Aboard Air Force One
En Route Los Angeles, California
10:21 A.M. PDT
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One on a beautiful Friday morning. I do have one quick update before we get to your questions. The first is the President has been getting updates on Tropical Storm Andrea. FEMA has been in close touch with local officials in the state of Florida and other states along the East Coast that are in the path of the storm. As you know, FEMA is responsible for both monitoring the storm but also being the primary liaison with local officials who are responsible for responding to this storm.
What we would encourage people to do -- there are a couple of things -- a couple of good reminders with the first storm of the hurricane season is this is a good time for individuals, particularly those who live along the coast, to consult with local officials about whether or not they live in an evacuation zone. We also encourage people to visit Ready.gov to see what they can do to protect or prepare themselves and their family in the event of a storm this hurricane season.
We anticipate the President will get additional updates as necessary, as the storm progresses.
So with that, we’ll open it up for questions.
Q So is the NSA domestic program, is it proving to be a distraction that’s going to hurt your agenda, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: The President, I think, is pretty focused on the ambitious domestic agenda that he’s laid out. You saw that the President spent some time yesterday at a school in Mooresville that’s investing in exactly the kind of technology that will improve the prospects of students who are going to come out and compete in a 21st global economy. The President believes that the foundation of a high-quality education is critical to a strong and growing and thriving middle class. That’s what the President is focused on.
You heard the President begin his day by talking about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the impact that that will have on expanding access to quality, affordable health care for millions of Americans and lower the health care costs of millions of other American families and American small businesses.
So the President has laid out a pretty specific and ambitious domestic agenda, and that’s his top priority.
Q Is there a concern that the reports about the NSA surveillance will overshadow the meetings this afternoon and tomorrow with China’s President?
MR. EARNEST: Not at all. The President does have an important meeting this weekend with the President of China. It will be an opportunity for the President and -- the President of the United States and the incoming President of China to talk about the varied and complex bilateral relationship that we have with China -- from a range of diplomatic issues, economic issues, and security issues. There are opportunities for us to expand the areas in which we cooperate with the Chinese. There are certainly some areas of competition. Economic competition is probably among the most important of those.
But what we want to do is we want to examine this relationship and see if there are broader opportunities for us to expand those issues in which we cooperate.
So this will be an informal atmosphere where they'll have the opportunity to spend some time together in a variety of settings and talk over this wide range of issues. As you know, they’ve met before, but they haven’t had the opportunity to spend an extensive amount of time together talking about these issues that are very important to the citizens of both countries.
Q So companies from Apple to Yahoo have been denying that they gave the NSA access to their data and their information. Does that mean that the government accessed that information without their knowledge?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for specific operational details about the way that this program is conducted, I would refer you to the Director of National Intelligence. I’m not sure that I can get into the granular details that you’re asking about.
But what I can assure you is that these are -- that the authorities that we've been talking about, this Section 702, are authorities that have oversight of all three branches of government. This is a principle that we talked about a little bit yesterday when we were talking about Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
And it is important for people to understand that these authorities have oversight over all three branches of government. It’s also important for people to understand that these authorities do not apply to U.S. citizens or people who live in the United States.
Q And given what the President said today about the need for balance in these programs, and also what he talked about during his campaign when these programs were under President Bush, why hasn’t he done more earlier to at least give the public a general sense of what’s been going on, of what these programs are, and even why they’re important?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d say a couple of things about that. The first is there have been numerous debates inside the United States Congress that duly-elected representatives of the people have a responsibility to examine what kind of authority should be granted to the executive branch to protect the interests and national security of the United States of America. So there has been a robust debate in Congress about this, much of which has taken place publicly, that when we’re talking -- when we’re debating legislation, you have members of Congress who are casting public votes. And I would point out that the reauthorization of the Patriot Act has been approved by Congress many times with strong bipartisan support.
So there has been a debate. There has been an opportunity for members of Congress on both sides to weigh in. And what we’ve seen is members of Congress on both sides approve of these authorities.
In terms of the public debate, I would make the case to you that the President actually has sought to engage the public in these debates. The President gave a very prominent speech early on in his first term where he talked about striking the balance between protecting the constitutional rights and civil liberties of American citizens with the responsibility that the Commander-in-Chief has to protect the national security of the United States.
And the President gave another high-profile speech just a couple of weeks ago at the National Defense University where he talked about these issues again. Much of the attention was focused on the use of drones, but as I read yesterday during the gaggle, there was a portion of the speech that was dedicated to surveillance programs and a robust discussion of how to balance the privacy rights of American citizens and our national security interests.
So the President is genuine when he suggests that he welcomes a public debate about how to appropriately balance what I think the vast majority of Americans acknowledge are two very important priorities.
Q So he welcomes the debate, but is he willing to rein in some of these programs if the debate reaches that conclusion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would say two things about that. The first is, when this President took office, he did carefully examine these programs and did put in place tougher, stricter oversight measures. I think most people would argue that that actually is reining in his -- constraining his authority. So I would make the case to you that the President, when he took office, examined this balance and made some changes based on his own assessment.
Ultimately, this is the responsibility of Congress to engage in a debate about what kind of authority should be granted to the executive branch. So all the authority that we’re talking about is authority that has previously been approved by Congress. I understand that the reauthorization of the Patriot Act is coming up, so if Congress wants to engage in that debate again and wants to reexamine some of these issues and consider making some changes, they’ll have the opportunity to have that debate and they’ll have the opportunity to make some changes if that’s what they vote to do.
