The senator leading a push to authorize the war against ISIS after the elections wants an intelligence briefing first, so lawmakers know the full extent of the covert operations already under way.
Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez aired his frustrations last week when Secretary of State John Kerry came to testify before his old committee about the administration's plans to fight the terror group known as ISIS or ISIL.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., asked about published reports of covert efforts to train Syrian rebels.
"I know it's been written about in the public domain, that there is, quote, 'a covert operation.' But ... I can't confirm or deny whatever that's been written about and I can't really go into any kind of possible program," Kerry responded.
That prompted Menendez to chime in shortly afterward, saying the committee's inability to get access to information about covert operations was an issue with both the Obama administration and the Senate itself. He questioned how the panel could properly draft a new Authorization for Use of Military Force without such details. "It is unfathomable to me to understand how this committee is going to get to those conclusions without understanding all of the elements of military engagement, both overtly and covertly. And so I am foursquare with you," Menendez said. "But this is a challenge ... I'll call it, for lack of a better term, a procedural hurdle that we're going to have to overcome if we want the information to make an informed judgment and to get members on board."
"For intelligence briefings on covert operations, we are not allowed to get briefings, and I don't know how broadly it goes," Udall told CQ Roll Call. "As you know from open sources and The New York Times, there's been a covert operation for about two years ... it broke."
"So, the administration puts it out there as a covert operation, and the Times had in that two or three thousand people were trained, so the issue ... if they've been doing that. This is talking about doing the same thing, how effective have they been. That's the key. How effective have they been?" Udall said. "We need to know that information before we make these decisions on an authorization of force, on whether we think equipping and training is the way to go."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., echoed the questions about adequate briefings, saying, "There's real concern about that, and it is a very sore point obviously with all of us, but particularly the chairman."
McCain praised Menendez's leadership on the committee, but said the Senate missed an opportunity to more robustly weigh in on the crisis before leaving for the elections.
"This should have been a resolution that went through the Foreign Relations Committee then taken to the floor, debated there. Instead we are all just taking a pass because nobody wants to vote just two months before the election. It's dishonorable," he said.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, a fellow member of the Foreign Relations panel, sounded confident last week that a full debate on a new authorization of force would take place during the lame-duck session.
A senior Democratic aide emphasized that the post-election schedule had not been set. But the issue of the use of force seems sure to be debated, perhaps in the context of the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill, which includes training and equipping Syrian opposition beyond the expiration of the stopgap spending measure.
Separately, Durbin called Menendez a skillful chairman and praised him for leading the effort to advance a resolution through the committee to give Obama authority with regard to chemical weapons in Syria.
"I give credit where it's due. He passed, and I voted for, the committee resolution to give the president authority when it came to chemical weapons in Syria," said Durbin. "It was the only place in Congress where the president got such a vote, and I think a skillful effort by Sen. Menendez."
Menendez has also earned praise from Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson for his management of the issues, adding that the committee carries a lot of weight in diplomatic circles and that when it acts, it sends an important signal.
"One thing I have learned very quickly being here is that a resolution passed by the Foreign Relations Committee has real meaning and worth throughout the world," Johnson said. "That is the reason I just voted for this [CR]. If the president is going to have any success in building a coalition of the willing those coalition partners need to see that the American Congress is behind it."
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