In a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night, President Barack Obama placed blame squarely at the foot of the U.S. intelligence community for the rise of the extremist group ISIS.
Citing comments from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Obama said the intelligence community had “underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” referring to the rise of ISIS militants in the country’s northeast.
But American spies, experts, and journalists who have been watching the progress of ISIS, the extremist offshoot of al-Qaeda, immediately pushed back against the president’s assessment.
“Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq told Eli Lake of the Daily Beast.
“Everyone realised that Syria was HQ for them,” a senior Defence Department official told the Washington Post.
McClatchy correspondent Jonathan Landay reported in July that the Obama administration was “well aware of the group’s declared intention to turn its Syrian sanctuary into a springboard from which it would send men and materiel back into Iraq and unleash waves of suicide bombings there.”
The threat posed by ISIS did not go publicly unmentioned by the administration.
Landay notes that on February 5, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk told a House committee that ISIS’ operations are “are calculated, coordinated and part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader, Abu Bakr al Baghadi. … The campaign has a stated objective to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of governing control in western regions of Iraq and Syria.”
And Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who recently left his position as the director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, warned about the group back in February, when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. That was four months before ISIS’ sweeping offensive in northern Iraq led to massive gains in the country.
ISIS “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014,” Flynn said, adding it would be helped by its “ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria.”
“Since the departure of US forces at the end of 2011,” Flynn said, ISIS has “exploited the permissive security environment to increase its operations and presence in many locations and has also expanded into Syria and Lebanon to inflame tensions throughout the region.”
Peter Baker of The New York Times notes that “Obama made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself.” Multiple respected Middle East watchers said he should have:
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