Remarks at the London Eleven Plenary Meeting
Secretary of State
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much, Foreign Minister Judeh, Your Royal Highnesses, my fellow ministers. We are deeply appreciative to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, to His Majesty King Abdullah, to you Minister Judeh for bringing us together, and we always appreciate your warm hospitality and your commitment to trying to advance the interests of your people and of your neighbors.
The 11 of us are here because we each, our countries, have a profound stake in the serious crisis that is affecting the Syrian people, and an equally great interest in a peaceful, prosperous Syria that we hope will soon be able to emerge again. Your country, Mr. Foreign Minister, feels the consequences of this conflict especially strongly as more and more refugees pour across the border every day. And that is also true for Foreign Minister Davutoglu. This is an appropriate setting in which we should meet and discuss the road ahead. And it’s also, I think everybody would agree from the intensity and seriousness of the discussion we just had, this is a critically important moment for us to do so.
Recently we have seen a disturbing increase in violence at the hands of the Assad regime. It’s a trend that concerns every single one of us around this table, and we are convinced concerns people around the world. The massacres in Bayada and in Banias, the shedding of innocent blood, must end. And that is what brings us here. We don’t need more proof that now is the time to act; what we need to do is act.
When we met in Rome, we said with one voice that we wanted to move towards the transition government that was promised in the first meeting in Geneva, and we wanted a transition government without Assad because of the sheer necessity of trying to govern the country after all of this killing and bloodshed. We agreed to increase aid to the moderates in the opposition, including nonlethal aid. And when we next met in Istanbul, the opposition reaffirmed its support of the Geneva communique, the communique that calls for, very simply, a transitioning governing body with full executive authority chosen by mutual consent. We all agreed to direct military aid through General Idris, then the Supreme Military Council, in order to ensure that moderates and not extremists receive the necessary aid.
The opposition also signed at that time an important set of standards, standards that prohibit the use of chemical weapons. And they agreed to be inclusive of all minorities of all people in Syria and to be protective of every single minority. And this week, the opposition is meeting to discuss how to expand their membership in order to elect new leadership and how we can all work together to move the process forward.
When Foreign Minister Lavrov and I met two weeks ago in Moscow at the instructions of our two presidents – President Obama, President Putin – we reiterated our nations’ shared commitment to the sovereignty of Syria, its territorial unity, the need for a negotiated settlement, and our commitment to working in order to create a transition – to convene, if you will, a negotiation among the parties in Geneva.
So before I turn the floor over, let me just say one thing before we start to build on the progress that we made in Rome and Istanbul and Moscow. I want to reiterate what we talked about in the room a moment when we were alone. We all agreed that this is a pivotal moment. The only alternative to a negotiated settlement, the only alternative to trying to find success in a meeting in Geneva along the lines of the first Geneva communique, the only alternative to that is more killing, more innocent civilian deaths, more chaos, more instability in a part of the world that has already suffered too much from it. That path would lead, we all know, to a lot more families being torn apart, to a lot more refugees crossing the borders to Turkey, to Lebanon, to Jordan. It would cause instability in the region, as we know, and is a path that would lead ultimately potentially to the splitting apart of Syria itself.
There is another path, and that’s the one that we have decided that we have a responsibility to pursue, difficult as that path is, and we all know that. It is a path that leads to a political solution and a political transition to a renewed Syria, to a future of hope and not fear, and a much more stable Middle East and a much more secure world.
It is interesting that we are all seeking it. We don’t hear President Assad asking for it or looking for it. For that better outcome to prevail and to be durable, the negotiations must, of course, be between Syrians. So our job as the 11 states who call ourselves the Friends of Syria is to do everything in our ability to help the opposition to come to the table in a strong position and be able to negotiate effectively, even while we work with others to get the regime to the table too.
So I look forward to discussing further how we can help to hasten a better outcome in a more secure and a more prosperous country for the people of Syria and for every single one of us who shares a stake in their future and in the hopes of the possibility of peace. Thank you.
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James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:31 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the White House. Thanks for being here. Before I take your questions I wanted to mention something that I think is breaking now, as Wolf Blitzer would say, and that is that on Sunday, May 26th, the President will travel to the Oklahoma City area to see firsthand the response to the devastating tornadoes and severe weather that have impacted the area on Sunday night and Monday. He will visit with affected families as well as thank first responders.
The President has directed his administration to provide all available resources to support the response, led by the Governor and her team.
More detail on the President’s travel will be released when available. With that, I'll go to your questions. Nedra.
Q Thanks, Jay. I have some questions, but first, happy birthday.
MR. CARNEY: You're very kind. Thank you -- 29 forever. (Laughter.)
Q First on the IRS controversy, given that you all had pledged your full cooperation with the investigations on Capitol Hill, what’s the White House response to Lois Lerner taking the Fifth Amendment today?
MR. CARNEY: Let me say that, as you heard from the President immediately after the release of the independent Inspector General’s audit, he is absolutely committed to finding out everything that happened here, finding out who’s responsible for the failures, holding them accountable, and ensuring that the IRS take steps so that this will never happen again.
As you know, within the immediate aftermath of the release of that report, Secretary Lew, acting on the President’s direction, accepted the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner and the President appointed a new acting IRS commissioner.
As you also know, the responsibilities that Secretary Lew has assigned to Danny Werfel in that job through Secretary Lew -- the President has, rather, through Secretary Lew -- include within 30 days, Commissioner Werfel reporting back to the President and to Secretary Lew about progress made in three areas: One, ensuring the staff who acted inappropriately are held accountable. Two, examining and correcting any failures in the system that allowed this behavior to happen. And three, taking a forward-looking, systemic view of the agency’s organizations.
