Rep. Mike Rogers is a frequent face on television and name in print these days. In the last month, he has declared that Syria crossed President Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons; spoken candidly about the U.S. terrorist strike list; and has likened North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to Wile E. Coyote.
But this is not typical loudmouth punditry. The House Intelligence Committee chairman is one of the few lawmakers charged with overseeing the Obama administration’s most secret operations and intelligence matters.
The Michigan Republican is cleared to assess classified intelligence as a member of the committee but he has special responsibilities as one of the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senior leaders from both the House and Senate the president consults with on covert action. They are sworn to secrecy, which means Rogers must toe a fine line between his role as a representative and communicator for the public and his advisory role on sensitive national-security issues.
“In classified ways, I work with the administration; I push back on the administration; and I also tell them where I think they’re doing the right thing,” Rogers told National Journal Daily. “Publicly, when I think we’ve reached an impasse ... I’m working pretty hard to raise public awareness so that we can rally support for the president to make a decision and make it soon ... or trying to nudge them in the right direction.”
One such impasse appears to be the conflict in Syria. President Obama in August said a “red line” would be crossed if chemical weapons were moved or used in the conflict, but administration officials have reacted cautiously to conflicting reports by the Syrian government and rebels blaming each other for an alleged chemical attack last month. Rogers is more frank: “I think clearly we have crossed that line,” he said.
“I believe that at least some time during those two years, at least some small quantity of chemical weapons has been used. This can’t be a dotted line; it can’t be a pink line. If you draw a line in the sand, you need to use it,” he said. Rogers is calling for more action, including using missile systems to create safe zones where the rebels can be trained, and stepping up assistance to Arab League partners funneling weapons to those fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Georgetown University assistant professor Genevieve Lester says Rogers is doing the right thing by publicly challenging the administration. “We’ve got a lot of different options on what we should be doing in Syria, but in terms of bringing up the question, getting it into the discourse, getting people to talk about it, [Rogers has] authority in his role,” said Lester, who is the faculty coordinator of intelligence studies. “We don’t want to be divulging secrets ... but we need people who are involved to bring up these issues and push. It’s really important to keep the public thinking about these types of things and also keep the complexity of these issues in the forefront.”
Rogers, a former FBI agent who arrived in Congress in 2001, is more in line with the Obama administration on other issues. He praised Washington’s recent response to North Korea, which has threatened to attack South Korea and the U.S. as its faces tougher international sanctions following its latest nuclear test. The U.S. is sending a missile-defense system to Guam and enhancing those on the West Coast, while dispatching F-22 fighter jets to South Korea and more warships to the region. Still, Rogers has his own recommendations: The administration should engage China to put an end to the North’s nuclear weapons program, he said. “We have a lot to do to put this back in the box and we should be aggressive about doing it.”
Rogers maintains a sense of humor about his deadly serious portfolio, lambasting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for appearing on TV in front of a map labeled “Plans to Attack the Mainland U.S.”
“Do you ever watch Bugs Bunny? You’ve heard of the Road Runner? Wile E. Coyote? The maps for attack?” Rogers said in an interview this week. “If this weren’t so serious, it would lead you to a chuckle that he put up a map: ‘Plans for Mainland U.S. attack.’ Clearly that’s [for] a psychological impact, and not real plans for a U.S. attack.”
The history of the Intelligence committees shows a need for robust oversight between the executive and legislative branches. In 1974, The New York Times exposed a secret domestic-spying operation—run by the CIA in violation of its charter—to probe Americans’ contact with foreign agents. A special Senate committee headed by Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho revealed other agency abuses including programs to assassinate foreign leaders, and the uproar led to the creation of the House and Senate Intelligence committees.
The committees were in the spotlight recently after a leaked Justice Department memo asserted the administration has the legal authority to kill U.S. citizens who join al-Qaida, rise to a leadership position, and plan attacks against this country. This sparked an outcry by some lawmakers—and civil-liberties groups—who want the Obama administration to disclose more about the strike list and its counterterrorism policy. While the White House does not comment on the strike list, Rogers recently told National Journal there were no Americans on the U.S. government’s kill list. The congressional oversight of the program is “alive and well and robust,” Rogers said. “Because it’s not public, people think it’s not happening.” Debate over classified material in a public setting, Rogers said, means “you will lose the opportunity to have what has been a very successful effort to disrupt terrorism activities directly towards the United States or our allies.”
But former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., a former chairman of both the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees and cochairman of the 9/11 Commission who now directs Indiana University’s Center on Congress, laments that Congress as a whole is largely “missing in action” when it comes to overseeing the drone-strike program, an “unprecedented” power assumed by Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. “Not to say they’re wrong in it, but ... where is the legislative authority for that? Why does the Congress defer on it?
"It seems to me this is an issue that cries out for a legal framework, and more disclosure on the part of the executive branch and more congressional oversight and authorization," Hamilton said. "We’ve not had any real hearings on the costs and the benefits to this policy and the attraction to it.”
The Intelligence committees are going to take on an increasingly important role as liaisons to the public, consultants to the intelligence community, and checks on the executive branch as the war winds down in Afghanistan and the U.S. continues to ramp up its counterterrorism operations against a range of threats.
“The world is still a very dynamic, changing and unfortunately dangerous place,” Rogers says, citing worries about Russia redeveloping sophisticated weaponry, Chinese saber-rattling in the South China Sea, al-Qaida in Africa, and Iran pursuing nuclear weapons. “Our threat matrix is getting bigger, not smaller. Intelligence is going to play an important role in that. We’re going to have limited resources to apply to these problems.… They have to have a better sense of what our policy decisions can be, what our options are as policymakers.”
This article appears in the April 5, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.