Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/17/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
See below for a follow up to a question (marked with an asterisk) posed in the briefing.
*On Tuesday afternoon, the President spoke with President Castro via telephone.
2:08 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s a pleasure to be standing before you on what is a genuinely historic day here at the White House. We’re starting a little late in order to give Mr. Gross an opportunity to make his appearance and complete his remarks. And I had the opportunity to see those remarks, and I’ll just say that on behalf of everybody here at the White House, we certainly are pleased that he is home here today.
So with that --
Q Wow. (Laughter.) Dramatic entrance.
MR. EARNEST: That was quite an entrance.
Q You have a problem with it? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not at all. Not at all. Jim, would you like to go ahead and get us started? (Laughter.)
Q On the issue of Cuba and opening Cuban relations, Senator Rubio and others are already saying that Congress will not appropriate money to set up an embassy in Havana and that the Senate will not confirm a U.S. ambassador to Cuba. Is the President confident he can overcome these kinds of obstacles to achieve this kind of historic shift?
MR. EARNEST: I guess my first reaction is that as a point of fact, it’s not clear to me that additional appropriations will be necessary to establish an embassy in Cuba, principally because there is already a significant diplomatic presence in Cuba. There is an Interests Section there that represents the interests of the United States. So I don’t know of any specific appropriations request that has been made; there may be one in the future, we’ll see.
As it relates to support in Congress, I have seen the comments of some who have been critical of this decision. I think the President acknowledged there would be some who do not agree with his decision. At the same time, there are many in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, who are strongly supportive of this decision. Let me just read you the comments of Senator Flake. I single him out because he is among the Republicans in the United States Senate who happens to support the President’s policy. Senator Flake said, “I’ve been in Congress in the House and Senate for 14 years now. All 14 of those years, I pushed to lift the travel ban and to normalize relations. I think our policy has done more to keep the Castros in power than anything, so it’s high time for a change -- 50 years is long enough.” That certainly is consistent with the sentiment that the President expressed today. I think it is a common-sense position that I think is also strongly supported by the vast majority of the American public.
Q But doesn’t Senator Flake illustrate the issue? He’s been trying to do this for quite some time and has not been able to. So can the President count on actual change in attitudes in Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess based on the math here revealed by Senator Flake, it sounds like he entered the United States Congress at the beginning of the Bush administration. President Bush obviously did not support making this policy change, and President Obama ran for office in 2008 vowing to address Cuba policy that, for more than five decades, has failed to bring about the kind of results that are in the best interest of American national security.
So the President has long sought to make this change, and the chief impediment to his ability to make that change was the unjust detention of Mr. Gross. And because he was released today on humanitarian grounds, because through the work of this administration we were able to secure that release on humanitarian grounds, we removed the impediment to being able to implement some of these policy changes that the President clearly believes are in the best interest of this country, they’re in the best interest of our economy, and they’re in the best interest of our national security.
Q Can you clarify a little bit about how this intelligence asset, this gentleman who has been in prison for 20 years, how he helped in the prosecution and investigations of Ana Montes and the Myers, Kendall Myers and Gwendolyn Myers? Given that their arrest didn’t occur until 2001 and 2009, respectively, how was he able to do this -- from prison? Or was this information he had supplied before? Can you shed some light on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell -- Jim, there’s not a whole lot that I can share about this high-priority intelligence asset that has been in Cuban custody for nearly 20 years now and is back -- or is now on American soil.
I can tell you that he provided valuable intelligence and valuable counter-intelligence, that he did provide information about Americans who were sharing information with the Cuban regime. And because of his efforts and because of information that he shared, it led to the discovery and conviction of a couple of these Americans who were spying for the Cubans.
We also know that he provided valuable intelligence to help us uncover the Wasp Network that was essentially a Cuban-run intelligence network in south Florida. And the kind of spy swap that was executed today, essentially trading some members of that Wasp Network in exchange for this highly valued intelligence asset in Cuba is consistent with the kinds of spy swaps that have been executed by many Presidents, not just over decades but over centuries.
And we certainly are pleased that we’re able to bring that highly valued intelligence asset, an individual who is a legitimate hero, to American soil.
Q But you don’t know when it was that he provided this information that led to those particular cases?
MR. EARNEST: I’m obviously not in a position to provide a lot of clarity about the clandestine efforts of this intelligence asset.
Q And lastly, can you talk about the relationship between Rajiv Shah’s departure from USAID and this decision to open up relations with Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: There is no relationship at all. I know that Administrator Shah is someone who has served this administration for nearly five years now in the role as the administrator of USAID. He is a very talented young man who has had an opportunity to use his expertise, both in medicine but also his background in development, to run that agency and to take on some very significant responsibilities. And whether it was the success that we had in terms of making a contribution to the efforts to rebuild after the Haiti earthquake, to even putting personnel on the ground to try and stop this Ebola outbreak in its tracks in West Africa, that he has presided over a tenure at USAID that has been remarkably challenging, but he has been remarkably effective. And we certainly are incredibly grateful for his service.
I understand that the transition that was announced today is one that had been in the works for quite some time now.
Q But as you know, the Cuban government has not been happy with USAID programs in Cuba. The juxtaposition of the two does raise questions. If he didn’t want those questions raised, couldn’t one have been delayed?
MR. EARNEST: That’s why I’m trying to answer the questions, is to make clear exactly what is happening. I guess the other data point that I can provide to you is that the USAID programs that have been in place and that have drawn the criticism of the Cuban regime will continue even after Dr. Shah transitions out of his current job.
