This week Senate Democrats continued to pursue aggressive oversight of the President’s conduct of the war.
Thursday, May 10th
Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
“Violent Islamist Extremism: Government Efforts to Defeat It”
Wednesday, May 9th
Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense
“The committee will hear testimony on the Fiscal Year 2008 Department of Defense Budget Request.”
The combined budget request for the Department of Defense and war-related costs is more than $700 billion.
SECRETARY GATES: the budget request submitted to the Congress this year, the base budget and war-related requests, in some historical context, inasmuch as there has been, understandably, some sticker shock at their combined price tags of more than $700 billion.
Secretary Gates reported that the National Guard has only 56 percent of its equipment, leaving Guard equipment stock at its lowest percentage since at least 2001.
SEN. LEAHY: Now, over the next five years, the Army and the National Guard agree the Guard faces a $24 billion in National Guard equipment. I’ve got the long list that they put out. There are no funds, no funds in here to meet the shortfall. That seems like a kind of a hole that you could drive a Humvee through — well, if they had the Humvees. We’re working hard to include $1 billion to help with the Guard’s backlog, the $24 billion backlog. We’ve put $1 billion in the budget that the president has vetoed. Senator Bond and I have worked on that. We’ll continue to. They seem — these backlogs seem to be unprecedented in the modern era of the National Guard. Will you agree with that?
SEC. GATES: I don’t have a lot of historical knowledge on this, Senator Leahy. But my impression is that the percentage of equipment on hand, which is about 56 percent — the norm that is expected for the Guard is about 70 percent equipment on hand. So they are — across the country, have that shortfall, and I think that that is the lowest percentage, that 56 percent is certainly the lowest percentage since, I think, at least 2001.
In some states, equipment shortfalls are far below the average 56 percent.
SEN. MIKULSKI: …when General Blum was here, he told us the state of the National Guard as he saw it. At that hearing, he told me that Maryland was 35 percent ready. And I’m going to come to the money issue for a minute. That put me on the edge of my chair. Because Maryland is in the national capital region. We’re in a hurricane zone, and so on. I went to our National Guard and also to Governor O’Malley and our lieutenant governor, who happens to be an Iraq war veteran and a colonel in the Army Reserve. Briefly, the results came back and they were quite alarming. What we were told was that the Maryland National Guard faces serious equipment shortfalls, and that in the event of a natural disaster or an attack in the national capital region, they did not feel that they would have the operational capability to respond the way they would, that what they give the bosses is the best-case scenario. I could go through this — 14 percent helicopters, 36 percent of what we need for Humvees, only 32 percent of what we need for generators, only 58 percent of what we need for communication equipment. This is quite serious.
Senators ask Secretary Gates and General Pace for clarity on the Administration’s plans for evaluating the effectiveness of the surge strategy.
SEN. SPECTER: I know it’s difficult to assess and you’re going to make a calculation in September, but what are the prospects for having some light at the end of the tunnel, to see some encouragement which would enable the Congress to have the fortitude to support the president and go beyond September and the full funding of the $500 billion?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the honest answer is, Senator, that I don’t know. I would tell you this, though. I think — I consider it my responsibility, and I think General Petraeus and the chairman consider it their responsibility, to give the president and the Congress an honest evaluation of whether the strategy is working or not in September. And regardless of the answer to that question, it seems to me that sets the stage then to make decisions about the future.
SEN. SPECTER: Well, I can understand the answer you’ve given. But there’s a sense here — certainly by the Democrats and growing among Republicans — that there has to be some progress, significant progress to sustain it beyond September.
SEN. KOHL: Initially, the surge was going to be evaluated in June. And now you’re saying it will be evaluated in the fall. And yet we read this morning that the troops that are being sent in will be augmented, and they will be there well into next year. And that is what so many people are fearful of; that this is, in fact, an open-ended commitment. You yourself have said this morning that we cannot think about leaving, in your opinion, until the level of violence has been contained. No one knows how long that level of violence will go on before it can be contained.
SEN. GREGG: And in this Post article today — and maybe the quotes are inaccurate — but General Odierno said, “The surge needs to go to the beginning of next year for sure.” And then he went on to say, “What I’m trying to do is to get until April, so we can decide whether to keep it going or not.” And since we’re in May, I presume he’s talking about April of next year. So I guess that doesn’t really — I don’t understand how that meets with the theory that, in September, we’re going to have a review, when you’ve got the general who’s on the ground and in command saying he’s got to go through next year for sure, and he’s trying to get to next April. And I guess my question is: How do those two positions correlate?
SEC. GATES: I think the candid answer is they don’t, that this is — it is General Petraeus who has said — who has told us that he owes us an evaluation of the effectiveness of the surge and how things are going in Iraq in September.
Senators ask for assurance that action will be taken to ensure that the mental health needs of our troops and veterans will be met.
SEN. MURRAY: According to the Defense Department’s Task Force on Mental Health, more than a third of our troops and veterans suffer from TBI and PTSD. Last Friday, the task force reported that the system of care for psychological health care that has evolved in recent decades is not sufficient to meet the needs of today’s forces and their beneficiaries and will not be sufficient to meet the needs in the future. I have been out to our military hospitals. And, Secretary Gates, I have been very concerned because I’ve been hearing directly from soldiers that they feel that the effects of PTSD are being dismissed by military care providers as being “all in their head.” I heard that over and over again. And I wanted your assurance today that we would make sure that that was not being — it’s a stigma enough and it’s difficult enough for these soldiers. We want them to get the care they need. And I hope that you can put some focus on that throughout the system.
SEC. GATES: Senator, I can assure you that the senior leadership — and particularly the medical leadership of the Army — has taken this aboard, is very serious about it.
Secretary Gates acknowledges that key questions remain unanswered on the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.
SEN FEINSTEIN: Let me move on, if I might, to a program that has a 370 percent increase in your budget. And that’s the reliable warhead replacement program. The ’07 continuing resolution has $24.8 million. And the request is split this year between the National Nuclear Security Administration, $88.8 million, and the Department of Defense, $30 million. Now, a December 2006 report by the National Laboratories found that the plutonium pits have a lifespan of at least 85 years. And, as we know, the warheads are certified as safe virtually every year. I believe very strongly that in order to move ahead with RRW, Defense must be clear about long-term stockpile needs, including size, weapons characteristics and diversity. The proposal before us does not do this. Many of us believe that we ought to carry out a comprehensive assessment of United States nuclear weapons policy. And that’s — Secretary Kissinger, Secretary Shultz, I think, have been — Senator Nunn have been very definitive — and the impact on national security goals and international nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Do you agree with this or not?
SEC. GATES: Well, I don’t know if a national commission is required, or a major study. We certainly owe you answers to the questions that you have posed, in terms of stockpile and reliability and so on. And we’re certainly willing to have a dialogue with you all about the path forward on this. I think there have been a number of diplomatic interactions, both with our allies and with the Russians and the Chinese, about it. So it’s not like we’re trying to do something behind the curtain, as it were. I think the key here in ensuring that we have, in a world where a growing number of nations seem to be interested in having nuclear weapons, that we have a reliable stockpile and that we can count on the reliability and safety without testing, and that it can be done through technical means and not actual tests. But we certainly, as a starting point, owe you answers to the questions you asked.
SEN. FEINSTEIN: I know my time is up. I think that would be appreciated. I’ve had the classified briefing on the changes to be made. And essentially, in my judgment, at least, the changes to be made constitute a new nuclear warhead. And I think it’s not just safety. I think we have to come to grips with that, and what this does to nonproliferation efforts.
Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs
“A hearing on benefits legislation.”