Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 05/26/15
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
May 26, 2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:50 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Hope you all enjoyed your Memorial Day weekend. Before we get started, I just want to point out that you heard from the President already this morning on two critically important issues that are on his mind as we begin the shortened work week here.
The first is the need for the Senate to take decisive action to pass the USA Freedom Act before the end of the day on this coming Sunday. They're facing an important upcoming deadline, and the President is hopeful that for the sake of our country's security and for the sake our citizens' privacy that the Senate will meet that deadline.
The second is the President also noted that he had had the opportunity to place a telephone call to Governor Abbott of Texas. The President offered Governor Abbott and the people of Texas who have been affected by the storms his concerns, to let him know that all those individuals were in his thoughts and prayers.
The President got an update on the situation, on the response efforts from Governor Abbott, and pledged any needed federal assistance. The President noted in that phone call that the FEMA Administrator, Craig Fugate, is somebody that has a well-deserved reputation for cutting through red tape to make sure that resources are delivered in a timely fashion to those who need it most. And the President is committed to ensuring that we live up to that reputation in the response to this set of storms. So we're obviously thinking about the people of central Texas today.
So with that, Nedra, let's go ahead and get started with questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. Does the President agree with Secretary Carter's assessment that the Iraqi forces lack the will to fight against ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is -- what the Iraqi government has acknowledged is that the setback that they experienced in Ramadi was at least in part attributable to a breakdown in some military command and planning. What the President has observed is that many of those forces, if not all of the forces, who have been fighting ISIL in Ramadi were not forces that had benefitted from the training that the United States and our coalition partners have been engaged in to improve the capacity of Iraqi security forces.
So we would expect that forces that are augmented by U.S.- and coalition-trained troops, forces that are augmented by local fighters from local Sunni tribes and from the Popular Mobilization Force will be able to improve the performance of the Iraqis on the battlefield against ISIL. And we were pleased to see today that the Iraqi government announced the beginning of the mission to retake Ramadi and to drive ISIL out of Anbar Province. I think that is a clear indication of the will of the Iraqi security forces to fight, and the United States and our coalition partners will stand with them as they do so.
Q What Secretary Carter said -- was he authorized by the White House to say that over the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what Secretary Carter said is consistent with the analysis that he's received from those who are on the ground who are looking at this situation. And he has also indicated on a number of occasions that there is an important role for the United States and our coalition partners to play in supporting those Iraqi security forces.
We have -- and this is something that Secretary Carter has also discussed -- we have seen a number of situations in which Iraqi security forces have performed well on the battlefield in the effort to retake Tikrit from ISIL forces. Those Iraqi security forces were backed by coalition airpower, and they demonstrated not just the will to fight, but important capabilities that allowed them to succeed on the battlefield more quickly against ISIL in Tikrit that most analysts had expected.
We also have seen a more relevant example that, back in February, there was significant concern expressed about Iraqi security forces who had been driven out of the Anbar town of Baghdadi by ISIL forces, and there was concern that this -- many people pointed to the ISIL success in Baghdadi as evidence of their building momentum. We know that when Iraqi security forces had to retreat from Baghdadi, they were able to reconstitute, they were able to reorganize, and they were able to retake Baghdadi against ISIL forces.
Now, Baghdadi is a much smaller town than Ramadi. But it does serve as a template for the kind of strategy that can be deployed against ISIL forces in Anbar. In this case, again, it is building up, improving the capacity of Iraqi security forces by incorporating local Sunni tribal fighters in the force. Now, it's important for those tribal fighters to be under the command and control of the Iraqi central government, but when they are paired with Iraqi security forces, particularly those who have gotten the training from the United States and from the coalition partners, and when they were receiving equipment from the United States and our coalition partners to take the fight to ISIL, we know that they can perform very well on the battlefield.
Q I also want to ask you about earlier today -- the President's comments in the Oval Office. He said that we have to think about whether we are deploying and arranging our assets effectively to meet the challenge on the Southern Front. What did he mean by that? Does he think the assets aren't being deployed effectively now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there have been some concerns raised by some fighters that they haven't gotten the kind of equipment that they feel like they need to fight ISIL. And the President and the rest of the administration has vowed to work closely with the Iraqis to make sure that this military equipment is getting where it's most needed.
