Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest - 8/7/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:02 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for the delay in getting things started today. It's a busy Thursday afternoon here in August at the White House. Let me do one quick announcement at the top, Josh, and then we'll let you get started with the questions, okay?
As many of you are aware, there are two significant storms in the Pacific Ocean that are moving in the direction of Hawaii. Today the President received an update from his Homeland Security Advisor, Lisa Monaco, on preparations that are already underway related to Hurricanes Iselle and Julio. In anticipation of Hurricane Iselle making landfall, FEMA has personnel on the ground who are positioned in the Pacific area year-round. There’s also an incident management assistance team that has been deployed to the state to coordinate with local officials should support be requested or needed.
Here at the White House, administration officials are staying in close contact with FEMA and other agencies that will be helping with the response and recovery efforts as the storms near Hawaii. These are powerful storms with the potential to cause significant damage. So we, as we often do in these circumstances, strongly encourage those in the path of the storms to take appropriate steps to prepare, and to heed the warnings of state and local officials.
With that, Mr. Lederman, would you like to get us started?
Q Thanks, Josh. As you know, in Iraq, there is some national concern about some religious minorities that may be trapped there. Is the White House or the U.S. considering any urgent action to help those trapped minorities?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, the United States strongly condemns ISIL’s assault on Sinjar and surrounding areas of northern Iraq. These actions have exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis, and the situation is nearing a humanitarian catastrophe. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians are reported to have been displaced, fleeing persecution. And we are gravely concerned for their health and safety, including the vulnerable ethnic and religious minority communities who have been specifically targeted by ISIL.
The cold and calculated manner in which ISIL has targeted defenseless Iraqis like the Yazidis and Christians solely because of their ethnic and religious identity demonstrates a callous disregard for human rights, and it is deeply disturbing. In particular, we're concerned about the welfare of the large community of Iraqi Yazidis who are stranded on Mount Sinjar without food, water or shelter, and the Iraqi Christians who have been forced to flee from their villages in the region. We're deeply concerned about reports that ISIL has abducted as many as several hundred girls from these vulnerable communities.
We're working intensively with the government of Iraq, the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish authorities in the immediate area to support their efforts to address the humanitarian situation in Sinjar.
Q And in terms of what the U.S. might be able to do to stop this, is the President considering things along the lines of humanitarian aid? Might he consider going as far as airstrikes against ISIL to address this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, first and foremost, as I mentioned, Iraqi authorities and Kurdish authorities are focused on this very specific threat to the nation of Iraq and to the vulnerable populations that live in these areas. So the United States government as well as the United States military is supporting the ongoing efforts of the Iraqi officials and Kurdish officials to address this urgent humanitarian crisis that exists. It is a situation that we are deeply concerned about and closely monitoring.
Q And has the President been meeting with people about this recently? Can you give us a little bit of detail about how he’s addressing it and whether we may expect to hear anything more from him about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President, as he often does, met with his national security team -- or members of his national security team this morning. I don't have a specific readout of that meeting, but American officials in Iraq and American officials here in the U.S. are closely monitoring this situation.
Q Is that why he was late, by the way? Was that right before the event?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any updates for the President’s schedule.
But go ahead, Josh.
Q Just one other thing. The White House said that the President, in a departure from what had been originally released as his schedule for his trip to Martha’s Vineyard, will come back for a day or so. Can you tell us a little bit about why he’ll be returning?
MR. EARNEST: The President wanted to take advantage of a little time, not next week but the week after, to do a day or two of in-person meetings here at the White House. This is not in relation to an emergent situation -- that's obvious because these meetings are being scheduled a couple weeks in advance. But this is an opportunity for the President to do some in-person meetings here at the White House just for a day or two before he returns to Martha’s Vineyard.
Q Any detail on who those in-person meetings might be with?
MR. EARNEST: Not at this point.
MR. EARNEST: Roberta.
Q You said that the U.S. is supporting the ongoing efforts of the Iraqi and Kurdish officials on the threats, on the humanitarian situation. How is the U.S. supporting that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of different ways, Roberta. The first is there is a longstanding military-to-military relationship between the United States and Iraqi security forces, and so there is training and resources and supplies that are regularly provided from the United States military to Iraq security forces.
As you also know, there are a couple of joint operations centers that have been established in Iraq in the last few weeks, both in Erbil and Baghdad, where close military coordination and cooperation can occur. That includes, again, American military personnel, as well as some Kurdish security forces and some Iraq security forces -- that all of this is integrated in those two places.
The final thing is there are also, as you know, the President announced a few weeks ago, American military personnel who are on the ground in Iraq to provide an assessment of the situation on the ground and an assessment of the capability of Iraq’s security forces. And those individuals are obviously working closely with Iraq security forces and Kurdish security forces to evaluate that situation.
Q So beyond those things that have already been announced, France today said that it’s ready to take action in addressing that humanitarian situation that you described earlier. Is the U.S. military considering specific action to support France or support the situation in that way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have anything to announce from here. American military personnel in Iraq are conducting an assessment at the direction of the President about the capability of Iraqi security forces and the conditions on the ground. That sort of assessment is done after and in conjunction with careful coordination and cooperation with Iraqi security forces.