But none of that changes the President’s commitment to ensuring that we have strict oversight of all three branches of government. And when I say all three branches of government, I don’t just mean Congress being regularly briefed and I don’t just mean federal judges who are issuing warrants. I also mean individuals who are independent of the regular structure inside the executive branch -- inspectors general, for example, who also have a role to audit the conduct of national security professionals who are implementing these programs. And so that is also an important source of constraining the authority that the President has been granted, all within the bounds, though, of a robust defense of our national security.
Q Will he make some proposals on his own in the debate leading up to the Patriot Act reauthorization, or is he just leaving it up to Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we -- the President, as you can tell from his answers today, has thought about this a lot and has some very strong views based -- that are informed primarily by his responsibility to protect the national security of the United States of America. But he also took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, including the constitutional right to privacy that is enjoyed by American citizens.
So the President certainly has some thoughts about this -- there’s no doubt about that. So he would participate in that debate. This is not a debate that he wants other people to have. He would participate in this debate. I think that was evident from his answer today. I think that was evident from the speech that he gave two weeks ago. And we certainly would welcome the opportunity to have conversations with Congress about this as well.
Q As these reports have come out this week, has the White House heard from leaders in Congress who want to reopen the debate or who are suggesting to you that changes should be made?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific conversations to read out to you. I would -- there certainly is an opportunity for members of Congress to express their concerns, either publicly or to the White House, if they choose to do so.
Q Does this undercut the President’s message to President Xi this evening and tomorrow about sort of the Chinese, sort of domestic reforms in China, and sort of the human rights issues and things of that sort, in terms of -- and cyber as well? Does this -- do these revelations make the President’s case that much harder?
MR. EARNEST: I actually think that you could make the case that this is a pretty good illustration of the kind of conversation that we want to have about respecting civil liberties and protecting the constitutional rights of the people that you govern.
What the President did was he put in place some -- a very strict oversight regime, one that he strengthened when he took office, that, as I mentioned to Steve, constrained his own ability, constrained his own authority. And I think that is a testament to the strength of our system of government that we can inspire a lot of confidence in the American public and in the free media even, who have questions about these programs and have questions about the exercise of executive authority to keep the country safe.
The fact that there are different branches of government, some of whom are elected, like members of Congress, some of whom, as the President referenced, are insulated from short-term political pressures like the federal judiciary -- they have an opportunity to provide some oversight. And that is a testament to the strength of our system. It’s also a testament to the shared commitment of the people who are leading this country, both to protecting the constitutional rights of American citizens, but also protecting the national security of the United States.
Q Josh, what do you have to say to critics, especially those on the far left, who say that these revelations that the President’s surveillance policy is basically a redo of that of his predecessor?
MR. EARNEST: I’d say several things, actually. The first is just -- I’ll give a shorter version to what I said to Steve, which is that when this President took office, he reexamined the executive authority that he was granted by Congress to implement programs that protect our national security. Based on his assessment of those programs after taking office, he put in a stronger oversight regime that included more robust congressional oversight and that included a role for independent members of the executive branch to play in auditing the conduct of national security professionals. So I think there are some significant changes that the President has put in place from that standpoint.
But there are other broader, in some ways more prominent examples of changes that the President has made. I think the biggest one is ending the war in Iraq. You’ll recall that when the President ran for this office, the war in Iraq was the central front in the war on terror. The President disagreed with that and vowed to end the war in Iraq. And that's exactly what he did.
And I think that there have been -- we’ve made the case to you that there are significant benefits enjoyed by the American people in terms of the success we’ve had in fighting al Qaeda core because we’ve been able to move resources from Iraq to what we see as the central front -- or had been at the time was the central front in the war on terror.
I think another example would be ending the use of torture. That's something that this President did when he took office. I’d remind you that it’s the President’s predecessor who opened the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and it’s this President who is determined to close it.
Now, Congress has done some things to throw up some obstacles to that effort, but that's something -- you’ve seen reports today that the White House Chief of Staff has traveled to the prison at Guantanamo Bay with a couple of members of the United States Senate who share the President’s commitment to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. We believe that we should do that both because it’s in the interest of our national security, but also because it’s not a particularly effective or efficient means of conduct of our fight here, of keeping the American people safe.
So I think there are a variety of ways in which the President has fulfilled the commitments that he made during the campaign to better strike the balance between protecting the civil liberties of American citizens and protecting the national security of the United States and our interests.
Q Whose idea was it for Denis McDonough to go to Guantanamo Bay?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have the details about how that --
Q I mean, did it originate with Senator McCain or with Denis?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I’m not sure how that trip originated. I know that it was a follow-up of the speech that the President gave a couple of weeks ago in which the President reiterated his determination to close the prison.
Q And do they expect -- are they going to review the hunger strikers? Or what are they going to do down there?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that they will -- that they're going to take a look firsthand at the conditions there and have some conversations with the folks who are responsible for administering the prison to gather some information to again take the next steps that are necessary to finally close the prison there.
Anything else? Okay, thanks, guys. We’ll see you on the ground.
10:35 A.M. PDT