Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/15/2016
BY PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
11:18 A.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. Happy Friday. I just want to do one quick thing at the top before we go to questions, and this is just in response to a number of questions that we’ve received over the last couple of weeks about the implementation of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
We are aware that Iran has made important progress in fulfilling the obligations and commitments that they made in the context of that international agreement to dismantle significant portions of their nuclear infrastructure. There are important steps that they have committed to take, and they will not be receiving any sort of sanctions relief until the IAEA has been able to independently verify that those steps have been completed and the IAEA also, moving forward, will preserve significant capability to monitor Iran’s nuclear program to verify their ongoing compliance with the agreement.
So just as a quick reminder, it seems useful to walk through very briefly the steps that Iran has committed to take before any sanctions relief will be provided. This includes essentially -- or completely shutting down every pathway that Iran has to acquiring enough fissile material to develop a nuclear weapon. That meant that Iran had to follow through with a commitment to eliminate 98 percent of their uranium stockpile. We do actually know that this is one element of their commitments that they did fulfill -- they shipped 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium out of the country over the holidays.
They also made a commitment to stop spinning thousands of centrifuges, and to remove and to place into storage 13,000 of those centrifuges. And those storage facilities will also be monitored by the IAEA to ensure that they remain there.
And, most importantly, there will be ongoing monitoring by the IAEA of Iran’s nuclear program. And that’s critical because we do have the ability if we detect that Iran is not fulfilling all of their commitments that we can snap sanctions back into place. And that is written into the agreement, as well.
So I don’t have an update for you on timing -- I think that is a key question, and there’s obviously understandable interest in that -- I don’t have an update for you on timing. But we know that Iran is making important progress. But ultimately, the limiting factors here are both Iran’s completion of these tasks, and the ability of the IAEA to independently verify that those tasks have been completed. So that’s essentially what remains to be done.
And all of it underscores the significance of this agreement. And obviously critics of the agreement and critics of the administration note that Iran will get sanctions relief. The amount of that sanctions relief is often exaggerated by the critics. But somehow they fail to acknowledge that when President Obama took office, the world was quite concerned that Iran was racing to enhance their military -- or enhance their nuclear capacity so that they could build a nuclear weapon. And in fact, because of the tough and principled diplomacy that was advanced by President Obama, we’ve actually seen Iran dismantle so much of their nuclear architecture that we have blocked every pathway they have to building a nuclear weapon.
And that’s a substantial accomplishment. It certainly makes the world safer. It strengthens the security of our closest allies around the world, particularly Israel. And it enhances the national security of the United States, and that’s why the President pursued it.
Q Question on that.
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q When you say “timing,” do you mean waiting for the IAEA to issue a statement of verification?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to leave you with the impression that that’s the only thing that we’re waiting on; that we are both waiting for Iran to complete the steps that they said that they would take, and for the IAEA to independently verify that those steps have been completed.
It’s important not to separate those two things because it may, in fact, be, Mark, that they have completed all of the steps that they need to take, but we’re not going to take their word for it. We’re actually going to make sure that we have independent verification by nuclear experts. So we see those two things -- they’re two steps, but we see them as inextricably linked, primarily because we’re just not going to take the Iranians’ word for it if they’ve taken the steps that they’ve -- that they have taken the steps that they’re supposed to take.
Q Well, that makes it sound like the IAEA is what you’re waiting for.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t mean to leave you with that impression because it may be that Iran hasn’t taken actually the steps that they’re supposed to take. So these are just inextricably linked. But I think the leadership in Iran has made quite clear that they are working aggressively to fulfill their end of the bargain. And we certainly welcome the zeal with which they are pursuing the fulfillment of their commitments. But at the same time, Mark, we also want to make sure that they don’t cut any corners. And that’s why independent verification has been in some ways the key part of this agreement from the beginning because there is, based on their history, a lot of distrust about the way that Iran talked publicly about their nuclear program in particular.
So again, they are two steps, but they are inextricably linked.
Ron, did you have something on this, too?
Q Yes. You said that the amount of sanctions relief that they’re going to get is often exaggerated. What is the accurate amount, or how would you describe what they are getting currently?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my colleagues at the Treasury Department can give you a little bit more detail on this. The number that is often cited by critics of the deal is $150 billion, and our experts have indicated that that is, like I said, an exaggeration. The number that I have heard is that it’s closer to $50 billion or $100 billion, not $150 billion. And the reason for that is, in part, that Iran has a lot of bills that have come due, and so much of the sanctions relief that they will receive will immediately be devoted to paying off debts that they have incurred.
The second thing that’s important for people to understand is that the sanctions relief that they receive will merely allow them to get access to their own money that is currently in the international financial system. So it’s not as if there’s an impact on the taxpayers of the United States here. These are essentially sanctions that were designed by the United States, enforced by the world, to essentially limit or outright prevent Iran’s access to their own money that was in the international system.
Q They’re getting the growth on that money.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q They’re getting the growth on that money as well, plus debts.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I’m not suggesting that Iran is not getting anything. I’m just suggesting that they’re not getting any financial resources from the United States. It’s their own money.
Second, it’s worth being accurate about what the amount of money that is -- it’s not $150 billion. For a more precise calculation I’d refer you to the Treasury Department. And the reason that I wanted to go through this exercise is it’s often described by our critics as what Iran is getting, but they fail to note what the international community is getting and what the United States is getting, and what impact that has on our national security.
And what we’re getting is verifiable confirmation that Iran won’t have a nuclear weapon. And as recently as five or six years ago, there was a real concern about what would happen to Israel and to our security interests in the Middle East because of Iran’s aggressive pursuit of a nuclear weapon. It wasn’t that long ago -- a year ago -- that the assessment of the United States’ intelligence community that Iran was within three months -- that essentially they had a three-month breakout period.
Now, we know that once this deal goes through and hopefully that will be soon, that breakout period will be extended to a year. And because of our verification measures, we’ll know right away once they have begun to take those steps.
So again, the benefits for the United States, for Israel, for our other allies and partners in the region when it comes to our national security are significant, despite the fact they are often overlooked by our critics.
Q You mentioned Israel. Has there been any -- have there been any discussions, or is there a strategy to talk to Israel? Are there discussions going on as this becomes more imminent? I know there’s that task force examining the overall aid package.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, exactly.
Q But is there something specific going on with the Israelis to reassure them now as we approach this implementation day?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you touched on the main part of that, which is the work that is ongoing between senior officials here in the United States and senior national security officials in Israel to discuss the extension and expansion of the memorandum of understanding about U.S. military support to Israel.
And the President has talked about how the commitment on the part of the United States to Israel’s national security is unshakeable. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has himself observed that kind of assistance that's been provided by the United States under the leadership of President Barack Obama to Israel has been unprecedented. And we're seeking to further extend and deepen that kind of coordination and cooperation in the context of these discussions. And that is something that they're working on hard, too.
Let me go back to Darlene. I don't want to skip Darlene, but I’ll come back to you guys.
Q Thanks. The governor of Michigan has asked President Obama to issue an emergency disaster declaration over the crisis with lead in the drinking water in Flint. Do you have a sense of how quickly the administration expects to make a decision on that request?
MR. EARNEST: There’s a formal process at FEMA for considering these kinds of requests. That process is ongoing, and given the nature of the kinds of requests that are made in that system, those requests are considered expeditiously. Just a matter of course, this one will be as well.
I think it’s important to note, Darlene, there are already a number of things that the federal government has done to respond to this ongoing situation. There actually already are FEMA personnel that have been deployed to Flint to serve as a liaison between the long-term recovery committee that was established by the governor and the relevant federal agencies that may be able to assist with existing programs and funds. There also was FEMA staff that was deployed to Michigan to provide some logistical and technical support to the state and local officials who are on the ground responding to the situation.
