Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security John Brennan
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
10:06 A.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. Good morning. Good night. (Laughter.) Before we take and do our regularly scheduled program, John Brennan -- who you all know as the President's chief counterterror and homeland security advisor -- is going to give us a quick update on a couple things -- some steps that we are taking around the holiday season to ensure security, as well as to discuss some actions that have been taken over the course of the past year after incidents like December 25th and Fort Hood. And I'll turn it over to John, and we'll take a couple questions afterwards before letting him go.
MR. BRENNAN: Thank you, Robert. And good morning, everyone.
As we enter the peak of another holiday season, the homeland security, law enforcement and intelligence communities are collectively focused on doing everything they can to prevent terrorists from disrupting the safety and security of Americans as they travel, spend time with family and friends, and enjoy holiday festivities both at home and abroad.
We remain vigilant to attempts by al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to carry out cowardly attacks against innocent men, women and children. And we are working very closely with other governments to share all threat information immediately and to coordinate closely our counterterrorism and security activities. These international partnerships are critically important to our ability to identify would-be terrorists and to thwart their plans before they are able to act.
In response to President Obama's direction, senior officials from departments and agencies met yesterday at the White House to review the latest threat reporting, and to coordinate security and counterterrorism plans that will be in place during the holiday season.
Finally, President Obama has been provided an update on the many steps that have been taken over the past year to enhance our counterterrorism capabilities as a result of the after-action reviews on several terrorism and security-related incidents, including the tragic shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, the attempted bombings of passenger and cargo aircraft, as well as of Times Square in New York City, and a variety of arrests and disruptions of terrorist plots in the homeland.
These enhancements include protocols for strengthened cooperation and information-sharing between the Department of Defense and the FBI; clarified analytical responsibilities and new analytic training courses within the counterterrorism community; improvements and refinements in the watch-listing process, as well as in information technology systems that service the counterterrorism community; the accelerated deployment of advanced imaging technology at domestic airports, and advances in cargo screening and international aviation security cooperation.
Protecting the American people from the scourge of terrorism is an ongoing and constantly evolving process. It is the goal of the counterterrorism community to stay several steps ahead of our terrorist adversaries so that we can stop terrorists dead in their tracks before they are able to carry out either small-scale or potentially devastating attacks. That is what the President has directed. That is what the American people rightly expect and deserve. And that is what we are bound and determined to do.
MR. GIBBS: Dan.
Q: Mr. Brennan, I'm just wondering if you have any -- I know you can't talk specifically about any intelligence, but is there anything out there that you know about at this point that's kind of driving this stepped-up effort?
MR. BRENNAN: Well, as we have discussed previously, we're concerned about al Qaeda's plans to carry out attacks, and the Department of State had issued an advisory about Europe and about plans by al Qaeda to try to carry out attacks there.
We do not limit our focus to one geographic area. That's why we are constantly looking at whether or not there is something that is directed at the homeland here. We always receive reporting; what we try to do is to investigate it and to scrutinize it very carefully. So we need to be on top of our game, particularly during the holiday season, but throughout the year.
MR. GIBBS: Ari.
Q: It seems as though in the past there was a primary focus on a single catastrophic attack and it sounds like that's been shifting recently to a concern about multiple small attacks. Is that an accurate description of what the landscape is right now?
MR. BRENNAN: Well, I think we're concerned and we are staying vigilant about both ends of that spectrum, as far as a large-scale attack as well as smaller-scale ones. But I think the enhancements that we have made to our security over the past decade has made it much more difficult for terrorists to conduct these large-scale attacks. We've degraded their capabilities. We've degraded their training capabilities and ability to plot and to move operatives.
So what we have seen recently is an increased focus, I think, on the part of terrorist groups to try to carry out some of these smaller-scale attacks. And so we are staying very focused on our ability to detect those types of attacks and stop them whether or not they're by individuals or they're part of a larger organizational effort.
MR. GIBBS: Mark.
Q: Mr. Brennan, should your statement alarm Americans or reassure them that they'll be safe?
MR. BRENNAN: I think what the statement is intended to do is to reassure Americans that their fellow Americans who are working in the homeland security, law enforcement and intelligence communities are working around the clock to protect their fellow citizens. We will not rest because we know that al Qaeda and other organizations are still out there. We're going to do our best to disrupt these plots and their plans before they ever make it to the homeland.
So what we want to do is to let the American people know that we're on the job, we're staying vigilant, we're working with our partners -- and not just our international partners; with our state and local partners as well -- and we will continue to do so throughout the holiday season and beyond.
MR. GIBBS: Ben.
Q: Just to follow up on Dan's point, to the degree you can speak to this, is there a particular concern during the holidays, given the enormity of passenger travel?
MR. BRENNAN: Well, I think as you pointed out, there is a fair amount of volume that is going through the different transportation sectors, whether it be aviation or rail and other areas. So what we want to do is to make sure that we're able to provide the security to the traveling public. We also want to make sure that we run to ground any type of report out there about a threat to the American people.