So the President has directed these actions to be taken at the IRS. Danny Werfel, the new acting commissioner, starts today. Today is his first day. That 30-day review begins today. Additionally, we have made clear that we are cooperating with and will continue to cooperate with congressional oversight. That's an important component in a situation like this. And the Department of Justice, the Attorney General has announced a criminal investigation into this matter.
So you see two separate branches of government in three different areas working to find out what happened, to find out who’s responsible for the failures, the clear failures, the inappropriate behavior, the improper conduct, to hold them accountable, and to ensure that procedures are put in place so that it doesn’t happen again.
Q How can you find out what happened if a person who’s in Ms. Lerner’s position is taking the Fifth --
MR. CARNEY: As far as the President is concerned -- and I would assume this is true of Congress, and I’m assuming it’s true of the Department of Justice -- there is a commitment here to get to the bottom of what happened, and I can assure you that the President intends to do that.
Q Can I talk to you also about the investigation into Benghazi and the report that there are five suspects that are under around-the-clock surveillance? Some lawmakers are raising concerns today that the U.S. might lose these suspects as they’re being monitored to find more evidence. Does the White House share that concern?
MR. CARNEY: We have seen the report, and I would refer you, of course, to the FBI on the status of their investigation, which, as you know, is ongoing. What I cannot -- while I can’t discuss, rather, the specifics of that ongoing investigation or the internal deliberations related to it, I can say what the President said on the day after those attacks: “Make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.” And I would also point you to something that the Attorney General recently said, which is that we have made very substantial progress in that investigation.
The President is committed, as he made clear from day one, to two things: Finding and bringing to justice those who killed four Americans. Two -- making sure that the failures that led to the deaths, in terms of security, of four Americans be corrected. And he is, through the FBI investigation that he ordered up, ensuring that the first objective is achieved; and through the process that he instituted through the Secretary of State and the Accountability Review Board, ensuring that the second objective is being achieved. He is also following through on that second objective by calling on Congress, as you heard him say recently, to ensure that there is funding available to upgrade our security at our diplomatic facilities around the world.
Q Is it his preference or his direction that the investigation and that justice be brought through the civilian courts?
MR. CARNEY: I will tell you simply that when we succeed in capturing suspected terrorists who pose a threat to the American people, our other critical national security objective is to maintain a viable authority to keep those individuals behind bars. The strong preference of this administration is to accomplish that through prosecution either in an Article 3 court or a reformed military commission.
With regards to the disposition of this specific investigation, to the progress being made, I’d have to refer you to the FBI. But that has been our position.
Q Jay, Happy birthday.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you, sir. I appreciate that. This is how I chose to spend it. (Laughter.)
Q Lucky you.
MR. CARNEY: You know what -- I agree with that sentiment.
Q On immigration. Yesterday, the President released a statement saying that the immigration bill that passed out of committee reflected his principles, but that he hoped it would be improved in the amendment process. What improvements is he looking for?
MR. CARNEY: Well, what I think he has said all along is that he had some bottom-line principles that were articulated in the proposals that were put forward online and presented to you and the public that have guided what he has said about immigration reform, comprehensive immigration reform, throughout this process.
And he has said and he made clear in that statement again last night that the measure that passed out of committee last night with a bipartisan vote does reflect those principles. He has also said that he does not expect that in a bipartisan process that is dealing with a matter of the magnitude of comprehensive immigration reform, that he is going to get everything exactly as he would write it. And he doesn’t expect that anyone in this process will feel, when it’s over, that he or she has gotten everything that he or she wanted, or that the bill emerges exactly as they would have written it.
But he will, of course, as we work with Congress, as this process moves forward, work to have the bill reflect as closely as possible what he believes are important objectives.
Q Can you be specific about what else he would like in terms of improvement?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think there are some issues -- I mean, I think you know that he supported the -- that he supports an amendment regarding the rights of LGBT individuals, and he made that clear I think in answer to a question he took on his trip to Latin America. And this is not limited to that specific issue.
Q So he’d like that back in?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think he’s made clear that he supports that and would like to see Congress support that. He’s also made clear that he doesn’t expect to get everything he wants in this bill. It doesn’t mean he won’t fight for everything he wants, but he understands that compromise means not getting every single thing that you want.
But the process cleared a significant hurdle last night and, in an otherwise busy news environment, it’s important to note that a major objective, a major bipartisan objective, has been making significant progress in the Senate as well as the House, and cleared that significant hurdle last night. There’s more work to be done, to be sure. We are not there yet, but that is something that the President believes needs to be noted, that the senators responsible for that progress need to be commended for, and that serves as a useful reminder of the fact that we are capable here in Washington when we focus, when we work together, when we accept that we’re not going to get everything we want, and if we want to achieve something in a bipartisan way, we can do big things. And we’ve done it before. And last night’s success coming out of committee demonstrates that we can do it again.
Q One quick follow-up on the IRS. We’ve talked -- you’ve talked a lot in the briefing room about Kathy Ruemmler and how people were informed. Can you say how many people on the senior staff were included when she informed people?
MR. CARNEY: I want to say in response to I think Hans and some other questions here, we have endeavored to provide a great deal of information to you very quickly. And in a situation like this, we face a choice that when we have a ton of incoming questions, legitimate questions, you guys are doing your job, as I said in answer to a question from Mark I believe last week. This kind of environment when there are a lot of news stories, there are a lot of legitimate questions out there, it’s part of our democracy, and it’s a great part of our democracy.
