Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–Januarty 15, 2015 – 1:24 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: All right, good afternoon, everybody. Hope your Thursday is off to a good start. I don’t have anything to do at the top, so let’s go straight to questions.
Josh, would you want to get us started here?
Q Sure. Thanks, Josh. The President, today in Baltimore with Senate Democrats — since there is not any press access to that meeting, can you flesh out for us a little bit what the President’s agenda is for that meeting and any specific asks that he has for Senate Democrats?
MR. EARNEST: This is principally an opportunity for the President to sit down with Senate Democrats and talk to them about his priorities for the upcoming legislative session. That is consistent with the kind of strategy that the President will lay out in his State of Union address that he’s prepared to deliver on Tuesday. And walking through some of these priorities that he has both for our economy and for keeping Americans safe around the globe will be highlighted in that meeting and in the speech.
Some of the things that I’m confident that they’ll discuss will be some of the announcements that the President has made over the course of the last couple of weeks — things that we can do to strengthen the housing market; things that we can to do open up the door to a college education for more middle-class students, including offering hardworking students a chance to go to community college for free. I’m confident that they’ll discuss some of the ideas that the President has for closing loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected, and using revenue from those changes to the tax code to invest in infrastructure. We know that investing in infrastructure creates jobs in the short term, but also lays a foundation for our long-term economic strength.
I’m confident that he’ll talk about some national security issues, as well, including getting an update from the President
— or sort of hearing the latest from the President on the terror attacks in Paris last week.
Q One breaking news item that I wanted to ask you about — there appears to be a counterterrorism operation going on today in Belgium. Obviously, the United States is watching very closely with some of the concerns raised by the attacks in Paris. Do you have any information about what’s going on there that you can share with us?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports, but I don’t have anything to say about them at this point. But later on today, we may be able to get you something.
Q There are some reports this morning that the President, in his budget request, is going to ask for an increase of about 7 percent to the federal budget. I’m wondering if you can tell us whether that’s accurate.
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports, as well. The President’s Office of Management and Budget is prepared to roll out the President’s budget proposal on February 2nd. There are still some final tweaks that are being made to that proposal, so we’ll be prepared to talk about the details of that presentation on Monday, February 2nd, when it’s rolled out.
Q On the CIA torture report, I wanted to ask you, there this new report out from a committee led by former Senate Bayh that says basically — is disagreeing with the investigator general’s determination that there was improper behavior in the accessing of some of those computers that Senator Feinstein’s staff was using as they were investigating and putting together their report. This independent panel says that was fine; the CIA’s IG says it wasn’t fine. Where does the White House fall on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, there are a lot of people with a lot of opinions on this, that we know that there are certainly strongly held views in the Congress about what happened. There are certainly strong views that are held by CIA employees about what exactly happened. And that’s why this accountability board was stood up, was to get to the bottom of what exactly happened, to determine what sort of personnel steps should be taken, and to consider what sort of procedural reforms should be put in place to correct mistakes that may have occurred. So the administration has a lot of confidence in the report that was put forward by this group. This is a group of individuals that have some expertise in this area. As you point out, Senator Bayh was a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
And so there are a couple of important results here. The first is that there are some procedural reforms that this committee has suggested should be put in place. Director Brennan has indicated that he is prepared to act on those recommendations and actually put them in place. That’s good news.
The other thing — and this is important — is it highlights just how important it is for the CIA and every intelligence agency to have a functioning relationship as they work with Congress on Congress’s oversight functions. This is something that the President feels strongly about. Our intelligence agencies have to operate in secret so that they can be successful in keeping the country safe. What that does, however, though, is only highlight how important it is for there to be a separate branch of government that’s providing oversight over the secret activities of these intelligence organizations. That’s critically important. And the President has made clear to Director Brennan just how important he thinks it is for the CIA to work cooperatively with Congress as Congress exercises their proper oversight role.
Q Sure. But, I mean, the key question here was: Was it acceptable for the CIA to go into these computers and look at what the Senate committee was doing? Senator Feinstein was very, very upset about this. Does the White House have a position about whether the CIA acted properly in doing that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, this is not — what’s most important is that we have a group of individuals with an area of expertise who can sit down and take an impartial look at all the facts and determine exactly what happened, and to offer up some prescriptions for what can be changed to ensure that any sort of miscommunication or anything that would interfere with the ability of Congress to conduct proper oversight of the CIA is avoided in the future.
And you can read the report for yourself. It was declassified and released. And they included a set of procedural reforms that they believe would be helpful in heading off any sort of disagreements like this in the future.
Fortunately, the Director of the CIA has indicated that he’s prepared to implement those reforms. And that’s important. But what’s most important is that there is an effective, functioning relationship between the Congress and the intelligence agencies that they’re supposed to oversee.
And this is a top priority of the President’s. The President has been pretty clear that he believes that that kind of oversight is important for the functioning of the government. It’s also good for our national security. And the President has made those views very clear to Director Brennan. And Director Brennan, in the news conference that he convened at the end of last year that I know many of you watched pretty closely, indicated his personal view that there is no more important oversight relationship than the oversight relationship that exists between Congress and the intelligence agencies. And he pledged his own personal commitment to strengthening that relationship.
That certainly is consistent with the direction that he’s received from the President of the United States. And implementing these reforms I think is a pretty good piece of evidence to indicate that he takes that responsibility seriously.
Q And on other topic, the Pope, in kind of an unusual press conference aboard his papal plane, announced that later this year when he’s in the U.S., he plans to canonize an American missionary, Junipero Serra, as a saint. Does the White House have thoughts or reaction to that announcement?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports. We certainly are looking forward to the Pope’s visit to the United States that’s planned for the fall. I have not seen the final itinerary of the Pope while he’s here, but we certainly look forward to his visit.
I saw the — or I heard about the announcement that he made about the canonization of apparently an American missionary shortly before I came out here. I don’t have an immediate reaction. But it sounds like when the Pope plans to travel to the United States, he plans to make a little news. So it should be interesting.
Q Thanks, Josh. I’m sure he’ll have no trouble making news.
MR. EARNEST: I have no doubt about that.
Q Has the White House been in touch with the Canadian government about the so-called “Three Amigos” summit? And is it your understanding that it has been canceled because of tension over Keystone?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that the North American Leaders summit, which is the more formal name of that gathering, has been postponed from early this year to later in the year. I don’t know the exact reason for the change in the date. You’d have to check with the Canadians on that. I assume the weather will be better later in the year than it is in February in Canada, but we’ll see. But for the exact reason for the scheduling change, I’m not aware of what that is.
