Earlier this year, we detailed the Obama administration’s opposition to congressional efforts to require more oversight of aid to foreign militaries and police forces.
Security assistance – a broad category that covers about $25 billion in yearly spending on everything from sending equipment to Israel to training Afghan officers – skyrocketed in the wake of 9/11, growing by 227 percent from 2002 to 2012. A slew of recent reports from government watchdog agencies have found a glaring lack of accountability around security assistance.
In 2012, Congress drafted a bill that would have subjected all foreign aid, including security assistance, to stricter monitoring and transparency requirements. As we reported, the Pentagon successfully opposed the effort for security aid. The bill never made it to a vote.
When the bill was reintroduced this year, congressional staffers worried that military aid would again escape increased oversight.
But last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a compromise: The bill requires the administration to develop standards for all aid, but allows for more flexibility on military aid -- so long as the administration can show that a program already has sufficient oversight.
The Secretary of State can also waive transparency requirements if he determines it is in the “national interest” of the U.S., or to protect the “health or security” of another country.
While “weaker” than previous versions, the bill “is a good step in the right direction,” said Lora Lumpe, senior policy analyst with the Open Society Foundations. It “keeps pressure on the administration to come up with credible monitoring and evaluation plans for security assistance,” she said. (ProPublica recieves funding from Open Society.)
A spokeswoman for Ben Cardin, D-Md., who co-sponsored the bill, said that the changes came about in months of negotiations with the State and Defense Departments.
The transparency legislation has been championed by a curious alliance of Tea Party Republicans and prominent aid groups such as Oxfam. Foreign aid makes up only about one percent of the federal budget, but it is a favorite target for budget hawks. Aid groups, for their part, see more transparency as a way to justify their efforts.
The latest bill requires the administration to publish aid data on a country-by-country, program-by-program basis on a public website. (That website, foreignassistance.gov, already exists, but with partial data. The bill makes the effort law.)
A State Department advisers’ report earlier this year recommended a complete overhaul of the government’s approach to security assistance, calling for more interagency coordination and a bigger emphasis on non-military programs. Shortly after the report was released, the White House announced its own initiative to tackle the issue.