And the approach we take is we get the information to you that we have as soon as we can. And we try to get that information to you as quickly as possible and as comprehensively as possible.
Now, quickly and comprehensively are not objectives that always meet. And our approach is we get the information we have to you, and as we get more information, we fill in the details. And if it turns out that the information that -- new information we have requires a correction, we do that. That's what I did on Monday when it came to the so-called timeline.
So you guys -- we have a team here that works really hard at trying to anticipate the questions you’re going to ask. The problem is there are a lot of you, and you're good at your jobs and you’re smart. And we almost invariably do not anticipate every question that you ask. So sometimes, we don't have the answers, and sometimes we need to go back and get them.
But overall in this effort, I think that what the information we’ve provided to you shows is that in response to the notification that people received about the pending completion of an independent Inspector General’s review of inappropriate activity by IRS personnel, a decision here was made to wait until that report was finished before any action or any comment was made. Because the cardinal rule here, even though it can be inconvenient from a communications point of view or even a political point of view, is that you don't intervene. You don't prejudge. You don't use the weight of this podium or this building or the presidency to get ahead of the kind of independent investigation that this particular IG audit represents, or in the case of some other matters we’ve talked here about, criminal investigations that take place under the aegis of the Department of Justice. So --
Q But without filling in details, my question was can you tell us --
MR. CARNEY: And here’s what I’m going to tell you. (Laughter.) No, no, and I just wanted to say that because I think it’s important that -- there’s been some legitimate criticisms about how we’re handling this, and I say legitimate because I mean it. But we are endeavoring to pursue those two objectives. In an environment that really never has existed before in terms of the speed and information flow, the rapidity with which information is conveyed and then released, we are working to get you everything we can as quickly as we can and as comprehensively as we can.
And the alternative, of course, is to -- and it may be a better approach -- you and others can decide -- is to then say, look, I can't answer any of these questions until later. And then we can spend all our time trying to get everything that we know, that we can find, and then waiting sometimes hours, days. But the demands of the news environment make that very difficult. So we take the path we've taken and accept that it’s got some potholes in it and diversions that aren't always enjoyable.
Having said that, in answer to your question, here’s what I can tell you. As you know, there was an initial communication to a lower-level person in the White House Counsel’s office through email just as part of a number of updates on the status of a number of Inspector General matters that included reference to this Inspector General audit coming to conclusion. That was, I believe -- whatever I said -- April 16th. But the White House Counsel herself did not find out until April 24th. She then notified some members -- but not all -- some members of senior staff.
I can't tell you because -- she notified some -- I can't account for every conversation that might have been had outside the White House Mess. I can't tell you how many people knew. What I can tell you is she alerted the Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff; obviously, others in her office knew.
And from everything we've gathered and all the evidence shows -- whether it was April 16th or April 24th or May 10th, when the news broke, our approach to this has been the same, which is that we should not do anything, we should not act on this information until the report is finished, the independent Inspector General’s audit is completed. And that's the approach we took.
And there’s been criticism of that. I think it was the right call, personally. But obviously others have different opinions.
Q Well, we appreciate your respect for the free press.
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s sincere. I think you know that. But go ahead.
Q In that spirit, in the President’s quest for balance between freedom of the press and prosecution of potential criminal leaks, and in the interest of transparency, would he ask his Justice Department to release the names of all reporters and all news organizations whose phone records have been subpoenaed, who are currently being monitored, or who are in any way being investigated as a part of any potential leaks investigation?
MR. CARNEY: It’s a very interesting question and -- (laughter) -- no, seriously. Here’s the challenge it presents, is that that would be -- the action you're suggesting any President might take would be to actively involve himself or herself, any President, in an ongoing criminal investigation. And the consequences of doing that are potentially enormous. And that's why it’s very difficult, when you talk about ongoing activity, to suggest that the White House or the President should intervene or take action.
What I can tell you is what I told you yesterday, and that is that the President -- that I've spoken with the President about this issue and I've spoken to him about it generally in terms of his views on press freedoms, the First Amendment, the need for journalists to do their jobs, and on the question that I think I had been asked on an earlier day with regard to one of these specific cases but then extracted not to have -- so that it did not pertain to a specific case, should -- the President’s view is that if you were to ask him should a reporter ever be prosecuted for doing his or her job, the answer in his view is no.
But there’s also a balance here, and I think that everyone involved in these cases who has thought about it and written about it in a thoughtful way, or talked about it on television in a thoughtful way, recognizes that there are real issues here when we talk about our secrets. And as I mentioned the other day, if there were no consequences to divulging highly sensitive classified information, then we might as well not have it. We might as well not have secrets.
Q But that’s an extreme -- no consequences.
MR. CARNEY: Well, no, but --
Q So we’re talking about --
MR. CARNEY: So there has to be a mechanism by which we ensure that national security information that is highly sensitive, the divulgence of which could have enormous and detrimental consequences, is protected. And there has to be an enforcement mechanism to that. I think that -- I know that’s this President’s view. I believe it’s been the view of his predecessors.
It is also his view that we need to ensure that reporters are able to conduct investigative journalism freely and that they are not prosecuted for doing their job. And I think that, again, broadly speaking, not commenting on specific cases because I cannot and should not, that there are procedures in place that deal with this issue, as I understand it, and there should be more done, in the President’s view. And that’s why he supports a media shield law. And that’s why he thinks, as I said yesterday, that this conversation is important to have and that the broader discussion is important to have, and that the questions surrounding these issues are legitimate and that this is one of these issues that he believes should be discussed.
