Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/1/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
*Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
1:05 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Before we get started, let me just begin by saying, on behalf of the Biden family, how deeply appreciative they are of the outpouring of love and support that they’ve received since Beau Biden’s passing on Saturday evening. There have been many kind words and gestures that have been offered not just all across the country, but all around the world. And they have meant a great deal to the Vice President and to his family.
For those of you in this room, or for anybody watching who’s looking for a way to pay their respects to Beau and to those who loved him, I’d invite you to visit WhiteHouse.gov, where we have set up a virtual condolence book. All of the entries in the book will be collected and shared with the Biden family.
So with that, Jim, let’s go to your questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. And sympathies to the family. I wanted to talk a little about the action on Sunday, in the Senate. I wondered if you could give us an assessment on how terror cases are being pursued any differently now that we’re 13 hours until the expiration of those FISA Patriot Act provisions.
MR. EARNEST: Jim, the failure of the United States Senate to act to renew the authorities that were included in the Patriot Act has had an impact on the ability -- or on the authorities that our national security professionals can use to keep up safe.
Now, what the President had advocated, and what built strong bipartisan support in the House, and, I believe, has strong bipartisan support in the Senate is a piece of legislation that would both incorporate reforms that would protect our privacy and civil liberties -- and when I say “our,” I mean the privacy and civil liberties of the American people -- as well as renewing tools that our national security professionals use to keep us safe. And the fact is those reforms have not been enacted into law, and the extension of those important tools have not been enacted into law.
As a practical matter, what that means is it means that our national security establishment is not using Section 215 authority to collect bulk telephony data. That has been the source of some controversy, and that is what the President and his national security team proposed be reformed. Those reforms, again, are included in the USA Freedom Act.
There are also a set of other non-controversial authorities that are not currently available to our national security professionals. That includes the authority to go and get a warrant, and use Section 215 to conduct investigations of individuals who are suspected of having links to terrorism. It also means that our national security professionals do not have authorities that they need to go and get a warrant, and get a roving wiretap of individuals who are suspected of having links to terrorism. And it also means that our national security professionals do not have the authority that they need to go and get a warrant.
And under the “lone wolf” provision -- now, this is a provision that of course we have acknowledged has not been used previously, but this is a provision that, if it were needed today, could not be used by our national security professionals. And what we have said for weeks now is that the Senate’s failure to act introduces unnecessary risk to the country and to our citizens.
Q But in this period of time -- granted, it’s only 13 hours -- but has the President been notified by either the intelligence community or the Department of Justice? Have there been instances where they are now not able to pursue a particular specific case, testing the lack of authorities?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any details to share about either ongoing or recently started national security investigations. What we’ve also acknowledged is true is that our national security professionals have other tools that they can use to conduct investigations. They don’t have tools that replace these critically -- these important authorities, but there are other tools that they can use to conduct investigations.
Q And as we understand it, roving wiretaps that had already been approved, those can continue during this period?
MR. EARNEST: There is what’s called a grandfather clause, which means that for the routine use of Section 215 -- so again, not the bulk data collection, but the routine use of 215 that would allow an individual suspected of having ties to terrorism, that would allow national security professionals to examine related business records. Those authorities, as they relate to ongoing investigations, are not affected. Those investigations continue. But our law enforcement and our national security professionals do not have the authority to collect those kinds of records or to seek those kinds of warrants under a newly started investigation.
Q Senator McConnell, this morning, issued a statement calling for passage of the USA Freedom Act with -- and endorsed several amendments. One of them would extend the transition period on the bulk collection of phone data from the government to the phone companies to a year, rather than the six months provided in the USA Freedom Act. Is that something that the administration would oppose, suppose, be agnostic about?
MR. EARNEST: It’s something that the administration views as completely unnecessary. The fact is, our national security professionals have explained that in order to implement the reforms that are included in the USA Freedom Act, that it would require a six-month time period for them to carry out the change that you’ve just described.
We are confident that that six-month time period would give our national security professionals ample time to implement these reforms. But if for some reason that amount of time is judged to be insufficient, the President has directed his national security team to go back to Congress and ask for additional time. That’s why we believe that an amendment like this is not necessary. We believe that six months is enough. Again, if they conclude upon the beginning of the implementation period that six months is not enough time, then we’ll go back to Congress and ask for additional time. And based on the comments of Senator McConnell and others, we feel confident that Congress would act quickly to give us additional time in the unlikely event that it’s needed.
Q Bottom line, you’d rather not have any amendments done?
MR. EARNEST: Bottom line, we would like to see the Senate pass this piece of legislation as soon as possible. This is a bill, the USA Freedom, that collected 338 votes in the House of Representatives. It got strong support from Democrats and Republicans. The Senate should not get into a game where they start adding amendments to this piece of legislation that then requires House consideration again.
The President believes that the Senate should act as quickly as possible to pass the USA Freedom so he can sign it into law. And we can do two important things. The first is begin to implement the reforms over a six-month period that are contemplated in the USA Freedom Act that will better protect our civil liberties, but also ensure that our national security professionals have the tools they need to keep us safe.
Q But doesn’t the Senate have the right to exert its will on the legislation? I mean, it’s part of the legislative process for them to change legislation.
