THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
September 30, 2014
BY PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:38 P.M. EDT
- EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. Apologize for the late start. We were delayed a little bit by that spray. Before we get to your questions, let me do a little piece of news here at the top.
In an email that some of you may have seen, and that was sent to the White House email list earlier this afternoon, Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer announced that the President will deliver remarks Thursday at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. The speech will make a forceful case for American strength and leadership at home. The President will highlight the progress we’ve made building a new foundation for the American economy — recovering faster than almost any advanced nation — and underscore the steps we need to take to continue our progress and ensure that more middle-class families feel that progress in their own lives.
The President will continue to discuss these urgent priorities in the days and weeks ahead. And I can announce here that the President will travel to Millennium Steel in Princeton, Indiana, this Friday, as part of a nationwide manufacturing day to highlight this broader strategy.
So some interesting events to look forward to at the end of this week.
Jim, let’s start with some questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. Frankly, we’re surprised you’re not wearing a Chiefs or Royals hat. (Laughter.)
- EARNEST: I’m trying to show my Royals pride with my blue and white tie today. So it’s a very exciting day in Kansas City — obviously a historic one — the first playoff baseball game in Kansas City in almost 30 years. So I will be staying up late to watch tonight.
Q I wanted to ask you about the Secret Service. Does the President believe that the Secret Service misled the public and Congress by not initially revealing how far the intruder got that Friday night?
- EARNEST: Jim, it’s the responsibility of the Secret Service to conduct an investigation into what exactly happened on the night of the incident in question. As has been publicly reported, Mr. Gonzalez jumped the fence in front of the North Lawn of the White House and entered the White House.
This is a subject that the Secret Service has been reviewing since the night that his occurred. And it is their responsibility to make decisions about what information is collected, what information has been locked down, and what information should be — can be properly revealed to the public. Obviously, there is sensitive information that comes up in the context of this review that relates directly to security measures that are in place here at the White House and around the President. Not all of those details can be discussed publicly. But it is their responsibility to determine, as this investigation is ongoing, what can and should be revealed to the public.
Now, let me say two more things about that. The first is, it is my view that it is in the interest of the agency in question and all of you for the information to be accurate and released as soon as possible. There is legitimate public interest in this matter because it relates to the safety and security of the Commander-in-Chief.
Separately, the second thing I would point out, is that the Director of the United States Secret Service testified under oath, before Congress today, on live television, relating what she knew to be the case based on her current understanding of what occurred. Much of that information was drawn from the review that has been ongoing for 10 days or more now.
So that is the status as things sit now, but there’s an ongoing investigation that’s still underway. And while you heard some additional details from Director Pierson today, I’m confident that as more — as investigators continue to do their work, there’s likely to be more information that they uncover that they’re able to lock down. That is why once this investigation has been completed, it will be easier to discuss the facts about what exactly occurred. It also will be the responsibility of the Secret Service to release the results of that review that can be released.
Again, we are talking about highly sensitive information — in some cases, it’s even classified — because it relates directly to the security protocols in place to protect the President and the White House. But there are results of this review that can be released to the public, and we would expect them to do so.
Q You’ve described the President’s reaction as “obviously concerned.” I’m wondering whether once he realized how far Gonzalez got into the building, whether his reaction was a little bit beyond simply “concerned.”
- EARNEST: I wouldn’t do any more to characterize the reaction of the President than I already have. As you point out, based on a short conversation I did have with him more than a week ago, he did relay that he was obviously concerned about this situation as a parent and as a father who is raising two young women here in this building.
But that said, the President does continue to have confidence in the men and women of the Secret Service to perform their very difficult task with professionalism and with the kind of dedication that you would expect.
Q Reports today that Gonzalez was apprehended by an off-duty Secret Service officer. Or can you confirm that?
- EARNEST: I’m not in a position to confirm those kinds of details. Again, there is an ongoing investigation into this, and the circumstances of his apprehension are part of that investigation. And once the Secret Service is in a position to release more information about that at the conclusion of the investigation, I would anticipate that they will do so.
Q You mentioned the economic speech. The President’s job approval on the economy is low. Does the President think that by talking about this he can change public opinion? And is this essentially the beginning of closing arguments for the fall campaign?
- EARNEST: I would characterize the President’s remarks primarily as an effort to highlight what his priorities are. The President has talked a lot, particularly in recent weeks, about how his number one responsibility as the President of the United States and as the Commander-in-Chief is to ensure the safety and security of the U.S. homeland and to protect our interests around the globe.
When it comes to his domestic priorities, the President’s top domestic priority is putting in place policies that will strengthen the economy for middle-class families and to ensure that middle-class families are positioned to enjoy the benefits of the progress that we have made in coming back from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
So this has been at the top of the President’s agenda since his first day in office. Part of the President’s speech will include the tremendous progress that we have made so far in coming back from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. As Mr. Pfeiffer noted in his email earlier today, the United States and our economy is recovering faster than almost any other advanced nation in the world. That’s a testament to the President’s leadership. It’s a testament to the courage that the President demonstrated in putting in place some policies that in the short term were politically unpopular, but over the long term have created an environment that has allowed for this strong economic recovery to take place.
At the same time, the President is very mindful of the fact, as he mentioned in his interview with “60 Minutes” over the weekend, that too many Americans in the middle class aren’t feeling the benefits of that economic recovery. And we need to have a discussion about what that recovery has looked like, and what additional policies can we put in place to ensure that we are doing the kinds of things that will grow our economy from the middle out.
The President believes that’s the only sustainable way that we can ensure that we have a strong economy in this country; that it doesn’t grow — that our economy does not grow from the top down, but it grows in the most sustained fashion when we’re investing in the middle class and growing the economy from the middle out.
That was a rather long answer to your question. The President will have something more articulate to say about this in the speech on Thursday, so I would encourage you to tune in then.
Q Is there a particular reason he’s going to Chicago to deliver that economic message? Or is it just because he happens to be there for other reasons?
- EARNEST: The President will be delivering his remarks at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. This is one of the top business schools in the country and is an appropriate venue for a serious speech about America’s economy.