Q Josh, does the President envision a visit to Havana?
MR. EARNEST: There is nothing on the schedule right now. The President did hint that there will be senior government officials who will carry out the kind of work that’s indicative of two nations that are seeking to normalize their relations, so I certainly wouldn’t rule out a presidential visit, but I don’t have anything to announce at this point.
Q Okay. He would like to go, though? He would like to go?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I assume, like many Americans, he has seen that Cuba is a place where they have a beautiful climate and a lot of fun things to do. (Laughter.) So if there’s an opportunity for the President to visit, I’m sure he wouldn’t turn it down. How about that?
Q One of the points that Senator Rubio made is that the White House has conceded everything but gained little. What has the White House gained? What has the United States gained from this deal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are many things, so I’ll go through them. The first is, we secured the humanitarian release of Mr. Gross. That’s something that we have long sought. He was held unjustifiably by the Cubans for more than five years. His release is long overdue. And we are pleased to see that the Cubans have granted him his humanitarian release.
The second thing is we have secured an agreement to essentially swap spies, and we recovered a highly valued intelligence asset, probably the most highly valued intelligence asset on Cuban soil in American history. And that individual is now on American soil.
What we have also done is we have removed what had previously been the chief impediment to our ability to implement the kind of changes and reforms in our policy that the President believes is clearly in the best interest of the country. And now that Mr. Gross has been returned, we can now better orient our foreign policy and our policy toward Cuba in a way that better reflects our values, that empowers the Cuban people, that will expand economic opportunity for American businesses and American farmers in particular here in the United States.
So we certainly are pleased with the progress that we’ve made here. The President has been clear that he does not anticipate that we’re going to see the kinds of changes that we’d like to see overnight. But after more than five decades of a policy in place that didn’t appear to lead to any changes at all that were in our favor, we certainly are optimistic -- very optimistic -- about the new strategy that we’re putting in place that will better serve American interests, that will better empower the Cuban people, that will seek to engage Cuba in a way that will no longer allow our failed policy against Cuba to be such a distraction.
Some of you have traveled with the President to previous Summit of the Americas conferences, for one example. This is often a contentious debate that’s held in the context of these summits about whether or not the United States has the right policy on Cuba. Now that that policy has been changed, we hope that we’re going to foster a greater debate about whether or not the Cuban government has the right policy when it comes to their own people, and whether or not they’re going to continue to get away with trampling the basic human and political rights that the United States has long championed. And we look forward to that opportunity.
Q So there’s no guarantees that this deal will result in Cuba making the economic and political reforms?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have seen Cuba start to make some preliminary steps towards economic reforms. And you’ve seen statements today from the American Farm Bureau, from the Chamber of Commerce, indicating that they are optimistic that the changes that the President announced today will lead to substantial economic reforms. That will not just be good for the United States, that will also be good for the people of Cuba and will better empower the people of Cuba. And I think that’s what you call a win-win.
Q Josh, but this is all temporary, right? If you don’t get rid of the embargo, if you don’t get rid of the travel ban while President Obama is in office, a future Republican President, or potentially Democratic President, could come in, close the embassy and put these travel restrictions back in place. Fair enough?
MR. EARNEST: I guess as a legal matter that is true. I suspect, however, it’s hard to imagine that anyone is going to campaign for this office by saying, you know that policy that we had in place for more than five decades and didn’t do anything -- we should go back to doing that.
Q Jeb Bush is saying he’s against this policy shift that the President announced today.
MR. EARNEST: I recognize that that may be popular with some very committed individuals that do have principled views on this. I certainly respect their views. But I do think that any cold-eyed assessment of the success of the policy that has been in place for more than five decades to isolate Cuba would acknowledge that that policy didn’t succeed. Since that policy has been in place, the Castro regime has remained in place. Since that policy has been in place, the Castro regime has continued to trample the basic human rights of the Cuban people.
It's time for a change. And there is plenty of reason to believe that the kinds of changes that the President announced today will lead to the kinds of economic and social reforms that will be good for the people of Cuba and will be good for the United States of America.
Q Does he think he can get the embargo lifted by the time he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly would like to see that. There’s bipartisan support for it. But that will require some work. We’ll have to see.
Q I wanted to ask you about the outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Bob Menendez. He had been a fierce opponent -- Cuban American -- fierce opponent of these kinds of changes, a big supporter of the embargo. Did his departure, or his soon-to-be departure from that position as chair of that committee have anything to do with the timing of this announcement?
MR. EARNEST: The only impact on timing here was the humanitarian release of Mr. Gross. This is a policy change that this administration had long sought. And after securing the humanitarian release of Mr. Gross, we’re able to remove the impediment to the implementation of these policy changes that the President believes is more consistent with our broader national security priorities and more consistent with a policy that’s focused on expanding economic opportunity in this country.
Q And can you talk at all about the conversation the President had with Alan Gross?
MR. EARNEST: No, I do know that the President earlier today, while Mr. Gross was on the airplane, had the opportunity to take a phone call from the President. And I don’t have the details on that phone conversation, but I know that the President was very pleased with having the opportunity to speak briefly with Mr. Gross. As I mentioned at the top of this briefing, the President, like everybody else here at the White House today, is very pleased to welcome Mr. Gross home.