There is one specific example that I know that the Iraqis have been asking for -- that there is a military weapon, an AT4, which essentially is an antitank weapon that we believe can be valuable in trying to counter the VBIEDS -- these are the vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices that ISIL has used to great effect, essentially car bombs that they have used in some of these fights. And the sense is, is that the use of these AT4s could disable-ize the car bombs -- or that they could essentially stop the car bombs before they move into position where they can have the maximum effect. Many of the car bombs are actually armored vehicles, and so that's the benefit of having this AT4 that can be deployed against them that can prevent, or at least make it much harder for ISIL fighters to use this particular military tactic.
That's an example of how improving the flow of equipment and making sure it gets into the hands of the Iraqi security forces efficiently can make a difference on the battlefield. And that's something that we're working on as well.
Q When the Vice President called Prime Minister Abadi yesterday, was that an attempt by the White House to try to patch things up after Secretary Carter's remarks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you saw the readout of the telephone call that the Vice President placed to Prime Minister Abadi. And what the Vice President reiterated is something that he has done on a number of occasions over the last several months, which is indicated that the United States and our coalition partners stand ready to work with Iraq, the central government of Iraq, to face down the threat that they -- that is posed by ISIL. And the Vice President reiterated that it's critically important for the Iraqi central government and for the Iraqi security forces to operate in a multi-sectarian fashion, that uniting that country to face the ISIL threat will be critical to their success.
The Vice President also indicated that -- our ongoing commitment to making sure that we're partnering with them as they face down this threat, and reiterating that the United States and our coalition partners cannot solve this problem for the Iraqi people, that we're going to stand with our partners in Iraq as they provide for the security of their own country.
And this is, after all, something that Prime Minister Abadi has indicated that he wants. He doesn't want the United States -- he doesn't want the United States military essentially trying to solve this problem for the Iraqi people. What he's looking for is the support of the United States and the international community as they confront this very serious threat to the security situation inside his country. That's what he's getting. And the Vice President called to let him know that he could continue to expect that kind of consistent support from the United States and our coalition partners.
Q So did the Prime Minister express disappointment in the remarks that Secretary Carter had made?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, when we read out these telephone calls we typically will read out the conversation that is carried by our side of the conversation. So if Prime Minister Abadi wants to say something publicly about his conversation with the Vice President then I'll let him do that.
Q And just one more on Iraq. Shiite paramilitary said today that they've taken charge of the campaign in Anbar and they've given it an openly sectarian code name. And I guess I'm wondering, what concerns the White House has about this, and whether the White House has relayed concerns to Iraq about this.
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen that specific report. What we have indicated all along is that it will require a multi-sectarian force to succeed against ISIL. And the reason for that is Iraq is a very diverse country and they're going to need every element of their diversity to counter this specific threat. And that's going to start with the central government of Iraq governing the country in a multi-sectarian fashion and in an inclusive fashion. And it's going to require a multi-sectarian security force to take the fight to ISIL and to not just drive ISIL out of the country, but also to hold the ground.
And that is a message that the United States sent very directly to Prime Minister Abadi. It's consistent with the way that Prime Minister Abadi has led that country in the nine or so months that he has been the Prime Minister. And what we have indicated is that -- we've been pretty up front about this, too, Roberta. You'll recall from even the earliest days of the military campaign that the support of the United States was predicated on the commitment of the Iraqi political leadership and the Iraqi military leadership governing and fighting in a multi-sectarian fashion. And that was true at the beginning in terms of the air support that the United States was prepared to offer; that's also been true in some of the successful military operations that Iraqi security forces have carried out.
So, in Tikrit, for example, you'll recall that there were some Shia militia who were not under the command and control of the Iraqi central government who were launching counter-offenses against ISIL in Tikrit. There were concerns about the motivation of those militia forces and it was evident from their performance on the battlefield that they did not have much success against ISIL.
When they left the fight and we saw a multi-sectarian force that was clearly under the command and control of the Iraqi central government take the lead in the fight, they were backed by coalition military airpower. And the combination of that multi-sectarian force under the command and control of the Iraqi central government, backed by military coalition airpower, was remarkably successful in driving ISIL out of Tikrit and in retaking that city. That is a good template for the strategy that can and must be deployed in other areas of the country to enjoy success against ISIL.
So again, I haven't seen the specific report that you're citing, but it's very clear what our strategy is, and it's clear that that strategy is one that has succeeded in the past.