I also know that there has been some physical supplies that have been provided by FEMA to the state of Michigan to respond to this situation, specifically bottled water. FEMA has a regular process where they stockpile commodities for use in responding to emergency situations. And just as a matter of course, what FEMA will do is that when those commodities get close to their expiration date, they often will donate those resources to charity. But in this case, they had bottled water that was nearing its expiration date that they were prepared to donate to charity that has been redirected to this ongoing response effort in Michigan.
So there are a number of resources that have already been dedicated by the federal government to assist state and local officials who are responding to this situation.
What I didn't mention is that both the EPA and the Department of Justice have indicated that they're taking a close look at this situation in terms of the science and in terms of the impact that it has had and could have on local populations. The Department of Justice is obviously taking a look at the decisions that led to this particular situation. So there’s a lot that's already going on in Flint. But obviously the governor has made a request through the formal process, and it’s a request that we’ll consider expeditiously.
Q Is there a chance there could be a decision as early as this weekend?
MR. EARNEST: The potential for that certainly exists. For an update on the timing, I’d actually refer you to FEMA.
Q And then, to follow up on the terrorist attack in Indonesia the other day, what does it say about the strength of the Islamic State that they’ve now carried a terrorist in Indonesia, which is kind of far away from some of the other places they have carried out similar attacks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of concerns when it relates to the ability of ISIL to spread their violence, mayhem and murderous ideology. The first is concern about foreign fighters. These are individuals who have traveled from around the globe to Iraq and Syria to take up arms alongside ISIL. The concern obviously is that these individuals could use their foreign passports to return to their home country and organize and carry out acts of violence.
There’s a substantial number of individuals from Indonesia who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to take up arms alongside ISIL. And so the threat that is posed by foreign fighters is significant, one the Indonesians are keenly aware of.
This is also a concern that the President himself is keenly aware of. And that's why, almost a year and a half ago now, the President convened a meeting of the National Security Council -- or the United Nations Security Council to discuss how the international community could coordinate our efforts to combat foreign fighters, to share intelligence, to share information about individuals who are traveling. And that has enhanced the security of nations around the world. Obviously, there is more that we can do when it comes to information sharing to try to combat this effort.
The second source of concern, Darlene, is actually a concern that is acutely held here in the United States, too, which is the way in which ISIL has capitalized on social media to spread their ideology and to try to radicalize vulnerable individuals. And so there obviously is an effort -- an aggressive effort that we have mounted both here in the United States and around the world to try to combat their online radicalization efforts. And, in fact, when the President was in Southeast Asia -- he was in Malaysia -- he talked about how the United States was supporting the Malaysians as they established a regional fusion center that could be used to coordinate the effort to counter ISIL’s online radicalization attempts.
So there are a variety of ways in which we are supporting the Indonesians as they counter this threat. I don’t mean to leave you with the impression that we know exactly at this point -- or at least that we’re prepared to talk publicly at this point about who carried out the heinous attacks that you referred to or how they were able to carry out those attacks. That’s still under investigation by the Indonesians, and we have offered our support to them.
And as I mentioned yesterday, it certainly bears repeating that our thoughts and prayers continue to be with those Indonesians who were affected by this terrible act of violence.
Q Josh, there’s another big selloff on Wall Street today. How closely is the White House tracking this? Are you concerned about it, and is it any signal of maybe some other problems with the economy despite the President’s optimism that he expressed earlier this week at State of the Union?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, I’m always reluctant to talk about day-to-day movements in the stock market. That reluctance continues today. I would note that most of the market indexes, indices, closed somewhat higher yesterday, and now they’re down again today.
Obviously, these are market movements that are closely watched at the Treasury Department. They watch financial markets all around the world and are carefully evaluating what sort of impact they could have on the broader economy here in the United States.
I don’t know that the President has been briefed on today’s movements at all, but I think they highlight -- I guess there are three things that come to mind.
The first is, there are a lot of other data points to indicate the strength and durability of the U.S. economy. We just got jobs numbers one week ago today that showed at the end of last year that 292,000 jobs were created just in December of 2015, and that was the continuation of the longest streak of private sector job growth in our nation’s history -- 70 months now, north of 14 million jobs created over that period of time. That’s an indication that the U.S. economy continues to be quite durable despite -- and this is the second point I wanted to make -- despite the kind of volatility that we see overseas.
Now, there’s no denying that weakness in other markets with whom we do extensive business is going to be a headwind for the U.S. economy. We’re mindful of that. Particularly as the international economy becomes more integrated, we have to be sensitive to movements that we see in the economies of other countries.
The third thing I’ll say is that’s why the President continued to aggressively advocate in his State of the Union for additional policies here in the United States that would allow us to build on the momentum that we’re already seeing in the job market, but also allow us to strengthen the U.S. economy particularly for middle-class families that could be vulnerable to some of the effects that we’re seeing from weaknesses in other countries’ economies.
So that’s why the President has championed nearer-term solutions, like investments in infrastructure and raising the minimum wage, but also encouraging Congress to take the kinds of steps now that will position our economy over the long term to succeed. And these are investments in early childhood education and other policies that would open the door to a college education to more students and workers and their families.
So the President has obviously got a lot of ideas. And I think that even some of those who are concerned about the impact of the market volatility today on the U.S. economy should join the President in thinking over the long term about what we can do to better prepare the country to withstand that kind of volatility in the future.
Q On a separate topic, following up on Michigan, did the EPA drop the ball on this issue? This is something that they’ve been aware of. Is there any concern that they didn’t fulfill their duties on this apparent crisis in Michigan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, at this point, I’m quite limited in what I can say about attributing any sort of blame for this particular situation, primarily because the Department of Justice is taking a look at this question. The EPA has obviously been involved, and they’re involved now in trying to respond to the situation. But in terms of who could be to blame, what actions state officials took both before this incident and its immediate aftermath are questions that ultimately are being investigated and will have to be answered by the Department of Justice.
Q Josh, back on the Iran deal. It’s my understanding that the IAEA issues this report and the member states look at it, Secretary of State Kerry will review, sign off, and that triggers the process for sanctions being lifted. Does the President intend to read this IAEA report or be briefed on it before that happens?
MR. EARNEST: I would anticipate that the President will get a briefing on the findings, but I also would not anticipate that the need to review the IAEA report would lead to a significant delay in moving forward. Part of that’s because we’re in ongoing communications with the IAEA about their work, so it’s unlikely there will be any surprises, which I think would allow us to review that report without any significant delay.
Q You could do this all in one day, a matter of hours?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update in terms of what the timing would look like or how quickly we could turn it around. My colleagues at the State Department may be able to give you a better assessment of that. But I would not anticipate a lengthy delay once a final IAEA report has been issued, primarily because we continue to be in regular communication with them about their ongoing review.
Q Josh, when you heard from the Secretary of State this week, he stood up at a podium and said Iran poured concrete into their reactor at Arak. We had a press release saying they’d shipped out uranium. It seems the U.S. is independently verifying some of these things. So I know that technically we’re waiting on this IAEA report, but, frankly, it seems that the U.S. is saying we are full speed ahead, going ahead with this deal, regardless of that IAEA report -- that’s just a technicality.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I assure you that when this agreement was being negotiated, the important, independent work of the IAEA was considered to be much more than a technicality. As I noted earlier, getting the IAEA access to the information that they need to verify the initial steps that Iran is taking and be positioned and have the access they need to verify their compliance with the agreement on an ongoing basis was a critical part of the agreement. And primarily that’s because there’s ample reason to distrust what Iran says about their nuclear program. Their track record on this is less than stellar.
