Rep. Devin Nunes is vying for the chairmanship of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. As a member of the panel, the California Republican has access to classified material unavailable to his rank-and-file colleagues.
In part two of Nunes’ Friday interview with the Washington Examiner, he discussed the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and what the U.S. needs to do to defeat the terrorist group. The interview, conducted before Obama revealed that he would be speaking to the nation on Wednesday to present his strategy for defeating ISIS, was edited for length and clarity.
Examiner: Should Congress vote to give Obama military authority to combat ISIS?
Nunes: It’s important for people to understand that this is the same war, this is not some new group. These are radical Islamists who are formerly *al Qaeda or still linked to al Qaeda. We are at war with them; that war never ended. The president doesn’t need any new authority to go kill al Qaeda or radical Islamists.
Examiner: Should Congress do anything legislatively?
Nunes: There could be a need for money, if we have to increase funding for operations. But that won’t happen without a clear strategy with objectives laid out by the White House.
There could be some need for some legislation dealing with westerners who have fought in Syria and Iraq for the extremists — there could be [a] need to deal with what are we going to with those folks, in terms of their access to get back into the United States. Because right now, we have people who we know are in Iraq and Syria fighting for the Islamists. We know who they are. Technically speaking, they can come right back in the Unites States. They’re U.S. citizens. So, you may have to deal with that issue.
And, third, we have to really grapple with this issue of our signals intelligence and [the National Security Agency,] because there’s been an absolute war — an attack on NSA. If we handcuff the NSA, are we going to be able to track down these bad guys who, at some point in time, are going to lay mass casualties on either the United States or our allies?
Examiner: Does ISIS present a national security threat to the United States?
Nunes: The biggest threat that ISIS [presents] to us are the westerners with Western passports who will have access, easily, to the United States of America or our Western allies. That’s the largest problem. A lot of folks are talking about the ones that we know about. There are thousands of Westerners who went to fight for ISIS who are fully trained, have been there for a few years. Those guys are a major concern. However, a bigger concern are the guys we don’t know about.
Examiner: Are these individuals hard to track?
Nunes: When we talk about putting handcuffs on NSA, that’s one of the reasons why I sent a letter to all of my Republican colleagues who have been supporting handcuffs on NSA and making [them] difficult to track. It will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to find the Westerners fighting for ISIS who we don’t even know who they are at this point.
Examiner: Does ISIS have to be fully defeated as a matter of U.S. national security?
Nunes: I want people to understand, ISIS, ISIL, whatever you want to call them — they are al Qaeda, they are an offshoot of al Qaeda. A lot of them fought for al Qaeda, a lot of them were imprisoned — some of them were even from Guantanamo. Some people want to believe that the war against radical Islamists ended. But I’m not in that category. The war’s not over until one side gives up or is completely obliterated. That hasn’t happened. We are still at war that they declared on us from Sept. 11, 2001. This is just a continuation. [I’ve] long been advocating kinetic action against radical Islamists and I continue to do that.
Examiner: What sort of kinetic, military action is necessary to combat ISIS?
Nunes: I’m willing to support a legitimate plan and strategy with objectives put forth by our military leadership and the president of the United States, as long as it’s not a situation where we have mission creep, don’t put in enough troops and don’t have clear objectives or strategy.
Examiner: Give me your assessment of the president’s response to ISIL.
Nunes: We’ve known for years that radical Islamists, inspired by al Qaeda, were not only growing, but growing quickly, and they were committing heinous crimes. And I think it’s rather pathetic that it takes the beheading of two U.S. reporters before anyone pays attention to this, when clearly these guys have been massacring in just pure brutal ways for years now.
Examiner: So what about [President Obama's] actions over the past month or so to combat ISIL? Can U.S. air support, combined with regional players supplying the ground troops, defeat ISIL?
Nunes: I don’t know what the strategy is, first and foremost. So I can’t really tell you what the strategy is. I know, tactically speaking, as it relates to the Kurds, it can work with air support because the Kurds, as long as you give them lethal capability and provide air cover — because the Kurds are willing to fight for themselves. So that’s an area where that tactic can work. As far as looking at the larger strategy and what are the objectives? I have no idea. I don’t know what the president has in mind. As time keeps ticking, it becomes more and more difficult.
Examiner: Is there a strategy that will work?
Nunes: The strategy that will work will be something similar to the surge that was put into Iraq back by President [George W.] Bush that helped defeat al Qaeda the first time. That we know works, and it will work again. But I just don’t see this president, who never understood al Qaeda in the first place, and if he did, it’s hard to see that he — whether it’s political reasons or not — whether he’s really willing to take the fight to these Islamists like it needs to be. That means putting the full force of the U.S. military to go down and, as Vice President Biden said, follow them to the gates of hell. That’s the surge strategy. And we know it works, and you will defeat them.
Examiner: Does that mean you support putting U.S. ground troops back into Iraq, as well as Syria?
Nunes: My personal belief on the use of U.S. military force is that you can use covert action to work in small ways to make a difference. However those should be limited and only used when absolutely necessary, or to avoid a larger conflict. But if you’re going to put our military men and women in harm's way, if you’re not willing to put the full force of the U.S. military, then all you’re going to do is create mission creep and another Vietnam — have another situation like we did in Iraq when we didn’t go in with enough troops and we didn’t do the surge. If you’re going to risk a few American lives, then better put the full force of the U.S. military behind it so you can go in and follow these guys, as Vice President Biden says, to the gates of hell.