ISIS Fight Has a Spy Shortage, Intel Chair Says

Never mind the huge buildup of clandestine operatives and secret warriors since 9/11. Rep. Mike Rogers says we need more. Much more.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

More spies and more paramilitaries with greater freedom to operate—that’s what outgoing House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers is calling for to defeat al Qaeda and its ilk.

The Republican-lawmaker-turned-newbie-talk-show host is warning of “off the charts” threats to the U.S., and calling on the Obama administration to unleash more clandestine forces in Syria and beyond, while claiming the White House’s tight control of counterterrorism has made America less safe.

“We have this big, growing problem, and we have handcuffed our capabilities, one-arm behind our back,” the Michigan Republican said in an exit interview in the waning days of his 14 years as a congressman, including serving as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

But his solution to this metastasizing threat is, in some ways, counterintuitive. America doesn’t exactly have a shortage of secret warriors and special operators; their ranks have bulged over the past 13 years, as the U.S. fights a series of clandestine conflicts around the globe. And Rogers’ timing is at odds with public sentiment, coming on the heels of the so-called CIA torture report, and calls for more, not less oversight, of America’s clandestine forces.

Rogers, 50, announced he would leave office at the end of 2014 to try his hand as a D.C.-based talk-show host for the Cumulus Radio Group—in large part because he feels Congress will remain in a gridlocked death spiral with the White House during the last two years of President Barack Obama’s administration.

The Republican and former FBI agent spoke of his pride over his committee’s triumph over such sniping, an oasis of bipartisanship in a torrent of political gridlock thanks to a “see-no-politics” mantra by Rogers’ and ranking committee member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD).

He said he hopes that as a newly minted talk-show host, he’ll inspire other lawmakers to similarly leave politics at the water’s edge when it comes to the terror fight.

Yet with no trace of irony, he then took aim at the Obama administration’s initially tepid intervention in Syria, and what he described as Vietnam-era micromanagement of the war, harking back to the tight tactical control exercised by the Johnson administration, where individual strikes were coordinated by the White House.

“They are trying to micromanage this whole thing,” he said, drawing on briefings on National Security Council debates over which targets to strike, from Iraq and Syria to Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

“If the NSC is making a determination on the final strikes and giving green-light orders on operational events in what is a confusing difficult and fast-changing battlefield,” the less encumbered militant forces will grow faster than the U.S. can keep up, Rogers added. “It’s more like stomping a fire out with your foot.”

A fire that he insists is only picking up pace, according to top-secret intelligence briefings.

“The threat streams to U.S. interests and Western interests are off the chart,” he said. “Of 21 al Qaeda affiliates, you have half of them now talking about supporting ISIS,” he added, including providing logistical help to launch attacks on Western targets.

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“At this rate and pressure of threats on the security matrix, I don’t know how it’s reasonable to expect that they are going to stop every single incident before it happens here,” he added.

One senior U.S. military official said that while there had been some initial unease at the start of the American-led campaign to bomb ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, that had given way to giving U.S. commanders in the region full autonomy.

Other U.S. officials echo some of Rogers’ concerns, saying that when the target is something other than ISIS, like the al Qaeda offshoot in Syria, the so-called Khorasan Group, the administration requires an interagency review to assess the impact, possible blowback, and approve the strike.

“The process of getting the approval is too slow and is too cumbersome,” Rogers said. “To be fair, that’s always a debate,” as to when enough intelligence is enough to act upon, as in the case of launching a raid to rescue U.S. journalist Luke Somers. He was killed by his captors during the U.S. rescue attempt in Yemen in December.

“But when you see a pattern of taking too long and missing the target, that tells you they are being overly cautious,” Rogers added.

Rogers’ broadside as he departs office is a likely preview of some of the critiques Republican candidates will lob at Democrats in the coming presidential race—though Rogers coyly said he didn’t expect to be running, in 2016 anyway.

The White House insists it coordinates, but doesn’t get into the weeds of who fires what and when.

“Tactical targeting decisions remain the purview of the operational agencies to ensure their agility and effectiveness,” said NSC spokesman Ned Price by email Tuesday. “The NSC staff’s primary role… is to work with departments and agencies on the overall policy framework governing such operations and to ensure visibility and coordination,” and to ensure that whatever actions are being considered are legal, Price said.

Rogers wants to see more autonomy and a greater expansion of the U.S. intelligence and paramilitary effort—both the CIA and Special Operations forces—on the ground in Syria and beyond, unleashing them on the irregular extremist forces with more autonomy than the current White House allows.

“If we don’t want 101st Airborne Division fighting all over the world, and I don’t, then we need a capability to leverage up these other countries’ counterterrorism capabilities,” he said. “So I believe in that regard, our paramilitary division needed to have more resources,” something he has supported as intelligence chairman but wants to see continue.

The White House has been reluctant to step up its CIA paramilitary involvement in Syria, relying instead on aerial strikes supplemented mostly by intelligence from local forces, while betting on a fledgling U.S. training program in Saudi Arabia that could produce some 5,000 Western-friendly Syrian fighters by some time late in the coming year.

“It’s not the best way to get good information,” Rogers said of U.S. reliance on Syrian rebel and Kurdish Peshmerga forces inside Syria. “They are not trained like we are. They don’t see the same things we see. We need to really unshackle our intelligence collectors to get downrange.”

In the meantime, ISIS and al Qaeda’s offshoot al Nusra hold much of the key territory especially along the Syrian border, such that even aid groups find they have to negotiate with Islamic militants to reach pockets of moderate Syrians, one Western official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to harm future access to those embattled communities.

ISIS controls most of the access points between Syria and Iraq, while al Nusra has increased its overt presence in northwestern Syria, especially along Turkish-Syrian border, according to Syrian analyst Jennifer Cafarella from the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War.

“That’s conferred a lot of control along the defacto supply routes,” she said in an interview Monday. So working with the militants in order to deliver aid “becomes a requirement,” she said.

Moderate rebel groups have had to work with al Nusra in particular in their fight against Bashar Assad’s regime. “The level of outside support… has not been sufficient enough for them to distance themselves from al Nusra,” Cafarella said.

While the Western-friendly rebels wait for those U.S. trained reinforcements, al Nusra and ISIS both become more entrenched, Rogers said.

And the more established they are, he said the more likely they are to succeed in hitting the U.S.—especially as ISIS has lowered its expectations on how complex the attack needs to be.

“Al Qaeda still has a strong interest in a spectacular event,” but ISIS considers a “high-profile media, terrifying event” like the plot they pushed in Australia, where they urged followers to randomly kidnap people and film their decapitations, and upload it onto YouTube.

“Not so complicated,” Rogers said. “So it worries me.”