The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Press Briefing by Denis McDonough, Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Council Chief of Staff
Moana Surfrider Hotel, Honolulu, Hawaii
MR. McDONOUGH: -- (in progress) -- and then I had a brief update with him at the site of the remarks over on the Marine base. And then he's continuing to get written updates twice daily from the National Counterterrorism Center as well as periodic -- usually three times daily from the Sit Room.
Q I'm sorry, twice daily from whom?
MR. McDONOUGH: The National Counterterrorism Center.
Q Okay. And the three times?
MR. McDONOUGH: Three times daily from the Sit Room.
Q So five times daily?
MR. McDONOUGH: Yes, five different pieces of paper -- five different paper updates that --
Q These are all paper updates?
MR. McDONOUGH: That's correct.
Q So five paper updates and then he has a morning briefing, maybe more --
MR. McDONOUGH: The morning briefing is not set. He did have a morning briefing this morning, yes. And he's obviously had a morning briefing every day. This morning was not John and me, but rather John, the Attorney General, Secretary Napolitano and the President.
Q Are these televised or just phone?
MR. McDONOUGH: Just phone.
Q Can you tell us a little more about the timing of having him talk today, instead of yesterday versus tomorrow? Or why today? Why was today the appropriate time to kind of respond to this -- the Republicans saying that (inaudible) sooner?
MR. McDONOUGH: I can't really respond because I haven't seen what they've been saying, but I take your word for it that they have been saying something about it.
You know, I think that -- obviously we arrived on Christmas Eve; this developed on Christmas morning and obviously the President has been very engaged on this, has been leading our response effort, asking agencies -- directing agencies to take a variety of steps, including all the steps we outlined today. And then, for example, yesterday he thought it made sense -- so that was Friday; Saturday, continued to be regularly briefed and in communication with his administration with us here as well as back in Washington. And then of course yesterday he thought it appropriate that Secretary of Homeland Security -- who had not been previously scheduled to go out on the shows -- go out on the Sunday morning shows to explain what was happening. And of course, Robert was on all the shows, his spokesman. So we thought it made sense to handle it in that way. And then we thought today was a good opportunity for the President to go out.
Q But is this -- so is this sort of when you have these kinds of incidents -- especially ones that don't go anywhere, like this one -- is a waiting period, you know, not going out right away, is that sort of you all concluded over time that's the best route? You know, what is it about the couple, kind of, 48-hour window that makes it appropriate?
MR. McDONOUGH: Don't attach -- I think any development like this, you know, obviously our goal is to ensure that developments like this don't occur, so we don't really have a standard operating procedure about when is best to go out. But what's most important, we believe and I think the President believes, is that the government function, that the government take the steps that the American people expect us to take to ensure that they are secure. And not only did he direct those steps over the course of the weekend, his Secretary of Homeland Security and his spokesman went out yesterday and explained that and then he went out today to discuss that, as well as the situation in Iran, which I know you all are also following and which he thought it was important to be heard on.
Q Was there any discussion or consideration of the possibility of returning to Washington and cutting the vacation short?
MR. McDONOUGH: I'm not aware of any such discussion. I mean, the President has got a full team here, we're very close. Interagency is stood up back in Washington, working all agencies, all intel, law enforcement, military, homeland security and others are working regularly, aggressively. They've been together not just by SVTC, but in person, including (inaudible). So the interagency is working very effectively and the President is hooked right into that.
MR. McDONOUGH: Are you suggesting he's not adequately staffed?
Q I'm saying you guys are working 20 hour days. Is it a sense that (inaudible) skeletal staff?
MR. McDONOUGH: You know, the fact is that given the -- the President is very ably served and staffed by the White House communications and White House military offices, who bring a degree of sophistication and agility to that communications infrastructure out here that allow us to have what we need, most importantly, have what he needs to get fully briefed and fully in contact with his Cabinet, with his senior staff, and that's what we have.
