Nationally syndicated radio host, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and MSNBC contributor Michael Smerconish conducted his 7th interview with President Barack Obama – Friday, October 26th 2012 – in the Oval Office.
The discussion aired on The Michael Smerconish Program, which is delivered live between 12-3PM ET weekdays.
The Michael Smerconish Program is broadcast throughout the country, including Philadelphia, Boston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Tampa and Dallas. (The program airs in seven of the nine states that pundits believe will determine the outcome of the election.) In August of 2012, Talkers Magazine named Smerconish the 10th Most Listened to program in the country.
Smerconish was the first radio broadcaster invited to conduct a presidential interview inside the White House after the election of President Obama. He has previously interviewed Barack Obama on the following dates:
March 21st 2008
April 20th 2008
October 9th 2008
August 20th 2009
October 27th 2010
September 30th 2011
Each of these conversations was civil and substantive, covering a wide range of domestic and foreign issues.
Smerconish was a lifelong Republican (and a sub-cabinet level appointee in the Administration of George H.W. Bush), when he broke party ranks in 2008 and endorsed Senator Obama for President. He signaled his decision in a published, 5,000 word essay, explaining that a key factor was his belief that the hunt for bin Laden had been outsourced by the Bush Administration to the Pakistanis. He is now a registered Independent.
Smerconish has previously questioned President Obama extensively on the hunt for bin Laden, including in Pakistan – a focus of Michael’s long before anyone had heard of Abbottobad.
Here are some excerpts from those conversations.
1. March 21st 2008 – Senator Obama told Michael:
“Senator Clinton, Senator McCain and George Bush all suggested I had said something wrong when I said we should be going after bin Laden and high value targets and if we’ve got them in our sights we should ask for Pakistan’s cooperation, we should ask Pakistan to take them out but if they don’t we shouldn’t need permission to go after somebody or folks that killed 3,000 Americans.”
2. Sunday April 20th 2008
Smerconish: Listen, when we were last together you know that I was pleased with what you had to say about redirecting our efforts toward al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Smerconish: And that issue is even more serious today then it was a few weeks ago. New York Times front page Saturday, listen to this, this is the Times talking… they say that there’s a “recurring problem for the White House: that the place where the terrorist threat is most acute is the place where American forces are most restricted from acting.” What’s going to be the approach relative to Pakistan and those tribal regions?
Obama: Well I think what we have to do is first of all establish a relationship with the new government. The problem we’ve got is that we’ve backed Mursharaff so heavily in Pakistan that the incoming democratically elected Parliament there mistrusts us. We’ve got to establish some new relationships, indicate to them that we’re supportive of democracy, but insist that we’ve got to go after these terrorists that it’s a threat to democracy in Pakistan and rule of law in Pakistan and stability in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan and long term threat to America. I’ve been very clear that if we see targets in Pakistan that we can take out with drone missiles and use the predators that have been so effective then I think we’ve got to do so. But, I think what’s clear from the New York Times story and what I’ve learned talking to forces on the ground is that unless we can really pin down some of these Taliban fighters who flee into the Pakistan territories, we’re going to continue to have instability and al Qaeda is gonna continue to have a safe haven and that’s not acceptable.
Smerconish: Are you prepared to stop writing that check if in fact you’re not satisfied…
Obama: Absolutely. Absolutely. Look, Musharaff was receiving billions of dollars and not doing much with it. Now I want to ramp up aid to Pakistan when it comes to building schools that teach math and science instead of hatred of Americans. I want to ramp up aid that helps farmers become self sufficient. I want to make sure that not just in Pakistan, but Afghanistan, people have opportunities to get out of poverty.
When it comes to military aid, we should be propping up Pak military when they’re focused on a possible war with India and ignoring the very immediate and real threat of militants who are in their territories. Our aid has to be in some ways contingent on them making a serious effort.
Smerconish: I’ve had any number of conversations with suburbanites from the Philadelphia suburbs who say “I don’t know, this Obama, I’m concerned he’s going to be weak on the War on Terror because he wants to get us out of Iraq.” And what I’ve tried to explain is that you’re talking about a redirection of effort to go after those who really were responsible for September 11.
Obama: Absolutely! Look, Iraq has been the biggest strategic error that we could have made. I mean, not only have we diverted resources that should have been used to pin down bin Laden and al Qaeda but we’ve actually increased the propaganda of al Qaeda in their ability to recruit terrorists and train them in Iraq. And, I think it’s very important for us to recognize we’ve fallen into a strategic trap, we’ve actually strengthened Iran in the region which is why our allies like Jordan are so concerned. That is something that I’m going to put an end to. We’re going to stabilize Iraq but we’re going to hunt down those terrorist networks that are our biggest strategic threat. And Ambassador Crocker when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee acknowledged as much.
