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President Obama's Oval Office Address to the Nation on Terror. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired December 6, 2015 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:05] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN "Breaking News."

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. We begin with the "Breaking News."

President Obama's Oval Office address to the nation on terror.

There's a live look at the White House right now where President Obama will speak at any moment addressing the nation from behind a lectern set up inside the Oval Office. He won't be sitting behind the desk. He'll be standing. That backdrop particularly rare for this president

He's only made national speeches in primetime from the Oval Office twice before. These comments follow news that the killers in this week's California shooting massacre were radicalized before they killed 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino.

And now it's up to the president of the United States to reassure the nation he has a plan to destroy terrorist groups like ISIS.

A brand new "CNN/ORC" poll showing, however, only 38 percent of Americans currently approve of how the president is handling terrorism. That's actually down six points from our poll earlier this year.

President of the United States will be delivering the speech, as I said, within the next few seconds. President will be standing behind that lectern in the White House. Let's go to the Oval Office.

The president of the United States right now.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good evening. On Wednesday, 14 Americans were killed as they came together to celebrate the holidays. They were taken from family and friends who loved them deeply. They were white and black; Latino and Asian; immigrants and American-born; moms and dads; daughters and sons. Each of them served their fellow citizens and all of them were part of our American family.

Tonight, I want to talk with you about this tragedy, the broader threat of terrorism, and how we can keep our country safe.

The FBI is still gathering the facts about what happened in San Bernardino, but here is what we know.

The victims were brutally murdered and injured by one of their co- workers and his wife. So far, we have no evidence that the killers were directed by a terrorist organization overseas, or that they were part of a broader conspiracy here at home. But it is clear that the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalization, embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West. They had stockpiled assault weapons, ammunition, and pipe bombs. So this was an act of terrorism, designed to kill innocent people.

Our nation has been at war with terrorists since al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11. In the process, we've hardened our defenses -- from airports to financial centers, to other critical infrastructure. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies have disrupted countless plots here and overseas, and worked around the clock to keep us safe. Our military and counterterrorism professionals have relentlessly pursued terrorist networks overseas -- disrupting safe havens in several different countries, killing Osama bin Laden, and decimating al Qaeda's leadership.

Over the last few years, however, the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase. As we've become better at preventing complex, multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society. It is this type of attack that we saw at Fort Hood in 2009; in Chattanooga earlier this year; and now in San Bernardino.

And as groups like ISIL grew stronger amidst the chaos of war in Iraq and then Syria, and as the Internet erases the distance between countries, we see growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino killers.

For seven years, I've confronted this evolving threat each morning in my intelligence briefing. And since the day I took this office, I've authorized U.S. forces to take out terrorists abroad precisely because I know how real the danger is.

As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than the security of the American people. As a father to two young daughters who are the most precious part of my life, I know that we see ourselves with friends and co-workers at a holiday party like the one in San Bernardino. I know we see our kids in the faces of the young people killed in Paris. And I know that after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure.

[20:05:12] Well, here's what I want you to know: The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Our success won't depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving into fear. That's what groups like ISIL are hoping for. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless and by drawing upon every aspect of American power. Here's how. First, our military will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary. In Iraq and Syria, airstrikes are taking out ISIL leaders, heavy weapons, oil tankers, infrastructure. And since the attacks in Paris, our closest allies -- including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom -- have ramped up their contributions to our military campaign, which will help us accelerate our effort to destroy ISIL.

Second, we will continue to provide training and equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL on the ground so that we take away their safe havens. In both countries, we're deploying Special Operations Forces who can accelerate that offensive. We've stepped up this effort since the attacks in Paris, and we'll continue to invest more in approaches that are working on the ground.

Third, we're working with friends and allies to stop ISIL's operations -- to disrupt plots, cut off their financing, and prevent them from recruiting more fighters. Since the attacks in Paris, we've surged intelligence-sharing with our European allies. We're working with Turkey to seal its border with Syria. And we are cooperating with Muslim-majority countries and with our Muslim communities here at home to counter the vicious ideology that ISIL promotes online.

Fourth, with American leadership, the international community has begun to establish a process and timeline to pursue ceasefires and a political resolution to the Syrian war. Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies, but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL, a group that threatens us all.

This is our strategy to destroy ISIL. It is designed and supported by our military commanders and counterterrorism experts, together with 65 countries that have joined an American-led coalition. And we constantly examine our strategy to determine when additional steps are needed to get the job done. That's why I've ordered the Departments of State and Homeland Security to review the Visa Waiver program under which the female terrorist in San Bernardino originally came to this country. And that's why I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.

Now, here at home, we have to work together to address the challenge. There are several steps that Congress should take right away.

To begin with, Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun. What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semi-automatic weapon? This is a matter of national security.

We also need to make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons like the ones that were used in San Bernardino. I know there are some who reject any gun safety measures. But the fact is that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, no matter how effective they are, cannot identify every would-be mass shooter, whether that individual is motivated by ISIL or some other hateful ideology. What we can do and must do is make it harder for them to kill. Next, we should put in place stronger screening for those who come to America without a visa so that we can take a hard look at whether they've traveled to warzones. And we're working with members of both parties in Congress to do exactly that.