Q Secondly, I wanted to ask, when did the President find out how far the intruder got into the White House? Like, most of us found out yesterday, but did he know ahead at that point? When did he find out how far the person had been in?
- EARNEST: The President has gotten a couple briefings on this matter beginning shortly after the incident occurred, about 10 days or so ago. I’m not going to be in a position to detail the contents of those individual briefings or updates or conversations that the President has had on this topic, but the President did receive a number of updates the weekend after this incident occurred. And you’ll recall that at the end of last week the President asked the Director of the Secret Service to come to the White House and give him an in-person briefing in the Oval Office on this matter and update him on the review that is currently underway.
But as it relates to the details of those conversations, I won’t get into that from the podium here.
Q And as you said, the incident took place 10 days ago or more now. What is the timeline that the Secret Service has given to the White House for the review?
- EARNEST: I don’t have a timeline to share with you, but I’d refer you to the Secret Service who may be able to provide additional information about that.
Let me just restate a principle that I articulated to Jim earlier, which is that we do believe that there’s a common interest that exists between all of you, those of us here at the White House that work directly for the President, and the officials at the Secret Service to provide accurate information as soon as possible to the American public. There is a legitimate public interest in this matter, and that is why officials at the Secret Service are conducting this investigation with a sense of urgency.
Let’s move around a little bit. Justin.
Q In The Washington Post report yesterday, they also said that a notification box inside the White House had been muted or turned off at request of the usher. So I’m wondering if President Obama or any member of the First Family had asked the usher or asked the Secret Service to mute that box.
- EARNEST: Justin, again, this relates to the security protocols that are in place here at the White House to protect the President, the First Family and the White House itself. The security protocols that have been in place, and were in place the night of this incident, is the subject of this review. And I’m confident that what is found — that is if it found in this review that some reforms to these protocols need to be implemented, that they will recommend doing so, and the President has confidence in senior officials at the Secret Service to implement the reforms that are necessary to ensure the safety and security of the President and the First Family.
Q Representative Chaffetz today during Director Pierson’s testimony on Capitol Hill called for an independent review on the matter. Obviously, Congress can do what they want, but I’m wondering if there’s any talk within the administration of bringing in an outside agency like the FBI to look at the Secret Service, since we’ve had a pattern of problems with the Secret Service and there’s legitimate questions about I guess the leadership of the agency and their ability to kind of successfully —
- EARNEST: Well, I’d say that — I mean, the fact that the Director of the Secret Service herself testified under oath before Congress just 10 days after this incident occurred indicates a commitment on the part of Secret Service leadership to get to the bottom of what exactly happened and to try to communicate clearly with the American public about what occurred.
I mean, the other thing that is notable to me, as I was watching some of the testimony, is that she took responsibility both for what happened and for ensuring that it never happens again. And I think that is a testament to her leadership and her commitment to this job.
So the Secret Service is cooperating with this congressional review of the matter, and I think that is an indication of their commitment to considering perspectives from even outside the building for reforming the Secret Service in a way that strengthens the security around the President and around the White House.
But as it relates to any sort of separate investigation, I don’t have anything on that for you.
Q And I just wanted to go back on one last thing. This incident occurred shortly after the President left for Camp David, and that was kind of a late announcement. And we know that some members of the First Family went with the President to Camp David, and also that it was immediately before the U.N. Summit. So I’m wondering, did the President meet with any either senior staff members, congressional members, or foreign leaders while he was a Camp David?
- EARNEST: Not that I know of, no. No. Let’s move around a little. Emel.
Q Thank you, Josh. Today, new Afghan government agreed to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States. How will the U.S. strategy be shaped after this agreement? Second, do you think this new Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, a close friend to Karzai, will take some tangible steps on peace talks with the Taliban?
- EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that the United States congratulates Afghanistan on signing today in Kabul a bilateral security agreement. This agreement comes after nearly two years of hard work by negotiating teams on both sides. The bilateral security agreement represents an invitation from the Afghan government to strengthen the relationship that has been built between the United States and Afghanistan over the past 13 years, and provides our military servicemembers the necessary legal framework to carry out two separate critical missions after the end of this year. The first mission is targeting the remnants of al Qaeda, and the second is training, advising and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces.
The signing of the BSA also reflects the implementation of the Strategic Partnership Agreement that our two governments signed in May of 2012.
The other development that you didn’t mention that is also significant is that Afghan and NATO officials also signed the NATO Status of Forces Agreement, giving forces from allies and partner countries the legal protections necessary to carry out NATO Operation Resolute Support when ISAF comes to an end later this year.
These agreements follow a historic Afghan election in which the Afghan people exercised their right to vote and ushered in the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in their nation’s history. The BSA reflects our continued commitment to support the new Afghan unity government, and we look forward to working with this new government to cement an enduring partnership that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability, unity and prosperity, and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al Qaeda and its extremist affiliates.
As it relates to the policies that President Ghani will pursue, we obviously value the strong working relationship that the United States has with the people of Afghanistan and their elected government, but ultimately the kinds of decisions about the policies they’ll pursue will be the responsibility of the elected leaders of that country.
Q You said earlier that the President continues to have confidence in the men and women of the Secret Service. Does that extend to Director Pierson?
- EARNEST: Absolutely.
- EARNEST: Well, I think for a couple of reasons. The first is, what we saw was a willingness that she demonstrated in testifying before Congress, under oath, on live television today — a commitment to leading an agency with a very difficult mission. She is somebody who took responsibility for the incident that occurred about 10 days ago. She also took responsibility for ensuring that the necessary reforms were implemented to ensure it never happens again. That is a sign of leadership.
At the same time, it’s also important to recognize how complicated the mission of the Secret Service is. While they are responsible for protecting the First Family and the President, they’re also responsible for protecting the 18-acre complex that constitutes the White House. And they have to do that on the doorstep of Lafayette Park, which is a significant historical place where individuals express their First Amendment rights pretty freely. This is also a facility that is visited by hundreds of people a day who work here on a daily basis.