And rather than be in a situation where we’re quibbling with them about what we assess and what they claim to have done, we have basically created a system that will allow independent, international nuclear experts significant access into Iran and their nuclear program to verify their ongoing compliance with the agreement. And that was a critical part of these negotiations, and that’s why we’re going to rely on those international experts moving forward to ensure that Iran is living up to their commitments.
Q But you had not only the incident with the sailors this week -- it was quickly resolved -- but you also have Iran testing ballistic missiles in the past few months and, as you continue to note, Iran meddling elsewhere in the world. So when you hear from the administration implementation day is just days away, it seems like a sure thing, it seems like no matter what misbehavior you see with Iran right now, this deal is on.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have been quite clear from the very beginning -- long before a deal was even reached -- that the negotiations were focused primarily on Iran’s nuclear program. That was our number one concern. It’s also the number one concern of our allies in Israel, as well.
The reason that the United States, Israel, and the broader international community was concerned about the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon is that in so many other areas Iran is a pretty bad actor. Iran supports terrorism. Iran has an aggressive ballistic missile program that is under development. Iran regularly menaces Israel. That's the kind of country you want to be sure doesn't have access to a nuclear weapon. That's why we made it a priority. That's why our international partners made it a priority -- that includes the U.K., France, Germany, China, and Russia. They all made that their priority. And we have succeeded -- or hopefully will soon succeed in verifying that Iran has taken the necessary steps to block every path they have to developing that nuclear weapon.
That doesn't eliminate the long list of concerns we have with their other behavior, but I think it does help explain why we’ve made preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon a top priority.
Now, there are a variety of ways that we're going to continue to impress upon the Iranians the need to address our other concerns, as well. And we’ve been pretty clear about the fact that Iran is potentially subject to significant sanctions as a result of the ballistic missile testing that has been reported. So we're going to continue to apply pressure to them.
Ron mentioned the enhanced support that we're going to provide to our allies in the region, and that includes the Israelis, but also our partners like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries.
But I think the other thing that is notable from all of this is that the diplomatic engagement that has brought us quite close to this international agreement to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon is also helping the United States in other ways. It’s because of that established diplomatic channel that we were able to promptly resolve the situation of the U.S. sailors that ended up in Iranian territorial waters.
Q -- incentive of sanctions relief just days away.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, let me explain why I brought this up. There are a lot, again, of our critics who suggested rather rash and irresponsible reactions to this situation. One U.S. senator suggested that the United States should delay the State of Union address. There was one U.S. senator who was on television last night who was apparently suggesting that in response to the situation the President of the United States should have bombed or invaded Iran or both. It’s unclear to me exactly how either of those proposed responses would have resulted in a better outcome, because the outcome, as we all saw, was that these sailors, 14 hours after they were picked up in Iranian waters, were released unharmed with their boats.
So I do think that the kind of diplomatic engagement that the President has aggressively pursued in the face of blistering criticism from our critics has I think quite clearly shown how it advances our national security interests to pursue the approach that the President has. And again, I think it is difficult for our critics to make an argument otherwise.
Q But you mentioned that Iran could be sanctioned for its ballistic missile testing. Are you saying that the U.S. can now sanction Iran for testing ballistic missiles once this deal goes through?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have never taken off the table the ability of the United States to impose sanctions on Iran based on our other concerns about their behavior.
Q But you've delayed that action?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there has been significant discussion about the possibility that the United States could impose sanctions on Iran over their ballistic missile program. And I certainly wouldn’t rule out that that's something that could be imposed here at any time. So that has always been an option on the table. And we talked about how the nuclear agreement would not resolve the long list of concerns that we have about their ballistic missile program or about their human rights record or about their menacing of Israel. We’ve also been clear that this nuclear agreement did not in any way impair our ability to hold Iran accountable for those kinds of nefarious activities, either.
Q Lastly, once this is -- the technicalities of all this are done, would you anticipate that the President might call President Rohani and perhaps personally ask for the return of the five American civilians -- at least five Americans who are still held in Tehran?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any presidential phone calls to preview for you, and I’m not aware of any current plans for the President to telephone his Iranian counterpart.
As it relates to those Americans who are currently and unjustly held by Iran, we have -- in the context of these nuclear negotiations, Secretary Kerry made clear that every time he met with his counterpart to discuss their nuclear program, he also made it a point to raise our ongoing concerns about these Americans who are being unjustly detained. And that’s an indication that we have made this a priority.
You’ve heard the President talk about how this issue is quite personal to him. I don’t have an update for you of our ongoing efforts to secure their release, but we certainly believe strongly, and have made it a priority, to tell the Iranians that we’re ready for our American citizens who are being unjustly detained in Iran to be released.
Q So, in short, you don’t think that the U.S. loses leverage on Iran to get the American civilians back by giving the sanctions relief and taking the pressure off of its economy?
MR. EARNEST: It is our view that these are -- we have always made clear that we would not -- and it would not be in the best interest of those unjustly detained Americans to make their cases somehow contingent on this nuclear agreement. That’s not going to make it easier for us to get them -- to bring them home. We continue to have -- to make a strong case to the Iranians that these Americans are being unjustly detained in their country and that they should be released. We’ve made clear that that’s a priority. And it will continue to be until they’re brought home.
Q Yesterday night at the Republican debate, as usual, the President was attacked several times on foreign policy. Did he watch the debate? And what’s his reaction to those candidates saying America is a mess and does not have any more influence all over the world?
MR. EARNEST: Unfortunately, I did watch part of the debate last night. I regretted it deeply. I don’t believe the President made that same mistake.
As for a response or a rebuttal, the President had the opportunity on Tuesday night to address the nation, where he delivered his fundamentally optimistic and confident view about how the United States is the greatest country in the world. We have the most stable and durable economy of any nation in the world. We continue to have the greatest fighting force of any nation in the world. And we continue to have the capacity to advance our interests around the world. And we’re using them.
Q Are you annoyed by those critics during the Republican debate?
MR. EARNEST: No, primarily because we hear a lot of overheated rhetoric but not a lot of facts to substantiate it. The other thing that was notable about last night for me is I never thought I’d pine for the days of Herman Cain, but at least he had a 9-9-9 plan. It was outrageous, but at least he had an affirmative governing proposal and agenda. You didn’t hear anybody with even a semblance of a 9-9-9 plan. So I don’t think -- I mean, next to all these guys that were on the stage last night, Herman Cain looks like a policy wonk.
And again, the reason that that is disappointing is the President is working hard to implement a forward-looking agenda that is going to expand economic opportunity for the middle class, that’s going to make America safer around the world. And we’ve made a lot of progress just in the last few months with members of Congress reaching the kinds of legislative agreements that are going to advance that agenda. We reformed No Child Left Behind in a way that will improve our education system and not subject our students to too much testing. We passed a five-year transportation bill that will allow us to at least, over the long term, lock in some level of infrastructure funding. The President believes we need to increase that level of funding, but at least locking in that five-year guarantee will allow state and local governments across the country to invest in the kind of infrastructure projects that are good for our economy.
But there are other things, right, that we -- we made permanent tax cuts for middle-class families and those families that are working hard to get into the middle class. We reached a budget agreement that would allow us to adequately fund our economic and national security priorities $50 billion over the sequester levels that were advocated by a bunch of Republicans.
So the President has an affirmative agenda, and we are actually having success in advancing it, despite the kind of opposition we see from the Republicans who are actually in the majority of both houses of Congress. That’s what leadership is, and that’s what the American people expect out of their President. And we didn’t see anything close to that on the stage last night.
Q Does the White House have any reaction about the Donald Trump comments on 9/11?
MR. EARNEST: Not really. I mean, I didn’t actually see that part of the debate that he delivered it, but I obviously read about his remarks. Look, there’s no denying that people all across the country and around the world were inspired by the response of the people of New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. There’s no denying that.