Q And are you worried about the -- my last thing on this. Are you worried that Americans may get the wrong idea about what you’ve announced today? Because with the embargo in place, Americans cannot go on Orbitz and book a flight to Havana. They’re not going to be able to go to the cigar shop down the street and buy Cuban cigars. There is still all of these cumbersome restrictions in place. So by and large, how much has changed really that Americans can see and touch and feel besides the opening of an embassy in a building that is really already there in Havana?
MR. EARNEST: What this will do, Jim, is this will -- this represents a fundamental shift in American foreign policy. One from isolation that for more than five decades has failed to yield any sort of tangible result that benefits the American people, that benefits the Cuban people, or that benefits the American national security interests.
But because the policy that the President has now announced, we will see greater economic engagement between the United States and Cuba. And again, this seems like as good of a time as any to read from part of the statement that was issued by the United States Chamber of Commerce today. They certainly believe that it will have a tangible impact on the U.S. economy in a way that the American people will feel. They said, “The U.S. business community welcomes today’s announcement and has long supported many of the economic provisions the President touched on in his remarks. We deeply believe that an open dialogue and commercial exchange between the United States and Cuban private sectors will bring shared benefits. And the steps announced today by the President will go a long way in allowing opportunities for free enterprise to flourish.” That is an indication that there is a clear economic benefit associated with the policy decision that the President announced today.
The other strategic objective that has been accomplished here is no longer will the U.S. policy toward Cuba serve as such a distraction in our relations with communities -- with countries throughout the Western hemisphere. So often when we go to these other events or have engaged in dialogue with other countries in the Western hemisphere, they say, well, let’s talk about your policy towards Cuba. No longer will they have to raise that objection. Now we can go to them and say, let’s go talk about your policy toward Cuba and the policy of the Cuban government toward their own people. And that, ultimately, better serves our objective. That it shouldn’t be about isolation, it should be about engagement and openness. And that’s more likely to lead to the kind of strategic accomplishments that the President believes serves our national interest.
Q When the Castro government starts rounding up political prisoners again, do you have to re-examine what --
MR. EARNEST: They’ve been doing that for more than 50 years. And we’re going to continue to use this openness and this engagement to focus pressure on the Castro regime, to live up -- or at least to respect if not protect the basic fundamental human and political rights that this country has long championed.
Q Josh, two questions. One is, can you elaborate on the telecommunications and Internet changes and progress that the United States believes it has worked out with the Castro government? And I ask that in particular because we know that in China, for instance, there have been efforts to block that for the people in China. And I just wondered, what is the President’s understanding about what the Cuban people will have access to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I may have to take some of the more technical aspects of your question, but I think as a general matter, this is consistent with the kind of strategy that the President is pursuing here; that we want to facilitate more openness in our relationship between the United States and Cuba. And by facilitating that openness, we do principally one thing, which is empower the Cuban people.
For so long, this policy of isolation that has been in place for more than five decades has only added to the burden that the Cuban people have had to bear. But by making these kinds of changes and allowing for more U.S. telecommunications equipment to be sold and put into use in Cuba, we can give the Cuban people more access to information in a way that will empower them to have potentially more say on the economy and on their government. And that is certainly consistent with this philosophy that our policy of isolation has failed. It’s time for us to pursue a policy of openness and engagement.
Q The second question I had was about Americans who may be imprisoned around the world. Do you have a status report on how many Americans of whatever disposition or work are imprisoned currently around the world, and whether the President is doing everything -- is in his gain to try to release as many of them as possible in the next two years?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to the State Department for any sort of list. If anybody has a list like that, it would be them. I don’t know if they do, but you can certainly check with them.
But the President I think on a number of occasions, and this is just the latest one, has demonstrated his commitment and demonstrated a tenacity to securing the release of Americans who are unjustifiably detained overseas.
Q The President today was talking about easing exports, but how much authority does the administration have to ease both import and export bans? Or do you need legislation for that?
MR. EARNEST: The President did take steps today to ease restrictions on exports. And there are substantial steps that the President can take using his executive authority to relax some of the restrictions that were in place in a way that would facilitate greater trade and greater economic activity between the United States and Cuba.
But for details about the questions that you’re asking, I think I would actually refer you to the Treasury Department that’s responsible for administering those restrictions.
Q But he’s going to also pursue legislation --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, the President does believe that these -- what the President has done is he has used all of the executive authority that he has to try to take away some of these restrictions. Some of these restrictions remain in place; Mr. Acosta alluded to a couple of them related to travel. And we do believe that Congress should take the necessary action to remove those restrictions as well, again, to facilitate the kind of openness and engagement that we believe will lead to greater progress in terms of advancing American national security priorities.
Q And that’s why -- any timelines? I mean, how soon can we start to see some of these export restrictions lifted?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is certainly eager to see these changes be put into place. So I’d refer you to both Treasury and Commerce who can walk you through the details.
Q Senator Bob Corker will be the new Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee when the new Congress convenes. He said just a few moments ago, “There is no real understanding as to what changes the Cuban government is prepared to make.” What is this administration’s understandings of the commitments the Cuban government is prepared to make in reaction to many things it has long sought from this administration, which it has now received?
MR. EARNEST: Well, they’ve already made commitments to do three things that, again, over the course of more than five decades, it had been reluctant to do.
The first is, the Cuban government, based on their own assessment and at the urging of the United States, did release more than 50 political prisoners. Some of them have already been released, some of them will be released in coming days. And that is certainly a welcome development. These are names that were provided by the U.S. government to the Cubans, and we urged them to be released. And that’s what they did.
