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Obama Pledges to Battle ISIS, Shutter Gitmo in Last Year in Office

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the Brady Press briefing room at the White House, in Washington, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the Brady Press briefing room at the White House, in Washington, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In his last White House press conference of the year, President Barack Obama on Friday said the U.S. is making progress against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and reiterated his determination to shut down Guantanamo Bay detention center, which he called a major propaganda and recruitment tool for the terrorists.

Obama also emphasized that he will not be letting up on these and other actions he has pushed over the past seven years. As he heads into his final year in the White House, Obama said he has "never been more optimistic about the year ahead than I am right now.

"And in 2016 I'm going to leave it out all on the field," he said.

Obama, who has attempted to close Guantanamo since he took office in 2009, only to be thwarted by Republicans in Congress,  said closing the facility is important in the fight against extremists, and that he would like lawmakers to work with him to do it.

The president would not say whether he believes he already has the executive authority to do it.

"We will wait until Congress has definitely has said no to a well thought out plan with numbers attached with numbers attached to it before we say anything definite about my executive authority," he said. "I think it's preferable if I can get stuff done with Congress.

"Guantanamo continues to be one of the key magnets for jihadi recruitment," Obama said. "This is part of what they teach -- this notion of a gross injustice, that America is not living up to its professed ideals. We know that. We see the Internet traffic. We see how Guantanamo has been used to create this mythology that America is at war with Islam. "For us to close it is part of our counterterrorism strategy, that is supported by our military, our diplomatic and our intelligence teams," he said. It's also expensive, holding "only a handful of people, and each person is costing several million dollars to detain when there are more efficient ways of doing it," he said.

So far, Congress has withheld funds necessary to shut down the base, where the U.S. has held and in some cases tortured prisoners over the past 14 years.

Referring to the ongoing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Obama said the U.S.-led coalition has made progress, especially in Iraq, where the jihadist force has lost about 40 percent of the area it did one year ago. The air campaign continues to kill its leadership in Iraq and Syria, he said.

Obama conceded that while hitting the terrorist group hard in Iraq and Syria will make it more difficult for it to "pump their terror and propaganda to the rest of the world," the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, earlier this month proves "we have to remain vigilant."

Obama, who leaves Friday to spend the holidays in Hawaii, will stop in San Bernardino on the way out to visit with families of those killed in the Dec. 2 attack.

He said the country's counterterrorism, homeland security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies "are working 24/7 to protect our homeland, and all of us can do our part by staying vigilant, by saying something if we see something that is suspicious, by refusing to be terrorized, and by staying united as one American family."

Obama also touched on the growing debate over federal surveillance of social media, including Facebook and Twitter. Many lawmakers are demanding increased authority and ability to monitor social media postings and communications, pointing to claims that the woman in the San Bernardino shooting reportedly pledged her allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi around the time of the attack.

Tashfeen Malik supposedly made the posting on Facebook under a different name, but then deleted it.

Earlier this week, however, FBI Director James B. Comey said the Malik's talk of jihad occurred in "direct, private messages" and not on a publicly viewable Facebook page.

Obama told reporters Friday that law enforcement and intelligence agencies "are constantly monitoring public posts," noting that it also part of the visa review process used by Malik to enter the U.S.

"But if you have a private communication between two individuals, that's harder to discern," he said. "So we'll be engaging with the high-tech community to find out in an appropriate way how to do a better job, if we have a lead, to track a suspected terrorist. But we're going to have to recognize that no government is going to have the capacity to read every single person's text or email of social media. If it's not posted publicly there are going to be feasibility issues that are probably insurmountable at some level."

Recalling prior debates over what the government should be able to access, and whether government was "becoming too much like Big Brother," Obama said the U.S. has struck the right balance between security and protecting civil liberties.

--Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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