Q Is the shadow of Keystone, though, hanging over this?
Clearly you know that there’s some tension between the two countries about that issue.
MR. EARNEST: There is. I know that the relationship that we have with Canada is far deeper and far broader than this one infrastructure project; that when it comes to the deep economic ties between our two countries and the deep national security ties between our two countries, there certainly is a lot to discuss in the context of that meeting. And I’m not particularly worried about any sort of Keystone outcome looming over those meetings at all.
Q — be concerned if that were the reason it were postponed?
MR. EARNEST: Not really. I think we’re concerned about making sure that we continue to have a strong working relationship with the Canadians. That certainly means visiting with Prime Minister Harper and other leaders in the Canadian government with some frequency. That happens a lot on the phone. But as long as this meeting gets rescheduled in a timely fashion, and we can continue to have the kinds of strong relationship that we have with our neighbors to the north, then there’s no concern here at the White House about it.
Q Okay. And on the issue of Cuba, the White House wants to close Guantanamo Bay, and the White House wants to improve relations with Cuba. Does the President support ending the U.S. lease on that space there where the prison is currently located and returning it to Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: I am not aware of any administration position in support of doing that. But this is something that we’ve heard the Cuban government express a view on, on a number of occasions, but I have not heard of any specific proposal by this administration on that.
Q Is it something you’d consider?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll have to check with the Department of Defense about that, and if there’s a specific position for us to share with you I can make sure that you get it.
Q Josh, we know that the President and the Prime Minister released that joint op-ed talking about their priorities when it comes to I guess international terrorism in Russia and so forth. And at one point during that op-ed it says that they don’t want to allow terrorists to muzzle free speech. But going back to the Pope and the Pope’s comments, I’m sure you saw that Pope Francis said that when it comes to free speech, there can be reactions, and that insulting somebody’s religion can be like a punch to the face. Does the Pope have a point there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, far be it from me to disagree with the Pope —
Q I should say he said it was like insulting somebody’s mother, which would provoke a punch to the face. Does he have a point about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen the entirety of his remarks. Let me just say generally, though, in reaction to what you’ve just read from him a couple of things. The first is — and I think this is something that the Pope would readily agree on — there is no act of public expression in terms of free speech that would in any way justify an act of violence. That is a principle that we have reiterated on a number of occasions and it’s one that I’m happy to reiterate now. And I think it’s something that the vast majority of the world agrees with. And I think that is a part of the show of solidarity that we saw in Paris last week; it was standing up for that principle.
At the same time — and this is something that we’ve also had the opportunity to discuss from this podium both with my predecessor and with me — is that freedom of expression and freedom of speech also comes with a set of responsibilities. And this is part of the kinds of decisions that journalists like yourselves make on a regular basis about what goes along with — what responsibilities go along with those rights.
But regardless of how one arrives at those kinds of ethical decisions, there is no scenario in which an act of free speech justifies an act of violence.
Q And the President hasn’t really spoken out publicly very much about what happened in Paris since last Friday. If I’m not mistaken, he hasn’t really said much of anything since last Friday. Should we expect to hear him talk about this further tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would anticipate that this topic will be discussed between the President and Prime Minister Cameron, and I do think that means it’s likely to come up in the press conference. If he doesn’t mention it proactively, I assume that one of you who gets a question of the President may be interested in asking him about it as well.
Q He’s spoken out on it enough, do you think? The President has?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has certainly — as we saw over the course of last week, when France was in the midst of responding to this crisis, you saw that the President telephoned President Hollande; the President spoke publicly on a couple of occasions. The President also I think sent a pretty loud and clear message to the people of France when he traveled to the French Embassy in Northwestern D.C. last Thursday, and appeared at the embassy and wrote a note in a book there expressing the condolences but also the support of the American people to the people of France. So I think that is indicative of the kind of strong relationship that the United States has with the people of France.
Q And on Cuba, there was a conference call with reporters earlier this morning that laid out the new regulations for trade and travel with Cuba. One thing that was fairly clear is that a whole range of travel has now been opened to Americans when it comes to Cuba, but the Treasury Department made it pretty clear during this conference call that just being a tourist and going to the beach is not permitted. How does the U.S. government plan on enforcing that? The beach police?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think that’s what anybody envisions. Although it’s probably not a bad assignment, I guess, if that’s how you choose to dedicate your time. What the United States intends to do is — well, let’s take one step back here. There has been for several decades now a policy — a set of policies in place that have attempted to isolate Cuba from the United States. And for decades, the explanation of those who supported that policy was that this would pressure the Castro regime to do a better job of protecting, even supporting basic human rights that we see that they readily trample. And for five decades, this policy was in place and it didn’t really elicit much of a change or any sort of noticeable reforms from the Castro regime.
What the President has said is that let’s change those policies in an attempt to try something different as we pressure the Castro regime to do a better job of respecting and protecting basic human rights. And so today’s announcement about the regulations from the Commerce Department and the Treasury Department that sort of govern interactions with Cuba are indicative of that policy change that the President wants to pursue; that essentially, normalizing relations with Cuba would allow for greater commerce and greater travel from the United States to that country.
However, there are limits on what the President can change in that relationship using his executive authority. So we certainly would welcome congressional action that would make it possible for people to travel to Cuba solely for the purposes of spending time on the beach in Cuba —
Q You think that should just be thrown out as well? All travel restrictions, that is the White House view?
MR. EARNEST: That’s right, the administration view is that we should normalize our relationship with Cuba. The effect of that would be that by that increased contact with the Cuban people and with the Cuban government would only serve to put more pressure on the Castro regime to abide by, protect, and even advance the basic human rights that we hold dear in this country.
The other benefit is that so often when the United States participates in multilateral forums with other countries in the Western Hemisphere, those other countries want to come to the United States and say, why do you have this policy towards Cuba that doesn’t make any sense? Well, now that we’ve changed our policy toward Cuba we can be more effective in saying to those other countries, hey, let’s talk about the policy of the Cuban government and their treatment of their own people. And I think in that way we can do a better job of leveraging international support for an effort to convince the Castro regime to do a better job of respecting basic human rights.
Q And very quickly — I know you announced before the briefing that the President is going to be doing these YouTube interviews or a YouTube with several different people after the State of the Union address. And just noticing that these folks who are going to be conducting these interviews are not professional journalists, they’re people who post videos on YouTube. And I’m just curious, was “Charlie Bit My Finger” or “David After Dentist” not available?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not familiar —
Q Maybe you haven’t seen those videos.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think I have.
