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Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/10/14

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

December 10, 2014

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

11:08 A.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good morning, everybody.  Nice to see you all. Appreciate you accommodating the schedule today.  So we’ll just experiment with the time a little bit and try to get ahead of the President’s remarks that are slated for 11:50 a.m. or so.  If we want the briefing to continue I’m happy to do that, but if there are those of you who need to leave here to make the call time at 11:25 a.m., I will not be offended if there’s a few people who run to the back of the room at 11:20 a.m.

Let me do one thing before we get to the questions, Jim, if you’ll indulge me here.  Health care workers on the frontlines of the Ebola fight certainly aren’t in it for the recognition.  But today their heroism and selflessness was on display because of Time Magazine’s decision to name them its Person of the Year.  The administration, including the President, could not be prouder of the brave men and women who have committed themselves to this effort in a foreign land.

You had an opportunity to meet several of them when the President welcomed these health care heroes to the White House back in October.  Several of them have since returned to the White House for holiday receptions and tours, and we’ve continued to honor their heroism through measures big and small.

We must not forget that in order to bring this epidemic under control on the frontlines, indeed, the only way to prevent additional cases here in the United States, we need more of these medical professionals.  USAID, CDC, and the United States military, working alongside their partners inside and outside of government, have sought to recruit and train more of them.  In West Africa, the United States government now has the capacity, through our civilian and military personnel, to train several hundred of these responders per week and USAID’s efforts are facilitating the work of thousands more on the frontlines throughout the affected countries.  Because of these efforts, we are seeing signs of hope and progress, especially in Liberia. 

These are men and women who deserve international recognition, and today we are pleased that they’re receiving more of it.

So, after that piece of good news, Jim, let’s go ahead and get started with the questions.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  A couple of topics.  Yesterday, in the gaggle, regarding questions about the legality of the actions discovered in the torture report, you said that that was up to the Justice Department to make those determinations.  But I’m wondering, does the President, given the context of the report, believe that the Justice Department should be evaluating whether there were any laws broken?  And does he plan to meet with Eric Holder to discuss it, or with his nominee, Loretta Lynch, to discuss the contents of that report?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I would refer you to the Department of Justice on this.  And I do that principally because it’s my understanding that the Department of Justice actually did conduct a review of the actions of CIA operatives that are mentioned in this report, that there was a career federal prosecutor who was assigned to this case and that this individual conducted an extensive inquiry, and upon looking at the facts in evidence decided not to pursue an indictment.

So for questions about what that investigation included and how and why that conclusion was reached, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice.  And again, these are the kinds of decisions that should be made without any sort of — without even the appearance of political interference.  And so we’ve been very clear about the proper role for the Justice Department in this matter.

In addition, I understand that there were Inspector General investigations — at least one, I think maybe even two — that were conducted along these lines.  And again, the Inspector General is somebody who operates independent of the executive branch.  And again, for the conclusions of those reports, I believe at least some of those conclusions have been made public, so I’d refer you to those reports.  But again, those are reports that were done absent the — or aside from any sort of presidential directive.

Q    Does the President agree with former CIA officials that the interrogation techniques did result in actionable intelligence?  Or does he agree with the Senate in their conclusion that they did not?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, you are acknowledging that there are a couple of sides of a very vigorous, ongoing debate.  This is a debate that occurred around the announcement of the successful mission to take Osama bin Laden off the battlefield.  There was a similarly robust debate that occurred around the release of the movie, Zero Dark Thirty, that talked and examined issues around the bin Laden mission. 

The conclusion that this President has reached is that these differences, which are held by well-meaning, patriotic Americans, many of whom have detailed knowledge of these programs and of our national security efforts more broadly, is that there actually is one thing that both sides do agree on and it’s something that the President agrees, too, which is that the most powerful — one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal to protect and advance our interests around the globe is the moral authority of the United States of America.  And the Commander-in-Chief concluded that the use of the techniques that are described in this report significantly undermined the moral authority of the United States of America. 

And that’s why the President, on his second full day here at the White House, issued an executive order ending those tactics. The other thing that the President did — and there has not been a lot of discussion of this lately, so I did want to call it to your attention — the President also, through an executive action, asked that the Department of Justice and a couple of other relevant national security agencies conduct a review of the way that the U.S. government interrogates those individuals who are in U.S. custody.  He also urged this task force to conduct a review of the way that individuals who are in U.S. government custody are handled and in some cases transferred to other countries. 

And the outcome of this review that was led by a career prosecutor identified a couple of things.  The first is he concluded — again, I think this was in August of 2009 — he concluded that the Army Field Manual and law enforcement techniques were sufficient guidance for U.S. personnel who are conducting interrogations — that that was clear guidance that they could use. 

He also suggested the creation of something that we have used to great effect on a number of occasions, something called the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group.  This is another terrible government acronym — it’s called the HIG — but that acronym does not accurately describe exactly what this group is. What it essentially suggests is that there should be an inter-agency group of expert interrogators convened where they can share best practices and that they can be deployed on very short notice to essentially anywhere in the world where a high-value detainee has been taken into custody.  And these expert interrogators can then use their skills and training to elicit information that’s useful for national security, but also in a way that doesn’t prohibit our ability to bring these individuals to justice in the U.S. court system.  And this — the HIG has been deployed on a number of occasions to great effect.