MR. EARNEST: Of course, they do, and that’s how the process works. We’ll see. I think that I would just observe that they have had a year and a half to exercise that prerogative. And now that they have blown through the deadline, I think most reasonable people would assume that that is a privilege and a right that they, for the good of the country, should relinquish so that we can enact a piece of legislation that has the strong support of Democrats and Republicans. It has the strong support of our national security professionals and, of course, it has the strong support of the President of the United States. And rather than get into additional political gamesmanship, the Senate should pass the USA Freedom Act so the President can sign it into law.
Q Can I ask you real quick about one of several Americans being held by Houthis in Yemen? Apparently, he has been released following negotiations with Omani officials. Can you confirm that and offer any details?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t offer any details about those reports because of privacy considerations. But we are working to provide additional details at an appropriate time, which hopefully would be relatively soon. But at this point, I’m not in a position to talk about the case.
Q Following on that, has there been any change in the way the U.S. has communicated with these families, considering the fact that there’s a review of the hostage policy?
MR. EARNEST: When you say “these families” --
Q Families of Americans who have been held by Houthis.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any policy changes on that, no. The individuals who are detained there are individuals that we are trying to secure their release.
Q Okay. And then after Secretary Kerry’s injury over the weekend, is the White House concerned that that injury may preclude him from participating in Iran nuclear talks? And is there any consideration of sending someone to participate in his place?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I understand, Julia, that even now as we speak, that Secretary Kerry is en route back to Boston for treatment on his broken leg. The Secretary’s doctor, Dr. Dennis Burke, is traveling with the Secretary to Boston to monitor his condition and to ensure that he remains comfortable in flight.
The President and his National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, each had the opportunity to speak with Secretary Kerry yesterday to wish him well on a speedy recovery. The Secretary has made clear that he is going to pursue an aggressive but responsible recovery schedule, and there’s a range of recovery trajectories that are possible when we’re dealing with an injury like this. And, obviously, his doctors and Secretary Kerry himself will have more to say about this relatively soon.
But the fact is that we do continue to believe that we have the time and resources necessary to pursue and, hopefully, complete the Iran negotiations. And I’m confident that those negotiations will be affected by the Secretary’s injury. But exactly how we move forward on this is something that we’ll have more details on later.
Q So still unsure of whether or not he’ll be able to participate? I mean, considering we’ve got a 30-day window here.
MR. EARNEST: I’m confident that Secretary Kerry will continue to be an important part of this effort. Whether he is going to spend every day over the next four weeks in Europe negotiating face to face with his counterpart, it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to do that given the injury that he has sustained. But I’m confident that in whatever capacity he is able to participate, that Secretary Kerry will continue to play a critically important role in that effort.
Q Just first, on the security of Americans right now. You weren’t able to comment about whether in these 13 hours there’s been any problems. But let’s go back, if we can, in history here. Can you point to anything in the past that would not have been successful under these current conditions? Is there somebody we would not have caught? Is there something that you could explain to Americans why this is so important, using history?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are -- probably not in as much detail as will satisfy you right at the top here, but I think I can offer up two compelling reasons why our national security professionals say that having these authorities is important to the national security of the country.
The first is that there are recent examples -- I can’t go into those examples -- but recent examples where our national security professionals say that information that they obtained using these authorities was information that they were not previously aware of. And that’s an indication that these authorities have succeeded in eliciting information that’s been critical to ongoing investigations.
The second thing is that the way that our investigators talk about this information is that these pieces of information as they’re collected are critically important building blocks to an investigation. And what that means is it means that a clearer picture is provided when you put a variety of pieces of information together; that as it fits together, you get a clearer sense of what it is that you’re investigating.
Now, in some cases, that could even be information or building blocks of information that can be used to exonerate somebody. And that’s a useful thing too. We have very limited law enforcement and national security resources, and if there are individuals who we conclude, based on available information, that they no longer are a subject of significant concern, that means that we can focus our resources in other areas.
Q So I think what many in the public might want to really hear from the White House is, on a scale of one to ten, how much less safe are we today than we were on Saturday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that is something that our national security professionals can speak more directly to. I think the way that I would characterize it is simply this, Jim -- that we have these authorities that were included in the Patriot Act, the majority of which are not controversial and have been in place since 2001, and as our national security professionals tell us, have been used to elicit information that’s been valuable to ongoing national security investigations.
And so the question that you’ve heard me offer up a few times from the podium here over the last week or so is simply, why would we add unnecessary risk to the country and our national security because of Congress’s failure to act? The fact is, we have these authorities; many of them have not been controversial -- though one controversial authority, the one that’s been the subject of extensive debate, is one that would be subject to extensive reforms if the Senate had just passed the bill that was passed by the House of Representatives.
And so I think that’s the argument, which is why would we incorporate this unnecessary risk? Apparently, there are some members of Congress who look for an opportunity -- members of the United States Senate who look for an opportunity to build a political advantage, to gain a political advantage, and they apparently concluded that the risk was worth it. The President doesn’t agree.
