Excerpted from DEFCON HILL
House and Senate Intelligence panel members have voted to block President Obama from arming Syrian rebels, committee insiders told The Hill. They did so by placing severe restrictions on funding.
Lawmakers made their decision last month for fear that the administration plan would let weapons fall into the hands of terrorist groups, such as the many linked to al Qaeda.
The exact nature of the restrictions is unknown because the committees voted privately on the basis of classified information. What is known is that the restrictions are sufficient to prevent the administration from delivering arms as planned, according to a source familiar with the actions.
The committee “voted to allow them to make some movement on this, but it’s restricted,” said one Senate panel insider, who declined to elaborate on the total aid or the restrictions added by the Intelligence panels, which both met again on Tuesday. “It was a very restrictive amount.”
Administration officials stopped shy of saying that the efforts had thwarted the effort to arm rebel groups, but said it certainly didn’t make it easier.
“They’re raising a lot of questions without having alternative answers,” said one senior administration official.
“Whatever we do, we have to make sure we do it right,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday.
“If we are going to arm, we have to make sure we have control of what arms are out there and how people are trained to use those arms so they don’t fall into the hands of our enemy al Qaeda,” Ruppersberger said.
Ruppersberger would not discuss what actions his committee had taken, but said that they were providing oversight.
“We have funding oversight, and that’s part of the checks and balances,” he said.
The administration has pushed to sell its plan to lawmakers in Congress, and Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Biden both briefed the panels in June on the administration’s plans in Syria.
The White House announced in June that it would begin providing arms to the rebels, after it determined that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons. The White House has resisted taking further steps, such as setting up a no-fly zone.
Lawmakers said Tuesday, however, that they needed more evidence that the administration has thought its plan all the way through. Many of them are ardent supporters of arming the rebels.
“It’s not clear to me that the administration has a workable policy,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Intelligence Committee.
“We don’t have a clear picture of what the decision is by the administration,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an ex-officio member of the Intelligence panel.
The Associated Press first reported last month that the Intelligence panels had rejected the Obama administration’s initial plans to arm the rebels.
As news of the delay has leaked out in recent days, lawmakers on other committees — including some who want to arm Syria’s rebels — are rankled that they are not being consulted.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, accused the administration of trying to covertly get the Syria military aid approved behind the closed doors of the Intelligence Committee.
“They should come and talk about this openly,” Corker told reporters Tuesday. “It puts the Intelligence Committee in a very awkward place. All of a sudden, they own it.”
House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said that he wanted more extensive briefings on the arms plan for his committee.
“I think that sometimes it’s just assumed that they can talk to the Intelligence Committee and they’ve met all the requirements,” Engel said.
Intelligence Committee members said there’s no sleight of hand occurring.
Ruppersberger said Tuesday that the situation is incredibly complex in Syria, with Hezbollah members fighting alongside Assad’s forces and the Al-Nusra Front, a group affiliated with al Qaeda, fighting among the opposition.
“There’s a lot of difficult decisions to make right now,” Ruppersberger said. “That’s what we’re doing, working very closely with the White House.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney did not discuss the reasons behind the congressional delays over the aid on Tuesday, but said it was coming nonetheless.
“In keeping with the president’s announcement of our stepped-up assistance to the [Syrian opposition’s] Supreme Military Council, we are going to consult with Congress on these matters, and we intend to provide that stepped-up assistance,” Carney said at Tuesday’s White House briefing. “We were not bluffing. The president was very serious, as I think he made clear.”