The other reforms that were included in this review included specific guidelines that U.S. personnel should use when transferring individuals from the custody of the U.S. government to other countries.  And this included getting certain assurances from other countries about how these individuals will be treated when they are detained.  It also provides guidelines for U.S. personnel to conduct some oversight and ensure that these other countries are living up to the commitments that they’ve made in terms of the detention and treatment of these individuals.

So this is just one example and, again, this is the result of a task force that the President created on his second day in office to make sure that proper guidance and oversight and reform was implemented as it relates to interrogation and detention of individuals in U.S. custody. 

This is important because the Senate report that was released yesterday highlights that there was not good guidance, that there was not good leadership, and that there was not proper oversight of a lot of these programs.  And yet that’s exactly what the President sought to institute on his second day in office.  And I think it demonstrates the President’s commitment to taking seriously, very seriously, the need to show some leadership and to reform some of the shortcomings of these programs.

Q    But on the question of effectiveness, he’s going to remain agnostic?  He’s going to let the debate play out without him playing a role?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the conclusion that the President has reached — again, it’s two principal things here.  The conclusion that the President reached is a principle that people on both sides of this debate can agree to, which is that the moral authority of the United States of America is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal to protect and advance U.S. interests around the globe.  And it’s the view of the President that the use of these techniques, regardless of whether or not they elicit national intelligence information, undermine our ability to use this very powerful tool.  And that is why the President outlawed these techniques in his first or second day in office.

Q    On the omnibus — $1.1 trillion, 1,600 pages — will the President sign it?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s lengthy, isn’t it?  This is something that —

Q    Has he read it?

MR. EARNEST:  He has not.  Neither has everybody in the administration, so it’s still something that the administration is reviewing.  There are a couple of things I can say about it, though, that we know generally.

As a general matter, I can tell you that we certainly are pleased that Democrats and Republicans on the Hill do seem to be coming together around a proposal that will avoid a government shutdown.  We’ve talked in the past about how a government shutdown is bad for the economy.  And particularly at this point where we are starting to see some headwinds from the global economy at the same time that the U.S. economy is demonstrating signs of real strength and resilience, the last thing that we need are additional headlines — headwinds emanating from Capitol Hill.  So we certainly are pleased that they seem to be coming around a proposal that would avoid exactly that.
 
You’ll also recall, Jim, that over the course of the last several months there have been a couple of specific requests that this administration has made for funding some key national security priorities.  That includes funding for our effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.  It’s our understanding, based on the topline review that’s been done of this agreement, that there are substantial resources that have been committed to that effort.  We certainly are gratified by that.

You’ll recall that the administration, early last fall, made a specific request for resources to deal with the Ebola fight that I talked about a little earlier, both in terms of making sure that we have the resources necessary to stop this outbreak in its tracks in West Africa, as well as improve readiness at medical facilities here in the United States.  Again, a topline review of the agreement does indicate that there are significant resources that are committed to that effort.  We certainly are pleased by that. 

There also are some key funding proposals related to domestic priorities that will benefit the middle class.  Just to take one pertinent example, there is funding in there that is continued for early childhood education programs — something that the President is going to talk about across the street in less than an hour.  So we certainly are gratified that there continue to be — that there is a commitment of resources for that important priority.

On the other side of the ledger, Republicans had identified as their priority to try to undermine the President’s effort to reform our broken immigration system using executive actions and to cut carbon pollution.  Again, based on a cursory review of that agreement, it does not appear that Republicans were successful in that effort.  So that’s certainly something we’re gratified by.

At the same time, this is a compromise proposal.  Democrats and Republicans have signed on to it and we’re going to — that’s why we’re going to review — I’m confident that there are going to be some things in here that we’re not going to like, and so we’ll have to sort of consider the whole package before we make a decision about whether or not to sign it.  So we’ll keep you posted on that.

Roberta.

Q    The bill contains some pretty significant rollbacks for Dodd-Frank reforms.  I’m just wondering what the White House makes of those rollbacks, and whether the White House is worried that this is going to, in a new Congress led by Republicans, lead to Wall Street being more emboldened in terms of asking for rollbacks on these measures.

MR. EARNEST:  Roberta, I can’t comment on some of the specific proposals.  I’ve seen some of these new reports, but this is a piece of legislation that is 1,600 pages long and we’ve only had it — we’ve had it for less than 16 hours.  So we’re still conducting a review to sort of see all of the — take a look at all the puts and takes that are included.  So I’m going to reserve judgment on the individual provisions. 

But let me say, as a general matter, that one of the President’s principal domestic policy achievements is the passage of Wall Street reform that ensures that middle-class families and small business owners across the country have a voice in our financial system, that their interests are represented and protected.  That is good for middle-class families.  It’s good for our economy.  And I think it represents a significant departure from Wall Street interests that are used to walking around town with their lobbyists getting whatever they want.  And I don’t think the American people — I don’t think the vast majority of Democrats or even Republicans are going to look too kindly on a Congress that’s ready to go back and start doing the bidding of Wall Street interests again.

So, again, that will be a decision that Republicans will have to make for themselves, but I think it’s pretty clear where the President stands on that question.  I also think it’s pretty clear where the American people stand on that question, too.

Q    But you have no specific comments on the rollbacks that are in this at this point?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s correct, because we’re still reviewing the broader package.