Q And if I can just change subjects to Cuba for a moment. In Panama, the President said directly that the United States is no longer in the business of regime change in Cuba. And yet, the United States, including this administration, continues to fund both the State Department and USAID to the tune of some $264 million since ’94, with specific programs operating inside Cuba, some of which have been embarrassing, as reported by the Associated Press. Why do we continue -- why does the United States continue to fund these programs? And now, as relations are very close to being normalized, do you see those programs being ended?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, for specific programs that are being operated by either USAID or the State Department, I’d refer you to those two agencies. But I will say that the U.S. government will continue to invest in efforts to strengthen the engagement between our two countries, between our two governments, and even between the citizens of our two countries. And this is a critical component of the strategy that the President announced at the end of last year; that for more than five decades, the United States had pursued a strategy to try to isolate Cuba to compel them to better respect the basic universal human rights of their people. And for more than five decades, we didn’t see much improvement in that regard.
So what the President has said is let’s try a different strategy; let’s try a strategy where we strengthen the ties between the United States and Cuba; let’s create opportunities for more commerce between our two countries; let’s give more Americans the opportunity to travel to Cuba, and give the Cuban people greater exposure to the kind of values and lifestyle that we so deeply value in this country; and that by promoting that kind of engagement, we can actually place additional pressure on the Cuban government to do a better job of living up to the values and the protection of basic universal human rights that we hold so dear in this country.
Q But the USAID mission specifically says that we’ll use this money to -- with the goal of promoting a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy. That sounds as though -- that sounds like a way of saying regime change. Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what the President said is going on now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, USAID can speak to the direct purpose of the programs that they carry out. But certainly promoting democracy and promoting respect for basic universal human rights is part of our goal.
Q But the word is transition, though. That is problematic isn’t it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t know whether it's problematic or not; you’d have to talk to USAID about their specific program. But this idea that the United States is going to go and promote our values around the world is something that we’ve been engaged in for quite some time in a variety of countries. And we’re certainly going to continue to do that in a place like Cuba that so frequently tramples those kinds of values.
Q And just finally, the Radio Marti and TV Marti, do you see any changes with that agenda, what they’ll be used for, with the hundreds of millions of dollars spent there? Now there’s a new era. Are those two still valid?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, as it relates to reforms to those programs, I’d refer you to the State Department that operates there.
Chip, nice to see you.
Q Good to see you. You didn’t answer Jim’s question about the 1 to 10 point scale. But just to really put it bluntly, are the American people clearly less safe today than they were last week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that is a judgment that one of our national security professionals could make based on their own efforts to investigate this.
Q Right, but you went through this whole list of things that are not available now. It sounds that the implication of that is that we are less safe now than we were just a day or two ago.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’ll let people draw whatever conclusion they would like. But the one -- the fact that I can confirm for you is that there are specific tools that our national security professionals have previously used to conduct national security investigations that they can, as of today, no longer use because of the partisan dysfunction in the United States Senate.
Q CIA Director Brennan said over the weekend that if the law lapsed, and of course it now has, the FBI would lose the ability to track people intent on carrying out attacks on the homeland. Is that correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm certainly not going to contradict the Director of the CIA --
Q So we have lost the ability for -- the FBI has lost the ability to track people who are intent on carrying out attacks on the homeland?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a variety of tools that are used by our national security professionals to conduct both law enforcement and national security investigations. But what is clear is that there are tools that are critical to that effort that are no longer available -- or at least as of today are no available to our national security professionals.
That’s exactly why we want the Senate to act on the USA Freedom Act. Because if they will pass that piece of legislation that got such strong bipartisan support in the House, the President will immediately sign into law and we will codify greater reforms to that program -- those programs that will protect our civil liberties, while at the same time ensuring that the non-controversial authorities that have been used by national security professionals can continue to be used to protect the country.
Q Did the President follow Senator Paul’s actions over the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe that he did. I suspect that he did like many of us did, which is read some news accounts. But we are not following this minute-by-minute like some of you had to.
Q Last question. Senator Graham today, saying -- in announcing for the presidency, said, “Sad to admit Barack Obama has made us less safe. Simply put, radical Islam is running wild. They have more safe havens, more money, more weapons, and more capability to strike our homeland than any time since 9/11.” Comment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there have been a number of pronouncements and accusations that have been lobbed by those who aspire to occupy the Oval Office in early 2017. And I'm not going to get into a -- I’ve done my best to try to avoid getting into a back and forth with any of them on a specific issue. So while I obviously disagree with the sentiments expressed by Senator Graham, I don’t have an interest in getting into a back and forth with him at this point.
Q So we’re not less safe today?
MR. EARNEST: I obviously don’t agree with what Senator Graham had to say today in kicking off his campaign.
Q Thanks. Well, one of the things that Senator Paul said this weekend was that this situation is really the President’s fault because he could have ended the bulk collection of phone records at any time. He didn’t need congressional approval. Do you believe that you needed congressional approval to do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, we have made this argument in a variety of areas. This is true when it comes to a variety of economic priorities that the President has articulated. It's even true when it comes to immigration -- that the kinds of changes that we would like to see codified into law are more effectively changed when Congress passes a law to do it.
And the good news is that the President, demonstrating some leadership on this issue, actually called for specific reforms to be put in place more than a year a half ago -- or about a year and a half ago. He directed his national security team to travel to Capitol Hill to spend time in a large number of meetings with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, working through the policy questions at stake here. And they succeeded in working effectively in bipartisan fashion to reform these programs, and specifically reform the program that Senator Paul has complained about.
