Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:30 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for the delayed start of today's briefing. It's obviously been a busy day for us here at the administration.
I suspect that many of you have seen the statement from the Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. In that statement, he noted that he had accepted this afternoon the resignation of Julia Pierson, the Director of the United States Secret Service.
Before I get to your questions, let me just tell you that this afternoon the President had the opportunity to telephone Director Pierson to express his appreciation for her service to the agency and to the country. She dedicated more than 30 years of her life to the United States Secret Service and to the important work that they do over there.
As I mentioned yesterday, she spent several hours in front of the cameras yesterday answering difficult questions from members of Congress. In the context of that interaction, she took responsibility for the shortcomings of the agency that she led, and she took responsibility for fixing them. And that, quite simply, I think is a testament to her professionalism and to her character.
So, with that, Jim, why don't you get us started on questions today?
Q: Thanks, Josh. In that phone call, had she already submitted her resignation, or did the President ask for it?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, in a meeting earlier this afternoon, the Director of -- the Secretary of Homeland Security met with Director Pierson and accepted her resignation at that time.
Q: Now, as recently as this morning you were expressing the President's support for her. If there was such support, why did the President allow Secretary Johnson to accept her resignation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Director Pierson offered her resignation today because she believed that it was in the best interest of the agency to which she has dedicated her career. The Secretary agreed with that assessment. The President did, as well. Over the last several days we've seen recent and accumulating reports raising questions about the performance of the agency, and the President concluded that new leadership of that agency was required.
Q: Did the President take into consideration the mounting opposition that was rising on the Hill, bipartisan opposition to her remaining?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think what the Secretary of Homeland Security and the President were both considering were the performance of the agency. And in light of recent and accumulating reports about the agency, I think legitimate questions were raised -- at least they were in the mind of both the Secretary and the President.
Q: Does the President have a timetable for replacing her?
MR. EARNEST: He does not. As you know, and as you probably saw from the statement that Secretary Johnson issued, the President recommended, and Secretary Johnson agreed, that Joe Clancy, someone who had served with distinction in the Secret Service until the summer of 2011, would be a good candidate for serving as the Acting Director of Secret Service until a more permanent replacement can be found.
Mr. Clancy is somebody who had a distinguished career in the Secret Service. Prior to serving in the Secret Service he graduated from attended* West Point. But he is somebody, over the course of his tenure at the Secret Service, rose to the level of being the Special Agent in Charge of the Presidential Protective Division. He is somebody who has earned the respect and admiration of the men and women who were his colleagues at the United States Secret Service. He is also somebody who has the full confidence of the President and the First Lady. So he is an appropriate choice to lead the agency until a permanent director is found.
Q: If I could ask you about another news event today. The President met with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I'm wondering if the President raised any concerns about new construction in East Jerusalem that some Israeli officials confirmed today, or the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in a neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I can tell you that the United States is deeply concerned by reports that the Israeli government has moved forward with the planning process in a sensitive area of East Jerusalem. The step is contrary to Israel's stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians. And it would send a very troubling message if they were to proceed with tenders or construction in that area.
This development will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies, poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations. It also would call into question Israel's ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
Additionally, the United States condemns the recent occupation of residential buildings in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem -- this is near the Old City -- by individuals who are associated with an organization whose agenda, by definition, stokes tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. These provocative acts, these acts by this organization, only serves to escalate tensions at a moment when those tensions have already been high.
The final status of Jerusalem should not be prejudged and can only be legitimately determined through direct negotiations between the parties. At this sensitive time, we call on all parties to redouble their efforts to restore trust and confidence, promote calm, and return to the path of peace.
Q: So were those discussed?
MR. EARNEST: This did come up in the conversations, yes.
Q: And was there any indication that the timing of this was related to the Prime Minister's visit?
MR. EARNEST: On a question about the timing you'd obviously have to ask the Israeli government about that.
Q: Back to the Secret Service. Clearly the problems at the agency are beyond one person. Would the President like to see more resignations, more firings as a result of these issues?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, let me say a couple of things about that. The first is the President has nothing but the highest regard for the men and women of the Secret Service. These are individuals who are highly trained, highly skilled professionals, who wake up every morning prepared to put their lives on the line to protect the First Family and to protect the White House. That is a commitment to service that is worthy of our respect.
At the same time, as Secretary Johnson mentioned in his statement, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security will be conducting a review into the September 19th incident in which an individual scaled the fence along the North Lawn of the White House and was able to gain access to the White House. That review will be conducted by the Deputy Secretary. When that review has been concluded, it will be put before an independent panel of experts to get their outside perspective on what changes to White House security may be required. That panel will also be responsible for making recommendations to the Secretary about who would be a good candidate to lead the United States Secret Service. They will certainly consider individuals from outside that agency.
