Late last month, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1960, the classification for the newest iteration of the National Defense Authorization Act, to take effect during the fiscal year of 2014. For the most part, it is merely a (slightly over sized) funding package for the military; however, much like its predecessors, the 2012 and 2013 NDAAs, there is a lot more than meets the eye, buried in a mountain of requisitions and project funding. The bill is currently under debate in the Senate Armed Services Committee, where it is expected to contain many of the same provisions. Not all the developments are bad, however; a few newly raised issues are addressed in the bills, as well.
Perhaps the most important new development in NDAA 2014 is its establishment of what it terms the "Conflict Records Research Center," presumably a Department of Defense authorized agency which examines what it deems "captured records." There are questions raised here, though, the first of which is the definition of a "captured record." 1061 (g) defines the captured records as files obtained "during combat" from entities "hostile" to the United States; the problem there lies in the definition not just of hostile, a vague adjective, but also of "during combat;" under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, passed in the early 2000s, the country technically proceeds in a state of contuining combat, which renders the distinction legally ambiguous. It will most likely, though, include the vast reams of information collected by the NSA and its sister agencies, including through programs like PRISM.
Section 1061 presents another problem, where in 1061(e) the Center, through the Department of Defense, is allowed to take "gifts" from just about any large entity, from private sector companies to governments, both at home and abroad. While it contains language against those gifts affecting surveillance decisions, it is hard to understand why a surveillance agency with such metastatic powers is allowed to receive monetary gifts, and harder to believe that it would not affect its decision-making. A large agency meant to look at private information, but that receives money from large corporations and governments, is at its core an unfortunate conflict of interest.
A lurking specter in the international community, Guantanamo Bay remains America's quasi-legal prison for detainees highly suspected of terrorism but not quite admissible into America proper. NDAA 2014, at least in the House version (the version under debate in the Senate may amend some of these rules, though not significantly) continues efforts to keep Guantanamo open, through a panoply of direct and indirect efforts to take away alternatives, such as transfers. The bill includes such provisions as 1032 (a), which prevent funding of any additional housing for detainees outside of Guantanamo Bay, 1033(a), which carries with it over twenty subclauses curtailing transfers away from Guantanamo, and even 2901, which authorizes $247.4 million for the expansion and continuation of the Guantanamo installation.
NDAA 2014, coming in the wake of the sequester, the student loan rates debacle, and the sluggish recovery, could be expected to slow discretionary military spending; yet, for better or worse, it has exceeded the austerity measures set forth this past March, authorizing $552 billion dollars in total defense spending, as with $88 billion going directly to war expenditures. An April report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments extrapolates that at the current rate of growth, if POM (personnel, operations, and maintenance) costs keep rising, they would overtake the budget in the next ten years. Sections 318 and 319 actually prevent investment in bio-fuels, a move widely criticized even within the military. The bill even includes measures for a third missile defense site, this time on the East Coast, a provision hotly debated in the House and ended in the Senate, whose bill only allows for "discussion of such a measure." Spending is also allowed for the rather more palatable operation of aid to allies against the Syrian government such as Jordan or Turkey, in fighting Syria, a measure important to many in today's world. It's interesting to note, though, that in Section 2711, the 2014 NDAA actually bans even debate over closing military bases, a process known as BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) - for the rather ironic reason that such debate costs too much. While defense spending is an undeniable necessity, fiscal restraint is, too, an undeniable necessity.
While a less mentioned issue in recent months, the fight against international drug trafficking yet continues, with NDAA 2014 extending almost every anti-drug program currently operational, including the National Guard Counter-Narcotic Program in Section 1014 and various joint task forces with other countries, where the bill literally only serves to amend the respective task force operation dates from "2013" to "2014." The counter-drug programs include a provision specifically tailored to deployment in Colombia to aid in drug interdiction in the same nation. A slightly more troubling aspect of this is its approval of government block-grant support for "anti-drug" efforts in other countries, a historically vague and hardly certifiable effort costing in the millions of dollars.
As the War on Terror has progressed, America has had to develop various regional allies, arguably the most controversial of which has been Pakistan. After the discovery of bin Laden on Pakistani soil, and apparently lagging anti-terrorism efforts, as well as concerns over the security and human rights activities of the administration there, the NDAA 2014 actually freezes a main avenue of military aid spending to Pakistan specifically, through Section 1211, until the Secretary of Defense proves that Pakistan is "maintaining security, and is not ... limiting or restricting ... the movement of United States equipment and supplies" as well as that "Pakistan is taking demonstrable steps to aid in counter-terrorism efforts." While a laudable move for a risky situation to spend in, it is rather undercut by the immediate next provision, where the Secretary of Defense, if he can provide "appropriate justification," can write a waiver for the spending freeze and continue military aid to Pakistan.
Even as women take on an increasing role in military operations, the armed forces have been dogged by sexual assault cases and botched trials, including cases where findings and sentences were dismissed by ranked officials. The 2014 NDAA addresses this, putting an end to the carte blanche power many higher officers employed over the relevant courts, and putting much of the decision-making power in the hands of impartial tribunals. It brings protections for sexual assault victims who speak out up to par with government whistle-blowers (which is quite lacking, but certainly an improvement), and even institutes minimum sentencing guidelines for sex-related crimes. While it is but a first step, it is an important first step.
As UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (more commonly called drones) conduct a larger number of operations overseas, the way their targets are chosen is less and less obvious; and, as reports of high collateral damage and civilian casualties drastically increase, the methodologies behind it become more and more important. Here, NDAA 2014 takes a good approach, requiring "prompt notice in writing" after operations from the Secretary of Defense, and, more importantly, requiring the the Secretary of Defense submits a report on how the targets of such killings are chosen. However, there is no guarantee that the public will be allowed to know the inner information; it only requires that the relevant defense committees, not even Congress as a whole, be notified of these selection methods.