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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official, 12/31/09

10:36 A.M. HAST

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:   Good morning, everybody.  Thanks for coming by and allowing us to come by.

I think you just saw in the note we sent out, the President had a series of phone calls this morning to update on the reviews, also to discuss the ongoing enhanced security measures and to discuss just as a general matter our state of continued vigilance on homeland security and counterterrorism efforts.

Obviously the reviews -- some of the initial information that has been available to us now for a couple days, as we discussed with you yesterday --  we've gotten additional information since yesterday but not all of the agencies' preliminary results are in -- they will be coming in during the course of the day and the evening today and tonight.  So the President will -- he got a briefing, an updated briefing this morning both from John Brennan, his counterterrorism and homeland security advisor, and in a separate phone call from Secretary Napolitano, who is running the detection capabilities review.  So he's gotten oral briefings in addition to all the updates that he's gotten through yesterday; and then will be getting paper assessments during the course of today and tonight and then will be reviewing them over the course of the weekend, discussing those with us and with John others back at home and then convening a meeting of all the relevant agency heads on Tuesday afternoon.

Before getting to your questions I'd just say that you saw the note, the message that the President passed to the CIA workforce earlier today.  The President had a good discussion with CIA Director Panetta yesterday when this news became known to us.  As he communicated in the message, his heart goes out to the families of these individuals and obviously this incident underscores his deep appreciation and admiration for the great work for the entire CIA workforce as well as the intelligence community generally.

So with that I'm open to some questions.

Q    Do you have a roster of the agency heads that he's going to be hearing from?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  You know, I don't think the roster is final, but it would include, Chuck, CIA, DNI, DOJ -- as I say, the Attorney General -- DHS, NCTC, TSA, NSA and of course Brennan will be in the meeting.  I don't want to leave the impression that that's exhaustive, but just going from memory here.

Q    At least these folks will be in person meeting with him on Tuesday in that meeting?  And he's to hear from anybody he hasn’t heard from personally later today or tonight -- Blair, Panetta, all of these folks?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  That's correct.  You'll remember that the review -- the terms of reference memoranda that went out on Tuesday asked for preliminary information to be passed through as we do things exec sec to exec sec today.  Now, that's going to be going through the course of today and, frankly, I think a number of agencies that are working on it will be working right up until 11:59 p.m.

Q    Today?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, it's a heck of a Happy New Year.

Q    Does it give new meaning to the word ball drop?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I'm sorry?  I didn't hear what he said.

MR. SHAPIRO:  Don't worry about it.  Inaudible.  (Laughter.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The fact is that we'll be getting those individual reviews during the course of today.  Obviously John is working through them and developing a separate document.

Q    -- first and then he'll brief the President, or these folks will also brief him personally as well?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  These will be coming in, they'll be going to John and then coming out to us and to Jim Jones and to us concurrently.  The President will be reviewing them himself in kind of this raw form.  John is then working on an overlay findings document that will go to the President.  And then he'll, as necessary, reach out to individual agency heads between now and Tuesday, and then on Tuesday have a chance to sit down with him.

Q    What's Tuesday going to look like?  Is it going to be like the Afghanistan review, go around the table, everyone make their case?  Is it going to be everyone gets five minutes to explain where they went wrong?  I mean, what's going to come out of Tuesday?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We haven't really walked through the tick-tock of the meeting agenda.  But knowing what I know about how the President has conducted himself during the course of the Afghan review and other things, but also knowing how much he's enmeshed himself in the details of this over the last several day and will continue to over the next several days, I anticipate that this will be a meeting that the President will press very hard on and that he himself will lead.

Q    Situation Room?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  That's where it's scheduled to be, yes.

Q    Since his statement on Tuesday has he learned anything new that alarmed him?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  He's continuing to learn new things.  I don't want to get in a position of characterizing his reaction or state of mind to it because I haven’t been sitting there right with him when he's learned a lot of this stuff or reviewed it.  But he continues, obviously, to be very focused on this and is continuing to ask a lot of probing questions on it.  So I wouldn't characterize it much beyond that.

