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PolitiFact: What Barack Obama said about ISIS being contained

Last week, President Barack Obama said the Islamic State is "contained" — a comment that has been scrutinized in the wake of the deadly attacks in Paris that have been attributed to the terrorist group.

But has Obama's comment been taken out of context?

ABC This Week host George Stephanopoulos presented White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes with a list of politicians criticizing Obama for his Nov. 12 remarks. Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, said Obama sees the world "as a fantasy."

Rhodes said Obama was talking about a particular aspect of containment that in no way dismissed the possibility of terrorist attacks in the West.

"The president was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria," Rhodes said, using another acronym for the group. "A year ago, we saw them on the march in Iraq and Syria, taking more and more population centers. The fact is that we have been able to stop that geographic advance and take back significant amounts of territory in both northern Iraq and northern Syria. At the same time, that does not diminish the fact that there is a threat posed by ISIL, not just in those countries but in their aspirations to project power overseas."

Rhodes is right, a review of the full interview shows. His statement rates True.

In the context of Obama's interview with Stephanopoulos — the day before the Paris attacks — it's actually quite clear that when he says ISIS is contained, he is talking about ISIS's territorial expansion in Syria and Iraq. Here are the relevant parts of the interview:

Stephanopoulos: "Some of your critics say, even your friendly critics say, like Fareed Zakaria, that what you have on the ground now is not going to be enough. Every couple of months you're going to be faced with the same choice of back down or double down."

Obama: "I think what is true is that this has always been a multiyear project precisely because the governance structures in the Sunni areas of Iraq are weak, and there are none in Syria. And we don't have ground forces there in sufficient numbers to simply march into Al-Raqqah in Syria and clean the whole place out. And as a consequence, we've always understood that our goal has to be militarily constraining ISIL's capabilities, cutting off their supply lines, cutting off their financing at the same time as we're putting a political track together in Syria and fortifying the best impulses in Baghdad so that we can, not just win militarily, but also win by improving governance."

Stephanopoulos: "And that's the strategy you've been following. But ISIS is gaining strength, aren't they?"

Obama: "Well, no, I don't think they're gaining strength. What is true is that from the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria, they'll come in, they'll leave. But you don't see this systematic march by ISIL across the terrain. What we have not yet been able to do is to completely decapitate their command and control structures. We've made some progress in trying to reduce the flow of foreign fighters."

When Obama said "we have contained them," it's within a plainly defined scope: ISIS's territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria. This context is bolstered by the fact that Stephanopoulos asks Obama about the ground efforts in those two countries.

He wasn't saying, as critics have short-handed, that ISIS no longer presents a threat — an assertion that the Paris attacks would have negated. In fact, in the same interview, Obama acknowledged that ISIS might have surpassed al-Qaida as the greatest terror threat in the world, adding that it is constantly looking for "a crack in the system" to exploit to carry out attacks.

Syrian refugees

A Syrian passport found on the body of a dead suicide bomber in the Paris attacks has prompted some to question Obama's plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees.

Rhodes said on Fox News Sunday that there are "very robust vetting procedures for those refuges" and said the administration still will continue to take them. But that's "untrue," and in fact, "there's virtually no vetting," according to Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who chairs the House Subcommittee on Terrorism.

Elsewhere on the airwaves, Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush suggested that the vetting process was at least enough to distinguish between Christians — whom the United States should focus on, according to Bush — and everyone else fleeing Syria.

"It takes almost a year for a refugee to be processed in the United States," Bush noted on CNN's State of the Union.

That rates Mostly True.

Bush actually low-balled the estimate.

Before a refugee even faces U.S. vetting, he or she must first clear an eligibility hurdle. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — or occasionally a U.S. embassy or another NGO — determines which refugees (about 1 percent) should be resettled through its own process, which can take four to 10 months.

Once a case is referred from the high commissioner to the United States, a refugee undergoes a security clearance check that could take several rounds, an in-person interview, approval by the Department of Homeland Security, medical screening, a match with a sponsor agency, "cultural orientation" classes, and one final security clearance. This all happens before a refugee ever gets onto American soil.

Karen Jacobsen, the director of the Refugee and Forced Migration Program at Tufts University, noted that this intensive vetting process, as well as U.S. law on refugees and asylum seekers, "makes it difficult to quickly admit large numbers of refugees."

So how long does it take? Worldwide, about a year to 18 months, according to a State Department fact sheet cited by the Bush campaign. A different page on the State Department website estimates an average time of 18 to 24 months.

For refugees from Syria and similar countries, however, the process can span two years or more.

"It can actually take almost three years. (Bush) is being optimistic," said Lavinia Limón, the president of the advocacy group, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. "The process for refugees is the most extensive security screening we have for visitors. It's easier to come in as a tourist, a student, a businessman."

Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report. Read the full fact-checks at

PolitiFact: What Barack Obama said about ISIS being contained 11/15/15 [Last modified: Sunday, November 15, 2015 10:38pm]
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