So me and my colleagues come through the White House gates every day; you and your colleagues come through the White House gates every day. And there’s a responsibility that the men and women of the Secret Service to both allow you regular access to the building while at the same time trying to keep you and the building safe.
They also have a responsibility for allowing the American public to have access to the building. Just today, thousands of people toured this building as the seat of government here in the nation’s capital and as the residence of the American President.
So it’s not just a matter of trying to figure out how can we harden the White House to deter attacks. It’s also a matter of ensuring that the public can continue to have access to a building that we proudly refer to as the People’s House.
Q A couple of the questioners suggested that lethal force be used regularly to deter fence-jumpers and anyone who wants to intrude the White House. Director Pierson said in the incident under scrutiny that restraint was showed, she’s going to investigate that, but didn’t appear to question that restraint. Where does the White House come down on this question of what kind of force should be applied to catch and deter potential intruders?
- EARNEST: Well, this isn’t really a matter for the White House to micromanage here. There is a specific policy that’s in place that gives discretion to law enforcement officers to use lethal force where necessary within the confines of the law to perform their responsibilities. So that is discretion that is given to the Secret Service officers.
Q The White House is not a disinterested party in this.
- EARNEST: Of course not. Absolutely not.
Q But you defer entirely the operation to the Secret Service?
- EARNEST: Well, it is obviously the responsibility of law enforcement officers here to exercise their own discretion — these are professionals — to make decisions about how to best protect the White House. And that means having the authority within the confines of the law to use lethal force where necessary to do so.
Q To the satisfaction of the White House, was the Secret Service truthful about its initial declaration that this fence-jumper was captured inside the doors of the North Portico? Is that a satisfactory answer?
- EARNEST: The answer that was given by the Director of the Secret Service today at the congressional hearing is an indication of their commitment to —
Q But that came after things were disclosed that they did not release about what happened in this case that was known for days.
- EARNEST: Well, Major —
Q Based on the level of candor this White House is comfortable with.
- EARNEST: Based on my reading of the initial news report of this matter that was published yesterday afternoon, the information that was gleaned from that story was provided by officers or by officials at the Secret Service to congressional sources in advance of the independent oversight hearing that was conducted earlier today. So this is —
Q So that’s good enough for you.
- EARNEST: This is a commitment, or a demonstration of a commitment by the Secret Service to work with legitimate congressional oversight to be transparent about what exactly occurred, and to be forthright with the American public because of the legitimate public interest that they have in understanding security threats to the President and to the White House.
Q I’m going to anticipate you saying you’re not a lawyer. I’m not a lawyer, so let’s stipulate that. (Laughter.)
- EARNEST: Okay.
Q But it appears that this intruder had some kind of interaction, possibly of a violent nature, with one federal agent inside the executive mansion. That is, to my understanding in the reading of federal law, a chargeable offense. There was no charge filed about that. And one question that instantly arises from that is, that charge was not filed to keep from the public just how far this intruder got? Because, inevitably, if those charges had been filed, everyone would have asked, well, what happened inside the executive mansion? Are you comfortable with a scenario in which a charge is not filed that appears to be valid, and one explanation for that would be to cover up exactly what happened inside the mansion?
- EARNEST: I have complete confidence in the ability of the U.S. attorney here in the District of Columbia to fully prosecute this individual who has been charged with a crime. And the decisions about what to charge, about the charges with which — the decisions about which charges to file against this individual are made by career prosecutors, and that is as it should be.
And I have confidence in the ability of those career prosecutors to bring this individual to justice.
Q Last question. Steven Horsford, Democrat from Nevada, said the President shouldn’t be distracted and worried about his safety in the White House. Is the President, A, distracted, or, B, worried about his safety or the safety of his family in this White House?
- EARNEST: Well, as I think I relayed to you, the President articulated his concern about the incident that occurred 10 days ago. But at the same time, the President retains full confidence in the men and women of the Secret Service to do their very important work, which includes as their top priority protecting the Commander-in-Chief, the First Family and the White House.
Q He’s not distracted or worried?
- EARNEST: He’s got full confidence in those professionals to do their job.
Q Josh, I want to ask you a question — a couple questions on the Secret Service. Is there a concern within this White House that when the President leaves that there is a little bit more of a relaxed attitude with the Service when the President goes away to maybe Camp David or somewhere else? That the Service is not as attentive as they are when he is here?
- EARNEST: I see what you’re getting toward, and I think this is a legitimate line of inquiry, right? The question is —
Q It’s a question —
- EARNEST: But I think it’s a legitimate one. The question that you’re essentially asking is, was the fact that the First Family was not at home — did that have any bearing on the response by the Secret Service to this breach of the perimeter fence? This is among the things that will be part of the review that the Secret Service is conducting. They are taking a careful look at the immediate response to the breach of the perimeter fence. And so I’ll reserve judgment here and defer to the experts who are taking a careful look at this. ]
And again, to the extent that the Secret Service can release the results of this report, there will obviously be some aspects of the report that will not be released. But to the extent that they’re able to do so, they’ll do that once the investigation has been completed.
Q Now, the Secret Service says that they’re trying to find out how this jumper successfully got over the fence and made it so far into the White House. Was the President told himself how the jumper successfully got in and made it all the way in?
- EARNEST: The President in the immediate aftermath of this incident was briefed by senior officials here at the White House. And at the end of last week, the President received a detailed in-person briefing in the Oval Office from the Director of the Secret Service. I won’t get into the content of that briefing, but this is a subject about which the President has expressed his obvious concern. And this is a topic that he has spoken directly to the top official of the Secret Service about.
Q Understanding that there are about 10 gate-jumpers a month around here that don’t get publicity that this one did —
- EARNEST: I don’t think that’s accurate, actually.
Q Well, I got it from Ed Donovan.
- EARNEST: I think that in the testimony today they indicated there had been six this year, so I’d refer you to — I’d encourage you to go back and check with him.
