- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Facing renewed national security criticism over the latest horrific Islamic State attack, President Obama insisted Wednesday that defeating the extremist group is his “number one priority” and warned that counterterror proposals by Republican presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz would spark a backlash among Muslims.

“It scares the American people. And it horrifies me,” Mr. Obama said of the televised images of carnage in Brussels, Belgium. “I understand why this is the top priority of the American people. And I want them to understand this is my top priority as well.”

The president’s attempt at reassuring the public, at a news conference in Argentina, was the second time in four months that he has struggled to address a major Islamic State attack while traveling abroad. In November, immediately after the militant group massacred about 130 people in Paris, Mr. Obama left on a weeklong trip to Asia amid calls back home to bar Syrian immigrants or Muslims altogether from entering the U.S.

His comments also came on the same day that a top Pentagon official told Congress that terrorist detainees released from the Guantanamo Bay prison have killed Americans after regaining their freedom.

In the wake of the Brussels attacks, Mr. Cruz, Texas Republican, called for counterterrorism officials in the U.S. to conduct surveillance on “Muslim neighborhoods.” Mr. Cruz also has proposed to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State, while Mr. Trump also has advocated a massive bombing campaign.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the attacks were “sadly predictable” and that the administration “still has no plausible strategy to destroy ISIL on anything close to an acceptable timeline.”

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Mr. Obama, who usually doesn’t mention Mr. Cruz by name, did so in criticizing his proposal to police Muslim neighborhoods. He said Mr. Cruz should know better because his father fled repression in Cuba.

“Any approach that would single them out, is not only wrong an un-American, but also would be counterproductive,” Mr. Obama said.

“As far as the notion of having surveillance of neighborhoods where Muslims are present, I just left a country that engages in that kind of neighborhood surveillance, which by the way the father of Senator Cruz escaped for America, the land of the free. The notion that we would start down that slippery slope makes absolutely no sense. It’s contrary to who we are, and it’s not going to help us defeat ISIL.”

The president said the U.S. has limited the number of extremist attacks on its soil because “we have an extraordinarily successful, patriotic, integrated Muslim-American community.”

“They do not feel ghetto-ized,” Mr. Obama said. “They do not feel isolated. And so any approach that would single them out or target them for discrimination is not only wrong and un-American, but it also would be counterproductive because it would reduce the strength, the antibodies that we have to resist terrorism.”

The U.S.-led coalition has carried out more than 10,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at a cost of more than $6.5 billion, but Mr. Obama said a wider bombing campaign would lead to more terrorist attacks such as those in Brussels.

“When I hear somebody saying we should carpet bomb Iraq or Syria, not only is that inhumane, not only is that contrary to our values, but that would likely be an extraordinary mechanism for ISIL to recruit more people willing to die and explode bombs in an airport or in a metro station,” the president said. “That’s not a smart strategy.”

But even as Mr. Obama defended his counterterror program, a senior administration official told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday that Americans have been killed by prisoners released from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Mr. Obama is waging a relentless campaign of transferring terrorism detainees to other countries or to prisons on the mainland U.S. in his effort to close the military prison.

Paul Lewis, the Defense Department’s special envoy for the closure of the detention center, did not say whether the incidents occurred before or after Mr. Obama took office in January 2009.

“What I can tell you is unfortunately there have been Americans that have died because of (Guantanamo) detainees,” Mr. Lewis said during an exchange with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican.

“When anybody dies it is tragedy. We don’t want anybody to die because we transfer detainees,” Mr. Lewis said. “However, it’s the best judgment and the considered judgment of this administration and the previous administration that … we should close” the Guantanamo detention center.

Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, said the testimony was “a clear admission by the Obama administration that their attempts to shutter Guantanamo Bay are detrimental to our national security, and that transferring dangerous terrorists around the world has led to the death of Americans.”

“The president must rescind his Guantanamo plans, and instead begin detaining captured ISIS fighters at the facility,” Mr. Scott said.

Mr. Obama, who referred to the Islamic State two years ago as a “jayvee” terrorist group, said the coalition has reduced the extremists’ territory in Syria and Iraq by 40 percent and that its leaders are “hunkered down.” The president said he spends his time “thinking through with our generals, with our military, with our best thinkers, how are we going to most effectively go after ISIL; how do we most effectively bring peace to Syria.”

“We don’t just throw some military action at it without having thought it through and making sure that it’s effective,” Mr. Obama said. “We don’t just go ahead and blow something up just so that we can go back home and say we blew something up. That’s not a foreign policy. That’s not a military strategy. And I do think it is important for the president of the United States and the administration to think through what they’re doing so that they can achieve the objectives that are the priorities of the American people.”

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