So if there are specific needs that need to be met in terms of enhancing Iraq’s security forces capability, then we will look to provide it. Again, this is a longstanding military-to-military relationship that has existed for a long time. And we can operate through those channels to provide assistance to the Iraqis as they confront this very difficult and tragic situation in their own country.
Q Just to get a really straight answer, is the U.S. considering airstrikes among these options to make sure that humanitarian assistance is provided to those oppressed minority populations in northern Iraq? Are airstrikes on the table?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I’m not in a position to rule things on the table or off the table in this context. What I can tell you is to reiterate a principle that the President himself has articulated a couple of times. There are many problems in Iraq. This one that we’re talking about right now has a particularly -- is a particularly acute one in that the stakes are very high. We’re seeing innocent populations be persecuted just because of their religious or ethnic identity. The humanitarian situation is deeply disturbing there and it’s one that we are following closely.
That said, it’s important for everyone to understand -- and the President has made this clear -- that there are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq. We can’t solve these problems for them. These problems can only be solved with Iraq political solutions. That is the core of our thinking as we confront these kinds of situations.
Now, the President has, at the same time, demonstrated his clear willingness to take the kind of military action that’s required to protect core American interests. Those interests include things like protecting American personnel around the globe. He has taken actions like that in other countries. The President has also made clear that American military action in Iraq would not include combat boots on the ground. That is a principle that the President laid out at the beginning and that continues to be true today.
Q And so it sounds like what you’re saying is that this is under consideration.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to shed light about the President’s thinking at this point. He’s been pretty clear about the broader problems and the broader challenges that are facing the people of Iraq right now. What is clear is that there are no American military solutions to those problems. Those solutions are only going to come about through the kinds of political reforms that only the Iraqis themselves can undertake.
Q It sounds as though, to deliver this humanitarian aid, something may have to be done militarily to soften ISIL-ISIS in that area so those supplies could go in. Is that a correct read of the situation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not in a position to provide you a tactical assessment of the situation on the ground. What I can do is I can give you some insight into the President’s thinking in general about the kinds of principles that would apply to contemplated military action. That would include no combat boots being put on the ground in Iraq. The President has been clear about that, and that principle continues to hold. The President has also been clear that any sort of military action that would be taken in Iraq would be very limited in scope and very specific to addressing a core American objective.
Q So that principle he laid out earlier this summer, that remains the case now?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. And that would include things like protecting American personnel or confronting counterterrorism threats. The other thing that we’ve been also very clear about is that any sort of American military action would have to be closely tied to Iraqi political reforms that are long overdue.
Now, the good news on that is that we have seen in recent weeks some steps taken by Iraq’s political leaders to form a government on a timeline that’s much more -- much faster than they’ve made these kinds of decisions in the past. So just in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen the election of a new Iraqi president who is a Kurd. We’ve seen the appointment of a new Iraqi speaker, who is Sunni, and the appointment of two deputy speakers, one of whom is a Kurd and one of whom is Shia.
What continues to -- the work that remains to be done in terms of those political reforms is the election of a new Iraqi prime minister and a cohesive government that is committed to leading that country in a way that reflects Iraq’s diverse population and gives confidence to the citizens of Iraq that the government is looking out for the interests and well-being of every citizen in Iraq.
Q And last night, there was a pool report that said that the Chairman of Joint Chiefs was here meeting with the President in the Oval Office. Did this matter come up in their discussions?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a readout of that meeting. I think the pool report noted that Chairman Dempsey traveled with the President from the State Department at the conclusion of the Africa Leaders Summit back to the White House. They did -- the Chairman did ride in the car with the President on the way back from that meeting. But I don’t have any --
Q Do you know if they discussed the national security matter --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any readout of their discussion.
Move around a little bit -- Anita.
Q Could you respond to some of the criticism from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats, led by the Chairwoman, Senator Feinstein about the report about -- you know what report -- the interrogation tactics after 9/11? What is the administration doing, and has the President spoken to the Chairwoman yet?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know of any conversations -- at least I don’t have any to read out to you -- conversations between the President and the Chairwoman.
As the Director of National Intelligence indicated on Friday, the report that was declassified by the DNI left 85 percent of that material included in that report unredacted. That is a rather large percentage when you consider the subject matter that’s included in the report. Those redactions are -- it’s also important to note that those redactions -- about half of those redactions were actually included in the footnotes.
So the substance of the material that we’re talking about is largely unredacted. And that reflects the President’s personal commitment and view that this report be released to the public so that the public can see exactly what happened. The President believes that it is important, as -- he stood at this podium about a week or so ago and laid out why he believed it was important for this report to be released; that serious mistakes were made, and that it would be inappropriate to stand in sanctimonious judgment of those individuals who were responsible for trying to protect this country at a very difficult, tumultuous time, but yet, that doesn’t change the fact that some of the actions that occurred were wrong.
The President spoke out against those actions as a candidate for President. And upon assuming office, within the first week, the President issued the kind of executive action that was necessary to ensure that those actions would never take place in his administration. And he believes that this report is important in that it details what happened in a way that can ensure or at least minimize the likelihood that these kinds of tactics would occur again in the United States.
Q Let me follow up. You all think it should be released. They are not releasing it. They want to have a further conversation. Is that conversation taking place? Are you all going to agree to something else?
