Karl vs. Earnest: How Can Obama Say Underestimating ISIS Was An Intelligence Failure When He Was Warned?


JON KARL, ABC NEWS: Did the intelligence community underestimate ISIL or did the president underestimate ISIL?

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE: The way I would describe it is that everybody did. That everybody was surprised to see the rapid advance that ISIL was able to make across from Syria across the Iraqi border and to take over such large swaths of territory in Iraq did come as a surprise. And it's something the president has said many times and it's something that even senior members of the intelligence community have acknowledged as well.

A lot of that was predicated on the underestimation of the will of the Iraqi security forces to fight for their country.

KARL: But, Josh, on that question you don't even need to go back to February, you can go back to November of last year, Brett McGurk, who is Assistant Secretary of State and one of the key point people for the administration on Iraq, he described almost exactly what the threat was, both on the side of the Iraqis not being able to confront it, the fact that they were benefiting from a sanctuary across a porous border in Syria.

I mean, his description back in November was: "we have seen upwards of 40 suicide bombers per month, targeting play grounds, mosques, and markets, in addition to government sites from Basra to Baghdad to Erbil. ISIS has benefited from a permissive operating environment due to inherent weaknesses of Iraqi security forces."

This is one of your key people on Iraq who was raising this alarm in November of last year. Did this message get to the president? Did he believe it? Did he not hear it? What happened?

EARNEST: Jon, this is something that the president has discussed on a number of occasions. That principally what we're talking about here is the rapid advance that ISIL was able to make across the Iraqi desert and the success that they have had after that advance. That is not to say that there wasn't an acknowledgment of the risk that this organization posed --

KARL: Let me stop you for a second because two months after Brett McGurk says this, the president calls ISIL the "JV team" in The New Yorker.

EARNEST: We've been through this and that's not what the president referred to.

KARL: He is clearly talking about ISIL. That question was about --

EARNEST: That's not true.

KARL: The question was specifically about what happened after ISIL took over Fallujah.

EARNEST: That's not what it was about.

KARL: The question was directly about --

EARNEST: We can look at the transcript after the briefing. That's not what the -- the president also discussed this on 60 Minutes yesterday, so we've sort of, we've been through this argument.

KARL: Here you have a top person, and he's not alone, you mentioned coming across and taking over vast areas of Iraq, in February of this year the head of the DIA, Michael Flynn, Gen Flynn, warned of exactly this, he warned ISIL will attempt to gain territory in Iraq and Syria to display its strength, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah. And the groups ability to concurrently maintain multiple safehavens in Syria. This is exactly what happened, how can the president maintain this was an intelligence failure?

JOSH EARNEST: Well, John, I'll read you some comments from [DNI] Director Clapper himself who said--

KARL: There are many intelligence agencies, this is the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Are you saying the president didn't hear this? This was testimony to Congress.

EARNEST: I'm talking about the person who is in charge of the greater intelligence community, what he said was "what we didn't do was predict the will to fight, that's always the problem." ...

KARL: So these warnings that came, to the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, to Iraq, he made similar warnings on the news, DHS officials, did the president hear this, did he know? You mentioned Clapper, so we know he listened to Clapper, the head of the DNI. Did he know what these other top officials in his own administration were saying about the threat from ISIL, did he hear what I just read to you?

EARNEST: I assume what you read to me was Congressional testimony, there are a lot of public statements about this, I'm not going to get into what sort of private conversations the president had with his, with the intelligence community.

KARL: If these warnings got to the president, maybe they didn't, maybe there's a problem at DNI, that needs to be looked at.

EARNEST: What I'm saying is the president has complete confidence in the intelligence community to deal with these very dynamic but significant threats to our broader national interest. He has complete confidence in their ability to gather the information require to help us meet and mitigate that threat.

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