Much has been written about how government money is used for both overt and covert military actions with no true accounting and virtually no Congressional oversight. Such views deliver the message that nobody is “watching the store” for the American citizen and that dark and unidentifiable forces are in play.
I’m not going to be naïve and represent that some monies may indeed be hidden from oversight, but there is actually considerable evidence which shows that when significant amounts of money are involved the funds are accounted for and do receive certain types of formal oversight. This issue is important because if you dig deeply enough you find that people in very high places do know what’s going on with the money, approve of it and enable the activities. In fact those are often the same individuals charged with the oversight at the highest levels of an agency or in government as a whole – not that they would admit it. If there are dark forces at work, they have names and they sign off on paperwork and in many cases it even becomes public after a time.
I’ll start with a very concrete example, one involving executive action – the darkest of the dark operations. In 1960 a CIA action was initiated to kill Fidel Castro. When it got to the point of actually going operational and needing funding, the officer responsible for the relevant budget was ordered to simply issue the money and hide it within his general operating budget. He refused, regardless of repeated pleas about security. His response was that it was his budget and his career that was on the line and the money involved was such that accounting questions would be asked. In the end he was read into the program, two senior officers officially ordered the money to be disbursed and the project went forward – records were kept and ultimately released. When large amounts of money are involved, things get real very quickly.
A few years later, two of one of the darkest and most secret covert American operations involved support of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua and anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan. Lots of money was involved and the CIA was carrying the ball; we have the records showing how much was being disbursed to the Contras and specifically to whom – and how much the IG couldn’t locate later. As far as the Afghanistan funding, matters became so public that you had a Congressman lobbying all over Washington and in the end flooding the CIA with several times the amount of money than they had requested or could handle – resulting in it being dumped in Pakistan with no oversight at all and some very bad long term consequences.
It’s important to remember that the CIA and other agencies have Insepctor Generals and they are often quite good at oversight, especially of money. In fact the oversight over Contra funds was so good that Congress ultimately cut off funding and in one of the worst moves in American history the President, CIA Director and SecState proceeded to fund the project with private monies and funds from overseas. A number of important government figures knew exactly what was going even though Congress had called a halt to Contra military support.
In more recent years we have seen various IG’s publish very public reports about expenditures and huge, very huge amounts of money thrown to the winds in Afghanistan and Iraq. What we have not seen is either Congress or Presidents actually respond to those reports – the obvious conclusion is that even with excellent oversight over public funds, it can end but fruitless even when all the details are fully released.
Of course there are “true” black budgets in the sense of projects that are known, authorized and extremely sensitive from a security standpoint. Most of those involve weapons systems, new aircraft, reconnaissance satellites and other types of spacecraft. Each has its own accounting – normally spread out among dozens or hundreds of smaller seemingly routine cover accounts – consolidated and monitored by highly cleared and project specific accountants. In that sense “black” budgets go right along with “black” engineering and development projects.
In the 21st Century the truly covert and deniable operations of previous decades have morphed into something much more pragmatic, integrating the covert with the overt and inserting both in “joint operations”. Since they are more public those operations actually have names and budgets and undergo high levels of spending authority and discrete oversight.
Well…not exactly. The first part is true, they get names, but in terms of financial control, actually so much money has become involved that it has literally broken the military budget process. The military has its own problems with Congress even on its standard, ongoing missions. Quite frequently you will find that Congress gives it money and weapons that it does not request – and refuses to authorize savings which it proposes. Raise your hand if that surprises you.
But in terms of today’s integrated, global operations things have become even more convoluted – largely because nobody in Congress really wants to talk about the fact that we are spending at war time levels. Which leads us to one of the major issues of military budgets in contemporary affairs. It’s not exactly a matter of dark money or black budgets but rather of throwing lots of money into one big pot outside the regular military budget.
It involves the creation of a gigantic “contingency fund” for ongoing operations – outside the regular armed forces budget. We all understand having some money around for unexpected events and incidents, but this contingency fund is many orders of magnitude beyond what that term normally calls to mind. And because it’s all in one big bucket and not all that broken out by detail, it has become much more discretionary and a good deal of Congressional oversight has been removed. Actually Congress seems happy about that because they don’t have to answer to how it’s spent. It’s not exactly a black budget but in terms of control it allows discretionary spending of extreme amounts of money. See the following for more detail and some very helpful commentary.
One of the effects of the changes in American military operations and of this new extra-military fund is that more and more activities are authorized and operated under the control of the Commander in Chief (CIC). In some ways that’s good as it allows flexibility and quick response, but when combined with Congress’s refusal to involve itself by defining American military operations, it is one more example of Congressional responsibly (and blame) shifting. It also empowers the CIC to an extent not seen outside full scale, declared war. This is the military environment which the new Trump Administration will face; it has become incredibly complex. And its financial and budgeting context can be as challenging as its operational elements.
It will be interesting to see if with a new administration in place, Congress attempts to insert itself more fully into such matters, or simply leaves it all in the CIC’s lap as they have been wont to do previously.