Q Jay, you just stated the President’s preference that no reporter should be prosecuted for doing their job. So would it be the President’s preference -- not intervening -- but would it be the President’s preference that the Justice Department release the names of news organizations and --
MR. CARNEY: You’re saying that --
Q It’s not a direction.
MR. CARNEY: Look, I understand, and it’s a smart way to ask the question, but I can’t suggest that the President would, as a matter of preference or action, intervene.
Q How can reporters do their jobs if they don’t know whether they’re being investigated while they’re doing it? How can they fairly ask people to share information if these people are going to lose their jobs, their livelihood?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I mean, the second part of your question -- look, I think that any of us who works for the federal government and who has been cleared for access to classified information is -- we have a public trust not to violate and divulge that classified information. And a decision to do that is a decision that should carry consequences. I think most Americans would --
Q Should reporters not know if they’re being monitored?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I believe and I know the President believes that there needs to be adequate provisions in the law that allow for the press to operate freely, and that is reflected in his support for the media shield law. It’s reflected in what he has said. It is also the case, Jessica, as I’ve tried to be expansive about in a way that pushes right up against the line here, that he believes that this discussion is important to have and he believes that the questions being asked now are worth asking.
Q Jay, Happy birthday.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you, sir.
Q So I appreciate fully your point about not being able to interfere with an investigation. I just want to try to understand the limits of presidential power in this case. The President would prefer that reporters not be prosecuted for doing its job --
MR. CARNEY: It is his view that reporters should not be prosecuted.
Q Exactly. And if he knew that such a thing was going on with the Justice Department, if there were cases that went over that line, would he have any power to intervene, or would the fact that those were ongoing investigations mean that he would --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not aware of, I mean, again, based on publicly available information, that any reporter has been or is being prosecuted. But what I would say is that of course he could not or should not intervene directly in such a hypothetical case.
The President can set policy for his administration and he can have policy discussions with his administration and with Congress, especially if policy considerations require legislation. He has done that and he will do that. But the hypothetical you set up, I think the answer to that is, no, because it would be inappropriate to do that.
Q Even if those prosecutors in the President’s view were abusing that power that they have?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, it’s a hypothetical that isn’t really germane to what we know now. And he obviously believes that investigations ought to be conducted properly, that rules and procedures ought to be followed, and in general, as I’ve said, believes that the press needs to be accorded significant freedom in doing its job.
Q And then on the IRS, is the President comfortable -- I know there’s still this 30-day review that’s just starting, there’s still a criminal investigation -- but does he feel that knowing what we know now, the right people have been held accountable at the IRS?
MR. CARNEY: No. He believes that we need to find all the facts. And I’m not saying that we know what all those facts are yet, but he believes that the Inspector General, the independent Inspector General, conducted an audit, identified clearly that inappropriate activity was taking place that was wrong and that should not have happened regardless of the motivation. And he believes -- and that is why he has insisted that what’s taking place take place, that the 30-day top-down review be instituted. He believes that we need to find out who’s responsible for the failures at the IRS and to hold them accountable, but we need to get the facts before we make judgments about who is accountable. But he’s insisting that that take place and that this move expeditiously.
Concurrently, as we speak, there is congressional oversight being undertaken. There are senior administration officials participating in that congressional oversight. We will cooperate with all legitimate congressional oversight, as we have in the past. And we think that's entirely appropriate.
We also note that the Attorney General has announced a criminal investigation into this matter. So I think that folks out in the country can look at the response from both the congressional and executive branches of government here and at least recognize that there is a united sense of seriousness about this problem and the need to find out what happened, to hold people accountable, and to put in place measures that ensure it doesn't happen again.
Q But you don't think Republicans are politicizing this?
MR. CARNEY: No. Look, as I said yesterday -- and I want to be clear because I think some of it got -- like my first answer to Major was reported and then not the second answer, which is: Let me be clear, the President believes the activity here, the actions here were wrong and inappropriate. He wants to get to the bottom of it. He wants people held responsible if they are responsible.
I think it’s also clear, as others have reported, that there has been some attempt to politicize this. I think that generally speaking, as I’ve said, congressional oversight from both parties is wholly appropriate. The President believes that. But there’s been some analogies thrown out and some other characterizations made, some accusations that are unfounded, that are backed up by zero evidence, that I think represents some attempts to politicize this.
But that is not to -- making that observation in this case is not to dismiss the severity of what we know, based on the IG report. And the President, as I think you’ve heard and seen, is not happy about it and he wants action taken.
Q Jay, Mr. Shulman said in testimony today, when asked about his many visits to the White House -- White House logs have him coming about 118 times in 2011 -- did he discuss the ongoing situation with the IRS with anyone here at the White House, he said, “Not to my memory.” Have you, here in the White House, asked everyone who might have been involved if there was any conversations anyone in this building had with anyone at the IRS in the relevant years about this pending matter?
MR. CARNEY: I have, obviously, seen what you just reported -- that former Commissioner Shulman in sworn testimony says that he does not -- he did not, to his recollection, talk to anyone at the White House about the handling of 501(c)(4) applications, and I certainly have no information to the contrary that would contradict that. I think he was also asked if he had been directed to have the IRS participate in this activity and he said no. And I obviously have no information to contradict that.
An IRS commissioner appropriately has -- or his designees has meetings on matters of policy all the time but not discussions about enforcement or applications for tax exempt status. And, again, I have absolutely zero evidence to suggest that he’s wrong in that assertion.
