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Steve Contorno
By Steve Contorno September 7, 2014

What Obama said about Islamic State as a 'JV' team

President Barack Obama granted an exclusive sit down to Meet the Press for new host Chuck Todd’s inaugural show.

As expected, Todd and Obama had a long discussion about the administration’s strategy for dealing with Islamic State, the terrorist group responsible for the beheading of two American journalists, with Obama stating "we’re going to defeat them."

Todd then remarked that Obama’s response was a "long way from when you described them as a JV team."

"Was that bad intelligence or your misjudgment?" Todd asked.

"Keep in mind I wasn’t specifically referring to (Islamic State)," Obama replied. "I've said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally, weren’t focused on homeland, because I think a lot of us, when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11."

Is Obama editing his remarks or did Todd misrepresent what Obama said? We decided to take a look.

Critics have maligned Obama’s "JV" remark in recent weeks as the Islamic State continues to wreak havoc throughout Syria and Iraq. The origin of the comment is a New Yorker profile of Obama by editor David Remnick. The New Yorker published Remnick’s profile on Jan. 27, 2014. In it, he wrote, "In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been ‘decimated.’ I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Fallujah, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too."

Obama responded: "The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant." (For the nonsports fan, JV stands for junior varsity, and it usually means a high school or college's secondary team.)

Remnick confirmed to PolitiFact that the interview took place on Jan. 7 and he was referencing a specific event that had happened just days before: the overtaking of the Iraq city of Fallujah on Jan. 3.

At the time, Islamic State (often referred to as by its acronyms ISIS or ISIL) was not a household name. It was often referred to as an al-Qaeda-linked group in press reports. But reports from the time clearly indicate that the group was responsible for taking over the city.

Al Jazeera America reported on Jan. 4: "On Friday, ISIL gunmen sought to win over the population in Fallujah, one of the cities they swept into on Wednesday. A commander appeared among worshippers holding Friday prayers in the main city street, proclaiming that his fighters were there to defend Sunnis from the government, one resident said.

" ‘We are your brothers from the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant,’ gunmen circulating through the city in a stolen police car proclaimed through a loudspeaker. ‘We are here to protect you from the government. We call on you to cooperate with us.’ "

Officials within the Iraqi government told the "Agence France-Presse that ISIL, the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, remained in control of parts of the two cities on Thursday," according to NBC.

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So when Remnick referenced an al Qaeda group taking over Fallujah, it’s clear whom he was talking about.

On Aug. 25, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest claimed Obama’s comment was being taken out of context and that the "president was not singling out" Islamic State in that interview, but rather Islamic extremist groups in general.

The Washington Post Fact-Checker compared that with the previously unreleased transcript and gave Earnest’s comment four Pinocchios, his worst rating. (For what it’s worth, Remnick told PolitiFact that the Post fact-check "got it right.")

A transcript of the conversation provided to the Post (and verified by Remnick) also confirms as much.

Remnick:  "You know where this is going, though. Even in the period that you’ve been on vacation in the last couple of weeks, in Iraq, in Syria, of course, in Africa, al-Qaeda is resurgent."

Obama:  "Yes, but, David, I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian."

Remnick: "But that JV team just took over Fallujah."

Obama:  "I understand.  But when you say took over Fallujah –"

Remnick:  "And I don’t know for how long."

Obama:  "But let’s just keep in mind, Fallujah is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology is a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into."

This pretty much leaves no doubt. Obama may not have specifically said Islamic State, but it’s clear he was talking about them. Remnick was referencing events in Syria and Iraq, particularly the takeover of Fallujah, which was conducted by Islamic State, and Obama referred to the group responsible for that as "a JV team."

Our ruling

Obama said his JV comment "wasn’t specifically referring to ISIL." He was not specifically asked about Islamic State, but it’s pretty clear this is the group that was being referenced in the conversation. The transcript backs this up, as do news events from the time of the discussion.

We rate the statement False.

Our Sources

Meet the Press, "President Barack Obama's Full Interview With NBC's Chuck Todd," Sept. 7, 2014

New Yorker, "Going the Distance," Jan. 27, 2014

Email interview with David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, Sept. 7, 2014

Washington Post Fact Checker, "Spinning Obama’s reference to Islamic State as a ‘JV’ team," Sept. 3, 2014

Al Jazeera America, "Iraq loses control of Fallujah to Al-Qaeda-linked group," Jan. 4, 2014

NBC News, "Al Qaeda-linked forces capture town of Fallujah in Iraq," Jan. 3, 2014

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What Obama said about Islamic State as a 'JV' team

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