Q    Okay.  And then just back to the report for a second. Does the President foresee any repercussions for the CIA as a result of the release of the report yesterday?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that the President has strongly supported the release of this report, and the reason for that is that he believes that transparency is important in this matter.  It’s important for people to understand that the United States is willing to face up to its shortcomings, and is willing to be honest about those shortcomings, and is willing to be as candid as possible about our commitment to ensuring that those shortcomings don’t occur again.  And that I think the President believes is an important measure of accountability, and it’s a way for us to demonstrate to the American people, to our friends and allies around the globe what it is the United States stands for. 

And I mentioned in response to Jim’s question that the President is concerned that the use of those enhanced interrogation techniques undermined America’s moral authority around the globe.  One substantial way that we can rebuild that moral authority is to be honest about what happened, to be as transparent as possible about it, and to demonstrate a clear commitment to ensuring that those kinds of things don’t ever happen again. 

And again, regardless of which side you are on this, and regardless of which party you represent, and regardless of which administration you served in, the strengthening of that moral authority is, without argument, a very substantial way that we can contribute to America’s national security.

Q    And the President thinks that that moral authority, as you put it, can be regained without holding specific individuals accountable for actions they may have taken during that time period?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t think moral authority is something that you rebuild overnight.  This is a process.  But certainly the release of this report is a critically important step because it demonstrates a commitment to transparency; it demonstrates a commitment to accountability in terms of fessing up for falling short; and it also demonstrates a commitment to making sure these kinds of shortcomings don’t ever happen again.

And that’s why the President acted quickly and unequivocally to outlaw these techniques.  It’s why the President asked for this task force to review the policies related to interrogations and detentions.  And it’s why they came up with these very specific proposals that, again, ensure that we are doing everything we can to strengthen our national security and live up to the kinds of values that we hold so dear in this country.

Jim.

Q    Josh, can we just get a general reaction from the President when he found out some of the details that were in this report?  Because there are details in this report — you mentioned that Eric Holder, the Justice Department looked at this several years back.  But there are details in this report that the American people have not seen before — waterboarding at levels that were not known before, some of the treatment that these detainees were subjected to, being put in dungeon-like conditions.  Rectal hydration is one term that jumps out at you when you read this report.  I mean, did the President just have a general gut reaction when he saw some of the details in this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say — the first thing, Jim, is that this is a report that was released publicly for the first time yesterday and the President, as I mentioned just a minute ago to Roberta, the President was strongly supportive of the release of this report.  It’s not the first time that the President has been briefed on these matters.  The report has been done for some time.  There has been an ongoing effort to declassify it.  So the President was not in a position yesterday of reacting for the first time in the way that many of you and many Americans were.

Q    So he’s known about this for a while?  Is he appalled by this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the President’s views on this are made clear by looking at the specific actions that he has taken to unequivocally outlaw them.  The President does not believe that these are at all consistent with American values.  He does not believe that this is consistent with the strategy that will strengthen national security or make it easier to promote our national interests around the globe.  In fact, he actually thinks it’s the opposite, that the use of these kinds of techniques only undermines our moral authority around the globe and makes it harder for us to work closely with our allies and partners around the globe.

But the release of this report, coming clean about what exactly happened and demonstrating a continued commitment to ensuring they never happen again is a critical part of rebuilding that moral authority.

Q    And you said yesterday in the gaggle that the President does stand by his claim that these techniques in some cases amounted to torture — “torture.”

MR. EARNEST:  He does.

Q    Isn’t that a violation of U.S. law?  To torture somebody?

MR. EARNEST:  The questions about what violates U.S. law and what sort of impact that has on prosecutorial decisions are decisions that are made by career prosecutors.  And there was a federal career prosecutor that took a look at this matter several years ago and reached a conclusion that there was not enough evidence to prosecute any individual.  But, again, for questions about how that investigation was conducted and how that conclusion was reached, I’d encourage you to check with the Justice Department.

Q    So does the President believe that these new details that the American people are seeing for the first time and, indeed, people around the world are seeing for the first time, do those details warrant going back and reexamining whether people should be prosecuted?  That’s a fair question to ask.

MR. EARNEST:  It is, but it’s a fair question for the Department of Justice.

Q    But is the President going to answer that question?  Does he believe that that should be revisited?  He is the President.

MR. EARNEST:  He is the President.  But, again, decisions about prosecution are made by career federal prosecutors at the Department of Justice and this is something that they have looked into.  And, again, I think it’s also important for people to understand that, again, this report, as important as it is to release it, as far as I know at least, doesn’t include a whole lot of new information that wasn’t previously available to these federal prosecutors.  Now, again, you can ask them whether or not that’s the case, but they conducted an in-depth review of this already.

Q    –2300 said that the CIA misled the Bush administration.  President Bush did not know about some of this or all of this until 2006. 

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a point of some contention, based on the public comments of some individuals.

Q    You’re not sure that that’s the case?  You think that President Bush knew about this before —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, all I’m saying, Jim, is I think that there are some people who said that that’s not true.  They would be in a better position to know that than I would, frankly.

Q    — get to the bottom of this because you’re saying that the prosecutors, the career prosecutors who looked at this during this administration saw all the details that were provided in this report yesterday? 

MR. EARNEST:  You should check with them to find that out.