MR. EARNEST: Well, after the Chairwoman raised her concerns on Friday afternoon, the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement indicating a willingness to try to cooperate with the committee to resolve their concerns so that this report could be released as soon as possible, in line with the President’s preferences. They’re working on that effort, but I don't have an update on those conversations to share with you.
Q I saw (inaudible) was here for the dinner the other night. I know a lot of people were here -- they didn’t have a conversation at that --
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if they had a conversation, if they had a chance to talk at the dinner.
Q Russia announced today that Edward Snowden would be eligible to stay for an additional three years. So I'm wondering -- I'd like to get you guys’ reaction to that, but also if you could talk a little bit about what this means in terms of the effectiveness of sanctions that you guys have already imposed over the situation in Ukraine and their ability to sort of alter President Putin’s behavior, and also whether this might mean that you guys are going to move ahead with additional sanctions against Russia.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's important for people to understand -- and I think this has been made crystal-clear to President Putin -- that the sanctions are related to the destabilizing actions that Russia has taken in Ukraine and along the border with Ukraine. That includes the illegal annexation of Crimea, [and] the deployment of some troops in a threatening way along the Russia-Ukraine border. It also includes the evidence that we've seen of attacks being launched from the Russian side of the border against Ukrainian military targets. We've also seen the transfer of heavy weapons from the Russian side across the border into Ukraine and into the hands of Russian-backed separatists. All of those actions are what led to the sanctions regime that's been put in place by the United States and our allies and partners all around the globe.
The Snowden situation is a different one. As it relates to Mr. Snowden, our position hasn’t changed. He's accused of leaking classified information and faces felony charges here in the United States. That's why we believe that he should return to the United States as soon as possible, where he'll be afforded full due process and protections that are allowed to U.S. citizens under the law.
Q I want to get back to Iraq and some terminology here. You said that the President would act for a core American objective and in America’s interests. We're now at a situation where you’ve got a series of Christian towns that have been effectively ethnically cleansed, and a situation where religious minorities have been given a choice of a slaughter or leave or convert to Islam. Is preventing a kind of humanitarian catastrophe, which you said appears to be at hand, a core American objective?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are times where the President has taken military action, sometimes in concert with our allies, to protect innocent, vulnerable civilian populations from slaughter or other dire humanitarian situations. That occurred in Libya, you’ll recall, where Qaddafi’s army was speeding toward Benghazi, promising to carry out the slaughter of innocent civilians. When presented with that information, the President did order military action.
We evaluate each of these circumstances on a case-by-case basis. Each of them is different. Each of them has their own potential consequences and unique set of complications. We have been very clear about how disturbing we find this dire humanitarian situation that exists in Iraq right now. We are seeing Christians being persecuted because of their religious beliefs. We are seeing Yazidis be persecuted because of their religious and ethnic identity.
There is one particular situation that we are concerned about -- there is a mountain near Sinjar where there are reports that thousands of Yazidis are currently trapped on that mountain and have been for a couple of days now. They are unable to access food and water. They don't have any access to shelter. And they have fled persecution, and efforts to leave the mountain are blocked by ISIL forces who are vowing to kill them. This is a terrible humanitarian situation and one that is of great concern to the United States.
Q So let me just get back to my question then. I understand the historic context with Libya and all, but specifically, preventing ethnic religious cleansing of the type you have just described -- is that a core American interest? Is preventing that kind of slaughter -- ethnic religious-based slaughter in America’s core interest?
MR. EARNEST: That is something that we evaluate on a case-by-case basis. Clearly, this kind of -- there have been situations -- again, to go back to history here -- there have been situations where this kind of ethnic slaughter and cleansing can have a very destabilizing impact on a broader region. And that is how -- that is one way in which a humanitarian situation could have broader implications for not just the country where this is occurring, but for other countries in the region or even other countries around the globe.
So I'm not in a position to further describe, characterize this situation beyond pointing out how deeply disturbing it is. But it is something that we are closely monitoring.
Q Josh, I believe it's been about two months since ISIS took over Mosul. There was a lot of talk here about preparations for potential military action, which did not happen. In the interceding two months, ISIS has taken over more territory in Iraq, has taken over more border crossings at the Syria border, has taken over a major oil refinery. It has now taken over the largest dam in Iraq, giving it control over vast areas of electricity. What is the United States doing about this? Where is the American leadership on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, the thing that’s important -- again, and it’s important for all your viewers to understand this -- that there are no military solutions to the very difficult problems that exist in Iraq now. The American people cannot solve this problem for the Iraqi people. The only solution that exists is an Iraqi political solution. That was true six weeks ago and it’s true today. That’s why the United States stands ready to support the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people when an inclusive Iraqi government is formed.
Q But the Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been overrun quite easily it seems by ISIS. And I understand the point you have made, there is no American military solution. But can the United States tolerate a terrorist group linked to al Qaeda having control over a vast area of Iraq and of Syria and access to resources that we’ve never seen a terrorist group have access to -- oil, financial, military resources? Can we tolerate that? I mean, I understand you’re waiting for the Iraqis to get their act together, and that may or may not ever happen. But in the meantime, can the U.S. afford to have a terrorist group with control of such resources and territory?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has not demonstrated any sort of unwillingness to act when necessary to counter terror threats that may pose a significant risk to American personnel or American interests or even the American homeland.
