Incoming House intelligence chairman pushed for drone strikes

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."

Rogers, 47, who is remarried with two teenagers, is an anti-abortion, down-the-line conservative from a solid Republican district in southern Michigan. As intelligence committee chairman, he can be expected to challenge the Obama administration aggressively over what he views as a law enforcement approach to terrorism. For example, he ripped the decision by federal authorities to read Miranda warnings to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a plane over Detroit last Christmas Day with a bomb sewn into his underwear. The priority should have been intelligence gathering, Rogers said, especially given the other evidence against Abdulmutallab.

Rogers also has blasted Obama's decision to restrict CIA questioning of detainees to the strictures of the U.S. Army Field Manual, which he argues are more restrictive than the rules governing FBI agents when questioning criminal suspects.

And he made news when he said the death penalty should apply to Bradley Manning, accused of being the source of classified U.S. documents posted by WikiLeaks.

But Rogers has a knack for disagreeing without being disagreeable, a trait that has engendered warm feelings among at least some Democrats. CIA Director Leon Panetta, for example, said in a statement that Rogers "is one of Congress' foremost experts on intelligence and the fight against terrorism," and that "I have come to know him and respect his insights."

Kansas Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Republican who traveled with Rogers while he served on the intelligence committee, said Rogers is well-liked "because he's very personable. He's tough as nails, but he can do it with a way that's not offensive."

Rogers poked and prodded behind the scenes — and finally made a personal appeal to Bush — to force the U.S. military to better secure unguarded Iraq weapons and ammunition storage sites after the 2003 invasion, sites that were fodder for the burgeoning insurgency.

A 1985 graduate of Adrian College in Michigan, Rogers served three years in the Army and then joined the FBI, where he worked until he ran and won a state Senate seat in 1994. He served as Michigan Senate majority Leader from 1999 to 2000 and was elected to Congress that fall.

On the walls of his Capitol Hill office, Rogers displays a tomahawk made of metal from a Soviet tank given to him by Afghans, and a long knife given to him by Pakistanis.

There is also a framed Chicago newspaper front page about the biggest chapter of his FBI career. Rogers built the case that mushroomed into a massive public corruption prosecution in Cicero, Ill., just outside Chicago. The town that once hosted Al Capone's gang was still, in the late 1980s, infiltrated by the mob. Betty Loren-Maltese, the town president, was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2002 after she and six others were convicted of stealing $12 million from the town.

It started with a telephone tip about a missing woman, Rogers said, which led him to set up surveillance on a Cicero strip club that fronted for a brothel. The place was under the protection of corrupt Cicero police officers, Rogers soon realized.

"I thought it was a few bad cops," he said. It turned out to be a well-orchestrated conspiracy.

His biggest break came when he went to the hospital to see a woman who had been stabbed in the club, he said. She had previously refused to talk. But on this day, a mobster had just turned down her request to pay her medical expenses.

"She was upset," Rogers said. "She asked, 'Well, would you pay for my hospital bill?' I said, 'Yeah, sure,' Then I said to myself, 'Oh, my God, I hope the Bureau will pay for this.' "

Rogers showed her pictures, and she identified mob figures and police who frequented the club.

"That's what really started the Cicero case," Rogers said.

Rogers had a similar break in his effort to convince Boehner and other House leaders to press the Bush administration to expand drone strikes, according to some who were there.

One day in 2008, Rogers, Hoekstra and Boehner attended a meeting in the Capitol with a group of CIA officials. Some of the senior CIA officials expressed opposition to expanding drone strikes, say two of them who were there, and some argued that Rogers was overstating the targeting capabilities.

A junior CIA officer spoke up and acknowledged that there were targeting "packages" against militants in Pakistan that were viable but had not been used.

"The front-row guys, they didn't have a clue what to say," one meeting attendee said.

Not long afterward, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden briefed Bush on a series of more aggressive covert options in Pakistan, including drone strikes that went after Taliban networks, in addition to high-value al Qaeda targets.

ken.dilanian@latimes.com

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