The Complex

Latest Iraq Crisis May Force Obama's Hand

The White House is considering a series of airstrikes in addition to humanitarian airdrops in northern Iraq, to assist the thousands of religious minorities trapped on a mountaintop by Sunni militants storming across the surrounding valleys who have taken the ancient city of Sinjar and are threatening the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday would not confirm that military or humanitarian efforts were planned but some type of White House action seemed imminent.

"There are many problems in Iraq," Earnest said. "This one that we're talking about right now has a particularly -- is a particularly acute one in that the stakes are very high."

Pentagon officials declined to discuss specific options, saying only that the Defense Department "has been working urgently and directly" with Baghdad to coordinate Iraqi airdrops to the Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority, and others in need.

"The Government of Iraq has initiated airdrops in the region and we are in constant communication with them on how we can help coordinate additional relief, enhance their efforts, and provide direct assistance wherever possible," a defense official said in an email.

But after meeting with his national security team Thursday morning, President Barack Obama seemed boxed into having to take some sort of action.

The situation has quickly grown dire. Humanitarian groups said earlier this week that as many as 40,000 civilians, many of whom are Yazidi, were trapped as vaunted Kurdish peshmerga forces defending the area lost ground to the Islamic State. Although the United States has supported Iraqi forces, including providing hundreds of Hellfire missiles, the peshmerga say they are poorly equipped to counter the Islamic State, previously known as ISIS.

Earnest on Thursday called the situation a humanitarian catastrophe. He also said the administration is deeply concerned about reports that several hundred girls had been abducted from the area.

Compounding the deteriorating situation is the Islamic State's capture of Iraq's largest dam, the Mosul. What that spells for civilians if, say, the militants blow it up, sending a 65-foot wall of water downriver, has been a concern since the Islamic State began its offensive across northern Iraq in the spring.

The White House continues to claim there are no military options -- only political ones. However, it feels it must make the distinction that Obama will not send "combat boots on the ground," meaning other military options are on the table. Since the crisis began, Washington has been urging Baghdad to commit to a political reconciliation with the country's Sunni majority and other groups not represented in the central government.

The White House, which has long been cautious when it comes to intervening anywhere militarily, will make a careful calculation when it comes to Iraq. But the humanitarian crisis and whatever offensive action the United States may take are two entirely different things. Humanitarian operations can be open-ended. Direct offensive action, however, won't be -- not for this administration.

"My expectation would be that they wouldn't start an offensive action that didn't have a clear end state," said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Despite the Islamic State's brutality, the group won't go so far as to provoke a full confrontation with the U.S. military, Alterman said.

"ISIS has been pretty deliberate about what they can do and not do," he said.

The Pentagon has been conducting an ongoing assessment of Iraqi security forces and surveilling the region with manned and unmanned aircraft. Thus far, it's not clear what could result from the assessments provided by the military personnel deployed to Iraq earlier this summer by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and others.

"The conversations inside the interagency continue on the Iraq assessment," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said on Tuesday. "Conversations continue about what the assessments say, and conversations continue about potential options moving forward, but no formal recommendations have been proffered or proposed or set forth, and certainly no decisions have been made," Kirby said.

By dispatching those advisors, the Pentagon created an expectation that the Obama administration was prepared to provide tangible assistance to Iraq.

Since then, however, the administration has sought to manage those expectations, suggesting that Obama ultimately might do little or nothing in Iraq. However, the humanitarian crisis rapidly unfolding there is a dramatic new factor -- and maybe one the White House can't ignore.

Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Complex

CIA Employees Worry They'll Be Shafted After Torture Report's Release

Current and former CIA officials who participated in the agency's brutal interrogations of terrorist suspects are worried that they'll be "hung out to dry" by both their leaders and the White House when a blistering report accusing the agency of torture is publicly released in the coming days.

The grim assessment comes from many who gathered at an auditorium at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Thursday for what was meant to be a morale-boosting speech by the agency's director, John Brennan. Instead of soothing frayed nerves, however, Brennan's remarks left current and former CIA employees wondering if they might face disciplinary actions, public retribution, or even criminal charges.

One CIA employee asked the director whether individual employees could later find themselves caught in the political crosshairs the next time they're asked to undertake a controversial mission. Brennan seemed "to dodge the question," and his presentation "went over like a lead balloon," said one former intelligence official who spoke to people who attended the town hall meeting. Brennan's talk, which was described as an attempt to allay the anxieties of the workforce before an onslaught of criticism and press attention, "did not go well," a second former intelligence official said. Brennan spoke in an auditorium nicknamed "the Bubble," and his remarks were also carried on an internal CIA closed-circuit television system.

The meeting comes at an acutely sensitive time for the agency. The administration has finished its review of a nearly 600-page report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which now has the final decision on when to release the document. That could come as early next week. Brennan and the CIA itself are also facing growing congressional fury over its admission this week that CIA spies improperly accessed Senate computers, a move that leading lawmakers describe as unconstitutional and an abuse of the agency's powers. Some lawmakers have called for Brennan's resignation.

President Obama said at the White House Friday that he had "full confidence" in Brennan, but he had harsh words for the CIA's interrogation program and the operatives who took part in it. "We tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values," Obama said.

Obama acknowledged that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks there was "enormous pressure" on law enforcement and national security personnel to prevent another attack. Obama called many of those personnel "real patriots." Still, he said, "we did some things that were wrong."

The comments could reignite a simmering political debate about whether any CIA interrogators or senior officials should have faced criminal charges for their treatment of detainees, several of whom died in U.S. custody.

One of the first executive actions Obama took after winning election in 2008 was to prohibit the CIA from using so-called extraordinary interrogation techniques, which the Senate report describes as torture, according to individuals who have read it. The CIA had abandoned its use of those techniques years earlier. Obama ruled out the idea of pressing charges against any of the CIA personnel, a decision that infuriated many human rights advocates and members of his own party, and that appears not to have assuaged many agency employees.

The debate over the Bush-era interrogation programs has been dormant for years, but will likely flare up again when the report is made public. With the White House declassifying the report -- which is a truncated version of a much larger 6,000-page document, which will likely never be released -- lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee will now review it for any redactions made by the White House and intelligence officials. That review will take at least a few days, according to sources familiar with the process. But at this point, the Senate committee is free to release the document, which concludes that the CIA didn't glean any intelligence from torture that could prevent a terrorist attack, and that CIA officials misled Congress about the program.

The release has been partly overshadowed by the controversy over the CIA's interference with the Senate's investigation. Yesterday, the agency confirmed that its inspector general concluded that CIA employees inappropriately monitored the computers of Senate Intelligence Committee staffers who were reviewing millions of classified documents about the interrogation program. Obama said he agreed with the inspector general's finding that some CIA employees acted inappropriately. Brennan apologized to the leaders of the committee, after earlier dismissing any suggestion that the CIA had spied on its congressional overseers.

Obama, at least for the moment, is standing by the CIA chief, long one of his closest national security advisers. Brennan worked on then-candidate Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 and was initially his pick to run the CIA. But Brennan withdrew himself from consideration amid questions about his own involvement in the CIA's torture program when he was a senior official at the agency during the George W. Bush administration.

Saul Loeb / AFP