Q    As he's getting this information in how is that working out at the house?  Is he sitting down in an office and getting stuff constantly and reading it there?  Is it coming to him -- how is it coming to him and how is he handling it during the day while he's on vacation?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  In a variety of fashions.  I've talked through how he's getting some paper, in terms of just regular intelligence updates, his PDB, NCTC, spot reports -- which are twice daily -- the Sit Room reports, updates, which are three times daily.  And we are sending him information through our Staff Secretary, who is here.  She's traveling back and forth to the residence.

Q    I'm sorry, Lisa is here?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  No, one of Lisa's deputies.

We're also getting him material informally on this and related matters.  So some of it he's doing online, some of it he's getting paper and sitting down at his desk and working it, and some of it is through conference calls, like the ones he had this morning.

Q    Will he be spending most of today working on it, do you believe?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  He's got some -- I think you guys may be more familiar with his schedule today than I am.  I think he's got some activities with the family, but otherwise I know he's going to be dedicating a lot of time this evening to this.

Q    Can you talk about, like, two or three things, though, that you think broad brush the President is picking up?  I know it's hard to get into specific details when you're still collecting information, but I'm still not hearing two or three things that you've picked up about what went wrong -- just broadly speaking.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I don't want to get ahead of everybody here but I think that DHS will be outlining one of those concerns later today that they've identified -- I guess it's just gone out -- they're going to talk about the need to enhance international cooperation on this thing, given that travel -- well, certainly international travel is inherently international and requiring that kind of cooperation, that's one.

Two, you've heard us talk about the fact that we have to make sure that -- well, I guess I'd put it this way, as he did in his statement, that intelligence itself and the collection thereof is always going to be difficult and not always going to result in complete information.  And he understands that.  But by the same token, when we do have information and when we have good information -- as we often do, given how good our intel professionals are -- the failure to share that information is not going to be tolerated.  So that's two.

And then, three, is just making sure that there is a systemic capability drawing on all the available technology to make sure that different pieces of information and different databases for information are matched up in such a way as to ensure that all this information, this multitude of information that comes in is used in the most effective way to maximize the picture of any developing information.

Q    Just quickly on DHS, so you're suggesting -- without stepping on what they're going to do, is it a new rule, is it something in terms of working international airports and --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I think rather than me give any kind of -- it's probably in your email right now, Ed, or it will be shortly, so they've got it soup to nuts.

Q    How about other immediate reforms before Tuesday?  I mean, clearly you're getting some stuff in, and I guess State Department announced that they would have a new policy that comes -- the visa issue, that they would proactively search their visa database to let NCTC know proactively.  Can you give a couple of other examples of some sort of immediate steps that have been taken by various agencies?  And quickly, is State part of this -- is State part of his conversation today?


Q    Today.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  He did not talk to Secretary Clinton this morning, if that's what your question is.

Q    But they are doing a review as well, so should they be on our alphabet list?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  They should be, yes.  I'm sorry.  That's what I wanted to make sure that I --

Q    So it would be as well later today?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We will be hearing from State in terms of their review.  I don't know that he'll necessarily be speaking with Secretary Clinton directly.

Q    On some of this he is speaking to the heads directly today?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  He spoke directly to Secretary Napolitano this morning.  What I suggested is that as he gets the information over the course of either tonight or over the next several days it wouldn't surprise me if he wanted to reach out directly to any of these heads in preparation for Tuesday.

Q    So it's not necessarily ---

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  There's nothing scheduled.

Q    So Panetta today, no; Blair today, no -- not scheduled, but he could.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Correct.  Correct.  And just to be clear he did speak with Director Panetta yesterday, but on different matters.

Q    Go back to reforms, my actual question.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I don't have a list at my fingertips, but this is the second time you've asked me for it so I feel like I owe to you -- so let me figure out if I can get you a list of things, specific reforms that have been instituted I'll come back at you.  So give me some time work it.

Q    You'll put that out to everybody?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Correct.  I just want to say, insofar as there are things that we're comfortable talking about publicly.