Q Isn’t this such a threat?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Jon, I’m not in a position to offer that kind of assessment from here. But this is a situation that we’re looking at very closely. This is a situation that American members of the military are on the ground reviewing very closely. What is most important about this situation is that this is a complicated problem that exists right now in Iraq, and if we want to confront this problem, what we need is we need for Iraq’s political leadership to step forward, put in place the kind of reforms that would allow for the creation of an inclusive government that would unify the people of Iraq and unify Iraq’s security forces to confront this threat.
After all, this is a threat right now that is an existential threat for the people of Iraq. And that’s why the United States stands ready to support the people of Iraq and an inclusive government of Iraq to defeat this threat that’s posed by ISIL.
Q Josh, we’ve talked to people at the State Department and at the Pentagon. Both say today serious consideration is being given to one of two things in this particular northern Iraq region -- slow moving U.S. military aircraft dropping food and water to these stranded religious minorities, and/or military support to create a corridor for them to evacuate. Is that true or not true?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to discuss those kinds of tactical options from the podium on live television.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President will make the kinds of decisions as necessary to protect core American --
Q Is he being apprised of these options? Is he at least -- can you tell us he’s at least considering what to do? Because the conversations we’re having is that this is not just a potentially dire humanitarian crisis, it’s an hour-by-hour situation that's going to need some kind of resolution or some kind of decision very, very soon. So can you at least tell us the President has been briefed on these specific options and he’s weighing them now?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to provide a great deal of insight into any sort of the decisions the President may or may not be contemplating at this point. But suffice it to say the President is keenly aware of the dire humanitarian situation that exists. The President, as I mentioned earlier, has been in touch with his national security team this morning here at the White House. The President is aware of the kinds of assessments that are being made by American military personnel who are on the ground and staffing these joint operation centers, both in Erbil and Baghdad. Those American military personnel are closely interfacing with Kurdish security forces and Iraq security forces. The United States military has provided a great deal of support to Iraq’s security forces over the years, but also recently, to try to help them confront this threat that’s posed by ISIL.
So the President is very well-aware of exactly what’s happening in Iraq. The President and the rest of his team are very concerned about the dire humanitarian situation that exists in the short term -- or I guess I should say in the immediate term. But we’re also very concerned about Iraq’s capability to deal with the longer-term problems that we see there. And that concern rests on an important principle, which is that there is no American military solution to that problem, but rather Iraqi political solutions and decisions that will be required.
Q Would you at least concede what appears to be the obvious, that these consultations and this decision, whatever it comes down to, is going to have to be made separate of the U.S. desire for a unified, inclusive government in Iraq? Because even if there was one, that’s not going to bring water and food to 40,000 people stranded on a mountain surrounded by ISIL -- that that decision, whatever you -- I mean, that doesn’t mean anything to those people. It could be a unified, non -- or a unified Iraqi government tomorrow, and it wouldn’t give them any help. Someone is going to have to help these people. I’m just curious if you’re willing to concede that the decision of whether or not this government is going to help them or not is utterly separate from whatever political calculations are made in Baghdad.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start -- I think I slightly disagree with the premise of your question, because I think that the dire humanitarian situation that exists on Sinjar Mountain is a consequence of a broader failure by Iraq’s political leadership to pursue the kind of inclusive governing agenda that would unite that country to confront the threat that’s posed by ISIL. So I don’t think it’s possible to separate these two things.
Q It’s cold comfort to people who need shelter and water right now. I mean, it’s a theoretical point, but they don’t care.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think that it’s a theoretical point because it is -- this helps uncover why it is so important that we address the root of this problem. And the root of this problem is that we have not seen an inclusive Iraq government that has unified the country. We have not seen an integrated Iraq security forces that is capable of confronting a threat as dangerous as ISIL. That’s why you’re seeing the United States military work closely with Iraq security forces to provide what -- to try to provide support. It’s why you’ve heard the President and the Vice President spend a lot of time working to encourage Iraq’s political leaders to pursue this kind of inclusive governing agenda.
That ultimately -- if we want to prevent these urgent humanitarian situations from occurring in the first place, we need to move the Iraqi people -- and Iraq’s political leaders, most importantly -- in the direction of confronting the root cause of all of this.
That said, I began my remarks today in answering Josh’s first question by highlighting how seriously concerned we are about this urgent humanitarian situation that exists in this region. We are seeing Christians be persecuted. We are seeing these other religious and ethnic minorities be persecuted just because of their identities. That is barbaric. It’s disgusting. And it’s something that we’re deeply concerned about and very closely monitoring.
Q Josh, if you say the Iraqi government is in as bad a shape as you lay out, aren’t these ethnic minorities crying out for American leadership, leadership from America and its allies right now? Because the Iraqi government in the short term can’t do anything.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have seen some important steps from the Iraqi government that -- we have seen the appointment of a new Kurdish president and an Iraqi speaker who is Sunni.
Q Again, long term, medium term. I’m saying you’re not seeing the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the central government, have the ability to go in and get people food and water.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have seen efforts that have been undertaken by Iraq’s security forces and Kurdish security forces to try to address this situation. They have not been successful so far. But the United States is acting in support of those security forces in those efforts because we are concerned about this dire humanitarian situation.
