Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) introduced the Oversight of Sensitive Military Operations Act, which requires the Secretary of Defense to notify the House and Senate Armed Services committees, and their subcommittees, of kill or capture operations (or a “sensitive military operation”) aimed at suspected al-Qaeda militants after the operation in question has taken place.
The bill defines a “sensitive military operation” as “a lethal operation or capture operation conducted by the armed forces outside the United States” and outside of Afghanistan, as the measure assumes that military operations there fall under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Thornberry clarified to Breaking Defense that his measure does not limit oversight “to any part of the military or to any particular technology,” including the use of drones.
Currently, the bill has mostly Republican co-sponsors but the Texas Republican said that’s likely due to lobbying logistics. It “is solely a function of how fast the emails got around,” he said, adding that now that he has the support from House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) and Rep. James Langevin (D-RI), a subcommittee ranking member, more Democrats will likely sign on. “The numbers don’t reflect the opinion about it,” Thornberry said.
He also said that he is not intending to hamstring the military. “Congress will never be in position, nor should it be, to make operational decisions — ‘OK, you should capture that person, you should kill that person’ — that’s not our role,” he said. “If it’s a larger scale military conflict,” Thornberry added, “we understand the military can’t come running over to us over every few seconds.”
But, he said, his bill would give Members of Congress “the opportunity to complain about it if we don’t think that it’s justified, or if we believe that some operations are outside the bounds or even [just] a bad idea….Then we have opportunities to restrict funding or to change the authorization or to have a closed hearing on the matter. If [we] have the information, then Congress has a number of tools to use.”
Harold Koh, the former top State Department in the Obama administration, recently criticized the lack of transparency in the White House’s targeted killing program — one that has included a ramped up use of drones throughout the last four years. “It has not been sufficiently transparent to the media, to Congress, and to our allies,” he said last week, adding that it is “fostering a growing perception that the program is not lawful and necessary, but illegal, unnecessary and out of control.”
Another former Obama administration official, former DOD counsel Jeh Johnson, similarly criticized the secrecy surrounding Obama’s counterterrorism polices. “The problem is that the American public is suspicious of executive power shrouded in secrecy,” he said.
Thornberry told Breaking Defense that this is what his bill is trying to address. “Under this framework, it lets Congress push back,” he said.