes made in the defense law. If implemented, he said, they should elevate the role human rights play in interagency security assistance deliberations.

“A more coherent structure for doing it will make it easier for us to ensure that what we all agree must be done in terms of marrying our human rights and security objectives can in fact be done,” he said.

Good governance advocates touted a transparency reform in the law that requires the Pentagon to provide a congressional budget justification for the security assistance it provides to each country, as the State Department is already required to do. Lumpe said her organization has pushed for years for the Pentagon to provide this information.

“What the reforms do is create a lot more coherence, a lot more transparency, and a lot more accountability to the public and the publics abroad,” Lumpe said.

Melissa Dalton, who worked on security cooperation projects in the Pentagon under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, said she was pleased to see the defense law require the department to develop a specialized workforce to better manage its growing security assistance portfolio.

As with the authorities themselves, the distribution of security assistance expertise has been uneven throughout the military services and civilian work forces, she said.

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