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Obama Wants a Blank Check to Fight ISIS—and Congress Is Ready to Give It to Him

The Obama administration asked Congress for $5 billion to fight terrorism but offered no details about how the money would be spent. Democrats want to give Obama the money anyway.

09.10.14 9:55 AM ET

Democrats in Congress are ready to give the Obama administration $5 billion in new funding to fight ISIS and other terror groups, despite the fact that the administration has no idea how the money will be spent.

When the president calls for Congress to approve his new counterterrorism fund in his speech Wednesday, it's unlikely he'll mention that for the last four months his administration has stifled calls from inside and outside the government for the White House to specify exactly what the money is for. The White House’s lack of urgency led to some to believe they weren’t actually invested in seeing the fund become a reality, but just wanted to create the appearance of doing something to fight Islamic extremists.

Now, looking for a quick way to pay for what the White House is promising will be a long struggle against ISIS, the fund is back in vogue both inside the administration and on Capitol Hill. Similar to the overall plan to defeat ISIS, details of the fund remain scarce, yet the process is moving forward due of a mix of fear and confusion.

“We don’t know what the details are, so we can’t say what is in it and what isn’t,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, who said the fund could be used to fight ISIS in Iraq or even Syria if that’s what the president decides to do. “I think that kind of flexibility is useful.”

It wasn't always so. When President Obama first proposed his new Counterterrorism Partnership Fund in his West Point speech in May, the public announcement came as a total surprise to lawmakers and even officials in his own administration. The White House had not consulted anyone and had no details about what they planned to do with the money, other than to support and bolster countries on the front lines of the terror war, from Jordan to Yemen to Mali.

Leaders in both chambers and both parties were especially skeptical of Obama’s idea that $500 million of that money would be used to train the moderate Syrian rebels. Without more details, Congress said, there’s no way that they would just hand over the cash.

Then ISIS took over a major Iraqi city, expanded its reach across Syria and into Lebanon, and most recently distributed videos of their beheading of two American journalists. Now lawmakers, especially the Democrats, are singing a different tune.

Several top Democratic and Republican senators told The Daily Beast on Friday that the administration has given Congress zero details about the proposed fund and consultations have been next to nonexistent. But Democrats said that was perfectly fine with them.

“I support doing what we need to do to defeat ISIS,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez told The Daily Beast when asked about the fund.

Senate appropriators are already preparing to hand Obama the $5 billion. The draft of the defense appropriations bill would give the Pentagon $4 billion of the funds. The draft of the State Department and foreign operations appropriations bill contains the other $1 billion. All the money would be classified as war funding in the overseas contingency operations part of the defense budget.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she was open to including the money in the catch-all omnibus government spending bill Congress needs to pass before leaving Washington, D.C., for the fall campaigns. 

“My goal [for the spending bill] is: no government shutdown, do no harm, position for an omnibus, and have the money to deal with the national security threats facing the nation,” she said.

Lawmakers continued Tuesday a Kabuki-style debate over a vote on authorizing Obama's ISIS war that is near impossible to muster before Congress adjourns next week for their pre-election campaigns.

Caught between their desire to preserve their constitutional war-making authority and the fear of political backlash, Congress is paralyzed and leadership has no intention of forcing the issue before the break.

Besides, lawmakers say, there’s no way to vote on a strategy that hasn’t yet been articulated by the president.

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It’s one of the reasons some in the GOP are not as eager to give Obama a blank check. The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said Tuesday that Congress has not been able to debate the fund because they still don’t know what it’s about. “We’ve had no discussions because I don’t know any details,” he said.

“I want to know what’s it for,” said Sen. John McCain, who said the prime reason that Obama proposed the fund was “because it looks good.”

McCain and other GOP senators said that without a strategy, it makes no sense to appropriate the money. He is pushing for a strategy that includes military action inside Syria, which he argues is necessary to defeat ISIS.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about whether there’s a strategy and a goal. If there’s no goal, there’s no strategy, and if that’s the case we don’t want to waste the taxpayers’ money,” he said.

“Part of the problem is you can’t just request money and not have a plan for how you’re going to use it and what the ultimate goals you’re trying to accomplish might be,” said Senate Appropriator Susan Collins.

Inside the administration, State Department and Pentagon officials told The Daily Beast that they believe the White House has been intentionally slow to fill in the details of the fund, especially the $500 million for Syria, because the White House is reluctant to actually start actively arming the moderate Syrian rebels.

The CIA has been for more than a year working closely on vetting and training Syrian opposition forces despite recent assessments that the Free Syrian Army itself would not be a suitable partner for any potential U.S. military operations on the ground. “This has been Brennan’s baby,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast, referring to the agency’s director, John Brennan. “This has been his little fiefdom until recently.”

But it’s unclear whether the Syrian opposition training will remain Brennan’s fiefdom for long. Another U.S. intelligence official said the U.S. military would be taking over the training at least for any future Syria opposition forces. The first intelligence official said some of the opposition forces operating in the south were considered more moderate, and more likely to supply more of the fighters for the training program. The program was also closely coordinated, according to this source, with the Jordanian security services. 

The State Department is pushing the White House and the CIA to approve more moderate rebel groups for training and equipping by the U.S. as soon as possible. The $500 million would be enough to train and arm 3,000 rebel fighters over two years, officials said, hardly enough troops in enough time to stop ISIS’s rapid advances.

President Obama called the Syrian rebels’ attempt to defeat the Assad regime a “fantasy” only weeks after he requested half a billion to arm them. Today, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, Hadi AlBahra, wrote to Obama to ask him to expedite the funds not because of Assad but because of ISIS.

“Your leadership is greatly needed to authorize and appropriate this program, given the threat posed by ISIS to hundreds of thousands of civilians in northern Syria,” he wrote. “We welcome your country’s generous provision of humanitarian aid, but a surge of U.S. security assistance to the Free Syrian Army to help in this vital fight is now necessary.”

Obama is sure to talk about the fund in his speech Wednesday night where he has promised to lay out his strategy for combatting ISIS. On Monday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest called on Congress to quickly approve the funds, despite that there is no clarity on how the money would be used.

Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council, told The Daily Beast that the administration had briefed Congress several times on the fund. He said the lack of detail was a good thing and that the Pentagon and State Department would choose how to spend the money after they get it.

“The [fund] will provide the flexibility and resources required to respond to urgent and emergent needs as terrorist threats around the world continue to evolve,” he said. “That is why our discussions with Congress have focused on examples of potential CTPF-funded initiatives, rather than specific programmatic details and why we have committed to robust consultation with Congress on the development of programs under this initiative.”

— with additional reporting by Eli Lake