Q    When do you think the accountability phase is going to occur?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I think that as we get clarity out of the review of what happened that will certainly be how we do it.  But as I indicated on Tuesday, we're not going to prejudge the review as it relates to that.  But we obviously want the reforms that are put into place to be driven by facts and we'll certainly have accountability measures driven by facts, as well.

Q    Can you tell us a little bit about his conversation with Director Panetta yesterday and a little bit about the attack there?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  You know, I'm not going to say any more -- I think you've got a lot on the record from the CIA Director and from the President himself.  In terms of the specifics of the attack or the conversation yesterday, I'm just not going to get into much of it.

Obviously the President had an opportunity to discuss it with the Director yesterday.  He talked with John Brennan about it last night on the phone.  And he obviously is very concerned about it.  It is obviously a significant impact at Langley, but also across the IC -- and we just want to make sure that everybody understands both how seriously the President takes this threat and this attack, but also how deeply he appreciates their good work and, frankly, their tireless commitment that so often, given the nature of the work is, as he said in his statement today, in the shadows and often not even recognized by friends and family, but by necessity.

Q    Given the magnitude of this attack, are there any plans for him to go out to the agency to see the folks out there?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  No specific plans at the moment.

Q    Dennis Blair today sent a letter to DNI employees, in it saying that the President's words were tough to swallow, but they would have to.  But then he also touted the -- he said that al Qaeda cannot pull off a 9/11 attack anymore -- style attack; that they have had those kind of successes.  I assume the administration concurs with Admiral Blair's --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I did see Admiral Blair's message that went out.  I think that he -- I think as is typical of his leadership and his sound leadership, good leadership in that community made very clear that he was going to take this challenge head-on.  And that's what he's done since he's taken over that job and he's continuing to do now.  And I think as I've indicated to you guys over the course of the last several days, that there's some terrific examples of great cooperation in the IC, among the IC and the military, and among the IC, military and law enforcement.  So there's a lot of excellent work going on -- the vast, vast majority of which we just can't talk about.

Now the specific assessment you're -- not having the statement immediately in front of me, I just don't remember.

Q     I have it right here.


Q     He said, "whatever shortcomings emerge in these investigations should not obscure the progress the intelligence community has made in developing collection analysis capabilities and proving collaboration."  And he says, "the intelligence community should be proud of its role in weakening al Qaeda's ability to plan, organize, finance, and carry out highly orchestrated attacks conducted by well-trained teams like those on 9/11."  So he's saying that a 9/11-style attack by al Qaeda basically can't be done any more because of these efforts.  Do you agree with that assessment?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I'll comment about what he wrote rather than your characterization of what he wrote.  I'll just say that he's absolutely right, that over the course of the last eight-plus years the intelligence community, our military, frankly, the FBI and others back here at home, have worked together in a way to disrupt countless attacks and plots both here and abroad.  They've worked together to degrade al Qaeda's capacity.  They've worked together to degrade its ability to raise financing. 

And frankly I think, as I indicated to you the other day, the forward lean that we've kept on these terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan has led them to try to look for new opportunities and new spaces to operate, including Yemen, Somalia, Southeast Asia.  And it is our intention to, as the President said in the West Point speech, to stay on offense with a combination of partnership and pressure in places like Yemen and elsewhere to ensure that we can counter them and their hateful agenda.

So frankly there's been -- we've talked about this now several times, but there are the instances that we've referred to in the last couple days which I think prove the director's point -- namely Zazi and Headley -- which I think when those stories get told looking back in the history books at some point, when we can talk about those things, you'll see a highly integrated and highly capable intelligence community that did terrific work.

Q     Did you see Blair's letter before it went out to employees?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  No.  No, I saw it shortly after, I think.  They sent it over some time this morning after we sent over the President's remarks to the -- or message to the CIA workforce.

Q     And any word on when a final report is going to be due?  I know he set a deadline today for the initial report.  Is there a deadline -- what's the next deadline?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I haven't gotten more specific than what he said in the speech, which was, in the weeks ahead.

