Never underestimate President Obama’s ability to avoid taking responsibility. Under fire for being out to lunch while the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) was taking over large swaths of the Middle East, the president is hoping that if he blames faulty intelligence estimates often enough, no one will notice just how incompetent his foreign policy prowess has proved.
On August 9, President Obama said, “Did we underestimate ISIL? I think that there is no doubt that their advance … has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates[.]” He was at it again over the weekend, appearing on 60 Minutes. This time, he was careful to replace “we” with “they”:
Steve Kroft: How did they [ISIL] end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?
President Obama: Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.
As The New York Times noted dryly, “Mr. Obama made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself.” Well, what a surprise.
The fact is that everyone knew ISIL was becoming a big problem; Speaker Boehner called for the president to get engaged in January. And if President Obama’s intelligence officials weren’t aware of the threat, the Commander-in-Chief could have read about it in the news.
Tim Arango, The New York Times’ Baghdad Bureau Chief, wrote on Reddit earlier this month:
“after 2011 the administration basically ignored the country [Iraq]. and when officials spoke about what was happening there they were often ignorant of the reality. they did not want to see what was really happening because it conflicted with their narrative that they left iraq in reasonably good shape. In 2012 as violence was escalating i wrote a story, citing UN statistics, that showed how civilian deaths from attacks were rising. Tony Blinken, who was then Biden’s national security guy and a top iraq official, pushed back, even wrote a letter to the editor, saying that violence was near historic lows. that was not true. even after falluja fell to ISIS at the end of last year, the administration would push back on stories about maliki’s sectarian tendencies, saying they didn’t see it that way. so there was a concerted effort by the administration to not acknowledge the obvious until it became so apparent — with the fall of mosul — that iraq was collapsing.”
Eli Lake, senior national security correspondent for The Daily Beast, reports on the reaction to President Obama’s blame game:
“Nearly eight months ago, some of President Obama’s senior intelligence officials were already warning that ISIS was on the move. In the beginning of 2014, ISIS fighters had defeated Iraqi forces in Fallujah, leading much of the U.S. intelligence community to assess they would try to take more of Iraq. …
“Reached by The Daily Beast after Obama’s interview aired, one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. ‘Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,’ the former official said. …
“In prepared testimony before the annual House and Senate intelligence committees’ threat hearings in January and February, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the recently departed director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the group would likely make a grab for land before the end of the year. ISIS ‘probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014.’”
As NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell said in mid-August, for President Obama “to say that he didn’t have intelligence …. The fact is there was intelligence. … The White House wasn’t listening.”
That’s the same picture painted by a former military official who spoke to Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge at the start of September:
“President Obama was given detailed and specific intelligence about the rise of the Islamic State as part of his daily briefing for at least a year before the group seized large swaths of territory over the summer, a former Pentagon official told Fox News.
“The official … said the data was strong and ‘granular’ in detail. The source said a policymaker ‘could not come away with any other impression: This is getting bad.’ …
“But after suggestions that the administration may have been blindsided by the rise of ISIS, and that poor intelligence was to blame, the former Pentagon official said some of the intelligence was so good in the region, that when the president drew a red line on chemical weapons use in Syria in 2012, the information was ‘exquisite.’
“The source said ‘[we] were ready to fire, on a moment’s notice, on a couple hundred targets,’ but no order was given. In some cases, targets were tracked for a ‘long period of time’ but then slipped away.”
Herridge also notes:
“Obama, unlike his predecessors who traditionally had the document briefed to them, is known to personally read the daily brief. The former Pentagon official, who has knowledge of the process, said Obama generally was not known to come back to the intelligence community with further requests for information based on the daily report.”
Two years ago, when President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were caught off guard by a planned terrorist attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, and then attempted to blame it on a YouTube video that supposedly prompted demonstrators to turn violent, Marc Thiessen wrote in The Washington Post:
“It is apparently a point of pride in the White House that Obama’s [Presidential Daily Brief] is ‘not briefed to him.’ In the eyes of this administration, it is a virtue that the president does not meet every day with senior intelligence officials. … He can forgo his daily intelligence meeting because he is, in [then-National Security Council spokesman Tommy] Vietor’s words, ‘among the most sophisticated consumers of intelligence on the planet.’”
All things considered, that’s an overestimation if there ever was one.