Q Okay, well, this is what Ed Donovan told me on the record. Well, moving on that from that, since you’re refuting that —
- EARNEST: Well, no, I’m just saying what I saw publicly is different than what you’re conveying here. So I’d encourage you to check back with Mr. Donovan because I’m confident that he will be as forthright with you as he can and I want to make sure that that information that you’re presenting to your readers is accurate.
Q Just for the record, he says, for your guidance, we get about 10 gate-callers a month.
- EARNEST: Ten gate what?
Q Callers, jumpers — something like that.
- EARNEST: Well, so I think there’s an important difference there, right? Here is the thing, right — we’re having this conversation because we care about the details that are related to the President’s security. And so “gate-callers” is something that’s very different than gate — than individuals who are jumping the fence.
Q Okay, well, tell me what it is then.
- EARNEST: Well, I’m sure Mr. Donovan can give a more detailed explanation than I can; it’s obviously his responsibility. But there are individuals who do appear at the Northwest Gate saying that they have arrived at the White House to attend a meeting with the President of the United States. Occasionally, about 10 times a month, these are individuals that don’t, in fact, have a meeting with the President of the United States. That’s different. (Laughter.) That’s different than an individual who jumps over the fence.
Q It’s like all of us. (Laughter.)
- EARNEST: There were a few today. (Laughter.)
Q Twice in August. (Laughter.)
Q But I want to get back to the question I wanted to ask.
- EARNEST: Yes, ma’am.
Q Is there a concern within this White House that from the testimony from Pierson today that — and just the exchange back and forth — that there is a problem within the Secret Service about communication — that the Secret Service who are actually active duty, who are working the events and working this house, feel that they cannot communicate with their supervisors and are now telling, in whispered calls or what have you, to members on the Hill? Is there concern about that?
- EARNEST: Well, this is — I will say that the administration is strongly supportive of the efforts by officials at the Secret Service to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. And if that includes a broader review of everything from security protocols to technology that’s deployed to protect the White House, to even a review of what kinds of communications protocols exist between frontline officers and more senior officers at the Secret Service, all of that should be considered.
And the Secret Service has indicated that they’re going to conduct — that they’re going to cast a pretty wide net as they conduct this review, and they should. And as they get to the conclusion of that review, I think you can expect that at least some of the results of that review — those results that can be made public will be, so that you and members of the public can evaluate the conclusions that they have drawn from an incident that has drawn legitimate public interest.
Q Josh, when the President was briefed by Director Pierson on Thursday, did she offer her resignation?
- EARNEST: She did not.
Q Back to the question of what the Secret Service told the public. I want to pin this down if I can. They were very specific, saying that the assailant, “was physically apprehended after entering the White House North Portico doors.” You don’t think that was an accurate, fully responsive statement, do you?
- EARNEST: Well, I would defer to the Director of the Secret Service. She testified before Congress earlier today about this matter. She is somebody who has access to the —
Q No, I listened to her testimony and she described how the assailant actually got through the North Portico doors, got through into the White House, into the East Room and all the way over to the door at the Green Room on the south side of the White House, the other side of the White House — so in other words, made it all the way through the White House and was not apprehended at the North Portico doors. So I’m just asking — it seems kind of an obvious question — it’s not accurate to say that this assailant was apprehended at the North Portico doors, is it? That’s not an accurate statement.
- EARNEST: What is accurate is — or what I would have confidence is accurate is the testimony of the Director of the Secret Service. So she was under oath. She is somebody who is privy to the ongoing investigation into what exactly happened and what the Secret Service response was to this specific incident.
What you’re highlighting here I think is the inherent tension, particularly in these high-stakes situations, between the need for locking down facts and ensuring accuracy, and acting as quickly as possible to disseminate information to the public about incidents that have a legitimate public interest.
And there’s always an inherent tension in this. And that is part of the job of journalists like you, is to assess this information that’s coming in — particularly information that’s related to a chaotic circumstance — and figure out what’s accurate, what isn’t, what should be reported, what isn’t.
Q But we —
- EARNEST: This is difficult work — let me finish this part of it. This is why, or at least this highlights why — even in the context of a series of questions that I got from this podium last week about the incident — that I declined to talk about specific facts related to the investigation.
I am not privy to the ongoing investigation that’s being conducted by the Secret Service. I have had conversations with senior officials of the Secret Service, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of that agency to get to the bottom of what exactly happened and then act as quickly as possible to disseminate accurate information on this matter that is the subject of legitimate public interest.
Q Right. And I understand what you were doing, to be specific, is you were referring our questions to the Secret Service, which was entirely appropriate. It doesn’t take an investigation to know that the man got all the way through the White House and was knocked down and apprehended at the door to the Green Room on the south side of the building, not at the front door. You don’t need an investigation to know that. And the Secret Service put out a statement to us — and as reporters we have to take that statement — and this is official word — the statement was at best misleading, inaccurate. Did you at that time, when you were referring the question to the Secret Service, did you know how misleading and inaccurate that statement was?
- EARNEST: What I knew was that there was an ongoing investigation to determine what exactly had happened. And that is why I was reluctant and continue to be reluctant to get ahead or comment on specific facts that are the subject of scrutiny by law enforcement professionals.
We’ve got an ongoing investigation by the Secret Service into the incident itself. We have an ongoing investigation by the U.S. attorney here in the District of Columbia into the conduct of Mr. Gonzalez, who allegedly jumped the fence. We have an investigation by the Secret Service into the response by the Secret Service to this breach of the perimeter fence.
So there’s a whole confluence of individuals who are conducting a thorough review of this matter. So it’s not surprising that, given those different viewpoints, given the very chaotic nature of what allegedly occurred, that there might be some conflicting pieces of information that are floating out there. And it is in the interest of this White House and my office to work closely with agencies and with the Secret Service, in this case, to disseminate as soon as possible accurate information about what exactly occurred. And that is what explains my own reluctance to comment on these facts that are still subject to an investigation by law enforcement professionals.
Q Okay. So just two more quick ones. I know you have essentially been asked this, but can you give me — when the President was briefed on this right after it happened, during the weekend, did he know how far into the White House Mr. Gonzalez had gotten?
- EARNEST: The President has had a couple of —
Q He’s had two briefings.