Q Does some of this suggest that maybe the State of the Union is not what it used to be and that you sort of have to jazz things up? Is that —
MR. EARNEST: I do know that there is at least one seasoned journalist who wrote an online story about this that had a headline to that effect.
I think what you can take away from this, Jim, is that it’s a variation on an engagement strategy that we’ve used in previous years. You’ll recall that in the aftermath of the State of the Union, the President has participated in Google+ Hangout with people from across the country. You know that the President has done YouTube interviews in the past. And this is just a variation on that theme. This is a way for the President to spend a little time talking about some of these issues that he’ll discuss in the State of the Union with individuals that have a large presence on YouTube.
And it certainly doesn’t take the place of the kinds of — it doesn’t take the place of the news conference the President will be convening with all of you tomorrow. It doesn’t take the place of the public events the President will do after the State of the Union when he travels across the country to talk about some of the things that he’ll discuss in the State of the Union address.
So this is part of an integrated communication strategy to make sure that the American people understand exactly what the President is fighting for in Washington, D.C.
Q I’m glad that you mentioned kind of those collaborations with Google because I have a question about David Cameron’s trip here, actually. Before he left London he said that he has impressed the President to talk to U.S. tech companies like Google, Apple and Facebook about encrypting messages and data that is shared between their users — steps companies have taken after revelations about the NSA to kind of keep private communications from being able to be subpoenaed or captured by the government. So I’m wondering what the President’s reaction to David Cameron is going to be when he presses those issues and whether he plans to talk to tech companies about this issue.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, I can tell you that we certainly anticipate that the two leaders will be discussing cybersecurity during the visit. The United States works very closely with the British on a whole range of counterterrorism measures, including cyber threat and cybersecurity policies. We work closely with them to share information and to monitor the efforts of others from around the world to use the Internet to carry out acts of terror or to launch cyber attacks against public or private entities in this country or in the United Kingdom. There is a strong partnership that we have with them as we confront these very complicated issues.
And the American people and the British people benefit greatly, and certainly there are — cybersecurity benefits greatly from the kind of coordination and cooperation that we have with the British on this issue.
As a value statement, I think that our British counterparts would agree that it is imperative that we properly balance the need for government intelligence agencies and national security agencies to have access to certain kinds of information to try to protect their citizens. At the same time, it is critically important for the government to protect the privacy of their citizens. And trying to balance those two competing priorities is difficult, particularly in an age of innovative technology where the lines are shifting.
And what that means is it means that policies have to constantly be reevaluated. It means that we have to have a functioning relationship with technology companies, to have a conversation with them. I think the technology companies would be the first to tell you that their highest priority is protecting their — the safety of their users and of their customers. But at the same time, certainly none of these technology companies want to be in a position where they’re aiding and abetting people who want to use this technology to carry out an act of violence or to carry out an act of terrorism.
So everybody understands that there are multiple values here that need to be balanced. And this is going to be part of the kind of conversation and collaboration both with the British and with the technology industry that will be necessary to strike the right balance. And I’m confident that this is the kind of thing that’s going to receive a lot of attention and discussion during the cybersecurity summit that the President has announced he’ll convene next month in California.
Q Where do you guys come down on that balance right now? If I’m Google and I come to you guys and say, I want to create an encrypt that — a way for people to send emails that the government wouldn’t be able to subpoena — is that something that you guys would oppose or urge them not to do at this point? I mean, this is obviously kind of a relevant question because these technologies are being developed as we speak.
MR. EARNEST: Well, these technologies are being developed as we speak, and certainly the United States, even setting aside our close partnership and cooperation with the Brits on this issue, we have our own vested interest here in striking the right balance between the two things I described earlier, with protecting our national security but also protecting the privacy of our citizens.
And this is complicated work, but it’s something that this government and this President are focused on. And there’s obviously keen interest in the technology companies and others in this issue, and this is something that we’re going to have to work through. And we can have a remarkably successful cybersecurity summit in which we reach some important agreements with technology companies, but you could imagine a breakthrough a week later that would cause us to have to reevaluate all of that. So this is an evolving challenge but one that we’re committed to, because the right to privacy and the need to protect our national security are so important.
Q Sorry, I’m going to just try one more time. Are you saying that you guys won’t announce a policy until after the cybersecurity summit at Stanford? Or were you hinting and suggesting that there was some distance between you and the British that you don’t agree with?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m suggesting is that this is the kind of policy question that’s critically important but also rapidly evolving, and it means that there are going to be lots of conversations about this between the United States and our allies and partners around the globe. There are also going to be a lot of conversations between senior administration officials and technology companies here in the United States as we try to strike this right balance.
So I’m not trying to foreshadow any upcoming announcements, either in the context of the Prime Minister’s visit or even in the context of the cybersecurity summit, for that matter. But I do remain optimistic that conversations with the British Prime Minister and in the cybersecurity summit a month later will allow us to make some progress in trying to suss out policies that will appropriately strike a balance between those two values.
Q And just one last one to follow up on something Josh asked you about — the budget. I know, obviously, you guys aren’t going to release sort of the details. But there have been suggestions that the President plans to propose a budget that includes more spending and kind of a return to what — return to and building on levels of pre-sequestration. Should we expect that the President kind of adds — we’re going to see more aggressive spending in this budget? And do you guys also feel like, because the economy is getting better, gas prices are low, there’s kind of wind at your sails, that this is a time that you can double down on things like infrastructure and things that you talked about before?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the one thing that’s important for everybody to remember is the President has spent a lot of time over the last five or six years making progress in reducing our deficit, and we’ve reduced the deficit by more than two-thirds since the President first took office. And we did that through a combination of cutting spending — in sometimes very painful, unwise ways; we did that by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans; and we also did that by winding down the military presence — the American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those were substantially costly military affairs, and while there is still some business to be handled in those two countries, the military footprint and the costs associated with them have been dramatically reduced under this President’s leadership.
So we’ve made tremendous progress in reducing the deficit. And I think the President has been pretty clear about the fact, over the last two weeks, that now is exactly the right time for us to start making some policy decisions that will invest in middle-class families to make sure that the middle class is actually benefitting from the tremendous economic strength that our economy is showing right now; that whether it’s job creation or an improving housing market, or just raw economic growth, the American economy is the envy of the world. And we want to make sure that we are going to put in place policies that both will build on that momentum, but also make sure that those benefits are shared with middle-class families.