Q Along those same lines, we heard the French Foreign Minister today being pretty critical of the government of Iraq in not forming a more inclusive government and kind of not living up to its end of the bargain on that. And he also called for the coalition to be stepped up before ISIS could make any more big gains. Would the White House agree on both of those points?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't see the specific comments, so let me just say as a general matter that we do believe that Prime Minister Abadi has lived up to his campaign rhetoric and his promises to govern in a multi-sectarian, inclusive fashion. That's been beneficial to his efforts to try to restore the security situation inside of Iraq.
And what's also been true, even as we consider his response to this setback in Ramadi, that Prime Minister Abadi did indicate that members of the Popular Mobilization Force should be deployed to go and fight ISIL in Anbar Province. But he did that with the full support of his multi-sectarian cabinet and with the strong support of the tribal leadership in Anbar Province who are Sunnis. So that is an indication that Prime Minister Abadi is being responsive to the concerns that are expressed by Sunni leaders in Anbar, and that Sunni leaders in Anbar are willing to work with the central government of Iraq to try to confront this specific situation.
So that's all evidence of some of the strategy starting to take root in a positive way. But obviously there's a lot of work that needs to get done. And this is the kind -- this question about the central government's commitment to governing inclusively is the kind of commitment that you don't just demonstrate overnight, but one that we'll need to see demonstrated over a sustained period of time. And like I said, the results of -- or at least the early observations are positive. But that commitment to governing in an inclusive fashion is one that will need to be demonstrated over a period of time.
Q Well, it was kind of interesting because the Deputy Prime Minister -- according to him, the comments that Secretary Carter made were right, that there wasn't the will to fight. It seemed to take him by surprise and others by surprise. But then to read out -- to look at the readout of the call by the Vice President yesterday, he was sort of listing -- there was a lack of leadership there, and then from the administration we also heard some other things that had sort of led up to this. So in that sense, it almost seems like these problems were known. And if they were, including the lack of the leadership within the military, couldn't some of these problems have been addressed at least by the Iraqi government well before the fall of Ramadi? I mean, it's been going on for 18 months.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Michelle, the President identified in his interview with The Atlantic a week or so ago -- indicated that one of the challenges in Ramadi is that the Iraqi security forces who were in Ramadi and had been fighting ISIL in a very difficult environment for 18 months did not have the benefit of the training that's being provided by the U.S. military and by other members of our coalition.
Building up the capacity of a willing and capable local fighting force is going to take time. And that is -- again, that is part of what the strategy is. The strategy is predicated on having a capable local force that's going to take the fight to ISIL in their own country. Having Iraqis that reflect the diversity of that country on the frontlines of this fight is critical to our success.
We have seen what happens when the United States tries to insert a large military contingent to try to solve this problem for the Iraqi people. Because of the bravery and courage and service and skill of the American military, that can work for a short period of time. But for enduring, sustainable results, we're going to need to see the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces step up and take responsibility for the security situation in their own country. And that's going to mean training Iraqi security forces. And that's a training process that can't be done in a week. That's not a seven-day training course -- this is going to require a more sustained commitment.
Q Looking at some of the things that were listed by this administration, though -- the lack of pay, low morale, not being able to see their families, being hit -- wave after wave of truck bombs but not really having the equipment or training to deal with them -- doesn't this indicate a massive failure on the part of the Iraqis to address the problems that were known not only by this administration but by them there on the ground?
MR. EARNEST: Michelle, that's not how I would describe it, only because these are the kinds of problems that we saw last year that contributed to ISIL making so many important gains in the first place. The difference is, is that in the situation in Ramadi, you had Iraqi security forces that had been on the ground, as you point out, for a year and a half, fighting ISIL in that city. That is an indication of at least some commitment on the part of Iraqi security forces to fighting this threat.
And we've been clear that addressing this problem is not something that we're going to be able to do overnight; that over a period of time, as we train more and more Iraqi security forces, they'll become more and more capable and perform better on the battlefield; that if there are certain pieces of military equipment or military tools that can be deployed to counter some of the tactics that are being used by ISIL, then we're going to try to speed up the provision of the necessary equipment. That's something that the Vice President reiterated in his telephone call with Prime Minister Abadi. The AT4s is just one example of that. These are weapons that can be used to counter some of the car bombs that are used by ISIL.
Q But I guess my question is, why wasn't that expedited before ISIS took over Ramadi?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is -- ISIL has been fighting in Ramadi for 18 months, and there have been significant shipments of military equipment and other things that were used by Iraqi security forces in that fight. But if there is additional equipment that can be used, then we're going to work closely with the Iraqi central government to make sure they're getting the equipment that they need.