But I do want to point out, Ed, that the failure of Iraq’s political system early on is what led to this situation where we saw ISIL make such significant gains on the ground, and we saw that Iraq’s security forces didn’t have the kind of capability to withstand that assault because they were not integrated with the rest of the population.
And so there are two things at play here. We want to try to address the root causes of this, and that’s why we’re focused on political reform. That is ultimately what’s going to address the broader problems and the broader challenges that Iraq is facing right now. But we do have this dire humanitarian situation that’s underway, as well.
Q Right, it seems like you’re making a fair point that there’s bigger problems in Iraq, you can’t solve those. I get that. But it seems like a disconnect that you’re laying out yourself from the podium that there’s about to be a possible genocide of 40,000 people and you’re saying we’re seriously concerned, we’re monitoring it. Doesn’t that seem like a disconnect?
MR. EARNEST: No, Ed, because this is something that we are closely watching, and it is something that --
Q But closely watching -- people might be slaughtered.
MR. EARNEST: And what we’re doing is we are actively supporting the Iraq security forces and Kurdish security forces to try to confront this problem both in the short term, but also working closely with Iraq’s political leadership so that we can address the root cause of this over the long term.
Q And the last one on this. I think it was in answer to Jon, when asked about America’s core interests, you were saying we decide these on a case-to-case basis, case by case.
MR. EARNEST: I think he was asking about --
Q Core interests.
MR. EARNEST: No, he was asking about specific humanitarian situations. And we evaluate on a case-by-case basis what implications those humanitarian situations have on core American national security interests.
Q So to put a finer point on it, perhaps, is preventing a genocide in America’s core interests?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the reason that that is an important question is that we have seen a couple of different situations where there have been urgent conditions where innocent civilians were under extreme duress and at a heightened risk of slaughter, and --
Q What’s the answer? Is preventing genocide in America’s core interests? I mean, that’s a pretty basic question. Is preventing genocide in America’s core interests?
MR. EARNEST: Right, and what I’m trying to say is that each of these instances is evaluated on a case-by-case basis in terms of what the United States of America can do to influence those situations. Of course, the United States has been and will continue to be a beacon of freedom and respect for basic human rights around the globe. And that is a core founding principle of this country, and it is one that American men and women have fought and died to protect. And we will continue to be -- stand up for that value.
Q I remember the President putting out a very emotional statement, I believe it was April, the anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Just a few months ago, he put out a big statement about how we can’t let this happen again. And here, we’re confronting the possibility of 40,000 people facing genocide and I’m still not hearing -- is preventing genocide in America’s core interests?
MR. EARNEST: What I am saying is that each of these situations is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The principle of basic respect for human rights and the protection of communities that are threatened only because of their religious or ethnic identity is something that the United States cannot abide. The question is what and how the United States can intervene to mitigate that situation. And those kinds of decisions are the kinds of decisions that are made on a case-by-case basis.
Q A quick question on -- yesterday, the President at his news conference on another subject was asked about political prisoners and freedom of press, but also trying to free political prisoners in particular. And next week, we’re coming up on the anniversary of two different Americans who have been held for a long time. Warren Weinstein is in Pakistan. He is an American contractor, I believe, who was working with USAID. He’s got a heart condition. You’ve seen pictures of him. He’s been in terrible shape. And Austin Tice, who was an award-winning journalist trying to cover the war in Syria, has also been a captive. The anniversary of both of them being kidnapped is coming up next week. Is this on the radar? The President talked yesterday about how important it is to try to free these kinds of folks who were held for so long.
MR. EARNEST: These kinds of situations are on the radar of the American foreign policy and national security apparatus here in the Obama administration. It’s something that the President on a regular basis is updated on. And we continue to spend a great deal of time and effort and resources to safely recover or ensure the return of those American citizens who are being held hostage around the globe. That is something on which the President’s advisors spend a lot of time, and it continues to be a high priority, as you’d expect.
Q Josh, also yesterday, during the press conference, the President was asked if he would consider sending lethal aid to Ukraine. And he said that we’re not there yet, that essentially if you start seeing an invasion by Russia, that’s obviously a different set of questions. Given that we’ve seen the Russian troop buildup almost double in the past week, what does the President need to see happen before he starts to consider sending lethal aid?
MR. EARNEST: What the President has said is that we are concerned about the buildup of Russian troops on the border. Those forces are serving to facilitate the transfer of arms, materiel, and fighters across the border, as well as provide training to separatists. The buildup of these forces and the exercises they are supposedly there to support also represent Russian attempts to intimidate Ukraine.
As the President said directly to President Putin in a phone call six days ago, the United States would like to see this crisis resolved diplomatically, but we are concerned about the ongoing troop buildup on the Russian side of the border, we’re concerned about Russia’s continuing support for the separatists, and we’re concerned that Russian forces appear to continue shelling Ukrainian positions from inside Russia.
It’s also important to note that we are concerned about Russian statements indicating that they may send what they described as “peacekeepers” to help secure the crash site. Russia has a track record of abusing the term “peacekeeping” as a cover for unlawful military intervention and occupation. Given its unlawful attempted annexation of Crimea, which I mentioned earlier, it is deeply troubling to hear any discussion of Russian “peacekeepers” being sent to Ukrainian territory. These statements are destabilizing and unhelpful. And Russia should anticipate that any such move would be met with condemnation and result in further economic cost and political isolation.