Finally, if Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, it should go ahead and vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists.

For over a year, I have ordered our military to take thousands of airstrikes against ISIL targets. I think it's time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united, and committed, to this fight.

My fellow Americans, these are the steps that we can take together to defeat the terrorist threat. Let me now say a word about what we should not do.

[20:10:06] We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That's what groups like ISIL want. They know they can't defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq. But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.

The strategy that we are using now -- airstrikes, Special Forces, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country -- that is how we'll achieve a more sustainable victory. And it won't require us sending a new generation of Americans overseas to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil.

Here's what else we cannot do. We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want. ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world, including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology.

Moreover, the vast majority of terrorist victims around the world are Muslim. If we're to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.

That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse. Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.

But just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans, of every faith, to reject discrimination. It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It's our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL.

Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes, and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.

My fellow Americans, I am confident, we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history. We were founded upon a belief in human dignity -- that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law.

Even in this political season, even as we properly debate what steps I and future Presidents must take to keep our country safe, let's make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional. Let's not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear; that we have always met challenges -- whether war or depression, natural disasters or terrorist attacks -- by coming together around our common ideals as one nation and one people. So long as we stay true to that tradition, I have no doubt America will prevail.

Thank you. God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

BLITZER: That's it. The president of the United States, his address on the war against ISIS. Let's get straight to our analysis.

Let's bring in our chief Washington correspondent, Jake Tapper.

First, the president was very passionate, very forceful. He outlined his strategy. What did you hear?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: There were two things that struck me. One, obviously, there are going to be a lot of conservatives who take issue with his call to make it more difficult to get a semi-automatic rifle or what he called assault weapons and the idea that if you're on a no-fly list, you should not be able to buy a gun. There are a lot of Republicans and conservatives who have issues and concerns about that and I think a lot of their focus is going to be on that.

Some other things that I thought were interesting from the president's speech is he was more forceful in his rhetoric in talking about terrorism than I have heard him before. He unequivocally called what happened in San Bernardino an act of terrorism. I do not think he had done that yet.

Of other note, he referred to the shooting in Chattanooga this summer when that young man, Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, a terrorist, went and killed up a marine recruiting center killing four marines and a sailor. That was a somewhat mysterious, according to the government and FBI officials circumstance where they couldn't find a link. He also referred to that as an act of terrorism which was stark.

Moreover, and while he did call for the American people to not push Muslim-Americans away, he talked about millions of patriotic Muslim- Americans. He invoked members of the Muslim community who are in our Armed Forces. He also said something more starkly that I think I can't recall him ever saying, which is the idea to call for extremism in the Muslim community, in the United States and abroad, is a real problem that Muslim leaders must address. I don't think I've heard him be that stark and forceful on that issue.

Yes, it was just one or two sentences buried amidst a plea for people not to push Muslims away, but it was still very strong for this president to say.

BLITZER: And Gloria Borger, the president said there's no evidence, at least not yet, that what happened in San Bernardino over the past few days was directed or part of any broader conspiracy, but he did say as Jake just said it was an act of terrorism.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He did say that, and also, you know, to echo Jake, I've never heard this language from the president before. He said these are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death.

He challenged Congress not only on assault weapons, but for a vote to authorize the use of force against ISIS. And he also pledged we will destroy. It wasn't any degrading or anything else here, this was --


BLITZER: He didn't say ultimately destroy, he said we will destroy.


BORGER: We will destroy ISIL. You know, very -- sort of very straightforward talked about steps he would take, about reviewing the visa waiver program -- you know, make it harder for terrorists to use technology to their advantage. And, again, challenging Congress not only on the assault weapon issue, but also on vote to authorize the use of force against ISIL because we're going to need -- we're going to need the money.

BLITZER: And he repeated this as a call that he did yesterday, if you're on the no-fly list, you shouldn't be able to go out and buy a gun. He made that point again as well.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: As Jake noted, the president has a very steep political hill trying to get that through a Republican House and Republican Senate especially as we go into the early months of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Let's see if the president can rally the American people to it. That's part of his challenge tonight to convince the American people, I get it. I thought to that point, if you look at the public polling data, if you look at -- talk to politicians who say the president has not inspired a lot of confidence in the American people, I know how real the danger is. He wanted to say that right off the bat. I deal with this every morning.

And I thought a smart moment; he talked this as a parent of his own children being around the holidays that I get what happened in San Bernardino. I get why you're scared about it. Trying to get the congressional buy-in on the authorization of military force so the political responsibility or blame, if you want to put it that way, is shared.

But I also think that the president implicitly went through some of the, look, running for president is a lot easier than being president. He doesn't have a lot of good choices here. And he talked optimistically -- France, the U.K. and Germany are now joining the fight, but what he can't say, what he can't say is, you know, the Arab nations.

General Hertling talked about this earlier. You don't want a western military force in Iraq or in Syria. Where are the Arab nations? I was just -- as a president would say now, and I was remembering during the first Persian Gulf four years ago, when I was with Syrian, Egyptian, Qatari, Saudi and Kuwaiti ground forces, when they crossed the Saudi border into Kuwait to push Saddam Hussein out, where is that coalition today?

TAPPER: A lot of them are funding the violent extremism being taught in these Madrassas.

KING: You know, the president talked about the steps. He was very clear no U.S. ground troops in any --


BLITZER: He was forceful on that specific point.

KING: What he was not going to do.

BLITZER: He's not going to get involved once again in a large ground war in either reaction or Syria.

TAPPER: And I think -- and Gloria touched on this earlier. I think this is one of the reasons why the president is generally reluctant when it comes to talking about this subject.

Is he a somebody who in ways was elected and feels the burden of the responsibility to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as being president, as you say, the world looks a lot different from the Holiday Inn in Des Moines than it does from the Oval Office. And being president has been forced, in his view, to use American military might more than he thought he ever would want to.

[20:20:10] BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, who was over at the White House right now.

Jim, was the speech that the president delivered from the Oval Office, was it what you expected based on your briefings going into the speech?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. This was a war speech. This was a commander-in-chief speech delivered for effect from the Oval Office. A setting the president does not choose very often.

As expected and as you were just saying, there were no major policy proposals in this speech. This was more about reassuring the American people that the president has the strategy for dealing with ISIS. He described what happened in San Bernardino as a terrorist attack. We've been waiting for the president to say that.

And as for that recent attack in California, he said at this point, the U.S. has not been able to pinpoint a link between those killers and ISIS commanders overseas, but he said that this violence underlines a major threat facing the country and is one that he described as being sort of a new threat, a new era in the war on terrorism. And that is self-radicalized terrorists who draw their inspiration from ISIS.

So the president is recommending -- and I thought this was a key part of the speech. And I think it's a policy space that perhaps Republicans, Democrats can rally around and that is this recommendation that law enforcement and social media companies work together more closely to be on the lookout for ISIS extremists, or extremists in the United States, or online talking about potential attacks on the homeland.

You know, he also called on Congress to once again pass this new authorization for military force against ISIS. That is something he's done before. It's something Congress has balked at. The White House feels pretty strongly that that is a big historical mistake on the part of the legislative branch of government in this town.

He also wants to beef up the nation's gun laws, Wolf. And that is sort of out of the new page of the Democratic playbook heading into 2016, this idea that people on the no-fly list should be barred from buying firearms. That is something we heard Hillary Clinton talking about today. She'll be talking about it a lot.

But, Wolf, as for what the president can do on his own, we should point out, and this was something that was conveyed to us by senior administration officials before the president's speech, the White House is planning to hold a summit later this month. That will be on December 17th here at the White House on going after the financing of ISIS.

Lately, they've been bombing those oil installations as part of the intensification of air strikes. That is something they feel is critical if they can choke off the money to ISIS, they feel like they're going to make some big strides.

And, I think, finally, Wolf, just the president's message about the Muslim community, that they are our friends and neighbors, that they serve in uniform. That is a message that the president has been wanting to get across for days and days now. Again, this was not a new strategy the president unveiled tonight, but they're hoping that delivering that strategy from the Oval Office will win him some patience because right now the American people seem to have run out of it.


BLITZER: He clearly felt very passionate making that statement that America's Muslims, Muslims around the world are America's friends. They have to get more involved in this war at the same time.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: And he did speak, listen to this, Jim, he did speak about the United States being at war now since 9/11. Listen to this.


OBAMA: Our nation has been at war with terrorists since al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11. In the process, we've hardened our defenses -- from airports to financial centers, to other critical infrastructure. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies have disrupted countless plots here and overseas, and worked around the clock to keep us safe.

Our military and counterterrorism professionals have relentlessly pursued terrorist networks overseas -- disrupting safe havens in several different countries, killing Osama bin Laden, and decimating al Qaeda's leadership.


BLITZER: And Jake, the president not only reminded everyone that he ordered that strike that killed Bin Laden, but he also pointed out, the U.S. has been going after what some call these targeted assassinations of al Qaeda, ISIS commanders, with drone strikes, other strikes, trying to kill as many of them as possible. Sort of was boasting about that.

TAPPER: It is something that the White House feels they don't get enough credit for, which is the number of high-value terrorists who have been killed under the Obama administration's watch. And the list is very long starting with Osama Bin Laden, but there was an ISIS leader a few weeks ago who was killed.

One of the things that the former director of the defense intelligence agency Lt. Gen. Flynn said the other day is, you can make that list as long as you want, but new person pops up, and a new person pops up and this is an ideology that needs to be addressed in a worldwide way.

Now Flynn has his own ideas including forming some sort of Arab nation NATO-type organization that I don't know how plausible they are, but the point is killing those terrorists obviously is needed in the view of the United States government. But the question is, is it enough?

If the ideology continues to spread, no matter how many terrorists they kill, then does there need to be much more done than addressing this in a military way?

[20:25:10] BLITZER: Let's get some analysis from Michael Weiss. He's an expert on ISIS.

He's joining us right now.

How's ISIS likely, Michael, to react to the president's address?

MICHAEL WEISS, CO-AUTHOR, "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror": Well, I think they'll laugh, frankly. I mean, I heard in the president's remarks self-congratulation and cheerleading. We will destroy ISIL. We will defeat this death cult as he called it.

Look, Wolf, when the president came out and said, ISIS has been contained, and he was speaking to the geographical expanse of their so-called caliphate.

Last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff repudiated those remarks and said no, actually, they're not contained. We've had some tactical victories on the battlefield, but strategically, ISIS is very much on the front fit.

They have established franchises or affiliates in the Sinai Peninsula, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, the North Caucuses. The list continues.

U.S. fighter jets, U.S. bombers are coming back to base not having dropped about 75 percent of their payloads. That's the latest statistic out of the Pentagon.

"The Daily Beast," my publication, tonight published a report saying that before he made his containment gaffe, he ordered a U.S. intelligence assessment, which found exactly the same thing. We're actually not winning this war. This is why the Defense Intelligence Agency, 50 different analysts got up and blew the whistle and said we are being forced to cook the intelligence to make it seem like we're making more progress than we have done.

ISIS' threat with respect to these new attacks, the president spoke as though this is an evolving thing, self-radicalization. The first year into his presidency, Wolf, Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the so-called underpants bomber tried to blow up an airliner in the skies above Detroit.

Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab was radicalized while he was sitting at University College London in Great Britain. We have been dealing with this menace for, well, almost a decade now. There's nothing evolved here.

The attackers in Paris, the way they struck, this wasn't just a mere gun assault. You're talking about -- it's eight different suicide bombings coordinated with gun attacks. Some are execution-style massacre. That's out of the Alah (ph) province. That's out of Baghdad. More than European cities.

I have not heard, and I really wish the president would say this, look, I screwed up. I underestimated the threat. I called them the J.V. team well after I was briefed and knew what al Qaeda in Iraq had been up to including strapping mentally disabled young girls with suicide bombs and marching them into police headquarters including, by the way, holding terrain in Al Anbar province as the Zarqawis did in the mid 2000s.

We have to be very realistic here. I'm not talking about alarmism. I'm not talking about fear mongering. And I applaud him from drawing this distinction between Islam and ISIS.

But I really think his head is in the clouds if he thinks this current strategy is going to succeed. In the last two months, two months and change, ISIS has now perpetrated five major attacks. Three of them have been in NATO countries, Wolf. OK? This is not a contained threat. This is not something that we can sit, you know, go to bed quietly at night and think, you know, the United States of America is going to be victorious. And certainly not by the end of this president's term.

As he, himself, has said before. This is going to be something that the next president is going to deal with. So I'd like a little more realism and a little less rah-rah, you know, we're doing great.

BLITZER: And ISIS offshoot in Sinai blew up a Russian commercial airliner killing 224 people as well. Let's not forget about that.

Gen. Hertling, I was a little surprised that I'm anxious to get your reaction, when the president said, took credit, he said the U.S. is training and equipping tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and Syria to help get this job done.

The U.S. has been doing that for a decade plus. How is that working out so far?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it is actually working. And I give a great deal of credit to Michael Weiss. He is an expert in this area, but he doesn't have all of the facts correct in terms of the way the strategy has been evolving over the last several months.

And in fact, we have trained several thousand forces in Iraq, not as many in Syria. And, in fact, those forces in Iraq are contributing to the fight in Anbar Province right now and taking back part of Ramadi. So that is --


BLITZER: General, let me interrupt. Why did those Iraqi troops run away from the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, a city of nearly 2 million people, when a few thousand ISIS terrorists came in, the Iraqi military abandoned huge quantities of U.S. military equipment...

HERTLING: Yes, they have.

BLITZER: ...and simply ran away. After all those years of U.S. training and equipping. HERTLING: And I give you that, Wolf. And we have talked about this hundreds of times. And what I will tell you was there was political backing for them doing that. It was because they weren't getting paid. They weren't being led. And they didn't have a government that they trusted. They ran away. They walked away as opposed to being killed.

There is a regeneration of a diplomatic and a governmental approach in Iraq to help them fight.

And Mr. Al-Abadi has been doing that since he's been elected. It is happening in Iraq. It's not happening -- that's why we need the governmental aspect in Syria.

I will give the president some high marks in some areas, some low marks in others.

[20:30:03] He did basically walk down the strategy as we've outlined before. Seven different steps. He put it in four categories. Everywhere from building the coalition to conducting operations.

I don't think -- he said one thing about what's happening to ISIS, and if you're a student of military history, you know that all armies adapt. He said, ISIS adapting, and they are doing different things. It was one of the first things he said in his remarks.

Are we adapting as fast as ISIS? And I don't think the answer is yes right now. We were going after some things. The financial summit that Jim talked about earlier is an approach to take money away from ISIS. We've got to get after their messaging. We have to continue to build a coalition that actually works.

And all the other things the president said about the AUMF, I think, is critically important. Not for the reason Gloria said, to build the political background, but because when you're a soldier on the ground, you want to know the people that are behind you and the government is behind you.

Right now, the soldiers on the ground don't know the government is behind them because everyone is fighting about different approaches to take. One of the other things the president might have said was we ought to limit Congress from going on different shows expressing their views and force them to legislate on AUMF so we can get this thing moving down the road.

BLITZER: All right. General, I want you to stand by. Hopefully, that Iraqi military will come through and retake huge chunks of Iraq right now. Not only Mosul, but Fallujah, Ramadi, other areas that ISIS still to this very day controls.

David Gergen, we knew what your expectations were going into the speech. Let me play a little clip of what the president said about his responsibility and then we'll discuss.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: For seven years, I've confronted this evolving threat each and every morning in my intelligence briefing. And since the day I took this office, I have authorized U.S. forces to take out terrorists abroad precisely because I know how real the danger is. As commander- in-chief, I have no greater responsibility than the security of the American people.


BLITZER: He says take out terrorists. He means kill them.

Did he live up to your expectations? Your hope, David?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes and no. I applaud him, Wolf, for continuing to keep guns part of the focus here in dealing with terrorism. Easy access to guns is clearly playing into the hands of terrorists in this country and is causing a lot of fear and anxiety that Americans have.

You know, we have about 4 percent of the world's population. We have 42 percent of the privately owned guns in the world. That's way out of whack. So keep that going.

Secondly, I applaud him for the more forceful, passionate rhetoric that he brought to bear, especially with regard to the respect for American Muslims and for his commitment. But ramping up the rhetoric is not the same thing as ramping up action. There was no new action here. This was a stay-the-course speech.

He thinks the course is going to lead to victory. There is no evidence that that is the case. Hillary Clinton said today after all this long time, we are not winning the war against ISIS. That's his own former secretary of state. And we've seen all these explosions, what Michael Weiss was talking about a few moments ago.

I see no reason to come out of this speech believing that we're going to be more successful in the future than we have been in the past because essentially we're going to keep doing the same things we've been doing in the past. And I worry a lot that this is now going to be -- essentially we're going to play this out and it's going to be up to the next president to come up with a victorious strategy to really defeat ISIS. And that's a lot of time to lose and a lot of dangers posed by not going ahead and trying to secure a victory on his watch.

BLITZER: Mike Rogers, I thought it was significant the president used this occasion, this Oval Office address to once again chide the NATO ally, Turkey, to seal that border between Turkey and Syria.

The president the other day said there was about 100 kilometers, some 60 miles that people were just going back and forth presumably ISIS terrorists as well. And in this particular case, he said, yes, the U.S. is increasing intelligence with the allies, with France, with the U.K. and with Turkey, but he also said Turkey, you better seal that border.

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Yes. Candidly, this whole sharing the intelligence thing makes for a great talking point. It has no reality and substance. There is a -- has always been a very robust sharing relationship with each country you mentioned.

Now we have special relationships with the U.K. and Canada, Australia and New Zealand that is beyond anything that any other country would get. But anything of a threat nature was always shared with these countries. So I think my disappointment here, yes, he went after the border with Turkey.

[20:35:00] Part of this issue is he has got to unwind himself and bear with me here for a minute, Wolf. When he made this deal with Iran and then started talking nice about Russian activities in Syria, I watched our Arab league partners, they had to unscrew him from the ceiling.

He has some political unwinding to do if you're ever going to get to that diplomatic place of a Sunni awakening that helps us push ISIS out of western Iraq and eastern Syria. And what we found now is there's no big willingness to do that because they're not clear on what American strategy is. Is it to allow the Russians to continue to do what they do?

I saw Susan Rice earlier on CNN say, well, we've got to get rid of Assad. There's to plan to do that. There's no negotiation to do that. There's no bringing in our Sunni relationships in eastern Syria to do it. So I was very disappointed in this speech and what I heard other panelists say this was kind of more of the same.

And the very fact that they announced a financial meeting on December 17th tells you the strategy has supposed to been hitting it on all fronts already, so you're hitting logistic targets today, which tells me that's a reaction to the events, not a strategy. Now you're announcing the financial services on December 17th. That's a reaction to the terrorist attack in California, not a strategy. And I just don't see any difference.

So if you want to have something that doesn't look like 100,000 troops on the ground, I think that's a terrible idea. You have to be able to function on all cylinders on all fronts. That means you have to have some diplomatic fixing of relationships with our Arab league partners.

You have to have U.S. intelligence operations on the ground much more robust than we have. And you can't just send a Special Forces task force. It has to be integrated with a larger strategy. And that's what I didn't hear tonight and that's, again, why I was really disappointed in the president's speech.

BLITZER: Van Jones, you used to work for the president. You were an adviser to the president.

He said that he wants to see Congress go ahead and review the Visa Waiver Program. He wants to review technology that allows terrorists to escape from justice. I assume that means some of those technologies, the communications techniques they've been using in the dark world as they call it.

What was your reaction? Did you hear anything new from the president tonight?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I said earlier I knew it was going to be important for him to meet both a head test and a heart test. I give him an "A" on both.

Frist of all, on the heart side -- you saw much more passion, you saw much more force. I think it's very, very important. You got to remember, you got lots of people who have never heard the president speak about this except maybe in a three-second sound bite on the evening news. You finally got a chance to hear him lay out his concern as a parent, et cetera. That was important.

But on the head side, there were some things I thought that we have not talked about. He made a very clear case for not having troops on the ground. You have a lot of Republicans who've been talking really tough about putting troops on the ground. And I think he had a very sober, a smart reminder. That is exactly what ISIS wants. They are begging for troops on the ground so they can kill an American every day and make a video about it. That's what they want. I thought it was very important that he said that and said that very clearly.

The other thing I thought was very important, he is asking this Congress to be a partner with him on this. It is so easy to go on these shows and criticize the president -- he hasn't done this, he hasn't done that. Congress has done literally nothing. They've passed not one bill. They've not given him any power or any help.

Once again the president says come with me. Give me my authority. Let's work together.

I hope that after everything we've gone through this past week, someone in Congress will take him up on that. Can we be one country?

And the last thing I want to say is that when you talk about keeping gunning in the conversation, you cannot have a country awash in guns and deal with this problem. That's important. He kept that on the table as well.

BLITZER: Dan Pfeiffer, you also worked for President Obama. You were a senior adviser. He did ask Congress to pass authorization for the use of military force in this new phase in this war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But until now, correct me if I'm wrong, the White House position is he already has that authority. He really wants Congress to do it more for political reasons as opposed to legislative or legal reasons.

Was that your understanding as well?

DAN PFEIFFER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That is correct, Wolf. He has the legal authority to conduct the operations he has been conducting in Iraq and Syria for over a year now. I think there's general agreement from both sides of the aisle that that's the case.

However, it's not just for political cover in the United States. It's not about that at all. It's about sending a message to the world and to the troops in the field that we are united behind this effort as a country. And I think that is important to do. It is really disappointing that Congress has not done it. I left the White House almost a year ago. They had this in front of them five months before I left. They still haven't done it. So it is something they should do.

[20:40:07] And I think the president accomplished his goal tonight, which was to lay -- not to speak to the Washington Press Corps or the pundits around the table here -- to speak to the country, lay out his plan, put the threat in context and talk about some of the things we could do to further harden our defenses and further protect ourselves. That was his goal. That's why he picked this big audience, this big opportunity with a larger audience tonight. Speak to the country, not speak to the punditocracy.

BLITZER: And a lot of members of Congress don't want to have to vote, raise their hands, yay or nay, on that kind of legislation. Recalling the votes, very controversial vote back in November 2002 leading up to the war against Iraq. At that time, a lot of members voting in favor of that authorization only later regretting that vote in favor of that war.

Everyone, stand by.

Much more of CNN's special coverage right after a quick break.


OBAMA: The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.




[20:45:00] OBAMA: Here's what else we cannot do. We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want. ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death.


BLITZER: Leaders from around the world certainly were watching the president's address as they also look for ways to combat ISIS.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent, Clarissa Ward. She's joining us now live from London.

So what's the likely reaction around the world, Clarissa, especially in Europe?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think, Wolf, of course, you're going to hear, you know, people supporting, coming out, leaders saying that they support what the president said. But you're not going to really see much in terms of a major reaction because there was nothing that President Obama said here that deviated from what we've heard him say many times before. He essentially reiterated the U.S.' current strategy for dealing with ISIS.

He talked about continuing bombardment, growing that coalition, hitting ISIS' revenue streams, putting pressure on Turkey to seal that border. He talked, again, about sending that small group of Special Forces onto the ground inside Syria to carry out specifically targeted raids, but he did say once again there would be no boots on the ground.

And, certainly, what he didn't get into as much is how these developments, how these steps or this strategy are going to be implemented in a way that can also have an effect on these sort of home-grown lone wolf attacks.

Just last night in the U.K., Wolf, here in London, a man on the tube or the subway stabbed another man in the throat. He shouted allegedly, you know, this is for Syria. And there's a growing acceptance when I've spoken to intelligence officials here in Europe that somehow this is kind of the new normal, that these types of attacks are really going to be very difficult to predict and very difficult to prevent.

You know, you heard the president also talking about the need of getting the Muslim community involved and certainly here in the U.K., we've seen the U.K. government develop strategies to try to draw on support from the Muslim community. But it's important to remember that often family members of these people don't know that they've been radicalized, let alone broader members of the community and let alone the government.


BLITZER: Clarissa Ward in London for us. Clarissa, thank you.

President Obama also just said that the San Bernardino mass shooting last week is, quote, "an act of terrorism."

We have new developments from the investigation into that deadly attack, which may have been inspired by ISIS. As you know a violent husband and wife team stormed into a holiday celebration and gunned down and killed 14 people.

Until now, we've heard that Syed Farook's wife was responsible largely for radicalizing him, but now there's new information he was also a follower of ISIS ideology.

Law enforcement sources telling CNN that Farook was in touch with people being investigated by the FBI for international terrorism, reaching out by phone as well as on social media.

CNN's Kyung Lah is joining us from San Bernardino, California, right now. She spoke with Syed Farook's father today. Also attended a vigil.

Our Justice correspondent Pamela Brown is here in Washington.

Kyung, the President Obama called what happened in San Bernardino an act of terrorism.

What do you think his words mean to the community there? And you spent a lot of time with the community out in California.

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's set the stage first of what the community of San Bernardino is. Even though it's only about an hour and a half away from Los Angeles, this feels like a whole different world to the people who live here.

This is a community that feels like a much more insular place. It does not feel like an international city, even though it is a very diverse community.

So what I've been hearing over and over again from the people who live here is that they cannot believe that international terrorism, that any sort of ideology of ISIS, might sprout up here. They felt very protected from that outside world.

And for it to come here, to a county health, public health party, a holiday party, it has simply shocked people to the core. What we're seeing are people going to this memorial that has been at a corner. It started off as just one small cross. Now people are dropping candles or having conversations with their children about what ISIS is.

It is something that they never thought they'd have to do. So it is certainly a community, Wolf, that is coming to grips with learning about the world.


BLITZER: And our hearts go out to that community, especially the families who lost loved ones.

Pam, the president said he wants Congress to review the so-called Visa Waiver Program. And he also said at one point that the wife, Tashfeen Malik, she came into the United States under that Visa Waiver Program. Not necessarily precise, right?

[20:50:00] PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It appears, Wolf, that the president misspoke here. As you point out, he said she came into the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program. He ordered a review of the program. But, in fact, she did not. She came from Pakistan, which is not one of the countries that the U.S. has a deal with to have this visa waiver, you know, program available.

And so what actually happened here, Wolf, is she came into the U.S. on what is called a fiancee visa, a K1 visa and she became a conditional resident with a conditional green card just this past summer. So she didn't even fully become a lawful permanent resident. So he misspoke there, but we're hearing that the White House is expected to issue clarification on this matter.


BLITZER: Pamela Brown, thanks very much.

Some final thoughts now, what we heard from the president of the United States.

Jake Tapper, you are carefully reviewing your notes over here. You've had a chance to absorb what we heard tonight in this Oval Office address.

TAPPER: Well, the challenge as we noted at the beginning of the night was that President Obama started this night with poll numbers that showed that the public is not confident of the way he's handling this. 60 percent disapproving of how he's handling terrorism. And this is before the San Bernardino attacks. And 64 percent disapproving his handling of ISIS.

It has gotten so bad as far as the public is concerned that a majority of the American people now favor ground troops in Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS.

Two thoughts. One is, I don't hear any Republicans, many Republicans, I should say, because there are a couple exceptions, calling for ground troops in Iraq and Syria. So it's not just President Obama who's skeptical that that's the right thing to do. It is the Republican candidates who are running for president as well with the few exceptions who also are not putting that on the table.

The other thing is, I didn't hear anything in the speech specifically that addresses the idea that the American people do not think the president is handling this the right way; therefore, President Obama comes and presents a new way or a new strategy or a new way of thinking.

He basically just explained what he's doing now. He mentioned a couple of new items in terms of the Visa Waiver Program review. But there was no major now this is what we're going to do. So either it will work or it will not, but there wasn't anything that reflected the idea that the vast majority of the American people are not confident in what I'm doing; therefore, I'm going to try these new things.

BLITZER: And, Gloria, we also didn't hear the president say one way or the other, whether or not there should be a no-fly zone over Syria. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, she wants a no-fly zone. Several other Republican candidates want a no-fly zone. President said he doesn't want to send U.S. ground troops into Syria, but he didn't really address the whole question of a no-fly zone...

BORGER: No, he didn't.

BLITZER: ...which presumably would protect Syrian refugees and not make them leave that country.

BORGER: Right. I don't think he wanted to get into a foreign policy argument with his own former secretary of state on this point, at this point in the campaign. But also it wasn't that kind of speech, if you will.

I think this is a White House that has been completely frustrated by its own inability -- and maybe Dan Pfeiffer could talk about this -- by its own inability to communicate what they believe is the policy that they have that is gradually working. And so the president had to come out tonight without saying, oh, my strategy is working, but he had to say, OK, this is what we're doing, but this is how we're going to fix it and make it better. That's really a difficult task.

This is someone, a president who came out in August of 2014 and said, we don't have a strategy to deal with ISIS. And from that point, the American public is saying, well, you haven't had a strategy and that's what our poll reflects this evening. I don't think we heard a lot new. I think we heard resolve from the president, which we have not really seen any kind of passion before which I think we saw tonight.

Will that convince the American public that we're safer or that we're going to be safer? I'm not so sure, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, he did -- he did wrap up his speech with these words, John.

He said, "Let's not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear. That we have always met challenges whether war or depression, natural disasters or terrorist attacks, by coming together around our common ideals as one nation, as one people. So long as we stay true to that tradition, I have no doubt America will prevail." An optimistic ending to that speech.

KING: A rally around the flag moment as the president is trying to get a rally around the commander-in-chief moment.

And I think we will know a week or so from now when we look at the public opinion polling that Jake raised earlier -- did the president say anything that can change those numbers? If he can't move those numbers, Wolf, it will tell us something very important.

A second-term president, you get to this point on the calendar, George W. Bush could explain this to you. There was nothing he could do in the last year of his presidency. He had lost the American people. He had lost the Democrats, and then he lost his fellow Republicans.

If President Obama cannot rally the American people, he's already lost the Republicans. The Democrats are skittish and nervous. This could be a very defining moment in the president's political standing, not just on the terrorism/ISIS question, but on the president's political standing at home.

[20:55:10] We don't know the answer to that question yet. We will know a week or so. We do know now moments after the president's speech, he did not change the political conversation.

The Republican presidential candidates are saying this was a bad speech. He told us nothing new. Leading voices from the Republican Party in Congress, on foreign policy issues, John McCain, Tom Cotton, two members of the Senate saying the president is not living in reality.

So we'll see what the American people think. But we can say pretty clearly tonight he did not change the political divide.

BLITZER: Donald Trump's numbers have really gone up in recent weeks. We haven't seen any polls really since San Bernardino, but his numbers might even go up higher as a result of that terror attack in California.

TAPPER: A lot of members of the Republican establishment thought that after the attacks in Paris, that Donald Trump's numbers would soften and people with more executive experience such as governors or senators might have an opportunity to rise in the polls. That's not been the case. And I think one of the reasons that he has done so well in the Republican Party, not the nation as a whole, but the Republican Party and specifically with one core group of the Republican party, is because of his determination on this issue, not in terms of the specifics he offers, but the idea that he thinks he's critical of the rules of engagement that President Obama has been adhering to.

That he's critical of political correctness when it comes to, in his view, fighting this war at home. And that is something that a lot of people don't hear from the other Republican candidates, of course not from President Obama.

BLITZER: But one of the most important things the president did say when he spoke to the American people, indeed to the world, he said most Muslims are not terrorists. We got to -- these are American citizens, they are our friends and we got to make sure that we don't let ISIS divide Muslim-Americans from other Americans.

BORGER: Well, and he also called upon Muslims in this country to talk about this. You know, I think, we -- as Jake was saying earlier, you know, this is something we haven't heard from the president before.

And, I think, you know, this is a president who really wanted to inspire a nation to not go to its fears, but rather to its better angels this evening. And I'm not, you know, he may have done that to a certain degree, but the partisan lines did not move at all.

BLITZER: His statement about Muslims I thought was very significant. I know you'll agree.

TAPPER: Well, he has said before that Muslims around the world, peace-loving Muslims, moderate Muslims, need to do more to quiet and drown out the voices of extremism.

What he did in these remarks that I've not heard him do before was specifically say that it's a real problem and that Muslims in this country and around the world, the emphasis on the United States, need to do more and that is not something that I have heard him say before -- specifically, talking about the American-Muslim community.

BLITZER: John, you're getting some new information as well. KING: Just passed along from our Pamela Brown. And this is stunning when you read it. And it will raise the questions about, can the United States do more, what about this privacy debate? What about cooperation with technology companies?

This is from Pam Brown.

A senior law enforcement official says Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters, looked into contacting terrorist groups overseas like the al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra and al Shabaab. The source did not specify when or how these attempts were made, but working theory among investigator is that his wife was radicalized prior to meeting him.

But, again, an active effort by here in the United States to reach out to these organizations overseas is going to intensify an already pressing debate about the surveillance methods, the communications of the high-technology companies.

And is the United States government as the president tried to assure the American people tonight using every tool at its disposal to find these people?

BLITZER: And the president hinted at that, Jake, when he said that the U.S. has to come up with technology to make sure that these terrorists don't escape from justice. That seemed to be a reference to the encrypted communications they supposedly are using now.

TAPPER: Yes. The debate over the national security agency's mass bulk surveillance program, the debate over encryption and privacy, all of these are going to be big issues on the campaign trail, both within the Republican primary and in the general election. I think we're going to hear them all again. This is almost a reverse moment from what Edward Snowden wrote last year.

BLITZER: Yes, we're going to be getting a lot more information about this so-called footprint from these two terrorists -- Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik.

All right, guys, thanks very much.

Please be sure to stay tuned. This is very important. For a very special CNN television event, "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute."

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This special from CNN will be hosted by Anderson Cooper. You won't want to miss it. That's coming up -- next.

For all of us here in Washington and indeed around the country and around the world, thanks very much for joining us.