The second thing is -- and this is what Alexis referred to -- is they agreed to allow the import and installation and use of American telecommunications equipment that would give the Cuban people access to more information.
And third, we saw the Cuban government commit to greater engagement with the United Nations and with the International Committee of the Red Cross. These are two international, multilateral organizations that champion the kinds of values that we’ve been urging the Castro regime to respect for some time.
So again, when we’re sort of evaluating the success of these efforts, these are three specific things that the Castro regime has committed to that, after 50 years, or more than 50 years of refusing to do so.
Q And to those who would say there’s no commitment to free elections, there’s no commitment to a free press, and there is no promise to end systematic political repression in the country, you would say what?
MR. EARNEST: I would say that there was no evidence that they were more likely to do those things after the 53 or so years that this embargo has been in place. We do think that by putting in place a policy that allows for more openness and engagement, a policy that will empower the Cuban people, that there will be more pressure on the Cuban regime brought to bear to force them to better respect the basic political and human rights of their people.
Q And you alluded to the possibility, somewhat humorously, of the President going to Cuba. But just to bear down on it a little bit, he would not go there now with the political repression that exists in Cuba. He would not want to go there under these current circumstances, would he?
MR. EARNEST: Keep in mind, Major, a month ago we were both in Beijing. Right?
Q So he would.
MR. EARNEST: Well, all I’m saying is that it is not unprecedented for us to go places and interact with countries with whom we have a very fundamental difference of opinion about that country’s treatment of their citizens.
A day after we were in Beijing, we traveled to Burma -- again, a country that does not have a stellar record when it comes to respecting basic human and political rights. But we engage those countries and we engage the leadership of those countries, and we do so for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, and often, it serves our national security interests to do so, but also because it’s consistent with the President’s view that by engaging with the leaders of these countries and by engaging with the people of these countries, we can facilitate more respect for basic human rights.
Q The most recent congressional action dealing with Cuba is the Helms-Burton Act in 1996. It dramatically intensified the trade embargo and also placed limitations on foreign countries interacting with Cuba. President Clinton signed that into law. Was there any interaction between the President or anyone senior in this administration with those Clinton administration officials or President Clinton himself about this very historic change in policy?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding about the Helms-Burton Act that what it actually did was it took some of the executive actions that had been taken toward putting restrictions on trade and travel in place, and actually codifying them statutorily. So that is part of what leads us to the need for Congress to take action to repeal some of those restrictions. So we certainly call on them to do so.
As it relates to your specific question on President Clinton, I know that there have been some consultations with former President Clinton, but I haven't seen a statement that he has put out on this yet.
Q And the President and -- the two Presidents?
MR. EARNEST: I often am reluctant to talk about specific conversations that take place between the President and former President Clinton.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to confirm those kinds of conversations. But I know that there have been conversations between the White House and President Clinton on this specific issue.
Q Do you seek to enlist President Clinton’s support in this policy and reversing some of the things that he himself signed into law?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly would welcome the support of President Clinton and anybody else that wants to be supportive of changing a policy that for more than 50 years did not yield results that are beneficial to our national security, and putting in place a different strategy that’s focused on engagement and openness that we believe will empower the Cuban people, expand economic opportunity for American businesses and farmers, and better serve the national security interests of the United States of America.
Q I’m trying to get at the underlying principle here. You’ve said that the policy of putting economic pressure on Cuba, isolating Cuba, failed to change Cuba’s bad behavior, and a policy of economic engagement and openness will have the better prospect of changing Cuba’s bad behavior, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly seems unlikely that it’s going to be worse than a policy that was in place for more than five decades and didn’t yield any tangible change.
Q Okay. So explain to me why you think a policy of economic pressure and isolation towards Russia would change Russia’s bad behavior when you say that that very approach to Cuba has utterly failed for more than 50 years?
MR. EARNEST: This is a timely discussion, so I’m pleased that we’re going to have a chance to talk about it. We have spent some time talking about this today. And here’s what I think is the principal difference. And again, for two days in a row I’m going to violate what is often a core principle about comparing our policies as it relates to very different countries in very different situations. But I do think this serves as a useful illustration.
In talking about the sanctions regime that we put in place, both against Russia and Iran, we have said the success of that sanctions regime is dependent on our ability to work with our partners and allies around the globe to implement the regime in a coordinated fashion to maximize the pressure on those countries. And what we saw was we saw that the pressure that was placed on the Iranian economy did yield political pressure that has changed the perspective of the Iranian regime at least as it relates to their willingness to have a discussion with the international community about their nuclear program.
When it comes to Russia, again, we acted in coordinated fashion with countries, principally in Western Europe, to apply pressure to Russia and their economy. It has had the effect of weakening the Russian economy, but has not yet yielded the kinds of changes in the decision-making by the Russian President that we would like to see. I think it warrants mentioning that those sanctions -- that sanctions regime that we put place in a coordinated fashion with our allies has been in place for less than a year, certainly a lot less than 53 or 54 years.
Q I’m just trying to get at the principle here. Does economic pressure work to change bad behavior of a regime or not?
MR. EARNEST: But here’s the principle, Jon. The sanctions regime that we’ve had in place against Cuba is unilateral. We’re the only country in the world that has this kinds of sanctions regime.
Q But it imposes an economic price on Cuba. I mean, it has hurt Cuba.
