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Incoming House intelligence chairman pushed for drone strikes

Colleagues say Republican Mike Rogers was influenced by visits to the front lines in Afghanistan.

December 20, 2010|By Ken Dilanian, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Five years ago, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) was visiting a thinly guarded U.S. special operations base in a remote part of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan. One of his hosts took him up to the roof, where he peered through binoculars at militants loading 122-millimeter rockets.

Those rockets soon will be raining down on this base, the officer told the congressman.

"What are you going to do about it?" Rogers asked with a note of concern, according to someone who was present.

"I can't do anything about it," the officer replied. "They are on the wrong side of the Durand Line" — the Pakistan side of the century-old British-decreed border between the two countries. Pakistan was off-limits.

Rogers and an aide were hustled onto a helicopter and flown out. The Afghan base indeed was rocketed. Rogers, whose resume includes a stint as an Army officer and another as an FBI investigator, returned to Washington determined to find out, as part of his role on the House Intelligence Committee, why the U.S. wasn't doing more to strike Taliban militants in Pakistan.

The responses he received frustrated him, those close to Rogers say, and led him to mount a campaign to press the George W. Bush administration to do more. In a story known only to a small group of participants, Rogers played a role in convincing President Bush to issue a July 2008 order that dramatically expanded the scope of Predator drone strikes against militants in Pakistan, according to two former Bush administration officials close to the matter and two members of the House Intelligence Committee who were involved. The officials declined to be named speaking about secret deliberations.

Rogers' unpublicized efforts as an advocate for that covert program, which has been expanded dramatically by President Obama, helped convince House Republican leader John Boehner last week to name Rogers incoming chairman of the intelligence committee.

"Mike went out and found out the ground truth on this stuff," said U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R.-Mich.), who is retiring as the ranking Republican on the committee.

These days, unmanned U.S. Predator drones are raining Hellfire missiles on militants in Pakistan's tribal areas at a rate of twice a week. But for much of his two terms, Bush used the drones sparingly. The State Department and some in the CIA opposed expanding the targeted killing program over fears it would destabilize the fragile Pakistani government, former U.S. officials said.

Military officials also argued that troops on the border already had authorization to call in airstrikes in Pakistan under "hot pursuit" doctrine.

But that wasn't happening in practice, Rogers found, and front-line soldiers and spies were furious.

Rogers cut through a bureaucratic fog by confronting senior policymakers with anecdotes from his trips to CIA and special operations bases along the Afghan-Pakistan border, said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who played a key role in the debate.

Rogers also pressed the issue with senior U.S. diplomats and CIA officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he worked back channels with junior CIA officers who shared his agenda but found themselves stymied by their cautious bosses, current and former U.S. officials said.

"I would say he played a unique role," said the former official, who was involved in crafting the new policy. "There was no one who took this on like he did."

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel would not discuss drone strikes in Pakistan, which are officially denied by the U.S. government. Rogers got the chairmanship, Steel said, in part because he "has traveled extensively to the real down-and-dirty areas, the front lines in our war on terrorism. And that's gotten him a lot of respect from the intelligence community and a real hands-on feel for the challenges we face."

Rogers declined to comment on the classified drone program. But he said his trips to remote corners of the U.S. war effort were grounded in basic investigative techniques he learned in the FBI: Go ask the people who actually know.

"Proper congressional oversight is a lot like the work of the FBI," he said. "Especially in a business that is designed to be clandestine, you have to be a little more tenacious to get the whole story. You have to go to where things are happening."

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