Q And in your process here in the White House, as you gather information, have you asked that question of everyone in the senior staff?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I can tell you -- and I think I would point you to my explanation for how we are trying to answer all the legitimate questions that we’ve been asked here -- that I certainly have no evidence to the contrary finding the absence or finding -- proving a negative can be difficult, obviously, but he has testified to that effect. The IG, the Inspector General himself said that in his audit he found no indication, no evidence of --
Q But he didn’t ask anybody here at the White House.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I know, but for the people who -- for the activity itself, he said that there was no evidence of outside influence or pressure from higher-ups. Again, that’s his finding, independent Inspector General. There is additional investigating being done by Congress, by the Department of Justice, by the IRS. But I have no -- we have no information that contradicts what former Commissioner Shulman has testified to.
Q In the testimony of Mr. Shulman, Stephen Lynch, a Democrat from Massachusetts, was expressing some frustration about the inability to get answers not only related to that, but to Lois Lerner. And he said if we can’t get answers, this inevitably will lead to calls not just from Republicans but from Democrats for a special prosecutor. And the President said last week he doesn’t believe that’s necessary. Is that the permanent position of the White House that it will never be necessary?
MR. CARNEY: That’s a hypothetical. What I would say is --
Q In this matter.
MR. CARNEY: Well, we intend to get answers. We intend to get answers. The President insists that we get answers. Congress rightly insists that we get answers. I expect -- independent criminal investigations, so I haven’t had this conversation -- but I expect that the Attorney General and those who will work on the investigation at the Department of Justice expect to get answers. And, again, I think you have a 30-day top-down review at the IRS with new leadership. You have congressional oversight. You have Department of Justice investigating. I think that demonstrates the seriousness that both branches of government are -- the seriousness with which both branches of government here are addressing this matter. And I don't think that there’s any indication given that seriousness, given that determination, to get to the bottom of this, to get the facts and to hold people accountable, that there’s any reason to take that step. And that's the President’s view as he said last week.
Q Will the President revisit that if Congress proves incapable or frustrated with its ability to get answers?
MR. CARNEY: Major, I would simply say that he expects results. He expects answers. And he has put in place a process that will hopefully fulfill that objective. There is another process in Congress that we are cooperating with that we believe should have that as its objective, and there is a separate criminal investigation undertaken by the Department of Justice.
Q Before I let you go, there’s a report in Germany today. The German intelligence now has completely reassessed --
MR. CARNEY: Okay, so when I said that there are sometimes questions we do not anticipate, I’m pretty sure this is one of them. (Laughter.)
Q No, just an assessment of Syria and the civil war. And its assessment is that Assad is in a much better position, and that his armed forces have inflicted considerable losses on the rebels; that their own disorganization, which is well understood, is increasingly a problem, and they now predict that Assad is more than likely to hold on.
Two questions: Would you and this government disagree with that assessment, that Assad is in a stronger position than he was, say, six months or twelve months ago? And even if you don't agree with that, is there a question now about the efficacy of the entire U.S. policy there if, in fact, Assad is able to hold on?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I have not seen the German assessment that you referred to, and I don't know whether it is our assessment that Assad is stronger now than he was a month ago or six months ago or weaker. I mean, clearly, he is significantly weaker than he was two years ago. And in that time, the opposition has gotten significantly more organized. It has received assistance from a variety of places, including from the United States. And our efforts to assist the opposition, working with our partners and allies, continue. Our efforts with the international community to -- and with the opposition -- towards implementing the Geneva Communiqué continue, because we believe that ultimately there has to be a political transition, and that the sooner that process begins the better, and that that process has to result in a post-Assad Syria.
There is no question that Bashar al-Assad continues to butcher his own people, to take brutal actions as he clings onto power. And there is no question, as I talked about yesterday, that Hezbollah, for example, is assisting him in that effort. And I think that demonstrates the kinds of friends that Bashar al-Assad has in the world. And we've made clear our views on that.
That is why we have stepped up our assistance. That is why we have stepped up our humanitarian aid. That is why we have stepped up our efforts to bring about a political transition. But no question this is a difficult situation and that --
Q It’s relevant because one of the decisions before the President is whether to step up the movement of arms to the rebels. And if they’re losing, there are vast policy implications to the U.S. government to make that decision. If they think they’re going to lose, why would you make that decision in the first place? It’s relevant, it seems --
MR. CARNEY: No, I think that's -- look, this is a difficult challenge, and I think your question is excellent. I do not know if it is the assessment -- if the assessment that the opposition is losing is one we share. I'm not sure that that's the case. But it is definitely a brutal environment there and Assad continues to cling onto power.
When we review our options and when the President reviews our options, and he reviews all options, including the question of whether or not to provide lethal assistance to the opposition, we have to look at all the factors. We constantly review that option. To this point, we have made the policy judgment that that is not the right course to take.
And we've had really interesting discussions in this room and elsewhere about that you have to look at the potential consequences of making a choice like that, and make sure that if you were to make a choice like that, that you were doing it in a way that helped bring about the policy objective you seek, because this is a very fraught business, as you know. And we’ve talked about composition of the opposition and the need to examine that. We've talked about whether introducing more arms into an incredibly violent situation will, in fact, help bring about the political transition that the Syrian people deserve. We look at that.
Which is not to say that this option doesn’t remain on the table; it absolutely does. But I think that the approach that we have taken has been one that has always looked at the potential consequences of these kinds of policy decisions. And that's why we have stepped up our aid, have provided aid directly to the opposition, directly to the Supreme Military Council, but why we have made the decision about what we’re not providing to this point that we have made.