Q And when you talk about the concerns, is it accurate to say that sending lethal aid is something that’s on the table that he would consider?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President acknowledged yesterday that there are wide-ranging discussions that the United States has engaged with --
Q Is that yes?
MR. EARNEST: -- the Ukrainians, political leadership and with their military leadership. And so we certainly value that relationship, and the United States I think has demonstrated pretty clearly our support for the Ukrainian people as they confront the destabilizing activities of Russia.
Q And one more on immigration. The President seemed to signal yesterday that he is considering extending work permits to those who are here illegally. Can you clarify his comments? He said that he was going to have to make choices on how to allocate resources. What specifically does that mean? And I guess bottom line, can we expect him to announce that more people will be granted work permits to stay here?
MR. EARNEST: What the President was talking about, in terms of the deployment of resources, he was referring to Congress failing to act to ensure that the federal government has the necessary resources to deal with the situation at the border. This administration, four or five weeks ago now, laid out a very specific plan, a list, if you will, of specific line items indicating the resources that are necessary to deal with the problem of unaccompanied children and adults who are traveling with children who are apprehended at the border attempting to illegally enter this country. Congress left for their five-week August recess without acting on that request.
And it means that this government and this administration will have to confront that situation without all of the resources that we would like to deal with this challenge. So what that means is, it means that the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of HHS, even the Department of Defense will have to evaluate what resources are on hand and can be used and deployed to address this specific situation.
We’ve already seen steps taken by HHS and DHS to announce the reprogramming of funds. This means that they will take money, resources that are currently being used in other areas and directing them to confront the situation that we’ve seen at the border. Those are difficult choices. That money was originally targeted toward things that would -- that could be described as priorities, and they’ll have to be diverted to confront this urgent priority simply because Congress didn’t do their job.
These are the kinds of actions that have to be considered by the executive branch when the legislative branch utterly fails to fulfill their basic responsibility.
Q And just -- but going back to the initial part of the question, is he leaning towards granting work permits to those who are here?
MR. EARNEST: What the President has said that he is leaning toward considering is the array of options that are available to him under the law for trying to fix some of the problems created by a broken immigration system that House Republicans have stymied, if you will.
There is a common-sense proposal that was passed on a bipartisan basis in the Senate that House Republicans are continuing to block. And what the President has said is, he said, let me consider and let me have my Attorney General and my Secretary of Homeland Security consider what options are available to me under the law to try to address some of these problems that Congress won’t even attempt to solve.
And in terms of what those options are, I’m not in a position to talk about them here because, frankly, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security are still in the midst of a review to determine what options are available in the first place. Once that review has been concluded and they have identified some available options, then we can talk about which options the President may be considering.
Q You mentioned the words, “new Iraqi prime minister” earlier, and I’m wondering if the United States would like to see Maliki go. Given all the problems that you’ve seen with his ability to unify that country, does that country need a new prime minister?
MR. EARNEST: It sounds like I may have been using some imprecise language earlier, before. Those kinds of decisions about who should be prime minister of the nation of Iraq will be made solely by the people of Iraq and by Iraq’s political leaders. So it is not the position of the United States that one person or another should be the prime minister of Iraq. Rather, what we have said is that Iraq’s political leaders should choose a prime minister that will pursue a governing agenda that is inclusive of Iraq’s diverse population. So we have not weighed in or endorsed a candidate, if you will.
Q Separately, on Afghanistan, Speaker Boehner issued a statement after Harold Greene’s death, saying that the President should reassess, essentially, his strategy for withdrawing from Afghanistan, and that if he does the Speaker will have his back. And his big concern is that Afghanistan will go the way of Iraq, that we’ll leave too soon. I’m wondering if this attack changes the President’s calculus on Afghanistan at all.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Steven, you’ve heard me describe the attack as one that we were saddened by. Certainly the thoughts and prayers of the President and First Lady and everybody here at the White House go out to the family of the General, of General Greene, who was killed in that attack. Our thoughts and prayers are with those soldiers who were wounded in that attack and are currently recuperating and -- in the same way that our thoughts and prayers are with the families of all of those who have been killed in Afghanistan throughout that prolonged military conflict there.
But the President’s commitment to a strategy in Afghanistan that he laid out in May is unchanged; that we have laid out very clearly that at the end of this year, the presence of American military forces will have been reduced, and they will be on a steady decline over the two years after.
What, however, is required is for the new President of Afghanistan, when one has been selected, for them to sign on to a bilateral security agreement that was brokered over the course of a year and has basically been sitting on the desk of the Afghan President for a number of months now. But upon the signing of that bilateral security agreement, we can execute a strategy that the President has laid out that will draw down American troops, that will wind down our role in that conflict but in a way that continues to support the Afghan people as they take responsibility for their own security and as they stand up for the kinds of civil institutions that are necessary to govern that country.
We will also have in place, at least for the next couple of years under this strategy, forces who could conduct counterterrorism operations as necessary; if we detect that there are terrorists that are using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks either against the Afghan people or anywhere around the world, that we’d be in a position to support the Afghan security forces as they confront those terrorists.