Q Thank you, Josh. The President earlier today put the onus again on the Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act in order to reform the NSA's capabilities. And I wanted to bring something forward to you that Senator Rand Paul also said this morning -- he said that the President is being "disingenuous about this" because the President started this program through an executive order, and he could "end it any time." Then he said, "Why doesn't he stop? What's he waiting for?" He started this "on his own. And I've asked the President repeatedly to stop the program."
Last week, you had said that there was no plan B; that the USA Freedom Act -- it's USA Freedom Act or bust. So what I guess I'm wondering is would the President be willing to consider an executive order like Senator Rand Paul suggested? Or is there still no other plan, USA Freedom Act all the way?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't see Senator Paul's comments so I can't respond to them directly. But I will -- I can address some of the questions that you've raised.
The authorities that are used by our national security professionals to keep us safe are authorities that were given to those national security professionals by the Congress. And those authorities can only be renewed by the United States Congress through an act of Congress.
Now, there is obviously judicial oversight over the use of those authorities, and so there is a role for the judicial branch here, as well. But what we know to be true is that the United States House of Representatives, with the strong support of a large number of Republicans, passed the USA Freedom Act, which does two things. One is it makes sure that our national security professionals have the tools they need to keep us safe, while at the same time building in greater protections to protect the civil liberties of the American people.
That is the kind of solution that the President called for a year and a half ago. And because of the very good work of the President's national security team and Democrats and Republicans in the Congress, this bipartisan compromise in the form of the USA Freedom Act was hammered out. And it's a credit to the leadership of the Speaker of the House that he was able to build bipartisan support for this compromise and to get it passed in a timely fashion.
Unfortunately, we haven't seen that similar kind of effort in the United States Senate. And the President has been very clear that if the United States Senate doesn't act by the end of the day on Sunday, there are critically important national security tools that will no longer be available. And that will put -- there is some risk associated with taking those tools away from our national security professionals.
It's Senator McConnell himself who observed in interviews on this topic over the weekend that the United States is in a "high-threat period." So certainly Senator McConnell understands the stakes here. And that's why we're hopeful that Senator McConnell, being very cognizant of the environment in which our national security professionals are operating, will take the necessary steps to help the Senate pass the USA Freedom Act.
Q So there's still no plan B?
MR. EARNEST: The kinds of authorities that are provided to our national security professionals in the USA Freedom Act are only authorities that can be delegated by the United States Congress. So if Congress acts, there will be no lapse in the programs. And if they act on the USA Freedom Act, then we will also see that greater civil liberties protections will be built in -- these kinds of reforms the President called for a year and a half ago. But if the Senate doesn't act, then there is no way to prevent those authorities from expiring.
And again, given that Senator McConnell has acknowledged that we're operating in a high-threat period, he, as well as anyone, understands the kind of risk that's associated with the Senate failing to do their job.
Q And I wonder if I could follow up on that -- you said Friday that he might make some calls, the President might make some calls over the weekend. Did he make any calls?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any calls to read out from here.
Q Thanks. I'd like to follow up on the President's NSA comments.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q So a sort of narrow question and then a broader question. Is the White House supporting this certification process push on the telephone company provision? Are you down with that to show that they have done -- did all that they needed to be able to store the technology?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not familiar with the certification push. Tell me what you mean by that.
Q The notion, as they're trying -- as part of a compromise they're trying to go to that -- the issue of whether the phone companies have developed the technology they need to store the data that they're supposed to store, the addition of another hurdle of kind of a certification process to have confidence that the process is working the way it's supposed to.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple things about this that I can speak to. The first is we do know that the telecom companies already collect this data and that is information that is held by the -- that is currently held by the U.S. government. And then when they're given -- when our national security professionals are given a warrant, then they can search this data to try to root out terrorists and other people who may be wishing harm against the United States.
The reforms that are contemplated in the USA Freedom Act would be that the telecom companies would continue to hold that data themselves. And our national security professionals, when given a warrant from the judicial branch, could go and search that data in response to threats that they have detected. So this is a system that we know already operates.
Now, the second thing that's also true is that there are going to be some changes to the standard operating procedure involved when the government is no longer holding that data and rather is searching data that's being held by the telecom companies. So that's why written into the USA Freedom Act is a 180-day implementation period to allow for this transition to take place. And that 180 days was a transition period that was essentially decided upon by the national security agencies who said that it would require six months to execute this transition. And we're confident that that's how long will be required to make these changes.