Q    Okay.  But let me ask you this.  In the Wall Street Journal, there was an op-ed from three former directors of the CIA — this goes back to Jim Kuhnhenn’s question — who said that this intelligence helped lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Can you answer whether or not that is true?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I can say, Jim, is —

Q    I know you said it undermines moral authority and that sort of thing.  But this is a key question and it seems that the White House should have an answer on that one way or the other.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think I agree with everything you said until the very end, because, simply, the President’s views on this are that even if this information did yield important national security information, the damage that it did to our moral authority, in the mind of this President, means that those interrogation techniques should not have been implemented in the first place. 

The other thing that is true is it is impossible to know the counterfactual.  It’s impossible to know whether or not this information could have been obtained using tactics that are consistent with the Army Field Manual, or other law enforcement techniques, and that essentially enhanced interrogation techniques were not necessary to obtain that information.  That is something that is unknowable.  What is knowable —

Q    That’s short of what Senator Feinstein’s report concludes.

MR. EARNEST:  I understand that there are people who have strongly held views on both sides.  I stipulated that earlier.  There is one thing, however, that the President has concluded, that there are other things that we can’t know, but there is one thing that the President knows.  The President knows that continuing to employ the techniques that are described in that report would only undermine one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal to protect American national security, and that is the moral authority around the globe of the United States of America.  The President believes that that moral authority, that tool is worth protecting and strengthening. 

That’s why he outlawed these techniques during his second or third day in office.  That is why the President directed the Department of Justice and other members of the national security team to conduct this broad review of the guidelines and procedures for interrogating and detaining individuals who are in U.S. custody.  And it’s why the President has strongly advocated for the United States Senate to release this declassified version of the executive summary, because it demonstrates a commitment on the part of the United States of America to be honest about our shortcomings.  When we have fallen short of our values we should be straightforward about that and we should demonstrate clearly to the world that we made a mistake and that that mistake is never going to happen again.

Q    And on the omnibus, very quickly, does this deal that was cut on the omnibus, does that set up an immigration cliff, a Homeland Security cliff?  I mean, you may not have an agreement on funding this department come February or March, or whatever.
 
MR. EARNEST:  I would be surprised, Jim, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’d be surprised, but I would be surprised if Republicans take the position that they are going to withhold funding from border security, from people who are conducting criminal background checks, from other elements of our federal government that are critical to homeland security just in protest over the President taking an executive action that is consistent with the kind of actions that Democratic and Republican Presidents have taken in the past.

Mike.

Q    So there was a — the head of the ACLU, I think, in our paper made a proposal the other day.  Article 2, Section 2 does not give the power of pardon to the Justice Department; it gives it to the President.  What does the President think about the idea of offering some sort of pardon for people who conducted or approved or supervised the torture programs?  And is that something that he would even think about?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s hard for me to give you — I haven’t had an extended conversation with him about this, so I’m not sure that I can give you a whole lot of insight into his own thinking on this.  But the thing that I can say is that this is something that has been considered by the Justice Department, that they did their own investigation in terms of whether or not crimes occurred that could be prosecuted.  And essentially a pardon would absolve anybody of punishment based on a criminal finding like that, but since a criminal finding like that hasn’t been found, it seems a little premature at this point to be talking about a pardon.

Q    But pardons have been used in the past by Presidents to absolve people of crimes where charges haven’t been brought.  And I guess kind of the question that he gets at, whether or not he would ultimately ever do it or not, is has the President decided — notwithstanding whatever the Justice Department has said, has the President decided in his own mind whether there were crimes that were committed?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as I mentioned to Jim, that’s a decision for career federal prosecutors.

Q    It’s not a decision for career federal prosecutors, because if the President were to exercise the pardon power, he would have to make the determination in his own mind.  The Justice Department can make recommendations, but they can’t decide whether or not to pardon anybody, right?  And so he’d have to come to a conclusion, yes or no, in his own mind.  And I’m just asking — maybe the answer is he doesn’t know.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t know whether or not he has — I have not had this specific conversation with him about it, so I just can’t shed much light on his thinking as it relates to a pardon in this scenario.

Justin.

Q    While you’ve been up at the podium, Senator Mark Udall went to the Senate floor and discussed the so-called Panetta Review, which is a classified document, but he said that the findings of the review are that Director Brennan and the CIA are continuing to willfully provide inaccurate information and misrepresent the efficacy of torture.  He says the CIA has knowingly provided inaccurate information to the Senate.  And he accused the White House of not having any moral leadership on this issue.  And so I’m wondering if you could talk about if there are concerns within the White House that the CIA is continuing to misrepresent what they’ve told the committee, and your response to Senator Udall.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you put me in an awkward spot because I haven’t seen entirely what Senator Udall has said.  And if he’s citing classified information, that’s certainly not something I’m going to discuss from here.

As it relates to the thing I do feel like I can speak pretty authoritatively about in terms of the President’s exercise of leadership, I think it’s a pretty clear sign of the President’s leadership on this issue that after he’d been sitting in the Oval Office for two days, he issued an executive order unequivocally banning the kind of techniques that are described in this report.

At the same time, on that second day, the President also urged — or basically called on members of his national security team to conduct this review of interrogation policies and of our detention policies in a way that has yielded reforms to that program that the report itself says were badly needed.  And you’ve seen the President take the position of strongly encouraging the release of the declassified executive summary of this report.  That is an indication that the President has very clear views on this.  He has spoken publicly about it on a number of occasions.  And I think the President is pretty proud, as he should be, of his efforts to try to rectify many of the shortcomings that were included in this report.