MR. EARNEST: But not nearly in the same kind of way that we would see if the United States were working effectively with our partners and allies to put in place this kind of sanctions regime. The key to our success in Iran and Russia -- and I’m not saying for the first time today; this is the case that we’ve been making for some time now -- that the success of the sanctions regime has been predicated on our ability to work in coordinated fashion with the rest of the international community to maximize the impact of that sanctions regime. And as it relates to Cuba, the effect is actually the opposite. The rest of the world is actually on the other side of this issue. They criticize our sanctions regime policy against Cuba, and it actually interferes with our ability to bring to bear pressure from the rest of the international community on the Castro regime to better respect human rights in Cuba.
So there is a very stark difference in the way that these policies were implemented. And that’s why we believe that a strategy -- a fundamental strategy change was necessary.
Q Can I get you to respond to what Bob Menendez, obviously the top Democrat -- actually, current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said about this action? He said that this action vindicates the “brutal behavior of the Cuban government…Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent and invites dictatorial rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips.” And he says that this will put thousands of Americans serving overseas increased danger for that very reason. What’s your response to Senator Menendez?
MR. EARNEST: Well, here at the White House we obviously have tremendous respect for Senator Menendez. He is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and we have worked with him to implement the sanctions regime on Russia that has been useful in advancing our national security interests. We’ve done the same thing with Iran. So we have succeeded in working with Senator Menendez, Chairman Menendez on a range of issues.
But in this situation, we fundamentally disagree. And there’s no soft-pedaling that. The fact -- and there’s one factual disagreement that should be pointed out here: Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds. For years, the Cuban regime has suggested that Mr. Gross could be released in exchange for the release of Cuban prisoners, and that is a proposal that was summarily rejected by this administration. If we were open to that, that is an agreement that we would have agreed to years ago.
So the fact of the matter is, Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds at the request of this administration, and the spy swap that was executed between the United States and Cuba did secure the release of this intelligence asset that is now on American soil.
Q Josh, you are not going to stand there and say that Alan Gross’s release had nothing to do with the release at the same time of the three convicted Cuban spies.
MR. EARNEST: What I’m telling you is that Alan Gross’s release on humanitarian grounds is something that this administration insisted upon. And once that agreement was reached, it opened the door for additional negotiations and additional agreements to be reached. So by removing the impediment of Mr. Gross’s unjust detention, we could engage in a conversation with the Cubans about the spy swap. And that’s exactly what happened.
Q So it’s a coincidence that they were both released at the same time?
MR. EARNEST: No, it’s not -- Jon, it’s not a coincidence. What exactly happened --
Q If it’s all part of the same deal, how can you say that the -- I mean, Alan Gross is released, three spies are released. I understand you also have a Cuban who was working with U.S. intelligence who was released at the same time as part of the same package, but you can’t say that the Alan Gross release is unrelated to the release of these three convicted spies.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I can and I just did.
MR. EARNEST: And the reason for that is very simple, Jon. The reason for that is very simple. The agreement on a spy swap would not have been reached and was not reached without the standalone agreement to release Mr. Gross on humanitarian grounds.
Q It happens at the same time, doesn’t it? Isn’t this all today? Am I missing something? Were the --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, but as I think -- as you know, these conversations between the United States and Cuba were underway for more than a year between senior officials here in this administration and senior Cuban officials. And all along, the fundamental impediment to our ability to implement the kinds of changes that we would like to see has been the unjust detention of Mr. Gross. And once the Cubans agreed to release him on humanitarian grounds, then we could have a conversation about some of the other agreements that were reached, and the other agreement that was reached was this specific spy swap between the three Cubans that were held in Florida and the highly valued intelligence asset that has been held in Cuba for almost 20 years but is now on American soil.
Q Okay. Just one quick one on a different subject, the Sony hacking. Does the U.S. government have a reason to believe that, in fact, North Korea was responsible for the hacking?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I am not in a position to ascribe any responsibility to the apparent hacking of the email system at Sony.
Q If it were the -- if we do have evidence that it was North Korea, would there be repercussions? Would the United States seek repercussions for that?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t want to speculate at this point. This is something that is under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and so for questions on their investigation I’d refer you to them.
Q Are you considering normalizing relations with North Korea under the same theory that if you open it up that you’ll put more pressure on them and maybe they’ll change their behavior?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q Okay. On Jon’s questioning about the timing of all of this, will you at least acknowledge that Alan Gross’s release was coordinated? I mean, the President of the United States had a phone call yesterday with the Cuban dictator. Did they discuss this maybe in separate sentences, but they discussed all of this in one deal, right?*
MR. EARNEST: Well, they discussed a wide range of things. I can’t provide a detailed readout of their conversation, but they spent a lot of time talking about policies in the Western hemisphere, and you can be assured that the President did talk about how important it was for somebody -- for an American citizen who was being held unjustifiably by the Cuban regime, that it was important for that individual to be released on humanitarian grounds, and he was.
Q On Jon’s other question about what kinds of precedent this sets -- what Marco Rubio and others are charging at least is that this puts a price on American hostages, and that it gives rogue regimes the idea that they can get concessions out of the President of the United States if they take someone hostage. Why should they think differently?
MR. EARNEST: Because there was no concession. Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds. That’s what we insisted upon and that’s what the Cuban regime followed through on.
Q Okay, except when we’ve talked about ISIS and the awful tragic beheadings, you’ve repeatedly said the American government won’t pay ransom because that just encourages people to take more Americans. But I understand you’re trying to make this separation, but as part of the same deal, the U.S. made concessions and released three Cubans.
