CNN reporter Jim Sciutto challenged the White House's refusal to characterize U.S. troops deployed to Iraq and Syria as having "combat" roles, arguing they certainly appeared to have combat elements to their missions and President Obama had given an impression to the American people that they would never have one.
Spokesman Josh Earnest, during a briefing that focused on the news that the Obama administration is deploying special operations forces to Syria, repeatedly insisted they would be in "advise" and "train" roles to help local opposition fighters battle the Islamic State terror group.
"I think we've been quite specific about what our strategy is," Earnest said. "We have shown a desire to intensify our efforts behind those elements of our strategy that have shown the most promise. Building the capacity of local forces, particularly in northern Syria, has shown some promise, and this a further intensification of those efforts."
Sciutto asked Earnest to elaborate on what exactly their training, advising, and assisting local forces would entail.
"Are they going to be involved in some raids in northern Syria, potentially?" Sciutto asked.
"The role that they will have is to offer training, to offer advice, and to offer some assistance to local opposition fighters on the ground in Syria who are taking the fight to ISIL in their own country," Earnest said.
"This president, this White House, the officials here at this White House repeatedly, over and over again, made it clear to the American people that there would be no combat role for U.S. troops fighting ISIS," Sciutto said. "That appears to be changing. Not only is there this announcement that you're talking about today, which you say they won't be involved in a combat role but you're not ruling out the possibility that they may be involved in some sort of combat operation, but on the Iraq side, you have Pentagon officials saying, 'We're in combat.'"
Give us "a moment of clarity," Sciutto asked, and acknowledge the mission has changed.
"To say that, Jim, would only confuse the situation," Earnest said. "The fact of the matter is the mission that the commander-in-chief has given our military personnel in Iraq and now in Syria is a train, advise and assist mission, and we have gone to great lengths to make clear that in no way diminishes the amount of risk that our men and women in uniform will be facing."
"You're denying that at the onset of this military operation against ISIS that the impression was not given to the American people that there would not be a combat role," Sciutto asked? "At the onset of this, I think any rational person would conclude that the impression was given to the American people that there would not be a combat mission. It now appears there are going to be occasions, from time to time, where there will be a combat element to what U.S. troops are doing in Iraq and Syria. You're saying that's not the case?"
Earnest dodged the question by invoking differences between the Obama and Bush administrations, saying Obama "went to great lengths" to tell the American people that the strategy against Islamic State would be "substantially different" than the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"That difference existed then, and that difference exists today," Earnest said. "The president has been quite clear about the fact that they do not have a combat mission. They have a training, advising and assist mission. That does mean that our men and women in uniform are going to be in harm's way."
Sciutto invoked the raid in Iraq last week where Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler was killed as an example of a combat role for U.S. troops. Earnest said those troops were in an "advise role."
"So when you're in an advice role, there is the potential for something like this to occur, where they may have to engage people in harm's way. That's reality," Sciutto said.
"That's already happened," Earnest said.