Q Is the administration at all troubled or embarrassed that Iran is using these images and video of these soldiers with blindfolds -- sailors with blindfolds on, or on their knees with their hands behind their back, for propaganda purposes?
MR. EARNEST: Doug, primarily what we’re concerned about when it came to our soldiers is making sure that they were released promptly and unharmed. And all of that happened within 14 hours of their originally being taken into Iranian custody when they drifted into Iranian territorial waters.
Q And were you troubled or embarrassed by Iran using these photos?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think there’s any reason for anybody to be embarrassed. I think there’s reason for us to be certainly relieved that our servicemen and women who are protecting America in a very dangerous part of the world were released very -- pretty shortly after they were taken into custody.
Q Can you tell us what the rules are engagement that these sailors in these boats were operating under in the Persian Gulf?
MR. EARNEST: The Department of Defense could give you a better sense of the kind of instructions that they were given before their mission began. What the Secretary of Defense has said is that they erroneously ended up in Iranian territorial waters. The circumstances that led them to this particular situation are still being investigated by the Department of Defense. It’s conducting interviews with the soldiers who were involved, so there’s more that we’ll learn about the particular situation.
Q It seems it’s a lot of cryptic blocking of information coming out. It’s been well over 24 hours now; we have instant communication. These soldiers have been interrogated by their superiors. Presumably either the Pentagon or the White House would know precisely what went on. Yet so many -- there are so many gaps. In fact, we had a senior Pentagon official tell us yesterday that the administration is blocking the facts from getting out.
MR. EARNEST: That’s not true. I think we’ve been pretty transparent about this. And I think we’ve been transparent about the fact that if we had followed the advice of some of the Republican critics of the administration, we’d probably be in a bloody war with Iran right now over our sailors.
The fact is our sailors right now are out of harm’s way. Their boats were released and there was no loss of life. It’s unclear to me, by the way, exactly how the safety and security of the United States or our men and women in uniform is advanced by starting a war with a nation like Iran that has an advanced military.
Q These sailors are part of the Fifth Fleet. If their instructions are to do nothing -- and from all appearances, they were apprehended by much smaller boats, much less armed boats -- and we understand that we’re not in a state of war with Iran, which, again, raises questions about Iran’s behavior -- blindfolding these guys and holding them at gunpoint -- but they’re members of the Fifth Fleet. Is the Fifth Fleet under instructions to do nothing in the event of something like this happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, you’d have to check with the Fifth Fleet. I feel pretty confident in telling you they didn’t just do nothing. But you can go ask them exactly what their response was. Whatever it was, it was consistent with the President’s strategy that led to the prompt and safe return of those sailors about 14 hours after they were originally taken into custody.
Q Although I’m sure everyone is pleased, especially the sailors and their families, that they are returned safely, and diplomacy did lead the day, in a sense --
MR. EARNEST: I think the only people who are unhappy about it are Republicans for some reason.
Q Well, that’s their problem, I guess.
MR. EARNEST: I guess it is.
Q The fact is that this could be very well seen as a violation of the Geneva Convention, where they were traipsed out in front of cameras -- which is totally a violation -- as prisoners, in a sense, under their jurisdiction. Has anyone given that any thought? And will there be a particular protest to that? Or are you pleased that it’s over and you’re moving on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, JC, we certainly are pleased that it’s over. We are pleased that our sailors were released unharmed and promptly, 14 hours after being taken into custody, and without shots being fired to secure their release.
When it comes to the Geneva Convention, my understanding is that it primarily applies to prisoners of war. And obviously, as Doug noted, we’re not at war with Iran. So based on what I’ve been told, the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply in this particular circumstance.
But again, what we were focused on from the very beginning, from the earliest reports about this incident, was the safe and prompt return of our sailors. And that’s exactly what we secure. And we did that without delaying the start of the State of the Union, and without launching any sort of military action against the nation of Iran.
Q But you could understand how the visual effect is a serious one. There were guns, they were blindfolded. War or not war, it depends on your definition of what that kind of --
MR. EARNEST: Well, from that standpoint, JC -- we’re not at war with Iran. And I’m also not denying that this is a dangerous situation. Clearly it is. Again, that’s a reason for us to be appreciative of the sacrifices and risks that our men and women in the military take to keep us safe and to keep us free, and to advance our national security interests even in one of the most volatile regions of the world.
I also think it underscores the value of responsible, mature presidential leadership. The President didn’t start a war over this. The President pursued diplomatic engagement through his Secretary of State, who had an open, diplomatic channel of communication with his Iranian counterpart. And because of that important diplomatic work, our sailors were released, unharmed, 14 hours after being taken into custody, in their own boats. Again, as I said earlier, I think Republicans would be quite hard-pressed to make the case that a better outcome was possible here.
Q A year ago yesterday, Warren Weinstein was killed in a drone strike in the border region of Pakistan. Both you and President Obama, I think, after that strike, promised a review of what went wrong. And I guess, a year on, I’m hoping that you can share some of the conclusions of that. And I’m curious if you had the opportunity to share those conclusions with Mr. Weinstein’s family.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Greg, as the President stated last spring, there are no words that can fully describe the pain and sorrow that Dr. Weinstein’s family must be feeling about his loss. That pain and sorrow is felt by the President himself, who took responsibility for the counterterrorism operations that are conducted in that region of the world, including the one that claimed Dr. Weinstein’s life.
The President took the extraordinary step of directing his national security team to make public as many details as possible about that operation, and to be forthright about the tragic loss of life. I should point out that Dr. Weinstein was not the only innocent civilian that was tragically killed in this incident. There’s another individual from Italy, Mr. Lo Porto, who was also killed in that counterterrorism operation, and we mourn his loss as well.
The fact is, the American people, especially the Weinstein family, deserve to know the truth about what exactly happened. And that’s why the President directed that his team make as much of this public as possible. Out of respect for the family, there’s not a whole lot of more information that I can discuss publicly. There have been -- well, let me say it this way. The handling of this particular case has allowed the government to develop some better tools to more effectively engage with families who are in this tragic situation.
Over the summer, we announced a whole set of reforms to the way in which the U.S. government is structured to ensure that we are effectively integrating the capabilities and information of a variety of government agencies that are responsible for trying to rescue American citizens. We want that process of trying to rescue American citizens as efficient and as effective as possible, as you’d expect. But the other thing that we wanted to improve was our ability to communicate with their families and to share as much information as we possibly could about what the United States government is doing to secure the release of their loved one, and to make sure that they are updated as frequently as possible with reliable information.
And we put in place those reforms and we’re hopeful that those reforms will allow us to do this work more effectively, both in terms of rescuing more Americans, but also in terms of being more sensitive and being more effective when communicating with their families back here at home.
Q Has the investigation into the strike led you to any conclusions about drone strikes and signature strikes? Has that led to any changes in the way we prosecute that portion of the war?
MR. EARNEST: For any changes in policy, Greg, I think I’d have to refer you to the intelligence community on this. Obviously, over the last several years, the President has tried to implement some reforms to our counterterrorism operations more broadly and tried to more transparent.
What is clear is that there continues to be an incredibly high standard for avoiding civilian casualties when carrying out counterterrorism operations. That standard hasn’t changed. And in fact, that very high standard is also applied to operations that are carried out the United States military, as well. And I would note, just for your reference, that just earlier today Central Command issued a news release laying out a couple of incidents in the context of our counter-ISIL campaign that led to some civilian casualties.
Again, that is consistent with the approach that the President has prioritized -- to be as transparent as possible about our operations, and also to be forthright when the civilian casualties that we work so hard to avoid are nonetheless sustained.
Joe, nice to see you.
