House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers On Syria And Benghazi
HH: On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, the first year anniversary of Benghazi, and a little less than 24 hours after the President spoke last night, I’m joined by the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Mike Rogers from Michigan. Chairman Rogers, thank you for joining us. I appreciate you doing so on what must be a busy and somber day in D.C.
MR: It is, and I’m just grateful to be here, so thanks for having me.
HH: Let’s start with the year anniversary of Benghazi, if we can. Have we got any idea whether or not Secretary of State Clinton’s phone call to Greg Hicks that night is recorded somewhere in the archives of the NSA?
MR: You know, we’ve been having some difficult…the biggest difficulty in the investigation has all happened in the State Department. They’ve been slow and non-responsive, so my lean has been the intelligence side. So all the CIA folks and everybody that falls into that category, they’ve been fairly cooperative. They had some things that happened recently that sent me into orbit, but we have not been able to link it directly between the two, nor the conversations themselves. So where we’re at on that is most of the lower level folks have been talked to, and they’re working their way up the chain still on trying to put the whole picture together.
HH: But very specifically on foreign communications, or communications outside the country, when I was in the government and doing that stuff, we knew that everything we said was recorded if it was going abroad. So I assume, and I would assume you assume that NSA has a tape of that particular phone call, right?
MR: Well, to our knowledge, that call was not recorded. Now that doesn’t mean that we didn’t miss something, and that’s why we’re still going back and trying to scrub systems to make that determination.
HH: Well, that would have had to have been by direct order, right, because it’s a routine to normally…
MR: Not necessarily, because not every communication, and sometimes, the way they communicate is not recorded. There is, I’m not sure when you were in, but the way we communicate has changed dramatically, even in the last few years.
HH: Okay, this was the 80s in the Reagan administration.
MR: So some of the real time quick conversations are not recorded.
HH: Okay, well, that’s, I would wonder if Chairman Issa, who’s got the subpoena power, has dropped one. I’ll ask him that. Let me go to what we don’t know, yet, about the attack of a year ago. We don’t know who perpetrated it, we don’t know why Ambassador Stevens was there. And I had a question raised today, I told people I was going to talk with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee today, and the first question was are the people who did Benghazi in any way connected with the people who are warring with Assad, because some of the opposition to taking stern measures to Assad came from a fear that we were empowering jihadists and Islamists of the same variety as attacked our mission in Benghazi.
MR: Yeah, and there’s, I think these are two different issues. So what we saw of the folks who did it, and I argued, and if you recall, was the first one out of the box on the same show as Susan Rice saying hey, wait a minute, this was a terrorist attack, these folks came, a lot came from Tunisia, that whole region was in flux. It was starting to be an area that attracted jihadists elements and different factions who were showing up. So it was a little bit of a combination of several of them. I think we’ve identified a good number. Of course, my problem is that they’re still taking nourishment. They’re still breathing the air. So we kind of know who they are, and we’ve been putting a lot of pressure on the administration to have the courage to go and do something about that. They haven’t. It’s been a year. That, to me, is unconscionable. But we know kind of who they are. So what you’re seeing in Syria is a little different. Up in the eastern side, along the Iraqi border, there is a pooling of jihadists, and they are attracted to two groups in particular. One is called al Nusra Front, which is a front organization for al Qaeda, the main driving force is al Qaeda in Iraq. They’re the biggest feeder of people into that organization. The scary part about that, it’s about 10,000 people. That’s huge. We’ve never seen that kind of pooling of al Qaeda elements. But they have a different take now. So what they want to do is cut out a piece of land along the eastern Syrian-Iraqi border, and use that as a safe haven for operations, including, by the way, Hugh, which doesn’t get a lot of coverage, about the very possibility that they might launch external operations. So this is, that is dangerous and becoming worse. And so you have secular oppositionists there who number in the tens of thousands. Then, you have these other groups, and there’s another group called al Sham. We think it is probably a thousand, maybe less, that is also attaching themselves to these secular units. So it’s not as easy to say that all of these folks are al Qaeda. I have completely disagreed when somebody tried to say well, we’re just helping al Qaeda if we do X or Y. I just, I don’t think, none of the facts on the ground support that. But what I believe we need to do is try to find those other opposition groups, because I do believe they’re going to be in charge one day, and try to find some inroads so we can use them to protect both the chemical stockpiles and the conventional stockpiles. It’s all a little bit different, but the world is sending jihadists to Syria, and some could be, and I would argue are likely to come from Libya.
HH: I am talking with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Michael Rogers. Now Mr. Chairman, the President said an extraordinary thing last night. He embraced, at least rhetorically, the Bush doctrine, when he said weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of terrorists and used directly against the United States. You just referenced a similar sort of concern. Does the intelligence demonstrate any planning or evidence that jihadists in Syria, or the Assad regime, are intending to do that?
MR: Not from the Assad regime. We do get it from al Qaeda. And they have expressed an interest in getting their hands on it. And that tends to be what they say aspirational, so we know that they want to do it. We haven’t seen that they’ve figured out a way to do it. And same with Hezbollah, that’s the other group that has expressed interest in getting their hands on chemical weapons. And remember what these weapons were designed for. They were designed and purchased and put into place in Syria as a counter to Israel. They were designed to fly into Israel and launch. That’s why the Israelis are always so upset about where these things are and what’s going on with these weapons systems. And so now you have the changing of the battlefield where in the beginning, the secularists took some of the area along the Turkish border, and so they were moving these stockpiles, and that’s when people like me started getting very nervous, because we were losing acuity about where they were. And it makes it, you know, obviously a more dangerous by the day, so if Assad just fell apart tomorrow, candidly, we have a huge problem, because now you have chaos, and you have everybody, two different groups, a Shia terrorist group and a Sunni terrorist group all fighting to try to get their hands on these terrorist weapons. Huge concerns.
