Foreign intelligence officials say that it would have been difficult for the U.S. to “underestimate” the threat posed by ISIS before its lightning-fast advance into Iraq in the spring, despite President Barack Obama’s comments in an interview broadcast on “60 Minutes” Sunday.
During an interview with “60 Minutes,”Obama said the nation’s top intelligence official, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, had “acknowledged that … they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.”
But intelligence officials from U.S. partner nations took issue with the president’s choice of words. “We have been talking about [ISIS] for quite some time,” said one. “They were in the mix right from the start.”
“It’s been a significant intelligence challenge for a long time,” said another. “I was trying to figure out what he meant by ‘underestimated.’”
The second foreign official said that the number of foreign fighters and the sophistication of the group’s use of social made it hard to ignore.
“The swelling of ISIS’s ranks was very visible by 2013,” said the official.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official who has been briefed on what the White House might have known about ISIS told NBC News there is a “paper trail” of warnings about ISIS, and policy makers “should have known” about the threat.
A current U.S. intelligence official said the CIA expressed concern over the ISIS threat during the past year, and “did provide warning of the intent to strike” prior to the ISIS offensive that captured Mosul in June.
The official acknowledged that the intelligence community was surprised by the success of ISIS at Mosul. However, added the official, “The group that might have been most surprised by ISIS was ISIS, which threw a hundred fighters against thousands.”
Several officials noted that, as both Obama and Clapper conceded, the U.S. had overestimated the Iraqi military. The former U.S. intelligence official said that the military and the intelligence community were too invested in training the Iraqi military to predict its collapse.
But a foreign intelligence official said that many of the partner nations also seemed to have underestimated how quickly ISIS would build on its success. Said the official, “No one could predict how rapidly ISIS collected the materiel that enabled them to dominate the regional conflict zone.”
ISIS, also known as ISIL or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is one of many insurgent Sunni groups in Syria fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but is distinguished by its radical brand of Islam. It began holding and seizing territory in Syria and Iraq this spring, and gained international infamy for the videotaped beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines. Videos of the executions were released on the Internet in August and September. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed a caliphate in portions of Syria and Iraq in late June.
Richard Engel, Andrea Mitchell and Madeleine Haeringer contributed to this report.