Q Josh, I want to try one more time Justin’s laudable effort here. You talk about all the equities, the values — I understand all that. I beg you not to repeat them. (Laughter.) But they have — those conversations have to start from an essential point. And what Justin is getting at and what I’d like to ask you is, does this administration believe it is a good idea, within the values and equities you described, to have a back door to encryption to benefit governments in pursuit of terrorist suspects or terrorist plots, yes or no?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position at this point, Major, to go beyond sort of the essential values that I laid out earlier, because I think those two — acknowledging those two values is the starting point for any conversation that anybody in the administration, including the President, has on this issue. Now, there are —
Q But everyone has those values. I mean, they’re not —
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know if that’s necessarily true.
Q I mean, they view them differently, they weigh them differently.
MR. EARNEST: President Putin, for example.
Q Well, no, no, I mean — but he’s not going to be a part of those conversations. I mean, among those people who are —
MR. EARNEST: Probably not because he doesn’t share those values.
Q Right, so you understand what I’m saying.
MR. EARNEST: I do.
Q Everybody who will be around this table or on the phone calls or whatever weighs those differently but understands them in the — that’s not a long conversation you have to have. And I’m just curious, because Cameron has come down and said this is something that needs to happen not only in a general but in a very specific way. The British government would like access, if it believes it’s necessary, here to encrypt — a back door, some sort of mechanism. Can you say anything about whether you think that’s a good idea or a worthy policy pursuit? Because the encryption was a reaction to what you also thought — before it was released publicly — a worthy public policy position in terms of acquiring data.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, it is my expectation that Prime Minister Cameron will raise this with the President. He has said that he plans to do so. And I don’t want to be in a position of getting ahead of any of those conversations. So if we have more to say on this, it will be after the President has had an opportunity to talk to the Prime Minister about his comments.
Q Now, today’s conversation with Senate Democrats — Mark Knoller, my colleague, has gone back and looked at the record and I don’t think you’ll dispute it, because none of us do when it comes to Mark’s number — seven times the President has talked to either House Democrats or Senate Democrats in a similar context. Six times House Democrats, one Senate Democrats. All those had some component of open press, meaning the President’s remarks and some of the Q&A were open for us to take a look at. Today, it’s all closed. Can you explain to us why that decision was made and how it advances this conversation or our understanding of the relationship the President has with Democrats in a completely redrawn Congress now?
MR. EARNEST: I certainly never want to be in a position of quibbling with Mr. Knoller’s numbers. I do, however, recall attending the in-town retreat that Senate Democrats convened last year at Nationals Park. That was a private meeting that the President had with Senate Democrats. So there have been occasions —
Q There’s a precedent — six times with House Democrats, once with Senate Democrats — that it was at least partially or fully open.
MR. EARNEST: That’s true.
Q And I just want you to explain why this one isn’t.
MR. EARNEST: It’s true that we have done it both ways. And obviously, because it is the Senate Democrats retreat, they obviously have some input on this as well. But this is an opportunity for the President to have a conversation with Senate Democrats in the context of their retreat that, yes, is behind closed doors, to talk about some of their strategy for moving forward. And some of that is because the President wants to spend some time talking about the State of the Union address, some aspects of which he may not have discussed publicly yet. But that, frankly, is the reason — the President does want to have an opportunity to visit with them a little bit behind closed doors.
If there’s additional information about that meeting that we can provide after it’s concluded, we can certainly try to do that.
Q One last question. You think it’s in any way possible, Josh, you or this administration is underestimating the level of interest and concerns the Canadians have at a government level about Keystone, that — you just said you have no concerns at all about the deliberative process of the final answer is going to in any way reshape U.S.-Canadian relations. It is possible you’re underestimating their level of concern about this? Because as I understand it, in almost every meeting the Canadians have with officials not related to Keystone, it comes up. They are concerned about it. This has taken on great symbolic importance not only as a matter of economics but in a larger context. You don’t have any concern you’re underestimating how much they’re invested in this particular decision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m certainly not an expert on U.S.-Canadian relations. I would allow the Canadian government and other senior Canadian officials to articulate how high of a priority this infrastructure project is for them and for their country.
I think what I’m trying to underscore here is something that every senior Canadian official agrees with, which is that there is a profoundly important national security relationship between the United States and Canada, and both Canadian citizens and American citizens benefit from that strong relationship. And there is no interest by anybody in Canada or anybody in the U.S. government to allow what may or may not be a disagreement over an infrastructure project to in any way impact that relationship in a way that’s going to hurt the national security of the United States or hurt the national security of Canada.
The same can be true of our broader economic ties. There are millions if not billions of dollars’ worth of business that are done every month between Canadian businesses and American businesses. And a disagreement that may or may not exist over the Keystone pipeline project is not going to interfere with an economic relationship that is critically important to middle-class families in the United States and critically important to middle-class families in Canada.
So I’m not downplaying how high Canadian officials may prioritize the Keystone pipeline project. What I’m merely suggesting is that there are a lot of other critically important priorities in that relationship.
Q Josh, was the President informed of the Secret Service’s decision to remove those four assistant directors before it was announced, or was anybody else in the West Wing briefed on it?
MR. EARNEST: This was a decision that was made by the acting director of the Secret Service, Joe Clancy. The White House was not informed in advance. The White House was certainly well aware of the efforts that the director was undertaking to implement some management leadership reforms at the agency. The reforms that he announced are consistent with the findings of the independent blue-ribbon panel that took a look at the DHS review of the Secret Service.
So the White House, the West Wing, and even the President is certainly very supportive of Mr. Clancy’s efforts to reform the agency consistent with the goal of trying to strengthen the ability of that agency to perform the very important work that they do on a daily basis.
Q So the President — just to be specific about this — the President welcomes the decision to remove these four from their positions of authority?
MR. EARNEST: The President is supportive of these reforms. The reason I’m saying it that way is I wouldn’t rule out that there may be additional steps that Director Clancy may take to reform the agency. And the President is going to continue to be supportive of those efforts.
Q Okay. And then I have a couple questions on Iran. Of course, negotiations are starting up again for the nuclear deal, and the Iranians have indicted Washington Post Tehran Bureau Chief, Jason Rezaian, and he is being sent, I believe today, to the revolutionary court. No public notice of even what he’s being charged with. Is it conceivable that the United States would strike a nuclear deal with Iran while Mr. Rezaian is still imprisoned without public charge? Is it conceivable that could happen?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve got to — let me do a couple of things on this. The White House is certainly aware of Iranian press reports stating that the U.S. citizen Jason Rezaian is — that Jason Rezaian’s case has been referred to a court. We continue to monitor the situation closely, and are seeking further information. We will, as we always do, continue to call for his immediate release as well as the immediate release of detained U.S. citizens Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, and for the Iranian government to assist us in locating Robert Levinson so that all of them — all of them are Americans — can be returned to their families as soon as possible.
