Tags: Al-Qaida | Barack Obama | Iraq in Crisis | War on Terrorism | Iraq | Obama | intelligence

Daily Beast: US Doesn't Know Who to Strike in Iraq

By Melanie Batley   |   Monday, 16 Jun 2014 10:25 AM

President Barack Obama is considering possible airstrikes over Iraq to stop the advance of Islamic militants throughout the country, but officials admit the administration has failed to gather the necessary information about the key figures involved to draw up a possible target list.

Current and retired defense and intelligence officials told The Daily Beast that the CIA and the Pentagon are unclear about who is part of ISIS despite having identified the group as a growing threat over the last few years.

"We don't have boots on ground providing intelligence, and we don't have confidence in information that the Iraqi government provides, because they've [been] so heavy-handed in the use of force against Sunni villages," California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, told the Daily Beast.

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A former senior U.S. official said the withdrawal of troops from the country in 2011 is the reason the United States has lost the intelligence capabilities it needs to detain or kill the individuals who are central to the campaign to take over the country.

Separately, the Obama administration closed the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, where an interagency group of CIA, Pentagon, and other officers was based to track militants. The move has further diminished crucial intelligence gathering, two former U.S. officials told the Daily Beast.

The inability to identify specific targets could eliminate the legal authority the White House would need to order military strikes, an issue administration lawyers are trying to tackle.

If the administration is able to conclude that former Baathists from the regime of Saddam Hussein make up most of the forces on the offensive, it is theoretically possible that the government could draw on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force law passed by Congress in 2002 to justify military action.

The law, however, was predicated on the suspected presence of unauthorized weapons of mass destruction under a regime that is no longer in power, so it may not be of use in this case, according to the Beast.

The authorization for use of military force passed in 2001 to target al-Qaida terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks is another possible legal framework on which the administration could draw. Doing so, however, could prove a challenge as the administration would need to prove that al-Qaida makes up a significant part of the ISIS forces, which is complicated by the fact that al-Qaida has disavowed the group.

Other legal and legislative avenues are being considered, including the possibility of Obama invoking Article II of the Constitution that would allow him to take action to protect American diplomats and contractors that could be in danger as a result of the violence.

Congress, however, would likely object to that approach.

"It's hard to claim immediate threat to the United States" that would preclude going to Congress to seek permission, Schiff said. "Though there is certainly a threat when ISIS eventually turns its attention from Iraq and Assad in Syria to the U.S. homeland."

He added, "My guess is if he feels the imperative of doing something quickly, he won't want to come to Congress."

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