Pentagon makes paying for information a top priority
(AP) The U.S. Defense Department is urging Congress to extend a counterterrorism tool that gives the Green Berets and Navy SEALs up to $25 million (euro18 million) a year to pay for information, buy guns for allied forces and hire fighters willing to battle al-Qaida.
The House and Senate are split, however, over whether to renew that authority because of questions about how productive the tool has been for the special operations military groups.
A decision is expected in the next few weeks as lawmakers craft a military spending bill for fiscal year 2008, which begins Oct. 1.
The little-noticed authority, approved in 2004, has been popular within the special operations ranks because it relieved them of waiting for the CIA to distribute money.
That was a problem in the early days of the war in Afghanistan when commandos were working with the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban. There were times when a CIA officer was not immediately available to close a hastily arranged deal, according to reports following the 2001 invasion.
Adm. Eric Olson, the top officer at U.S. Special Operations Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June that the authority is an “absolutely essential tool in the war on terrorism.”
Details remain classified, however. In a written statement to the committee, Olson did not provide specific examples of how the account has been used or say how much has been spent.
But he did say U.S. commandos have employed local forces to infiltrate hostile areas where American troops cannot openly operate.
In other cases, Olson said money from the account has bought information about terrorist activities that could not be obtained through traditional intelligence-gathering methods, such as wiretaps or spy satellites.
The tool has been effective against the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines, Olson said, and against “potential terrorist targets” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the Horn of Africa.
When the spending authority was first granted, Congress required the Pentagon to keep the defense oversight committees regularly informed about use of the provision. It also said the authority was not approval for the military to conduct covert operations.
The House agreed in May to renew the spending authority through 2010, although it wants a more complete accounting of “cost and performance,” according to its version of the 2008 defense spending bill.
Senators, however, want to know whether the results have been worth the cost, according to a Senate committee staff member, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
The Senate is considering its version of the military spending bill this week. Once it has finished, the Senate will meet with the House to resolve their differences.
The payout provision is set to expire Sept. 30, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. It is unlikely the House and Senate will have agreed on a revised version of the plan by then, but a measure temporarily funding federal agencies will keep the program from dying.
Tom O’Connell, a former Pentagon official who three years ago urged Congress to grant the authority, said it is crucial in a war against an unconventional enemy.
“Times have changed,” O’Connell said.
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