And so it's ironic, to say the least, that Senator Paul blocked a piece of legislation that would have actually solved the problem that he was talking about. So that may have been an effective campaign tactic, but it certainly wasn’t in the best interest of the country.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Nice to see you.
Q You, too. At what point, legally, does the President think that he or a future President can no longer rely on the 2001 AUMF to go after ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that’s -- the 2001 AUMF obviously is related to countering the threat that is posed by al Qaeda. And the conditions for making that kind of assessment will obviously be determined based on what kind of activity we see from al Qaeda around the world, and what sort of national security threat is facing the United States.
I will say the President has already given a speech in which he called for -- years ago -- called for Congress to act to refine the 2001 AUMF in a way that would narrow the scope of that authorization to use military force. There continues to be a threat that is posed by al Qaeda, and the President believes that our national security agencies, and the President himself, should have the authority that they need to counter that threat. But the President has been clear that he believes that improvements and even additional limitations on the 2001 AUMF can be put in place.
Q Does he believe there’s a point when this AUMF from 14 years ago will be stretched beyond what you’re legally allowed to use it for? If we send 10,000 U.S. military personnel overseas, if this stretched out for another five to ten years, does the President believe, legally, that the 2001 AUMF can still be used through all of this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a lot of hypotheticals that were floated in there. Let me just illustrate -- let me try to illustrate the President’s point of view by talking a little about the authorization to use military force against ISIL that the administration submitted to Congress several months ago now.
Included in that authorization to use military force was essentially a provision that would place a time limit on that AUMF. That proposal included a three-year time limit for that authorization to use military force. Of course, the 2001 AUMF is one that is open-ended. And some of the reforms that the President has suggested do contemplate imposing a time limit on those authorities.
And the reason for that -- and this was true in the AUMF-against-ISIL language that the President put forward -- even if the authority -- or even if the threat that prompted that authority to be enacted still exists, by placing a time limit on the AUMF you would force Congress to come back and reconsider that AUMF. And that means that after three years, Congress could just essentially approve an extension or they could consider whether or not there are certain authorities that could be curtailed, and the AUMF could be refined in a way that would start to put in place some additional limitations.
But, again, all of this should be driven based on -- or driven by the assessment of the ongoing threat. And the President does believe that the threat from al Qaeda has changed significantly since 2001. It has changed in a variety of ways. Obviously, we’ve made significant progress in decimating core al Qaeda. There continues to be a more disaggregated threat from al Qaeda affiliates in other terrorist organizations that are or were previously affiliated with al Qaeda. We have to be very cognizant and vigilant about meeting those threats, and that’s why the President believes that refining the 2001 AUMF is something that Congress should do.
But I think even I would acknowledge -- and the President would acknowledge this, too -- that that’s more difficult work than doing something as simple as passing an 2001* AUMF against ISIL. Everybody acknowledges that we have -- or just about everybody acknowledges that we have a threat from ISIL that we need to mitigate. And the President believes that it would be wise and appropriate, and even necessary, for Congress to pass an AUMF that reflects that specific threat.
But we’ve seen very little movement in Congress, despite the fact that the administration has convened a large number of meetings with Democrats and Republicans to discuss this issue, despite the fact that the administration actually submitted draft language to Congress, despite the fact that senior national security officials like the Department of Defense -- or the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State have participated in congressional hearings on this matter. We haven’t seen any movement in Congress, and that’s been a source of some frustration.
I guess the point is, that’s why unfortunately I’m not particularly optimistic that we’re going to see the kind of refinements to the 2001 AUMF that the President advocated several years ago.
Q Thank you, Josh. I have a second question about the Patriot Act, but first I wanted to get clarification on your response to Cheryl’s question. When I asked you a similar question last week -- and, again, perhaps I’m misunderstanding -- it seemed to me that you said that the President couldn’t just change the way that the NSA program was running; he couldn’t just issue an executive order to address that because only Congress could make those changes. But in response to Cheryl, I thought that you said that Congress would be more effective at doing that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there’s a difference between -- there’s a lot to unpack here. In terms of making some changes that the President believes are important, and as it relates to the carrying out of these programs, there is only so much the President can do using his executive authority.
So, for example, many people had suggested that even if Congress did allow these authorities to expire, that the President should just use his executive authority to try to extend those programs or extend those tools. That, of course, is something that the President can’t do just using his executive authority. What Senator Paul has advocated is essentially not using those programs anymore. And what the President has advocated is essentially reforming those programs. And many of the reforms that we’re talking about are reforms that require congressional action.
Q And my second question related to that is also about Senator Paul, and you said that the President didn’t have a specific response to the comments that he made. But I’m specifically wondering if the White House generally has a reaction to him saying that, “People here in town think I’m making a huge mistake. Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.” Any White House reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what Chip was talking about was Senator Graham and his campaign announcement, so you’re talking about something different.
Q I’ll repeat it so that we’re clear. This is comments that Senator Paul specifically made. He said, “People here in town think I’m making a huge mistake,” in relation to the Patriot Act, and said, “Some of them, I think, secretly” --
MR. EARNEST: Well, he’s got the first part right. (Laughter.)
