As President Obama prepares to leave office without having destroyed the Islamic State, he’s selling the notion that U.S. intelligence agencies failed to warn him promptly about the rise of the terrorist group more than two years ago, an assertion raising howls of incredulity in some quarters.
The White House pushed that version of events Thursday, pointing to an assessment by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper in September 2014 that U.S. intelligence agencies “underestimated” the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS.
“Those are the facts,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Mr. Obama told CNN in an interview that aired late Wednesday, “The ability of ISIL to not just mass inside of Syria, but then to initiate major land offensives that took Mosul [in Iraq], for example, that was not on my intelligence radar screen.”
But some critics are pointing to claims that the administration ignored warning signs from intelligence sources and allies such as Kurdish leaders about the Islamic State’s growing strength after 2011, when Mr. Obama withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq.
Sherkoh Abbas, chairman of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, said in 2014, “We approached the State Department about ISIS before ISIS was in the headlines, and we were ignored.”
In September 2014, Fox News reported that Mr. Obama had been told about the rise of the terrorist group in his classified daily intelligence briefings throughout the previous year.
In February 2014, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee on the emerging threat of the Islamic State.
The group “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group’s ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria,” Gen. Flynn testified. “Since the departure of U.S. forces at the end of 2011, [Islamic State] has exploited the permissive security environment to increase its operations and presence in many locations and also has expanded into Syria and Lebanon to inflame tensions throughout the region.”
President-elect Donald Trump has chosen Gen. Flynn to serve as his national security adviser.
Jay Sekulow, general counsel at the American Center of Law and Justice and a frequent Obama critic, called the president’s latest assertions “unbelievable.”
Gen. Flynn’s testimony came about a month after Mr. Obama referred to the Islamic State in an interview as the junior varsity.
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Mr. Obama had said. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland, versus jihadis who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”
Mr. Earnest said Mr. Obama’s comments to CNN this week about being left in the dark by U.S. intelligence agencies were “consistent” with Mr. Clapper’s assessment from more than two years ago.
But Mr. Clapper also said at the time that U.S. intelligence agencies had succeeded in providing “anticipatory intelligence” about the Islamic State’s early movement in Syria and Iraq, and that his analysts had told the administration about the group’s “prowess and capability.”
“What we didn’t do was predict the will to fight,” Mr. Clapper said in 2014. “We underestimated ISIL and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army. I didn’t see the collapse of the Iraqi security force in the north coming.”
The president gave his final major speech on his administration’s counterterrorism efforts this week to some of the U.S. special operations troops at a military base in Florida who have been taking the fight to the Islamic State. In that speech, Mr. Obama also addressed criticism that he contributed to Islamic State’s rise by withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011.
Mr. Obama repeated his contention that the Iraqi government would not guarantee immunity for U.S. troops, but added a twist: The continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq would not have prevented Islamic State’s rise regardless.
“Maintaining American troops in Iraq at the time could not have reversed the forces that contributed to ISIL’s rise — a government in Baghdad that pursued a sectarian agenda, a brutal dictator in Syria who lost control of large parts of the country, social media that reached a global pool of recruits and a hollowing out of Iraq’s security forces, which were ultimately overrun in Mosul in 2014,” Mr. Obama said. “In fact, American troops, had they stayed there, would have lacked legal protections and faced a choice between remaining on bases or being drawn back into a sectarian conflict against the will of Iraq’s elected government or Iraq’s local populations.”
Retired Gen. David Petraeus, Mr. Obama’s former CIA director and a possible candidate for secretary of state in the Trump administration, isn’t sure that keeping a significant number of U.S. troops in Iraq would have prevented the rise of the Islamic State.
“I don’t know whether 10,000 troops would have given us the leverage. I suspect it might not have. But I would have liked to have tested the proposition,” Gen. Petraeus told CNN this week.
Kristen Silverberg, a former Bush administration ambassador to the European Union, said at a forum on Mr. Obama’s foreign policy last week that the White House is “suggesting that he’s cleanly wrapped up the challenge in Iraq, which is, of course, not true.”
“We have thousands of troops on the ground today,” she said. “Instead of having prevented ISIS from taking Mosul in the first place, we’re now trying the very violent and bloody and difficult task of working with the Iraqis to try to take it back.”
Ms. Silverberg, speaking in New York City at the forum hosted by Intelligence Squared U.S., said Mr. Obama has made three fundamental failures in Iraq.
“There was the original failure — they failed to get the Iraqi government to agree to a status of forces agreement that would have allowed us to keep troops in with appropriate legal protections,” she said. “After he failed to do it, he failed to understand that he needed to keep some troop levels there anyway. And then he failed to understand his mistake on withdrawing troops prematurely until 2014, after ISIS had already run Mosul. So it’s not that he has kept us out of a quagmire, it’s that he’s ignored the obvious facts on the ground that would [have] allowed us to prevent some of these events from taking place in the first place.”
Mr. Obama also declared in his speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, that during his eight years in charge, “no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland.”
That assertion was challenged by David Inserra, a specialist in homeland security policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Inserra said Mr. Obama’s statement “obscures the reality that the U.S. has faced 66 Islamist terrorist plots against the U.S. homeland during Obama’s time in office, 13 of which were successful.”
“Obama’s statement is technically accurate since none of these attacks were planned and directed from abroad,” he said in a blog post. “Instead, the vast majority of the terror plots and all of the successful attacks since 9/11 have involved homegrown terrorists — that is, terrorists who radicalized and plotted here in the U.S. While preventing such foreign orchestrated plots is vital, it is no longer enough. The threat has morphed and the U.S. must now do more to counter homegrown and lone-wolf Islamist terrorists.”