Importantly, they will also offer a recommendation to the Secretary about whether or not a review of broader issues concerning the Secret Service is necessary. So we are confident and the President is confident that the Department of Homeland Security will take a hard look at this situation; that we'll assemble a panel of outside experts who will take a hard look at this situation and develop a set of recommendations that will ensure that the United States Secret Service can meet the very high standard of performance that they set for themselves.
Q: Does the President believe that more people besides the Director need to go?
MR. EARNEST: The President believes that an independent panel should review the results of this assessment that is being conducted by the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to determine what steps are appropriate moving forward.
Q: Does the President or the White House generally believe that any of the shortfalls -- or any of the problems at the Secret Service are related to shortfalls that are connected to sequestration?
MR. EARNEST: Again, Jeff, you're raising questions that will be part of this broader, careful review that's being conducted by the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. So he'll be, after he has conducted his review, he will be in a much better position to answer that question than I can from here.
Q: Josh, earlier this morning you expressed confidence and you said that the White House had confidence in Julia Pierson. What changed over the course of the day?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, the first thing that changed, Jim, was that Director Pierson offered her resignation. She did so to the Secretary of Homeland Security, and she did that because she believes it's in the best agency -- best interest of the agency to which she's dedicated the last 30 years of her life.
The Secretary agreed with that assessment, as did the President. They both agreed with that assessment because of the recent and accumulating reports that raise legitimate questions about the performance of the agency. Those reports led the Secretary and the President to conclude that a new direction was necessary.
Q: And just to ask you about this latest incident to have emerged -- I guess it happened prior to the fence-jumping incident -- the security contractor at the CDC who was in the elevator, who was armed in the presence of the President, in violation of Secret Service protocols. Did Director Pierson brief the President on that incident?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I can tell you that the White House first learned of that incident yesterday afternoon, shortly before it was reported by -- before it was publicly reported by news organizations.
Q: So she did not tell him about that? Or the agency did not tell the White House about that until -- you didn't know about it until yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Until shortly before it was reported publicly. That's correct.
Q: And that's a problem, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would -- I think -- it would be accurate for you to assume that when incidents like that occur that there would be a pretty open channel of communication between the United States Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security, and ultimately the White House.
Q: And does he want to -- does the President want to see the channels of communication to be more open, to be more transparent? Does the White House feel like it's kept in the dark a little bit too much by the Secret Service in terms of these problems that occur from time to time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this will be part of some of the things that this independent panel will consider -- what is the appropriate level of Secret Service response to incidents like this when the crop up. And that obviously would involve communicating reforms or even information where necessary to senior members of the Department of Homeland Security and, again, ultimately, in some occasions, to the White House.
Q: And does the President think that Julia Pierson let him down?
MR. EARNEST: Well, like I said, the President took time out of his day this afternoon to call Director Pierson, to thank her for her service to the agency and to the country. And the President is deeply appreciative of her service. She spent 30 years at the United States Secret Service because she believes so strongly in the core mission of the agency.
Q: And if I could ask one quick question about the CDC -- because on September 16th the President said, "In the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores…" -- he used those words, "unlikely event." And as we know, there's a case down in Dallas. Did the President not get, I guess, reliable information from the CDC as to the likelihood that Ebola could come over here? What do you make of that? He talked about it being an unlikely event -- and it did happen.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, would you read that quote for me one more time?
Q: He said, "In the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores…" I can give you the full quote if you want it. But he talked about it being an unlikely event. He went on to say that the CDC is prepared to deal with that.
MR. EARNEST: My suspicion is that you might be slightly over-parsing what the President said, because when he delivered those remarks there had been at least a couple of health care professionals who had been trying to provide medical services to Ebola victims in Africa who had been returned to the United States for treatment. So obviously these individuals who had contracted Ebola in the performance of their medical work were on the shores of the United States of America.
So I think the broader point that the President was trying to convey to you and to the broader American public is that we retain confidence in the sophisticated, medical infrastructure of the United States of America to respond to meet the needs of those individuals that have contracted Ebola, and to put protocols in place that will prevent an Ebola epidemic from striking the United States. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is Ebola is not easily transmitted. It isn't transmitted through the air like the flu. It is not transmitted through water or food here in the United States. The only way that Ebola can be transmitted is through the bodily fluids of an individual who is already showing symptoms of being sick with Ebola.
So there is -- there are protocols in which the President does have strong confidence that can be put in place to prevent the spread of Ebola.
Q: This doesn't lead you to think that this could be a bigger, more widespread problem than previously thought -- I guess that's -- that was the thrust of my question initially.
MR. EARNEST: I see. That's correct. It is our view that we have the medical infrastructure that is necessary to meet the -- to try to treat this individual that does have Ebola in a way that doesn't pose a significant risk to other patients in the hospital, to the doctors and nurses who will be caring for that individual, and certainly doesn't post a significant risk to the broader community.