Q    I know that you said yesterday that the President retains confidence in Director Brennan, but does he retain confidence that the CIA has not misled Congress in any way during the Obama administration?  Misled or lied to the Congress? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Justin, you’re asking me to account for a whole lot of people.  We certainly would have the expectation that everybody in this administration, including everybody who works for the Central Intelligence Agency, would be truthful and honest with members of Congress, particularly when they’re under oath.

But again, it’s hard for me to react directly to what Senator Udall has said without seeing exactly what he said and without being able to discuss the classified report that he says he’s relying on for his information.

Q    And then just really quick on the omnibus.  I know that you said earlier that you guys are still reviewing a lot of it, but there were a couple provisions I just wanted to run by and see if you had any reaction on.  There’s a provision that kind of rolls back the First Lady’s school lunch program, cutting out requirements on sodium and whole grains.  There is a provision on D.C. home rule, abortion and marijuana legalization, and cuts to the EPA.  And all of these seem like policies that the President or the White House has kind of discussed in the past and so I’m wondering if any of them are deal-breakers for you guys.

MR. EARNEST:  They’re all things that the White House is continuing to review.  Again, that report is 1,600 pages long, and we haven’t even had 16 hours to review it yet.  So we’re going to take a look at all those things.  I’m confident there are going to be things we’re going to find that we’re not going to like in there, but that’s the nature of a bipartisan compromise.  So we’ll have to review it, and as soon as we have a specific position to articulate we’ll let you know.
 
Jon.

Q    Just coming back — I know you’d referred a lot of questions to Justice Department on this, but I’m asking about the President’s view.  Does the President accept the Justice Department’s decision that there is no prosecutorial crime that was committed here?  Does the President — they’ve said it, they’ve investigated, they have decided not to prosecute.  That’s a fact.  But does the President accept the conclusion of his own Justice Department there are no prosecutable crimes committed here?

MR. EARNEST:  That is the way that our criminal justice system works, which is that we have career federal prosecutors that are insulated from any sort of political interference, even the appearance of political interference.  And the President accepts that’s the way that this system works.

Q    But so he — I understand how the system works.  Career prosecutors aren’t interfered with.  I’m asking about the President’s personal views as being somebody who was so opposed to this program and seeing what he has seen and what he has known about for a long time — does he personally believe there were no crimes committed here?

MR. EARNEST:  Jon, that is a question, again, that is not a question for the President of the United States.  It’s not the President of the United States who conducts a criminal inquiry into the actions of somebody who works at the CIA.  That’s the responsibility of a career federal prosecutor who can take an independent look at this, can do so without any sort of political interference, and can conduct an investigation and reach a conclusion based on their own view of the facts.

That is the way that our criminal justice system works.  The President has confidence in the criminal justice system.  He has certainly got confidence in the professionalism of the prosecutors who reviewed this matter.  But again, that is a conclusion for them to draw, not one for the President of the United States.

Q    So it’s a yes-or-no thing.  I think you’re answering yes when you speak — the President accepts the decision of the Justice Department, the finding of the Justice Department that there were not prosecutable crimes committed by the CIA in this program.  Yes, right?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, this is something that federal career prosecutors looked at carefully.  They did so without any sort of political interference, as they should.  That is the way that our criminal justice system continues to work, and the President has confidence both in the justice system and in the way that it was deployed in this particular situation.

Q    So he accepts no crimes committed.

MR. EARNEST:  So the President, again, is confident that we’ve had federal career prosecutors who took a careful look at this.  They used extensive resources to sort of review all the relevant materials.  I suspect they interviewed witnesses.  This is part of —

Q    And they found no crimes worth prosecuting committed and the President accepts that?  That’s all — just a simple —

MR. EARNEST:  And again, I’m doing my best to answer your question, which is, there is a process in place that is administered by career professionals who did what they were supposed to do in taking a careful look at this.  And they reached their own conclusions, and the President certainly believes firmly in their competence and in the system.

Q    Now, I want to ask you a direct question that you’ve —

MR. EARNEST:  I’ll try to give you a direct answer.  (Laughter.)

Q    I really would appreciate a direct answer on this one.

MR. EARNEST:  I’ll do my best.

Q    The President nominated John Brennan to be his CIA Director.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.  (Laughter.)  Nailed it.  (Laughter.)

Q    No further questions.  (Laughter.)  So John Brennan, the President’s CIA Director, has said that this program, these harsh interrogations, what the President has called torture, provided valuable and unique intelligence that helped disrupt plots and save lives.  So it’s just a point-blank question:  Does the President agree with his own CIA Director that this program saved lives?  Just a yes or a no.

MR. EARNEST:  Right.  Well, Jon, this is the thing.  The President has been very clear about what he believes about these programs.

Q    He hasn’t been clear on this question, has he?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, but he’s been clear about the most important question.  And the most important —

Q    This did save lives?

MR. EARNEST:  No, the most important question is, should we have done it?  And the answer to that question is, no.  The President does not believe that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques was good for our national security.  He does not believe that it was good for our moral authority.  In fact, he believes that it undermined our moral authority and that is why he banned them.

