State Department defends US stance on Iraq

This is a rush transcript from "The Kelly File," June 23, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

MEGYN KELLY, HOST: Secretary of State Kerry said the president would not hesitate to act but there are new questions about whether the United States may have missed the opportunity to stem this violence several months if not years ago. Marie Harf is the State Department deputy spokeswoman, she's my guest now. Marie, thank you for being here. Let me start with that quote that James just included in his package about Secretary Kerry saying a threat left unattended overseas can have grave consequences. Isn't President Obama guilty of leaving a threat unattended? There were reports today that the CIA and other intel agencies have been warning him for years about the growth of this group and the consequences that would follow if we did not intervene.

MARIE HARF, STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESWOMAN: Well, thank you, Megyn, for having me on tonight.

Look, we've been very clear for months, if not longer, that ISIS and ISIL are a huge threat to the region. It was a key topic of conversation with Prime Minister Maliki last November when he was in Washington. That's why we've continued to increase our assistance, the Iraqi government, to fight this threat.

But what we're focused on today is how we help the Iraqi army do better because clearly they need to. We're sending 300 special operators, the guy to know how to fight terrorists better than anyone to Iraq to help them. And the secretary made clear, as James said today, that Iraq's leaders need to step up to the plate and realize that their future of their country really depends on their ability to bring people together and govern in a more inclusive way.

KELLY: But the point is should we have been doing more? Because, has it slipped away? Have the gains that we achieved just a couple of years ago slipped away under President Obama?

HARF: Well, this is a very different threat that were looking at today than we've seen before in Iraq. It's one that's been growing certainly but to compare it to a few years ago just doesn't hold up in terms of what we've seen in the threat that we see today. So, what were focus on.

KELLY: How so? How so, how so? Because, let me just refresh the viewers that it was just in January that this group took over Fallujah and started flying the al Qaeda flag and the president was asked about that and he told New York Magazine, I think it was, I have it here if we can put it on the board, he said -- hold on a second I try to read it as they pop it out there. He talked about how they were JC -- here it is. This is "the analogy we use around here sometimes and I think it's accurate is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, and doesn't make them Kobe Bryant." Did he underestimate the threat?

HARF: Not at all. Look, this is a threat we've been talking to the Iraqis and other partners in the region about for months. We talked about it just last November before those comments you mentioned with Prime Minister Maliki when he was here. And that's why we've been increasing supportive munitions, we've been increasing supportive.


KELLY: Then why did President Obama referred them to JV?

HARF: Well, it's a group that changing. The terrorist threat changes. Quite frankly, on a week by week and months by months basis.

KELLY: Oh, Marie, come on! In January they were JV And now that we're in June there is this devastating terror group that's basically taking over Iraq?

HARF: We have been very clear about this threat from ISIL for a long time. But we have seen them grow in strength, mostly because of the situation in Syria. They have been able to gain strength there. And unfortunately, what we've seen over the past few weeks is the Iraqi army surprised a lot of people and couldn't stand up to the fight. So, what we're focused on today as this threat has evolved over many months is.

KELLY: Particularly January to June. I mean, is that what you want the audience to believe? That in January they were JV as the president said, but in that period from January to June that's when they became, I guess they're varsity now.

HARF: Well, we were worried about this threat in January, too, Megyn. I don't think that anyone should we weren't.


KELLY: It didn't sound like he was.

HARF: Well, we were. I promise you sitting where I sit --


KELLY: So what? He's down playing it to the magazine? Because we're trying to figure out what is the truth? Were they serious in January as you're me now? Or were they nothing to be worried about? It's like -- they're not Kobe Bryant -- I mean, you know, there seems to be an inconsistency and the group is so terrorizing, people want to know what's true?

HARF: Well, I think we have been very clear. If you go back and look at everything we've said about this group for many months from the president on down that we believe this is a serious threat. But to be candid, Megyn, what we have seen over the past few months is them grow in strength then be able to take over territory in Iraq that they couldn't do in January. They've continued to make gains of base in large part on the situation in Syria. And as that group has evolved and the threat has evolved, we have responded with resources to meet this threat. And that's exactly what we're doing right now.