If we later determine that six months is not enough time for this transition to take place, then the administration is committed to going back to Congress and asking for an additional period of time to --
Q You don't want to see that built in now as part of the process of just keeping this thing alive, getting this over the finish line on Sunday? That's something you'd like to revisit later if need be?
MR. EARNEST: You mean in terms of the implementation period? Well, I think what is clear is that the national security agencies have indicated that they need six months in order to get this done. That's what's written into the USA Freedom Act. So that's why we believe that we should move forward with the USA Freedom Act. If it turns out that down the line that they do need additional time, then the administration will come back to them.
Q And on the broader question, forgive us for all being so cynical, but I think it's hard to maybe, as a journalist covering this, to get our heads around the idea that the government's spy programs writ large would cease to exist if Congress has a hiccup on Sunday. So I think what we're trying to get to is, are you in the process now of creating some framework for legal justification to keep doing what you're already doing if you need to keep doing that without this legislative structure that enables it? And how is -- I'm sure you don't want it that way. I'm sure you don't want to promote the idea that you're doing that. But it's just unfathomable that this is -- as critical as the President has just said it was in the spring, that you would be like, oh, well, Congress couldn't act, there's nothing we can do about it. So what are you doing in the maybe unlikely event that this does not get extended as it needs to on the deadline to try to keep as much of it in place as you can?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the fact is, Margaret, that these are authorities that can only be given to the executive branch by the United States Congress.
Q There are other authorities that the executive branch could assume or advocate for, or create a patch justification for if you thought that you needed to. What are you doing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'd refer you to the NSA or the Department of Justice on this. The fact is I'm not aware of any sort of plan B that exists or that's currently being contemplated -- that there are significant consequences for the Senate's failure to act. It would lead -- it would certainly put at grave risk these programs and could risk a lapse in some of these important national security capabilities that, as you know, the President has said is critical to our national security.
Importantly, it would also put at risk the bipartisan compromise about the kinds of civil liberties protections that the President also believes are important. And that's why we would like to see the Senate act before Sunday in passing the USA Freedom Act. But in terms of additional authorities that our national security agencies might seek, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice on that.
Q So let's just not put too fine a point on it. You're saying significant risk here. If these program or these aspects of the Patriot Act expire on Sunday at midnight, are we at greater risk of a terrorist attack?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for the consequences that this would have on our national security, I would refer you to our intelligence agencies on this. They can speak to what role these authorities play in terms of protecting the country. What I can tell you is that they do play a role in protecting the country. And if the Congress doesn't act by the deadline on the end of the day on Sunday, then those authorities and those programs will lapse.
Q What's the President going to do about it between now and then? Is he asking -- you're only three votes short in the Senate. There's going to be another vote in the Senate. What's he doing to get those three votes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about this, Jon. The thing that's important for everybody to remember is sort of how we've gotten to this point, which is the President actually did, a year and a half ago, step forward and give a speech in front of all of you to indicate that these kinds of reforms were badly needed. This was a hotly debated notion, and the President stepping up saying we need to protect some of these authorities, but there is a way that we can better balance the need to protect our civil liberties -- the President stepped up and did that a year and a half ago.
And for the last year and a half, the United States Congress has been operating under this looming deadline, understanding that if they didn't act in that time period, that those authorities would lapse and that's these programs would go away.
And so what the President and his national security team did is they went to Capitol Hill and they worked closely with Democrats and Republicans to try to fashion a bipartisan compromise.
And look, untangling all of this and making sure that the core authorities are protected while at the same time we're building in protections for civil liberties, working through the challenges that are presented by technology and by the large quantity of data that we're talking about here -- that's hard work. And that is a difficult policy problem. And we've talked in the past about how Congress in recent months has struggled to do even simple things, but this is an example where, working in bipartisan fashion with our national security agencies at the direction of the President, that this difficult policy problem was essentially solved.
Now we're on to a much more rudimentary, basic, frankly, simple problem to solve, which is getting the Senate to do their job. And in this case, we've built a bipartisan consensus -- or at least strong bipartisan agreement that's necessary. We've worked through all of the policy details. Now it's just the responsibility of the United States Senate to step up and protect the country and protect our civil liberties.