Q Well, I don’t know if you’ll agree with the second part. “Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.”
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously the President and his national security team go to great lengths to be vigilant to protect the country from any sort of terrorist attack. And what we have advocated, and what the President himself has directly advocated is ensuring that the United States Senate do the bare minimum that’s required to ensure that our national security professionals, some of whom put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe, have all the tools they need to do their job. And that’s why we have urged the United States Senate to do what the United States House of Representatives has already done, which is to pass the USA Freedom Act, which includes critically important civil liberties reforms, and extend the ability of our national security professionals to use all the tools available to keep us safe.
Q I wanted to kind of circle back to what Jim was asking, about amendments. I’m stipulating that you guys don’t want amendments because you want USA Freedom to go through as quickly as possible. It still seems like the Senate is going to vote on them. And I’m wondering if you guys have perceived any poison pills in the amendments that have been floated already, things that can possible sort of torpedo this whole bill. I know one that Senator McConnell said today would be a tweak that would essentially keep the FISA Court decision secret, and it’s something that would have come out into the light under the House version of the bill. Are there areas of concern that you think blow up sort of the greater negotiation?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't looked through each of the specific amendments. The reason I was able to talk about the amendment that Jim mentioned is that that’s a proposal that we’ve talked about in here a few times. I think you even asked me about it before -- this idea of extending the implementation period. But I haven't considered those -- all of the amendments that may be voted on by the Senate. But as it becomes clear which amendments are actually going to be voted on, we may be able to get you some more information in terms of our position on that.
Q And more broadly, I mean, in conversations that you guys have had with the House, Leader McCarthy today was a little unclear about whether or not they would be willing to even take up an amended version of this bill. Is that a concern that you guys have, that this wouldn’t pass the House bill --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the concern that we have is that it will, in any event, take additional time if the Senate passes an amended version of the USA Freedom Act, because then it will have to be put back on the House to consider that amended piece of legislation. And that typically takes time; sometimes it takes a long time. Hopefully, in this case, it wouldn’t, but that remains to be seen.
I think the other thing that we have expressed some concern about is that Democrats and Republicans in the House did work in rather painstaking fashion to build this common-sense, bipartisan reform proposal. And for the Senate, again, after they’ve already blown through the deadline, to start tinkering with that bipartisan agreement does put that agreement at some risk; that you may have an eventuality where the bipartisan agreement that was, again, painstakingly built in the House of Representatives, falls apart. And that would prevent the specific reforms from going into effect, and it would prevent our national security professionals from getting the tools that they say are important to keeping us safe.
So again, that highlights yet another reason why we believe that the Congress should act quickly to pass the USA Freedom Act in its current form so the President can sign it into law as soon as possible.
Q Can I ask a last one on Greece? Obviously, we’re getting closer to a potential for default, and I’m wondering if the administration has taken any new steps to protect the U.S. financial system in case of a default, and if you can maybe discuss just how -- generally, how much of a risk that poses to the U.S. economy.
MR. EARNEST: Justin, I don’t know of any specific steps that I can share with you, but I’d refer you to the Treasury Department. They may have some more information on this.
I would note that Secretary Lew last week spoke at the G7 finance minister’s meeting in Dresden, and again urged all parties to find common ground and reach an agreement quickly. While he was there, Secretary Lew also spoke with Prime Minister Tsipras from Greece and emphasized that we remain engaged with all parties involved, including Greece, its European partners and the IMF.
It is our view that these parties should continue to do the important work of trying to resolve their differences as soon as possible to try to prevent some instability and turbulence from being injected into the global financial markets.
Q Is there a worry that that instability would have a kind of substantial impact on the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly do operate in an interconnected global economy. And instability, in one aspect of the global economy, typically does have an impact on the United States. I think in this case it’s unclear how significant that would be, or how significant an impact would be on the United States. But I guess to pick up on a theme of this briefing, that seems like an unnecessary risk. And that’s why Secretary Lew in particular has done a lot of really important work behind the scenes to try to bring -- or facilitate the efforts of those who are sitting at the table to reach an agreement.
Q People who are opposed to certain parts of the Patriot Act have been pretty explicit in outlining these ways that they didn’t really help certain cases, or that there are other methods to get the same information. But conversely, you and the administration, you can’t list or won’t list any concrete examples of how it did help; you won’t say whether the American public is less safe now. If this is so important, doesn’t your argument seem to be weaker than those in opposition? And isn’t that contributing to the controversy that’s out there?
MR. EARNEST: That certainly is not the conclusion of 338 Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives who came together around a common-sense bipartisan proposal that would implement reforms, that would strengthen civil liberties protections while also reauthorizing tools that our national security professionals say are important to keeping us safe.
I think the other thing that’s true is that we’ve heard a lot of claims on the other side of this argument that haven’t borne out to be true. And there has been an effort on the part of the administration, even given the constraints that we have about talking about classified or highly sensitive national security programs, to be as honest and forthright and candid about these programs and about the impact that they have on our national security.
Q And you’ve mentioned campaign tactics, you’ve mentioned that some people want to be in the Oval Office. So are you saying that these are just -- that some of the arguments out there are just political posturing? Are you just flat-out saying that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we’ve seen -- again, in the United States Senate, prior to the expiration of this specific -- I guess a week before the expiration of the Patriot Act, you saw every single Democrat in the United States Senate line up behind the bipartisan proposal that was passed by the House of Representatives. And unfortunately, what we’ve seen is a whole lot of posturing within the Republican Party on this issue in the United States Senate.