So I think as Secretary Napolitano said the other day, as far as something specific and credible, we don't see that. There is a constant stream of reporting throughout the course of the year about al Qaeda's plans. So some plans we have that strategic warning; we're not going to wait for a tactical warning -- we're going to be poised every day to respond.
Q: Mr. Brennan, as you know from last time, the Christmas Day bomber, there was intelligence gathered in the field that wasn't fully shared with the appropriate people before the plot moved to execution. Are you confident now that that situation won't happen again?
MR. BRENNAN: I'm absolutely confident that the deficiencies that were identified in the system as a result of the after-action review of the Christmas Day bomber have been addressed. And some of the reasons why certain information was not shared, certain information didn't make it through the system, we have taken steps to ensure that that type of problem does not happen again.
So one of the things that President Obama has insisted that we do on each of these incidents is to take a look back and to see where the system worked well, where it fell down, what changes we could make, either in information technology or in business processes. And so I'm confident that those deficiencies we identified as a result of previous reviews are being addressed and that we are in a much better position today than we were last year at this time.
MR. GIBBS: Jake.
Q: On Monday, there were 12 individuals in the U.K. who were arrested on a suspected terrorist plot. I was wondering if you can tell us anything more that we know about that or anything about their intention. And also, if the problem of intelligence-sharing has been solved, if you could explain why Director of National Intelligence Clapper did not know at 3:45 p.m. on Monday about those arrests -- in an interview with Diane Sawyer that you and Secretary Napolitano did -- how that's possible that hours later he had not been told --
MR. BRENNAN: I would be pleased to address that question, Jake.
Q: Thank you very much. I mean, even today, as you know, that he didn't --
MR. BRENNAN: Let me address your first question first, and I will defer to my British counterparts to provide information about the status of their investigation. We are in constant contact with the British -- we were since the beginning of this takedown of the individuals in Britain -- to work with them closely to find out whether or not there's any nexus here to the homeland, find out what we can about their motivations, intentions and where their operational planning was going. So that is ongoing.
On the second issue, Jim Clapper is, I think, the consummate DNI. He was working on developments in the Korean Peninsula in terms of political and military developments. He was focused on trying to provide support to the Congress as far as the START treaty deliberations were concerned. He was engaged in a variety of classified matters.
Should he have been briefed by his staff on those arrests? Yes. And I know there was breathless attention by the media about these arrests and it was constantly on the news networks. I'm glad that Jim Clapper is not sitting in front of the TV 24 hours a day and monitoring what's coming out of the media. What he is doing is focusing on those intelligence issues that the President expects him to focus on, and to make sure that we don't have conflict in different parts of the world. He continues to focus on those.
And his not being briefed yesterday afternoon -- this is something that they've acknowledged that he should have been briefed on. They've taken steps to correct that now, and if that happens again I'm sure that he is going to be au courant as far as a takedown overseas.
Q: Just one quick follow-up. Is that -- by implication, are you suggesting that the arrests, that the threat was not serious enough to have risen to that level --
MR. BRENNAN: No, what I'm suggesting is that there was the sharing of the information from the British to U.S. officials. We were in touch with the British throughout the day and continue to be so. There was no action that the DNI had to take; there was nothing that was required of him to do. And so he was focused on those matters that required his direct and personal attention. And he was giving full attention to those matters. And the President was very appreciative that he was focused on that.
There is going to be continued interaction with the British on this. There may be things that the DNI personally will need to be involved in. But as of that time, there was nothing that the DNI needed to do or to be engaged in that would have required him to set aside other pressing intelligence matters to get briefed on things that were being put out in the press.
MR. GIBBS: Thank you, John.
MR. BRENNAN: Thank you.
Q: I just have a clarifying question.
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q: Did he say that there currently is no credible specific, imminent threat? Is that what he said?
MR. GIBBS: I would refer you -- we'll send around the transcript, which will have the answer I think to both Dan and the earlier questions. And then I hope you guys all should have the paper, which will also come electronically, going through, as you heard John say, the corrective actions and the result of the President's asking for after-action reports on incidents and disruptions that have taken place over the course of more than a year.
Q: If I may, are folks going to see and feel more security during their holiday travel, and are you giving us this in part to give them a heads-up about that and give some explanation why --
MR. GIBBS: No, think you guys overblew that when we did it at Thanksgiving. So I think that's sort of taken care of. No, no, Wendell, I think we wanted to give a sense, I think importantly, of what has been done as a result of what John mentioned last year as a failure in our security and intelligence apparatus relating to the attempted bombing on Christmas Day.
I think it's important for the American people to understand that, as John said, we take the threat enormously seriously. There is a huge part of our government that is focused on those threats and on their security. And we wanted those to be aware of the steps that have been taken in the intervening weeks and months to address that.
I do not anticipate that people will see or feel an increase in, or an inconvenience in their travel plans, but suffice to say we are taking all the necessary steps and measures across not just air travel, but other modes of transportation.
Q: Robert, can I follow on that, please?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q: So are the recently initiated searches of bags here in the D.C. Metro a part of this program, and we'll we expect to see that in other transit systems?
MR. GIBBS: I don't want to talk about specifics. Obviously John and others look at intelligence and reporting across, as I said, many different modes of transportation and many different -- are aware of and acting on information across a broad spectrum.
Q: But this is, to my knowledge, this is the first instance right after 9/11 there have been searches of bags in public transit systems, and it's happening at this holiday, right at this time, so --
MR. GIBBS: We are going to take whatever steps and actions are necessary to ensure a heightened sense of protection.
Q: But isn't -- maybe my recollection is wrong, but isn't it true, aside from the underwear bombing attempt last Christmas Day, we in Washington and official Washington and the media get breathless each holiday time about --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know that your breathlessness is reserved simply to holidays observed on a calendar. But, no, again --
Q: My point is that these are -- that the attempts and attacks have been random it seems --
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think that John would probably tell you there's, quite frankly, a little bit of both. Look, obviously you have around the holiday season, whether it's Thanksgiving or whether it's around Christmas, you have a huge increase in just the volume of those that are moving around. You have, as you mentioned, at other times -- Times Square or the AQAP plot involving cargo planes, which is not -- as you mentioned, not affixed necessarily to a holiday.
So that's why -- I think one of the points that John wanted to make was, regardless of the day on the calendar, there's a vigilance that must be maintained around the clock in order to ensure that we are doing all that we possibly can, and taking the steps that are necessary to rightly protect the American people and to inform them of threats that might be had outside of the homeland.
So, again, this was largely an informational briefing on John's part to give you a sense of what we're doing.
Q: I have a follow-up question about the signing ceremony for "don't ask, don't tell." I was struck by the President saying at the top that he was overwhelmed. And obviously there was a lot of emotion to that ceremony. Can you offer some context, having been with him for many years -- is that one of the more emotional times you've seen him in that kind of setting? Did it stand out to you that way?
MR. GIBBS: I think watching it on television as well as -- I was not there; I wish I would have been -- but I think this is something that the President has fought long and hard for and believed needed to be done -- has needed to be done for many years. Again, when I started working for him in April of 2004, and as part of his campaign for the U.S. Senate, he had pledged to vote for the repeal of this policy because he thought it was wrong.
I think today represents the beginning of a process that ends that policy. The President had occasion to speak with Admiral Mullen and several of the Joint Chiefs yesterday to discuss what is now being implemented in terms of a working group to -- that will lead to the certification by the Secretary of Defense, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs and the President that the policy is officially ended. The President's belief, in discussing with the chiefs is that this is a matter of months. And he looks forward to that happening.
I do think it was -- I do think this was one of -- this is an accomplishment that he's enormously proud of and happy that it was one that was not just the work of one party but by those across party lines that believed that the policy was wrong, didn't make any sense for our national security, and is now in the process of being ended.
Q: And just one other on that. Do you -- some of the advocates who have fought for this for so long see this as an opening of greater justice for their cause. Do you see that as well? Does the White House see this as the country is ready for more equality on this front?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I will say this. I think whether you look at the attitudinal study that was done at the Pentagon or you look at any assortment of public polling conducted by many of your news organizations, I think it is clear to see that the attitudes of Americans about who should or who could serve in the military has clearly changed over the course of the past several years.
What that leads to in the future I think is harder to tell because some of this stuff obviously has to go through a divided Congress.
Q: Two things. One, on START, Harry Reid said he expected that it would be ratified by 2:00 p.m. Can you talk any more about how many calls the President has made specifically --
MR. GIBBS: We'll have more on that when the bill is -- when the treaty is ratified.
Q: And then on North Korea. South Korea today announced that they were going to be doing a large military operation. What is the White House thinking in terms of whether it might provoke a response from North Korea, what South Korea is doing --
MR. GIBBS: Well, again --
Q: -- and if that could lead to any escalation?
MR. GIBBS: Look, our belief is that obviously the exercises have been well publicized. They're well advanced -- announced well in advance. Everybody I think in the world is aware that they're happening. And they are exercises that are defensive in nature. The United States is obviously supportive of the Republic of Korea.
Q: Just given the climate lately with Pyongyang and the bombing of the island, is there concern that there might be more of an escalation? I mean, is there anything --
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think exercises that have been announced well in advance, that are transparent, that are defensive in nature, should in no way engender a response from the North Koreans.
Q: What's the fundamental principle underlying the President's belief that the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" is important? Is it national security? Is it equality? Is it both? Is there something else?
MR. GIBBS: I think it's all of that. I think the President believed it was unjust and I think it -- believed that we had a number of brave men and women that were willing to sign up for their country, willing to serve their country, and willing to die for their country. And I think the story that the President opened his remarks with today was one that was quite moving. I think the President is glad to see this day come on the grounds of both greater equality and an enhancement of our national security.
Q: Is it any less unjust that those same brave troops can't get married to somebody of the same sex?
MR. GIBBS: Well, that's not what -- not the bill we were signing today, Jake.
Q: I understand that, but if that principle is important to the President, about those brave troops being able to have equality, should they have marriage equality also?
MR. GIBBS: I would refer you to his remarks on that.
Q: His remarks are that he thinks that marriage is between a man and a woman.
MR. GIBBS: And that he supports -- strongly supports civil unions and --
Q: But the military doesn't recognize civil unions.
MR. GIBBS: I understand. You didn't ask me what the military recognized. You asked me what the President believed. And that's what I've said.
Q: Well, just to pinpoint it here, it's unjust to not let them serve --
MR. GIBBS: Jake, to pinpoint it here, I'm not here to make news on that issue.
Q: I'm just trying to point out the fact that this principle seems to have a border in a way -- it doesn't apply to everything.
MR. GIBBS: I understand what you're trying to point out.
Q: All right. Can I ask one question about Israel?
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q: Is there any consequence at all for the Israeli government constantly disagreeing with the administration's position on housing settlements, or is there not?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, as we've discussed many times in this room, Jake, we have -- our government has had a position that dates back I think probably to the administration of Lyndon Johnson about our views on housing. And we will continue to make our position known, again, as we have for many administrations.
That does not stop our efforts to remain engaged in a comprehensive peace process. We understand as a country what happens -- or I should say, we understand as the world what happens when our country is not engaged and involved in the process of actively working with each side to bring about a comprehensive peace. That is a long and bumpy road, but the President will continue to do that.
Q: Is the same basic idea at play with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that we continue to engage with them even if they do things we don't like that are at -- that harm what we perceive to be our national interest?
MR. GIBBS: Meaning what?
Q: The ISI and its reluctance to -- as the AfPak report said, that there's still safe havens and yet we still --
MR. GIBBS: I'm happy to address the -- I don't know if you were trying to link a series of those things. Obviously we have important bilateral relationships where we agree and we disagree within those relationships.
Q: Can you give us a timeframe as to when the policy will be certified? I know the President said he wants this to happen without delay but --
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, the President discussed with Mullen and others yesterday the fact that I think as a group they believe this is a timeframe that is a matter of months.
Q: But nothing more specific than that?
MR. GIBBS: No, I don't have anything more specific than that.
Q: And what is the President going to do to make sure that it stays within this matter of months timeframe?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, he had an interest in discussing with the chiefs and with the chair, and I would point out both Gates and Mullen played a big role in seeing this day happen. And to watch the testimony of the Chair of the Joint Chiefs say that this is a policy that should be changed was a historic moment. Now they have -- they are charged with the job of implementing this change and their commitment to the President is that it can be done in a very timely manner.
Again, I think you've seen -- or there's been conjecture about when that would happen. Again, I think the President was very clear that this is not something that needs to or should drag on.
Q: A couple housekeeping matters. Anything more on whether we'll see the President today and when is he leaving?
MR. GIBBS: If you can tell me when Congress leaves, I can answer all of the above questions. I anticipate at some point you'll see the President today. I should start a pool as to when that would be.
Q: -- what time we'd like it to happen?
MR. GIBBS: Let me tell you, if -- look, I'd like to do it now and then we can go about Christmas shopping and doing whatever things we haven't been able to do as a result of this. Regrettably, Dan, you and I have -- we hold very few cards in this long process. But I anticipate that you will at some point see him.
I will say as a pure housekeeping measure, we are not likely to have a ton of time in terms of when you see the advisory. So to help out Caroline and others, when you see the advisory please RSVP. If there are people that need to come into this building that aren't here on a regular basis, they are going to have a very, very limited time with which to do that. Please tell your organizations and give them that heads-up.
Q: So there will be a news conference, it's just a matter of when?
MR. GIBBS: That's my hope. Again, Ben --
Q: News conference or a statement?
MR. GIBBS: A news conference. But again, Ben, I got out of the prognosticating business around health care.
Q: So the President and you and others in the administration have made it pretty clear that even though the DREAM Act failed to pass you'll continue to pursue it in the next Congress; that you'll continue to pursue other goals like tax reform -- even though the deck is stacked much more heavily against you. Is there --
MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry, is -- somewhere in there is presumably the punctuation of a question mark, but --
Q: I'm glad you find it amusing. Well, my question is --
MR. GIBBS: I did.
Q: -- how do you propose to do these things when it was hard enough to do what you were able to do, if not almost impossible, when the odds are stacked further against you?
MR. GIBBS: How much would you have bet me that we would get that all that we're about to get done, done?
Q: No problem, but -- (laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Oh, somebody please begin -- hit record on my VCR so I can save this tape.
Q: VCR? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I'm talking to Bill. (Laughter.)
Q: Oooh --
Q: Merry Christmas. (Laughter.)
Q: That's tough.
Q: Why should this time be different from any other time? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I think -- again, look, I think the President will have an opportunity to discuss what has been accomplished over the past six weeks, the path for how we can work together and accomplish stuff that's in the national interest next year.
But, Bill, I guess I'd start with your question -- no pun intended -- in noting that I doubt many people would have thought that we'd have a free trade agreement that enjoys the support of the Chamber of Commerce and the United Auto Workers; huge bipartisan majorities supporting a tax agreement that allows unemployment benefits to last throughout all of next year, provides certainty in tax rates that won't rise for middle-class families; that we have begun the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" through a congressional process; and -- knock on wood -- let me finish, let me finish -- the likely ratification of a START agreement whose obituary has been written more times than I could care to remember.
None of that was easy, and none of what has to happen going forward is easy. But I know the President believes that there are -- and I think those milestones that I just mentioned -- I think what they show the President is that when people get together and understand and believe what is in the best interest of the American people -- certainty in tax rates, repeal of policies that people believe are unjust, or something that protects our national security -- that we have far more in common than we do in opposition, and that working together we can get things done. That's what animated him to run for public office. That's what animated him to run for President. And I think that's what animated his actions over the past six weeks.
Q: That's all good for you, but what incentive do Republicans have to cooperate with him in the next Congress? There's an election coming in two years.
MR. GIBBS: And four and six and eight. But, Bill, they --
Q: Will they remember these things?
MR. GIBBS: We'll write them down. They also -- they control part of government. A budget is going to originate in the House of Representatives. Funding bills are going to originate in the House of Representatives. I mean, the incentive that they have is less of an incentive and more of a responsibility. They're charged with having to run half of the legislative branch.
I think -- as I said yesterday, I think that has kicked in over -- I think that responsibility has kicked in to some degree a bit early, and you've seen all of what I just mentioned happen -- obviously a free trade agreement has not yet gone through Congress but you saw bipartisan support for that free trade agreement. And you saw each of the things that I mentioned that went through Congress legislatively done not by the votes of simply one party but by the votes of both parties. And I think it is a path that the President thinks won't be easy to follow but provides a path for how we can get things done that are in the interest of the American people.
That's what that election was about. As I said yesterday, the election was not about how do we grind this place more to a halt, how do we play more political games. It's about how do we get things done that the American people understand are in the best interests of the American people.
Q: And I'll play back the 8-track tape in six months. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I thought you were still on reel-to-reel, Bill, but that's an upgrade.
Q: Ooooh --
MR. GIBBS: You never groan when he makes fun of me. I don't -- I get it.
Q: The President has ordered changes in the treatment of prisoners at Gitmo who can't be brought to trial, or at least can't be brought to trial now -- can you talk about those --
MR. GIBBS: Sorry, start again.
Q: The President has ordered some changes in the treatment, the rights, if you will, of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay who can't be brought to trial --
MR. GIBBS: Are you talking about the draft executive order?
Q: Basically, yes.
MR. GIBBS: Okay. But let me change the --
Q: You're right, because it's not finalized yet.
MR. GIBBS: Let's go farther than that. That is a process -- that is a document that has not even begun the process of a deputies committee meeting. It has not been read, looked at or reviewed by the President. I do not think it is -- or it should be surprising to many, off of the speech that he gave in May of 2009, that there are going to be those that are currently in Guantanamo Bay that, for whatever reason, are not going to be able to be tried in either a federal court or in a military commission, that are going to have to be indefinitely detained.
The President was clear on that in May. And I wouldn't -- I have no comment on the draft executive order, largely because it is a long way from ever even reaching the President's desk.
Q: I'm wondering if that process is intended to make the facility in Guantanamo Bay somewhat more acceptable to the President. He has said it's a recruitment tool, but you can't seem to --
MR. GIBBS: Again, not to mess with the premise of your question, but he has said that because al Qaeda has used it as such.
MR. GIBBS: They have used it as a recruitment tool, and our generals and our commanders see them using it as a recruitment tool.
Look, obviously the President is -- again, I'd refer you to the speech in May of 2009 that seeks to do -- well, I'd say broadly, the President does not believe that our national security and the protection of our homeland has to be in contradiction with our values as Americans. And that's what animates him in this entire process.
Q: And the draft order is in no way connected with having to basically live with Guantanamo Bay because --
MR. GIBBS: Again, this isn't -- I want to divorce this answer from, again, from the draft executive order because it's -- again, it's a process that has certainly not worked its way through even to the deputies committee procedure.
But I think, as the President said -- I don't think anybody would find it surprising that the President and this administration understand that there are those that have been evaluated by our intelligence community, by our defense infrastructure, and we understand, as the President does, that there are some that will require indefinite detention.
Q: So let me finally say the President is still committed to closing Guantanamo Bay --
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely.
Q: -- when is it going to happen?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know the answer to when it's going to happen. I know that remains the President's goal.
Let me make one other quick announcement. I don't have the timing on this -- I'll go back and try to find it -- but the President did sign the continuing resolution that funds government through early March this morning.
MR. GIBBS: And like I said, I'll go back and try to find the time. I just -- can you email somebody on that?
Q: Obviously it looks like you're peeling off significant numbers of Republicans on the START treaty vote. Mitch McConnell has said that his priority is to stop the President from being reelected. Now he's losing apparent control of his own caucus, at least on this. Is this a one-off, or is this a pattern moving forward? Do you really need to negotiate with him in the next Congress?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I think that -- I think as we've said before, we're going to have to, and we will, work with Republican leaders in Congress more closely than we have in the past couple of years. As I said earlier, they have a responsibility to the governing of this country unlike they have had in the previous two years. I think -- again, I think what -- I think the result of what has happened over the past few weeks is not -- is less somebody losing control of their caucus and more those in that caucus understanding that the message is work together and get things done; don't relitigate the fights of yesterday. There's plenty of time before that next election; focus not on your political future but on our future.
That's the message that the American people are sending and I think that's the message that those in Congress have heard in everything, again, from the tax agreement to the hopeful ratification of the START treaty.
Q: So how do you -- did Mitch McConnell not get that message when he said he was going to try and defeat the President in the next election?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think that is a broad and fundamental misreading of what the election was about. I do not believe that, regardless of your vote, people went to the polls thinking let's extend gridlock and political gamesmanship for another two years. I just -- if that's what some up there believe, then have it. I don't think that's where the American people are.
Q: Robert, a follow on that briefly?
MR. GIBBS: Yes. By the way, I like the tie. It must be an important day.
Q: It's Christmas. (Laughter.) I just want to get out of here.
Senator McConnell went on the Sunday shows saying that he was opposed to START. His folks said that that was to sort of halt the momentum for this. He also got a bit brushed back on the earmarks thing from his own conference. Do you think he's sort of made a miscalculation here in taking too hard a line to appease these Tea Party types?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think that -- I think on a number of -- I think certainly on the issue of START, he miscalculated that there are those that believe, as the President does, that we can put aside partisan political interests to do something that's in the best interest of our national security. I think that's why the treaty will be ratified today. I think that -- again, I think people want us to put aside the way Washington has traditionally worked and worked together.
Q: Do you think the days of sort of "Fortress McConnell," him holding the 40 people -- the 40 members of his conference more or less intact, are essentially over --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't doubt that there are going to be times in which -- look, you see it on the 9/11 bill. There's 58 on one side; there's 42 on the other. I don't know how that might change if that were something that was considered next year or not. But I still think as the -- and I think the President believes that there will be times in which we will have splits along partisan lines because we're fighting about something that we all hold deeply. I don't think those days are gone. And I think that's the reason we have two parties.
But at the same time, I think the President believes that on a whole host of issues -- national security, middle-class tax cuts, and things like that -- that there ought to be -- we ought to be able to put aside some of those differences to get what we agree on done for the American people. Again, I think that's the message of the last several weeks.
Q: Can I follow up on his follow-up?
MR. GIBBS: Let me -- I'll come around.
Q: At the signing ceremony this morning, the President very pointedly thanked Nancy Pelosi and thanked Harry Reid and talked about the productivity of the first two years. First, is that -- do you think that was an appropriate thing to be doing at a signing ceremony on a landmark civil rights bill? And do you think that -- was that a victory lap of sorts?
MR. GIBBS: This was a victory for everybody that was in that room and for many that couldn't be in that room. I don't -- this was something that a lot of people, men and women, those in Congress and out of Congress, those in the military, those out of the military, that have fought a long time for. I don't see anything inappropriate for the President to discuss what he believes is and has been a very productive two years in Washington.
Q: But that was a reference not to "don't ask, don't tell" repeal but --
MR. GIBBS: I think it was a reference to "don't ask, don't tell" plus financial reform, health care reform, economic recovery, credit card reform -- a whole host of things.
Q: And is that a theme that you expect him to take up this afternoon? Is that the point of --
MR. GIBBS: I anticipate he might dip his toe in that water, yes.
Q: Did you say the Joint Chiefs were here yesterday?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I'm sorry, he spoke with them on the phone.
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q: Was General Amos among them?
MR. GIBBS: He was.
Q: Is the President confident General Amos will abide by the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"?
MR. GIBBS: General Amos told that to the Commander-in-Chief, yes.
Q: On the phone yesterday?
MR. GIBBS: On the phone yesterday.
Q: Thank you.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.
Q: Robert, you addressed this the other day; I just wanted to see if there was any change. Will there be any staff changes announced over the holidays?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of, no.
Q: The child nutrition bill -- do you know when the President plans to sign that?
MR. GIBBS: I thought we signed that on Monday.
Q: Oh. Well, no, it had to go back and --
MR. GIBBS: Are you talking about child nutrition or food safety?
Q: Food safety. Food safety.
MR. GIBBS: Food is obviously close to our hearts. So I don't -- let me find the answer to that out. I think there was some -- the congressional -- the continuing resolution was signed at 9:50 a.m. My apologies.
Q: So nearly 10 hours without funding for the government, right? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: No -- I asked this question last night because we were getting pinged by a number of you all. We were told that we had until fairly late today to be able to sign it.
Q: Who told you that?
MR. GIBBS: The guys at OMB. I have called my bank to ensure that did not -- (laughter.) got one of them on the phone if you need them to vouch for an impending direct deposit.
Q: You said 9:50 a.m.?
MR. GIBBS: At 9:50 a.m., yes. It would have been I guess fairly close to him getting back from the signing. I'll find out on food safety.
Q: Thanks. And moving away from hard news for a second, can you just give us a snapshot of what the President is looking forward to in Hawaii -- golf, books?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I was going to say.
Q: The budget, State of the Union.
MR. GIBBS: I think the President is -- I think he is, as much as anything, anxious to spend time where he grew up with his family and to see his sister, to see his niece -- nieces, I should say. I should get a rundown of which childhood friends. Normally a bunch of them usually come back and it's an opportunity for the President to spend some time with them. I think that's what he's most looking forward to.
Q: Related to that, will he be looking at the -- will there be a staff review that he's looking at while he's there? And also will he be looking at the State of the Union address at all, or will he be working on that at all?
MR. GIBBS: I anticipate that he'll take a number of things with him and that he'll read a good amount of stuff. He'll have, obviously, his daily intelligence briefing as well as probably a novel or two.
Q: One more. You mentioned education yesterday. Is he giving speeches on that after the election -- or, I mean, after December, early next year -- his views on education reform and that kind of issue?
MR. GIBBS: I don't -- I'm trying to remember through -- I would anticipate that that doesn't happen until post-State of the Union.
Q: Robert, two quick things on "don't ask, don't tell." Was the White House aware -- last night, apparently Senate Republicans were working to insert some kind of amendment to the defense authorization bill to require the service chiefs to sign off. Were you guys on the phone late last night to try to dissuade?
MR. GIBBS: Let me check on that. I know that -- I think that would have required unanimous consent. And given the lift to get the repeal done after 17 years, I don't think that Senator Reid had that in mind.
Again, I think what's important is that -- this has been true since the President told the chiefs and told Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen that his goals was to see this policy repealed -- not if, but when. That was in one of the very first meetings that was had about this.
And obviously implementation is enormously important to him. That's why he reached out yesterday. But I will say that regardless of where any individual has been in representing the views of themselves or representing as part of the Joint Chiefs some views of their branch of the military, all told the President before repeal was voted and all have said since that they will implement the law of the land.
And that's the -- I think that's what -- certainly, that's what the courts would expect. And that's clearly what the American people and the Commander-in-Chief expects. That's why, again, I believe he thinks, based on those discussions, that this can be done in a matter of months.
Q: Just one other thing?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q: Did the White House invite any other congressional Republicans from the House or Senate, other than those who came this morning, to the signing ceremony?
MR. GIBBS: I would have to -- let me check with legislative affairs and see if there was -- who might have been invited and didn't come.
Q: Was there anyone --
MR. GIBBS: I can check.
Q: Robert, as you know, there's been some complaints from some members of the New York congressional delegation -- Carolyn Maloney and others -- that the White House has not taken an active enough role in the 9/11 responders bill. Apparently that's changed a bit over the last 24 hours. Can you sort of detail for me what the latest --
MR. GIBBS: Let me check and see what has -- I mean, again, we have been -- we came out for this bill in August. We detailed those views both publicly and in statements of administration policy to the House when they voted, and to the Senate when they voted. And you've heard me say for the past more than a week or so that we were strongly supportive of this.
But I'll say this. There's nobody in our party left to convince. They're all there. They're all there. And I hope that, and the President hopes that when this bill is likely brought up for its reconsideration today that there are those on the Republican side that do just that and reconsider.
Q: Has he been contacting people about that?
MR. GIBBS: Let me check with Legislative Affairs.
Q: Thank you, Robert. Two brief questions. First, there will be a formal ceremony next year for the promulgation of the START treaty with the President and President Medvedev, right?
MR. GIBBS: Medvedev -- I don't know what the schedule is. I don't know that -- as I understand it, the treaty is ratified once the Senate does it. I don't know of, at least right now, plans to do a ceremony that you speak of. I think that we had the signing, obviously, of the treaty last April-ish in Prague.
Q: All right. The other thing, Robert, is that you this week gave a lot of credit to three secretaries of state in Republican administrations for securing --
MR. GIBBS: And likely, I've left out dozens of people that have been helpful.
MR. GIBBS: Go ahead.
Q: You mentioned yesterday Admiral Mullen and General "Hoss" Cartwright, appointees of the previous administration. Will the administration count on more identifiably Republican figures and figures from past administration in the next Congress to win --
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think that, as is true on a number of issues, not just on issues of national security, that there are those that share an interest in different policies. And when they can -- when the President talks to them, or the Vice President talks to them, or people in the administration talk to them, and they desire to be helpful, we think it is always helpful to have Democrats and Republicans -- those that are currently serving and those that have served our country -- out to discuss why they think this is an important priority for the American people. So we've certainly done that in the past, and I hope to continue to do that.
Q: Thank you. I wanted to just follow up on your answer to Wendell's question about indefinite detentions. You said that the order is "a long way from reaching the President's desk." And I think in at least one of those leaked stories yesterday, there was an intimation that it would be some time in January, so -- I'm not asking you to confirm --
MR. GIBBS: I would just say this, Margaret. I don't -- it's hard to know the process at this point because, again, it's not one step away from the President's desk. It's many, many meetings. And again, there's a -- this hasn't been brought to him. It's at I think a deputies committee level. At some point in the next few days, that would likely lead to a series of things before a principals committee that -- a principals' level, which would include the President.
Q: I mean, it's not going to happen before the end of the year is clear.
MR. GIBBS: Certainly not, no.
Q: Maybe not even in January?
MR. GIBBS: It's hard for me to give a timeline. Definitely not by the end of the year since that's rapidly approaching.
Q: And then just so that I understand the planning purposes for today, is the President poised to do the press conference after the START vote or after they gavel out?
MR. GIBBS: To be determined. Again, our hope is to -- I'm not trying to be coy. I'm just trying to -- I've been in more scheduling meetings about this than I would care to recount. And every time you go through a scenario and people leave, there's a new set of times.
Our hope would be that we could do something sort of mid to late afternoon, which would allow for some normal deadlines for you guys.
Q: Where? Here?
MR. GIBBS: Again, that is -- I think we would likely do it over in the auditorium on the first floor of EEOB. So, again, my -- I'm out here to tell you on behalf of Caroline and others -- Marissa and folks -- when you do see that advisory, do just take a second and RSVP or have your organizations RSVP so that the process can be rather smooth. There will be a very tight timeline, as I said, to get people that are not pass-holders in the building in. And those are not our deadlines, as much as they are Secret Service deadlines. There's a lot of people coming through the White House for tours, so please be attentive to that as you can. And we will try to give you guys as much notice as we can.
Q: For wheels up, is he committed to staying until they gavel out? Or until he gets the stuff he was babysitting until it concluded?
MR. GIBBS: My understanding until they're reasonably done. So again -- (laughter.) Please stay in touch, again, as to --
Q: It will be dark. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I should have just started with that and seen if that worked, and I will associate myself with that answer.
Q: Just to follow up on those housekeeping questions -- do you have a vision for bill signings beyond --
MR. GIBBS: I don't yet. And I think -- I'm going to check on food safety. And we will try to keep you up to date throughout the day pending additional needs for bill signers.
Q: Will he try to do START before he leaves?
MR. GIBBS: I don't think he has to sign it because it's -- once it's ratified.
Q: So then 9/11 health care would probably be the only thing, right?
MR. GIBBS: We hope that passes, and we hope that that's something that can be signed into law.
Q: Is the administration concerned about the escalating price of oil, which appears to be going up beyond the cold-weather premium?
MR. GIBBS: Look, obviously, anything that has the potential to impact our economy, we watch, and we are concerned about. The Department of Energy would instruct me not to speak specifically about those prices, and I would point you over to them.
Q: Thanks, Robert.
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q: Besides outlining the accomplishments for this year, would the President put Congress on notice about those that he anticipates they will try to repeal?
MR. GIBBS: In today's remarks?
MR. GIBBS: I don't remember off the top of my head. I don't think that's -- let me check, and I'll try to get back to you.
Q: The Middle East peace process has been one of the President's main foreign policy priorities, but it has been stalled for some time. Does he plan to make any calls to Mr. Abbas or Mr. Netanyahu before the end of the year?
MR. GIBBS: I can check with NSC on that. None that I'm currently aware of, but we will double-check.
Q: Getting back to Gitmo -- you said there are those who can't be tried for whatever reason. Could you spell out those reasons beyond just the intelligence community says so?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think obviously some of that has to do with whether or not, because of torture, evidence can't be used.
Q: But if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was water-boarded, and Attorney General Holder says that he can still face trial, what else happened that we maybe don't know about?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what happened has been fairly extensively covered in documents that were released last year on the topic.
Q: So what else -- what's a review going to do? Is it going to change the fact that they were tortured? I mean can you try them? If you review it, it's not going to change the fact that they were tortured. So what's the point of a review?
MR. GIBBS: On -- I'm sorry --
Q: On reviewing their detention status. It's not going to change the basic facts.
MR. GIBBS: We have reviewed their -- we reviewed every -- we review the status of every person's detention as a result of our taking occupation of this administration. As we've discussed here before, a number of -- we didn't feel like that there was sufficient information on a whole host of detainees. Obviously we have had to -- there's a process that went through to determine the status of each detainee and we've also obviously had to balance decisions on habeas petitions that have been ruled on by the courts.
Q: Do you foresee the next two years of Congress being more productive, considering the President said today that the last two years were very productive and you're saying that Republicans seem to have taken a earlier responsibility to governing -- so do you foresee the next --
MR. GIBBS: I will say this. I do not think that the next two years, because there is a divided House and Senate on different party lines, that the next Congress has to be by definition unproductive. I don't think that's the case. I think -- and our belief and our hope is that, as you've seen over the past many weeks, that people have made determinations on issues that are important to them and important to the national security of this country, and have acted not as simply agents of one party or another but as lawmakers and Americans.
And our hope is that that is an atmosphere that we can continue to foster and that will lead to a host of things that you'll hear the President discuss at the beginning of the year and throughout the State of the Union that are important to us continuing our economic recovery, protecting our citizens, and ensuring that we are competitive with the entire world in the 21st century.
Q: Thank you, Robert.
MR. GIBBS: Thanks, guys.
END 11:07 A.M. EST
Robert Gibbs, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security John Brennan Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/289204