Thank you, Major.
Q Jay, back on Justice, since you say the President feels so strongly about the press freedoms, why not take a more specific action, write a letter to the Attorney General from the President saying, I’m not going to interfere with criminal investigations, I’m not going to get into individual details, but my principle, the principle of this administration is we should not be surveilling reporters, we should be protecting their rights? Why can't he put that in writing?
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, what you said is not specifically what I annunciated yesterday in terms of -- there is --
Q Reporters should not be prosecuted for doing their jobs.
MR. CARNEY: Well, okay. I did say that, and speaking for him I said that; reflecting actually a direct conversation I had with him, I said that. And I think it’s fair to say that since the President believes this is a conversation worth having, and he believes that these are legitimate questions and that if we remove them from the specifics of this case so that he can talk about them, he believes that he would participate in that conversation.
But I don't have any -- I don't have --
Q But he’s the President and he believes this, and yet this is going on in his own administration. And it appears --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think you have to be careful about what “this” means, okay? And we have --
Q The New Yorker is reporting that it was more than just James Rosen’s phones that were being looked at by the government. So the President says one thing, his administration appears to be doing something else.
MR. CARNEY: Well, no, I don't think that's the case. Again, I can't specify -- speak to a specific criminal investigation. I can speak to the fact that publicly available information has indicated that that particular investigation is over, and that charges related to that investigation that will be brought have already been brought. So there’s that. And again, that's commenting on publicly available information.
More broadly, I think that we can't comment on the specifics of an ongoing criminal investigation. There’s the other matter that was discussed a lot last week and earlier this week, and appropriately so. Because as I think we’ve learned from these public reports, published reports and others, one of the issues here is that when there are leak investigations, investigations of the improper disclosure of classified information tends to mean an investigation at least in part into some portion of an administration. So of course, the White House cannot or should not -- the President cannot or should not insert himself or itself into that process because that would at the very least create the appearance of interfering.
But the President does believe that broader discussion needs to be held. He does believe that there are important policy issues here. He’s made that clear in his views on legislation, and I’m sure he looks forward to having that conversation in the future.
Q On the IRS, the President said he was outraged last week by the IRS scandal. Is he outraged then that Lois Lerner is taking the Fifth since you’ve said repeatedly that he wants answers? Is he outraged that she’s taking the Fifth?
MR. CARNEY: I can't speak to any individual’s decision about how they’ll approach congressional hearings. What I can tell you is that the President will not be deterred in the effort to find what happened here and who is responsible. He does not expect that Congress will be deterred in its pursuit of what happened here and finding out who was responsible, and insisting that those responsible be held accountable.
He does not expect -- again, independent and criminal investigation -- but he does not expect and nor do I that the Justice Department would be deterred in pursuit of finding out that information.
So the President has made clear what he thinks needs to happen here. He’s made clear how seriously he views this misconduct. And he has put in place a process at the IRS that will, as its purpose, gather more information and more facts to find out who is responsible and to ensure that they're held accountable, and to ensure that procedures are put in place so that it doesn't happen again.
And we are and we’ll continue to cooperate with congressional oversight into this matter and with any investigation that the Justice Department might be engaged in.
Q So you say the President wants to hold people accountable in this scandal. Why then is Lois Lerner still working at the IRS today?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think it’s important to find the facts before you hold people accountable. That's why the President through Secretary Lew has instructed a new acting commissioner on the job today to institute a 30-day review. We have, as our starting point, the Inspector General’s audit clearly identifies improper conduct, the improper targeting of specific conservative groups in the application process for nonprofit status -- clearly inappropriate. And now we need to find out who’s responsible. We need to be clear about those facts, and then we need to take action to make sure that those people are held accountable.
Q Last thing on -- you mentioned immigration, making some progress. Other second-term items for the President have not made progress -- gun control, a budget deal. A bit frustrated by those, but he is making progress on immigration reform. Is there any frustration here inside the White House that he’s making progress on this big item, it’s being overshadowed by the IRS, by the questions about some of these other stories?
MR. CARNEY: No, I think that we absolutely recognize that the IRS issue is significant and deserves attention. We absolutely understand that some of the reporting on what are apparently criminal investigations are of interest, and in particular interest to reporters, and absolutely valid questions about that, as I’ve said. So that’s an environment that’s legitimate and we understand.
But what he has made clear to all of us who work for him here and who work for the American people here is that there’s an agenda that the American people expect us to act on. And in the case of comprehensive immigration reform, that has become, rather rapidly, a bipartisan objective. And that is a good thing. And I think it demonstrates that even in this environment, which at times can be fractious and partisan, that there is the potential for significant progress on a difficult issue in a bipartisan manner, and the President believes that those senators and also those House members who have worked on this issue -- Democrats and Republicans -- and worked with the objective of reaching a deal and a compromise should be commended; and that, amidst everything else, they should be lifted up and pointed to as individuals who are making an effort -- as is the President -- to find compromise on the kinds of issues that only move forward if there’s bipartisan cooperation.
Q For our bookkeeping purposes, if today is the first day of the 30-day review --
MR. CARNEY: For your -- what did you say? Booking purposes?
Q Bookkeeping purposes.
MR. CARNEY: Oh, bookkeeping. I thought you wanted to book an interview for 30 days from now.
Q I appreciate it -- why don’t we do that as well if you want to. (Laughter.) But is it 30 days from now? And can you set a date by which the President is expecting to have the results or that you guys want to hear the results of this review?
