WASHINGTON — Military commanders are discussing speeding up the authorization of counterterrorism missions by allowing the Pentagon or even field commanders to approve some of them rather than the White House, US defense officials told CNN.
As CNN first reported Tuesday, the military is seeking to increase US intelligence-gathering raids in Yemen similar to one undertaken in the first week of the Trump presidency. It’s not yet clear if this adjustment in the approval process could be used for those operations.
Military analysts warned, though, that pushing decision-making authority below the President for high-risk missions could create problems in oversight for sensitive missions and questions of presidential responsibility should something go wrong.
“The risk in greenlighting missions at a lower level than the President is one where the President assumes all the responsibility if something goes wrong, and he would really find it difficult to do that if in fact he was not part of the approval process,” retired Col. Cedric Leighton said.
The White House, however, suggested that the degree of change might not be that sizeable.
“It is a philosophy more than a change in policy,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday of the discussions about the authorization process. President Donald Trump “believes these are the experts in this field.”
At the same time, Spicer said that “the protocol is not changing in terms of what has to be signed off,” and that “there are certain decisions that have to be signed off by the President,” so that the degree of change might not end up being that sizeable.
A senior defense official emphasized that this does not mean that the President would not be briefed. Defense Secretary James Mattis and senior military commanders could brief the President at any time and seek his specific approval.
Since these are fundamentally judgement questions, the senior defense official said, the goal is to see if there could be a more efficient approval process for time-sensitive missions.
Some former military officials, though, are warning of potential risks.
Leighton noted, “That element of decentralized control — which the military loves in many cases, and in theory that the President loves — but the problem that you have with that is, if something goes terribly wrong, you are going to end up with a lot of political fallout for something you didn’t really approve or understand the minute details of.”
He continued, “From a political standpoint it may be good for somebody who wants to wash their hands of it or something, but from a military standpoint it really abrogates the authority that the commander in chief has inherent in his position.”
Leighton said that authority can be particularly essential for difficult operations: “What you really need is a commander in chief who is involved in the approval process, especially for politically sensitive missions like Yemen.
Under the Obama administration, the White House retained significant control over authorizing high-risk missions where significant opposition forces were expected; new military techniques were being used; or highly specialized units like SEAL Team Six or Delta Force might be employed.
Several defense officials told CNN that President Barack Obama had been cautious about these types of missions, and wanted in many cases to be able to review and approve them.