MR. EARNEST: Again, as we’ve discussed with Jon, that’s just not the case. The fact of the matter is, Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds at the insistence of this administration. And certainly if there are -- I mean, you’ve heard us talk about this in other contexts; when there are Americans who are unjustifiably held overseas, we call for their immediate release as well.
Q Okay. Last one. For months -- months ago, I should say, you had promised that there was a review going on of the separate prisoner swap, Taliban swap, over Bowe Bergdahl. And we’ve asked you about it before and you said, well, the Pentagon is looking at it. There’s just been a swap here with spies. We’re waiting for a public accounting of Bowe Bergdahl. When will that investigation be released? When will you be able to show us? Because there were charges that you broke the law because you did not fully inform Congress. So when will there be --
MR. EARNEST: Right. But that’s not part of the review, Ed, because that’s not the case. I recognize that that was the charge from some who disagreed with this decision. The President believed that there was a basic fundamental value at stake here, which is that the Commander-in-Chief was not going to be in a position where we didn’t work to secure the release of one of our men and women in uniform to bring them home; that we were not going to leave that man behind.
And the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay was certified by the Secretary of Defense consistent with the law. I recognize there’s a difference of opinion about that, but that is what it is.
Q So you’re going to release the review with the documents that show why the Secretary of Defense made that decision?
MR. EARNEST: No, the review is related to the circumstances related to the disappearance of Sergeant Bergdahl in the first place. I don’t have an update in terms of the status of that report, but we believe that that agreement was one that was entirely consistent with a fundamental American value, which is that we leave no man behind.
Q Josh, you all have made -- highlighted, I should say, the pivotal role that the Pope played in the Vatican, played in securing the release of Alan Gross. Did President Obama speak with the Pope prior to today’s announcement?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe that he did have an opportunity to speak to the Pope. You know a couple of things, though, that the President did receive a personal letter from the Pope, and high-level administration officials convened at least one discussion with their Cuban counterparts in the Vatican, in a meeting that was hosted by members of the Pope’s team. I don’t believe the Pope himself was personally involved in those conversations, but the Vatican was the host of those conversations. We certainly welcomed their participation in these conversations, and the degree to which the Pope and his team facilitated this reconciliation is one that we appreciate.
Q Was the Vatican given a heads up prior to today’s announcement in some way, shape or form? Did top officials here reach out to their counterparts there?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific conversations with the Pope to read out, but yes, that there were senior members of the Catholic church that were aware of what was on going here.
Q Okay. And when President Obama spoke with President Castro yesterday, first of all, can you tell us what time that conversation happened? Was it during the day, was it during the evening?
MR. EARNEST: I believe it was during the day, but I don’t have a specific timeframe. We can look into that.
Q Did President Castro give President Obama any specific assurances that he would take steps toward democratic reform like freedom of the press, improving that? Any other steps or specific guarantees that he gave President Obama?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he did announce a few things -- or he did inform the President of a few things. He did inform the President that he intended -- his government intended to release more than 50 political prisoners that we’re being held in Cuban prisons.
Q But in addition to what’s been announced, of what’s been announced today, did he more broadly say, “and I'm going to continue to take steps to democratize Cuba”?
MR. EARNEST: Well again, you’d have to talk to him if he wants to read out his aspect of the conversation. I can tell you that there were three specific commitments that he made. If there’s more that they want to share, they can do so. You can be sure that the President continued to impress upon President Castro that it continued to be an American priority and the priority of the Western hemisphere that his government do more to protect and advance the basic fundamental human rights of the Cuban people.
Q Does President Obama trust President Castro?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, this is not a matter of trust, this is a matter of putting in place a policy that the President believes is in the best interest of our economy, is in the best interest of our national security, and will actually succeed in empowering the Cuban people. That is the goal of this policy and is a policy that we’re eager to put in place. It's a strategy that’s consistent with our national security priorities, and frankly, it doesn’t hinge upon the trustworthiness of the Cuban leader.
Q So I guess the other way to say that is, does President Obama have confidence that there will be continued reform within Cuba. And if so, why? What gives him that sense confidence?
MR. EARNEST: What we have confidence in is that the policy that we have announced today will do more to pressure the Castro regime to actually respect and protect, and even advance the basic kind of human rights that for more than five decades under the old policy, that they’ve repeatedly ignored.
Q And if you don’t see human rights advanced, if you don’t see the regime taking steps toward that end, what recourse does the President have?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d start by saying we already have seen the Cuban regime take more steps in the last day than they have in the last 50 years under the old policy in terms of expanding access to information for the Cuban people, in terms of coordinating with international organizations like the United Nations and the Red Cross, and in terms of releasing political prisoners.
Q Does the President have any recourse if it ends there?
MR. EARNEST: What we have is we have a policy in place that will continue to empower the Cuban people, and will remove the distraction of the failed U.S. policy and actually focus international attention on the policy of the Cuban government as it relates to their own people.
Q Thank you Josh. On a different topic, the European Union’s (inaudible) today removed Hamas from the terrorist list. What’s your reaction to that? And do you think that will advance the peace process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nadia, we did note today’s ruling by the General Court of the European Union on the challenge by the terrorist organization Hamas to its EU sanctions listing. We’re studying the court’s opinion carefully. According to the statement by the EU, the decision was based on procedural grounds. And we understand that the EU sanctions against Hamas remain in effect, pending the EU’s decision on whether to appeal. What I can tell you -- so we’re going to continue to review the EU decision, but what is clear is that the EU sanctions will remain in place.
