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Assessing Obama’s speech and strategy on fighting terrorism

December 7, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
President Obama set out in an address from the Oval Office on Sunday to reassure Americans about the fight against the Islamic State militant group abroad and protection from terrorism at home. Is the plan enough to keep Americans safe? Gwen Ifill gets two perspectives from former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Juliette Kayyem.
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GWEN IFILL: In only his third Oval Office address ever, President Obama set out last night to reassure Americans that he has a plan to fight ISIS abroad and protect Americans from terrorism at home, but is the administration’s response the right one for the times?

We ask those questions now or Michael Mukasey, who served as President George W. Bush’s attorney general, and Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. She’s now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Michael Mukasey, did he accomplish what he needed to last night?

MICHAEL MUKASEY, Former U.S. Attorney General: Not as far as I saw.

I think if the goal was to provide reassurance to the American people that he’s got a plan, I don’t see a plan. I see more of the same, which has not succeeded. There are plans out there. He didn’t talk about any of them. There is legislation pending that would allow an enhancement and a safeguarding of our intelligence-gathering capability. He didn’t talk about that.

There are plans to position U.S. troops, not large numbers, but U.S. troops, so as to attack ISIS where it lives. There are plans to deal with the possibility of a safety zone in Syria, so as to stop the exit of refugees. He didn’t talk about that either.

It was a lot more of the same and a lot of caution to the American people about not discriminating, about not holding all Muslims responsible, which is a — he cut a bloody swathe through a lot of straw men, but didn’t talk about much that was new.

GWEN IFILL: Juliette Kayyem, what do you think? Did the president take advantage of everything he has at his disposal?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, Former Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary: In some ways, yes.

I think the litany of plans to combat ISIS both here and abroad and here was a strong litany. And he did actually discuss changes to the visa waiver program, for example. I actually appreciated the statements he made, very similar to George Bush after 9/11, about the Muslim community being a part of the American fabric and that integration of immigrant communities into this country actually makes us safer.

Where I thought he failed or could have been done more was in twofold. One was, it was a lot about what the government is doing for us, and less about what people might be able to do for ourselves. And, in that way, it didn’t sort of engage people in ways that those of us in homeland security are hoping the government engages, communities, whether it’s see something, say something, or even things like active shooter training.

These are — people want to be empowered with what to do in this time of unease. And I think the other issue, which is just sort of I think a philosophical issue, which is sort of, what’s the measure of success?

No expert, no presidential candidate can sort of reasonably argue that there will never be another attack. And so in light of the fact there might be more attacks, just given the kind of threat we’re facing, how quick it is for people to become radicalized, the access to guns, I think he might have prepared us that there will be more attacks, and begin to get us as resilient as we need to be for the kind of threat we have.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Mr. Mukasey about that.

Did he do enough to at once the reassure Americans and to also prepare them? It seems like a tightrope that you have to walk as president, prepare them for the possibility of more mayhem.

MICHAEL MUKASEY: I don’t think so.

I think, if anything, the message was see something, do nothing. The people in California who did see something were reluctant to disclose it, reluctant to report it to the authorities because of possible reaction by their neighbors and possibly being accused of profiling.

Look, this is December 7. It’s the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. If FDR had gone before Congress and delivered the kind of speech that President Obama delivered last night and told the American people that the folks who attacked us at Pearl Harbor were not representative of the peaceful Shinto religion and that we must be very careful not to discriminate, and that we have to be prepared for more, and had said that he wasn’t going to send a lot of troops to occupy foreign lands, what do you think the reaction would have been?

I think he would have been booted off the podium.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me to you about that, because you worked for George W. Bush, who after the 9/11 attacks very famously appeared with members of the Muslim community and said, this is not about Islam.

Is there something else that they should be doing? You talked about racial profiling. What is this administration encouraging or not encouraging that you find is lacking on that front?

MICHAEL MUKASEY: What I think is lacking on that front is encouraging people to actually consider the fact that this is a religiously-based doctrine that we’re facing, without at all condemning all Muslims or even the majority of Muslims at all.

It’s a fine line to walk, but it has to be walked. And I think that the fact that the violence in this country that emanated from this source started in the 1980s, it continued in the 1990s, with the attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, attacks on the Cole, attacks in — overseas, then the first Trade Center bombing, the second Trade Center — the second attack on 9/11, this is all coming — this all has the same DNA, and talking about that is important.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me for interrupting.

Juliette Kayyem, I want you to respond to that and also to this idea that technology somehow has outpaced our learning curve when it comes to attacks like this.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Well, I think, as respects to Muslim American communities, I did hear the president actually mention that this is a fight within Islam, and that in fact it is the religion itself and members of the religion who are going to have to combat the struggle that makes violence a part of these radical terrorists who are attacking us.

So, that, he clearly said. And that was further than he had said before. But anyone who’s been in counterterrorism, like the two of us, knows, sort of looking at the American fabric, if you ask me, what is the thing that makes us safe, as compared to sort of France and the systemic issues that they’re having, or Britain, even, with the problems that they have with immigrant communities, it is America’s capacity to integrate and even assimilate all these different populations.

We’re not perfect. We certainly have a problem in this country. No one’s denying that. But it was very important, in the context of the presidential campaign and Obama’s critics and some things that they have said regarding, you know, tracing Muslims and targeting Muslims and Muslims won’t be president — I know that’s the extreme, but it is out there — to say forcefully that is not how we either conduct ourselves as a democratic society, nor is it actually going to make us safer.

But just getting to the point about sort of moving forward, it can’t — as I said, you know, we will face violence in this country, given the threat. It’s not just technology. It is that no amount of intelligence can seem to be able to at any time in our history figure out what is that moment when someone goes from not liking America or not liking their position in life to violence?

Is it access to arms? Is it radicalization? Is it that ISIS is very good online? It’s all of those things, possibly. But no intelligence agencies, not us, not the Israelis, no one, can get to the moment that stops every attack.

So, our measure of success has to be limiting the number of attacks, and then having a public safety public response apparatus that can minimize the deaths when those attacks occurred.

So, if you look at San Bernardino, more people would have died but for the actions of very quick response by police officers and public safety officials, same with the Boston Marathon, same with that happened this weekend in Britain with the knife — the stabbings in the subway.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Juliette Kayyem of the Harvard Kennedy School now, and Michael Mukasey former U.S. attorney general, thank you both very much.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Thank you.

MICHAEL MUKASEY: Thank you.

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