Pentagon's Counterdrug Money May Be Soft Target for Border Wall Fund

Texas National Guard Joint Counterdrug Task Force member, Staff Sgt. Quincy Tidwell adjusts a tourniquet during training in Florence, Texas, Oct. 15, 2018. Since 2017, Texas National Guard Counterdrug Task Force members have provided support for the Department of Public Safety’s Tactical Emergency Casualty Care training by implementing their first-hand military experience for roughly 500 recruits and several multi-agency classes across the state. (Nadine Wiley De Moura/Texas Joint Counterdrug Task Force)
Texas National Guard Joint Counterdrug Task Force member, Staff Sgt. Quincy Tidwell adjusts a tourniquet during training in Florence, Texas, Oct. 15, 2018. Since 2017, Texas National Guard Counterdrug Task Force members have provided support for the Department of Public Safety’s Tactical Emergency Casualty Care training by implementing their first-hand military experience for roughly 500 recruits and several multi-agency classes across the state. (Nadine Wiley De Moura/Texas Joint Counterdrug Task Force)

Much of the money that President Donald Trump is seeking to take from existing Pentagon counterdrug operations to fund his planned wall at the southern border isn't being used effectively in support of state authorities, according to a recent government watchdog report.

The Defense Department's Counternarcotics and Global Threats Strategy as it pertains to National Guard support of local law enforcement is out of date and doesn't reflect current threats, the report last month from the Government Accountability Office said.

GAO officials said that about $261 million of DoD's roughly $1 billion for counterdrug activities was spent on National Guard support for various states in Fiscal Year 2018.

On Feb. 15, Trump said that he was targeting as much as $2.5 billion from DoD counterdrug programs to fund wall construction. Reaching the $2.5 billion figure would require the Pentagon to redirect money from as-yet-unspecified accounts under a process called "reprogramming."

Congress has authorized reprogramming in the past but a Pentagon spokesman said last Friday that current law does not require Congressional approval.

The GAO's January report said that In 2014 the National Guard rescinded its guidance to states on how to operate under the counterdrug program "and hasn't replaced it yet." In addition, DoD has funded programs run by the states without first approving their plans, the report said.

The GAO also found that "the process used by the National Guard to distribute funding to the states within the program does not incorporate DOD's strategic counternarcotics priorities, such as the U.S. southwest and northern border areas."

National Guard counterdrug operations range from reconnaissance to intelligence support and training, but generally reflect the priorities of the state governors, according to the report, which went to the chairman and ranking members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.

Despite the shortcomings listed in the GAO report, the efforts of 3,700 National Guard personnel in FY 2017 who assisted local law enforcement resulted in the removal of more than 3.3 million pounds, or nearly $11.2 billion, in illicit drugs from U.S. communities, the GAO report said.

One of five recommendations from the GAO was that DoD "should ensure that the Chief of the National issues interim guidance that provides detailed procedures and processes on how to operate and administer the National Guard counterdrug program."

DoD concurred with the recommendations and identified actions to improve oversight of the National Guard's counterdrug programs, the GAO report said.

In declaring a national emergency on the southern border last Friday, Trump and White House officials said they were seeking up to $8.1 billion for the wall.

The outline for the funding they gave included $3.6 billion from the military construction budget, $2.5 billion from DoD counterdrug programs, and $600 million from Treasury Department forfeitures.

Another $1.375 billion would come from border security measures approved by Congress in the bill that Trump signed last Friday to fund several government departments and avoid another partial government shutdown. Trump resorted to the national emergency when Congress rejected his demand for $5.7 billion for the wall.

Trump's directive for up to $6.1 billion from the military for the border wall put Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan in the position of having to pick from a laundry list of projects for which Congress has already appropriated money and divert that money to the border wall.

In remarks to reporters traveling with him over the weekend, Shanahan said he has yet to make any decisions on how to raise the amounts requested by Trump, the Associated Press reported. He was set to receive an assessment from the staff of the Joint Chiefs Sunday and is expected to hear from the service secretaries during the course of this week.

"We understand there are some priorities that won't be considered," said Shanahan, who indicated that projects to fix damaged and dilapidated housing for military families would not be included in those to be canceled or delayed for the border wall.

Shanahan said he also has yet to decide whether to validate a core assertion of the Trump administration: that diversion of Pentagon money for the wall would be "in support of the Armed Forces" as required by law.

In a statement last Friday, the Pentagon said that "this declaration of a national emergency at the southern border requiring the use of the armed forces authorizes the Secretary of Defense to determine whether border barriers are necessary to support the use of the armed forces and to redirect unobligated DOD MILCON [military construction] funding to construct border barriers if required."

However, the declaration of the national emergency and the diversion of DoD funding for the wall are likely to be tied up in lengthy court battles. At least 16 state attorneys general have declared their intention to file suit, as have the American Civil Liberties Union, the Project on Government Accountability and at least three Texas landowners thus far.

House Democrats have also announced their intention to file a motion of "disapproval" of the national emergency which, if it passed in the House, would force a Senate vote that could not be blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

The vote is not likely to produce a veto-proof majority, but would put Senate Republicans in the awkward position of either having to go against the president, or vote against projects that could benefit their states and produce jobs.

To underscore the dilemma Shanahan faced in picking projects to cancel, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said Saturday that the Corps needed about $3.5 billion in the coming years to repair damage to Camp Lejeune and military housing -- almost the total $3.6 billion amount Trump was seeking from the military construction budget, U.S. Naval Institute News reported.

"We have a very clear stated requirement for repair at Camp Lejeune. The total bill is about $3.4 [or] $3.5 billion," Neller said told USNI News at the WEST 2019 conference in San Diego, co-hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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