- EARNEST: Yes, he’s had a couple of conversations about this, both in terms of briefings that he has had with senior White House officials. There have been conversations between White House officials and members of the Secret Service. And then the President had his own face-to-face sit-down with the Director of the Secret Service at the end of last week. So there have been some conversations that have taken place as it relates to this ongoing investigation.
Q But did he know in the beginning how far — how serious this was, that he had gotten all the way in?
- EARNEST: I’m just not in the position to detail what sort of — to detail the content of the conversations that occurred with the President on this matter.
Q And then my last is a philosophical question — an ethical question — is there ever an excuse to mislead the public? If there’s a security reason, if telling the full truth would jeopardize security, is there ever, from your perspective — somebody who every day briefs the public from that podium — is it ever okay to say something that is misleading or not true if that is in effect — telling the truth or the full truth would actually jeopardize security?
- EARNEST: You’re asking a hypothetical question that’s a tricky one, but I’m going to do my best to answer it. And I think I’ll answer it by saying it this way: That I have worked here at the White House for almost six years now, and I have never encountered a scenario in which I believe that it was appropriate to say something misleading to you or to anybody in the public for any reason including any security reason.
There are obviously situations in which there’s information that’s not disclosed to ensure the safety of the President or the White House or American personnel operating around the globe. But I have not in my nearly six years here at the White House encountered a situation where I concluded that it was appropriate to mislead anybody for any reason, including any security reason.
Q It sounds like the President may not have known how far this individual got into the White House when he initially said he had full confidence in the Secret Service. Can you tell us whether he had been briefed at least on that much, that this individual had gotten all the way into the White House when he actually stood up and said, I have full confidence in the Secret Service?
- EARNEST: Joe, the President did receive a briefing in the immediate aftermath of the breach of the perimeter fence. And the President did receive a couple of updates over the course of that weekend about what had transpired at the White House while he was on his way to Camp David.
At the end of last week — so about a week later — the President did receive an in-person briefing from the Director of the Secret Service. I’m just not in a position to detail the content of those briefings or those conversations. But I can tell you that throughout this process — and it’s still true today — the President retains full confidence in the men and women of the United States Secret Service.
Q I understand you saying that this is the kind of situation you’ve not seen, where information was not fully disseminated when it was available, but what would be the security reason?
- EARNEST: Can you say what you mean by that? I’m not sure if I understand.
Q In other words, you just said a minute ago that you hadn’t seen information — a situation like this, where the information was not disseminated promptly.
- EARNEST: Joe, I think — what Jon asked me was a hypothetical situation that was not related to this, just sort of in general, about whether it was appropriate to say something that was not true to try to protect a particular security interest. And I was hesitant to answer a hypothetical question in part for some of the reasons that you’re highlighting here. So let me just restate pretty clearly what I was trying to say, which is that I have not in my nearly six years of working here at the White House encountered a situation where I concluded that it was appropriate to mislead anybody, a journalist or a member of the public, for any reason whatsoever, even a security reason.
Q Has anyone given you an explanation for why this was not disseminated when it was known?
- EARNEST: Well, I understand the context of your question a little bit more clearly now. I think what this situation highlights, Joe, is that when you are dealing with a chaotic situation where many different people are trying to get to the bottom of what happened, where there are lots of individuals that have a perspective on what occurred, both literally and philosophically, that conflicting facts can emerge. And that is the risk of acting quickly to try to balance two competing priorities.
One is the need to be as transparent as possible with the public about what you know. The second is to ensure that information has been verified, thoroughly vetted and investigated, and facts have been locked down before that information is distributed. And there is some inherent tension there, and that’s difficult business. What I know is that the Director of the Secret Service testified under oath, before Congress today, to communicate in her opening statement what the latest information about what she understood transpired here at the White House about 10 days ago.
Q What were the conflicting facts?
- EARNEST: Well, Joe, I’m not privy to the ongoing investigation so I’d refer you to the Secret Service who may be able to provide you some additional insight about the facts that they’ve uncovered in the course of this investigation.
Q Last question. Has the President talked to the individual who actually tackled the fence-jumper in the White House?
- EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that. Frankly, I don’t know the answer to that.
Q You have sort of repeatedly sent us to the Secret Service to get the answers.
- EARNEST: And I think we’ve just explained why that was important to do.
Q And they have over time repeatedly given us information that was either wrong or misleading, or not all of the facts — like, for instance, he was unarmed. Twelve hours later we were told he was unarmed; they said he was stopped right at the North Portico doors. Does it concern you that you’re sending us to folks who are giving us information that is not accurate?
- EARNEST: Tamara, it is in the interest of the White House and my office and the Secret Service, and all of you, to try to provide to the American public accurate information about what transpired as soon as possible. And there is built-in tension in that priority. One priority is to disseminate the information quickly. The other priority is to ensure that the information has been thoroughly vetted and verified and that the facts are locked down.
And there is always going to be inherent tension in those competing priorities. That tension is only amplified when you’re dealing with a situation as chaotic as the one that transpired here at the White House about 10 days ago.
So what it does is it highlights why it is so important for this thorough investigation to be conducted, and it is why I have been personally reluctant to delve into the facts about what exactly occurred — because it’s the responsibility of law enforcement officials to determine what exactly occurred, to thoroughly interview all those individuals that may have come across this situation or they had a perspective to provide some insight into what occurred. In some cases, it’s eyewitness accounts. In some cases, it’s information that was communicated over a radio.
So there is a broad investigation into what exactly occurred. And once that investigation has been concluded, I am confident that the Secret Service will, consistent with their priority to provide information to the public about this matter, release the facts of this investigation that can be released — understanding, of course, that some information, because it relates directly to the safety and security of the President or the White House, will have to remain confidential.
But there is an interest in trying to communicate with the American public about what exactly transpired. I think you saw a commitment to that priority in the context of the Director’s testimony before Congress under oath today, and I think you’ll continue to see that moving forward up to and including when the Secret Service releases some details of the ongoing review.
