Key Issues in the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act

November 28, 2012

Today, the Senate is considering the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) after many delays. Yet during a time when the future of America’s national defense is being debated the bill includes a number of troubling provisions which warrant greater attention. Chief among the troubling issues are massive funds for maintaining an enormous Cold War-era nuclear stockpile, continued investments in national missile defense which experts say does not work, continuing transfer restrictions on detainees at the Guantanamo prison facility, which obstruct closing that facility, and unreasonable road blocks to a military biofuels program. In addition, lawmakers have reverted to the habit of using the NDAA for pet projects through amendments. These projects – which include building a new Guantanamo-style prison abroad and increasing the number of Marines at embassies without debate, possibly increasing Marine end strength – are ideas that are at best not debated and at worst counter to America’s national security interests. The specifics of the issues are:

Use of defense spending bill as bucket for pet projects. The NDAA, a bill whose passage is a priority for Congress, is often used as a means for lawmakers to attach pet projects as amendments. This round of debate is no exception and has already included amendments on: a missile defense site on the east coast of the United States; a requirement for detention at Guantanamo Bay of high-value detainees; prohibiting funds for the transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo; a plan for a long-term terrorism detention facility outside of the U.S.; requirement of reporting on the use of naval vessels for terrorism detention; and placing more Marines at U.S. consulates and embassies around the world while reassessing rules of engagement.

A $903 million Ground-Based Missile Defense system that doesn’t work. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation reports, “The bill funds the request for the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system at the requested level of $903 million. Section 232 states that the currently deployed GMD system, with 30 Ground-Based Interceptors deployed in Alaska and California, provides protection of the United States against the future threat of limited ballistic missile attack from nations such as North Korea and Iran.”

But as Tom Collina, research director of the Arms Control Association, explains, continuing massive funding for a system that doesn’t work makes little sense: “A report by the National Research Council (NRC) released Sept. 11 finds that the U.S. Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD) system deployed in Alaska and California to defend against potential long-range missile threats from North Korea and Iran is expensive and ineffective….It should come as no surprise that the current GMD system is a lemon. The system was rushed into operation by the Bush administration in 2004 without adequate testing and has been in trouble ever since. Five of the seven intercept tests that have been conducted since November 2004 have failed, and there have been no successful intercept tests since 2008. Hardly reassuring.” [Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, 06/15/12. Tom Collina, 9/12/12]

$7.6 billion – more than requested – for nuclear weapons while experts question the need for such a massive stockpile of Cold War weapons. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation reports, “The bill provides $7.6 billion for [the National Nuclear Security Administration’s] nuclear weapons activities account, a small increase of approximately $25 million above the requested level of $7.58 billion.”

Yet, nuclear security experts say that our expensive arsenal is no longer needed in such large numbers in the post-Cold War world. In a time of tight budgets, this point is especially critical.  General Cartwright (USA, ret.), former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Commander of U.S Strategic Command, explains that, “The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the cold war… There is the baggage of significant numbers in reserve. There is the baggage of a nuclear stockpile beyond our needs. What is it we’re really trying to deter? Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century.” [Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Fact Sheet. General Cartwright via NY Times, 5/15/12]

Continuing road blocks to close Guantanamo Prison. The ACLU reports that, “The House of Representatives passed a version of the NDAA that restricts all transfers out of Guantanamo for the full fiscal year, while the Senate version of the bill restricts transfers overseas.” While there are already transfer restrictions in place, they are set to expire later this year. Despite the Senate’s less extreme provisions than the House bill, the ACLU explains in a letter to President Obama, “if the NDAA is signed with any transfer restrictions in it, the prospects for Guantanamo being closed during your presidency will be severely diminished, if not gone altogether” because if the detainees cannot be sent elsewhere, Guantanamo Prison must remain open.

The goal of closing Guantanamo must remain a priority, as national security leaders agree that keeping the facility open continues to serve as a recruitment poster for terrorists. General Charles Krulak (ret), former commandant of the Marine Corps, and General Joseph Hoar (ret), former CENTCOM Commander, explain that ensuring the prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open would “bolster Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts.” As Matthew Alexander, the Air Force interrogator who hunted down the notorious Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq, says: “The longer it stays open the more cost it will have in U.S. lives.” [Charles Krulak and Joseph Hoar, 12/13/11. Matthew Alexander via NY Times, 1/21/10]

Attempts to set back biofuels despite environmental and national security benefits.  Nicholas Cunningham of the American Security Project explains, “Included in both versions [of the NDAA] was language that prohibits DoD from the ‘production or purchase’ of any alternative fuels that may exceed the cost of traditional fossil fuels. This language was aimed at killing DoD’s nascent biofuels program, which was designed to develop alternative sources of fuel for military operations.”

Yet, the Pentagon’s biofuels program is a national security priority worth protecting. The DoD’s biofuels policy explains the military importance of the program, the “primary alternative fuels goal is to ensure operational military readiness, improve battle space effectiveness, and further flexibility of military operations through the ability to use multiple, reliable fuel sources.” Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy Tom Hicks said that, “Prohibiting the DoD from pursuing cost-competitive alternatives severely limits our ability to reduce reliance on fossil fuels sourced from outwardly hostile parts of the world. It is a policy position that is bad for energy security and bad for national security.” [Nicholas Cunningham, 11/19/12. DoD, 6/5/12. Tom Hicks via Wired, 7/27/12]

What We’re Reading

Two car bombs exploded in the loyalist town of Jaramana, Syria, killing at least 45 and wounding another 120.

A Saudi diplomat was shot dead in Sana’a in an attack suspected to be executed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Several hundred protesters clash with police in a rally against President Mursi’s assumption of expanded powers.

A suicide bomber dressed as a security guard blew himself up near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing 3.

Two bombs are exploded in a suicide attack killing at least 11 and wounding 30 at a church in the military base in Jaji, Nigeria.

China is considering changing its one-child policy in order to counteract a rapidly ageing society.

Japan is shoring up its armed forces and offering military aid for the first time in decades in an effort to build regional alliances to counter a rising China.

Peace talks between Colombia and FARC rebels are “progressing well,” as they try to end nearly 50 years of war.

Protests and strikes break out in Lisbon as Portugal enters the economic crisis that is plaguing the rest of Europe. 

Commentary of the Day

David Wood assesses how American drones are contributing to a new arms race across the world.

Rabbi Michael Lerner discusses why U.S. and Israel should support Palestinian bid for nonmember sate status at the U.N.

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