Now, the other thing that the President has been clear about — and the President talked about this at some length in the interview that he did yesterday with Jose Diaz-Balart from Telemundo, where he was asked about — I believe it was in the Telemundo interview, it may have been the Univision interview — where he was asked specifically, if he were President of the United States at the time in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, would he have made the same decisions that President Bush did.  And the President was clear about how difficult an environment that was, that there was intense pressure that was put on the federal government and members of our national security team to keep the American people safe.  And the President is very sympathetic to how difficult it was for everybody to operate in that environment. 

All the more reason that we can be clear and unequivocal now about how the United States will never again implement the use of enhanced interrogation techniques because it undermines our moral authority, which the President views — and I think everybody can agree on this — is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal to protect the interests of the United States of America.

Q    But John Brennan has come out specifically and he has provided specific examples of where this program saved lives.  And I’m just trying to get at — I understand the President thinks it was the wrong thing to do, ut did it save lives?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, Jon —

Q    — continuing to mislead the American public and Congress, as the Senate Intelligence Committee report alleges?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no, listen.  The President has relied for years now on the advice of John Brennan.  John Brennan is a decorated professional and a patriot, and he is somebody that the President relies on, on a daily basis to keep this country safe.
Mr. Brennan worked here in the White House for four years at the President’s top Homeland Security Advisor and Mr. Brennan has continued his service as the Director of the CIA.  The President believes that he has done an exemplary job in both of those roles and the President is pleased that he is able to rely on the advice of a dedicated professional like Mr. Brennan to protect the United States and our interests.

Q    But is he right on this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, Jon —

Q    This is not a small question.  This gets at the —

MR. EARNEST:  No, it’s not a small question, but it’s a smaller question then whether or not these kinds of interrogation techniques are worth it.  And again —

Q    The President’s view is that it’s not.

MR. EARNEST:  — because of the way they undermine the moral authority of the United States, and because the moral authority of the United States is such a powerful weapon as we try to protect our interests around the globe, the President does not believe that those kinds of techniques should be used.

Q    Okay.  But the CIA —

MR. EARNEST:  And that’s why he has acted unilaterally to unequivocally outlaw them, and he did so in his second day in office.

Q    But the CIA said yesterday that these tactics provided information that helped prevent another mass casualty attack.  If that is true, if these tactics helped prevent a mass casualty attack, lots of American lives, the lives of our allies, how can the President say they weren’t worth it?  Is he saying it’s better to see those lives lost?

MR. EARNEST:  Of course not, Jon.  Of course not.

Q    But that’s what the CIA is saying.  It’s prevented a mass casualty attack.

MR. EARNEST:  And I understand that.  But what the President believes is that our moral authority is critically important to representing our interests and protecting the United States of America, and that the use of these techniques undermines that authority.  It degrades our ability to coordinate with our allies and partners all around the globe.  Its hurts our standing in the world.  And that’s why the President is committed to rebuilding that moral authority. 

And one way we can do that, and one important step in doing that is releasing this report, acknowledging our shortcomings, being as transparent as possible about them, and being just as clear about the commitment that this President and his administration has to ensuring that they’re never used again.

Q    Okay, last question.  Mark Udall in the speech — it happened while you were up there — one thing I can tell you he said is there should be a purge of senior leadership at the CIA. What’s your response to Mark’s suggestion that there should be a purge of top CIA leadership, presumably including the Director?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I spoke at length about the Director and his credentials and the President’s confidence in him and the important role that he’s played in protecting the United States of America.  The President continues to believe that the men and women of our intelligence community are dedicated professionals. These are patriots.  These are people who show up on a daily basis.  They work behind the scenes and they don’t often get the kind of recognition because of the nature of their jobs about the contribution that they make to our national security.  And the President is grateful for their work.

Mr. Viqueira.

Q    Thank you.  You’ve talked about American moral authority around the world, and the President in one of those interviews last night said a willingness to admit mistakes is — he held that up as an American virtue.

MR. EARNEST:  It is.

Q    Now you have a top U.N. official calling for prosecution.  The President also saying it’s contrary to who we are — this interrogation is contrary to who we are.  Is it not also contrary to American values not to prosecute those who are guilty of international crimes?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll just say as a general matter, Mike, that the United States is committed to complying with its domestic and international obligations and we believe that the United States justice system is the appropriate place for allegations about conduct by U.S. officials to be handled.  And as we’ve discussed here at some length, there was an independent Department of Justice criminal investigation that was conducted. There have been at least two independent inspector general investigations that have been conducted and —

Q    Were all the facts that were revealed in this report known to the DOJ officials?

MR. EARNEST:  You’d have to ask them about their investigation.

Q    But shouldn’t it be looked at again in light of new information?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, you’d have to ask them if there was new information that came to light.

Q    And the White House doesn’t have any position on that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I’m saying is that the Department of Justice — because the White House was not involved in the investigation they conducted — would be able to tell you whether or not they learned anything new through the Senate report.

Ed.

Q    Josh, following up on Jon’s questions about John Brennan, you also have as the FBI Chief, James Comey, who served in the Bush Justice Department and helped — he endorsed a legal memo blessing waterboarding and other enhanced techniques.  How could the President appoint John Brennan and James Comey to two of the most sensitive jobs in this administration, CIA and FBI, is he believes they endorsed un-American tactics?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, I can tell you that Mr. Comey falls in the same category as Mr. Brennan in terms of somebody whose advice the President is pleased that he can rely on to keep the country safe.  Mr. Comey is somebody that does have a strong track record.  And there have been other instances even in his service in the previous administration where he stood up for and advocated for important civil liberties protections.  And this is somebody —

Q    But you don’t see any contradiction that you’re attacked Bush administration policies but you have two of the architects of those policies serving?  And two of them —

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think that’s a fair description —

Q    — endorsing a legal memo —

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think that is a fair description.  Certainly —

Q    Mr. Brennan served in the Bush administration as well.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s right.  But I don’t think it is fair at all to describe him as an architect of those policies.

