Obama: US 'underestimated' Islamic State threat

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Obama: US 'underestimated' Islamic State threat
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a televised address at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. Obama pledged a relentless campaign to destroy Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria, with Middle Eastern allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan playing crucial supporting roles. Photographer: Saul Loeb/Pool via Bloomberg
US Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft prior to strike operations in Syria against ISIL. (Photo: Sgt. Russ Scalf) http://t.co/lZgUfJ5Nn5
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 10: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a prime time address from the Cross Hall of the White House on September 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Vowing to target the Islamic State with air strikes 'wherever they exist', Obama pledged to lead a broad coalition to fight IS and work with 'partner forces' on the ground in Syria and Iraq. (Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama leaves after speaking during a televised address at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. Obama pledged a relentless campaign to destroy Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria, with Middle Eastern allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan playing crucial supporting roles. Photographer: Saul Loeb/Pool via Bloomberg
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: U.S. President Barack Obama is watched on a television screen at a nail salon as he delivers a speech on his strategy to combat the terrorist group ISIS on September 10, 2014 in San Francisco, California. President Obama delivered a short prime time televised speech to the Nation to outline his strategy to combat the terrorist group ISIS following the beheadings of two American journalists. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
NEWPORT, WALES - SEPTEMBER 05: Aircraft from the British Royal Air Force's (RAF) Red Arrows aerobatic team create coloured vapour trails as they fly over the Celtic Manor resort, the venue for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit on September 5, 2014 in Newport, United Kingdom. Leaders and senior ministers from around 60 countries are meeting on the final day of the two day summit with Afghanistan and Ukraine at the top of the agenda. (Photo by Chris Ratcliffe-Pool/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) speaks with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama arrives alongside Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) ahead of a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) during a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister David Cameron (3rd R) speaks alongside US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (5th R) during a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister David Cameron (3rd L) speaks alongside US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) during a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama arrives alongside Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) ahead of a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and France's President Francois Hollande (3rd L) hold a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) and French President Francois Hollande hold a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (4th R) and French President Francois Hollande (5th L) hold a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron listen as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks during a leaders meeting on the future of NATO at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at a leaders meeting on the future of NATO at Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
U.S. President Barack Obama, center, speaks with U.S. Defense Minister Chuck Hagel as they participate in a round table meeting of the North Atlantic Council during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
U.S. President Barack Obama, centre right, stands alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron, centre left, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, second left, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, left, Romanian President Traian Basescu, right, and RAF Group Captain David Bentley, second right, during a flypast at the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
From left, British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. President Barack Obama, Romanian President Traian Basescu, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev and British RAF Group Captain David Bentley watch a flypast on the second day of a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Military jets perform a fly-over during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, watch a flypast on the second day of a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, stands alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron during a flypast at the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
NATO leaders stand on a stage during a group photo opportunity at a NATO summit on the grounds of the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day meeting leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, seen on screen, speaks as President Barack Obama and NATO leaders meet regarding Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, at the NATO summit at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
U.S. President Barack Obama talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stand at rear before NATO leaders meet regarding Afghanistan at the NATO summit at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center right, speaks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, center left, as they attend a NATO-Ukraine round table meeting during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day summit leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
President Barack Obama speaks with British Prime Minister David Cameron as NATO leaders meet regarding Afghanistan at the NATO summit at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. From left are, Secretary of State John Kerry, the president, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
U.S. President Barack Obama, speaks with a child at Mount Pleasant Primary School in Newport, Wales, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. Obama visited the school with British Prime Minister David Cameron Thursday, before attending a two-day NATO summit at Celtic Manor Resort in Newport. (AP Photo/Christopher Jones Pool)
Secretary of State John Kerry, center, talks with President Barack Obama as British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, finishes speaking at a meeting of NATO leaders regarding Afghanistan at the NATO summit at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, speaks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as they attend a NATO-Ukraine round table meeting during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day summit leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, left, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, greet Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo during arrivals for a NATO summit on the grounds of the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day meeting leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Britain's Prince Charles, left, greets U.S. President Barack Obama as he arrives to attend a 'Welcome the World to Wales' reception hosted by the Prince as part of a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. NATO leaders grappled Thursday with whether the alliance has a role in containing a mounting militant threat in the Middle East, as heads of state converged in Wales for a high-stakes summit also focused on the crisis in Ukraine and next steps in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, Pool)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, speaks with British Prime Minister David Cameron as she arrives for the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. NATO leaders grappled Thursday with whether the alliance has a role in containing a mounting militant threat in the Middle East, as heads of state converged in Wales for a high-stakes summit also focused on the crisis in Ukraine and next steps in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, left, speaks with Jordan's King Abdullah before taking their seats at the start of a NATO-Afghanistan round table meeting during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day summit leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, speak before taking their seats at the start of a NATO-Afghanistan round table meeting during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day summit leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
US President Barack Obama delivers a statement before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on August 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. France and Britain have agreed to support US humanitarian efforts to help tens of thousands of civilians besieged by militants on a mountain in Iraq, President Obama said Saturday. 'Both leaders expressed strong support for actions and agreed to join us in providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqis suffering so much,' Obama told reporters at the White House after speaking by telephone with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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By KEN DILANIAN

