‘Not Enough’: House Speaker Throws Cold Water On Special Ukraine Watchdog In Defense Bill

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson isn’t convinced that a provision to set up a special watchdog to monitor U.S. security aid to Ukraine included in Congress’ 2024 defense bill will do much to improve oversight, a spokesperson told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Republicans and foreign policy experts who favor sending more military and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine argue an independent inspector general for Operation Atlantic Resolve — which encompasses both weapons aid and U.S. military operations in Europe related to Ukraine — is just a small improvement to existing oversight efforts. Including the provision, a muted version of one initially included in the House’s version of the defense bill, is unlikely to sway Republicans who oppose the Biden administration’s military and economic assistance, lawmakers and experts told the DCNF.

“The [National Defense Authorization Act’s] inclusion of a provision which will help bring essential accountability for taxpayer funded assistance to Ukraine is a step in the right direction. But it is not enough,” a spokesperson for House Speaker Mike Johnson told the DCNF.

“The House provision was much stronger and should’ve been left alone. The Democrat-controlled Senate watered down oversight of Ukraine aid at the same time they’re asking the House to sign off on another $60 billion — they aren’t doing themselves any favors,” GOP Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana told the DCNF. (RELATED: ‘Off The Table’: These GOP Lawmakers Refuse To Support Ukraine Funding As Potential Government Shutdown Looms)

Republican unity is critical as the House hangs on to a fragile majority and has limited power in a Democrat-controlled Senate. Debates are underway over Biden’s $61 billion emergency Ukraine supplemental request.

The House’s version of the the NDAA for fiscal year 2024, passed in July, would have established an Office of the Special Inspector General for Ukraine Assistance tasked with auditing U.S. military and other kinds of assistance for Ukraine and submitting quarterly reports to Congress. It also required regular briefings on arms deliveries and mandated a “report on detailed oversight of United States assistance to Ukraine” within six months.

An effort was made to include a similar provision in the Senate’s version, but it ultimately failed against Democratic opposition.

A final version of the text hammered out in early December still required regular briefings and quarterly reports on waste, fraud or abuse taking place. But instead of creating a distinct office, the compromise version re-designates an existing position, the Lead Inspector General for Operation Atlantic Resolve, as the Special Inspector General for Operation Atlantic Resolve, according to an explainer accompanying the bill.

Currently, the State Department, USAID and Department of Defense (DOD) operate a joint watchdog. Robert Storch, who leads the DOD office, was confirmed in September to dual-hat as the lead IG for Ukraine-related activities.

The final NDAA allows for a new hire into that position.

It “ought to be enough” to “allay anybody’s concerns about the money being misspent,” Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the DCNF.

The House passed the NDAA on Thursday. It awaits President Joe Biden’s signature now.

A coterie of Republican members have expressed skepticism that all U.S. assistance for Ukraine is ending up in the hands of the Ukrainian armed forces, or that, when it does, it’s being put to appropriate purposes.

“I am not confident that the Special Inspector General provision is sufficient,” Republican Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a member of the Armed Services Committee and the Freedom Caucus, who has called for increased oversight of Ukraine aid, told the DCNF. He said the final version is “weaker” than the House’s “since it just gives a new title to the DoD Inspector General and more taxpayer dollars to continue the status quo.”

“It is not oversight to ask someone to objectively critique their own past work,” Gaetz added.

A specially designated watchdog like the one created to hold the successive administrations accountable for largely failed Afghanistan reconstruction efforts, known as SIGAR, could improve oversight of the now $75 billion in aid Biden has committed to the defending country, experts said.

“If an organization like SIGAR can be created, staffed, and be granted unfettered access to Ukrainian government and military departments, then there is a chance to get some visibility on where the money goes,” retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at the restraint-oriented Defense Priorities think tank, told the DCNF.

“I think it is an improvement, if only because of the public report mandate and what that entails,” Jordan Cohen, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute who has argued for a cautious approach to weapons transfers to Ukraine, told the DCNF.

However, it still faces many of the restrictions Biden administration officials have already described in testimony to Congress.

“But if the personnel are restricted to Kyiv, if the Ukrainian officials don’t fully cooperate and if they’re not honest and transparent, then it won’t matter how much money or how many staffers are on hand, we won’t get clarity. If this group relies on the word of Ukrainian officials as to where money has gone or where equipment had been transported, etc., then the special inspector general will be pointless,” Davis said.

Congress has devoted $50 million to the combined State-DOD-USAID working group, Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and strong Ukraine aid advocate, told the DCNF, adding that it’s not clear how a new lead watchdog would meaningfully expand those efforts. Already, the joint watchdog has completed nine evaluations and one special report, and has 28 planned projects, according to the IG’s website.

“I imagine concerned congressmembers will remain concerned until all issues are solved or weapons transfers significantly slow down,” Cohen said.

The final NDAA provision allocates $8 million for the special IG to carry out its assigned duties.

“Other than adding to bureaucracy, it Is not clear how the proposed Inspector General for Operation Atlantic Resolve will add to the existing effort,” Coffey said. “Regardless, there are some lawmakers who will always find an excuse not to support U.S. aid to Ukraine. Today, it might be a perceived lack of oversight. Tomorrow it will be something else.”

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