Q Do you agree that we have not been getting fully accurate, fully clear information thus far?
- EARNEST: Well, that’s a statement that will be easier to evaluate once the investigation has been concluded. It is clear, based on the testimony of the Director of the Secret Service, that she has been getting regularly updated on the investigation that’s underway and she has demonstrated a commitment to being as transparent as possible about what she has learned. And I think that is a testament to her leadership and her commitment to fulfilling this principle of informing the public about a matter that’s of legitimate public interest.
Q Josh, I want to go back to ISIS. About almost a year ago, October 31st, 2013, your predecessor Jay Carney was at that podium. And a day before, Prime Minister Maliki came to meet with President Obama and said, “Iraqi security forces are confronting an increasingly large, sophisticated and well-armed ISIL network, which is able to mount coordinated and complex attacks.” So it turns out that the intelligence community about a year ago had warned this White House about ISIL?
- EARNEST: Ed, what we have talked about for some time is that the nation and this nation’s national security infrastructure that is charged with protecting our security interests all around the globe has been concerned about extremist threats that are emanating from Syria. This is something that the President talked about actually in a news conference with the King of Jordan about a year and a half ago, where both men talked about the threat to their countries from the destabilizing influence of extremist organizations that were seeking to establish a safe haven inside of Syria. The King talked explicitly about the dire humanitarian situation that had been created by the ongoing conflict there, and both leaders expressed their concern about extremist organizations trying to capitalize on that chaotic environment.
Q So where did the King and the President get that information from? The intelligence community, I would expect.
- EARNEST: Well, I think from a variety of sources, but certainly they were —
Q So you seem to be arguing both sides. So the President says on “60 Minutes,” I didn’t really get a heads up from the intelligence community. Now, when pressed on it, you guys are saying, well, Jay Carney did say it a year ago, the President said it in a news conference a year and a half ago. Which one is it?
- EARNEST: Ed, what the President was doing — and I actually have something on this — what the President was referring to was specifically a comment from Director Clapper, something that Director Clapper has repeated on a couple of occasions, which is that it is very difficult to assess the will of, in this case, the Iraqi security forces to fight for their country. There is reason to believe that that will was faltering a little bit because of the political circumstances inside that country.
But what had also been clear over the course of the end of last year and the beginning of this year, that the United States had been ramping up our assistance to try to shore up the capability of the Iraqi security forces; that there were Bell helicopters and Hellfire missiles that had been transferred to the Iraqi security forces; that ISIL had been designated by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization; that there were other steps that had been taken to try to confront the threat that is posed by ISIL.
What ultimately is true, and what the President said in the context of his “60 Minutes” interview, was that everybody underestimated the speed and capability that ISIL would demonstrate in overrunning Iraqi security forces and taking over large chunks of territory inside the nation of Iraq.
Q Except in The New York Times this morning, there’s a senior intelligence official right at the top of the story — anonymous — but saying that they did issue these warnings late last year in various intelligence reports to the President, senior people here: “The White House just didn’t pay attention to it…they were preoccupied with other crises…this was not a big priority.” Sounds a lot different what the intelligence community is saying and what this White House is saying.
- EARNEST: Well, the leader of the intelligence community is Jim Clapper, he is the Director of National Intelligence, and today he put out a message to the intelligence community that directly contradicts the anonymous individual who is quoted in the New York Times today.
What Director Clapper said is, “I’m proud of the work the intelligence community has done over the past two years to monitor, assess, and call attention to the expansion of ISIL. And I know the President has found that work to be critical to developing his strategy. As the President pointed out and as I [Director Clapper] have said previously, predicting the will to fight is inherently difficult. And despite all we know about the capabilities of ISIL and the Iraqi security forces, there are no intelligence tools that could have predicted the ISF’s inability to fend off the advance of ISIL and the ease with which ISIL forces captured territory in Iraq.” That’s consistent with what Director Clapper has been saying for some time now, and it’s consistent with what the President said in the “60 Minutes” interview.
Q So why are individual intelligence officials saying the President just wasn’t paying attention?
- EARNEST: You’d have to go ask them. The Director of National Intelligence, who is responsible for making sure the President has the intelligence that he needs to protect the nation’s security, is confident that the President, as it relates to the broader threat posed by ISIL, got the information that he needed. But what the Director is pointing out is that it’s not possible, there are no intelligence tools, he says, that could have predicted the ISF’s inability to fend off the advance of ISIL.
Q Last one. We were talking about the — you were talking about the public interest in the information, some of which is classified, in the Secret Service investigation. My colleague Wendell asked you a couple weeks ago about the PDB, the President’s Daily Brief, and whether or not the President, as long as a year ago, was warned in his PDB from the intelligence community about the growing threat from ISIS. And at that time, you said, “I’m not in a position to give out details of the President’s Daily Briefing. This is a closely held intelligence document.” But in the interest of public disclosure, is the White House considering — would you consider declassifying — the President can declassify some information from there? Now that he has said that we underestimated all of this, why not share with the public what you did know a year ago?
- EARNEST: Well, I don’t think — it certainly wouldn’t be my decision, and not one that I would render from here, about whether or not to declassify elements of one of the most closely held intelligence documents in the U.S. government.
So what I can say is that the President I think on a number of occasions has observed how important it is to communicate with the American public about the threats that we face. And it’s particularly important for this administration to communicate with Congress and our partners in Congress for the benefit of our national security to ensure that we’re working together to protect the American public, to protect our interests around the globe, and to protect the homeland.
So the President is committed to being as transparent and forthright as possible, given the obvious constraints here, about the threats that we face. But I don’t think that will result in the declassifying of, again, what I would describe as probably the most closely held intelligence document in the U.S. government.
Q Thank you. I want to switch to India. Were there any agreements signed today?
- EARNEST: Well, funny you should ask. There were a number of important things that were discussed.
Q Are they all from the readout?
- EARNEST: We will have some very specific information that will be released via e-mail later today, probably over the course of the afternoon, in fact. But I can just give you some top lines if that would be helpful.
