How the Obama administration hopes to regain Congress' trust on Iraq

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Politics,Barack Obama,Iraq War,Benghazi,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Guantanamo Bay,Dianne Feinstein

The Obama administration has been in close communication with key members of Congress this week on both the crisis in Iraq and the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the suspected leader of the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi attack.

Despite those regular consultations, major questions remain about how the administrations plan to move forward on both fronts.

Top Democrats and Republicans on key committees say administration officials have been reaching out to lawmakers frequently this week, working to regain trust after the furor on Capitol Hill after President Obama failed to inform members before the swap of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for the release of five Taliban leaders.

Obama will meet with the four top Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress Wednesday at the White House to discuss his plans for Iraq, and other foreign policy matters.

Ahead of the meeting Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called on Obama to quickly come up with a plan to maintain stability in Iraq.

“The speaker expects the President to offer a coherent strategy to ensure that Iraq does not descend further into lawless barbarism,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. “We spent years, vast sums of money, and — most importantly — thousands of American lives to improve Iraq’s security and make America safer. Squandering that legacy would be a tragic mistake.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said only what he did not want to from Obama regarding Iraq: any attempt to send troops.

“After a decade of war, we've all had enough,” he said.

Other key members of Congress also say the administration is keeping them informed both on developments on Iraq, as well as Khattala's capture over the last week.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, complained bitterly about being cut out of decisions and plans involving the release of Bergdahl.

But when it comes to the capture of Khattala and ongoing discussions about potential U.S. intervention in Iraq, Feinstein said she the White House has been “keeping in touch.”

Key Senate Republicans on committees such as Armed Services and Intelligence also say they have been consulted and briefed on both the Khattala raid and the situation in Iraq.

“It seems to have gone back to normal, which makes the fact that they didn't inform [us] about the Taliban Five even more appalling and seemingly intentional,” a GOP aide told the Washington Examiner.

The aide also questioned the level of detail the administration is providing in its briefings.

And on Tuesday afternoon, just hours after Khattala's capture was announced publicly, even Democrats seemed light on details. When asked whether Khattalah has been read his Miranda rights, which would likely end any potential interrogations, Feinstein said she didn't know.

Administration officials and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle applauded Khattala's capture Tuesday. But the celebrations lacked the triumph of other successful raids because the whereabouts of Khattala have been generally known.

In interviews with journalists — both American and Libyan — Khattala has scoffed at threats coming from the U.S. about his capture, speaking openly in such public venues as crowded luxury hotel patios.

Congressional sources said the administration knew for for months where Khattala was and could have easily nabbed him but held back because the U.S. intelligence community believed they did not have the authority to capture or kill him under the Congressional authorization to go to war against al Qaeda.

Khattala is a leader of Ansar al-Sharia, a militant group with ties to al Qaeda. While some Congressional investigations into the Benghazi attack have shown ties between Ansar al-Sharia and al Qaeda in planning the attack on the diplomatic post, the U.S. intelligence community did not have enough evidence to conclude that Khattala himself has al Qaeda ties.

The distinction is critical when it comes to determining how to interrogate, hold and try him.

Attorney General Eric Holder last year indicted Khattala for his role in the attacks and ultimately the military used that indictment - and the right of U.S. authorities to pursue criminals wanted by a U.S. court of law - as the legal means to send in a special forces Delta team, along with members of the FBI, to capture him.

Holder, in his statement on Khattala, said his capture is the beginning of the process of putting him on trial and seeking his conviction before a jury. He did not indicate where he was being held and whether the military, the FBI or other U.S. intelligence agents were interrogating him.

After similar raids, the military has held suspects aboard naval ships before flying them to the United States to face legal charges.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Tuesday that he knew Khattala was being held on a Navy ship, likely so he could be interrogated in someplace other than Guantanamo Bay.

The White House confirmed Obama's aversion to sending Khattala to Guantanamo Bay in a statement Tuesday evening.

“The administration's policy is clear on this issue: we have not added a single person to the GTMO population since President Obama took office, and we have had substantial success delivering swift justice to terrorists through our federal court system,” said NSC spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

Graham said he agrees that Khattala should be tried in a criminal, not military court, but said holding him on a Navy ship, which the U.S. can only legally do for 30 days, short-changes U.S intelligence-gathering abilities.

Placing him in a land-based prison, Graham said, would allow greater flexibility for interrogators to develop a long-term relationship with Khattala and come back and revisit certain questions.

Because of the U.S. pattern of using ships for interrogations, Graham also said Khattala likely knows there's a finite period of 30 days for his interrogations.

“This is a bastardization of the law of war — we're shortchanging our intelligence gathering capabilities because the Obama administration is turning the war into a crime,” he said. “If you look at the Geneva Convention, they frown on holding prisoners on ships as detention facilities because you can't inspect them.”

“If the enemy knows, 'Just hang on for 30 days — You're okay,' they will. What gets you good intelligence is rapport and uncertainty — you're losing both.”

Graham said he was “blown away” by the way the administration handled the 2013 arrest, interrogation and trial of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, who is now in prison.

He said bin Laden's son-in-law was only interrogated for 20 hours.

“God knows what he had available,” he said. “After 20 hours they read him his Miranda rights and that's it. That's the end of intelligence gathering.”

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Susan Crabtree

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner