Obama appeared in the White House press briefing room for a
year-end news conference shortly before traveling to San Bernardino,
California, where the Dec. 2 shootings took place, to meet privately
with families of the victims en route to spending the holidays in
Obama talked tough about the prospects of defeating Islamic State
militants who control broad swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq
but admitted U.S. law enforcement agencies have limitations in
tracking the threat at home.
"It's not that different from us trying to detect the next mass
shooter. You don't always see it. They're not always communicating
publicly," Obama said.
A day after telling Americans that there is no current credible
militant threat in the United States, Obama said that "lone wolf
plotters" are difficult to track, particularly if they are a husband
and wife like the two radicalized Muslims who killed 14 people in
As for U.S. efforts to track potential attackers, Obama said social
media postings by potential militant suspects are constantly being
reviewed by law enforcement agencies but that private online
communications are far more difficult to track.
He said he believes law enforcement officials have struck the right
balance between privacy concerns and making sure information
gathering is carried out.
But the White House plans to work with tech companies to try to find
ways to "discern more rapidly" potential threats in private
communications, he said.
Concern about terrorism threats has spiked sharply since the Nov. 13
attacks by Islamic State militants in Paris, with more than 30
percent of Americans citing terrorism as the most important problem
facing the United States, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.
The fight against Islamic State militants is likely to hang over the
rest of Obama's presidency, which ends in January 2017.
Obama trod carefully around the subject of how to get Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad to leave power, saying Assad needed to
leave for civil war to cease, but declining to say whether that
would happen in the next year.
Obama has long demanded Assad resign, but no political transition
has ever been agreed upon and Russia's move to defend Assad has
complicated diplomatic efforts to resolve the country's civil war.
Obama has drawn fire on his approach to Syria from Republican
presidential candidates who say he has left a leadership vacuum that
Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to fill.
On the U.S. campaign race to succeed him, Obama confidently
predicted a Democrat will succeed him when he leaves office in
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The president's year-end session with reporters was buoyed by what
he considered solid global accomplishments on climate change, trade
deals, a nuclear deal with Iran, and at home, an improving economy
and a just-completed budget deal with Congress.
As for next year, Obama described a "handful of areas" where
progress could be made in 2016, even though the legislative process
would be "skewed" by election-year politics. He cited a Pacific
trade pact and criminal justice reform as examples.
Obama said his administration is working systematically to reduce
the detainee population at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay,
Cuba, a detention facility he has pledged to close.
Obama said he would attempt to get the Republican-led Congress to
back a plan to close the facility before he considers whether to use
his executive authority to address the issue. Many lawmakers
strongly oppose closing the site.
"I'm not going to automatically assume that Congress says no" to a
plan to close the facility, he said.
Obama sidestepped a question on whether he felt he had the power
through executive action to close the Guantanamo facility and
transfer detainees out of the site.
He said he will wait until Congress has said definitively no to a
plan on closing the facility before he would say "anything
definitive about my executive authority here."
"I'm not going to be forward-leaning on what I can do without
Congress before I've tested what I can do with Congress," Obama
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Eric Walsh and
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