Q: Josh, a couple of quick questions. Just to follow up on what Jim was asking you. Based on the scenario that we understand from the Dallas patient, is there anything that's going to change with airlines or security in terms of what we know about the incubation period or screening, the free access or free movement of folks who fly from affected countries?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it's my understanding, Alexis, and you can check with the CDC about this, but it's my understanding that the individual in Dallas who has been hospitalized with Ebola is somebody who did recently travel to the United States from West Africa.
Again, according to those medical professionals, this individual was not displaying any symptoms, was not experiencing any symptoms while he was traveling. That means there is no risk to the individuals who were traveling with that person.
So there are protocols in place where those individuals who are leaving West Africa and traveling to the West are screened. While we've also provided guidance to pilots, flight attendants and others who make up the -- who are sort of responsible for staffing our transportation infrastructure, we've given them guidance for monitoring the health and wellbeing of travelers to ensure that if they notice individuals who are exhibiting symptoms that seem to be consistent with Ebola, that the proper authorities are notified.
There also are screening procedures in place at our border. So as individuals enter the country, they are observed by Customs and Border Patrol and others to protect the broader American public. So there's nothing about this case that we know so far that would indicate any weakness or any flaws in that system right now.
But that said, in light of this incident, the administration has taken the step of recirculating our guidance to law enforcement agencies that are responsible for securing the border, to those agencies that represent individuals who staff the airline industry, and to medical professionals all across the country to make sure that people are aware that there is an important protocol that should be implemented if an individual presents with symptoms that are consistent with Ebola.
Q: And then back to the Secret Service, to follow up on that -- because the independent investigation Secretary Johnson wants to get underway is going to last a month, and the President is going to be very active in the next month, can you say whether anything is going to change or whether there is satisfaction that, in the interim, procedures either here or when he is traveling are sufficient and adequate to ensure his safety and the safety of the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Let me say three things about that. The first is Director Pierson has said -- and she did in her testimony yesterday -- that in the immediate aftermath of the incident on September 19th, the United States Secret Service put in place some additional security precautions to bolster security here at the White House. So there are already some changes that have been made.
Second, the President continues to have full confidence in the men and women of the United States Secret Service. These are highly skilled, highly trained professionals who are very good at what they do. And these individuals also take very seriously their responsibility to protect the President and to protect the White House.
The third thing is the President is very appreciative that somebody with the résumé and skills of Joe Clancy is taking responsibility for leading the Secret Service during this interim period. Mr. Clancy is somebody who is taking a leave of absence from his private-sector job to re-enter government service. That is, I think, a demonstration of the sacrifice that he is making, principally because of the loyalty that he feels to this organization and this agency that he served for so long.
Q: And he is authorized to make any additional changes that he might think is necessary in the next month?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely. As the acting director, Mr. Clancy will have the responsibility for leading that organization. The President is grateful that he has taken on that very significant responsibility.
Q: Thanks. Josh, on the Dallas Ebola case, so following up on Alexis's other questions, everyone understands that this particular patient was asymptomatic when he was traveling and there was no risk -- I think we get that from the health professionals -- but also, that means that there is no way to effectively screen for somebody who is infected and will become symptomatic within a week or a few days. So given that, what are the conditions under which the President would order or want to see travel restrictions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the thing that's important about that is that individuals who are not displaying symptoms of Ebola are not able to spread Ebola to other people. And that is why we have a protocol in place that does carefully evaluate the medical care for individuals that are displaying symptoms of Ebola.
What I would say about that is that the -- there's a little sound over here. Can we get to the bottom of what that is? We really can't? Is it that tape recorder there, Dominique? Okay, I'll muscle through here.
So, Todd, the CDC has put in place specific protocols that govern how to handle these kinds of situations. And what they do is they place a priority on ensuring that individuals who are displaying the symptoms of Ebola are limited from broader public contact. And the reason for that is simply that individuals who are displaying symptoms of Ebola are the only ones who can spread Ebola. And that's why there are specific protocols in place.
And we are confident that the sophisticated medical infrastructure that exists here in the United States can prevent the wide spread of Ebola.
Q: Doesn't that imply that we're willing to accept a certain number of people coming into this country who will be diagnosed and develop Ebola once they're here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we do -- we live in a global world, and what we're confident that we can do is to both protect the safety of the traveling public and prevent -- and protect the broader American public by rigorously applying the kind of medical protocols that are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
These are the experts. They have a keen understanding of how to prevent the spread of this specific disease. And Dr. Frieden himself expressed his confidence that because of our infrastructure and because of the expertise that exists here in this country that we can stop the spread of Ebola in its tracks.
Q: Has the President or will the President speak with Governor Perry or any other Texas officials about the Ebola outbreak?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know of any calls that the President expects to make here, but I know that there are a number of senior administration officials at the CDC, at the Department of Homeland Security and at HHS who have been in touch with senior officials in the State of Texas and in the Dallas area to ensure that there is seamless coordination and communication between local officials who are responsible for responding to this incident, and for the national officials in the federal government who can offer their own expertise to deal with this matter.