I can confirm for you that the United States position on Hamas has not changed. Hamas is an organization that’s been designated as a foreign terrorist organization, precisely because Hamas continues to engage in terrorist activity and has demonstrated its intent during this summer’s conflict with Israel. It fired thousands of rockets into Israeli civilian areas and attempted to infiltrate Israel through tunnels that extended into Israel.
So the United States will continue to work closely with the EU on a range of Hamas-related issues. And we believe that the EU should maintain its terrorism sanctions on Hamas.
Q But the EU decision was legal more than political. Is the U.S. decision to designate Hamas as a terrorist organization based on the legal issue as well, or just political?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the EU decision is one that was based on procedural grounds, and so we’ll allow that procedure to run its course. I understand that while that procedure is in place, the sanctions against Hamas will remain in place.
The decision that’s been made by the United States to designate Hamas as a terrorist organization is based entirely on Hamas’s terror activities; that we saw them use missiles to target innocent Israeli citizens. We saw them use tunnels to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians. These are the hallmarks of an organization that’s committed to terrorism, and it’s been designated as such by the U.S. government.
Q But you don’t have any evidence there’s been international engagement in any kind of terrorism act outside Israel or the Palestinian territories?
MR. EARNEST: I mean, sort of for the full rundown on Hamas’s rap sheet, I guess I’d refer you to the United States Treasury that would make designations about Hamas as a terrorist organization. The State Department may have some information on this as well. But certainly the acts of terror that Hamas has committed in Israel certainly justifies their labeling as a terrorist organization.
Q On a related subject, the Palestinian Authority is presenting a draft resolution at the Security Council today, calling for the end of Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2016. Are you going to veto that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have not yet seen the details of the resolution that they say that they’re prepared to table at the United Nations. So I’m going to reserve any comment on that for now.
I will tell you that it continues to be the policy of the United States that the preferred path to Palestinian statehood and a resolution of this conflict is for the two parties -- the Israelis and the Palestinians -- to reach an agreement on the final status issues by negotiating directly. We’re going to continue to work to advance the interest we all share in bringing about a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The United States takes this position because it is clearly in the interest of both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people for this situation to be resolved peacefully and through direct negotiations between the two parties.
Q Yesterday, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was at the White House for a meeting. Was this related?
MR. EARNEST: The President did have the opportunity to visit with the Archbishop, and they talked about a range of issues. I don’t have a detailed readout of that meeting. But to sort of paraphrase Major’s suggestion from earlier in this briefing, if you wanted to infer that this might have been among the things that they talked about because it’s an issue that both the President and the Catholic Church have strong feelings about, then I wouldn’t wave you off that notion.
Q And an update on the Secret Service. Do you have any update at all on the search for a new director or any changes that are being made? The report was due earlier this week.
MR. EARNEST: It was. I anticipate that the Department of Homeland Security will have more information on this today, so I’d refer you to them.
Q Thank you. Follow on Cuba. A few months ago, I spoke to José Cabañas, the Chief of the Cuban Interests Section, and he outlined how this would be resolved. And he stressed -- he said, don’t use the words “spy swap” or “prisoner swap;” make sure you call it “humanitarian grounds.” Who initiated these -- the Cuban side or the American side?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s separate out two things. The last part there about the spy swap -- Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds. He was not exchanged for the release of any other prisoners or release of any spies. Mr. Gross is not a spy, so it would not be possible for him to be part of a spy swap. He was released on humanitarian grounds.
There was a separate agreement that was reached to exchange three Cuban prisoners, spies who were being held on American soil, for a U.S. intelligence asset that had been held by the Castro regime for nearly 20 years now. That individual is now on American soil.
As it relates to the initiation of these talks, the President did authorize members of his team in early 2013 to open up this channel and begin conversations with the Castro regime.
Q And is this seen as a Hanukkah present?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I saw -- Mr. Gross certainly seemed to think so.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, Josh. The President -- on the question of whether the President would go to Cuba, presumably you would need to see some performance on the part of the Cuban regime before that happened. Are we talking about a number of months and some performance on reforms?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, as I mentioned to Major, it is not unprecedented for the President of the United States to travel to countries with whom we have serious concerns about their respect for basic human rights. For example, the President just last month traveled to both China and Burma, met with the leaders of those countries to try to advance American national security interests. In those conversations, the President brought up with leaders their failure to do as much as we believe they should to protect and respect basic human rights, including political freedoms of their people.
So it is possible for the President to travel to other countries to represent the interests of the United States of America even when we have serious concerns about the human rights policies of that country.
Q But this would seem to be somewhat different. I mean, it would be the first presidential visit in 50 years. Wouldn’t you need to see -- aren’t there things that you would need to see first before you could entertain taking a step that significant?
MR. EARNEST: At this point I’m not going to set up any sort of checklist that would be considered a precondition for a presidential visit. That’s something that we may do at a later date. I would just note, again, that there are a number of countries that do have, at best, checkered human rights records that the President has visited. And again, he did that in pursuit of core national security interests, and used the opportunity of those visits to bring attention to these issues. And we have seen progress that was made by the Cuban government just today, that they announced the release of more than 50 political prisoners. They released -- or they agreed to allow the import of American communications equipment that will expand access to the Internet and other information for the Cuban people. And they agreed to deepen their engagement with the United Nations and the Red Cross, two organizations that serve to advance and champion the basic human rights that we’re talking about here.
So that does represent some progress, and it certainly represents more progress than we saw under the more than 50 years of the previous failed policy.
