House panel OKs bill expanding rewards program

A House panel on Wednesday approved legislation that would expand the State Department's rewards for justice program to target the world's most serious human rights abusers, with African warlord Joseph Kony a top target.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Democratic and Republican members of the Foreign Affairs Committee adopted a bill that would authorize operations for the State Department and speed up the process for U.S. arms sales overseas. The voice vote approval reflected the desire of both parties to complete such a broad-based State Department bill for the first time in a decade. The measure avoids the politically charged fights over U.S. aid to foreign nations and focuses on funds for the department, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Peace Corps.

One provision that has widespread support, including the backing of the department, is expansion of the rewards program.

The program, established in 1984, gives the secretary of state the authority to offer a reward for information leading to the arrest or conviction of anyone who plans, commits or attempts international terrorist acts. The amount of the reward would be at the secretary's discretion. The bill would expand that authority to allow the State Department to publicize and pay rewards for information about individuals involved in transnational organized crime or foreign nationals wanted by any international criminal tribunal for war crimes or genocide.

Kony and his ruthless guerrilla group, the Lord's Resistance Army, are responsible for a 26-year campaign of terror in Central Africa that has been marked by child abductions and widespread killings. The United States designated the Lord's Resistance Army a terrorist organization in 2001. Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for heinous attacks in multiple countries.

Last year, President Barack Obama dispatched 100 U.S. troops — mostly Army Special Forces — to Central Africa to advise regional forces in their hunt for Kony, a military move that received strong bipartisan support.

Calling Kony "the sadistic head of the LRA," Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said his capture is a top goal and U.S. military advisers consider a reward offer critical to their success.

"They need this tool in the field now," Royce said. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said it would help get Kony "brought to justice."

In nearly 30 years, the United States has paid more than $100 million to more than 70 people for information about terrorism.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House committee, said the approval of the bill strengthens the panel's role in oversight of the department. Rep. Howard Berman of California, the panel's senior Democrat, said that if the committee wants to be taken seriously, it must produce legislation that the full House can back.