Q I understand all the history. This program expires in five days. You just said it is vital or important to protecting national security. You're three votes shy in the Senate. What is the President doing now? Is he making calls to get those three votes? Is he calling senators to come in to meet with him over this recess? What is he doing to get those three votes? I understand all the past. We're five days away from the program expiring. He needs three votes. What's he doing to get them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to read out any private conversations that the President has had. The President is certainly ready and willing to have any conversations that are necessary and I wouldn't rule out the President having any of those conversations. But the point is, Jon, all the hard work has been done on this. Right? I mean, this is --
Q All the history --
MR. EARNEST: -- the complicated policy, it's working through the partisan politics that's involved, trying to understand the technology that's involved. The stakes are really high when it comes to our national security and when it comes to the civil liberties of the American people. All of that has been worked out because of the President and his national security team working effectively with Democrats and Republicans.
The other thing I would point out is that every single Democrat in the United States Senate voted for this compromise. And right now, I think what we're seeing is a difference of opinion on the Republican side of the aisle. At some point, the political ambitions of individual members of the United States Senate are going to have to come second to the national security of the United States.
Q There's a lot of ambition there. Very quickly, on the other big topic, the words from Defense Secretary Carter. I heard the question asked directly; I didn't hear a direct answer. So I'm going to try and just ask you, does the President agree with Defense Secretary Carter that the Iraqis did not show the will to fight, and that's what happened in Ramadi?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what's clear -- what happened in Ramadi -- I think there are a variety of contributors to what happened in Ramadi. The first is that the Iraqi security forces who were fighting in Ramadi and have been fighting in Ramadi for a year and a half didn't have the benefit of the training of the United States and our coalition partners. There were clearly, as the Iraqis have indicated, some military command and planning problems that occurred. And we saw a pretty effective tactic used by ISIL. And all of that led to a not unsubstantial setback in Ramadi.
Q But what the Defense Secretary said was "the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight." So does the White House agree with that assessment from the Defense Secretary -- the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that certainly has been a problem that we've seen in the past. That's what allowed ISIL to make such significant gains last summer. And so what the United States and our coalition has been focused on is making sure that we can enhance the capacity of the Iraqi security forces and supporting the Iraqi central government as they try to unite that country and build a multi-sectarian security force to face the threat that is posed by ISIL.
Q The forces that are leading this counter-offensive announced today are the Shia militias, largely, supported by Iran. And the Iranians -- Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, said over the weekend in response to Ash Carter's statement, it's the Americans that have showed no will to fight. The Americans didn't do anything, Soleimani said, as ISIS went in and took over Ramadi. So what do you say to the Iranians, saying it's the United States that lacks the will to fight?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we've been very clear about what the United States and our coalition partners have done and are willing to do to support the Iraqi central government, the Iraqi people and the Iraqi security forces as they face down the ISIL threat in their country. And that's everything from training and equipping their soldiers to providing military air power to back up their -- to back them up on the battlefield. There's also a whole range of other support that we've offered in terms of trying to shut down the flow of foreign fighters to the frontlines fighting alongside ISIL. We're trying to shut down ISIL's source of funding. This will all have an impact on the ability of the multi-sectarian Iraqi security force to take the fight to ISIL in their country.
This is not something that the United States is willing to do for the Iraqi people. And the Iraqi central government, Prime Minister Abadi, has made crystal-clear on a number of occasions he doesn't want anybody to step in and do this for them. He's prepared to unite that country, to bring that country together, and to mobilize a multi-sectarian security force to face down the security threat in his country. And that's what the United States and our coalition partners stand ready to do.
Q Can I follow up on what Roberta asked? Because I think also there was not necessarily a direct answer to her question, which was whether or not the Vice President's call was to patch things up. You gave a readout of the call, but I want to ask you about the motivation, whether this was a diplomatic call because some of the Iraqis had their feathers ruffled? Was what Ash Carter said conversely, or perhaps at the same time, directly reflecting the feeling, the frustration of the White House and the Pentagon, and maybe were Ash Carter and Vice President Biden playing a little bit of "good cop-bad cop"?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don't have a whole lot more to say about the telephone call than I've already said. The fact is the Vice President has an effective working relationship with Prime Minister Abadi. Vice President Biden obviously has a lot of experience in Iraq, both when he operated in the Senate, but also as Vice President. He's traveled to that country many times, has many important, established personal relationships there.