And again, that’s been the source of a lot of disappointment, given that you had a piece of legislation that accomplished all of the objectives of the vast majority of people involved in this dispute. You had some people in the Republican Party who are saying we need to reform these programs. Well, reforms were exactly what’s included in the USA Freedom Act. And you had others in the Republican Party who are saying these are critically important tools that our national security professionals need to keep us safe. Well, they could
protect those tools by passing the USA Freedom Act.
And that’s why it was a source of such disappointment that you saw so many Republicans who didn’t support this proposal when it first came up 10 days ago. And I think that’s why -- at least speaking for myself -- I was not at all surprised that we saw 19 or 20 additional Republicans essentially flip-flop on this and, after spending a week on Memorial Day recess up against the deadline, decide that they’re going to support a proposal that just a week earlier they’d filibustered.
And that’s -- in terms of -- to go back to the strength of arguments, I think that’s why I have a pretty strong argument when I say that there’s a lot of politics being played on this. And, unfortunately, it’s coming at the expense of the national security and civil liberties of the American people.
Q But when we keep talking about national security, you use the word “safe” almost every other word in some of your statements. So if you feel so strongly about some of these programs without being able to give any concrete examples of them working, why can’t you at least say that the American public is less safe without them? It almost seems like you’re going just up to that point. Do you feel that way or don’t you feel that way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would encourage you to ask some of our national security professionals. You’ve heard the FBI Director, Jim Comey, talk about how important these tools are to their work. I saw that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, was on Chip’s network over the weekend, talking about how these programs and these authorities were integral to the efforts of the intelligence community. So I would defer to those professionals. They can give you the best assessment.
All I can say is -- make the simple, fact-based observation that there are tools that our national security professionals say are important to their work that today they don’t have because of a bunch of Republican senators who played politics with these issue over the last couple of weeks.
Q Okay. And last question. Rand Paul has his own plan to hire a thousand more FBI agents to do some of the work that would take the -- I guess substitute for bulk phone data collection. So what does the White House think of that plan to just hire more people to do the digging instead of bulk collection?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the specifics of that proposal.
Q So given the President’s early queasiness with some of these programs, some of the national security programs that were left to him by the previous President, is he comfortable that if and when this gets re-upped again in the next few days, that history judges that this is now his program? That he now owns the bulk collection program by virtue of the fact that you guys have been out there arguing for it so vociferously, and that he’s comfortable with that being -- kind of taking ownership of it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, to be clear, Mike, what the reforms that the President’s national security team have negotiated with Democrats and Republicans in the House are reforms that would actually end the government’s use of these authorities to collect bulk data. That’s what the reforms did. So to the extent that we’re talking about the President’s legacy, I would suspect that that would be a logical conclusion from some historians that the President ended some of these programs that did raise concerns about those who prioritized the privacy and civil liberties of the American people.
This is consistent with reforms that the President advocated a year and a half ago, and these are reforms that required the President and his team to expend significant amounts of political capital to achieve, over the objection of Republicans.
So I do feel confident that, based on the President’s record, that the kinds of reforms and changes that he promised to bring into office in 2007 and 2008 are reforms that he has succeeded, over the objection of Republicans, of implementing.
Q But to be clear, he’s not ending the government’s use of the information. He’s changing the way that it’s held and collected, and where -- who holds the data. But the government is still using the information under the USA Freedom Act, and it becomes now -- this sort of becomes the first time that he gets to -- that he puts his imprimatur on that bulk collection, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m not sure that’s -- it may be worth us having somebody from the national security agencies talk to you about this, because this information that private-sector companies are already collecting; they’re doing it on their customers. When you get your bill every month, you see the detailed list of phone calls and phone numbers and the length of the phone calls that you placed over the course of that month.
And, yes, the federal government would continue to have access to that information if they obtain a warrant from a judge, based on authority that is given to the administration by Congress, and subject to oversight not just by Congress, but by inspectors general and other national security attorneys in the executive branch. This is the kind of rigorous oversight and, essentially, a rules architecture that the President does believe is important. And that is materially different than the program that he inherited.
Q Josh, thank you. Has the President spoken to Leaders McConnell or Reid today?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any telephone calls from the President to read out at this point.
Q How does he see his role in making sure that this does, in fact, get done over the next few days? It looks like that is what is likely going to happen. But what does he perceive his role to be?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President, over the last couple of weeks, has spent a lot of time publicly advocating Senate action. But the President’s efforts in this regard started more than a year and a half ago, where he contemplated and then delivered a speech laying out the kinds of reforms that he would like to see to these programs. He directed his national security team to go to Capitol Hill and engage in bipartisan discussions about how to institute these reforms in a way that would add protections to our civil liberties while making sure that our national security professionals had access to all the tools that they need to do their work. And he has worked in bipartisan fashion to build support for this in the House and to build support for it in the Senate.
So the President continues to be an advocate of the USA Freedom Act. And again, I don’t have any specific calls or anything to preview, but the President’s feelings on this I think are quite well know, both publicly and in private.
