The Complex

House Lawmakers Vote to Reverse Hagel’s Budget Plan

House lawmakers from both parties voted Thursday for a $601 billion defense budget that amounts to a wholesale rejection of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's proposed Pentagon budget, setting up what will likely be months of heated sparring over military benefits and the future of an array of big-ticket weapons programs.

The House budget bill would provide $496 for the Defense Department's baseline budget, another $79 billion for Afghanistan and other war operations and another $18 billion for energy programs, but the 325-98 vote restores funding to a number of programs, for the A-10 Warthog close air support plane, for example, and the U-2 spy plane that first began flying during the Cold War. It also provides more funding for troop pay, housing, healthcare and other programs that the Pentagon had sought, under its own proposal, to reduce. The House version of the budget passed Thursday also restored funding for the Navy's Ticonderoga-class cruisers and other programs the Pentagon said it didn't need.

House lawmakers took pains to say that they weren't acting out of self-interest to protect programs that provide jobs in their states but were instead voting to protect the troops.

"Some have characterized the [fiscal year 2015 defense budget] as a sop to parochial interests," Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement after the vote. "That is a lazy dismissal of a long, arduous process that still leaves many holes in our defense and few good choices."

Although the budget bill the House passed meets Congressionally-mandated budget caps, it requires the Pentagon to fund certain programs that it had planned to cut. As a result, the Pentagon will now have to find additional savings, perhaps in acquisition and other troop "readiness" programs, to keep the baseline budget at the $496 billion limit. Top generals routinely warn that such cuts could leave the military ill-prepared to fight an unexpected conflict in a place like Yemen or Syria.

Thursday's vote is only the beginning of a budget process that won't conclude until this fall at the earliest, and the Senate proposal is not expected to include the same priorities as the House version. But on Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee completed its own markup of the defense budget bill, and, like the House, voted to keep the A-10 flying.

Pentagon officials in recent weeks have said that this is only the opening budgetary salvo in what will be a months-long process.

"The department reiterates its support for the President's budget submission which we believe makes tough decisions regarding readiness and modernization while providing a balanced compensation plan," Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email.

Earlier this month, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said that Hagel was "not pleased" with efforts by the House to undo the Pentagon's budget cuts. On Tuesday, Kirby said Hagel "believes that it's important for the ideas and proposals put forward by the Defense Department in the president's budget be subject to a full and vigorous debate." The defense chief, Kirby added, "also knows that this debate is just now beginning."

House lawmakers have chided the administration for attempting to reduce the size of the military, increase out-of-pocket expenses for military families and "cutting vital programs," as a House Armed Services Committee budget document said. "In developing this proposal, Chairman McKeon, together with members from both parties, worked hard to find savings in less critical areas that do not pose the threat of irrevocable damage to the force or the potential to harm recruiting or retention. Still, at current resource levels tough choices must be made," according to the document.

Animated by a list of "unfunded requirements" that were submitted by the chiefs of each of the services - disallowed by previous defense secretaries but allowed this year by Hagel - House lawmakers restored funding to a number of other smaller programs the Pentagon proposal had cut. The House measure passed Thursday put back $76 million for the Stryker vehicle, for example, and another $120 million for Abrams tank upgrades. The House also voted against the Pentagon's plan to reduce excess military infrastructure by closing bases it says it doesn't need or can't afford to maintain.

Despite the end of the wars in Iraq and, soon, Afghanistan, as well as the administration's argument that defense spending should go down, House lawmakers have touted the need to increase defense spending, specifically for acquisition and readiness - money spent on troops and training.

But outside budget analysts believe House lawmakers are short-sighted and are effectively "handcuffing the Pentagon," as the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments Todd Harrison told Foreign Policy recently.

Hagel has said repeatedly that if the Pentagon continues on its current spending course without making adjustments the choices it will face will "only grow more difficult and more painful down the road," as Hagel said Feb. 24 when he previewed the Pentagon's budget proposal. "We will inevitably have to either cut into compensation even more deeply and abruptly or we will have to deprive our men and women of the training and equipment they need to succeed in battle."  


