Politics

Obama Fumbles Question On ISIS

The following post first appeared on FactCheck.org.

President Obama enjoys his sports analogies, so let’s just say that he fumbled when he was asked whether he made a “misjudgment” eight months ago in dismissing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as the equivalent of “a jayvee team.”

Obama said he “wasn’t specifically referring” to ISIS when he made the junior varsity reference during an interview with The New Yorker in January. But the magazine article and a transcript of the interview — which Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler obtained and wrote about earlier this month — shows that Obama was referring to ISIS when he said “if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

The subject of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as the president refers to it — came up during a Sept. 7 interview on Chuck Todd’s debut as host of NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Todd, Sept. 7: Long way, long way from when you described them as a JV team.

Obama: Well, I –

Todd: Was that bad intelligence or your misjudgment?

Obama: Keep — keep — keep in mind I wasn’t specifically referring to ISIL. I’ve said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally. Weren’t focused on homeland, because I think a lot of us, when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11. And the point that I was –

Todd: You don’t believe these people –

Obama: Not yet. But they — they can evolve. And I was very specific at that time. What I said was, not every regional terrorist organization is automatically a threat to us that would call for a major offensive. Our goal should not be to think that we can occupy every country where there’s a terrorist organization.

It is true that Obama was talking about “a whole series of organizations” when he made his junior varsity reference. But ISIS was specifically referenced by the writer and Obama in that January interview as one of those organizations.

Let’s go back to what Obama said during his interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker.

The article appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The New Yorker. The interview took place after ISIS captured Fallujah in early January. Remnick writes that he asked the president about what appeared to be a resurgence of al Qaeda-affiliated groups.

The New Yorker, Jan. 27: In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”

The context of the article and the reference to the al Qaeda flag “now flying in Falluja” make it clear that ISIS was among the groups that Remnick asked about and was one of the groups that Obama dismissed as “a jayvee team.” In fact, Obama himself makes an indirect reference to ISIS when he talks about Fallujah.

On Aug. 25, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was asked about the “jayvee team” remark in a press conference, and Earnest responded by saying “the president was not singling out ISIL” when he made that remark. The Washington Post Fact Checker, however, obtained a transcript of The New Yorker interview, and Kessler declared Earnest’s statement “fairly misleading” and gave it four Pinocchios — the equivalent of a “whopper.”

Here is the relevant portion of the interview transcript, as published by the Post.

Q: You know where this is going, though. Even in the period that you’ve been on vacation in the last couple of weeks, in Iraq, in Syria, of course, in Africa, al-Qaeda is resurgent.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, but, David, I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

Q: But that JV team jus[t] took over Fallujah.

THE PRESIDENT: I understand. But when you say took over Fallujah –

Q: And I don’t know for how long.

THE PRESIDENT: But let’s just keep in mind, Fallujah is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology is a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.

The transcript shows that the president was asked about al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Iraq, Syria and Africa, which would include ISIS, when the president made his remark about the “JV team.” That was Earnest’s point when he said the president “was not singling out” ISIS. But, as the transcript shows, Remnick followed up his initial question with a direct question about the “JV team” that “just took over Fallujah,” a reference to ISIS. On Jan. 3, the New York Times reported that “Sunni militants of Al Qaeda … members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS” had planted their flag over Fallujah.

The president can make the case that he wasn’t referring only to ISIS when he made his remark about a junior varsity team. But he cannot say that he “wasn’t specifically referring to ISIL,” because The New Yorker article and the transcript of the interview make it clear that the context of the president’s remark included ISIS.

1
He was part of a group of four Brits called 'The Beatles' based in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa
A former hostage, who was held for a year in the Syrian town of Raqqa, has told the Guardian that the killer was the ringleader of a trio of UK-born extremists the captives nicknamed "The Beatles" because of their nationality.
2
He was the ringleader, and in charge of guarding foreign hostages
DON EMMERT via Getty Images
The masked killer who murdered Foley is known as 'John' to the group.
3
He is left-handed
Only 10% of the world's population are left-handed. All of the information from the video will be analysed rigorously by intelligence services, including the way he holds his weapon, his height, body movement and intonation. MI5 have a database of Brits they believe have travelled to Syria, and they will be comparing what they know about each one, the Telegraph reported.
4
He is probably from south London but could have family links to Afghanistan
MACIEJ NOSKOWSKI via Getty Images
Dr Claire Hardaker, a linguistics experts at Lancaster University, has told several media outlets that the man's vowels marked him out as likely from the south-east of England, but most likely from London. Elizabeth McClelland, a forensic voice and speech analyst, told the Telegraph the accent has "possible influences of Farsi, which could suggest a family link to Afghanistan".
5
He was probably chosen for the job because his British accent would be more sinister for Western viewers of the video
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA via Getty Images
"This is significant because it signifies a turn towards threatening the west. They are saying we're going to come after you if you bomb us," Prof Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, at King's College London told the Guardian.
6
He emailed the Foley family, furious about the US airstrikes, informing them he would kill their son
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Foley's family had been emailed by ISIS as early as last Wednesday and were informed that the terror group intended to execute the reporter in retaliation for US air strikes against Isis targets in northern Iraq. GlobalPost chief executive, Philip Balboni said that ISIS "made no demands", just informed the family the execution was going to take place. They tried to engage him in conversation, but to no avail, because the jihadist was fuelled by "seething anger".
7
He had previously wanted a ransom to spare Foley's life, but the US government did not pay
ASSOCIATED PRESS
According to the New York Times who spoke to a family representative and a captive held alognside Foley, ISIS demanded the United States to provide a $100 million ransom ransom for Foley's life, but unlike several other European countries who did pay out, the US refused.
8
He was the main negotiator in the release of 11 IS hostages earlier this year
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Almost a dozen hostages, some held for over six months, were handed to Turkish officials. They included two Spanish journalists, one pictured here, Javier Espinosa.
9
The militants foiled an attempted rescue by US Special Ops
ASSOCIATED PRESS
US President Barack Obama sent troops to Syria this summer to rescue a number of Americans being held hostage, including Foley, senior administration officials said. Several dozen special operations troops who were dropped by aircraft into Syria did not find them and engaged in a firefight with IS militants before departing.
10
The killer treated Foley differently and more harshly that other hostages
ASSOCIATED PRESS
French journalist Nicolas Henin spent seven months in captivity with Foley, including a week where they were handcuffed together, telling the BBC Foley was treated as "some kind of scapegoat" and was beaten more frequently. "Some countries like America but also like the UK do not negotiate and, well, they put their people at risk," he said.

Popular in the Community