I will say, if I didn't say it before, that there is a team of specialists from the CDC who are already on the ground in north Texas to assist local officials as they respond to this specific incident. And they will certainly benefit from the expertise of these CDC professionals in ensuring that this doesn't pose a significant risk to the people in the Dallas metro area.
Stephen. Congratulations on your new job, by the way, Stephen.
Q: Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: I was pleased to read about it.
Q: Does the U.S. see any outcome of the Iran nuclear talks that would leave Iran in the position whereby it could be described as a "threshold nuclear power"?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have talked about this a little bit. The United States in close coordination with our P5-plus-1 partners have been engaged in conversations with the Iranians about bringing their nuclear program into compliance with generally accepted international standards.
And as a result of those conversations, we have had some success in getting the Iranians to roll back key aspects of their nuclear program. That part has been successful. But what is clear is that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon; that creating a nuclear arms race in that region of the world would be terribly destabilizing and would not be in the broader national security interest of our friends and allies and partners in the region, and it certainly wouldn't be in the national security interest of the United States of America.
What I would point to is that there are statements from leaders in Iran indicating that they don't have designs on a nuclear weapon. And what we need to do is we need to reach an agreement between the Iranian regime and the general international community, a verifiable agreement to demonstrate that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon.
Q: So was there any surprise when the Prime Minister of Israel says in the Oval Office next to the President that he's worried that that deal could end up leaving Iran as a threshold nuclear power? It seems he has a completely different understanding of the position than the U.S. -- the one that U.S. is advocating.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not sure I entirely agree with that because there isn't a deal so far. These talks and conversations are ongoing. And the President has articulated his determination, working closely with our P5-plus-1 partners, to make sure that we have in place a verifiable regime to satisfy the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program, that we want to be able to have insight into that program and confirm transparently that Iran is not seeking a nuclear weapon.
That's what they say. We're looking for the kind of an agreement that would ensure that the international community can verify that.
The other point that I want to make, and this is important too: Previous interactions with Iran about their nuclear program have drawn the expressions of frustration from some in the international community because they have observed Iran using ongoing diplomatic conversations as cover to make advances on their nuclear program. That is not the case in the context of these talks. Rather, the opposite has occurred.
In the context of the conversations that the United States has led with our P5-plus-1 partners, Iran has actually agreed to roll back key aspects of their nuclear program. That includes not enriching uranium above the 5-percent level. It means converting or diluting the entirety of their 20-percent enriched uranium stockpile. It involves not installing or operating additional centrifuges in its plants, including next-generation models. They've also refrained from making further advances at their enrichment facilities, including the facility in Arak. And they have also agreed to more frequent inspections of some of the facilities that they have previously been less than transparent about.
So we have in the context of these conversations made important steps, or reached important steps that have rolled back their nuclear program. But we have not, however, reached a final agreement that would satisfy the international community's concern about Iran's nuclear program.
Let's move around a bit. Kathleen.
Q: So to follow on that, can you say how much of the conversation between the President and Netanyahu the Iran issue in their talks consumed? And did the Prime Minister also raise sort of broader concerns that the U.S. is being kind of duped by Rouhani and the charm offensive, and might also collaborate in some way on the ISIS operation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kathleen, there certainly was a lot of discussion about the important and strong relationship between the United States and Israel. As you know, the security cooperation between our two nations is unprecedented and it continues to grow stronger. This has been manifested most recently by the partnership related to the Iron Dome system. Recently, the United States invested additional funds in ensuring that that Iron Dome system could be well stocked and well supplied to continue to provide protection for civilians who are living under the threat of rockets launched by Hamas from Gaza.
You've also seen the United States on numerous occasions stand with Israel as they confront the threat that is posed by Hamas, that the President and other members of this administration have steadfastly defended Israel's right to defend their territory and to defend their citizens from violent, provocative actions by Hamas.
You've also seen the United States in a variety of diplomatic forums defend against efforts to isolate and undermine Israel's standing in the international community. That is a testament to the strength and coordination of the relationship that exists between the United States and Israel.
Those elements of our relationship were the focal point of the discussions today. They did have a conversation about the efforts of the United States to lead an international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and the President welcomed Prime Minister Netanyahu's support for those ongoing efforts.
Q: Did Netanyahu bring up concerns about Iran's participation in that effort? And how much did they talk about the nuclear issue?
MR. EARNEST: They did discuss the nuclear issue. I didn't sit in on it, so I can't give a minute-by-minute tick-tock of that. And as it relates to what Prime Minister Netanyahu brought up, what I'm prepared to do is to read out what President Obama said, and I'll let my counterpart in the Israeli government discuss the Prime Minister's participation in the meeting.
Q: I want to go back to the Secret Service. I want to make sure I understand what changed between this morning when the President was said to have full confidence in Ms. Pierson and this afternoon when you said now he thinks that the agency needs a new direction and new leadership. So I'm just wondering, did something happen to make him lose confidence in her in that time? We're learning now that there's video of this whole incident from September 19th that captured the whole intrusion into the mansion. Is he aware of that? Did that play into the decision that ultimately the drip-drip was not going to stop and she had to go?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of the video. There may be some of my counterparts here at the White House who are, but I am not. I can tell you that there are a couple of key things that have changed just in the last few hours. The first is, and most importantly, Director Pierson offered her resignation. She did so because she believed it was in the best interest of the agency to which she dedicated her professional life. And the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security both agreed with her assessment that it was, indeed, in the best interest of the agency for her to do so.
They reached that conclusion because of the recent and accumulating reports about the performance of the agency. And that is what led the President to believe that new leadership was required.
Q: So when you say "recent and accumulated reports," these reports about the intruder have been out there for some time. What's new since yesterday is this incident at the CDC where somebody was in the elevator -- an armed person was in the elevator with the President who wasn't supposed to be there. Was that a fulcrum, was that a pivot point for President Obama, learning that that was out there and had not been previously disclosed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you point out, that is -- or as I guess I mentioned earlier, that is something that the White House learned of just yesterday, just minutes before it was publicly reported.
Q: So did that play into his decision that --
MR. EARNEST: I think you could assume that that is part of the recent and accumulating reports to which I'm referring.
Q: But, Josh, you went on TV this morning after you knew that a person with a criminal record and a gun --
MR. EARNEST: I had read those reports, Ed, that's correct.
Q: You hadn't been able to confirm it overnight with the Secret Service?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, I had read those reports. And I guess to reiterate my answer to Julie, the most significant change from today is that Director Pierson offered her resignation because she herself had concluded that it would be in the best interest of her agency for her to do so.
Q: So I guess my question is, why didn't senior people here at the White House, including the President, determine on their own? Why were you waiting for her to give her resignation? Isn't a person with a criminal record and a gun getting inches away from the President enough to say somebody needs to be fired here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I can tell you that that incident that you're referring to is something that the White House was made aware of only yesterday, less than 24 hours ago. That occurred just minutes before that report was published for the public to review.
There is a -- as I believe those published reports referred to, there is a protocol for investigating security breaches along these lines, and that review is ongoing at the Department of Homeland Security.
Q: But I guess what seems confusing is for three days in a row you and other White House officials have seemed kind of calm about the idea that a man got into the East Room and that another man got inches away from the President with a gun. I'm just -- where is the outrage? Where is the "we can't believe this happened"? It's just been, well, we're going to let them investigate it and we have full confidence in them.
MR. EARNEST: Ed, it is true that the President and everyone here at the White House does have full confidence in the men and women of the United States Secret Service. These are highly trained, highly skilled professionals who every day get out of bed prepared to put their life on the line at a moment's notice to protect the White House and to protect the President. And the President is appreciative of their work and their service to the country.
Q: Two other quick subjects. In a speech today -- you mentioned Jeh Johnson on another subject involving terror. He gave a speech before all this happened in Canada and was talking about the terror threat. And he mentioned --
MR. EARNEST: This is Jeh Johnson?
Q: Jeh Johnson.
MR. EARNEST: Who gave a speech?
Q: Yes, in Canada.
MR. EARNEST: And said, "Today the terrorist threat is different from what it was in 2001. It's more decentralized and more complex. Not only is there core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there's al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula…" And he listed all of the affiliates that you, the President, and others have said for a long time can still be a threat. But when he mentioned that there is core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the administration signaling that core al Qaeda is no longer decimated, that they are part of this threat matrix?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, we stand by what is demonstrably true -- that core al Qaeda, the network that previously existed along the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been decimated and destroyed because of the bravery and courage and service of our men and women in uniform, and our dedicated professionals in the intelligence agencies.
They were implementing a strategy at the direction of the President of the United States to decimate and destroy them. That effort has been successful. No longer is there a network that was previously presided over by Osama bin Laden that could plan and execute a global conspiracy that was years in the making to carry out a large-scale terror attack against the United States of America on our shores. That network has been decimated.
Now, there continue to be threats that emanate from that region of the world and from other regions of the world. But that threat, as the Secretary of Homeland Security said in his speech, is different than the threat that existed prior to 9/11.
Q: Last topic. There was another important hearing today on Capitol Hill about Sergeant Tahmooressi, the U.S. Marine who has been in a Mexican jail. The reason why it's important, among other reasons, is that various lawmakers as well as various veterans came forward and said that he has PTSD, which the President has said is a very serious issue that he cares deeply about. How concerned is this White House that he is still in a Mexican jail, has PTSD -- according to VA doctors -- and hasn't gotten treatment in several months?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, I can tell you that my colleagues at the State Department are very focused on this issue, and so I'd refer you to them for their efforts to work with the Mexican government.
Q: Republican Ed Royce today said that he asked Vice President Biden recently to ask President Obama to call the President of Mexico directly and get him out of jail. And he said that didn't happen. Why not?
MR. EARNEST: I don't believe it has, and that's because this is an issue that is being handled through the State Department and through the existing channels at the State Department.
Q: What is the President's standing orders to the military as far as drone use in Syria and Iraq? He had set very specific instructions about counterterrorism operations where civilians might become casualties. Do those apply to Syria and Iraq? And if not, why not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, what I can tell you is that there are -- or that there is a very clear directive that has been given to the Department of Defense to take extreme measures to minimize civilian casualties as they are carrying out the military operations that the President ordered. That is a priority of our national security. That is a directive from the President of the United States. And that is something that the Department of Defense follows through on.
Q: So let me just understand, because there was a published report this morning that what applies elsewhere doesn't apply in Iraq and Syria -- that is there is more latitude because this is a theater of ongoing conflict and operations distinct from a more targeted counterterrorism mission against individuals upon which a lot of intelligence has been developed. Is that true?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's difficult for me to get into sort of all of these intelligence assessments and how those apply to different countries. What I can tell you is that there is a general principle that applies in the execution of all of these strategies. We've talked a lot about how the counterterrorism strategy that is currently being applied in Iraq and Syria to apply continual pressure on these extremist organization is analogous to the strategy that we have successfully implemented in places like Somalia and Yemen. In all of those cases, it's the responsibility of the Department of Defense to take extreme care to minimize the risk of civilian casualties in all of their actions.
Q: But the higher standard that the President applied I believe in his National Defense University speech does not apply in Iraq and Syria.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can't speak to those kinds -- in that much detail. What I can speak to is this principle that the President has laid out that applies to the application of our counterterrorism strategy in all of these countries, and that is to take extreme care to minimize the risk of civilian casualties in all our actions.
Q: Did the President call Joe Clancy? Does he have any plans to meet with him personally?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know of any calls between the President and Mr. Clancy, but I can tell you that -- I can look into that for you. I don't know if he's called him or not.
Q: Now, what Ed was driving at is what sounds like a kind of squeamishness about doing anything or saying anything that would publicly apply a standard upon which the Secret Service cannot fall below. And I just want to ask you directly, is it acceptable for someone with a gun, with a checkered criminal past, to be in an elevator with the President of the United States? Yes or no?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, you're referring to this incident that we've seen public reports about, and I think one lesson that we have all learned over the last few days is it is important for an investigation to be conducted to determine the facts about what's actually being reported. So the Department of Homeland Security, consistent with their established protocol, has been for some time conducting a review of this specific incident. So I'm not going to get in front of that investigation, but that is something that's being handled --
Q: Can you say theoretically if that's acceptable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think common sense would indicate to you that it's not. But I don't want anybody --
Q: Okay, well --
MR. EARNEST: But here's the thing, Major. I don't want anybody to suggest that that is somehow an implicit confirmation of what's been reported elsewhere.
Q: But the reason all of us are curious is because we were given an assessment of the September 19th fence-jumper that didn't comport with the actual facts at all. And plenty of people in this building knew within a matter of hours what actually happened, which the public didn't learn about for a good number of days. So all I'm trying to figure out is if you will publicly assert on behalf of the President of the United States what is or isn't acceptable when it comes to protecting him, this property, and his family.
MR. EARNEST: I guess I don't -- what's the question that you're asking?
Q: What is the standard that is acceptable for the Secret Service to not fall beneath? Is it a fence-jumper getting in the East Room? Is it a man with a gun next to the President in an elevator? Is there any standard that you can apply in these various reports that seem to have a good deal of credibility that you can say publicly, you know what, that's unacceptable and the President doesn't believe it's acceptable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, I'm not really sure what you're driving at. I think common sense -- I would readily concede to the common-sense principle that you're asserting that it is unwise and unacceptable for a situation like the one that you described to take place. But that said, there is an ongoing investigation into this particular incident, and I'm not going to comment on the facts of that incident without knowing -- without having direct knowledge myself of that incident.
Let me just say as a broader -- in terms of principles that there are some principles at play here, that the United States Secret Service is comprised of highly trained, highly skilled professionals who are responsible for protecting the President, his family, and the White House, and that is very important work. At the same time -- and that is their top priority, as it should be. At the same time, they have to balance that priority with the need to ensure that hundreds of people who work here, including all of you, have regular and at least as convenient as possible access to their workplace. That requires a different set of security protocols to ensure that people can have relatively easy access to the place where they work.
In addition to that, there are thousands of people who entered the White House today to tour the People's House. And there are security protocols that need to be put in place to ensure that those individuals are screened, but again, without impeding their access to this building.
So this is complicated work, but the challenge that is before the Secret Service is to balance all those equities in a way that protects public access, that protects the access of everybody who works here, but ultimately and most importantly, protects the safety and well-being of the President and the First Family.
Q: One last question. There are several protests -- well, there's on large protest going on and has been for several days in Hong Kong. Earlier today, the Secretary of State, John Kerry, said the United States is interested in that being resolved peacefully, that there be no conflict, and that Chinese authorities not use any oppressive means to change the direction of those protests. The Chinese Foreign Minister said this is a matter of internal security and everyone else should basically butt out. What does the White House think about what is happening and what should happen in Hong Kong?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, the United States is watching very closely the situation in Hong Kong. Around the world, the United States supports internationally recognized fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of peaceful assembly and the freedom of expression. We urge the Hong Kong authorities to exercise restraint. We also urge the protestors to express their views peacefully.
But the bottom line is that the United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong, in accordance with the basic law, and we support the aspirations of the Hong Kong people. We believe that an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law is essential for Hong Kong's stability and prosperity. And indeed, this is what has made Hong Kong such a successful and truly global city.
We have consistently made known our position to Beijing and will continue to do that.
Q: Just a clarification on the incident -- the elevator incident at the CDC. Earlier you said that the White House learned of it shortly before it was reported. And now in the last couple of exchanges you've referred to you've read about it in published reports. So which is it? Were you informed before it was reported publicly, or did you learn about it from these published reports?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, what I was trying to explain is that the White House was informed of this incident shortly before it was publicly reported. But I am reluctant to comment on it myself because my only knowledge of this incident is based on public reports.
Q: So you weren't personally informed, it was somebody else at the White House?
MR. EARNEST: That's correct. But there is an ongoing investigation into that particular incident that's being conducted by the Department of Homeland Security.
Q: Okay. And then, on Ebola, the President was informed of this Ebola case in the U.S., in Texas, before it was announced, correct?
MR. EARNEST: That's correct. Yesterday afternoon, the President received a phone call from Dr. Frieden, the Director of the CDC, who informed him of this patient's diagnosis.
Q: So what's the President's reaction? Is he alarmed at seeing an Ebola case here in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: That's not how I would describe his reaction. I think what the President is eager to ensure is that the advice of medical professionals, particularly those experts at the CDC, are being followed.
And early indications are that this individual is receiving the necessary medical treatment in a way that will protect the doctors and nurses who are providing that treatment. The necessary protocols are in place to protect other patients who are at the hospital.
There are currently a team of CDC professionals who are on the ground in north Texas who are doing what's called contact tracing. What they are doing is they are trying to make contact with any individual who may have had contact with this particular patient while he was exhibiting symptoms of Ebola. Again, the only way that Ebola can be transmitted is through the bodily fluids of somebody who is already exhibiting symptoms. So what they are attempting to do is to locate those individuals, and they will monitor them over the course of the 21-day incubation period to see if they develop symptoms. And if they do, those individuals who exhibit symptoms will then be quarantined and provided medical treatment, again, in order to prevent the spread of Ebola.
This is the medical protocol that requires a lot of elbow grease but doesn't require a lot of sophistication. And that's why the President has confidence in what Dr. Frieden himself has asserted, which is that we have the ability to stop this Ebola virus in its tracks.
Q: So the odds -- the chances of an Ebola epidemic or anything even approaching an epidemic in the United States are quite low?
MR. EARNEST: They're incredibly low. And the reason for that simply that it is not possible to transmit Ebola through the air. You can't catch it through the air. You can't get Ebola by drinking water or eating food here in the United States. The only way that an individual can contract Ebola is by coming into contact with the bodily fluids of an individual that is already exhibiting symptoms of Ebola.
Move around a bit. Goyal.
Q: Thank you. Quick question -- as far as this historical visit of Prime Minister Modi is concerned, what is the future of U.S.-India relations after this?
MR. EARNEST: The President was very pleased with the opportunity that he had to visit with Prime Minister Modi. It reflects that depth of the strong relationship between the United States and India that the two leaders were able to come together and discuss a broad array of topics. Each of those topics represents an area of important cooperation between our two countries.
The President certainly values the opportunity that he had to visit personally with Prime Minister Modi. It was the first opportunity that the two men had had to meet in person. I know the President enjoyed the visit with Prime Minister Modi to the Martin Luther King Junior Memorial. And I'm confident that as the relationship between our countries progresses, so will those areas of cooperation.
Q: I just want to say Prime Minister Modi was very thankful to the President for all the hospitality, and he told the audience in India from the airport.
MR. EARNEST: That's good. The President enjoyed it, too.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I just want to go back for a minute to the elevator incident. And I understand that there is an ongoing investigation, but I'm wondering about standard operating procedure or protocol. If there is an incident where it's clear that the President was in some danger, or that Secret Service protocols were broken, would the White House expect to be notified? Because clearly it doesn't take an investigation to know they knew right after that the guy had a gun.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, for the details related to those protocols, I'd refer you to the Secret Service. They have a --
Q: But would the White House expect to be notified? Is that something that would normally happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think if there's a serious breach of the President's security that we would anticipate that at a minimum that White House officials would be informed in a timely fashion. But again for the specifics as it relates to the policies that are already in place at the Secret Service, I'd refer you to either them or to the Department of Homeland Security.
Q: So in just the last couple of weeks there were two incidents in a matter of three days -- of course, September 16th, September 19th. Has the President been briefed beyond that meeting that he had with the now former head of the Secret Service about changes that have been made that make him confident, given that there were two breaches just within the last couple of weeks?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, the President was briefed by Director Pierson just last week, and that was after the reports of the individual who scaled the fence on the North Lawn. In the immediate aftermath of that particular incident, there were changes that were made two White House security to strengthen the perimeter and to strengthen the security around the White House. The President was informed of those specific security changes.
But this is also the subject of a broader review. And it certainly seems possible that Deputy Secretary Mayorkas, at the Department of Homeland Security, could conclude that additional security reforms are necessary. And they will be evaluated by this independent panel of outside experts. And we continue to have confidence that the necessary changes will be properly implemented to ensure the safety and security of the President, the First Family and the White House.
Q: So the senior staff of the President have been briefed on any changes, particularly that might involve the President's security while traveling?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the other thing that the Secret Service has said on a number of occasions is that the security posture of the White House and of the security team around the President is something that is constantly being reviewed and updated. And those are the kinds of changes that are consistent with the assessment of the threat environment. They're also consistent with the need for an organization like the Secret Service to continually adapt to that changing environment. So some of those changes in security may be obvious to the public and many of them aren't.
But as I've said a couple of times now, the President and everyone here at the White House continues to have full confidence in the highly trained and highly skilled professionals of the Secret Service who are responsible for protecting the President of the United States.
Q: Let me ask you finally, understanding that Julia Pierson offered her resignation, was any political pressure brought to bear over concerns that these controversies -- which were described by Democrats as everything from "outrageous" to "completely unacceptable," -- any political pressure over concerns on the effect it might have on the midterms?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think this has anything to do with politics.
Q: Did anyone in the administration tell Director Pierson it was time to go? Or did she come to that conclusion on her own?
MR. EARNEST: Director Pierson offered her resignation today because she believed it was in the best interests of the agency. The President and the Secretary of Homeland Security agreed with that assessment. There had been important questions that had been raised about the accumulating reports of shortcomings at the agency and the President and the Secretary concluded that new leadership was required.
Q: And one other one, just switching topics. Earlier today in the Oval Office, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, "Israel fully supports your efforts and your leadership to defeat ISIS. We think everybody should support this. And even more critical is our shared goal of preventing Iran from becoming a military nuclear power." Does the President agree with that, that it's even more critical to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, the threats from both of those things are different, and the implications that they have for American national security are different. But the President certainly believes that both of them are key national security priorities.
Q: Yes. It's about again -- about the visit.
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q: Do you have anything concrete beyond the statements and beyond the intro which can be showcased to the Indian public, that the new Indian Prime Minister went and there was something that was delivered?
MR. EARNEST: I'd say a couple things about that. I'd, first of all, refer you to the factsheet that we did put out. It does have a pretty detailed list of the agreements that were reached between the President and the Prime Minister. Again, they're indicative of the wide range of areas where the United States and India have a strong, cooperative partnership. The President certainly values that aspect of the relationship between our two countries.
I also think that the Indian people saw some important images. They saw the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of India sitting down, side by side in the Oval Office, discussing shared interests and priorities between our two countries. The people of India also saw the President travel with Prime Minister Modi to the Martin Luther King Junior Memorial on the National Mall, and I think that sends a pretty clear signal about the shared values of our two countries and our two democracies. It also demonstrates a shared commitment to the success of our two democracies.
And like I said, the President really enjoyed the visit and I think it's indicative of the kind of strong partnership that exists between the two leaders and between our two countries.
Q: Thanks, Josh.
Q: Are you disappointed that India didn't join the fight against ISIL?
MR. EARNEST: Tejinder, we certainly value the strong security partnership that we have with India, that we do have a shared commitment to combating terrorism. Both countries, both India and the United States are dealing with threats. And we value the strong relationship that we have so that we can cooperate to meet those threats, to confront those threats, and to mitigate the risk that they pose to our citizens both at home and around the world.
John, I'll give you the last one.
Q: Thank you, very much, Josh. You mentioned earlier in discussing the independent panel the possibility that the next director could come from outside the Secret Service, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that is a possibility.
Q: I would wonder if you consider that this would be the first time since 1932 that a director has been a non-Secret Service agent, the last -- that one being Frank Wilson, who was an IRS agent -- and it would represent an 80-year, seismic change from the culture of the Secret Service. Is this something the panel is considering, or that's been discussed at the White House?
MR. EARNEST: The panel hasn't been formed yet. But what they will do once they are formed is they will consider the review that's already been done by Deputy Secretary Mayorkas. What they will also do is they will consider possible candidates for the position of Director of Secret Service and they will consider candidates both inside the agency, as well as potential candidates outside the agency, as well.
Thanks, very much, everybody.
END 4:29 P.M. EDT
Barack Obama, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/307729