Q    So you don’t see any contradiction between them endorsing the policies that the President is attacking, and they now serve in two of the most sensitive jobs?

MR. EARNEST:  What I can tell you, Ed, is that the President of the United States has complete confidence in the professionalism of these individuals, and he’s got complete confidence that these two individuals who serve in important leadership positions on his national security team are following the law and doing everything that is necessary to protect the American people.  And the President is pleased with their service.

Q    Now, two days ago, you very directly said that these policies did not make us safer.  Former Vice President Cheney says that’s a crock and a bunch of hooey.  How do you respond?
 
MR. EARNEST:  This is not the first time and probably not the last time that this administration strongly disagrees with the views articulated by Vice President Cheney.  He’s also somebody who said that deficits don’t matter.  He’s also somebody that predicted that American troops would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq.  So he’s got not a particularly strong track record when it comes to articulating a policy that this President believes is in the best interest of the country.

Q    If Vice President Cheney has such a weak track record on those very issues, why, as Jon said — why does this President — not President Bush, but this President’s CIA Director basically agree with Dick Cheney that these tactics saved lives?
Your CIA Director agrees with him.

MR. EARNEST:  Again, for questions about Mr. Brennan’s position on these issues, I would direct you to the CIA.  They can explain them to you.  I don’t think that he would say that he agrees wholeheartedly with Vice President Dick Cheney.  But, again, you should ask them.

Q    Both say that these programs saved lives.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, well, again, I don’t think their views are the same.

Q    Okay.  You have repeatedly talked about moral authority.  So can you explain how the President believes that it’s un-American to use these techniques but it was okay to ramp up the drone policy and basically thousands of people around the world, innocent civilians were killed.  What’s the moral equivalency there?  How do you have moral authority when innocent civilians are killed by drones?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think that the difference here, Ed — and this is a stark difference in the way that the United States conducts our policy and the way that terrorists around the world conduct their policy — that there is significant care taken and there are significant checks and balances that are included in the system to ensure that any counterterrorism action that’s taken by the United States of America does not put at risk innocent lives.

Q    But they do in the end.  I understand there are safeguards, but in the end, we’ve seen many cases around the world where U.S. drones have killed innocent civilians, despite those safeguards.  So how do you have moral authority?

MR. EARNEST:  What I’m saying is that is a stark difference from the tactics that are employed by our enemies, who seek to use car bombs to actually target innocent civilians.

Q    Yet you still kill civilians.  No one is defending the terrorists’ tactics, but by your tactics —

MR. EARNEST:  But you’re asking about our moral authority, and I think there is a very clear difference.

Q    How do you have moral authority if —

MR. EARNEST:  There is a very clear difference between the tactics that are used by terrorists and the counterterrorism tactics that are employed by the United States of America that go to great lengths to protect the lives of innocent civilians.  In fact, many of these terrorists that we’re talking about — and, again, many of these counterterrorism activities that are used against terrorists are targeting terrorists that themselves have targeted local populations, that have targeted fellow Muslims in some situations.  So the efforts that are taken by this administration to limit or to prevent innocent civilian casualties are consistent with our values and are consistent with our broader strategy for protecting the American people.

Q    Last one.  You’ve said many times that Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel — concerns — U.S. installations around the world are on high alert right now.  Related to that, today Republican Trey Gowdy and his Benghazi committee is citing a State Department Inspector General report that says that many U.S. installations around the world, beyond the Benghazi installation, are not completely safe now and that there are real security gaps.  Agree with that?  Disagree with that?  And do you plan to have any senior officials here testify to that committee? Because previously you’ve said if there is fair oversight on the Hill, we’ll send people up there.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s right.

Q    Susan Rice, others — will they testify?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll say a couple things about that.  The administration I think has been pretty clear about our desire to dedicate significantly more resources to ensuring that we’re protecting U.S. facilities around the globe.  It’s my understanding that there are a number of occasions where Republicans on Capitol Hill have actually blocked funding for those kinds of priorities, and that’s something that we have been pretty frustrated by, and I do think it raises some questions about the political motivation of some Republicans who were criticizing the administration.

I will say as a general matter that the administration will continue to cooperate with legitimate oversight.  I think it remains to be seen whether the eighth inquiry into the Benghazi matter, coming on the heels of a Republican-authored report that actually absolves the administration of any involvement in the many conspiracy theories that have been floated by those on the right wing — but we’ll have to wait and see whether or not there is any legitimacy to the questions that are being asked by this particular committee.

April.

Q    Josh, as it relates to the torture report and the findings, when there is ever something wrong, especially when it’s relationships between this country and Islamic leaders, Islamic peoples around the world, there seems to be an outreach. Did the President reach out to the leaders of any of the countries that have a large population of Muslims there to talk to them, to apologize, to say this will never happen again, et cetera?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, April, I can tell you that I don’t — I’m actually not in a position to read out any specific presidential conversations about the potential release of this report with other heads of state.  The President obviously has an open line of communication with many world leaders, including the King of Jordan, who was just here last week.  I, frankly, don’t know whether or not they discussed the impending release of this report, just because I’m not in a position to read out any presidential conversations about this specific report.