Secretary Kerry, as you know, was in Geneva yesterday for conversations with his Iranian counterpart about Iran’s nuclear program. And on the sidelines of those discussions, Secretary Kerry raised Mr. Rezaian’s case. And he discussed — Mr. Kerry, Secretary Kerry discussed with his counterpart the reports stating that his case had been referred to a court. I think that is an indication of how seriously the United States takes this case, and the fact that Secretary Kerry reiterated for his counterpart our call for Jason’s immediate release as well as the release of Mr. Hekmati and Mr. Abedini, and the information necessary to locate Mr. Levinson — I think that is an indication of how seriously the United States takes this matter.
At the same time, we’ve also been explicit about the fact that these conversations, while important, are separate from the also important conversations that are underway between the Iranians, the United States, and our coalition partners as it relates to resolving the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
Q So your answer to my question is, yes, the United States would strike the ideal with Iran on the nuclear issue even if these Americans are still being held by Iran?
MR. EARNEST: We have been very clear that these two priorities have been raised on two separate tracks, but they are priorities nonetheless. And I think what’s important is — and the way that this question is typically asked of me is if we would consider allowing Iran to take some steps on their — related to their nuclear program in exchange for them taking some steps related to these American citizens that we’re very concerned about.
The fact is, we believe these American citizens should be released. And we also believe that Iran should take the steps that are necessary to resolve the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program. These are both priorities, but these are both priorities that are raised with the Iranians on separate tracks.
Q Okay. So I just — I think you’ve answered my question, but let me try to be clearer. Because in Cuba, you clearly had a case where unless Cuba released Mr. Gross, there was not going to be a normalization. That is not the case with Iran. These Americans could still be in prison, still be, in the case of Jason Rezaian, held without any public notice of what the charge is, put before a revolutionary court with no rights — that he could still be in that situation and we could still have a signing of a deal with Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a —
Q Because they’re separate tracks. Just a yes or no.
MR. EARNEST: But, Jon, here’s the important thing, though. While we continue to believe that the odds of reaching a nuclear agreement are still, at best, 50/50, even if we are able to reach that agreement, the relationship between the United States and Iran would fall short of normal.
The United States has significant concerns with the Iranian regime, not just as it relates to their treatment of these U.S. citizens, but for a whole host of other things — for their failure to respect the basic human rights of their citizens, for their support for terror activities around the globe. This is — we have — certainly their rhetoric and treatment of Israel, who is a very close ally of the United States and whose national security we are firmly committed.
So there are a whole host of concerns that we have with the Iranians. And even if we are able to strike the kind of critically important nuclear agreement that would resolve or at least remove one of the more vexing and far-reaching policy challenges that exist in this area of the world, we would still have a large number of concerns with the Iranians.
And so that’s why — I understand the Alan Gross analogy, but it’s a little bit different here. We did — the President did agree to take some steps to normalize our relationship with Cuba in the context of Alan Gross’s release, but our concerns with Iran are part of a much, much longer list.
Q Okay. And then just one other on Iran. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Americans that were held hostage for 444 days, starting in 1979, have been trying ever since their release to get compensation for that time when they were tortured, imprisoned, the whole lot. They have not gotten any compensation. As part of this deal with — the interim deal with Iran, as I understand it, the United States has been releasing $700 million a month of frozen Iranian assets. Is there any consideration, as these former hostages have asked, of having some of that money go towards compensating, at long last, those Americans that were held hostage for so long?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, you’ll recall that part of the Joint Plan of Action that was agreed to more than a year ago now did envision a scenario where there was some sanctions relief that was granted to the Iranians where Iranian money that was currently being held overseas because of the sanctions would be released to them in exchange for the Iranians taking some steps to roll back some aspects of their nuclear program.
So the release of that money has been done in that context. And that’s one of the reasons that we believe this round of nuclear talks with Iran has been so different than earlier ones; that previously, Iran has succeeded in using international talks about their nuclear program to actually make progress on their nuclear program. In the context of these talks, we’ve actually seen Iran roll back their nuclear program in a couple of important ways. So that’s what that sanctions relief is about.
For your more detailed question about some of that — those funds being used to compensate former hostages, I’d refer you to the State Department for the exact policy on that.
Q Josh, I wanted to ask you about Nigeria. There’s some horrific new satellite images suggesting that the massacre that we already knew about by Boko Haram was even worse. People are accusing Boko Haram of a crime against humanity. Since the President talked about preventing genocide, preventing a massacre in Iraq some months ago against the Yazidis as a justification for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, why haven’t we seen U.S. intervention in Nigeria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, let me start by saying that the United States remains deeply concerned by ongoing reports of violence perpetrated by Boko Haram in the Baga area. We’re actively supporting the efforts of Nigeria and its neighbors to confront this group.
Our counterterrorism assistance to Nigeria includes information-sharing, improving Nigeria’s forensics and investigative capacity, and support for communities that are under direct threat from Boko Haram. Our assistance also stresses the importance of protecting civilians and ensuring that human rights are protected and respected in Nigeria. To counter the spread of violent extremist ideology and stem extremist recruitment efforts, the United States also supports programs and initiatives that provide positive alternatives to communities most at risk of radicalization and recruitment, including through vocational training.
So there are a whole host of ways in which the United States has been supportive of the Nigerians as they’ve confronted this threat.
Q But sadly, tragically, it didn’t stop at least 2,000 maybe more — mostly kids, elderly — who couldn’t outrun these Islamic militants. So despite all that, it hasn’t stopped. So what’s the — why no U.S. military intervention? I understand the other counterterror — what’s the difference from trying to save the Yazidis who were on a mountain — and that was a laudable goal the President tried to rally the international community behind. Why no direct U.S. military intervention here? There was a massacre. It’s happening.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, these are the kinds of moral dilemmas that American Presidents for generations have faced. And this decision about when and how to use American force, military force, is something that American Presidents have wrestled with for a long time. And the questions only become more difficult, as they have throughout history, as the capability of the American military has increased; that Presidents 100 years ago didn’t have to spend as much time struggling with a decision like this because they didn’t have the same kind of military capabilities at their disposal.
But now, because of the profound capability of the American military — whether it’s UAVs or fighter jets — that there is a tremendous capacity that our military has to protect our interests around the globe. And that ultimately is the question — is how do you sort of balance America’s national security interests with the variety of capabilities that the U.S. military has.