HH: Yesterday, there were reports that Hezbollah had in fact taken advantage of the chaos of the last couple of weeks to get their hands on some of these. Now those were not circulating in the official news, but behind the scenes. Have you seen those? And do you believed that happened? Israel struck four times thus far. Did something slip through in the chaos of the last couple of weeks?
MR: You know, it’s really hard to determine for sure and for certain. I would say now I have a low level of confidence that they’ve gotten their hands on it. The problem is they are in the best position to do it, because they’re linked with the Assad regime.
HH: Does that mean you don’t think there’s a very good chance that they’ve got them?
MR: Well, you know, you can’t say that. I just, we just, everything I’ve reviewed thus far, I just don’t, I can’t come to the conclusion that they have it. I know they want it. I know that you know, when you’re a cornered dog, and you can imagine…I would imagine what’s happening, and what is not out of the pale, I don’t want people to leave this program and go oh, my God, the Assad regime is giving it to Hezbollah, but you can imagine that they are now going through the process of denial and deception, they being the Assad regime, and using their allies, the Russians, Hezbollah, that are actually there and spilling their blood in the fight, to move material.
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HH: Mr. Chairman, earlier today, Elizabeth O’Bagy, one of the analysts of the Syrian situation, was fired by the Institute for War for resume padding. And there are, as a result, Drudge used the term Curveball, hearkening back to the bad source in the Iraq debacle. How confident are you in the intelligence your committee is working with vis-à-vis Syria not only in its bottom line, but in its methods and sources?
MR: When you’re referring to the fact that the Syrian regime used the weapons?
HH: That and the fact that Hezbollah does or doesn’t have the chems, and that the al Qaeda is or is not the Chechens and the Libyans, just everything over there.
MR: Yeah, well, it’s murky. It has gotten better over the months. I do believe, and remember, there is lots of different sources, and so everybody learned a lesson from the Curveball example, where there was such heavy reliance on one particular source. Now the source had great access. You know, there’s a whole host of reasons they got to where they were. The way that the intelligence vetting process internally happens now, and the discussions and the dissent and all of that, that we’ve forced them to put into their products, or be a part of their products, is so much better. Now here’s the thing about intelligence. Nothing is 100%. That’s the whole business of intelligence. If it were 100%, we would never make a mistake ever going forward. It’s just not that. So you have to figure out how much information can I get, can I lay it over another source of collection, and that could be a photograph from a satellite to a signals collection, to a human source saying I know X, or I know Y. And then you lay all of those things over in different places of collection, and then you put that on the table and you say all right, I’ve got a thousand piece puzzle, I can get you 600 pieces, can I show you what I think the picture looks like. And you know, sometimes you don’t get that many, sometimes, you get more. In this particular case, we have, I mean, I feel very, very confident that the Assad regime used these chemical weapons. I mean, everything from the units preparing for it. You know, there are certain ways we would know that, where the stuff came from, how it was fired, where it hit, that they had talked in previous days about the tactical advantage of trying to clear this particular area, the fact that those soldiers that were operating in that area were removed from that area, I mean, things that any reasonable person would sit down and look at all this collection and go there’s no doubt in my mind that they actually used it, and they used it for tactical battlefield advantage. And that, to me, went a long way to show that A) they had it, B) they used it, and they used it pretty effectively.
HH: Let’s conclude by talking about Iran, Chairman Mike Rogers. It’s been discussed this week that the Quds forces have actually deployed into Syria. It is also public record that radical elements within that radical regime threatened the United States this week, including threatening the President’s family, which is astonishing that we did not rise and rebuke them publicly about that. Iran used to operate extraterritorially all the time. In fact, they tried to send, if reports are correct, an assassin from Mexico to Washington, D.C. last year for the purpose, via Hezbollah, for the purpose of assassinating the Saudi ambassador. Have you got concerns that Iran is unbuckling and getting ready to go back to that, vis-à-vis America, or Europe, and operate as terrorists like they did in the 90s routinely?
MR: Well, see, and here’s where we’ve missed the boat. They never stopped. So they’ve had recently, in this decade, nearly ten different instances around the world where their intelligence and military intelligence units attempted suicides. In some cases, they were successful, including Argentina, including a very sophisticated operation, and I know the press played it down, and I’m still not sure why they did that, where they were recruiting people to move guns and surveillance people and bombs from Mexico, across our southern border, to Washington, D.C., to blow up a restaurant that would have included killing Americans. And we all yawned and kind of snickered, because the guy who arranged it was apparently a used car salesman. But I tell you, I was an FBI agent in Chicago, and the guy that ran the mob there for years was a used car salesman, probably the smartest guy I ever met, and dangerous as heck. And so they took the time to do that, and of course, you know our response to that, of course, was absolutely nothing. And so what happens is when you send the message that they can get away with things like that, that are blatantly aggressive, is that they are going to get more bold. There’s DOD information that says that maybe 600 U.S. soldiers have been killed with complicity of Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re operating in Syria. I mean, these guys are real trouble, and we’d better start putting them back in the box.
HH: What a message for 9/11, a dozen years later. Chairman Mike Rogers of the House Intelligence Committee, thanks for joining us today, even though that’s very sobering.
End of interview.