So the President has a sound strategy that we believe reflects the best interests of the Afghan people, but also will ensure for the protection of core American national security interests.
Q Josh, you get a lot of questions before the President goes out of town about his capabilities. You haven’t confirmed the launch of airstrikes or humanitarian aid, but can you confirm for us that the President, when he’s on Martha’s Vineyard, will have the ability to launch, monitor, and command anything, including airstrikes or humanitarian aid to the northern area of Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just say, as a general matter, that whenever the President travels anywhere -- and this will be true when the President travels to Massachusetts at the end of this week -- that he travels with an array of communications equipment and national security advisors that will allow him to perform all of the functions that are required of America’s Commander-In-Chief. That’s true of any trip that he takes, and it will be true of the trip that the President takes this week.
Q If the President were to launch a military strike against any country, including Iraq, would he feel it would be appropriate to do it from Martha’s Vineyard, or would he return to Washington?
MR. EARNEST: That’s just a hypothetical that I don’t think would be appropriate for me to engage in this setting on this particular day.
Q Josh, you said you couldn’t say who President Obama would be meeting with when he returns during the middle of his Martha’s Vineyard trip. Can you say what the subjects of those meetings might be?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t at this point, but you can check back next week and we’ll see if we can provide you some additional insight into those meetings.
Q Does he just want to meet with somebody? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Presumably if he just wanted to meet with somebody he could probably find people in Martha’s Vineyard who would meet with him. But this is an opportunity for the President to meet with some of his White House staff who will be remaining in Washington, and it will be an opportunity for him to consult with them in person.
Q Does it address or reflect a sensitivity about the optics of a two-week vacation?
MR. EARNEST: It does not. There have been questions raised by some of our critics about the optics of two- and three-day travel.
MR. EARNEST: -- that the President’s engaged in. The President recognizes that he is President of the United States 24 hours a day, seven days a week, wherever he happens to be. And the President will be in a position to fulfill the core functions of the Commander-in-Chief and ensure for the safety and security of the American people wherever he travels. That will be true when he travels at the end of this week. That will be true for the entirety of his time that he is in Massachusetts.
Q A couple of quick follow-ups. On the immigration situation, because in mid-September the President is going to be and the administration will be thinking about a continuing resolution and funding after the end of the fiscal year, to what extent does the CR negotiations open up an opportunity to try to build in more money for the border?
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, discussions around a continuing resolution will be driven by congressional preferences. Obviously, it is their responsibility to determine what should be included in those budgets. The need for additional resources to confront the challenges at the border will remain. They will be here when Congress returns from their five-week August recess. And we will continue to be encouraging them to take the kinds of steps that are within the basic responsibilities of the United States Congress to ensure that the federal government has the necessary resources to deal with priorities.
And in this case, we’re talking about a rather urgent priority as it relates to the situation in one sector of the southwest border with Mexico.
Q On Iraq, I wanted to follow up to what Jon and others were asking you. Because the humanitarian or genocide situation is of international concern, can you say whether the President or his advisors have been reaching out to heads of state or countries beyond the Iraq government to discuss what’s the appropriate thing to do?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific calls from the President to read out. We are working closely with humanitarian organizations, including those organizations that are affiliated with the United Nations, NGOs, and other local and international humanitarian partners to meet the most pressing needs of affected populations in Iraq. That includes providing shelter, food and water, blankets and basic medicine.
The international community is poised to do whatever is possible to come to the assistance of vulnerable Iraqis in dire need of humanitarian assistance. And that is an effort that is being closely coordinated with U.S. efforts to try to meet the needs of these populations that are under siege by terrorists right now.
Q And U.S. military action, the President would inform Congress before that was embarked upon?
MR. EARNEST: From the very first time that the President spoke publicly about the threat that’s posed to Iraq by ISIL, the President committed to closely consulting with Congress and those consultations continue.
Q And one other quick follow-up to what Anita asked. Because information derived from torture or coercion is not admissible in military commissions, to what extent is the President’s executive summary of the report pending in the Senate undermine or in any way affect ongoing military commissions or trials?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the executive summary is something that was written by the committee themselves --
Q Well, no, his executive summary was we “tortured some folks.” That’s what I mean.
MR. EARNEST: So you’re referring to the President’s comments about this -- about the report?
Q Right, the conclusion.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to give you an assessment of what impact that may have on that broader policy, but I will see if I can get somebody who is better versed in that issue and could give you an update of whether or not the release of that report would have an impact.
Q Josh, thank you. I just want to make sure I understand some things that you said when talking about Iraq during --
MR. EARNEST: I’ve said a lot today.
Q -- you said a lot, so let’s go over a few things. You said that military action would be dependent upon an inclusive government.
MR. EARNEST: What I said -- and this is a principle that the President has laid out --
Q If he met all those criteria, you mentioned earlier, it still is dependent on an inclusive government.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me try to clarify that because I think that is in need of some clarification. The President has not been shy about his willingness to use the might of the American military to protect core American national security interests. That's true in Iraq; that's true in countries all around the globe. Those priorities include things like ensuring for the protection of American personnel. As you know, there is American military and diplomatic personnel in Iraq right now. And that is something that -- their safety is something that we are very carefully monitoring.