The President and Prime Minister Modi did have the opportunity to have dinner last night. It was an opportunity for them to get to know one another. It’s the first time they’d met one another in person. They shared their perspectives on campaigning and governing in the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy — that’s referring to the United States and India, respectively.
They discussed their vision for the U.S.-India strategic relationship moving forward, and discussed a number of specific issues, including the role of technology in governance.
As it relates to today’s meeting, there were a number of deliverables, and you’ll see some details about those deliverables in a joint statement that we’re releasing soon if we haven’t while I’ve been standing here.
Q I haven’t seen it so far. Any of it involve foreign military sales?
- EARNEST: Well, let me give you some top lines here. The joint statement includes discussion of a new U.S.-India Partnership for Climate Resilience — a new enhanced strategic partnership on energy security, clean energy and climate change.
There’s an agreement to establish an Indo-U.S. Investment Initiative that will be led by the Indian Ministry of Finance and the U.S. Department of Treasury.
There will be a commitment to expand defense and security cooperation. I don’t know if there are any specific military sales associated with that agreement, but we’ll have more details in the joint statement.
There was also a dialogue about space, which must have been interesting. There also was a renewed commitment to reinvigorate the higher education dialogue as well as, notably, new women empowerment dialogue.
So as you can tell, a pretty wide-ranging conversation. I think it reflects the depth and importance of the relationship between the United States and India.
Q Economics was a big topic on these talks. U.S. companies say that doing business in India is bureaucratic, there’s a lot of red tape, there’s a lot of graft and corruption. Did President Obama bring that up with the Prime Minister? Or did the Prime Minister promise to clean things up?
- EARNEST: I don’t have any additional details of their specific discussion, although I did see public reports about Prime Minister Modi’s commitment to trying to improve the business environment in his country. I know he has talked a lot about attracting foreign investment, creating jobs for his citizens, and certainly there would be an interest that the President and this administration have in opening up Indian markets to American businesses.
When the President traveled to India, you’ll recall three or four years ago now, there was a lot of talk about trying to streamline the trading relationship between the United States and India and to make it easier for American businesses to establish a foothold in India.
Q Has there been any progress on that?
- EARNEST: Well, there has. I’d refer you to my colleagues at the NSC for some additional details. But there clearly is an economic incentive for this administration to work closely with the Indian government to assist American businesses in getting a toehold in India and access to those huge markets.
Q As you know, the Indian Prime Minister had been denied a visa to come to the U.S. previously, and he has been summoned in federal court in New York regarding the aftermath of the 2002 riots in Gujarat. So I wonder whether any of that came up at dinner, in the conversation in the Oval today, and whether President Obama expressed any concern or said anything to Mr. Modi about his civil rights record and the country’s civil rights record, and going forward what should be done about that.
- EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that, broadly speaking, that the issues related to human rights and the importance of inclusive governance were a part of the discussions between the President and the Prime Minister today. The Indian people elected Mr. Modi as their Prime Minister, and he has publicly spoken about his desire to be the leader of all Indians and to focus on inclusive governance and development for all. Those are obviously aspirations that the United States would strongly support.
We look forward to working closely with him and the Indian people to realize that vision, which is so deeply engrained in the interests of both the United States and India. So that’s — for a more detailed readout, you can check with my colleagues at the NSC on this matter, but generally speaking this is a matter that was discussed in the context of all these other things they agreed upon as well.
Q Is there a particular reason they went to the Martin Luther King Memorial together?
- EARNEST: Well, when the President traveled to India about four years ago, he had the opportunity to visit some — I’m trying to plumb the depths of my memory right now to remember where exactly they went. There was a place where the President I believe visited a home where Gandhi had lived. And in the context of that visit, there was a discussion between the President and the previous Prime Minister, Prime Minister Modi’s predecessor, about the relationship — or at least the intellectual relationship between Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and that they pursued in trying to bring a chance in their countries a similar commitment to nonviolence that I think Prime Minister Modi and certainly President Obama greatly admires.
Q Josh, I have questions on two topics. On the Secret Service, when did you find out that the intruder had not been apprehended just inside the North Portico?
- EARNEST: Tommy, as I have said a couple of times now, I did have a couple of conversations with White House staff and with Secret Service. And what I have done in the context of these briefings is to try to convey to all of you our confidence in the ability of the Secret Service to conduct an investigation that would get to the bottom of what exactly happened, and to implement reforms that are needed to ensure it never happens again.
The President retains that confidence, and the President will obviously be watching — will continue to be updated and is looking forward to reviewing the report when it’s been completed.
Q What I’m driving at is, the confidence that you have and the confidence that the public has in the Secret Service is obviously an important part of deterring people from doing what this man did. So I can understand if there was a decision, once it was said that this is what happened, not to disclose it later to protect that. But if it turns out — what I’m wondering is, did the Secret Service try to sell that to the President, to the White House, that he was tackled just inside there? And if that turns out to be the case, then it seems like maybe somebody should get fired for that.
- EARNEST: Well, Tommy, I think in terms of what the Secret Service did and why they decided to do it, I think you should check with them. I will observe, however, that the Director of the Secret Service testified voluntarily under oath, before members of Congress, on live national television, and was forthright about what she currently understood about what had transpired here at the White House 10 days or so ago.
I think that reflects the commitment of the Secret Service — certainly the Director of the Secret Service — to being forthright with the American public about an issue of legitimate public interest. So, I mean, the other thing that I think is notable — and there had been some published reports about these details in advance of her testimony — but those published reports were based on information that was provided by the Secret Service to members of Congress. And it’s no surprise to anybody in this room, and certainly isn’t a surprise to anybody at the White House, that information that is relayed to members of Congress would, A, possibly leak out to interested reporters, or, B, use as information that is then compiled into questions that are asked of the Director.
I guess my point is this: If they were trying to keep it a secret, they wouldn’t have provided it to Congress, which is clearly what they did both in private conversations with the members of the committee, but also in open public testimony today by the Director.
