- The Washington Times - Monday, December 14, 2015

President Obama tried to calm Americans’ fears of another terrorist attack Monday, asserting that the U.S.-led coalition is attacking the Islamic State “harder than ever,” but the White House also struggled to explain why the administration prohibits immigration officials from reviewing the social media messages of all foreign citizens applying for U.S. visas for evidence of jihadi sympathies.

Emerging from a rare meeting at the Pentagon with his top national security advisers, the president offered some uncharacteristic tough talk reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “dead or alive” rhetoric.

He delivered a warning to the Islamist group also known as ISIL and ISIS, which he once compared to a “JV” team.



“ISIL leaders cannot hide,” Mr. Obama said, with top generals at his side. “And our next message to them is simple: You are next.”

Mr. Obama said he is dispatching Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to the Middle East to persuade coalition partners to provide more help to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. He said his administration is “moving forward with a great sense of urgency” against the terrorist group.

With polls showing the public has less confidence than ever in Mr. Obama’s ability to handle terrorism, the president seemed eager to describe steps he has been taking against the Islamic State. He said the coalition carried out more airstrikes against the militants in November than in any previous month of the year-old campaign. He also confirmed that about 50 U.S. special operations forces have begun their mission in Syria, working with local ground forces to drive back the extremists and collect intelligence for more effective airstrikes.

“This fall, even before the revolting attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, I ordered new actions to intensify our war against ISIL,” Mr. Obama said. “These actions, including more firepower and special operations, are well underway.”

Republicans panned Mr. Obama’s address — his third to Americans on terrorism in three weeks — as a public relations stunt lacking any meaningful policy changes.

“It’s troubling that in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino, the president seems more concerned about sounding tough than he does about preventing more of these types of attacks,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who urged the president to “listen to his military commanders’ best advice.”

“To win the war against ISIS, President Obama must present a victory strategy and demonstrate a commitment to that strategy,” Mr. Cotton said. “Today, we heard neither.”

Even as the president outlined the beefed-up military action that his administration is taking against the Islamic State, his message was being undermined by revelations that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson refused in early 2014 to end a U.S. policy that prohibited immigration officials from reviewing the social media messages of all foreign citizens applying for U.S. visas. A former senior Homeland Security official told ABC News that Mr. Johnson feared a civil liberties backlash and “bad public relations” for the administration.

“During that time period, immigration officials were not allowed to use or review social media as part of the screening process,” said John Cohen, a former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Homeland Security Department.

Lawmakers are questioning why U.S. officials failed to review the social media posts of San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik, who killed 14 people two weeks ago with her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook. A native of Pakistan, she received a K-1, or “fiancee,” visa in May 2014, despite what the FBI said were extensive social media messages about jihad and martyrdom.

Presidential press secretary Josh Earnest said the White House was not responsible for the policy and didn’t know whether any reforms would be made to search the social media content of visa applicants. He noted that Mr. Obama has asked for a review of the visa program “to determine what measures are in place to allow the program to operate so that we can allow the individuals seeking a K-1 visa to enter the country, but to do so based on the need to protect the American people.”

Mr. Obama has embarked on a public relations campaign to try to reassure Americans that the government is doing everything possible to prevent another terrorist attack. He is scheduled to visit the National Counterterrorism Center on Tuesday.

Seven in 10 Americans rate the risk of a terrorist attack in the U.S. as at least somewhat high, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. That is a sharp increase from the five in 10 who said that in January.

The president said progress against the Islamic State “needs to happen faster” and that there’s a particular problem in urban areas controlled by its militants, who are “dug in” and often use civilians as use human shields.

“Even as were relentless, we need to be smart, targeting ISIL surgically and with precision,” he said. “This continues to be a difficult fight.”

The president’s address was billed as an update to Americans who are worried about terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, but Mr. Obama barely discussed the risk of further attacks on U.S. soil. He said the Department of Homeland Security was “updating its alert system” and offered no new strategies for combating the Islamist extremists.

The office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said Mr. Obama “should admit his strategy isn’t working and do something different.”

“The American people are smart enough to know when something is working or not, and it’s obvious that the president’s current strategy isn’t working,” Mr. McCarthy’s office said.

Mr. Earnest said of the president’s push on counterterrorism this week, “It’s important that people understand the progress that’s been made so far.”

Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and other presidential aides also are holding meetings this week with faith leaders, including Muslim Americans, aimed at combating discrimination. Mr. Earnest said the meetings in part are an effort to counter “hateful rhetoric” by some Republican presidential candidates such as Donald Trump, who has proposed a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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