Q    This is a very big issue, as when this President first came into office, he really made a point to reach out to many of the heads of these nations to say, look, we are trying to tamp down any kind of escalation of jihadist activities and to show you we’re not the country that you may have perceived us as.  So where is this White House when it comes to possibilities of continued outreach after this report?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple of things about that.  We’ve talked quite a bit about the success that the United States has had and the President has had in building a broad international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.  Some of the members of that coalition are Muslim countries, and to have those Muslim countries working closely with the United States to go after a group like ISIL I think speaks volumes about the success that the President has had in strengthening our cooperation with regional partners as we confront this shared threat.

We even have Muslim countries flying fighter jets alongside American pilots, and dropping bombs on ISIL targets in Syria, something that I think even a few months ago was, if not unthinkable, at least a proposition that many impartial observers viewed skeptically.  They didn’t think that these Muslim countries would ever join the United States in this effort.  But yet we have fighter pilots from the UAE and from Jordan and from other Muslim countries in the region who are flying alongside American pilots and dropping bombs on ISIL targets.  That demonstrates the success that this President has had in strengthening our relationship with countries in this region — this volatile region of the world, but also in building strong ties with other countries around the world.

We’ve also gotten significant cooperation from other more traditional allies — allies like France, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and Denmark.  These are countries that are actually flying combat missions over the skies of Iraq, again, alongside American military pilots.  That is an indication that we have strengthened our relationship with countries in the region and around the world, and we’ve done so in a way that significantly benefits American interests around the world.

Q    So is it beyond the possibility to think that the President did or will reach out to some of these leaders for discussion and/or apology?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, if he does, I don’t anticipate that it will be the kind of conversation that we’ll read out.

Q    Okay.  And lastly, on Detroit, this week it’s expected to come out of — the city is expected to come out of bankruptcy. What do you say about that, particularly as they’re coming out of bankruptcy and still they have a debt into the billions of dollars?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the city of — the Obama administration has worked closely with officials in the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit as they’ve worked through the significant financial problems plaguing that city.  We certainly are pleased that they appear to be nearing the end of this bankruptcy period, but there is significant work that remains to be done.  And the administration will continue to work closely with officials in Michigan and officials in the state of Detroit — in the city of Detroit as they continue to recover from the significant financial problems that they’ve had.

There’s no question that that region of the country has benefited significantly from the efforts that this President undertook to rescue the auto industry.  And again, it is thanks to the grit and determination of American workers that that industry has come roaring back, that we’re seeing record sales, we’re seeing record revenues from those companies.  And we anticipate that that will continue to have a positive economic impact on the city of Detroit and on the broader state of Michigan.

But that’s not the only way.  We’re going to continue to see the administration — whether it’s the Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other core agencies — working closely with city officials in Detroit to help that community recover.

Q    As you say that they’ve come roaring back, using your words, they still, again, have this major debt —

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I was referring to the auto industry.

Q    I know.  I know.

MR. EARNEST:  And that’s different than the city of Detroit. The financial position of the auto companies —

Q    But they are — but the city benefits from the auto industry.

MR. EARNEST:  They do.

Q    Yes, that’s what I’m saying, but the city still has this major debt.  Are you still concerned?

MR. EARNEST:  We continue to be committed to their recovery. 
Major.

Q    Josh, let’s puncture some of the delicate fiction you’ve created around the CR.  It’s not a 1,600 bill that you’re unaware of.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s not a particularly charitable comment this morning.  (Laughter.)  I mean, yowza. 

Q    There’s a 1,600 bill that — you know what’s in it.  You negotiated with it on the Hill for two and a half weeks.  Barbara Mikulski is not a stranger to this White House.  So because it’s the only piece of legislation that’s operative to avoid a shutdown, just tell us the truth — you’re not going to veto it, right?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we have not reached that conclusion.  We’re going to continue to review it.

Q    It’s possible you could veto it?

MR. EARNEST:  We’re going to continue to review the bill before we pass judgment.

Q    But nothing you’ve said to us this morning is a discouraging word against all the things you said that are encouraging and are generally satisfying to you about this piece of legislation.

MR. EARNEST:  At the same time I’m trying to be honest about the fact that we do anticipate that there will be things in this piece of legislation that we do not like.

Q    Right, but that’s not the same as it becoming veto bait.

MR. EARNEST:  That is correct.

Q    And so you’re not going to veto it, are you?  You’re not going to shut the government down.

MR. EARNEST:  I am withholding judgment on this piece of legislation until we’ve had a chance to review it again.

Q    When will that be?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s 1,600 pages long —

Q    Yes, that’s a factual truth, but it’s not 1,600 pages you don’t know anything about.  You know almost everything about this bill.

MR. EARNEST:  I didn’t say that.

Q    You did work in consultation with the relevant key players, Democrat and Republican, to put this thing together, did you not?

MR. EARNEST:  That is true, but what is also true is that this is — as somebody who covered Capitol Hill for a very long time, you understand that there are I think legitimate expectations that members of Congress have about being able to exercise their own authority to reach these kinds of agreements. So I guess the point is

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