By Martin Matishak - 09/03/14 05:28 PM EDT
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday said the U.S. intends to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, not merely “contain" the militant group.
"It's not contain," Hagel told CNN of the U.S. mission. "It's exactly what the president said: degrade and destroy."
Critics seized on those remarks, questioning if the president only intended to contain the group and arguing that he was not taking the threat seriously.
Hagel said the Pentagon had already prepared options for the president to combat ISIS, including within Syria.
"Our mission ... is to provide him those options and those plans to accomplish the mission of destroy and degrade,” he said.
Obama has authorized airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq but is still weighing whether to expand those operations to hit the group in Syria.
Asked if ISIS was an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, Hagel said that officials are “aware of over 100 U.S. citizens who have U.S. passports who are fighting in the Middle East” with the group.
“There may be more, we don’t know,” he added.
Security officials have raised concerns that ISIS members with Western passports could return to their home countries to commit acts of terror.
“We can't take a chance ... on saying, well, let's technically define this, is it a real threat today or tomorrow, or is it going to be in six months,” said Hagel. “That's the way the threats don't work in little, neat boxes and emanate on our time frame. They emanate on their time frame.”
Hagel stressed that ISIS is "better organized" and "better funded" than any other terrorist group the U.S. has encountered, citing its control of large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
“You've got to destroy it,” he said. “Because if we don't destroy it, it will get worse and it will get wider and deeper.”
Hagel said the video the group posted online Tuesday apparently showing the execution of American journalist Steven Sotloff “makes you sick to your stomach.” It reminds people of “the kind of brutality and the barbarism that is afoot in some of these areas of the world,” he continued.
ISIS “won't just recede into the gray recesses of history until we stop it,” Hagel added.
When pressed if he would “vow” that the U.S. would eradicate the group, Hagel demurred.
“Well, vows are something beyond my mortal capacity of doing,” he said. But he added that the administration would “do everything possible that we can do to destroy their capacity to inflict harm on our people and Western values and our interests.”