Armed Services Committees Authorize Funds and Activities for State Department information operations (Updated)

If you haven't read the National Defense Authorization of Act for Fiscal Year 2010 that came out of conference this week - and I'm guessing you haven't - then you may have missed a potential precedent.

The Armed Services Committees of the House and Senate this week authorized $55 million for the State Department for what amounts to information operations (or call it public diplomacy, strategic communication, or global engagement). This is not so-called "1207" funding that allows Defense to transfer money to State for security and stabilization - there is another $100m (or more) of security and stabilization money the SASC/HASC direct DOD to transfer to State - nor is it, for the wonk in you, "1206" or "1208" funding. This is a direct authorization for State (and BBG if you prefer to separate them out) for specific activities.

The appearance of these authorizations in the Senate bill back in July took many by surprise. This could create questions over accountability of funds and confusion over guidance by adding more cooks who generally do not confer much and speak different language in this kitchen.

The big question is whether the authorities will be funded. This is unlikely considering neither the House or Senate defense appropriators have included this in their pre-conference bills. However, the Armed Services Committees created an opportunity for the defense appropriators to send a significant message. Whether the appropriators take that opportunity is to be seen.

A little background.

In July, the Senate amended the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with the Victims of Iranian Censorship (VOICE) Act. The VOICE Act was introduced by Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT), Ted Kaufman (D-DE), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Robert Casey (D-PA). The VOICE Act in the Senate version of the NDAA included, among other things, $30 million to the Broadcasting Board of Governors for broadcasting,  online activities, and capital improvements all aimed at Iran; $20 million for a new "Iranian Electronic Education, Exchange, and Media Fund" to "counter efforts [by the Iranian Government] to block, censor, or monitor the Internet in Iran"; and $5 million for the Secretary of State to "document, collect, and dissemination [sic] information about human rights in Iran".

The issue may have ignored in July, but conference report from the House and Senate Armed Services Committee released this week (PDF, 2.7mb) shows the VOICE Act is alive. The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) bills not only kept VOICE but maintained the funding levels. (The language for each section - 1262, 1263, and 1266, respectively - is below.)

This tasking of State by committees focus on Defense is without precedent, according to several I talked to. It took many by surprise but it is legal. Whether these mandates get funded is another question entirely, but one that may be answered within the week. If the appropriators do not fund VOICE - and neither the House nor the Senate defense appropriations committees indicated they would in their pre-conference reports - it won't come as a surprise. If they do fund VOICE, that will set a significant precedent.

Most noteworthy today is that the VOICE mandates are information operations tasked to the State Department - a combined $55 million worth of work according to the armed services committees. Whether under executed under public diplomacy ("R" in the language of State's bureaucracy) or another bureau (human rights is under the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, or "G"), it is not clear that State has the capacity to spend this money (BBG does).

But wait, there are authorizers and there are appropriators. The authorizers simply create authorities to spend money, they do not actual hold the purse strings. Think of an authorization like creating a bank account with a maximum balance for a specified purpose. The appropriators put the money in, under the ceiling (they can go over, but the difference will be worked out, generally quickly). The appropriators can also put restrictions on the use of the money, generally within the bounds of the authorization, conflicts are worked out (usually generally quickly).

In other words, the conference bill that came out of the SASC and HASC this week authorizing $55 million for State Department information activities is so far a set of empty bank accounts for missions.

So what about the appropriators, the people who hold the purse strings? Well, neither of the defense subcommittees of the House or Senate Appropriations Committees (HACD and SACD, respectively) included funding for VOICE Act activities in their pre-conference bills or reports as far as I could find out. It is reasonable to assume that the VOICE Act will remain unfunded because it is out of scope of both the House and Senate appropriations committees before went into conference. It will thus take a lot of effort and work to actually fund this.

The $55 million for full funding is potentially available. The House appropriators want to reduce Defense's information operations budget by $500 million (from a budget request $632 million, not the still-repeated $988 million) and the Senate by $58 million. With a compromise likely between $100 million and $200 million, there could be a few dollars to fund some or all of the $55 million (although it is much of the cut has already been reallocated).

If the appropriators do fund some or all of the $55 million, it would be a significant precedent-setting action. It would certainly indicate a willingness on the part of the armed services to fund the State Department, which is something Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has long called for, as well as others. Could this mobilize the chairman of the house defense appropriations subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha, to push for greater State funding from the armed services appropriators and authorizers? Unlikely.

This is most likely a one-off event by a few Senators on armed services spurred into action by the events surrounding the Iranian presidential election and using the most reliable vehicle for action available to them. We'll learn whether there is any consequence or precedent soon, probably within a week when the defense appropriators finish their conference work and tell us what is and what is not funded. 

See also:

Relevant text from the conference NDAA:

SEC. 1262. AUTHORIZATION OF APPROPRIATIONS.
(a) INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING OPERATIONS FUND.--In addition to amounts otherwise authorized for the Broadcasting Board of Governors' International Broadcasting Operations Fund, there is authorized to be appropriated $15,000,000 to expand Farsi language programming and to provide for the dissemination of accurate and independent information to the Iranian people through radio, television, Internet, cellular telephone, short message service, and other communications.

(b) BROADCASTING CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS FUND.--In addition to amounts otherwise authorized for the Broadcasting Board of Governors' Broadcasting Capital Improvements Fund, there is authorized to be appropriated $15,000,000 to expand transmissions of Farsi language programs to Iran. ...

SEC. 1266. HUMAN RIGHTS DOCUMENTATION.
There are authorized to be appropriated $5,000,000 to the Secretary of State to document, collect, and disseminate information about human rights in Iran, including abuses of human rights that have taken place since the Iranian presidential election conducted on June 12, 2009.

SEC. 1263. IRANIAN ELECTRONIC EDUCATION, EXCHANGE, AND MEDIA FUND.
(a) ESTABLISHMENT.--There is established in the Treasury of the United States the Iranian Electronic Education, Exchange, and Media Fund (referred to in this section as the ''Fund''), consisting of amounts appropriated to the Fund pursuant to subsection (f).
(b) ADMINISTRATION.--The Fund shall be administered by the Secretary of State. ...