Q (Inaudible) -- been happening sort of when you guys are doing (inaudible) --
MR. McDONOUGH: The PDB briefer is here with him. He gets a brief every day, in addition to the updates. So maybe to the earlier question I just took -- that's all right -- I took it for granted that you guys were aware that he's getting the daily brief. So in addition to twice daily updates on the Detroit incident, plus three times daily updates from the Situation Room, the President is getting his morning briefing every day on intelligence, overnight intelligence.
Q Does the President feel that he and members of the administration have successfully conveyed to the American people what it is you guys want them to know?
MR. McDONOUGH: I would say that the President believes that in the first instance I think he admires very much what the passengers and crew of Flight 253 did in the first instance, one. Two, I think that he recognizes that it's very important that we communicate to the American people what we know and the steps that we're taking. And I think that's why he went out today to make his remarks; that's why Secretary Napolitano and Robert went out yesterday; and that's why we've been in constant touch with you all since we've been here, to ensure that you guys know what he's up to and the steps that we're taking.
Q When we look at those reviews, what's the time frame for them? Like, when does he want answers on that? Are there initial -- any kind of benchmarks with these?
MR. McDONOUGH: I confess to not having the timeline available at my fingertips here. We'll get you an answer and get back to you. But these are -- the President is looking for answers on this with dispatch.
Q Did Brennan (inaudible)?
MR. McDONOUGH: As it relates to the review on detection capacity, that will be handled out of the Department of Homeland Security, which houses the Transportation Security Administration.
Q But you don't have a TSA director.
MR. McDONOUGH: That is correct, we have a very able acting TSA Administrator. But the --
Q You don't feel like you -- you guys feel like (inaudible)?
MR. McDONOUGH: Well, I'd say two things. One, I think that we have a very able team of career professionals at TSA. We have a very able team in the Department of Homeland Security generally. But I think it's fair to say that the President believes -- the President is eager to have his TSA head on the job.
Q What are the other reviews?
MR. McDONOUGH: So that will be at TSA. The other review will be handled in the interagency. Exactly who runs it I don't think is yet determined. But that, like the timeline, is something I can get back to you on.
Q So this review has not started.
MR. McDONOUGH: The gathering of information as it relates to the watch lists has begun. That was something that was -- I think as we've indicated to all of you, this President is demanding of us that we constantly challenge the assumptions on which we make decisions. That obviously the procedures and protocols employed in this instance are ones that we inherited, that have been kind of built over the course of several years since 2003. So he was demanding of us right out of the box on Christmas that we take a hard look at the decisions that were made as it relates to the lists. So we began to gather some of that data and will continue to gather more of it.
Q Are you concerned that these congressional hearings are going to come too soon? (Inaudible.)
MR. McDONOUGH: You know, I think it's important that Congress be involved in making sure that the government is doing all it can. Obviously we're also glad that Congress funded the agencies to do the work that the government -- that the country requires of them. And obviously we'd like to make sure that the administrators are in place to run the agencies as well.
But the hearings are important and we obviously think it's a good opportunity to get to the bottom of all of this.
Q If asked to testify, would (inaudible) testify? Or would you guys --
MR. McDONOUGH: Boy, that gets into a -- I don't think that generally --
Q Or would you (inaudible) executive privilege.
MR. McDONOUGH: You know, I guess I'd defer to all of you distinguished and experienced White House hands on what the precedent is on national security or homeland security council staff testifying.
Q -- on the NCTC briefings are specific (inaudible) --
MR. McDONOUGH: Twice daily, that's correct.
Q The three times a day the Sit Room briefings are on a variety of issues. Does that include --
MR. McDONOUGH: Those are intel assessments to the President, updates to the President that invariably since Christmas Day have included in each instance updates on --
Q Plus the --
MR. McDONOUGH: -- but the --
Q -- phone briefings, so there are least half a dozen briefings a day --
MR. McDONOUGH: That's correct.
Q -- that include information on this.
MR. McDONOUGH: That's correct. That's correct.
But, look, I think as the President made clear in his statement today that -- by addressing the situation in Iran he obviously remains very engaged and focused on other developments as well, including Iran. And so the three times daily updates from the Sit Room include obviously other intelligence and breaking news developments.