And there is significant military capability from the United States that already has been committed to working on this effort. And one of the things that we have believed is most important is dedicating an effort to work closely with forces that are on the ground, local forces, to try to confront these challenges. And that is — the strategy that we have employed in Iraq to try to support Iraq’s security forces on the ground to take the fight to these extremists is the same strategy that we’ve used in Nigeria on a different scale — because each situation is different — where you do have an American military presence that’s using our extensive capabilities to support the Nigerian government’s efforts to take the fight to these extremists.
Q I’m going to ask you about another moral dilemma. How can the President release five Gitmo detainees, originally from Yemen, literally a week after terrorists with ties to Yemen — at least one of them — trained by al Qaeda in Yemen, killed at least a dozen in Paris? How can the President release five more Gitmo detainees originally in Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: Because there is a unanimous recommendation from his national security team that steps could be put in place to ensure that when these individuals are transferred that we can significantly mitigate any threat that they have to the U.S. or our interests around the world.
Q What are those specific steps? Are you tracking each one of these folks? We understand they’re going to Estonia, they’re going to Oman. How do you specifically make sure they don’t wind up back in Yemen and are retrained and go right back on the battlefield?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I recognize that my answer may be unsatisfactory, but the fact of the matter is the success of some of those strategies is predicated on us not making those strategies public. But what I can tell you is that the governments that have agreed to take on these detainees have done so after extensive consultation with the United States about steps that they need to put in place to ensure that these individuals don’t pose a threat to the United States.
Q Well, if you can’t publicly say what they are, maybe you can answer: The Republican, Kelly Ayotte, claims that 30 percent of Gitmo detainees already released — before this release last night — 30 percent are suspected to or actually did go back on the battlefield. Are those numbers wrong? And if so, what is the real number? Is it 5 percent, 10 percent? How many of these detainees wind up back on the battlefield if you have all these safeguards?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, you’ll recall that when this President took office, he temporarily stopped the transfer of prisoners at Guantanamo so that the intelligence community and our national security community could conduct an individual review of each of their cases to determine who it would be appropriate to transfer to try to resolve all of their cases. That was a painstaking process that took more than a year, as I recall.
And once that process was taken place, there were a number of prisoners who were approved for transfer. Now, they were approved for transfer under specific conditions. And what we have seen over the last several years is that a substantial number of transfers had been carried out under this new policy. And I can tell you that only 6 percent or so of those transfers have been suspected of — or have been confirmed to have rejoined the fight.
Q You’re saying — your estimate is about 6 percent of these detainees?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. And I think the 30 percent includes the large number of transfers that occurred before the President instituted this review, essentially transfers that occurred in the previous administration.
Q You’re referring 2007, 2008 —
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q — and some of those wind up on the battlefield. But if it’s 6 percent, isn’t that still a problem? Six percent of these detainees wind up going back into terrorism; could kill people in Paris or Washington?
MR. EARNEST: It is. And it’s certainly why this administration continues to pursue a very aggressive counterterrorism strategy. At the same time, Ed, it would also be unwise to neglect the fact that our — the prison at Guantanamo Bay continues to inspire violent acts around the globe. So it’s not as if we can avoid violence by just keeping the prison open and keeping them all locked up. We know that that continues to be an active source of inspiration and recruitment for terrorists.
So this is a very difficult policy problem, and it’s only been made more difficult by members of the United States Senate who have thrown up obstacles to the President’s effort to try to close the prison.
Q I wanted to start off by following up on the question that Ed asked you about Boko Haram. Given the new satellite images, the reports of 2,000 people being killed in recent days, are there active discussions going on within the administration about changing the policy, about potentially increasing aid that the United States is giving to those local forces that you mentioned?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing I’m prepared to talk about at this point. There are a wide variety of reports about what’s happening in Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram. I can tell you that we obviously remain deeply concerned by those acts of violence and we condemn them in no uncertain terms.
That said, the United States remains committed to helping the government of Nigeria address the threat posed by violent extremist organizations and its ongoing efforts to find and free the girls abducted from Chibok and all others who have been abducted by Boko Haram.
There are a variety of humanitarian programs that we have supported to try to also assist those who have been victims of this violence. At the same time — and I’m just going to repeat this because it’s important — we continue to encourage Nigerian authorities to adopt a comprehensive approach to violent extremists that emphasizes respect for human rights, including the right to freedom of religion, prioritizes civilian security, and responds to the needs of victimized communities.
Q And it seems like the aid so far has consisted of humanitarian support. Are you ruling out military aid, not necessarily in the form of sending U.S. forces, but would you send them lethal aid, for example?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ll recall that there has been — that the President did send some U.S. military servicemembers into that region of Africa to assist Nigeria in their efforts against Boko Haram and to try to find the girls who were abducted from Chibok. And there’s ongoing information-sharing and other military capabilities that are being used by the United States, leveraged by the United States, to benefit the efforts of Nigeria to fight Boko Haram.
Q And I want to ask you about ISIS. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that jihadist fighters have enlarged their hold in Syria and that essentially the United States policy there has been ineffective. What’s your reaction to that assessment? Is it a fair assessment?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not a fair assessment. And the reason for that is — well, there are a number of things. Let’s start here. To date, the United States and our coalition partners have carried out over 1,800 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria; more than 800 of those have been in Syria. Our airstrikes in Syria have killed more than 1,000 ISIL fighters; destroyed several hundred ISIL vehicles, buildings, and command-and-control nodes; degraded their economic infrastructure; and severely limited their ability to reinforce their forces in Iraq.
You’ll recall that that is a focal point of our strategy in Syria, is that we do not want to allow ISIL to establish a safe haven in Syria that they can use to cause trouble in other places, or use to launch attacks against American interests.
Q There’s no indication that you’ve seriously degraded their forces there. So does there need to be a discussion about changing the policy in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: The statistics that I have cited have had a substantial impact on ISIL’s ability to assist their forces —
Q You’ve said they’ve degraded them at this point in this Syria?
MR. EARNEST: There’s no question about that, that that’s been the case — that we’ve destroyed several hundred ISIL vehicles, buildings, and command-and-control nodes; more than a thousand ISIL fighters have been killed. We know — and you know this based on sort of reports — that ISIL’s leadership, both in Iraq and in Syria, is under intense pressure; that these individuals, for good reason, are scared to spend a whole lot of time outside. And that’s because they are facing continuing pressure from the U.S. military and from our coalition partners.
Now, the other thing that you know about this is that there is an aspect of our strategy that has not yet taken root, which is the efforts to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition fighters. We are working with our coalition partners to do that, and that is something that will be ramped up in the coming months. And at that time, we will better be able to assess how effective they are on the battlefield.
Thus far, I think I would acknowledge that opposition fighters have not been particularly effective in countering the threat from ISIL, but I would anticipate that with training and equipment from the United States and our coalition partners, and backed by the military airpower of our coalition partners, that that performance will be more effective. But we’ll have to evaluate that in the —
Q And one on your domestic focus today. In addition to signing that memorandum, President Obama planning to press Congress to pass legislation that would require companies to give workers up to seven days of paid sick leave, in some companies, depending on the size of the company. What makes you think the legislation can pass? There are a number of Republicans who have already expressed their opposition. They say that this is not the role of government. What makes you think that legislation can pass when it has been, in some form, in circulation for years, I think dating back to 2005? Why now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, a couple of things about that. The United States, as you know, is one of the few countries in the world to have a paid sick leave — I’m sorry, is one of the few countries in the world not to have a paid sick leave policy. That’s why the President strongly supports the Healthy Families Act, which would allow millions of working Americans to earn up to seven days a year of paid sick leave.
What we know is that putting in place these kinds of family-friendly policies decreases personnel turnover in companies and increases productivity. That’s why we’ve seen a lot of companies move on their own to put in place these policies.
The other thing that we know is that there’s a public health benefit associated with policies like this. One thing that your doctor tells you if you feel like you’re coming down with the flu is to stay home and don’t expose yourself to other people. If you don’t have sick leave or can’t afford to take a day off, you’re only going to serve to spread the flu to your fellow coworkers. And not only is that a bad thing, it’s also going to be bad for the business if they have a whole slew of employees that have to be out at the same time because they’ve all got the flu.
Q What was the President doing to get this? Is this going to come up at today’s meeting? And can you kind of give us a picture of where this falls on this list of priorities? Obviously he’s talked about a number of things he wants to get done — corporate tax reform, trade, infrastructure projects. Where does this fall?
MR. EARNEST: Well, one of the things that the President is going to do to try to advance this policy is he’s going to use the biggest annual platform that any President ever has to try to advance his agenda, and that’s the State of the Union address. And I would anticipate that this is something the President will talk about in the State of the Union.
And the President is going to make the case that this is consistent with the role that he believes we should play in trying to put in place policies that benefit middle-class families. And there is no doubt that a policy like this, a family-friendly policy like this would help families as they try to balance the challenge of being effective at work but also meeting the needs at home, too.
Q And his message to small business owners who are concerned it could ultimately hurt their bottom line?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I think the President would have a different view, which is to say that it is good business. And I think there are any number of examples that I could cite for you where businesses have chosen to put in place these policies, and it’s served to reduce the turnover associated with their employees but also to increase their employees’ productivity. Cheryl.
Q Thanks, Josh. Two quick ones. Can I just clarify what you said to Justin about the budget, that the President’s fiscal ’16 budget will exceed the sequestration caps?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t say. I just said that the budget would be rolled out on February 2nd. And we can have a more detailed discussion about this. There are still some details of the budget proposal that are being finalized. So once that’s final and we’ve had an opportunity to put it out for all you to take a look at, then we can have a discussion about some of the important priorities that the President had to emphasize in the budget.
Q Okay. And just quickly — there are five days left until the State of the Union. Have we seen the last of the previewed announcements? Or should we expect in the next couple days for more announcements?
MR. EARNEST: Stay tuned. (Laughter.) I know, it’s almost too much news, isn’t it? (Laughter.)
Q Does the White House have a copy of Charlie Hebdo? What’s the White House reaction to the issue which was released yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: I have not seen in person a copy of the magazine. I’ve certainly see all of the reporting about it and have seen the image that apparently is on the cover. When asked about this previously, I declined to sort of offer up an official administration position. But my own personal reaction was that the cover was very powerful, and I think to a lot of people even poignant. But in terms of a decision to publish it in the way that they did, that obviously is a decision that they should make, and of course we would defend their right to make it.
Q Does the President want to see it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has seen the image. I didn’t talk to him about his reaction, but I’m sure that he’s seen it.
Q Josh, over the next few days, in addition to the State of the Union, we might get some resolution from the Supreme Court on same-sex marriage, at least whether or not they’ll take up a decision that might resolve the Circuit split. Does the President still believe that this is something that should be left to the states? And by that argument, does he agree then with the lower court ruling leaving in place same-sex marriage bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee?
MR. EARNEST: Jared, the President has been real clear about what he thinks on this, and his personal views have been very closely scrutinized, as they should be. And we certainly are supportive of the kinds of decisions that expand freedom and liberty. And we saw recently in Florida, just a week or two ago, that a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was overturned there. And that certainly was good news and consistent with the President’s view, and is hopeful that other courts make the same decision.
Q But you said personal view, and that’s where people — again, talking about the scrutiny to which the President’s personal views have been given. Josh, because it’s a personal view and because it doesn’t extend to states, these state rulings, these state laws remain in place. So would the President resist a Supreme Court ruling that would resolve the Circuit split?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure what you mean by “resist.”
Q He doesn’t have the power over the Supreme Court, I understand that. But is he displeased by it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to get out ahead of any Supreme Court ruling that may be coming. So I think you can probably anticipate what the President’s reaction might be based on the number of times that he’s expressed publicly what his position is on this issue.
Q And I want to follow up on Jim’s question earlier about the after-the-State of the Union interviews that the White House will be hosting here with YouTube content creators. Jim was asking because these people aren’t journalists, but there’s also a question of propriety and what kind of audience is the President trying to reach. You said earlier that the President is trying to reach a large number of people.
But, for example, you and I are both wearing pants, everyone here is properly attired. In some of these videos, people are wearing less than full clothing, they’re doing ridiculous things. These are the people that are being invited to the White House to interview the President. They’re not just not journalists, they’re also in the business of — in a different way than, for example, Zach Galifianakis. Is something that the President — I mean, obviously he thinks it’s something he should be doing, but what is the message that the President is sending by inviting those people to the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will hazard a guess, and I do expect that all of the people who participate in these interviews will be appropriately respectful of the President in the offices of the presidency. And I do think that we consider this to be a unique and interesting way for the President to discuss some of the priorities that he’ll talk about in the State of Union. And it should be interesting — maybe your extensive discussion of how risky this is will prompt even more people to pay attention and tune in and see what the President has to say. I certainly
Q So the President is searching out an audience regardless of who the interlocutor is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President is trying to put his ideas in front of as many people as he can. And if he can go to an interesting venue where he may be able to attract the attention of some people that didn’t tune into the State of Union address, for example, then we certainly would welcome the opportunity to do that.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to go back on the paid leave. The President has long supported — I think he even sponsored a bill when he was a senator — I’m sort of curious why now. And why is he just doing it now? Why didn’t he do it a couple of years ago to push on the paid leave?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what you see today is not just a legislative proposal, but you also see some specific administrative efforts to try to ensure that federal employees have access to at least six weeks of paid leave when a new child is born in their family, for example.
So there are some steps that the President can take administratively that he announced today, as well. And you’re right, these are policies that the President has long supported, and it certainly is consistent with what he has long viewed as his priority, which strengthening middle-class families in this country.
Q But why didn’t he do anything sooner on it? And how do you think you have a better chance of it now with the Republicans in both chambers?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think any time the President makes an announcement in his — here that we’re getting close to his seventh year in office, I think can be subjected to the question of, well, why didn’t he do this earlier. I suppose that was probably also true in his second week in office when you asked why didn’t the President do this last week. So it’s a difficult question to answer.
What I can tell you is that it certainly is consistent with the priority that the President places on benefitting middle-class families and putting in place the policies that are going to benefit middle-class families. And this is certainly an example of one that would.
Q A follow on Cuba. Is everything you’ve announced is everything that he believes he can do, that he’s done all that he can and the next steps will be up to Congress for any changes?
MR. EARNEST: As it relates to the specific regulations from Treasury and Commerce, I believe so. But you should confirm that with those two agencies that administered the regulations.
Q Josh, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions on Boko Haram. But first I want to go to the Vice President’s event at Norfolk State today. There is a disproportionate number of African Americans who are not involved in the Internet and in cyberspace. Is this $25-million effort an effort to bolster the numbers of African Americans in that field?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the Vice President is talking about today is similar to the kind of effort you’ve seen across the administration to encourage students, all students, to consider a profession in the STEM field — in the science, technology, engineering and math fields — that those are the kinds of jobs that require substantial training and education. But if you can get that training and education, you’re going to have access to a wide variety of good-paying jobs. Having well- qualified, highly skilled workers in those jobs is good for the economy, but it’s also good for the families of those workers because we know that they’re going to be able to live a middle-class lifestyle.
And one of the things the President is going to be focused on in his State of Union address — and this is consistent with the President’s announcement about community colleges that he made last week, which is never before has a college education been more important to middle-class students being able to get the kind of good, middle-class pay — good-paying, middle-class job that they aspire to. So these kinds of STEM jobs that the Vice President is talking about today require a solid education. And the administration wants to be supportive of those students who are interested in getting a college education and getting the kind training that they need, particularly in the STEM fields.
Q And I wanted to ask you — I want to go back to Boko Haram. The United States dispatched military advisers to help Nigeria and neighboring countries address the threat posed by Boko Haram. What has been accomplished so far?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I can tell you that we certainly have tried to strengthen our counterterrorism relationship with the Nigerian government. There is no doubt that Boko Haram has continued to carry out terrible acts of violence all across that country. And we’re going to continue to work with the Nigerian government to improve the capacity of their security forces to protect their population, but also to improve the performance of their security forces when it comes to respecting basic human rights and respect for the freedom of religion.
So there’s an important relationship there that has been strengthened, but there remains a lot more work to do so we can start seeing the kind of results that we’d like to see from this effort.
Q But the Nigerian military was preeminent in the western region of Africa; they were stability for that region. And now the government and Nigerian military appear basically inept. What’s happening? Why do we have to hold them up now? I mean, we’ve heard words of corruption bantered about. Why are we now helping them with this problem the way we are?
MR. EARNEST: Well, some of it goes back to what Ed was saying, that we’re seeing this extremist group, this terrorist group carry out terrible acts of violence on an increasingly large scale. That is troubling. It’s certainly troubling to our conscience. It also is not in the best interest of American foreign policy for this destabilizing violent presence to continue to carry out terrible acts with impunity there.
So we’re going to work with security forces to keep the pressure on these violent extremists. We’re going to keep the pressure on the security forces to do a better job of protecting their population from the violent extremists, while at the same time those security forces do a better job of respecting basic human rights. So there’s a very difficult task ahead, but this is a task that the administration remains committed to.
Q And lastly, the United States is holding a former Boko Haram leader in custody, and there appears to be questions whether he’s violated U.S. law. Given Boko Haram’s brutality and the links to al Qaeda, how is this possible to question if he’s broken U.S. law?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not aware of the individual that you’re referring to, but I would — I’d refer you to either the State Department or the Department of Defense that may have more information about that individual’s detention.
Q Thanks, Josh. The Summit on Violent Extremism was originally scheduled for October 2014 before being rescheduled without an explanation. Can you say why it was postponed to begin with? And are you worried that the delay might have had an impact on efforts to get anti-radicalization programs up and running across the country?
MR. EARNEST: Byron, I talked about this a little bit earlier in the week. The challenge of scheduling an event like this is that it requires the formulation of a specific agenda, and then it requires people to make a specific commitment to attend and participate.
And trying to coordinate all the schedules and people from all across the country and even around the world is difficult business. But this clearly is a priority of this administration. And one of the things that we want to do is we want to lift up best practices. There are communities across this country that are doing a very effective job in countering extremist ideology and messaging from propagating in their communities and some making some inroads in some of those communities.
And one of the important things that we can do in the context of the summit is to help share this information and share these best practices with other communities that want to take some more steps. So there’s some important work that needs to be done in the context of the summit, and we’re looking forward to that getting done in February.
Q One more question. In France — there are reports that France has arrested more than 50 people, including a controversial comedian, in a speech crackdown, most of which were arrested for a speech that would be legal in the United States. Does the White House have any reaction to those arrests and reports about crackdowns on offensive speech in France?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of each of these individual cases, so I wouldn’t sort of wade into what are obviously active investigations by the French. But we do know that the French government has articulated the importance of the freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and those are the kinds of values that we hold dear in this country and we know that our allies in France hold them dear as well. But in terms of the investigations and sort of how all that’s administered, I’d leave it up to the French.
Q But does the White House believe that offensive speech should be criminalized, even by allies like France?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that sort of speculates on what these individuals have been charged with and what the investigations have shown. I just don’t want to wade into that.
Yes, go ahead, Connie. I’ll give you the last one.
Q Is it a full press conference where it will be two-and-two? And what time is it going to be?
MR. EARNEST: It will be in the afternoon. We’ll have exact timing later today, and it will be a two-and-two, a formal news conference in the East Room with the British Prime Minister.
2:34 P.M. EST