Q     Senator Feinstein has announced that she's going to start on hearings on the 21st of January.  Do you guys still feel that that's not going to interfere with the reviews that you're doing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I was just taking a look.  I think there's a hearing starting as soon as the second week back and I think there will be a lot of interest in this and that's to be expected.  Obviously the Congress has co-equal responsibilities and obligations on the Constitution in these matters, and we obviously want to make sure that they're up to speed.  And we'll look forward to their support on this, as well.  Obviously we want to make sure that our people are in place to do this.  We want to make sure that the budget is enacted very quickly.  We noted, for example, for the first time in I think almost five years the Homeland Security appropriations bill ended up being a partisan vote, which strikes us as unusual.

But we hope that we don't get stuck into those kind of old, typical Washington fights, and some of it is important.

Q     These reports that you're getting, and I know you don't have them all yet, but are you getting any indication that these folks are saying that they're not adequately funded; that they need more money?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Obviously the budget review is ongoing.  That's typical of this time of year.  And so we'll be making sure that we make those kinds of assessments.  But I do note that, for example, the ARRA included increased investments in bomb detection capacity, for example, that have led to dramatic increases in new technology in different areas around the country.  We think those are very important investments.  And these capacities we also obviously, as the President has talked about a number of times, think those are important investments in under-girding our economic revival, which is ultimately a very key component to our national strength.

So there's been dramatic increases in these investments over the course of the last year and I have no reason to doubt that will continue.

Q     Is the President now finding himself or in the future going to have to be referee in sort of the intramural finger-pointing that's going on between some of the intelligence agencies already?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  You know what, what the President believes is that we're going to take a look at this whole -- the whole capability that we have.  Obviously each agency brings important assets to the interagency effort, an all of government approach to these matters.  And so his view is that we should take a look at everything.  I think that the fact is that we've seen instances in the past where this has worked exceedingly well and those instances dramatically outnumber this instance, which is, as the President called it, a systemic failure.

So I don't think he needs to be a referee.  I think in fact he feels that he's been the beneficiary in many instances of very efficient and effective interagency cooperation that's resulted in great progress.  But the fact that it's worked so well in the past obviously points up when there's problems, and that's what he's going to get to the bottom of in this review.

Q     From the preliminary reports, can you speak at all more to the human error that the President spoke about?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  As I mentioned yesterday, and I continue to believe today, I'm just not going to get into that yet.

Q     So he's going to work tonight on the assessments that come in?  Is that going to interrupt other plans they had?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Obviously he's been working.  He worked this morning.  He'll work as these come in tonight.  But how it fits into the rest of the schedule, I just don't have the kind of visibility on the schedule --

Q     He's not clearing the decks for the assessment?


Q     He's not clearing the decks for the assessment?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I think having spent much of the morning on it, I think he cleared the decks for it and now the question is, as we get additional information in over the course of the next several hours and this evening, Hawaii time, he'll have some more opportunity to look at it.  But he'll continue to work on it over the course of the next several days.

Q     What about other issues out there?  I mean, we've talked about the thing in Afghanistan.  Are there other issues that have come across the transom that he's working on while he's out here?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, he's most definitely working on the ongoing situation in Afghanistan.  He's obviously talked to both Secretary Napolitano and to John in separate calls this morning about continued vigilance as it relates to Homeland Security and counterterrorism and making sure that he is -- that we are energizing the entire government to be focused on that.

And outside of -- we're obviously doing a bunch of planning as it relates to national security matters -- and I'm not going to get into those necessarily now.  And I know that Lisa's deputy has been very busy ferrying stuff across town here to get him information as it relates to other domestic priorities -- jobs and the economy -- but exactly what that is I don't know.

Q     Any reason why John and Secretary Napolitano weren't on the call together?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Only in that Secretary Napolitano was updating on the review that she's doing and John was updating on the review that he's doing.

Q     They really are operating in completely separate silos?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Those two reviews, yes.  Frankly, but -- those two reviews are separate, the reviews.  Each is working with the other as it relates to each of the individual reviews, however, and in fact John and Secretary Napolitano had a long talk this morning before they talked to the President.  So they continue to work this one very closely together.

Okay.  Happy New Year, guys.

11:02 A.M. HAST