Red Tape

Congressman: Obama's Drone War Rules Let Terrorists Go Free

The President's restrictions on U.S. drone strikes endangering American troops, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee charges.

02.04.14 9:16 PM ET

President Obama’s new rules for reining in drone strikes and other kill-or-capture missions are hampering U.S. counter-terrorism operations in Yemen, Pakistan and North Africa—and jeopardizing the lives of American troops.

That is the conclusion, at least, of the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan). "It’s very clear that there have been missed opportunities that I believe increased the risk of the lives of our soldiers and for disrupting operations under way," he told two reporters after a Congressional hearing Tuesday on global threats. 

But Rogers didn’t supply any specific evidence to back up his charges, citing the classified nature of the issue. "I want to say this in a way that doesn't get all of us in trouble, I look terrible in orange,” he said, referring to the color of jumpsuits worn by American detainees. The White House denied Rogers’ allegations.

Rogers said he has raised concerns about the slower pace of operations in classified hearings for months. But he did not go public this strongly with these concerns until Tuesday. At issue, according to another U.S. intelligence official, are the steps the military must now take to authorize lethal force, which often means proving a direct link to al Qaeda’s core leadership based in Pakistan as opposed to the lower standards used by the CIA during Obama’s first term.

Last May, the White House released new rules for counter-terrorism operations in conjunction with a policy speech from President Obama where he expressed his wish to start winding down the war on terror. 

The new policy said decisions to use lethal force, such as drone strikes in countries where the United States is not engaged in an open conflict, “will be informed by a broad analysis of an intended target’s current and past role in plots threatening U.S. persons; relevant intelligence information the individual could provide; and the potential impact of the operation on ongoing terrorism plotting, on the capabilities of terrorist organizations, on U.S. foreign relations, and on U.S. intelligence collection.”

President Obama touted the new process in last week’s State of the Union speech as an example of how America was beginning to shift away from its post 9-11 “war footing.”  And since then, the drone wars have slowed substntially. According to the Long War Journal, there were 46 air strikes in Pakistan in 2012 and 28 in 2013. In 2012, there were 41 such strikes in Yemen and just 26 the following year. 

But Rogers said the new policy is instead a new level of red tape that has paralyzed the U.S. military and intelligence community. “Today, individuals who would have previously been removed from the battlefield by U.S. counterterrorism operations for attacking or plotting against U.S. interests remain free because of self-imposed red tape,” Rogers said in his opening statement. “While we are busy pondering more ‘transparency,’ our intelligence professionals are left paralyzed because of totally incoherent policy guidance." 

Since becoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rogers has at times made allegations that have been contradicted by others inside the U.S. intelligence community. Last month, he implied in some television interviews that former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, had been working with Russian intelligence before fleeing Hawaii for Hong Kong last May. The FBI later said they had no evidence that Snowden was working as a Russian spy before leaving his NSA post.

Rogers has also clashed with the Obama administration on issues like al Qaeda. Since the 2012 attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Rogers was one of the first lawmakers to point to the participation of al Qaeda affiliates in the plot. A Senate Intelligence Committee report released last month largely supported Rogers’ claims on the matter.

Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, declined to discuss operational issues when asked about Rogers’ latest assertions. “We’ve seen Chairman Rogers’ statement,” she said. “It is the position of this Administration that we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our Constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world.”

She also touted the “prudent limits” Obama placed on the use of drone strikes. “We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence,” she said.

At the hearing Tuesday, James Clapper said he did not think America was at a greater risk of terrorist attack because of the president’s new policies. When asked, “You’re not confused or obstructed by any policies coming out of the administration?” Clapper responded, “No.”