Getty/Chip Somodevilla

The Complex

FBI Director: More Cyber Espionage Cases Coming

FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday called the work of Chinese military officials accused of hacking into the computers of American corporations and a labor union "burglary," and promised the the bureau would keep up its efforts to bring more accused cyber spies to justice. Comey stopped short of announcing any new indictments, but he said that the FBI was aggressively pursuing investigations against other criminal hackers and that he wants to send agents overseas to work directly with foreign governments on more cyber espionage cases in other countries.

Earlier this week, the Justice Department announced indictments of five officials for a years-long campaign of stealing companies' proprietary data and giving it to Chinese companies. "We're not going to put up with this," Comey told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in his first appearance since being confirmed as FBI director last September. "We're going to treat these as seriously as someone kicking in your door to steal your stuff, to steal your ideas, to steal your identity." Comey described cyber security and crime prevention as a top priority for the FBI.

Officials said earlier this week that Russian hackers are the likely next target of federal prosecutors. For several years, the Obama administration has put Chinese and Russian cyber spies and criminals at the top of its list of worst offenders in what officials describe as a relentless campaign targeting American businesses for the benefit of those countries' own industries. Estimates on the true cost of cyber-espionage range widely, but are generally believe by experts and officials to be in the tens of billions of dollars annually. In announcing the indictments this week, a Justice Department official said the Chinese spying had led directly to the loss of American jobs.

Comey rejected comparisons between the kind of intelligence gathering that the United States does when it spies on foreign corporations and the alleged actions of the Chinese hackers, whom the U.S. accuses of providing pilfered material to Chinese companies in order to give them an advantage in business negotiations and in global markets.

Comey put nation-on-nation espionage, in which governments spy on each other in order to understand what the other is doing, in a separate and acceptable category. The Chinese actions, he said, are no different than if "someone kicked open Alcoa's front door and walked out with file cabinets." Alcoa is one of five U.S. companies named in the indictment, along with the U.S.' largest steel union, as victims of a hacker unit that officials believe is directed by China's People's Liberation Army.

Comey said that a significant portion of the detective work that led to the indictment came from the FBI's counterintelligence personnel, who work largely "in the shadows." The indictment, handed down earlier this week, was remarkable for the level of specificity it contained about what the Chinese hackers are alleged to have stolen, including prices for solar equipment, designs for nuclear power plants, and emails between company personnel and their attorneys. The indictments also contained photographs of most of the hackers, which a former senior U.S. intelligence official said was meant to send a message to China.

"We're telling them, ‘You think you're good at spying on us? We've got photos of your guys.'" The former official said that including of photographs in an indictment is "completely extraneous" as a legal matter, and was meant to emphasize the Americans' spy-hunting prowess to the Chinese.

While Comey devoted a significant portion of his remarks to this week's Chinese spying case, he also emphasized that counterterrorism remains a top issue for the FBI. He said he's particularly concerned about the "progeny" of Al Qaeda that are spreading radical ideology via the Internet and about jihadis who've gone to Syria, where they've received training in terrorist tactics and made connections in the broader global terrorist network.

Comey said that foreign individuals are being trained in terrorism in Syria and then returning to their home countries, and that these people pose a direct threat to the United States homeland.

"There will be a terrorist diaspora out of Syria," Comey said.

The FBI has a plan for countering that threat, Comey told senators, but added that it's not one he could discuss in an open session. Comey agreed to meet with lawmakers privately to discuss the classified actions the FBI is taking to prevent terrorist attacks against the U.S. by jihadis coming out of Syria.

Touching on other hot button national security topics, Comey said that the FBI doesn't use a form of administrative subpoena known as a national security letter to collect information about Americans in bulk. That question has taken on new importance in the wake of revelations that the National Security Agency has been collecting American's phone records in bulk without any connection to a crime or an open investigation. Comey said that the FBI only uses national security letters as "building blocks" to gather records and evidence for particular investigations.

As to another controversial surveillance tool, Comey said a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows the government to collect Internet communications and data from major tech companies "is extraordinarily valuable to keeping the American public safe." Some lawmakers and civil liberties advocates have questioned whether intelligence-gathering under section 702 of the law should be reigned in and whether it violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibitions on unreasonable searches.

"I do not have concerns about its legality or constitutionality," Comey said.

Mandel Ngan / AFP