MR. CARNEY: Well, full transparency -- the President, through the Secretary of Treasury, has insisted that the new acting commissioner conduct this top-down 30-day review. It is a fact that today is his first day on the job. And I think it’s safe to say that that clock starts ticking today. I would refer you, obviously, to IRS and Treasury for their specific timeline within that 30 days and what they expect the end day to be.
But as far as the President is concerned, Danny Werfel, the new acting commissioner, who is enormously qualified and has experience under administrations of both parties on these matters, is getting to work today and ought to make this his top priority.
Q On separate topics -- there’s a U.N. Nuclear Agency report today that says that Iran has increased its capacity to refine uranium by installing hundreds more centrifuges. I just was hoping to get the White House’s reaction to that news.
MR. CARNEY: I appreciate the question. I can tell you that I don't have more specific information on that except to say that we're reviewing the IAEA Director General’s report and we will discuss how best to respond to it with other members of the board. But we're currently reviewing the report. It is just released, as you said.
On this matter, the fact that Iran is engaged in continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is clear. We have worked assiduously with our international partners, as well as unilaterally to hold them accountable for their refusal to abide by their international commitments with regards to their nuclear ambitions. And we will continue to do that.
We have instituted the most stringent sanctions regime in history, a regime that has had a dramatic impact on Iran, that has made clear that there is a significant cost to their flouting of their international obligations. But I don't have --
Q -- hundreds more -- that's why I posed the question.
MR. CARNEY: We're reviewing this report and will have a comment on it. We believe, and we are engaged in a process that we know that there is still time for Iran to make this decision to choose to abide by its international obligations. And we are working with the P5-plus-1, which put forward a substantial offer in Almaty to bring that about. And now it’s up to the Iranians to respond substantively to that proposal and to address the international community’s concerns about the nature of its nuclear program.
Q Another headline made news today that an Army sergeant first class at West Point Military Academy has been accused of planting hidden cameras in the shower in locker room facilities of female cadets. Given what we heard recently from the President in terms of his referring to those who commit these crimes as unpatriotic and the like, how involved is he in knowing about the specifics of individual events, as there’s now been a consistent line of new headlines from around the --
MR. CARNEY: I don't know about the specific report. I can tell you that the President is very focused on this. And you heard him -- I think it was in the East Room when he addressed this -- make very clear that he has zero tolerance for sexual assault in the military and that he believes that those who participate in it dishonor the uniform they wear, and that those who are victims of it and who wear the uniform should know that the Commander-in-Chief has their backs.
And he is insisting that action be taken. He has met with Secretary Hagel about this. You have heard Secretary Hagel address this. This is a very serious matter. And he finds it unconscionable and there has to be action taken.
Q And just finally, if you can -- what can you tell us right now about what we can anticipate in terms of tomorrow’s National Defense University speech on counterterrorism? Is there any new guidance you can offer us?
MR. CARNEY: I think I went through yesterday what sort of topic areas that you can expect the President to discuss. I think these are weighty, substantive matters. This is a speech that he has looked forward to giving. It is one that he telegraphed in his State of the Union address. These are matters that, in some ways, similarly to the subject we were just discussing, he believes are subject to legitimate questions and that these are issue areas that he believes we need to be as transparent as possible about. And I think you’ll see that reflected in his remarks tomorrow.
Q We’ll hear from him tomorrow then about what his plans are going forward. But I'm curious, now five years in after the President’s pledge, before he came into office, that he would close Guantanamo Bay what he blames for that not having occurred to this point. Obviously, Congress has been an obstacle in this as well, but one of the things this administration did was shut down the office -- the special envoy who was in charge of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and I'm curious if that action has in some way contributed to this.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I clearly don't think that's an action that's contributed to the fact that Guantanamo Bay is still open and I think the President -- you will hear the President discuss this subject, and I don't want to get ahead of the specifics. But it is the President’s view that we should be determined, as he is, to see the Guantanamo Bay detention facility closed.
Keeping it open is not efficient, it’s not effective, and it’s not in the interests of our national security. And I think senior members of the military have testified to that fact. Senior members of sort of the broader national security apparatus of both parties have expressed that opinion. The President’s predecessor has expressed that opinion. The President’s opponent in the 2008 election, Senator McCain, has expressed that opinion.
The fact is Congress has enacted and renewed legislation in order to foreclose our ability to close the detention facility. The legislation restricts our experienced counterterrorism professionals from exercising their best judgment as to what the most appropriate disposition is of the individuals still held there.
The President is considering a range of options for ways that we can reduce the population there and move toward ultimate closure, some of which we can take on our own, but some of which will require working with the Congress, which we hope will engage more productively on this process in the future than it has in the past.
And to your point, I would say that one of the options is reappointing a senior official at the State Department to renew our focus on repatriating or transferring those detainees. I would wait for the President’s remarks for a fuller view of this important issue.
Q So that’s an option, but not an answer. Okay, thank you.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, ma’am.
Q Thank you, Jay. The Secretary of State is in the Middle East today and he is going to discuss the new effort to restart Israel-Palestine peace negotiation. Is the Obama administration hopeful of Kerry’s effort? Do you think that his fourth-time trip will help to reduce (inaudible) between in both sides?
MR. CARNEY: I think you saw from the President’s visit, and the immediate follow-up by Secretary Kerry, and his follow-ups thereafter that we are focused on this issue, and that we are looking for progress from both sides. And I wouldn’t characterize our level of optimism, because this is a difficult and challenging issue and has been for decades.
