WASHINGTON -- One of the Obama administration's key intelligence leaders told lawmakers Thursday that he didn't think the U.S. offensive against the Islamic State was covered by a 2001 military force authorization, which the White House has touted as its authority for waging war against the Islamic terror group.
Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the broad Bush-era document "allowed us to carry out operations against al-Qaeda and associated forces." But as for its covering current operations against the Islamic State, he said, "I would defer to my lawyer friends, but I believe not."
He also told the panel that he would provide an additional answer for the record at a later time. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rasmussen’s remarks only added to an already testy debate on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have been parsing the Obama administration's long-awaited proposal for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force to explicitly cover the offensive against the Islamic State. After months of back and forth between Congress and the White House, President Barack Obama’s proposal was finally delivered this week.
Notably, that proposal did not set geographic limits. While the Obama administration says that current airstrikes are being conducted only in Iraq and Syria, the new AUMF would allow it to go after Islamic State militants wherever they exist.
According to Rasmussen’s testimony about the group, that would mean the Obama administration might very well pursue the militants in Libya. That country has been devolving since revolutionaries -- with the help of Western air power -- overthrew longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. It's now emerged as the next likely terror hotspot and a possible battlefield for the Islamic State, which has already taken substantial ground in Iraq and Syria.
The AUMF debate was just one of the national security issues Rasmussen was asked to wade into Thursday during a rare public hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He was grilled extensively on the collecting of Americans’ communication metadata by the National Security Agency, the widening reach of the Islamic State, and the future of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
When it comes to the collection of Americans’ data, Rasmussen said the intelligence community was counting on Congress to reauthorize those programs, though he said allowing telecommunications companies, and not the government, to store the information would be acceptable. He said mass data dragnets are imperative to protect the country against a new generation of terror threats, including homegrown fighters and lone wolf attacks springing from the burgeoning Islamic extremism in the Middle East.
"Fundamentally, reauthorization is something that we’re counting on in the intelligence community as an important part of our work," Rasmussen said Thursday.
Public revelations about the NSA programs in 2013 have changed the way terrorists communicate, Rasmussen said, escalating threats to the United States and making it all the more important to preserve the ability of the nation’s spies to sift through Americans’ data.
The tensions showcased on Thursday foreshadow an upcoming legislative fight over the highly controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The elements of FISA that allow for those NSA programs will expire in June if Congress does not reauthorize or reform the provision.
The public hearing came as a surprise from the newly minted Intelligence Committee chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who had vowed when he took the chairman's gavel that he wouldn’t hold open hearings, save for required public meetings on nominations.
But Thursday’s event may be the launch of Burr’s alternative to one of the intelligence panel’s annual traditions, the public "Open Threats" hearing, which would feature testimony from the leaders of Washington’s intelligence community. Last year’s hearing included CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Rather than a one-time shot at the full roster, Burr reportedly plans to hold an open hearing with one major intelligence community figure every quarter.
UPDATE: 10:50 p.m. -- Jeff Anchukaitis, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said Rasmussen "misspoke" during the hearing.
As Director Rasmussen noted at the hearing, he is not a lawyer, and he misspoke in discussing the legal authority for the U.S. use of force against ISIL. In fact, as the Administration has repeatedly stated, we believe that the 2001 AUMF provides legal authority to use military force against ISIL in both Iraq and Syria.