KELLY: Listen, nobody is suggesting that the terror that they are unleashing over there is the responsibility of anyone other than those terrorists, but it's fair to ask questions about what if anything the United States should have done or should be doing. And that question was put to President Obama just last week. The question was should we have left troops there when we pulled the troops out of Iraq? Should we have left some troops there to try to maintain what were some tenuous gains? And here is what President Obama said last Thursday.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you wish you had left a residual force in Iraq in any regrets about that decision in 2011?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Keep in mind that wasn't a decision made by me. That was a decision made by the Iraqi government.


KELLY: So, now that these times are tough, he says it was all the Iraqi government. That's the reason are troops didn't stay. But this is what he said to Mitt Romney during the third presidential debate when President Obama was fighting for reelection.


MITT ROMNEY, FORMER REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, you didn't? You didn't want a status of forces agreement?

OBAMA: What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.


KELLY: SO, which is it? He didn't leave the troops there because he didn't want to tie us down, he taught that will harass in the Middle East, or, as he said last week, it was all the Iraqis' decision?

HARF: Well, we've been very clear that we were not going to leave any troops there without the legal protections that I think most Americans would agree they need to have overseas. So, it is true that the Iraqi government made very clear they did not want our folks there in 2011.

But, you know, there's gonna be a lot of time to look at the history of what happened in Iraq both when we got in and what happened throughout the years there. What we're focused on today is that the Iraqis have asked us to come back, they have asked for a number of troops to help shore up their army to help them fight --

KELLY: But, Marie, the generals have come on the show repeatedly and said that actually, many of the Iraqis were begging for us to stay and our own generals went to President Obama and begged him to keep about 17,000 troops on the ground in Iraq. He said, no, they lower it to 10,000. He said no, he marked it down to 3,000 troops. And that was not enough to make al-Maliki bite. Now he wants us to believe he had nothing to do with it.

HARF: Again, Megyn, look. We can debate what happened in 2011. I'm sure many people will be doing so over the coming days.

KELLY: I just wanna know what's true? Did President Obama pull the troops out because he didn't want to us be tied down there and that wouldn't help the Middle East as he claimed in the presidential debate or it was all the Iraqi government, as he claimed on Thursday?

HARF: Well, look, these things aren't mutually exclusive, Megyn. What we said is that it's not in our national security interest to have troops deployed on the ground everywhere around the world.

KELLY: So, it's our decision.

HARF: That the Iraqis need to step up --


KELLY: So, it's a decision we made.

HARF: And do this themselves. But at the same time, as you know, the Iraqis made it very clear that they didn't want US troops there. And today we're in a very different position where they have ask for us to come in, they've given us the assurances we need that our troops can serve there with the protection that we demand when we send our men and women overseas. And today, we're in a very different place. We don't have the luxury quite frankly today of having philosophical debates over the war in Iraq. There will be time for that. But my boss and everyone at the State Department.

KELLY: With respect, we're looking for honesty. And the accusation -- this is in the Washington Post today, all right. This is not a Fox News thing. This is the Washington Post had a staving opinion piece, report, about how when the president was running for reelection and it was politically convenient for him because Mitt Romney was accusing him of withdrawing the troops too early and he was trying to paint Mitt Romney as more of a warmonger, and President Obama slammed him and you know this because you were on the debate preparation team for then candidate Barack Obama. He was president but he was running for re-election. He said to Mitt Romney, no, I didn't want a status of forces agreement because I didn't want to be tied down in the Middle East. That's what he said in the presidential debate.

Flash forward to now, Iraq is falling apart and a reporter from CNN says, do you wish you had tried harder for a status of force agreement and he says, huh? What? No. That was all al-Maliki. That was the Iraqi government. Do you see why Americans pull their hair out and say we can't trust the politicians, we can't trust the president, we can't trust government.