3. October 9th, 2008
Senator Obama acknowledged that as the war in Iraq wound down, the United States also would have to “send a strong message to Pakistan that we can’t tolerate safe havens for bin Laden, where he’s training terrorists to kill Americans. We can’t tolerate it. Now we need to work with Pakistan to dismantle those training camps and kill bin Laden. But if Pakistan is unwilling or unable to take bin Laden out and we have him in our sights, we’ve got to do it.”
4. On August 20th 2009 – Live from the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House and broadcast on the radio, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News.
Smerconish: Mr. President, in each of our prior three conversations, I spoke with you extensively about the need for closure, and we agreed relative to bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. And as a matter of fact, and this is well documented — I’ve written and spoken about it extensively — things that you said during the course of the campaign played a critical role in my personal decision-making pertaining to the 2008 election. So I feel I’d be derelict in my duty if I didn’t come here today and say, where are we? I know we had a major victory recently with the number-one individual for the Taliban in those tribal regions. But pertaining to bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, where is it?
Obama: Well, here’s where we’re at. We are continuing to ramp up the pressure in Afghanistan. And we had a — what appears to be a successful election in Afghanistan despite the Taliban’s effort to disrupt it. You’ve got General McChrystal now over there and more troops who are putting pressure on the eastern and southern portions of Afghanistan.
On the other hand, you’ve got the Pakistani army for the first time actually fighting in a very aggressive way, and that’s how we took out Baitullah Mehsud –
Obama: The top Taliban leader in Pakistan, who was also one of bin Laden’s key allies. So the goal here is essentially to have a pincher where we are squeezing them on both sides, we’re eliminating their allies, it’s making it more difficult for them to communicate, making it more difficult for them to operate safe havens, and over time what we hope to do is to flush them out. We are going to keep on putting pressure on them, and I know that it’s at great cost. I have to sign letters to family members who have fallen and a lot more are falling in Afghanistan than in Iraq. And as a consequence, we’ve got to make sure that we are really focused on finishing the job in Afghanistan, but it’s going to take some time.
5. October 27th 2010 live on MSNBC and immediately re-aired on radio.
Smerconish: As a candidate, sir, you once told me that Pakistan was playing the United States like a violin — is that still the case?
Obama: You know I think we’ve seen over the last 18 months improvement in how Pakistan deals with us. We have seen more cooperation on counter terrorism. They’ve finally started to send their armies up into some of these border regions where al Qaeda and these other extremist organizations are operating.
We have not gotten all the cooperation that we need. Now some of its capacity. Pakistan is not in real good shape right now. They just went though the worst floods they’ve seen in a generation. They are cash strapped. And so, some of that means they are not working as effectively with us as I’d like us to be working with them.
On the other hand if you look at — for example — the pace of pressure we’ve been able to apply to Al Qaeda over this past year with the cooperation of the Pakistani government. We’ve been able to take over a dozen top al Qaeda leaders, hundreds of their key affiliates, they are hunkered down in a way that we haven’t seen in a very long time.
And so we’ve made progress but we still have a long way to go. I just had a meeting last week with a Pakistani delegation including their top general indicating to them that we expect greater cooperation than we’ve been receiving so far.
Smerconish: Is it at a point, sir, where it’s time to send our Special Forces across that Afghan Pakistan border engaged in the hunt of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri?
Obama: Well, I can’t go into details about everything that we’re doing obviously because we’ve got a lot of brave men and women who are already out there and a lot of their work is classified. But I will say that we are ramping up the pressure each and every day and I’m actually confident that the work that General Petraeus is doing on the Afghan side of the border, the cooperation we’ve begun to get from the Pakistanis on their side of the border is starting to have an effect. But as you and I have talked about before — everyday I’ve got a team of some of our best people who are still looking for bin Laden still looking for Zawahiri still focused on making sure that we are defeating and dismantling Al Qaeda once and for all.
Smerconish: On your watch, do you believe that we’ve ever had a line on bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri?
Obama: I think it’s fair to say that by the time I got into office the trail had gone very cold. And we have done a lot of work over the last several years in making sure that we are starting to resuscitate the kinds of leads that would be necessary eventually to get them.
6. September 30th 2011 live on air and on MSNBC
Obama: Even before I was President, during the campaign, I said that if we got a bead on that guy we’re going to go after him wherever he was and that caused controversy at the time
Smerconish: I remember.
Obama: But as you well know: justice demanded it, the safety of the American people demanded it. And you know when I was up at the ceremony for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 seeing all those families and then knowing that justice was done. I think it was a Great testament to wonderful work by our intelligence teams, and of course our Navy SEALS who carried out an incredible operation.