Q On ISIS — Speaker Boehner over the weekend said a lot of things, but one of the things he said was that he agrees that the President has the authority to take the military action he’s taking, and probably then some. But he also criticized the President, as other Republicans have, for failing to offer a resolution asking for authorization. So what I’m wondering is, is it the view of this White House that offering such a resolution asking for authorization would undercut the claim of authority that everybody seems to agree on? Is that possibly why the President says he welcome Congress’s support, but he’s not asking for authorization? Because he says and they say he has it already. Is that fair?
- EARNEST: Well, I think what is true is the President and his national security team have concluded that he has the authority that he needs to order the military operations that he’s already ordered. That is related to the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force that was passed by the United States Congress.
The President would certainly, as he himself has indicated, would welcome additional support from Congress. That support could take a variety of forms. We welcomed publicly two weeks ago the decision by members of Congress, majorities of Democrats and Republicans of both the House and the Senate, to give the administration the authority that it needs to ramp up our assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition. That certainly was a welcome indication of support for the President’s strategy, but if there are additional steps that members of Congress want to take, then we would welcome those too.
Q But do you think asking for — a resolution asking for authority, do you think that would undercut the claims of authority that the administration has made so far?
- EARNEST: No, I don’t believe that. Again, the President has the authority that he needs. I mean, there is one other aspect of this that struck me as slightly ironic, which is the President has put forward a very specific proposal for reforming a broken immigration system. This is something that has bipartisan support in the Senate and passed the Senate; it’s now sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives, and Speaker Boehner is the individual that is refusing to allow it to come up for a vote.
The President has put forward a very specific plan for closing the loophole that — the inversions loophole that some corporations in this country are taking advantage of to avoid paying their fair share in taxes. Despite the fact that the President offered up this very specific proposal for dealing with closing that loophole, Speaker Boehner has refused to do so.
The President has put forward a very specific plan for investing in our infrastructure in a way that would be fiscally responsible. Traditionally, matters like investing in our infrastructure have earned bipartisan support, but again, Speaker Boehner has blocked that specific proposal from the President that would create jobs in the short term and be really good for our economy over the long term.
It’s a little ironic that after blocking these specific proposals that the President has put forward, the Speaker of the House is now saying that he won’t act unless the President puts something forward. So I think those suggestions from the Speaker were received with some skepticism here in the White House, based on his track record of responding to presidential initiatives.
Q Just to follow up on the Prime Minister — there were two topics that you all mentioned I think before that they were going to discuss, so I just wanted to ask you — one was about Ebola. Did President Obama ask the Prime Minister to provide resources for the fight over there as he did last week at the United Nations? And the second is, ISIS — can you tell us a little bit about what they talked about?
- EARNEST: If you’re looking at my book, you’d see that there’s one paragraph that I skipped over for the sake of time.
Q On Ebola?
- EARNEST: So that was — apparently, that was mistake because you’re asking about it now.
The President and Prime Minister continued discussions in their bilateral meetings today. It included areas of cooperation like defense, counterterrorism, trade, clean energy, and climate and health. They also discussed some broader global challenges, including Ebola and the threat that’s posed by ISIL. So for more details, I’d refer you to my colleagues at the National Security Council, but these were the subject of some discussion in the Oval Office today.
Q So you don’t know if the Prime Minister is saying he is going to provide resources or — either of those?
- EARNEST: I don’t know what the Prime Minister’s reaction was to those conversations but you can check with his spokesman, he may.
Q Josh, who was it that briefed the President in the immediate aftermath of the event on September 19th?
- EARNEST: The President was up in Camp David but he was receiving some updates from senior members of his team. I probably won’t get into specifics about who participated in those communications.
Q It was Friday night.
- EARNEST: Yes, it was Friday night.
Q Are you able to say who of the senior staff is the main liaison with the U.S. Secret Service?
- EARNEST: Well, there are obviously a number of people who have regular interactions with the Secret Service; certainly from the Chief of Staff on down there are members of the President’s senior team that are in touch with the Secret Service as a routine matter of business and have been in touch with them in the context of this particular incident.
Goyal, I’ll give you the last one unless somebody wants to ask me about the Royals. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you. Josh, it appears that last night they met for the first time to get to know each other. Have they now known each other so they can work in the future and pick up the phone and call? And, two, Prime Minister Modi gave a couple of gifts to President Obama — if he likes them or any reaction from him? And, finally, if Prime Minister asked ever about the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, the paper is still with President Obama — because now last week when the Prime Minister went to Australia they signed that agreement. What is the future of the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement? And, finally, as far as education — higher education is a concern. Is this the same thing Obama education initiative was signed between the two leaders?
- EARNEST: I’ll try to take those one at a time. The first is the President really did enjoy the opportunity to visit with Prime Minister Modi over the course of the last 24 hours or so. They had a very productive, cordial working dinner last night, and the President appreciated the depth of the Prime Minister’s engagement in their conversations today.
The President did have the opportunity to speak to Prime Minister Modi shortly after his election, and I would certainly anticipate that you’ll see readouts from my office in the future detailing additional telephone conversations between the Prime Minister and President Obama.
Q Civil nuclear agreement.
- EARNEST: I don’t have an update in terms of the status of the civil nuclear agreement, but you can check with my colleagues at the National Security Council — they may be able to give you an update on that.
Q And education.
- EARNEST: And the education thing — I am told that they did have an opportunity to discuss efforts to reinvigorate the higher-education dialogue that the President initiated during his last trip to India. You’ll recall the President did a really interesting event while he was there. He did a town hall meeting with some students in India, and that underscored the importance of the kinds of people-to-people relationships that make the relationship between the United States and India so strong.
And the President would certainly welcome any opportunity to try to strengthen and deepen those people-to-people relationships, including through college students.
Q The President has been invited to India?
- EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q The President has been invited to India — to visit India?
- EARNEST: I don’t have any additional travel to share with you at this point.
Thank you all for your time today. Have a good one.
Q Josh, what were the gifts, since he brought it up? Do you know what the gifts were?
- EARNEST: I don’t know what the gifts were, but we’ll see if we can track that down.
Q Can you check and let us know?
- EARNEST: Yes.
END 2:42 P.M. EDT