Q You, too, Josh. Just to follow up on one question about the sailors. Is there no protest for the United States to file? Or is the administration and the Pentagon leaning in the direction of saying that these were simply bad choices by the sailors?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Joe, they're still looking at exactly what led -- what circumstances led to these American sailors ending up in Iranian territorial waters. And so that aspect of this particular situation continues to be under investigation.
Q And you've talked a little bit about the linkage between the sailors and the engagement with Iran. How much of it was improved relations with Iran that led to the release of the sailors, and how much of it was just a sense that this situation as it occurred might have thrown a wrench into the program as the IAEA report approached?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it is hard to fully assess the motivations of the Iranians who ultimately made the decision to release these sailors promptly. I think what is beyond dispute is the fact that effective diplomatic engagement from the earliest reports of this incident was critical to our success in securing their prompt release. And that kind of diplomatic engagement, that channel of diplomatic communication was established by Secretary Kerry and his Iranian counterpart in the context of the protracted, years-long negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
And look, in his inaugural address in January of 2009, the President talked about how the United States of America and our national security interests could be advanced by appropriately engaging through tough, principled diplomacy even adversaries of the United States like Iran. And that was subject to a lot of criticism not just by Republicans, by the way. There was a spirited debate about this in the context of the presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008. But I think that what we have seen in terms of our progress in getting Iran to take steps to all but dismantle their nuclear infrastructure in a way that actually shuts down every pathway they have to building a nuclear weapon and quickly defusing dangerous incidents like the one that we saw with the sailors earlier this week I think is a powerful endorsement of that approach.
Q A quick El Chapo question for you. He bragged in this Rolling Stone interview that he moved more heroin and other drugs through here than anybody else. Is there any sense as to whether that's true? And is there a feeling here that extraditing him to the United States will somehow dismantle his organization where others have failed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you heard the White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough say that that kind of bragging was disgusting.
The desire to capture Mr. Guzman was motivated by the sense that his capture could at least disrupt the ability of an international criminal organization to traffic a variety of things, including heroin and other narcotics, through Mexico and around the world. I don't think, unfortunately, that we can say that this kind of capture, while significant, will succeed in dismantling that organization. But we are hopeful that it will be a little harder for them to operate and do the damaging work that they do without their leader.
Q And you've been asked about the debate last night. The President has sort of renewed his push to try to create reconciliation among the parties at a time when he is being harshly criticized by Republicans. Is it realistic to try to push for reconciliation at a time like this? Or is this just going to turn into the President’s work on getting out the base for the general election?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think the President made a pretty solemn commitment in the context of his State of Union to do more and to redouble his efforts to try to bridge the stark partisan divide that's on full display in the United States Congress. So I think there are couple of ways to talk about that.
The first is, sometimes that divide is exaggerated -- because I went through some of the things, in answering Laura’s question, that we’ve been able to accomplish at the end of last year -- reform of No Child Left Behind, the transportation bill, the budget agreement, locking in the middle-class tax cuts. I didn't mention things like reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank and finally moving through IMF reform. All of these are long-sought priorities of the administration, and all of them were accomplished in the space of like six weeks at the end of last year, and all of them by finding common ground with the newly appointed Republican Speaker of the House -- or newly elected Republican Speaker of the House.
So the kind of doom and gloom along party lines that's being advanced by a lot of Republicans, both in Congress and on the campaign trail, I think does make some people pessimistic about our prospects for legislative accomplishments over the course of this year.
But just over the last couple of days -- been talking about this a lot, this particular issue -- and it has become clear that there are at least six things that this administration has made a priority that seem to be priorities that are shared by at least some Republicans on Capitol Hill. And I think in most cases, actually a majority of Republicans have identified these things are priorities, and we're hopeful that we can work with Republicans on the Hill.
Let me just walk you through them. The first is criminal justice reform. That's probably the one that we’ve talked about the most. There appears to be significant bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate for common-sense legislation that would reform our criminal justice in a way that would make that system more fair and make our communities more safe. The President is certainly interested in trying to advance legislation that would accomplish that goal.
We also talked a lot about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A lot of Republicans -- there’s strong Republican support on Capitol Hill for that agreement. There obviously are a lot of Republicans in Washington, D.C. who aren’t in Congress but often support congressional campaigns who are pretty enthusiastic about the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. And that gives us some confidence that we’ll be able to build a bipartisan majority to see that agreement be ratified this year.
The other thing I would point out, the President talked about how he was going to put Vice President Biden in charge of redoubling our efforts and ramping our investments in trying to cure cancer. That got a lot of applause in the hall where the President was speaking on Tuesday night, and that's because we have seen even some conservative Republicans who don't have too many compliments for the President’s agenda say that they strongly support investment in medical research and development -- both because of the economic benefits associated with those kinds of investments, but also because of the medical breakthroughs that could be realized that would save people’s lives.
The fourth thing I would point out, the President had pretty direct praise for Speaker Ryan’s commitment to trying to find new ways to fight poverty. The President singled out one policy idea that's Speaker Ryan had put forward this would be expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to include those workers that don't have children. The President believes that actually sets up a pretty good incentive. And we even saw some comments earlier this week after the President’s speech from some Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee saying that they thought this could be a promising idea and that there might be an opportunity to work with the administration to advance it. So that's certainly something that we’d be interested in considering.
The fifth thing is fighting prescription drug abuse and heroin addiction. We’ve seen a lot of Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail talking about this issue. This is something the President has been talking about for quite a long time. The Director of the ONDCP, Mr. Botticelli, has obviously made this a priority. And he’s got his own personal, powerful story about fighting addiction and countering addiction and helping Americans overcome addiction. And we obviously welcome the opportunity to work with Republicans on that.
The sixth thing is something that at least some Republicans support, and this may be an area where there’s not a majority of Republicans, and that’s just on an AUMF -- an authorization to use military force against ISIL. This is obviously something that the President is enthusiastic about. I know that Speaker Ryan has been hosting discussions on Capitol Hill, asking other Republicans to start talking about how to advance this kind of legislation through the House. I know there are some members of the Senate who feel strongly, both on the Democratic and Republican side, that this is something that Congress should do.
And we obviously have demonstrated a willingness to work with members of Congress on this issue. In fact, we actually -- we didn’t just call on them to pass an AUMF; we actually wrote a suggested AUMF and sent it to them so they wouldn’t have to do too much work. And then we actually sent senior members of the President’s national security team to testify about this legislation in an open hearing in Congress. So we’re clearly committed to this effort.
Look, those are six important things, and if we could make some progress on those six things, even in the context of an election year and even in the context of a Democratic President and a Republican-dominated Congress, that would be a pretty good thing. And the President is certainly hopeful that we can do that. Sorry for the long answer.
Q Thanks for taking the question. I wanted to follow up on the situation with Iran and the sailors. Does the White House see their actions as a violation of the Military Code of Conduct, and specifically the “I will not surrender under my own freewill” -- the command, “I will never surrender the members of my command while we still have the means to resist”? Did they have the means to resist? Was the boat disabled, so they didn’the? What was the White House’s view on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is precisely part of the ongoing Department of Defense investigation. So that’s why I’m quite limited in what I can say about this just because I speak on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief. There’s a lot of sensitivity about the Commander-in-Chief even being seen as interfering in an ongoing Department of Defense review, particularly one that I guess as you point out could have some criminal consequences. So we’re going to leave all of that to the Department of Justice and just out of an abundance of caution, there’s not much I can say about that.
Q Is there any sense whether they made this video statement under duress?
MR. EARNEST: That’s unclear. I think common sense tells you that that certainly is a possibility, but this is something the Department of Defense is taking a look at as well.
