The administration’s abrupt transition from complacency to near panic on the rise of ISIS recalls Donald Rumsfeld’s famous dictum. But before the dictum, first the panic. The New York Times captures the sudden shift in attitude in its opening paragraphs of an article by Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper:
Earlier this year, President Obama likened the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to a junior varsity basketball squad, a group that posed little of the threat once presented by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
But on Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”
Now there was no more talk of amateur opponents. Indeed the media outlets were playing up ISIS threats to the president’s hometown of Chicago. The rest of the NYT Mazzetti-Cooper article examined the debate over the seriousness of the threat without reaching a conclusion. Donald Rumsfeld warned there would be days like this: a man must always expect the unexpected.
Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
There are things we do not know and NPR said the failed rescue of James Foley “reveals the challenges faced by US intelligence”. Yet at least it was, to the intelligence community at least, a known unknown.
The U.S. doesn’t really have much in the way of assets on the ground there. The U.S. is allied with the Free Syrian Army. That’s the group that’s fighting the Assad government. But they apparently provide very little in the way of really good intelligence. So instead, and the secretary of defense alluded to this, the intelligence community has to figure out what’s going on by cobbling together information from cell phone calls, Internet traffic and the surveillance from overhead drones.
President Obama’s earlier dismissal of ISIS in January falls into a much more serious category. In an interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, he boasted that there were now no significant threats worth considering. Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” When Remnick challenged that claim, pointing out that the Black Flag was flying over Fallujah, the president famously waved it off. He characterized ISIS as a “jayvee” or junior varsity team, not even to be taken seriously.