Q But I guess what I’m saying is, given that these programs -- which are now so integral to national security -- which you’re arguing have expired, does the President need to more than just publicly advocate? Does he need to go to Capitol Hill, for example? Does he need to be picking up the phone on a regular basis and making sure that something does, in fact, get passed in the next few days?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the fact is that the President has been engaged in this; you’ve heard him talk about it publicly. There have been conversations that the President and senior White House officials have had privately on this over the last week or so. And again, the President’s efforts and the administration’s efforts in this regard go back a year and a half.
Q Josh, I want to ask you about the Taliban Five. The travel ban has been extended. Why did it take so long? Why did it take coming right up against the deadline to make that happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the priority that the administration has placed on this particular situation is ensuring that steps are implemented to ensure that we’re mitigating the risk to our national security from these individuals. And there are restrictions that have been in place for a year that continue to be in place today, and we continue to be in touch with our partners in Qatar who have imposed some of those restrictions about what our path forward will be. Those restrictions, under the agreement that was initially reached, would be put in place for a year. And the path forward is something that we’re discussing now with the Qataris.
Q But it has been extended, correct? The travel ban?
MR. EARNEST: It is still in place. But for the longer-term path forward, that’s something that’s still under discussion.
Q Can you say specifically how long it will be in place under the current plan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it certainly will be in place until an additional agreement can be reached about steps that we believe are necessary to protect the national security of the United States.
Q There are reports that three of them have tried to reach out to their terror network. So what type of safeguards are being put in place?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have a variety of safeguards, but very few, if any, of which we can talk about publicly I think for reasons that should be fairly obvious.
Q Are you confident that the safeguards will prevent them from taking action? I mean, given the fact that there are these reports that they have, in fact, reached out to terror networks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, most importantly, before these individuals were transferred from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the Secretary of Defense had to certify that there was a strategy for mitigating the risk that these individuals posed to the United States and our national security. That strategy has been implemented by our partners in Qatar, and we continue to be in touch with them about what strategy -- what system will be in place moving forward.
Q But isn’t there some concern if, in fact, they have reached out to their terror networks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, these are individuals that, yes, that we are concerned about. That, in fact, is why we have put restrictive measures in place to prevent them from --
Q Are the measures working, though, if they’re able to contact these people?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Kristen, these are individuals who we have been working with our partners in Qatar to restrict their movements and to restrict the impact that they could possibly have on our national security.
Q Just one about Secretary Kerry. Is the President concerned at all that the nuclear talks will be hampered because he will be absent for a period of time?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, as Secretary Kerry is treated for his injuries from over the weekend, it is likely to have an impact on the manner in which he participates in those discussions over the course of this month. But as I mentioned earlier, I do anticipate that Secretary Kerry will continue to play a critically important and leading role in conducting and hopefully completing those negotiations by the end of the month.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to add to that and get your thoughts on Ambassador Rice. Can you sort of outline her role and how that might change, given the injury to Secretary Kerry?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point it’s too early to tell exactly what sort of change we’ll have to incorporate into Secretary Kerry’s role. He has played a leading role in this previously, and I would anticipate that he is going to continue to play a leading role. His injuries may prevent him from having the kind of aggressive travel schedule that you all are accustomed to him having, but I have no doubt that he will continue to play an important role in this effort.
Q And Ambassador Rice’s role?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t anticipate any change at this point. But if something changes, we’ll let you know.
Q How engaged was the President in the conversations about the Taliban Five up until the extension that you mentioned moments ago?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has directed his national security team. There are established channels for having these conversations and for reaching these kinds of agreements with our partners around the world -- in this case, in Qatar. There were a set of restrictive conditions that were placed on these individuals when they were transferred to the custody of the government of Qatar. Our partners in Qatar have lived up to the commitments that they made in the context of those negotiations. And as we continue to talk to them about the path forward, those restrictive conditions remain in place.
Q I want to just follow up on something Michelle asked you. I’ve seen you be very forceful about a number of issues, but I also can tell when you’re being careful. It seems to me when you won’t just come out and say “we are less safe,” there’s a reason behind it. And I’m just wondering, is it because, frankly, we’re not less safe because the Patriot Act provisions have elapsed? Are we basically the same because there are plenty of other tools available already?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, all I can do is I can illustrate to you very clearly that there are tools that had previously been available to our national security professionals that are not available today because the Senate didn’t do their job, because we saw Republicans in the Senate engage in a lot of political back and forth as opposed to engaging in the critically important work of the country.
And as a result, there are programs and tools that our national security professionals themselves say are important to their work that are not available to them right now as we speak. And that’s why we urge the Senate to set aside the politicking and actually focus on their basic responsibility. And we’re hopeful that they will vote in favor of the common-sense, bipartisan reform proposal that’s already passed the House of Representatives.
Q Thanks, Josh. You’ve referred to the non-controversial programs that have expired as an “unnecessary risk.” The framers of the original Patriot Act have said that they designed it the way they did because that’s the way that it works best. So by changing the controversial programs in the USA Freedom Act, does that mean that there are certain necessary risks?
MR. EARNEST: I guess I don’t quite understand the question.
