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How Congress sees the fight against the Islamic State

Lawmakers have spent the past few days being briefed on the Paris attacks and the threat posed to the U.S by the Islamic State. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., join Judy Woodruff to discuss the fight against the militant group.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    On Capitol Hill, many lawmakers have spent the past two days behind closed doors, in briefings on the Paris attacks and the potential threat to the U.S.

    To discuss that threat, we are joined now by two leading members of Congress, both from California.

    Representative Ed Royce is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And Representative Adam Schiff is the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence.

    Gentlemen, we welcome you both.

    Chairman Royce, let me begin with you.

    What have you learned from these briefings on the capability, the motivation of ISIS that you weren't aware of before and that you can share with the public?

    REP. ED ROYCE (R), California: Well, I think that the biggest surprise has just been the magnitude of the attacks here. We have seen over 900 casualties as a result of these ISIS attacks.

    And what we're learning also is the ability of the ISIS organization to have used the safe haven that they have in their caliphate in order to train with new methodology of bomb-making for them, and also with automatic weapons. And you see the result of that, on the streets of Paris, for example. But you also see something else.

    The document forgery of Syrian passports now has emerged as a new issue, and we have seen even a case today with false Syrian passports used in Latin America. We saw the case in Greece where one of the ISIS terrorists had used a false passport.

    You pay $2,000 today, you get a passport that's so good that it's often hard for E.U. authorities even to determine whether it's false or real. So this is a security challenge for Europe, as we see. And, lastly, I would just say the ability once in Europe, once you have got a visa waiver, for those in Europe that may have gone to fight with ISIS and they come back to Europe, they now have that visa waiver they can take advantage of to come, for example, here to the United States. These are all concerns.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That's a lot of information to process.

    Congressman Schiff, as a member of the Intelligence Committee, does that track with what you're learning, or is there more?

    REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), California: Well, it does.

    I think what we have seen graphically in the last few weeks is something we have been watching in the intelligence community for the last several months, and that is ISIS originally focused on building its caliphate, on holding its ground. It has now opened, really, a second front, and that is trying on attack in the West.

    We have seen a number of plots largely disrupted in Europe, but only recently to see the horrific attacks in Paris, the bombing of this Russian plane, the bombing in Beirut. Clearly, ISIS is now moving to export its violence around the world, and, in that respect, adopting many of the techniques of al-Qaida. And it has really eclipsed al-Qaida as the preeminent terrorist threat we face now.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, given all this, Chairman Royce, just how vulnerable is the United States? We just heard a short time ago the president's adviser on national security, Lisa Monaco, said the administration believes right now there's no credible threat to the United States.

    How do you see that?

  • REP. ED ROYCE:

    Well, the good news, of course, is that since 9/11, we have had 12 attempts for attacks in New York. All of them have been thwarted. So we can credit our capabilities with that.

    But, of course, we have an additional challenge here, and that is that ISIS has now learned how to use encryption for their communications. So, in the past, we had the capability at times to intercept these messages. Now, we will learn more about the attacks in Paris. It is possible that ISIS used encryption in order to plan and carry out those attacks in order to keep Parisian and French authorities from using the usual methodology to discover those attacks in progress.

    And so, if that is indeed the case, then we are going to be more vulnerable than we would have been in the past.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Congressman Schiff, what does it say then, if this is a new capability on the part of ISIS, that the U.S. has to be prepared to deal, whether it's encryption or any other aspect of this new ability that they have?

  • REP. ADAM SCHIFF:

    I think it means a few things. In the near term, what we're most concerned about is not a Paris-style attack, but homegrown radicals being inspired by what they see in Paris to lash out here in the United States.

    ISIS, I think, doesn't currently have the capability to reach us. We're a harder target to get to than Europe. We have far fewer people who have left the United States to join the fight and have returned. But over the long term, if ISIS is able to continue holding ground in Iraq and Syria, if they're continued to allow the time, the space, and devote the resources to plotting against us, we are vulnerable to a Paris-style attack.

    And the challenges, as the chairman pointed out, in dealing with these new encrypted technologies also add to the burdens of trying to thwart this. I think it underscores one point, Judy, and that is, even with the best of intelligence, you are not going to be able to stop a determined enemy that is adapting to what you're doing if they have that time and space to plot against you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And so we're going to have to change the dynamic on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, I believe, to really seriously degrade this threat to us. Well, picking up on what the U.S. may have to do on the battlefield, Chairman Royce, I mean, is there a clear path ahead for the United States to pursue when it comes to confronting ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

  • REP. ED ROYCE:

    I think there is. I think that, in terms of most of the fighting on the ground, you have a battle going on along a 650-mile front today.

    It is between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and some Yazidi forces fighting against ISIS. But they do not currently have at their disposal the type of weaponry they need. They don't have the artillery and the long-range mortars, the anti-tank weapons. We have an opportunity to go around Baghdad that doesn't want us necessarily to arm the Kurds, but to give them that weaponry to make those 180,000 soldiers, 30 percent of them women, by the way, more effective in that fight.

    I think we should do that. I think we should also work more closely with the Sunni tribes in the area that are fighting ISIS. And, lastly, I think we should give them closer air support, more in the way of airpower used in conjunction with Kurdish forces that would receive more weaponry, to carry out the war on the ground and begin to roll ISIS back, because when it's perceived that ISIS is losing territory, that's when it's harder for them to recruit on the Internet and tell people that they're invincible.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Congressman Schiff, are those the kind of things that you think there — first of all, would you support those kind of measures? And do you think there could be bipartisan support for the administration to do what we just heard?

  • REP. ADAM SCHIFF:

    I certainly support providing greater material support to the Kurds, and if the Iraqi government isn't willing to make that happen sufficiently, to provide direct support for the Kurds.

    I also support those efforts of our Kurdish allies in Syria. They have been among the most effective fighting forces. This is a challenge because both of those actions would alienate, to some degree, the Iraqi government, as well as the Turkish government. But, nonetheless, these are the people fighting on the ground, and we need to support them.

    You know, I will say this also, though. I don't think merely supplying the Kurds or adding to the aerial sorties or introduction of small numbers of operators will change the dynamic on the ground appreciably. The Kurds aren't going to be able to go into large non-Kurdish areas.

    And I think that ultimately means we're going to have to explore some things we haven't wanted to, such as the establishment of a buffer zone or a safe zone, explore with the Turks and Jordanians whether they're willing to put their people on the ground to police that zone, if we're willing to protect it from the air.

  • REP. ED ROYCE:

    That, I think, would have the possibility of changing the dynamic. And, finally, at the end of the day, the Iraqi government is going to have to allow Sunnis to be incorporated into the government and into the armed forces. They're going to have to give them an alternative to ISIS, or this problem is just going to persist, no matter what we do. And I will add that I agree with my colleague on the concept of that safe zone.

    I think it is absolutely essential that it be established along that border. And I think it will give us a great advantage in terms of pushing back ISIS.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Chairman Ed Royce and Representative Adam Schiff, we thank you both. REP. ADAM SCHIFF: Thank you.

  • REP. ED ROYCE:

    Thank you.

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