WASHINGTON — Rep. Michael McCaul accused the Obama administration Wednesday of endangering national security by downplaying the continued activity of al-Qaida.
Tuesday’s hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security, built around the Republican theme, “A False Narrative Endangers the Homeland,” marked another page in an ongoing partisan debate over the threat al-Qaida poses to the United States, most notably as a suspect in the 2012 attacks on U.S. compounds in Benghazi.
The Texas Republican said al-Qaida activity surging in the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah indicate an increased threat from the terrorist group – one that the president has not acknowledged to the public.
“With each attack, the administration appears to distance itself from who’s behind it,” McCaul said. “Terrorist groups are multiplying. They are spreading like wildfire.”
Republicans have charged Obama with misleading the public about the connections between the attackers in Benghazi who killed four Americans in September 2012 and al-Qaida. The U.S. Senate released a bipartisan report Wednesday that found the attacks in Libya to be preventable, but the report did not reveal new information applicable to the partisan debate.
McCaul said Obama’s “nucleus” approach to combatting al-Qaeda is no longer effective because the group has become increasingly decentralized. He called on Obama to address Islamic extremist ideology, not just take out individual al-Qaeda leaders.
“Killing (Osama) bin Laden was an important accomplishment, but it has not put al-Qaida on its heels or secured the homeland,” he said.
Former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane appeared as witnesses at the hearing due to their involvement in homeland security policy and military strategy since the 9-11 attacks. Seth Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center, also testified.
The top committee Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, challenged McCaul’s remarks. He said many experts believe his death led to a decline in al-Qaida activity. Thompson also defended the withdrawal of troops from Iraq despite recent violence in the war-torn country.
Harman also defended the Obama administration’s work.
“President Obama continued the efforts of Bush, and some would even argue that he increased those efforts,” she said.
Harman, who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, argued that the problem with the president’s narrative is not that the threat of al-Qaeda is being downplayed, but that the administration’s agenda has not been clearly explained to Americans and people living in the region.
Lieberman, the first chairman of the Senate Homeland Security panel, said the nation needs to take a more active approach in preventing al-Qaida forces from gaining power in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Lieberman, who served his last term as an independent, said he did not advocate deploying thousands of troops. But he criticized Obama’s lack of a coherent anti-terrorism strategy and said little action has been taken to prevent these troubled nations from becoming “sanctuaries” of terrorist activity.
Much of the debate at the hearing concerned the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many members argued pulling out of Afghanistan would reverse progress that has been made there. They pointed to the recent violence in Iraq as a reason to avoid such a political move.
Seth Jones said the debate about the administration’s approach to terrorist groups was particularly relevant as the United States prepares for the Sochi Olympic games.
“We have multiple groups in the region … that do present a relevant threat,” he said.