Q And then you guys put out a factsheet this morning talking about the momentum in the fight against ISIL. I just had -- you guys are talking about all the progress and everything that you’ve made really over the last year and a half -- that ISIL hasn’t had any major strategic victories since May, 2015. Is the White House’s view that we’re winning this war? Can you put on your football hat and say maybe what the score is, what quarter it’s in, or anything like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say it this way. The President has been quite clear from the beginning that there would be areas of progress and some periods of setback. And I think that is the nature of any sort of military conflict, particularly one that’s as unwieldy as this one. I think, John, the best way to answer your question is that over the last several months, the United States and our 65 coalition partners have enjoyed a lot of progress, and there are a variety of ways to measure that, which is -- a couple of the best ways that come to mind would be the successful completion of the operation that was carried out by Iraqi forces to retake Ramadi from ISIL forces.
Obviously it was a pretty significant setback, one that we acknowledged here, when ISIL did capture Ramadi. And it was a long planned and long -- well, let me say it this way. It took significant effort and a lot of planning to mount the kind of campaign that succeeded in driving ISIL out of Ramadi. And that was an important indication that the kind of strategy that we’ve long discussed from here could work -- and that is, the United States and our coalition partners working closely with Iraqi forces to offer training, advice, and assistance to those Iraqi forces, to make sure that they have the necessary equipment, and then to back up their efforts on the ground with airstrikes from the United States and our coalition partners. That was the recipe that allowed them to drive ISIL out of Ramadi. That’s obviously an encouraging development.
I think the other thing that I would point to is -- and I don’t think this was listed on the factsheet, but we can get you more details on this -- is that in the last couple of weeks in December, the United States and our coalition partners undertook the kind of strikes that allowed us to take 10 ISIL leaders off the battlefield just in that relatively narrow period of time, including a couple that had connections to the network that carried out the attacks against innocent civilians in Paris.
So I think that is an indication of the resolve that’s being demonstrated by the United States and our coalition partners to hold ISIL accountable for their efforts to try to target innocent civilians. But it’s also an indication that our efforts to develop intelligence and to learn as much as we can about ISIL’s leaders is yielding some fruit. And the more pressure that we can apply to those ISIL leaders, the more worried we can make them about their own personal safety, the harder it’s going to be for them to plot and plan and carry out attacks against the West.
And so that element of our strategy is also functioning at a high level and yielding some important results.
Q But this reluctance to say whether you’re winning or losing, is that a reflection of ISIL’s ability to launch these one-off attacks in Paris and the connections with San Bernardino, and now Jakarta?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is a reflection of the fact that these kinds of military conflicts often don’t lend themselves very well to sports metaphors; that that’s not an accurate way or an apt way to help people understand exactly what’s happening.
We’re certainly mindful of the ongoing risk that ISIL poses both because of foreign fighters and because of their sophisticated use of social media. But what’s also undeniable is that when you take a look at the battlefield inside of Iraq and in Syria, there’s important progress that’s being made by the United States and our coalition partners, including Iraqi forces in Iraq and some of the moderate Syrian opposition fighters that are taking the fight to ISIL on the ground in Syria.
Q A few questions, mostly nut-and-bolt ones. Does the White House have any opinion on the New York law that would force backdoor encryption access? Are you concerned that there’s a risk that local governments could have access to information of the federal government, if that New York law were passed?
MR. EARNEST: Mike, I have to admit, I’m not familiar with that New York law, but why don’t I have my colleagues at the NSC who work on this issue see if we can get you a response.
Q All right, and I’ll get to the person who’s very familiar with it at Bloomberg. And then another nuts-and-bolts question -- the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Chairman of the Finance Committee in the Senate yesterday said they were working on an effort to address international corporate tax law, including both inversions -- which the White House is certainly quite concerned about -- and repatriation. Is the White House going to engage with them on this? Do you have any sense of whether you can support this effort for a legislation that would address these specific international tax law consequences?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not familiar with the specific proposals that they have put forward, but I think that the things that you have identified -- or I guess that you’ve identified that they have identified -- are also problems that we’ve identified, as well.
So I’m confident that we’d be happy to engage in a discussion with Republicans on Capitol Hill about making our tax code more fair, more simple. And particularly when it comes to the corporate tax code, there is the potential that we could close some loopholes that only benefit wealthy and well-connected corporations, and potentially even lower the rate for everybody.
So we want to do this in a fiscally responsible way. We want to do this in a way that reflects sort of our priority of expanding economic opportunity for everybody in America, particularly middle-class families and those families that are trying to get into the middle class. And the President has talked about how there are some elements of our corporate tax code that are quite unfair. It’s not middle-class families that are stashing their profits overseas to try to avoid taxes; it’s well-connected corporations that are taking advantage of those tax havens. And it’s not fair.
Q Part of the idea is for you to let them bring that money back --
MR. EARNEST: Well, and so that’s -- so the question is can you do that in a way that actually is fair? There are -- the previous time that this was done -- I know that there are a number of studies that have taken a close look at this -- that the previous time that this occurred, the revenue that was generated by that repatriation holiday was dedicated much more to things like corporate bonuses and padding the bottom lines of the companies, and not on like creating jobs and other things that would actually be good for the broader economy.
So, again, I think we can find some optimism in the idea that both Democrats and Republicans agree that these kinds of loopholes in the corporate tax code are a problem. But thus far, our proposed solutions have been quite different. And I think that just, frankly, reflects the differences in the priorities that have been identified by the individual parties. But that certainly won’t prevent us from having a conversation.
Q Lastly, I’m curious how you can say, if we accept that Islamic State is following a terrorist strategy -- which I think most people do -- that they’ve had no strategic victories in recent months. I realize short of taking over a country’s capital, victory can be in the eye of the beholder. But given that the whole idea of a terrorist strategy, conventional military thinking is to affect audiences, domestic, foreign, your own organization, your potential sympathizers, how can you analyze that attack in Paris as not a strategic victory for a terrorist strategy, or an attack -- even if it’s a tiny one -- in the United States as not a strategic victory for the kind of terrorist strategy that they’re pursuing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the factsheet that we put out was specifically related to our military efforts to counter ISIL, and the sentence is just that ISIL has not had any major strategic victories in Iraq or Syria since May of 2015. So they were pretty specific -- but I definitely want to make sure that you take a look at the factsheet when you get a chance.
Q There’s some reporting suggesting that the White House national security team is in the final stages of reviewing a Pentagon proposal to close Gitmo. True?
MR. EARNEST: What I can confirm for you is that the Pentagon, at the instruction of the President, has been working on developing a plan for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The thing that -- they’ve been working on that for some time. I don’t have an updated time frame for you in terms of when that will be produced, but --
Q So there’s nothing that the White House is reviewing now that they have sent over, essentially?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know the answer to that question. I know this is something that the Pentagon has been working on a lot. I know that they’ve had a lot of conversations with White House officials about the development of that plan. So, presumably, the White House has some insight into the work that they are doing and has had an opportunity to talk to them about that work. I don’t know if they’ve e-mailed over a draft version or anything.
The thing that I would tell you about that plan is that, first of all, it is something that we are planning to present to Congress. When we do, it’s something that we’ll also make public so all of you will have an opportunity to take a look at it as well. And I would also encourage you to not give into a sense of mystery about the plan. I think our strategy that we have been pursuing for quite some time is familiar to those of you who have been watching this issue for years now.
We have a strategy for working with partners around the world to transfer those individuals who can be transferred into situations where the threat that they pose to the United States is sufficiently mitigated. We also have a strategy for putting some of these Gitmo detainees through a legal process, either military commissions or Article 3 courts, to bring them to justice.
