WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama offered a sobering assessment of the country’s ability to prevent lone wolf terror attacks like the San Bernardino mass shooting earlier this month, which killed 14 people and left 22 injured.
Speaking from the White House in his last press conference of the year, Obama said that the difficulty in anticipating and preventing isolated terror attacks is not all that different than detecting mass shootings before they happen -- something that the U.S. has not had much success in doing.
“You don't always see it. They're not always communicating publicly,” said the president, noting that lone wolf attacks can be even more challenging to detect in advance than plans by organized terror groups. “This is a different kind of challenge than the sort that we had with organizations like al Qaeda that involve highly trained operatives who are working as cells or as a network,” he said.
“Here, essentially you have ISIL trying to encourage or induce somebody who may be prey to this kind of propaganda, and it becomes more difficult to see,” Obama continued, using the administration’s preferred term for the Islamic State group.
As Vox noted on Thursday, there is some level of public acceptance of mass shootings when the perpetrators are not demonstrably motivated by ties to Islamic terror groups. Gun rights advocates suggest they are an unfortunate, but inevitable, consequence of Second Amendment protections.
The rhetoric shifts noticeably when a mass shooting is described as a terror attack. Republican presidential hopefuls and lawmakers slammed the Obama administration in the aftermath of the San Bernardino massacre for not doing enough to catch Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the married San Bernardino shooters, before the attack.
Part of the reason for this discrepancy is the idea that prospective terrorists are more likely to leave clues for law enforcement officials. A New York Times report published last week said that Malik had publicly professed her desire to take part in violent jihad, which prompted questions as to why she was not apprehended before the mass shooting and why she had obtained a visa to the U.S.
The FBI pushed back on these claims on Wednesday, and said that Malik only pledged her support for jihad in private messages, which law enforcement officials would not have had access to without a warrant. Malik also cleared several background checks and in-person interviews in order to obtain her visa.
The Department of Homeland Security announced plans to expand its use of social media in vetting visa applicants, but Obama stressed on Friday that the correct response to the San Bernardino attack is not to scalp the private communications of every individual seeking entry to the U.S.
“Keep in mind, it was only a couple of years ago where we were having a major debate about whether the government was becoming too much like Big Brother,” Obama said, referring to the massive disclosures by former government contractor Edward Snowden about government surveillance. “Overall, I think we've struck the right balance in protecting civil liberties and making sure that U.S. citizens' privacy is preserved,” he continued.
The president is traveling to California after the press conference to meet with the families of the victims of the San Bernardino shooting.