The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said Wednesday that lawmakers were briefed more than a year ago that the al Qaeda-inspired group now wreaking havoc in Iraq had access to a large number of Western passports and sought to carry out attacks against the U.S. and its allies in Europe.
Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, slammed the Obama administration for ignoring repeated intelligence community assessments about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and said the president’s ambivalence toward the assessments resulted in “a policy failure.”
That Washington has been slow to respond to ISIL’s rise as leading terrorist organization — seizing a vast swath of territory between Syria and Iraq over the past two weeks — “is a result of an indecision, which is a policy failure,” Mr. Rogers told reporters Wednesday morning at a briefing hosted in Washington by the Christian Science Monitor.
“This is not an intelligence failure, it’s a policy failure,” said the congressman, who will retire from Congress at the end of this year to host a syndicated radio program.
“Not responding is a decision, not making a decision is a decision,” Mr. Rogers said Wednesday, asserting that President Obama’s own national security advisers received the same intelligence briefings about ISIL that he and other lawmakers were receiving on Capitol Hill more than a year ago.
“It’s not like they didn’t get the same stuff that we got,” Mr. Rogers said. “And some notion that if we don’t do anything really hard, that everything will be just fine, is absolutely — I think it’s a bit naive. It’s a bit politically self-serving, that you’re more concerned about what ratings you have at home than what threats happen overseas.”
Mr. Rogers pushed back at recent statements by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and others suggesting ISIL’s lightning advance in Iraq took U.S. leaders by surprise during recent weeks.
Mr. Rogers insisted that there ample assessments over the past two years from U.S. intelligence agencies about the evolving intentions and capabilities of the al Qaeda-inspired group — known by both English-language acronyms ISIL and ISIS.
“We get all the raw intelligence,” he said. “It was very clear to me that years ago, ISIL/ISIS was pooling up in a dangerous way — building training camps, recruiting, drawing in jihadists from around the world. We saw all of that happening.
“So some [notion] that we wouldn’t have seen this coming, means that you weren’t paying attention to the intelligence that was afforded us,” the congressman said.
He said lawmakers became specifically concerned last year that ISIL was developing operational plans to attempt terrorist attacks in Western Europe and in the United States.
At the time, it became public that ISIL leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was engaged in an internal struggle with Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over the leadership of al Qaeda’s original core in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region following the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
While ISIL had emerged as a leading player in the civil war gripping Syria — which borders Iraq to the north and west — al-Zawahiri in 2013 called for the dissolution of ISIL in Syria, citing its extreme methods, and called on al-Baghdadi to refocus and confine the group’s operations to Iraq and not pursue operations against the West.
Mr. Rogers said Wednesday that the Baghdadi-Zawahiri rift prompted extensive analysis among American intelligence community insiders at the time and that he personally saw the development as worrisome.
“Zawahiri said focus on Iraq,” said Mr. Rogers, who added that “the very fact that they’re having the discussion sends a chill down my spine.”
“That means somebody is in an operational status, trying to put together something that would look like something that could get the green light, including access to people who had Western passports.”
“That’s the most dangerous thing,” he added. “You fly to Germany and you’re a German citizen and you’re flying to the United States, you don’t need a visa. That’s a problem. That’s a big problem for us.”
Mr. Rogers said the ISIL disaster illustrated the White House policy of avoiding politically difficult foreign policy decisions.
“That is a really dangerous mindset and at some point, they just keep doubling down on that: ‘Now it’s hard, so let’s stay out of it,’” Mr. Rogers said.
“OK, I get that, the problem is [ISIL is] threatening the United States of America,” he said. “That’s the problem.”