Who Exactly Underestimated ISIS?

The president's acknowledgement that the U.S. "underestimated" the rise of ISIS raised more questions than it answered.

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President Obama's acknowledgment on 60 Minutes Sunday that his administration "underestimated" the strength and rapid advance of the Islamic State was perhaps the understatement of the year.

After all, it was less than nine months between the time Obama referred to ISIS and groups like it as "the JV team" and the moment he effectively declared war on the group in a primetime White House address.

But the president's concession has done little to quiet his foreign policy critics, and it has only raised more questions about what Obama knew about ISIS and when he knew it.

Sen. John McCain/AP

Sen. John McCain flatly contradicted the president in an appearance Monday on CNN, saying the Islamic State's rise in Syria and its advance over the border into Iraq was clear as day.

"We predicted this and watched it," the Arizona Republican said. "It was like watching a train wreck and warning every step of the way that this was happening."

Obama seemed to place the onus on the intelligence community. It was, the president said, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who "acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria."

But that, too, drew a swift – if anonymous – rebuttal in the Daily Beast from a former senior Pentagon official, who said, “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting."

Josh Earnest/AP

Reporters pummeled White House press secretary Josh Earnest with questions at his briefing on Monday.

He made clear that while Obama relies on advice from the military and the intelligence community, as commander in chief, he "is ultimately responsible for protecting the national security interests of the United States of America all around the globe." Earnest added that it was not the president's "intent" to blame the intelligence community for failing to fully appreciate the ISIS threat.

Yet Earnest struggled to answer questions from reporters who pointed out that the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency had testified to Congress in February that ISIS was already taking control of territory.

Earnest's response boiled down to, "Well, everyone thought the Iraqi army could hold them back, and the Iraqi army quit on the job."

Earnest said:

There have been people for quite some time who have been talking about how difficult it is to assess the will of foreign organizations to actually fight for their country. And there's no doubt that there was a question about how determined Iraqi security forces would be to defend their own country, largely due to the sectarian way in which that country was being governed. And that would, understandably, raise some doubt about the fighting will of the Iraqi security forces. And I think that proved to be true in the end that ISIL was able to make significant gains because of the Iraqi security forces weren't able to withstand their advance."

As ABC's Jonathan Karl pointed out, the key questions appear to be whether it was a failure by the intelligence community to detect the rise of ISIS, or whether members of the intelligence community did accurately assess the danger but that  information never made it to the Oval Office.

To put it another way, when President Obama made his now-infamous "JV team" statement to The New Yorker at the beginning of 2014, was he repeating an inaccurate briefing he had received from his advisers? Was he ignoring or deliberately downplaying bleaker warnings he had received in private? Or had the assessments of lower-level officials not yet made it to his desk?

The president has acknowledged he and his team missed the boat on ISIS, but what remains unclear is exactly how it happened.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.