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is acknowledging that U.S. intelligence agencies underestimated the threat from Islamic State militants in the Middle East and overestimated the ability and will of Iraq's army to fight such extremists.

Obama described the U.S. intelligence assessments in response to a question during a CBS "60 Minutes" interview that aired Sunday, in which he also conceded that the U.S. led military campaign against that group and an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria was helping Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, a man the U.N. has accused of war crimes.

But Obama said he had no choice but to order U.S. air strikes on Assad's enemies, the Islamic State and the Khorasan Group because, he said, "those folks could kill Americans."

The Islamic State group, which derived from but has broken with al-Qaida, has taken control of large sections of Iraq and Syria. The Khorasan Group is a cell of militants that the U.S. says is plotting attacks against the West in cooperation with the Nusra front, Syria's al-Qaida affiliate.

Obama was asked how Islamic State fighters had come to control so much territory in Syria and Iraq and whether it was a surprise to him. The president said that during the Iraq war, U.S. military forces with the help of Iraq's Sunni tribes were able to quash al-Qaida fighters, who went "back underground.

"During the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swaths of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos," Obama said, according to an excerpt release before the show aired.

He noted that his director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has acknowledged that the U.S. "underestimated what had been taking place in Syria." Obama also said it was "absolutely true" that the U.S. overestimated the ability and will of the Iraqi army.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday the president was not seeking to pin blame on the intelligence community and said the commander in chief "is the one that is ultimately responsible for protecting the national security interests of the United States of America."

Both the Islamic State group and the Khorasan Group have been targeted by U.S. airstrikes in recent days; together they constitute the most significant military opposition to Assad, whose government the U.S. would like to see gone.

On the fact that the U.S.-led military campaign had worked to Assad's benefit, Obama said, "I recognize the contradiction," but added: "We are not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad," whose government has committed "terrible atrocities."

Sen. John McCain, who lost the presidential election to Obama in 2008 and has been a frequent critic on foreign policy, said Monday that the administration had miscalculated the necessity for the United States to keep a residual force of troops in Iraq after the war there ended.

"We predicted exactly what would happen. ... It's like watching a train wreck," McCain, R-Ariz., said on CNN. "A residual force would have stabilized the situation. It is a direct result of our failure to leave a residual force there."

The United States and the government of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could not come to terms on agreement providing a residual force of American troops to remain in Iraq.

Obama said his first priority now is degrading the extremists who are threatening Iraq and the West. To defeat them, he acknowledged, would require a competent local ground force, something no analyst predicts will surface any time soon in Syria, despite U.S. plans to arm and train "moderate" rebels. The U.S. has said it would not cooperate with the Assad government.

"Right now, we've got a campaign plan that has a strong chance for success in Iraq," the president said. "Syria is a more challenging situation."

House Speaker John Boehner questioned Obama's strategy to destroy the Islamic State group. Boehner said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that the U.S. may have "no choice" but to send in American troops if the mix of U.S.-led airstrikes and a ground campaign reliant on Iraqi forces, Kurdish fighters and moderate Syrian rebels fails to achieve that goal.

"These are barbarians. They intend to kill us," Boehner said. "And if we don't destroy them first, we're going to pay the price."

Obama, though, made clear he has no interest in a major U.S. ground presence beyond the 1,600 American advisers and special operations troops he already has ordered to Iraq.

"We are assisting Iraq in a very real battle that's taking place on their soil, with their troops," the president said. "This is not America against ISIL," he said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group. "This is America leading the international community to assist a country with whom we have a security partnership."

Only the U.S. can lead such a campaign, Obama said. "We have capacity no one else has. Our military is the best in the history of the world. And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don't call Beijing. They don't call Moscow. They call us."

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