Q Can I also just ask you about this Cuban intelligence asset who was in prison for 20 years? Did you know who he was before? Had the President heard of him? And has he had an opportunity to call that person?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that the President has had an opportunity to call that individual. I was not aware of this individual. It’s my understanding that this -- I’m certainly not a scholar of U.S.-Cuban relations, though, so that may be a low bar.
But this is an individual whose existence was not previously widely known. But there were individual who were deeply engaged in our intelligence community who were aware of the valuable contribution that this individual had made to American national security. That is what made him a valued intelligence asset, and we are pleased that he’s now on American soil.
Q How soon do you think the President would name an ambassador to Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any personnel announcements at this time. But I will say it sounds like a pretty interesting job.
Q Josh, you mentioned at the top of the briefing that this is an historic day. Is it diminished somewhat by the continued existence of the facility at Guantanamo Bay? That’s something -- another promise that the President made before he was elected to office.
MR. EARNEST: And one that the President continues to work doggedly to close. And unfortunately, because of the interference that we’ve seen from Congress, we have not been able to do what the President thinks is in the clear national security interest of the United States, which is to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But we’re going to continue to work even in the face of obstacles from Congress to achieve that goal, and that’s something that we’re going to continue to work on.
Q You’ve read out a number of conversations on this topic. Did the President discuss at all with Governor Scott of Florida the moves that he was making, given that obviously this is an issue that affects the 90-mile-away state so much?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t believe that he did.
Q And because I know that you didn’t just prepare on foreign policy today -- I know that that’s been the lion’s share of today’s briefing. New York state banning fracking -- the President has emphasized an all-of-the-above energy strategy. What does the President think about a state with large shale reserves banning a policy that provides a lot of natural gas?
MR. EARNEST: Jared, I did see the announcement of Governor Cuomo’s policy shortly before I came out here. I can’t render a detailed analysis of that policy.
Q But in general, does the President support governors of states banning fracking?
MR. EARNEST: In general, what I can say is the President has placed a high priority in ensuring that ongoing fracking operations don’t negatively affect the health and wellbeing of people who happen to live in the area where these fracking operations are being conducted.
Q Does he believe that it should be something that is resolved on a state-by-state issue, or does he support a national policy? Can you give me anything more than --
MR. EARNEST: I think the President has acknowledged that there is a role for both the state government and for federal environmental authorities to have on this. But again, as a specific policy matter, I just haven’t had an opportunity to review Governor Cuomo’s policy and to draw many conclusions about what impact it would have on ours.
Q But he welcomes generally states going above and beyond when they think it’s appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly believes it’s important for these fracking operations to be conducted in a way that doesn't undermine or threaten the health and wellbeing of people who live in these areas.
MR. EARNEST: JC.
Q An historical briefing room fantasy question.
MR. EARNEST: You're treading into dangerous territory, JC. (Laughter.) It’s a family program.
Q It’s historical -- a historical question. What would President Obama say today to President Kennedy who initiated these embargoes 53 years ago?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure what he would say. I do think that even President Kennedy would acknowledge that, after more than 50 years of a policy of isolation didn't bring about the desired result that I think even President Kennedy would acknowledge, that change was needed. And certainly throughout his career in public service, President Kennedy was somebody who did believe in the value of openness and engagement and in the value of empowering local populations to take greater control over their economic and political situation.
So it does strike me that while the President is changing a policy that President Kennedy originally put in place, that the philosophy that the President is pursuing and the values that the President is pursuing is entirely consistent with the kinds of values that President Kennedy championed throughout his life.
John, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, Josh. Did the President reach out to any Republicans he knew were sympathetic on this policy change beforehand? And I refer specifically to Dr. Ron Paul, whose position is identical to the President on the Cuban embargo, or his son, Rand Paul, who has yet to take a position on the embargo or has yet to put out a statement on the policy change today.
MR. EARNEST: Interesting. Well, I assume all of you will be asking him about that. What I can tell you as a general matter is that the President and members of his team convened a number of conversations over the last couple of days with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill about this policy change. And I can tell you that there were Democrats and Republicans who were pleased with the anticipated announcement, and that there were Democrats and Republicans on the other side of this issue as well. I think that is one of the things that makes this such an interesting policy to discuss is that the viewpoints on this topic don't cleanly break down along party lines.
I’m going to read one more statement before I go, because I didn't have the opportunity to do it before. Bob Stallman is the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, not somebody who has a long track record of supporting policies that are put in place by the Obama administration. But today he said, “The American Farm Bureau strongly supports President Obama’s move toward normalized relations with Cuba. The Farm Bureau has long called for removal of trade restrictions with Cuba. And we believe expanded trade with the U.S. can serve as the cornerstone for additional reforms.”
So again, there is strong support among Democrats and Republicans for the kind of policy that the President has laid out.
Q You want to give us any of the names of the Republicans who were at the meetings that he --
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any details about those calls to read out.
Q Hey, Josh --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, Steve.
Q The President mentioned a Canadian role in all this. What was that?
MR. EARNEST: The Canadians -- as the President’s team sought to find a place to meet with the Cubans, we turned to our friends to the north in Canada. And they, on a number of occasions, hosted private confidential meetings between senior members of the American delegation and senior members of the Cuban delegation. Many of the conversations took place in Canada.
Q In Ottawa or --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I believe in Ottawa, yes.
Q Okay, interesting.
MR. EARNEST: All right. Thanks, a lot, everybody. Have a good afternoon.
3:09 P.M. EST