MR. McDONOUGH: Well, you know, I think that what the President suggested today is that we want to make clear that the Iranian people understand that we're bearing witness to developments on the ground there. And I think that we also want to make clear that the international community recognizes that Iran has rights as any other member of the international community, but with those rights comes responsibilities, and among those responsibilities are, as outlined in a number of international agreements the Iranians themselves have signed, are recognizing the universal rights of Iranian citizens.
MR. McDONOUGH: I'm sorry?
Q There's an English translation (inaudible) that al Qaeda is claiming responsibility for the (inaudible). (Inaudible.)
MR. McDONOUGH: I obviously saw news reports about that today; I have not seen the English translation of it. We know independent verification of that claim, but obviously the President has made very clear now over the course of several months his concern about al Qaeda affiliates, the rise of global extremist organizations and al Qaeda affiliates in other countries and other regions, including in Somalia and East Africa, on the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen, as he mentioned in the West Point speech, in South Asia, in Southeast Asia. And so I think he's made quite clear that we recognize that these organizations are a threat to America and our interests, and that's why we've adapted the posture that we have in each of those regions.
MR. McDONOUGH: Well, I don't -- I think that what we're doing is we're acting in response to threats against the United States and our interests. So the President -- it's not just the President mentioning it today, he mentioned it in the West Point speech. And in that speech he said that we have to be agile and address these threats where they arise, through partnership and through pressure. Obviously the President, as you all reported, spoke to President Saleh a couple weeks ago to commend his efforts -- this ongoing effort against al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, which obviously is a significant threat to the Yemen government.
So we'll continue to address, as the President said in the West Point speech, these manifestations of al Qaeda affiliates where they manifest themselves.
MR. McDONOUGH: Well, I don't want to make this as if it's some kind of esoteric thing. I think that there is very real manifestations of the al Qaeda and the threats that they pose to the United States and our interests. Frankly, I think as you've heard the President address many times, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other faith, dramatically more Muslims than people of any other faith.
So I think the fact is that this is an organization that's sworn to attack the United States and our interests. And as the President indicated over the course of many months, that really going back to the last several years, he recognizes that this is a fight with an organization that we need to engage.
MR. McDONOUGH: I think you and I have talked about this, Chuck, and you've asked Robert about this. I'm disinclined to get into a discussion about the incident at Fort Hood, because as you know that's a case that's under prosecution.
MR. McDONOUGH: Well, it's a case, again, a case that's under prosecution in the Uniform Court of Military Justice and the UCMJ court, so I'm just not going to get into the business of talking about that now -- the same way that I wouldn't talk about the specifics of any other case that is under prosecution.
MR. McDONOUGH: I think the record is splashed with examples of what this administration is doing to confront global violent extremists. I think John's speech at the CSIS in June, I think obviously the President's speech -- sorry, that was in late July -- the President's speech in Cairo, the President's speech in Ankara, where I think the President made very clear that there is a hard group of violent extremists with whom you could not negotiate, that you're going to have to take the fight to, as I think he said also in Oslo. So the fact is I think the record is pretty clear on how we intend to deal with this.
Q While these reviews are ongoing and, you know, the President's called for heightened security (inaudible), there does seem to be, though, somewhat of an (inaudible). Do you feel like the security measures that the President has called for that are in place right now are enough? I talked to a security analyst earlier today who said, you know, not having a blanket or not having a pillow in the last hour and all this, that this is window-dressing, that it really isn't enough. Do you think that it's safe to fly internationally, especially for Americans?
MR. McDONOUGH: I think I would just associate -- I'd just call your attention to what the President said on that today. I don't have anything more to add to it than what the President said in his remarks today.
Q Do you think it's going to get better after the reviews (inaudible)? Do you think it's (inaudible)?
MR. McDONOUGH: I think that part of the review is to ensure that we have appropriate detection capacity and the best detection capacity available to us, and that's exactly what we're going to do.
Q Are we going to hear from him again this week?
MR. McDONOUGH: From the President? You know, we haven't really talked through when he'll go out, but you guys will -- I'm sure you'll see him.
Q You're sure we'll see him?
MR. McDONOUGH: I'm sure you'll see him.