We’ve also talked about -- and it has been even the source of some controversy -- is the President’s willingness to use American military might to disrupt the planning of terrorist organizations that have designs on attacking either the American homeland or American interests around the globe. That is another instance where the President has deployed and made a decision to commit to military action to provide for the protection of core American national security interests.
Now, as it relates to decisions about military action in Iraq, what the President has said is, sort of setting aside examples like counterterrorism or the security of American personnel -- well, let me say it this way. This goes back to -- this is the other principle I was articulating, which is that there are a lot of challenges in Iraq, but those challenges cannot be solved just through the American military. Those solutions only exist through the reform of Iraq’s political system.
So there are some in Iraq and even other places around the globe who have called for more robust American military intervention in Iraq to deal with some of these underlying problems. And the concern that the President has is ensuring that any sort of military action in support of the Iraqi government is coordinated with the kinds of reforms that are necessary to address this root problem that we see in Iraq.
And we don’t want to be in a situation -- I think the President has articulated this as well -- where you essentially have an Iraqi government that is relying solely on American military might to remain in power. The way that the Iraqi government should be able to build up their power is by inspiring the confidence of the people that they were elected to lead. And that’s why we need to see a government that has an inclusive governing agenda that inspires the confidence of the population that the government has their best interests in mind and can unite the country to face some of the difficult threats that they face right now including the threat that’s posed by ISIL.
Is that clarifying?
Q It does help, actually, because you’re saying -- so the American -- the core American interest would be stability in the region, and you’re saying that that couldn’t be addressed without an inclusive government -- I’m analyzing this, I understand. You're not saying that directly.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q So I want to reconcile that against the idea, too, that you’re saying -- you said we have seen some steps towards inclusive government.
MR. EARNEST: We have.
Q But we have not yet seen an inclusive government, which makes me wonder how far, like, in terms of days or weeks, how far away do you think, in the best-case scenario, the Iraqi government is from being where you want them to be?
MR. EARNEST: Well, some of that is because they have not yet formed the -- they have not formed a new Iraqi government. They had elections a few months ago and that sort of resulted in a process that allowed for the election of a new president, a new speaker, a couple of deputy speakers that do reflect the diversity of Iraq’s population. That is evidence of some progress.
But we have not yet seen the appointment of a prime minister. And once that prime minister is in place, there will then be a fully formed government that can then pursue a governing agenda, we hope -- what we would like is for them to pursue a governing agenda that reflects the best interests of Iraq’s diverse population.
Q So I guess what I’m getting at is by whatever criteria you’re operating, is this -- are we days or weeks away from achieving that point where you have -- where it has met the President’s threshold?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s hard to tell because ultimately this is a decision -- again, the decision about who will be the next prime minister is a decision that the Iraqi people and Iraq’s political leaders will have to make. Once that decision is made, then we will evaluate the kind of governing agenda that Iraq’s political leadership and Iraq’s government pursues.
Q And let me just ask this one other question. Dropping humanitarian aid on that mountain is not a military action in the sense that you’re defining it today -- defining military action today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s a little bit of a hypothetical. Obviously the American military has some unique capabilities and unique assets. But what I’m primarily referring to is the kind of kinetic military action that would involve the firing of weapons, taking out targets, and other sort of military action that would be coordinated with Iraq’s security forces to try to beat back the advance of ISIL.
Mark, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Sorry, I want to clarify one point coming off of what Christi said. The President has also articulated one other rationale for the use of American military force, which he did in Libya, which is to avert an imminent humanitarian catastrophe when U.S. action, on a limited basis, could achieve that goal. That’s how he justified the NATO bombing campaign. Does the humanitarian circumstance you’re describing on that mountaintop meet that definition? Can the U.S. avert it? And is it an imminent humanitarian catastrophe?
MR. EARNEST: You’re right, Mark, that is an example that I raised even in answering Jon’s question of a specific situation where the President did conclude that acting to avert a humanitarian disaster was in the national security interest of the United States of America. The point that I tried to make to Jon is that each of those situations is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and they’re evaluated both for their impact on core American national security, they’re also evaluated for what sort of impact could American action have on that situation. And they’re also evaluated based on what are the potential consequences of taking an action. And that’s why each of these situations is considered on a case-by-case basis.
At this point, I’m not in a position to describe to you any conclusions that have been reached by the President or anybody else in the administration about the national security implications for the United States of this specific humanitarian situation other than to say it’s one that we condemn and are very concerned about.
Q But were you to make that conclusion, all of this discussion we’ve had about the need for political transition -- none of that would pertain because the President’s rationale in the Libya case didn’t hinge on the political process, it hinged purely on averting a humanitarian catastrophe. Correct?
MR. EARNEST: It is correct, but it’s important to understand that there are different reasons that military action could be ordered. So one would be to, as the example in Benghazi, was to avert a humanitarian disaster. There have also been situations where the President has ordered military action to protect American personnel and assets. There have been other situations where the President has ordered military action to disrupt terror plots.
There are also situations -- and this is what is being contemplated by some -- is that the President would order military action to beat back the advance of ISIL in order to shore up Iraq’s political leadership. And the President has been clear that he is unwilling to commit to that kind of military action without a corresponding effort on the part of Iraq’s political leadership to pursue the kinds of reforms that are necessary to inspire the confidence in that government of Iraq’s diverse population.
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