There is a certain other group of individuals who are not likely to be able to be transferred because they’re so dangerous, but yet, they’re also probably not going to -- the evidence that’s been collected against them doesn’t necessarily lend them to the kind of military commission that has been successful in other areas. So those individuals, resolving their case is the hardest part of all this. And the case that we would make to members of Congress is that continuing to hold those individuals at the prison at Guantanamo Bay isn’t good for our national security interests because we know that terrorist organizations around the world use the operation of the prison at Guantanamo Bay as a recruiting tool.
The second thing is it’s also an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars. It costs right now about $4 million per detainee per year to keep them at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. We could confine them in a different place in a way that would fully protect our national security for much less money, and that’s what the President is focused on.
Q So is it fair to say that the plans that you’re looking at -- there are still a group of detainees whose fate will not be resolved by transfer or by prosecution? There’s still this group -- I think it’s several dozen -- that will be in this legal limbo now for perhaps as long as 10, 12 years? That clearly is not a good situation for the United States from a propaganda point of view or from a values point of view. What happens to them? Do they just go to one of these three federal prisons or detention centers in the United States and languish further?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we have to do is we have to figure out, frankly, a more effective way to confine them than we do right now at the Prison at Guantanamo Bay -- a way that reflects our national security interests but also our commitment to being good stewards of taxpayer dollars. But there’s no denying that working through the challenges of their situation continues to be difficult.
Q And what’s the number now? About 25, is it, 30?
MR. EARNEST: Of those individuals?
MR. EARNEST: A couple dozen is the way that I would describe it. But we can get you a more precise number.
Q Time frame on turning this plan over to Congress?
MR. EARNEST: I just don’t have an update for you on timing. And just to be as candid as I can here, back in July I was asked about it and I told all of you that it would be relatively soon. It’s now January and it hasn’t been produced at this point, so I’m just not going to make any more promises on the timing. But once it is something that we have produced to Congress, we’ll make sure that all of you get a chance to take a look at it, too.
Q Just to be clear, is it fair to say that the plans that the administration is looking at will still result with a couple dozen detainees whose situation is not resolved and who will still be in a legal limbo many years later? You still can’t figure that out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is true, Ron, is that the goal of this plan is not to resolve all of the status -- the individual status of every single detainee at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The goal of this plan is to put forward a strategy for actually closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. In some cases, that will mean putting individuals through military commission proceedings. In some cases, and in the vast majority of cases, it means transferring those individuals to other countries who have appropriate security arrangements in place to take them on. But for this other group of individuals, it means finding a more effective way to detain them so that they don’t pose a threat to our national security, so that they don’t serve as a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations around the world, and do all of that in a much more cost-effective way than we’re doing it right now.
Q Thanks a lot. So yesterday, 10 detainees from Guantanamo arrived in Oman. I believe the Joint Task Force on Guantanamo deemed that five of them were a grave risk to the U.S. and American interests. The word that you've used, the Pentagon uses is that they were transferred. Are these individuals essentially going from one prison cell in Guantanamo to another prison cell in Oman?
MR. EARNEST: The security arrangements that are in place for these individual detainees -- all 10 of these were Yemeni detainees -- and these are individuals that were essentially placed in a rehabilitation program that Oman runs. That rehabilitation program, as you would expect, also includes significant security limitations. That is to say --
Q So they're not in prison? They come and go as they please.
MR. EARNEST: Well, they are monitored around the clock, and their ability to travel is limited. So I can't speak to whether or not they're in a prison cell or not, but I can tell you that steps like monitoring all their activities, keeping close tabs on their communications, limiting their ability to travel, and also putting them through this rehabilitation program that has a track record of rehabilitation radicalized individuals is a way to get them out of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but do it in a way that mitigates the risk of the threat that they pose to U.S. national security.
And that's not just my assessment. That's not the assessment of the President of United States. The Secretary of Defense himself has to personally certify that the appropriate security precautions have been taken. And in this case, they have.
Q It’s true that other detainees that have gone through rehabilitation programs have ended back on the battlefield, essentially rejoining the fight against the United States and American interests. Isn’t that right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know if that's true or not. We can check on that for you. What is true is that the track record of detainees that have been transferred under the regime that we’ve put in place with other countries, that essentially the recidivism rate is actually much lower, which is to say many fewer as a percentage of those individuals that have been transferred have rejoined the fight than those who were transferred under the system that was in place prior to the President taking office.
Q These 10 individuals, Yemenis, they can't go back to Yemen because of the civil war that's going on there right now. The President once called Yemen a “model of success.” Does he stand by that statement?
MR. EARNEST: That statement, John, was referenced specifically to our counterterrorism efforts inside of Yemen. I don't think the President ever made the case that Jeffersonian democracy was sprouting in Yemen. I think the President was making the case that the United States, at a point in time, had an effective counterterrorism relationship with the Yemeni government that put significant pressure on extremists that were operating in that country and had aspirations for trying to harm the United States and the West.
I’ll also point out that there have been occasions, even since the onset of this strife inside of Yemen, where the United States has preserved our ability to carry out strikes against extremists inside of Yemen. So, again, Yemen is a dangerous place with a lot of problems, but it is a place where we have been very effective in applying significant pressure to leaders of terrorist organizations that are operating in Yemen and occasionally taking those leaders off the battlefield.
Q You and the President have both cited that the number-one reason for closing Guantanamo is that it’s a recruiting tool for terrorists. Can you think of another example where the United States government sort of bases its policy on what terrorists think -- which is what you're doing when you say it’s a recruiting tool for terrorists, right? You're worried about how terrorists view Guantanamo, and that's the reason why you’ve decided to close Guantanamo.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, John, it’s not just reading the minds of terrorists. We actually have tangible evidence that extremists use images from the prison in Guantanamo Bay and language describing the prison to try to recruit people.
Q In the past six months, can you think of or cite one video in which Guantanamo has been mentioned or seen?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll refer you the intel community that keeps tabs on these kinds of things, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.
But, look, I think -- just to go back to sort of your broader question -- one of the reasons that we spend a lot of time thinking about how to counter ISIL’s online activities is because we are concerned about the way that they're able to recruit and inspire vulnerable individuals to take up the cause of these extremists. So it is important for us to do as much as we can to try to counter their efforts to influence the thoughts and emotions of vulnerable individuals around the world.
And that's the essence of this social media strategy that we're trying to implement -- both in terms of the conversations that senior administration officials had in Silicon Valley last week, but it’s also part of the kinds of fusion centers that we're setting up in places like the UAE and in Malaysia to serve as regional operations to try to counter ISIL’s efforts in those regions of the world, as well.
And I’ll also point out that, again, it’s not just me and the President who are concerned about the way that extremists use the prison at Guantanamo Bay as a recruiting tool. People like President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who served both George W. Bush and Barack Obama as Defense Secretary, they agree with us, too. They agree with this concern about the way that the prison at Guantanamo Bay and its continued operation undermines our ability to fight terrorism.
Q And it’s your belief that if Guantanamo were closed today that recruitment of individuals by ISIS, by Al Qaeda would be so much more difficult because Guantanamo is no longer around?
MR. EARNEST: I’m saying that they would have one less recruiting tool in the toolbox to inspire people to carry out acts of violence against innocent Americans or, frankly, innocent people anywhere in the world. And that would be a good thing. And when you couple that with the fact that right now it costs $4 million per detainee per year to operate the prison at Guantanamo Bay, it’s just not a good use of taxpayer dollars.
So even if there are Republicans who are skeptical of the claim that the recruitment value of the prison at Guantanamo Bay is minimal, well, surely these guys who are strongly opposed to government spending would enthusiastically embrace an opportunity to save taxpayers some money. The President certainly has embraced that opportunity. And the President I think would be the first one to tell you that this has been part of basically every conversation that he’s had with the Department of Defense
-- about the need to put this plan together is to do so mindful of the impact that it has on taxpayers and the way their money is spent.
