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Obama Tells Nation Islamist Threat Could Reach U.S. Shores


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's work through the ways President Obama says he plans to expand the U.S. fight against the so-called Islamic State. The president told the nation last night he aims for the destruction of the group that controls parts of Iraq and Syria and that strategy includes expanding airstrikes in Iraq. The U.S. will also increase its involvement in the civil war in Syria and airstrikes are possible on that side of the border.

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The group Islamic State swept into Iraq earlier this year, taking territory with uniquely brutal tactics - mass executions, enslaving women, aiming to wipe out religious minorities and posting videos of it all on the Internet. In recent weeks the group beheaded two American journalists, again posting video evidence. President Obama, using the acronym ISIL, argued in his speech the threat from Islamic State militants could ultimately reach American shores.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.

KEITH: And so he said the United States is meeting these terrorists with, quote, "strength and resolve." What that means is a broader campaign of airstrikes. When it started, the mission was narrow; protect American personnel in Iraq and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, with thousands of refugees stranded on a mountain without shelter, food, or water. Now, he says the list of targets is expanding. Even into neighboring Syria, where Islamic State is headquartered.


OBAMA: I've made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency. If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

KEITH: In Syria however, there is a full on civil war, complicating any action. The country's president, Bashar al-Assad, has killed tens of thousands of his own people. And President Obama says he has to go.

Administration officials say that for more than a year, the U.S. has been quietly providing military support to moderate Syrian rebels as they fight both Assad's regime and Islamic State militants. But the president wants to ramp up the program with training and arms and to do that, he says he needs authority from Congress.


OBAMA: Tonight I call on Congress again to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people, a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL.

KEITH: Administration officials say Saudi Arabia has already agreed to host the training, which would be led by the American military. Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was inclined to grant Obama that authority. But some members of Congress appear reluctant to arm the rebels. Obama himself has expressed reservations about it in the past. But now, training and advising local forces and supplying them with arms is a key part of his strategy. Because Obama promised, as he has before, not to put American ground troops in a combat mission.


OBAMA: We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.

KEITH: This type of pledge is drawing criticism from Republicans in Congress, including Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who says it's a mistake to rule out boots on the ground.

SENATOR ROB JOHNSON: You don't signal immediately to the people you're going to try and build a coalition around who your allies are. You don't signal these are the things we're not going to do, at the same time saying, we're going to do what it takes.

It's ambiguous. It's not the kind of clarity we absolutely need.

KEITH: Obama also insisted that with or without Congress, he already has the authority he needs to conduct airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. Some lawmakers agree with him, endorsing an act now get permission later approach. But others from both sides of the aisle say they should weigh in.

Barbara Lee is a Democratic congresswoman from the San Francisco Bay area and was a vocal opponent of the 2003 Iraq war.

REPRESENTATIVE BARBARA LEE: I think the president and this administration is being very methodical. They're being very comprehensive. They're handling it as well as they could handle it, but that doesn't mean that Congress should only say yes, yes, yes. I think Congress should weigh in with an authorization.

KEITH: She wants Congress to debate and vote on authority for the president to use force before leaving for the fall campaigns later this month.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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