White House: Foley's killing was 'absolutely' a terrorist attack

The killing of American journalist James Foley was "absolutely" a terrorist attack, the White House said Friday.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, briefing reporters from Martha’s Vineyard, said Foley’s beheading by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — and the release of an online video showing the aftermath — was a direct assault on the United States.

"When you see somebody killed in such a horrific way, that represents a terrorist attack against our country and against an American citizen," Rhodes said.

"Clearly, the brutal execution of Jim Foley represented an affront — an attack not just him, but he's an American, and we see that as an attack on our country when one of our own is killed like that," he added.

Rhodes addressed the media the day after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey floated expanding the scope of military action against ISIS into Syria.

"This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated," Dempsey said. "Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no."

Rhodes said President Obama would consider airstrikes against Islamist militants operating in Syria if it were necessary to help protect Americans.

"We’re actively considering what’s going to be necessary to deal with that threat, and we’re not going to be restricted by borders," Rhodes told reporters Friday. "We’ve shown time and again that if there’s a counterterrorism threat, we’ll take direct action against that threat if necessary."

The White House said that the president has not yet been presented with specific military options "outside of those that are carrying out the current missions in Iraq."

"But we would certainly look at what is necessary in the long term to make sure we’re protecting Americans," Rhodes said.

Rhodes said the U.S. is addressing ISIS on both sides of the border, noting U.S. support for the moderate Syrian opposition. He also said the U.S. was enlisting partners in the region to help take the fight to ISIS.

"What we would like to see if those efforts squeeze the space where ISIL operates," Rhodes said, using an alternative abbreviation for the organization.

The willingness of the White House to openly contemplate airstrikes in Syria underscored the extent to which the ISIS execution of the American photojournalist had shifted the calculus for the Obama administration.

The White House said it would consult Congress and communicate with the American people if it decided to expand military operations to include airstrikes in Syria, but said it would be within its legal rights to act. It's possible that the administration could cite a small number of other Americans being held by the group as justification for military action.

"You don't need to be invited in if you're trying to rescue your people from imminent danger," Rhodes said.

At the same time, the White House looked to divorce its long-term objective of eradicating ISIS from its short-term military goals in the region, which have been defined as limited to protecting our personnel and facilities and preventing humanitarian crises.

"It is going to take time, a long time," to fully defeat ISIS, Rhodes said.

The spokesman also emphasized that the president tended toward restraint when confronting international crises.

"The American people understand that this president is very deliberate about the use of force," Rhodes said.