President Obama addressed an anxious nation last night in an instantly-forgettable, perfunctory speech that was largely devoid of news and announced no meaningful changes to US policies or military strategy. In an effort to reassure Americans that he's confronting the terrorist threat aggressively (his public approval rating on handling terrorism and ISIS is weak) Obama said, "for seven years, I’ve confronted this evolving threat each morning in my intelligence briefing." The public learned several years ago that this president skips his in-person briefings far more frequently than his predecessor, though his staff insists that he reads through the written version of the file on a daily basis. More important than how he ingests this information is what ends up in front of the president. We've been following serious, credible claims leveled by dozens of current and former US intelligence professionals who allege that their work product was regularly altered and manipulated to downplay the growing threat and alarming advance of ISIS. The former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency has stated that the current investigation into these accusations should start at the White House, which he says has subordinated accurate information to political narratives. Other American spies have alleged that the Obama administration also deliberately kept a lid on intel gathered during the Bin Laden raid that contradicted the White House's messaging about Al Qaeda. Yesterday afternoon, prior to the president's Oval Office remarks, a former NSA analyst and Naval War College professor with deep ties to the US intelligence community tweeted something provocative:
Talked 2 an old friend, snr IC official - who said on #ISIS: "If the public knew the truth, Obama would be impeached." Friend's a Dem, btw.— John Schindler (@20committee) December 6, 2015
Hmm. Could the truth somehow be worse than the Obama White House systematically dismissing or doctoring urgent national security assessments on burgeoning threats, for nakedly political reasons? With the public's attention focused on these issues after the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, America's intelligence community seizing the moment to confirm what has already been painfully exposed by events -- ISIS is not "contained," as Obama wrongly asserted last month. The "new" take-away is fairly dire:
A new U.S. intelligence report on ISIS, commissioned by the White House, predicts that the self-proclaimed Islamic State will spread worldwide and grow in numbers, unless it suffers a significant loss of territory on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials told The Daily Beast. The report stands in stark contrast to earlier White House assurances that ISIS had been "contained" in Iraq and Syria. And it is already spurring changes in how the U.S. grapples with ISIS, these officials said. It’s also a tacit admission that coalition efforts so far – dropping thousands of bombs and deploying 3,500 U.S. troops as well as other coalition trainers -- have been outpaced by ISIS’ ability to expand and attract new followers, even as the yearlong coalition air campaign has helped local forces drive ISIS out of parts of Iraq and Syria. The White House commissioned the intelligence report prior to last month's deadly strikes in Paris, and long before last week's terror attacks in San Bernardino, California, three senior U.S. officials said...After reviewing its grim conclusions, President Barack Obama asked Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford to come up with new options to beat the group back.
Some of the intensified anti-ISIS measures outlined in the Daily Beast story sound like sensible steps, including an increased emphasis on tactical raids conducted by elite American military operators, described last week by Defense Secretary Ash Carter as discrete deployments of an "expeditionary targeting force." The president also recently beat a further rhetorical retreat from his "no boots on the ground" stance, explaining that his use of that phrase was merely intended to rule out a large-scale ground invasion and occupation. This recalibration appears to effectively concede that more American special forces will engage in direct combat with ISIS, which is quite literally the definition of boots on the ground. These changes were not clearly communicated in last night's presidential address, perhaps due to Obama's abiding aversion to admitting that his policies have created such a mess that he's now faced with no choice but to send combat troops back into a region he'd ostentatiously abandoned. These expanding operations were referenced only extremely briefly last night: "In both countries [Iraq and Syria] we’re deploying Special Operations Forces who can accelerate that [anti-ISIS] offensive," the president said. The biggest problem with Obama's belated and partial about-face (his speech was mostly an endorsement of the status quo) is distilled in a revealing comment from an unnamed intelligence official quoted in the piece excerpted above:
"This intel report didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know."
As Americans' awareness that the administration's ISIS strategy was not working increased, those shortcomings morphed into a political problem for the White House, which commissioned the intelligence analysis whose "grim conclusions" they'd been actively disregarding for years. A cynic might argue that Obama's shifting posture and speech last night are at least partially explained by numbers like these:
CNN poll (taken pre-Bernardino): 64% disapprove of Obama's handling of ISIS. 60% disapprove on terrorism. 61% disagree w/ refugee policy.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) December 7, 2015
CNN poll (taken pre-Bernardino): 68% say US response to ISIS hasn't been aggressive enough, including majorities of D's, I's, & R's.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) December 7, 2015
I'll leave you with journalist Michael Weiss, who's written a deep-dive book on ISIS, just eviscerating President Obama's speech on CNN last night. It's well worth three minutes of your time. Brutal: