The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 11/28/13 [should be: 10/28/13]

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room


Q    Thanks, Jay.  There’s a report out from the Wall Street Journal that says that the President did not learn until this summer that the NSA has been tapping Angela Merkel’s phone for years, as it had been with other world leaders.  Was the President kept out of the loop about what the NSA was doing?

MR. CARNEY:  Josh, what I can tell is you two things.  First, that I’m not going to get into details of internal discussions.  But the President clearly feels strongly about making sure that we are not just collecting information because we can, but because we should.  And I noted the other day a readout from a phone call the President had with Chancellor Merkel made clear that we do not and will not monitor the Chancellor’s communications. 

More broadly, I think it is worth stepping back and looking at a couple of things.  Today’s world is highly interconnected, and the flow of large amounts of data is unprecedented.  There are communications methods that we hadn’t even conceived of 10 years ago that we are adapting to, and we know innovation is going to continue.  If we’re going to keep our citizens and our allies safe, we have to continue to stay ahead of these changes, and that’s what our intelligence community has been doing extraordinarily well. 

These capabilities are part of the reason we’ve been able to foil numerous terrorist plots and adapt to a post-9/11 security environment.  At the same time, with new capabilities we recognize that there need to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence.  And it’s in the context of this dynamic technology environment that the President has directed us to review our surveillance capabilities. 

We’ve talked a little bit about this, and the President certainly has, but it’s good in the context of some of the stories that we’ve seen of late to remember that the President called for a review earlier in this summer.  This review is being led by the White House, and it includes agencies from across the government.  There are also important efforts underway that will enable others to review how we strike the right balance, including the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  Our review is looking across the board at our intelligence gathering to ensure that as we gather intelligence, we are properly accounting for both the security of our citizens and our allies, and the privacy concerns shared by Americans and citizens around the world.

We also need to ensure that our intelligence resources are most effectively supporting our foreign policy and national security objectives, that we are more effectively weighing the risks and rewards of our activities.  And that includes ensuring that we are focused, above all, on threats to the American people.  Once again, as you’ve heard the President say, we need to ensure that we are collecting information not just because we can, but because we should, because we need it for our security.

So again, I won’t go on too long, but I think that it’s important to contextualize some of these revelations, to look at what the administration is doing to review our intelligence activities, and to look at how we balance the need for security in this completely transformed world that we live in, because of the technology advances that have occurred, and then against, as I said earlier, the clear and real privacy concerns that Americans and people around the world share.

Q    You just mentioned that it’s important for us to make sure that our intelligence gathering, above all, is about protecting Americans’ security.  And you and the President in the past have talked about the NSA really being focused on things like terrorism, proliferation of WMDs.  Can you assure our allies that the U.S. is not using the NSA’s intelligence capabilities to promote American economic interests? 

MR. CARNEY:  We do not use our intelligence capabilities for that purpose; we use it for security purposes, first of all.  And second of all, it’s very important to recall, too, that we have extraordinarily strong and important intelligence and security relationships with our allies, and that those relationships are vital to help keep Americans safe, to help keep Americans safe abroad, and to help keep our allies safe.  And that kind of relationship, those kinds of relationships are key to the security of this nation and of our allies.

So again, we’re conducting a review.  We are mindful that some of these disclosures have caused tension in our relationships.  We deal with those issues through diplomatic channels, and we are in direct communication with a number of countries on these matters.  The President is very serious about, as you heard him say in August, ensuring that this review take place, that we strike that balance, that we remember that our intelligence services and the people in them do extraordinary work to keep us safe every day, and that we’re one attack away from assessments about what went wrong in our intelligence capabilities and collection. 


Q    The report that Josh mentioned, citing officials, made it sound as if the program had been underway for a number of years, and that when the President learned about it, he ordered it stopped.  Does the President continue to have full confidence in General Alexander to administer security?

MR. CARNEY:  The President has full confidence in General Alexander and the leadership at the NSA and in the rank-and-file at the NSA who do extraordinary work on behalf of every American citizen and on behalf of our allies in keeping them safe.

The issues that are part of the review look at how we can better balance our security needs and the security needs of our allies against the real privacy concerns that we all share.  And as I noted at the top, there has been extraordinary change -- technological change -- in the last 10, 20 years, but certainly in the last 10 or so years since 9/11, that has affected the whole world in the way that we transmit and gather information.  And that has brought about changes in the way -- and developments in the way that we gather intelligence.  It’s obviously brought about changes in the way that those in the world who want to do harm to Americans and do harm to our allies operate. 

So that has meant that we have had to adapt.  And as we've adapted, and as we adapt, we need to make sure, as the President is insisting, that we are keeping a balance that protects our security and takes into account our real privacy concerns.

Q    As I'm sure I don’t have to tell you, revelations of this eavesdropping or alleged eavesdropping have caused damage with our allies.  When would you expect the reviews that you've talked about to be done?  And would you expect them to include any scaling back of monitoring of phone conversations by our friends?

MR. CARNEY:  The entire review that is being led by the White House will be completed by the end of the year.  There are other efforts, as you know, underway by the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, as well as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  In tandem, the President also announced that the administration will work with Congress to pursue appropriate reforms of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. 

And after having a dialogue with members of Congress and civil libertarians, the President believes that there are steps that can be taken to give the American people confidence that there are additional safeguards against abuse of these programs.  For example, steps could be taken to put in place greater oversight, greater transparency, as well as constraints on the use of this authority.  The administration is also working with Congress to improve the public's confidence in the oversight conducted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Moreover, the President has directed the intelligence community to make public as much information about these programs as possible.  Mindful of the fact that these are very sensitive security programs, the administration has declassified unprecedented information about the activities of the NSA and we are continuing to do so. 

So there are a number of efforts underway that are designed to increase transparency, to work with Congress to look at reforms to the Patriot Act, to look at ways that we can increase oversight and increase constraints on the authorities provided by these programs.  Separately, there are ways -- there is a review underway that will look at, among other issues, some of the very specific things with regards to intelligence gathering, including matters that deal with heads of state and other governments.

So these are all important issues.  And you've heard the President talk about them and I think reflect in what he said the fact that they're important in his view, and that we need to take these steps.

When it comes to the relationship that we have with various allies, this is obviously something that has been of concern, and we are working to address those concerns diplomatically, through diplomatic channels, and also in the way that we're talking about these issues now.

Q    To just follow up, when you say constraints on using that authority, what do you mean?

MR. CARNEY:  I'm saying that the programs are legal, obviously, through the Patriot Act, but that in these reviews that are underway, the President has talked about the fact that we could take steps perhaps to put in place greater oversight and transparency, and constraints on the use of this authority  -- so ways to ensure that the programs both achieve what they were designed to achieve in terms of gathering intelligence that goes to the heart of protecting the United States and our people and our allies, but does so in a way that strikes a balance when it comes to matters of privacy and the other concerns that we share with Americans and others around the world.


Q    Jay, back in September in Stockholm, the President said, ”I can give assurances to the publics in Europe and around the world that we’re not going around snooping at people’s emails or listening to their phone calls.”  Presumably, that would include the German Chancellor.  Is that statement still operative?

MR. CARNEY:   Jim, what the President said was true, and what I can tell is what I’ve just said when it comes to the questions about communications involving Chancellor Merkel -- the fact that we do not and will not monitor those communications, and the broader fact that we are engaged in a review that will look at that issue and other issues through the lens of making sure that we are focused on using the tools available to us to gather intelligence that we need, not just gather intelligence because we can.

Q    Because earlier in the summer he was sort of making the distinction about U.S. persons --

MR. CARNEY:  I think you’re conflating a couple of programs when it comes to emails.  There are different programs and metadata programs, and there’s --

Q    There were times when he said, we’re not listening in on your phone calls, and I can assure if you’re a U.S. person, we’re not listening in on your phone calls.  I have the exact quotes --

MR. CARNEY:  I’m not sure what question you’re asking, because when it comes to matters of Section 215 and Section 202 702, they are very distinct when it comes to metadata versus other kinds of collection.  They’re distinct.  So the President, I think, in all that he has said about this issue -- not just since the disclosures, but even before them -- reflects his commitment to ensuring that we do everything we have to do within the law to keep America safe, keep Americans safe and keep our allies safe, but that we do so in a way that reflects the need to find a balance and that recognizes the sincere security -- I mean, rather, privacy concerns that Americans have and that others have around the world.

Q    And the Wall Street Journal article that has been mentioned in this briefing, the main thrust of it is that the President was unaware that this kind of surveillance was going on of foreign leaders.  In the interview that the President gave with -- and speaking of conflating, I’m going to be grouping a couple of things here -- but in the interview with Sanjay Gupta with CNN, the President -- or excuse me, Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, said the President was not aware of the problems with the website before it launched on October 1st.  I mean, even back when the IRS was an issue back in May ’13, the targeting of political groups, the President at that time said he learned about that through news reports.  Is there a concern in the White House, Jay, is there a concern in the administration that the President is being kept in the dark on some of these issues, and that he’s only finding out about it in news reports?

MR. CARNEY:  It’s certainly true that you’ve conflated a bunch of very disparate issues.  The fact of the matter is that the President believes that the work being done by our intelligence services is important and that it is focused on, when it comes to the NSA, gathering foreign intelligence that is designed to help keep America safe and Americans safe, as well as our allies.

The President has also initiated a review because he believes that we need to look at the fact that the world has changed so much in the last 10 years in terms of the technological innovations that we’ve seen and the way that we communicate and the way that our enemies communicate, as well as the capacities and tools that we have available to us when it comes to gathering intelligence, and to basically run a review that looks at all of those issues and ensures two things:  One, that our programs are designed to gather the intelligence that we need in order to protect ourselves and our allies, and that we are doing so mindful of the privacy concerns that we all share.  So --

Q    But is the President learning about the full scope of, say, the surveillance issues?  Obviously, it seems he’s learning about the full scope of the Obamacare issues.

MR. CARNEY:  Yes, Jim, can I just say -- as I said at the top, I’m not going to get into individual reports about specific programs.  There are several reviews underway; there’s one that’s being run by the White House.  And when those reviews, and specifically the White House review is complete, we will be able to share more information with you and provide a little more detail about the decisions that the President will make after the review is completed. 

And I can say that as this review has been undertaken, some decisions have been made, even as the review has been underway and not completed.  And those decisions are being made to improve our intelligence gathering operations in a way that is consistent with the balance the President believes is necessary to strike.

Q    Republican critics are making the case, though, that the President appears to be in the dark about some pretty significant stories that are swirling around this White House.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, Republican critics say a lot of things, Jim.


Q    Jay, let me try it more broadly.  It is conceivable, it is believable that the President would not know about surveillance of a head of state of a close American ally?  I mean, does that sound plausible to you?

MR. CARNEY:  I like the effort coming at this in a different way.  And the Wall Street Journal probably doesn’t appreciate the suggestion that their story is wrong.  But I would say simply that we’re not going to comment on specific activities reported in the press.  We have made clear that the President spoke with Chancellor Merkel and assured her that we do not and will not collect intelligence on her communications.

The whole operation -- intelligence-gathering operation is under review by the White House, as well as by these other two bodies.  And the purpose of those reviews is to look at what we do, to look at the tools and capabilities that we have, to look at how we go about the business of gathering intelligence in support of our security and in support of the security of our allies, and to then assess what we do versus the real privacy concerns that Americans and others share.

There’s no question that in the world that we live in that the rapidity of change in our technological capabilities has created possibilities when it comes to communications by those who would do us harm, as well as capabilities that we and others have when it comes to gathering intelligence that merit periodic review so we can make sure that we’re doing things in a way that reflects the balance the President seeks to strike.

Q    I’m trying to get at this question of what the President should know about or be informed about.  If U.S. intelligence is listening in on the phone calls of a close American ally, of if they had been doing such a thing, wouldn’t the President expect to be made aware of that?  Would that be something that he would want to know about, feel he should know about?

MR. CARNEY:  I think you can say safely from what the President has said in recent months about some of these issues that he is keenly interested in reviewing what we do, and in working with interested parties to ensure that we are doing it in a way that strikes a balance with the privacy concerns that Americans and others have.

The other piece of this that is important to remember is that the work that's being done here saves lives and protects the United States and protects our allies, and protects Americans stationed in very dangerous places around the world.  So it should not be lost on anyone as we look at these issues, and they're real, and the concerns are understandable and merit being taken seriously, that we remember that purpose of these institutions and these programs, and the hard work that's done every day by those in the intelligence community who do this work on behalf of the American people.

Q    But when you say something like that, the question that gets asked is:  How is it possible that listening in on the phone calls of close American allies is saving lives?

MR. CARNEY:  Jon, as much as I know you’d like me to respond to questions about specific reported operations, I’m simply not able to do that.  What I can tell you is that the reviews that are underway are doing serious work.  The White House review is going to be completed by the end of the year.  And that even as that work is being done and that review is being conducted, some decisions have been made that reflect the President's desire to find that proper balance. 


Q    So when you said that we don't do it and we won't monitor, you're begging the question about of course whether we did.  And when you say that we need to do this and it saves lives, you're still begging the question of do we need to do it the way it's been reported that it's been done and are we still doing it.  Can't you come up with something better?

MR. CARNEY:  Bill, what I can tell you is that I doubt there's little question in this room, or in kitchens and living rooms across the country, that the work done by our intelligence community is done in order to keep the American people safe and to protect our allies and to protect our troops abroad.  And that's important work indeed.  And it is often work done without recognition necessarily, because of the nature of the work and noticed at times only when something terrible happens.  So that's important.  So I appreciate the stipulation. 

The fact of the matter is that I cannot and will not get involved in a colloquy about specific reported operations, past activities or even present activities.  These reviews are underway.  And we are, as part of that process, endeavoring to make available more information about what the NSA does and about the programs that have been discussed a lot of late.  And we're also reviewing these programs, because the President believes it's very important that even as they work to keep America and Americans safe, that they do so in a way that reflects the sincere concerns about privacy that Americans have and that our allies have. 

Q    Are you going to make the reviews public?

MR. CARNEY:  We will make the information public that we can make public, and we will be more transparent about this than has ever been the case in history.  That is already true.  We have released more information about what the NSA than has ever been released before.  So the answer is, yes, mindful of the fact that we're talking about very sensitive programs that are secret for a reason or elements of which are secret for a reason.

Q    Have you got anything on the EU meeting?

MR. CARNEY:  Jon-Christopher, he stole your thunder.  (Laughter.)  I didn't think somebody else would be asking about the EU meetings. 

A group of visiting EU parliamentarians will be in Washington early this week and will meet with officials from the Departments of State, Commerce, Treasury, Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Staff.  These meetings are part of an ongoing U.S.-EU discussion of privacy issues. 

Q    Come on, they’re complaining.

MR. CARNEY:  Look, we have been I think very forthright in acknowledging the tensions that these disclosures have caused.  The President has talked about it.  The Secretary of State has talked about it.  National Security Advisors and others have talked about it.  I've talked about it.  And we are in discussions directly, as these meetings reflect, with countries that have been the subject of some of these disclosures, because we take their concerns seriously.

Q    You're admitting that there have been disclosures, but you won't talk about the disclosures.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, that's not necessarily the case, depending on the question that you're asking.  But you also didn't note that what I'm saying is we're acknowledging the tension that this has caused.  We understand that this has caused concern in countries that represent some of our closest relationships internationally.  And we are working to allay those concerns and to discuss these issues, and we’ll continue to do so, because those relationships are so important for so many reasons, including for security reasons.


Q    A couple of questions, given the NSA story right now.  Is the President still using his Blackberry?

MR. CARNEY:  I have no change to announce in terms of the President’s communications.

Q    So since he fought so hard to keep it when he became President in 2009, I guess I’m curious if there have been any changes made in terms of the precautions in place, the protections being taken right now to protect him from being surveilled by some other country.

MR. CARNEY:  So you’re asking me about security precautions taken to protect the President’s communications from foreign surveillance?

Q    I’m not asking for his phone number.  I’m just saying that you say the intelligence-gathering process has changed over time, which has enabled us to keep up with it as we surveil foreign nations for information.  So have we done things over the course of that time, adding precautions to protect the President’s own phone?

MR. CARNEY:  I would address that question to the Secret Service.


Q    Thank you.  Has President Obama ever signed a finding requesting surveillance of a foreign leader or otherwise tasked the intelligence community to provide intelligence on foreign communications?

MR. CARNEY:  I have no information to provide about specific reported intelligence activities.  I can recite some of the answers I gave to prior questions, but you probably don't want me to do that.  So --

Q    I’ll keep going.  I had a couple of others.  In the interest of saving time, has the President’s PDF [sic] ever contained any information about those activities since President Obama took office?

MR. CARNEY:  I think you mean PDB, and I think you mean the highly classified, sensitive document that -- (laughter) -- and briefing that might come in PDF form, but -- (laughter).

Q    And if there was surveillance --

Q    Or a PBJ.

MR. CARNEY:  Might be served with a PB&J.  Is that what you’re saying?  (Laughter.)  Okay, that's good.

Q    If there were surveillance of at least 35 world leaders, can you tell us when he instructed that it stop against Chancellor Merkel and that it also stop against the other foreign leaders?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, Margaret, I can speak to the specific issue of Germany and the Chancellor because of the conversation they had that I read out, and the assurances the President made to Chancellor Merkel.  But I don't have anything more for you on specific reports about intelligence activities with regards to heads of state or other matters.  These are issues, broadly speaking, that are under review.  And as that review continues and comes to its conclusion at the end of the year -- even as it continues, there are decisions that are being made with regard to how we conduct our intelligence activities, and I’m sure more will be made as time goes on.  And then when the review is concluded and the President has made some assessments, then we’ll provide as much information as we can about that and those decisions when we can.

Q    I understand you can’t tell me details.  I just want to make sure that we're all on the same question.  So the Journal story suggests that the President didn’t know about it until he knew about it and then asked it to stop. 

MR. CARNEY:  I think it’s fair to say the President didn’t know about it until he knew about it.  (Laughter.) 

Q    Okay.  But just because he wasn’t briefed by General Alexander doesn’t mean that he didn’t know about it.  Just to be clear, you’re saying that you’re not going to answer questions when the President knew that we were surveilling foreign leaders.

MR. CARNEY:  About specific operations that have been reported in the press and when the President --

Q    That makes it sound so vague.  I mean, we’re actually talking about --

MR. CARNEY:  No, I’m saying the specific -- I’m saying that I can’t talk about specific intelligence activities reported in the press.  I can speak broadly about the issues that surround some of these reports and the review that has been underway in part because of these reports, and what the President believes we ought to seek as we do this review and what our goal ought to be in terms of the proper balance between the necessary surveillance that we must conduct, like other nations conduct, in order to protect Americans and the nation and our allies, and the privacy concerns that many of us have, understandably, both here and abroad.

Q    But he may have very well known since January of 2009 that we tapped Angela Merkel’s phone and 35 other people’s.  You’re just not saying yes or no right now because the position is that you’re not going to --

MR. CARNEY:  Again, I’m not going to address specific reported information.  So, I mean, just imagine if you will -- set aside the specific nature of this report, and imagine any other potential, true or false, intelligence operation that might be reported in the press, and imagine whether or not I or any other official could discuss that openly like this. 

So I think that the point is that we are very mindful of the concerns that have been raised by, in particular, our allies on some of these issues, and the President has had conversations and others have had conversations with their counterparts, and those conversations continue through the appropriate diplomatic channels.  And then obviously when it comes to Germany, we made clear a piece of information as regards the President’s conversation with the Chancellor.


Q    Since Bill asked a joint question, I’d like to ask a question about Mr. Greenwald.  He seems to be holding on to all the documentation that Mr. Snowden has been passing on to him.  Is this administration considering any actions against Mr. Greenwald?

MR. CARNEY:  I certainly know of none.  I don’t have anything on that for you.


Q    Jay, going back to the spy program, when you say the President wants greater oversight, constraint, does that oversight mean extending tentacles into congressional oversight as well, since there is --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, Congress already has a very important role to play when it comes to oversight of these various activities engaged under the sections of the Patriot Act that we’ve been discussing so often these past several months.

Q    -- saying we don’t have enough.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, these are issues that I think the President believes ought to be examined and looked at as we try to strike this balance between our very real security needs and our very real privacy concerns. 

So there are different -- there’s obviously different kinds of oversight.  There’s executive branch oversight, there’s FISA Court oversight, and there’s congressional oversight.  And I think all of these elements of oversight can and will be looked at as part of a review.

Q    All right.  Also, when you talk about the NSA spy program you can’t help not to think about Snowden.  What’s the latest on efforts to bring him back here to the United States to face some sort of punishment, jail time -- what?

MR. CARNEY:  We continue to hold the position we held, which is that he ought to be returned to the United States to face trial, where he will be accorded all of the rights that are due defendants in our judicial system.  And he has been charged with serious crimes here in the United States and ought to return to face those charges. 

I don't have any new information to provide to you except to say that that is -- that our views on this are clear and expressed regularly in our conversations with government officials in Russia.  So our position hasn’t changed.  And we believe that it’s important to remember that our system of justice allows for the kind of rights and privileges that are unique in many ways, and especially by historic standards, and that he would be afforded all of those if he were to be returned or to return to the United States.

Q    And one last question.  A couple of months ago I asked you what makes this country different from Russia, especially now as we're seeing more and more information leaked and given out about the fact that there’s a vast spy program spying on everyone around the world and to include people in this country.  The ACLU says what makes us different is our court system.  What makes us different in the midst of all of this new information?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I'm sure that folks here don't have the time to listen to me wax poetic about what makes the United States different from any other countries when it comes to civil liberties and when it comes to transparency and when it comes to democratic practices.  So I will refrain.  But I think that the comparison in all three of those areas is pretty stark.

This very briefing is a reflection of -- and the kind of questions that are raised here and in response to press reports that might not be able to appear in so many countries around the world I think are a reflection of our system’s democracy and our system’s transparency. 

Now, we grapple with these issues every day, as a nation, as we should.  And we have, in this case, at the President’s direction, a review underway of intelligence programs and the collection programs with an aim to making sure that we are striking that balance that he thinks is important to strike, and that others do, too.  He’s not unique in believing that.  But he does, as Commander-in-Chief, also have a pretty unique insight into the dangers that confront the United States, the dangers that confront our allies, the threats that exist every day and that need to be met by our intelligence community and by our military and by others in our government, and by our allies.

So that is a pretty heavy piece of business, but it’s an important one.  And this review is being undertaken at his direction because he thinks it’s very serious. 


Source: The White House