HARF: Well, Megyn, quite frankly, in all honesty to use your words. The reason I'm here tonight is to talk to you about where we are today. And look, I'm happy to have discussions about the fact that a few things were clear in 2011. The Iraqis did not want us there. We were not going to leave our men and women in uniform there without those protection, protections that we've gotten today for our 300 special operators. But the president has made very clear that we are going to be careful about where and how we use military force, particularly in the Middle East. And he was very clear that it's not in our national interest to have boots on the ground in all these countries litigating Iraq's political fights. I think what we've seen is that Iraq political leaders.


KELLY: That's a different story. You have a lot of Americans out there tonight that have a lot of hesitation about going back into Iraq. But the question is different about whether we messed up and not keeping some more to secure some very tenuous gains when the generals were saying we needed that.

Listen, I got to wrap. Because we're coming up on commercial break, but I wanna ask you because you've got some hot water over what sounded to many like a pejorative comment about Bowe Bergdahl's platoon members. They came on the show. And we'll give you a chance to respond and we're gonna do that right after the break. Don't go away.

HARF: OK. Thanks.


KELLY: We're back now with Marie Harf, she's the State Department deputy spokeswoman.

So, I want to ask you about this because we got a lot of coverage of this. You were asked about a comment -- you were asked about Bowe Bergdahl's platoon mates, and the fact that they were coming out and calling him a deserter, saying he walked off base that night and they know it's true. And you have the following exchange with our own Fox News producer. Take a look.


HARF: Nobody knows exactly what happened that night.

LUCAS THOMASON, FOX NEWS PRODUCER: I think his squad mates have the best indication.

HARF: I don't think that's the case.


KELLY: So, Lucas Thomason asked you about the platoon mates and you say that they do not know what happened that night that they do not have the best perspective on what happened that night. They took offense to that when I spoke to them. Do you want to respond?

HARF: Well, Megyn, I appreciate the chance to respond. I clearly have nothing but the highest respect for all of our men and women that serve. Having been in, in this business and national security for a long time now including the intelligence community, I know, I've seen what these guys go through out there and have the utmost respect for them. What I was conveying is that the Army is looking into right now what happened with Sergeant Bergdahl. I don't have all the information. Of course, no one does at the moment. The Army is trying to get it.

But the other thing I would say that I think I was trying to convey was that I believe very much and I'm proud of the principle that we don't leave people behind, we don't leave soldiers behind.

KELLY: That's a different issue. That's a different principle that -- you know, that the president has said that and there is some controversy about that but what got you in trouble was Lucas said I think his squad mates have the best indication of what happened that night and you said, I don't think that's the case. And these are guys who strapped on the American uniform, guns and went out there and risked their lives in Afghanistan and say he walked away and they don't want to see Marie Harf standing there saying they don't have the best indication of what happened that night.

HARF: Well, look, Megyn, the Army has said they will get to the bottom of what happened. And if Sergeant Bergdahl did anything wrong, they will find that out. He shouldn't be trying to --

KELLY: I know. But do you apologize to these guys who felt offended by that comment.

HARF: Well, of course, Megyn. I don't ever want anyone to feel offended by something I say in one of my press briefings. Again, the Army has said he shouldn't be trying in the court of public opinion. They will find out what --

KELLY: They weren't come forward though, Marie. They weren't gonna come forward until they saw his parents being paraded out to the rose garden and felt this was being made a political issue. Up to then they kept their mouth shut.

HARF: Well, you know, Megyn, I think that it would be hard for me, or you, or anyone to know what Sergeant Bergdahl's gone through regardless of how he got there.

KELLY: But it wasn't hard for them to know what happened that night.

HARF: Or what his parents have gone through. And I know there's a lot of debate and discussion out there. But again, I'm proud of the fact that we bring people home and I'm proud of the fact that the Army has said they will get to the bottom of this.

KELLY: I got to go because we're on a hard break.

Marie, listen, I know -- I think you're just 33 years old, you've accomplished a lot in your life and I appreciate you coming on and taking tough questions and firing that. Thanks so much for being here.

HARF: Thank you, Megyn. Always happy to.

KELLY: All the best.

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