(CBS) - President Obama vowed on Wednesday to do whatever was necessary to protect the American public from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but Mike Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA who is now a national security analyst for CBS News, says the administration might not understand the immediacy and severity of that threat.
The U.S. military mission in Iraq is narrowly focused on helping displaced Iraqis by flying in humanitarian aid, and protecting U.S. interests in the country -- not on targeting ISIS leadership.
That, says Morell, is not enough. He argues the relatively "small leadership" of the group must become the focus, along with reclaiming territory those leaders now control, and "that means capturing or killing them."
Morell explains that under current White House policy in order to take lethal action against any individual terror suspect, that person must be a member of a named terrorist organization (ISIS meets this requirement), and they must pose a direct threat -- and capture cannot be an option.
"I don't know if they (Obama administration) have made that determination or not," said Morell.
The former CIA insider says the only way to effectively combat ISIS, which has re-branded itself simply the "Islamic State," is to bolster Iraq's own military force -- which literally ran away in many instances from the Sunni extremists as they spread from Syria into north and west Iraq earlier this summer, and to get better intelligence on the leaders' movements.
It remains unclear, however, how much information U.S. officials have on the whereabouts of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or his top aids. If the group's leaders are still in Syria -- a distinct possibility given that ISIS is now being actively targeted by U.S. air power in Iraq -- finding and killing them would be no easy task.
Senior administration officials have told CBS News White House correspondent Major Garrett that the vast majority of intelligence from Syria is signals-based, meaning from cellular and other forms of electronic communication.
Human intelligence from inside the war-torn country is rare and thought to be less reliable.
Highlighting the challenges of trying to operate in Syria, the U.S. government acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday a failed attempt by Special Operations Forces to rescue American hostages held in the country by ISIS -- including journalist James Foley, who was later brutally executed by the group.
"The U.S. government had what we believed was sufficient intelligence, and when the opportunity presented itself, the president authorized the Department of Defense to move aggressively to recover our citizens," said Lisa Monaco, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, in a statement. "Unfortunately, that mission was ultimately not successful because the hostages were not present."