Q Well, we’re taking away a tool that our national security professionals have had in terms of having this bulk data in government hands. There are some questions about to what extent the service providers would be forced to provide the data to government.
MR. EARNEST: I see.
Q Is that a necessary risk to protect civil liberties?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think it’s a significant risk, and here’s why. This is data that, once the USA Freedom Act is implemented, that the U.S. government would no longer collect under these authorities. But they would still have access to the data because it’s information that’s being preserved and collected by the telecoms companies. And again, this is the information that you get on your monthly cell phone bill.
Our national security professionals would still have the authority to review that information after obtaining a court order to review that information. And that’s consistent with what our national security professionals say that they need to conduct these investigations. So that’s why I don’t think I would be in a position to say that this is a significant, unnecessary risk, or even a necessary risk. This is a policy solution that addresses the concerns that have been raised by some about protecting the civil liberties of the American people while ensuring that our national security professionals have the tools that they need to keep us safe.
And so that’s why I feel confident in making the case to you that we can both put in place significant reforms and address concerns that have been raised by some, rather aggressively, while also making sure that our national security professionals can do the important work of protecting the country.
Q And so you’re 100 percent confident that, under the USA Freedom Act, that national security professionals would actually have the access to that data from any telephone company that they need?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is what our national security professionals say, so you don’t have to take my word for it. The people that are working for this -- who are working on this on a daily basis have said that the reforms that are included in the USA Freedom Act are reforms that would both bolster civil liberties protections while also giving them the access to the information that they need to do their work.
Q Thank you, Josh. It’s been a long time.
MR. EARNEST: Nice to see you.
Q Nice to see you. Do you have any details scheduled about the upcoming visit of South Korean President Park Geun-hye to the United States?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry, can you speak up just a little bit?
Q Do you have any details scheduled about upcoming visit of --
MR. EARNEST: Of President Park?
Q Yes, President Park to --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a schedule yet, but I would expect in the coming days that we will have a more detailed schedule about that visit. I know that the President is looking forward to meeting with President Park and discussing so many of the important issues that we coordinate closely with our allies in South Korea.
Q Okay. And is this office related, or a state visit?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. As we collect more details on this, we’ll get back to you on that.
Q All right. Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Victoria.
Q French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is saying that it’s essential that international inspectors have access to military sites and also to the military as part of any kind of Iran nuclear deal. Does the U.S. agree with that?
MR. EARNEST: Victoria, this is something that we discussed at some length with Iran and our P5+1 partners in the context of the political agreement that was reached the first week in April. And that political agreement would impose the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.
There are also another set of inspections and requirements that would be imposed on Iran that a bunch of other countries are subject to, as well. What I'm speaking of are what are described as the additional protocols. And these are essentially a set of rules and regulations that govern the inspection of countries’ nuclear programs. And those additional protocols that are in place against other countries, in addition to being in place against Iran if they sign on to the agreement, do include inspections of military facilities under a whole set of specific circumstances.
And so there are still some details to be worked out. But the point of all this is that the President is only going to sign on to an agreement at the end of June whose details reflect the kinds of political commitments that were made by Iran in the first week in April. And that is the principle that we have in place here.
There are additional details obviously that need to be negotiated and pinned down -- a lot of I’s to dot and T’s to cross -- because the devil is in the details here. And so we’re very focused on those details as we get into the last month of negotiations.
Q The Ayatollah Khamenei said just recently as last week that international inspectors would not get access to military sites.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is something that we’re going to continue to have a conversation about. But the fact is that there is a political agreement that was reached in the first week in April in which Iran agreed to cooperate with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program. And the point is that there are other countries whose nuclear program requires some inspections that are conducted at military facilities.
And we have been clear in the context of that political agreement that the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program are questions that will have to be resolved in the context of these negotiations.
So we’ve got another month or so to work through these details. But the President will not sign an agreement that doesn’t reflect the agreements -- commitments that were made in the context of the political agreement that was announced the first week in April.
In the back, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. I had a question about Edward Snowden. Now that all three branches of government have rejected the use of the Patriot Act to justify bulk collection by the NSA -- as you said, first the White House and then the appeal court the other week, and now Congress -- is it time to reassess the persecution of the man who revealed the existence of this program to the American people?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not. The fact is that Mr. Snowden committed very serious crimes, and the U.S. government and Department of Justice believe that he should face them. And that’s why we believe that Mr. Snowden should return to the United States where he will face due process, and he’ll have the opportunity -- if he returned to the United States -- to make that case in a court of law. But obviously our view on this is that he committed and is accused of very serious crimes.
Q Quick follow. The wrinkle, as you may know, is that he says he would be willing to come back if he can use a whistle blow defense in court. And the Department of Justice has said it doesn’t want to consider that, and the charges that he’s charged with wouldn’t allow that. Would you be willing to at least talk to him about the circumstances in which you’ve said you would give him a fair trial?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t get into those negotiations. Obviously this is something that the Department of Justice would handle in conversations with him, if they’re having them.
The thing I would point out that I think is factually relevant to that argument is that there exists mechanisms for whistleblowers to raise concerns about sensitive national security programs. Releasing details of sensitive national security programs on the Internet for everyone, including our adversaries, to see is inconsistent with those protocols that are established for protecting whistleblowers.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:09 P.M. EDT