But we believe that there is an opportunity to move forward in the peace process, and it requires both sides to be willing to negotiate directly on the issues that remain unresolved. And we are engaging in that process, but it certainly requires both sides to be willing to engage as well.
Q Thanks, Jay. I want to go back to immigration reform. Senator Leahy yesterday withheld amendments that would have included gay couples as part of a larger package. Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the White House had asked him to hold off on those measures. Did the White House, in fact, ask Senator Leahy to revoke those amendments?
MR. CARNEY: I think you heard the President address this issue -- I think it was in an interview in Costa Rica. I think the President supports that amendment, and he also made clear that he knows he won’t get everything, necessarily, that he wants in the final comprehensive immigration bill that he hopes the Senate will pass and the House will pass and will arrive on his desk. But he will push for those things that he believes ought to be in it.
He thinks it’s important that we make sure that everyone who’s engaged in this process understands that they may not get everything they want, but I think he expressed very clearly his strong support for that amendment. He would hope that if it comes up again that there would be strong bipartisan support for it -- and we’ll have to see. But his support I think he expressed very clearly.
Q It’s clear that the President supports that amendment, but that response doesn’t really get to the issue of whether the White House asked Senator Leahy to pull out --
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have -- I think you saw the manner in which it was discussed in the hearing by Senator Leahy, who introduced it, and other members of the committee who discussed it. We are obviously engaged in conversations with the main players on this issue on a regular basis. And I don't have the contents of all those conversations. What I can tell you is that the President supports --
Q But you don't deny it?
MR. CARNEY: I’m sorry?
Q You don't deny the report.
MR. CARNEY: I’m not aware of that conversation. What I can tell you is the President supports the amendment. The President also believes, as he made clear in Costa Rica, that we need to accept that we may not get everything we want. It doesn't mean we’re not going to fight for the things that we believe in, and this President will.
Q I just want to follow up --
MR. CARNEY: Yes, sure.
Q During the markup last week, it was like one Democrat after the other was -- Senator Feinstein, Senator Durbin, Senator Schumer said they couldn’t bring themselves to support the measure. And these are senators from the President’s own party. Isn’t there a reasonable expectation that the President should have worked to bring them on board in time for that vote in accordance with decisions -- in accordance with the decision for immigration reform?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think each senator expressed himself or herself and his or her own views, so I would refer you to them. The President’s views are clear. He believes this amendment should be passed and has made his views clear on that. I can't speak for other senators.
Q Jay, does the President’s support of the media shield law acknowledge any existing problems with media protections or any potential abuse of power that this administration or another administration might use?
MR. CARNEY: What I would say is the President believes we need a media shield law because we need added protections reflected in the media shield law. And I would note that the negotiated bill from 2009 had the support of media organizations and prosecutors, and that reflects I think the balance that the President seeks.
I’m not suggesting that the media shield law if it were to pass tomorrow and be signed into law next week would end the discussion or would solve the challenges that this issue represents and contains within it, but he does believe that more needs to be done. That's why he has long supported a media shield law.
Q Does he trace the need for the law to the Patriot Act? Does he trace it to something more ontological with press freedoms?
MR. CARNEY: I confess that it would probably be more fruitful if you look back at the statements he made as a senator when he supported a media shield law, which obviously was prior to his administration, and to the statements that he and his administration made when this matter was up before the Senate in 2009 in terms of the origins of his concerns.
Q And about the speech tomorrow, Jay, on the promise that the President made in the State of the Union on drones, does the President feel like he has been as transparent as he has promised to be since then in the intervening months?
MR. CARNEY: On the issue of drones? I’m sorry --
Q Yes, targeted killings.
MR. CARNEY: We have in a variety of forums, through senior members of the administration -- from the President to the Attorney General to John Brennan and others -- provided a substantial amount of information and had a number of substantive discussions about this issue. The President made clear that he wants to expand that even further, that he believes that we need to be as transparent about a matter like this as we can, understanding that there are national security implications to this issue and to the broader issues involved in counterterrorism policy. That is why he is delivering this speech tomorrow, which will encompass a number of issues, including some of the specifics around counterterrorism execution and policy, as you described, also Guantanamo Bay and other issues.
But this is a matter that, as I said before and as the President has said, he thinks is an absolutely valid and legitimate and important area of discussion and debate and conversation, and that it is his belief that there need to be structures in place that remain in place for successive administrations so that in the carrying out of counterterrorism policy, procedures are followed that allow it to be conducted in a way that ensures that we’re keeping with our traditions and our laws.
Q But the President set the bar very high. Has he met his own bar?
MR. CARNEY: Well, obviously, if you ask the President, I think he has endeavored to meet that bar in keeping with the fact that he believes more information rightfully should be disclosed, he’s giving a speech tomorrow about it. And I hope everybody settles in -- I expect it will not be brief.
Q Happy birthday.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you, April.
Q You’re welcome. On the matter of the IRS and this whole other issue, has the President been updated on the delay in the federal tax refunds? Has he been told as to if the delay has ceased the refunds going out?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t know the answer to that question so I’ll have to take it and get back to you.
Q Was he made aware of the delay in the tax refunds?
MR. CARNEY: He may have been, April. I just don’t know the answer, so I’ll have to take that question.
Q Jay, do you have a comment on this terror attack in London and whether the President has spoken to Cameron?
MR. CARNEY: I’m afraid I don’t. I’ll have to take the question, but we’ll get back to you on it.
Thanks, all, very much. Appreciate it.
2:28 P.M. EDT
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