All-Star Panel: Who's to blame for US not dealing with ISIS sooner?

'Special Report' All-Star panel weighs in


This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," September 29, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: A lot of reaction to what the president said on "60 Minutes" about the surprise he said for the intelligence community, saying Jim Clapper has essentially fallen on his sword about the intel. However, there's push back now from the intel community, as you heard from Senator McCain. This is a quote from then DIA Director General Flynn. And he's testifying in February, said this, "AQI/ISIL, probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah and the group's ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria." This is public testimony in Congress.  There's also private testimony about the strength of that group.

Let's bring in our panel, Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard, Nina Easton, columnist for Fortune magazine, and Charles Lane, opinion writer for The Washington Post. OK, Chuck, what about the president's statement and the reaction today?

CHARLES LANE, OPINION WRITER, WASHINGTON POST: You know, this was not an intelligence failure. To me an intelligence failure is an event that, like, Pearl Harbor, you didn't anticipate and that should have. These events in Iraq and Syria were fully anticipated, and indeed, in real time, there were lots of warnings from within the administration itself about how serious the situation was getting.

What happened here instead was that the realities on the ground in Iraq did not square with the president's preexisting plan, which was to get out of Iraq and stay out. And I think he resisted over many months information that was sort of contrary to that preexisting plan.

And for him now to go back and say the things he said to Steve Kroft I think just digs the hole he's in a little bit deeper. I think what he needs to do is own the miscalculation, own up to it, et cetera, et cetera, and move on and lead the country through this next crisis. Admittedly that's hard to do during an election side when the other side is bashing him with campaign ads and so forth, but the more he owns this mistake I think the better off he's going to be.

BAIER: But there wasn't a lot of owning it last night. As a matter of fact it was not "we." It was "they."

NINA EASTON, COLUMNIST, FORTUNE MAGAZINE: It was "they." And as General Flynn was saying, it's amazing how with such clarity that General Flynn and then-director of intelligence, sorry, defense intelligence, said at the time, he not only predicted that they would have this land grab, ISIS would make a land grab in 2014. He said the biggest problem would be how the Sunni tribes behaved, and it would also be how Iraq's military withstood this. So he called it blow by blow. There was public testimony. There were people in the media, including on this panel, talking about the clear and present danger of ISIS, going back, I would say, a year now. That's -- it's been on the media radar screen for that long. So how can you say that they didn't call it?

By the way, also Clapper's comments -- if you put them in context, what he said was we underestimated whether the Iraq military would stand up. But he did not air that we underestimated the prowess of ISIS.

BAIER: I want to play this other semantics issue that the administration has about what is this group Khorasan in Syria?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In January, President Obama refers to the Islamic state as a J.V. team. Days later the Armed Services Committee holds a hearing on new global threats, Senator Kay Hagan -- absent. In fact, Hagan's missed half the Armed Services Committee hearings this year. While ISIS grew Obama kept waiting and Kay Hagan kept quiet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So is the Khorasan part of core Al Qaeda?

JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: Well, they're affiliated with, so I wouldn't characterize it that way. There's a range of ways we characterize terrorist organizations, and obviously we wouldn't have gone after this group if we didn't feel that there was a threat that they posed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you say affiliate, but would you say they are part of the group?

PSAKI: I think we've characterized it in a range of ways.

THOMAS JOSCELYN, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: The definitions are all really nonsense. This is just Al Qaeda. The guys who is lead the Khorasan group as they describe are all senior Al Qaeda leader who have pedigrees that go back years, if not decades. In some cases these are guys who were playing terrorist operations for Al Qaeda immediately after 9/11 and in the years after 9/11.


BAIER: Well, the first sound bite was an ad in North Carolina, something we want to talk about in a little bit about this issue in the race. But that, Steve, was pretty remarkable what the State Department said at the briefing, Jen Psaki. They came out just before the show with a clarification, quote, "This "Khorasan group" is a term sometimes used to refer to a network of Al Nusra front and Al Qaeda core, violent extremists, who share a history of training operatives, facilitating fighters and money and planning attacks against the U.S. and western targets," saying that they basically have decades of experience.

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yeah. Well, Jen Psaki obviously had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, which has been the case frankly with this administration on these issues going back some six years.

It's important to point out that Nina talking about Mike Flynn, the former head of the DIA giving testimony that was predictive and that assessed the threat accurately, he's no longer in his job. He was pushed out of his job. He left his job a year early and at least in part because of the aggressive analyses that the DIA was providing the administration.

And it's worse than the president just shifting the blame to the intelligence community. The president and some of his top intelligence officials, John Brennan and Jim Clapper in particular, pushed back on people who were saying no, Mr. President, this is a growing threat, Al Qaeda is expanding. It's not decimated the way you said. One of these officials is Mike Flynn. He no longer has a job.

BAIER: So is it your contention that this is all about this message that core Al Qaeda was decimated, and keeping true to that message that the president had been talking about since before the election?

HAYES: Since the spring of 2012. You can go back and actually mark the speeches. John Brennan gives a speech before he's nominated as CIA director in April of 2012 in which he said in effect Al Qaeda died with Usama bin Laden. He said, well, the affiliates might pose some dangers down the road, but this a threat that's going away. The president made the same argument. All of the administration and the campaign, importantly, made that allegation consistently for six months May of 2012 until November of 2012, and they've continued to make it ever since. They didn't let reality intrude on their arguments. And this is what the DIA had been saying repeatedly for years.

And the final point, remember, the document cache that we extracted from the bin Laden raid, which was May of 2011, more than a million documents, the public has seen 17 of those documents. Of the million documents, we have exploited, we fully exploited and analyzed 10 percent of that cache.  If we want to know what Al Qaeda is up to, if we want to know about how the organization is evolving, we certainly out to make it a top priority to look at those documents.

BAIER: Do you buy this, Chuck, that this compartmentalizing the threat and all these different groups and names takes away the overall umbrella that this is radical Islamic extremists trying to kill westerners?

LANE: What I do buy is that the president has been quite open about the fact that he's finished fighting wars. He said in the State of the Union address we need to come off our permanent war footing. As I think it is quite in keeping with that they're going to propound a narrative that's consistent what the policy that he has chosen. The problem is that once that narrative was no longer applicable back in February when they took Fallujah -- that is ISIS took Fallujah, they didn't react, they didn't change course. And that's I think part of --

EASTON: Note on the timeline, February, that was the same timeframe of the DIA comments. That was the same timeframe of the J.V. comments by the president, came right before that.

BAIER: Next up, Israel's prime minister gives the United Nations an earful about Iran.

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