Representative Mike Rogers, (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke to NRO’s Jim Geraghty Thursday.
Geraghty: What did you make of the Saudi king’s comment last week, while meeting the U.S. ambassador, stating that if the Islamic State wasn’t stopped soon, they would be hitting Europe “next month” — meaning September — and the United States the month after that? Does that sound like informed speculation to you, or is it just the sort of thing we’re always hearing?
Rogers: The recipe is a dangerous one with ISIS. They have thousands of people who have Western passports, who can get into the United States and Canada. They have access to these people on a daily basis, in an environment where they have time and space, and can train them with no disruptive activities to their daily, ongoing training. They have space, a safe haven. That is a recipe for a very dangerous outcome. We know they have expressed interest in conducting operations against the West.
Many people believe, and I fall in that category, that the attack [on the Jewish Museum] in Belgium had ISIS connections. They’ve already shown that they’re reaching beyond their boundaries. These people are going to come home. Intelligence services are trying to identify as many as they can, but you’re not going to get them all. You’re not going to identify them all. Somebody’s going to slip through. Is that the person who’s going to launch an attack? Well, it’s hard to say, but they’ve already gone [to Syria and Iraq] for the purposes of jihad.
I think that’s what the Saudi king is basing his decision on. I think it has informed speculation at this point.
Geraghty: What did you think of that Bill Gertz report about the eleven missing planes in Libya?
Rogers: Yeah. I haven’t seen anything come across my desk that raises the alarm to the point of, “We have to do something.” Obviously, there are concerns and there are people looking into it, trying to track it down. It would be very, very difficult for them to take a plane like that, get it operational enough, fueled, and flying in the right direction and in the right place to do some damage. It would be really difficult — they would have to file flight plans, there’s a lot of challenges for using them other than maybe in the region, you know, you get up in the air and do your work before anyone can catch on to what you’re doing.
Obviously, we’re concerned, but I haven’t seen anything yet coming across my desk on the intelligence front that would lead me to believe that this is more serious than a host of other threats we see every day.
Geraghty: When you get briefed by the intelligence community, do you walk out of the briefing feeling reassured that our government and all of our national-security apparatus have a good handle on this? Or do you walk out with an ominous feeling?
Rogers: It may be unfair for me to answer, because I see all of the problems, all over the world. On any given day, it can be concerning when we walk out. Now, the good news is that we have some world-class professionals who are dedicated to preventing a terrorist attack on the homeland. Some of these folks are as courageous as any patriot who ever walked on the soil of the United States.
But you do worry sometimes about the sheer volume and number of threats. . . . I think most people realize that we are just one small mistake away from another very big event in the United States. They get up every day and work their hearts out to make sure it doesn’t happen.
At the same time, the sheer threat matrix, I’ve never quite seen it this bad in the ten years I’ve been on the intelligence committee. Both the volume and the number of organizations that have expressed an interest in conducting attacks on the homeland is concerning.
About half of al-Qaeda affiliates have either openly or surreptitiously said they support ISIS in its aims and objectives, which means they could be used in some kind of international attack. All of those things become very concerning.
I’m very concerned that the posture of the president has been wrong: Al-Qaeda is dead, we don’t have anything to worry about, I fixed the problem. Meanwhile, those of us on the intelligence committee saw this building, fomenting, over a period of a couple years, unabated. That has put us on a pretty dangerous road here.
Geraghty: How long has the Intelligence Committee been getting briefings on ISIS?
Rogers: We saw when it was affiliated with al-Qaeda, growing, in eastern Syria. Our Arab League partners approached the United States and asked us to coordinate on this problem of both Assad and this growing extremist problem in eastern Syria. To help us vet the rebels, provide intelligence, and do the kind of things that the United States has the special capability to do.
The president rejected this. He just didn’t want to get engaged in any way. And it just continued to get worse.
I don’t know what was in the Presidential Daily Brief. We get all the raw data, and clearly the raw intelligence that we get, and some of the executive summaries in the intelligence communities on the topic were clearly showing this rise of these very radical jihadists in eastern Syria that ended up splitting from al-Qaeda and then moving into Iraq.
Our Arab League partners were all over Washington, D.C., asking for help to push back on this rising radical extremism in eastern Syria. It’s difficult for me to buy into [the notion] that they didn’t know. Either they didn’t know or they didn’t want to know.
Geraghty: Do you ever wonder how closely President Obama reads his PDB?
Rogers: I just don’t know how connected his entire administration is to the problem. If you listen to what Biden says, and then you listen to the president saying we’re going to get them to the point where they are a manageable problem. . . . You hear the [chairman of the] Joint Chiefs come out and say this is a very dangerous threat to the homeland, and then two days later, “No, not really dangerous to the homeland.” It is concerning to me.
Obviously, they’re seeing all the stuff that I’m seeing. It’s very clear. It’s very hard for even the casual observer to walk out of the room and not understand that very difficult challenge of stopping a homeland attack presented by an organization that has access to these people, access to Western passports, access to money, and is able to radicalize them in a timeframe that is concerning. . . . If your policy is, “We fixed all this problem, we don’t have to worry about it anymore, we’re packing up and leaving,” that tells me they’ve got to reconnect themselves to the gravity of this threat and the gravity of this problem.
Geraghty: You have access to more information than we do. At a time like this, in the weeks leading up to the 9/11 anniversary, when it feels as if the threats are ratcheting up, what, if anything, can or should ordinary citizens do?
Rogers: Be vigilant and live bravely. The most important thing you can do is carry on. Our intelligence services are doing everything they can; our law-enforcement people are doing everything they can. Being vigilant is important; if you are suspicious about something, report it. Don’t feel bashful about reporting it. Let the good guys sort it out.
You don’t want to hunker down and hide under the bed. Then the terrorists win. There is an ongoing threat, and disruption activities happen all year long.
The anniversaries are important to them, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop living. It just means we pay attention, remain vigilant, and carry on.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.