What to Listen for in Key Defense Hearings this Week

Congressional hearings this week will set the stage for the next and final two years of President Obama’s national defense policy. They should also begin to answer some big questions about how the president plans to leave the country stronger, safer and more respected worldwide than when he took office.

On Tuesday morning, the Senate Armed Services Committee holds confirmation hearings on a slate of nominees for top Pentagon posts, including Robert Work for Deputy Secretary of Defense and Christine Wormuth for Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. On Wednesday and Thursday, the heads of four different military commands will set out their perspectives before the House Armed Services Committee. That will include testimony from General John Kelly, whose command includes the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and Admiral William McRaven, whose command covers special operations “kill or capture” missions.

In his State of the Union address last month, the President reaffirmed his goal of moving America “off a permanent war footing.” Ending the war must mean that Americans and our allies – as well as our adversaries – know the U.S. government intends to keep us safe and has the military, diplomatic and economic tools to do it. Our citizens and partners also need to know what those tools are and where they are used – where we are at war, against whom and why. This week, the Pentagon’s senior leader should finally take this opportunity to tell us.

For example, now is the time for senior Pentagon officials to start making clear who is considered a “combatant” in this war against al Qaeda and its “associated forces,” and exactly which “associated forces” of al Qaeda we’re at war with. They need to assure us they will finally provide the names of the people killed by U.S. drones and the reasons for each of those deaths.  When it comes to lethal operations outside the war zone of Afghanistan, the administration needs to make clear the legal framework we’re operating in — that is, when is it acting pursuant to the laws of war, and when is it acting outside of an ongoing armed conflict, to stop an imminent threat that cannot be effectively addressed otherwise? And how exactly will the United States assure the world that it is only using lethal force to kill suspected terrorists outside a clear armed conflict when the threat is truly imminent and capture really not feasible?

President Obama said last Spring that his administration will only use lethal force “beyond the Afghan theater” to target “al Qaeda and associated forces” when they “pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.” He added: “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.” But reports from news organizations and human rights groups suggest the United States is not meeting that standard. Human Rights Watch just last week, for example, released a report detailing a U.S. drone strike on a Yemeni wedding party that doesn’t seem to have met the president’s strict criteria. On the contrary, witnesses and relatives reported that the 12 men and women killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen on December 12, including the groom’s son, were civilians. Will Admiral McRaven explain the discrepancy between the report and stated US policy? And can the Pentagon’s incoming leadership explain exactly how it will prevent this kind of human tragedy – which also constitutes a serious strategic setback — from happening again?

Last year, President Obama pledged to work with Congress to “refine and ultimately repeal” the 2001 Authorization for Use of Force. As Congress considers legislation to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF, and on the House side to repeal the 2001 AUMF, the Pentagon needs to set out its plans for refinement and eventual repeal of that authorization, and for carrying out a post-war counter-terrorism policy that does not keep the United States on a permanent war footing. This week’s hearings are a good time for senior Pentagon officials and nominees to explain the many roles the U.S. military can play to help keep Americans safe without keeping the nation in a state of perpetual war.

Finally, there’s the thorny problem of Guantanamo. Gen. Kelly’s Southern Command includes the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Although created in 2002 as a temporary holding area for combatants captured in hostilities, more than 12 years later it continues to hold 155 detainees.  President Obama reiterated in his state of the union address that he wants to close the notorious detention camp this year. How will Gen. Kelly assist in that process? And what is the cost to the U.S. military of failing to follow through on the President’s promise?

The US now spends over $2.8 million per detainee each year at Guantanamo. What other priorities could Gen. Kelly be supporting with those funds if he had the opportunity?

Kelly has testified that the facilities at the Guantanamo detention center were not built to last and are rapidly deteriorating, “placing assigned personnel and operations at increasing risk.” Meanwhile, the men imprisoned there are aging and will need significant medical care going forward. These are costly challenges that must be met if the U.S. government fails to close the facility soon. Would General Kelly agree that the continued operation of Guantanamo will constitute a significant drain on the resources available to him, forcing trade-offs against other critical missions in his command?

The testimony we’ll hear this week could finally offer some of the long-awaited details for how this administration plans to fulfill its promises and lead the nation into a safer, more secure and peaceful post-war era. It’s an ambitious but incredibly important goal that will define this president’s legacy. Now is the time to set out the details of how we’re going to get there. 

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About the Author(s)

Daphne Eviatar

Director of the Security with Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA She advocates for US compliance with international law in US national security policy. Follow her on Twitter (@deviatar).