Q Josh, is there a specific reason why you put out the ISIL factsheet today?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. Well, I’ll just be blunt with you -- it’s Friday. This was a document that we had planned to release in the context of the State of the Union address, and because there was so much interagency and international coordination involved in putting it together, the deadline slipped a little bit, so we got it out today.
Q Speaking of the State of the Union address, I’ve got a leftover question.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Was the White House aware that Senate President pro tempore Orrin Hatch didn’t attend the speech so that he could be the designated survivor in the case of a catastrophe, even though you guys said that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson was in that role?
MR. EARNEST: We were aware of that. It’s my understanding that this is actually something that Congress has done more than once since 9/11. And again, that’s a decision that they make.
Q But because he’s President pro tempore of the Senate, he would not only be able to take over Congress, he would -- he’s ahead of Jeh Johnson in the statutory line of succession for President. So he would be in a dual role there.
MR. EARNEST: That’s true.
Q Was the White House ready to accept him in that role in the line of succession?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the White House was hopeful that this was an eventuality that would not occur. (Laughter.)
Q But you were aware of it?
MR. EARNEST: I think Senator Hatch would even be in that category. (Laughter.)
Q Well, does it mean that by designating Jeh Johnson, it was duplicative?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that these kinds of actions are always taken out of an abundance of caution, obviously. You have to ask my colleagues in Congress about Senator Hatch’s decision to not attend the State of the Union address. I don’t have any information about whether or not Senator Hatch just stayed home or went back to Utah or was in the --
Q Undisclosed location.
MR. EARNEST: -- or an undisclosed location. But look, we take all of the necessary contingency steps, even the ones that are taken solely out of an abundance of caution, to ensure that the United States government, even in the event of the unthinkable, needs to persist. And so that’s why we took the steps with Secretary Johnson this year that we have in previous years. And it’s my understanding that even when Democrats were in charge of the Senate, that this is something they periodically did, as well.
Q Wanted to follow up on a Gitmo question. How long -- quickly -- how long are these detainees that were released -- how long are they staying in Oman? And how long is the rehabilitation center? And why is that so opaque to the American public? Why is this process -- why don’t I know, for instance, who -- I follow this pretty closely?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Department of Defense did put out a news release on this, so we can certainly get you the paperwork that describes the circumstances of their transfer in more detail. So it is something that we have made public. I don’t have the news release in front of me. And it’s been a couple days since I looked at it in terms of the -- so I don’t know off the top of my head whether or not there was a description of the amount of time that they would be in this rehabilitation program, but we can check on that for you.
And I guess let me say one other thing. In some cases, there are actually diplomatic sensitivities with the other countries in terms of making public the circumstances of them taking on these individuals. So sometimes, I think as you would anticipate, there is some complicated diplomacy that goes into these transfers, and so sometimes there’s a little less transparency than there otherwise would be in deference to, frankly, the sacrifice that our partners and allies are making in taking on these individuals.
Q Going back to the President’s -- his State of the Union regrets, his statements about his regrets -- about the partisan rancor in Washington and how he hasn’t been able to deal with it -- hasn’t been able to bridge that divide -- I had spoken to Representative Murphy last week about his mental health bill. This is a bill that he’s been working on for years, since the Sandy Hook shootings. And he said he’s tried repeatedly to contact the White House about this and to engage the White House Leg Affairs office, the President himself, and he said he hasn’t had his phone calls returned; that this is something that he really wants to work with the White House on. It seems like -- he said he was sort of blindsided by the mental health money that you all released last week and your gun initiatives. Isn’t this an example of something where it was an obvious place where you could work together? Why wasn’t that groundwork done from the White House to Capitol Hill? And can you foresee that happening in the future with Tim Murphy and others on mental health issues? And is your -- basically, my own overall question is, is the White House Leg Affairs going to beef up now that the President has said he wants to work with Republicans where we can work with Republicans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Susan, I can’t speak to all of the conversations between the White House and Congressman Murphy’s office. Based on the fact that you’re asking your question today, I think it’s a pretty high likelihood his office will get a phone call today. I think in general we are interested in working with Congress on trying to expand mental health care to Americans all across the country.
I’ve spoken with varying proportions of frustration and disappointment about the fact that Republicans profess a sincere interest in mental health care expansion while at the same time voting dozens of times to actually repeal the legislation that has done more to expand mental health care than any other legislation that’s passed in decades -- that’s the Affordable Care Act. There are millions of Americans that have been able to get access to mental health care services as a result of Medicaid expansion, for example, that they didn’t previously have. But yet, Republicans are dogged in their attempt to try to repeal that legislation.
So I think there is reason for us to be skeptically, generally, of Republicans’ interest in this particular area. I am skeptical of their sincerity about this. But they have an opportunity to prove us wrong.
And like I said, I’m confident that Congressman Murphy’s office will get a call today. And I certainly can’t speak to previous conversations that may have occurred around this, but there is a genuine interest on the part of the White House in trying to make progress when it comes to expanding access to mental health care, and we are certainly willing and ready to work with Republicans who share that priority.
Victoria, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that the U.S. sailors had mis-navigated. Is it the thinking that one or both of the boats mis-navigated?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the circumstances that led them to end up in Iranian territorial waters is something that’s still under investigation. Obviously the Secretary of Defense has access to more information about that ongoing investigation than I do, but I made note of the Secretary’s comments as well, but I can’t speak with any firsthand knowledge of what exactly happened that resulted in them being in Iranian territorial waters. But that’s certainly something the Department of Defense is looking at.
Q The area where they were is known for espionage by many different countries. Can you assure us that they were not engaged in spying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, for details about what operation they were pursuing, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of what their operation was.
Let’s do the week ahead.
On Monday, the President and First Lady will participate in a community service project in the Washington, D.C. area to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. There will be travel pool coverage of that community service project.
On Tuesday, the President will welcome Prime Minister Turnbull of Australia to the White House. It will be the Prime Minister’s first trip to Washington since taking office. The leaders will hold a bilateral meeting and a working lunch, during which they will highlight the extraordinary breadth of the U.S.-Australian alliance, and discuss a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues, including our cooperation in Iraq and in Syria, our trade relationship, the successful conclusion of negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and other developments in Asia and the Pacific.
Australia has made substantial contributions when it comes to our counter-ISIL campaign. There are Australian military pilots that have flown with American military pilots in the skies over Iraq and Syria, taking strikes against ISIL. And we know that Australia has also made a substantial contribution to the training, advising, and assist effort that’s underway in Iraq. So we’re obviously deeply appreciative of what the Australians have done to further our coalition’s efforts, and I’m confident that will be a part of the discussion between the two leaders.
On Wednesday, the President will travel to Detroit, Michigan, to experience firsthand the remarkable progress made by the city, its people, and neighborhoods, and the American auto industry. While in Detroit, the President will visit the 2016 North American International Auto Show to highlight the more than 640,000 new auto industry jobs that were created since the auto rescue, and the record auto sales in the United States in 2015. Additional details about the President’s travel to Michigan will be made available either over the weekend or at the beginning of next week.
On Thursday, the President will deliver remarks and host a reception for the nation’s mayors here at the White House. The President will spend time -- the mayors will spend the evening at the White House, interacting with Cabinet members and senior White House officials to expand the partnerships between cities and the federal government.
And then next Friday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
I hope you all have a good weekend.
Q Are you briefing on Monday?
MR. EARNEST: I will not. Hopefully I will still be savoring the glow of the Chiefs’ playoff victory on Saturday. (Laughter.) So we’ll let you know.
See you guys. Have a good weekend.
END 12:51 P.M. EST