He speaks frequently with the Prime Minister of Iraq, and this most recent telephone call was one that was placed over the weekend and one that was motivated to, again, communicating directly with Prime Minister Abadi, who has been a very good partner with the United States -- that the United States continues to be committed to their ongoing efforts there against ISIL, and that whether it's continuing to train and equip his security forces, whether it is working closely with them to provide advice, or even carrying out military airstrikes in support of his security forces that are operating on the ground, that the United States stands ready to be a good partner with the Iraqis as they confront the ISIL threat in their country.
Q But committed is different than being pleased with the way that things are being carried out.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we have talked about quite a bit, particularly over the last week, there are going to be days of progress and there are going to be periods of setback. And we're pleased with the progress that's been made.
And whether that is -- I read down that list earlier -- whether that is the progress that we made in Tikrit a couple of months ago; we saw this situation in Baghdadi, which is in western Anbar Province, where ISIL forces had driven Iraqi security forces out of the town, but the Iraqi security forces were able to reconstitute and regroup and retake that town in Anbar Province; at the end of last year, we saw the success of Iraqi security forces as they took the fight to ISIL around Mosul Dam and Haditha -- these are all critically important areas where we have demonstrated some progress based on the strategy that the President laid out.
But we've also seen setback as well. And the President, and the Vice President in the telephone call that he placed to the Prime Minister, is dedicated to making sure that the commitment of the United States, even in the face of some of these setbacks, has not waned.
Q Let me ask you specifically about this setback in Ramadi, because you talked about the fact that many of these fighters were not trained by U.S. and coalition forces. But is there concern at the White House, is the President concerned about what appears to be increasing sophistication on the part of the Islamic State, including these reports that in the lead-up to their taking Ramadi, for example, that they had a good discipline in cutting off social media, that they were able to move some of their fighters in, using different types of vehicles to evade U.S. intelligence detection? How much concern is there that part of this isn't just about what the Iraqi side is doing, but increasing sophistication and a pretty quick learning curve on the part of the Islamic State?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the administration has been very clear from the beginning of this effort that we take very seriously the threat that is posed by ISIL. Many of these are individuals who were affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq previously. Some of these are individuals who had previously served in high-ranking positions of the Iraqi army. So the sophistication and capability of some of these ISIL forces is not particularly surprising.
We've long acknowledged how dangerous they are. And that said, we also know that there are tools and techniques that can be used to counter and defeat them. And whether that is the success that we had in Tikrit -- you'll recall a couple of months ago, ISIL took over Tikrit. This was of significant, symbolic value.
Q The specific question I'm asking you is about what seems to be a pretty quick learning curve, that some of the setbacks that they have had they seem to be learning from as well.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess -- but the point is ISIL has experienced some period of progress and some setbacks as well. But what's true is that the strategy that the President has deployed alongside our 60 coalition partners has more often than not yielded important success. And that strategy is predicated on having a capable, willing fighting force on the ground that is made up of Iraqis, that's multi-sectarian in nature, that's under the command and control of the Iraqi central government.
And the United States is training and equipping those fighters. The United States is making clear that they need to operate under the command and control of the Iraqi central government. And when they're on the battlefield and where possible, the United States and our coalition partners are backing their efforts on the ground with military airstrikes. And this is a strategy that has yielded success in a variety of areas.
And there's a lot more important work that needs to get done. Whether it's Ramadi, the Anbar Province -- obviously, retaking Mosul is going to be a very difficult campaign as well. But we continue to have confidence in the strategy.
And the other thing that we have been clear about from the beginning -- there are two other things. The first is this is not a fight that the United States is going to fight for the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people are going to be in the lead, and the Iraqi people are going to enjoy the support of the United States and our coalition partners.
But we've also been clear that this strategy is not a quick-fix strategy. This is a strategy that's going to take some time; that training Iraqi security forces in these techniques, making sure that they know how to use the equipment that they're given, that takes time. And that's why the President has indicated this is going to require a long-term commitment. This is not a short-term proposition. And that is -- we're mindful of that even as we face some of the setbacks we've seen in recent days.
Q Josh, you said that with U.S. training that Iraqi forces can fight better, can be more efficient. Is that not an indication that maybe John McCain has a point when he says maybe thousands more U.S. advisors and trainers are needed there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there is a well-documented history of the differing views between Barack Obama and John McCain when it comes to Iraq. I won't revisit all of those here -- we could probably be here all day.
Q But even some military experts say more advisors and trainers might help.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, as the President makes these decisions and as the President considers our strategy moving forward, he's obviously going to listen very carefully to members of his national security team and to our military who are on the ground, who are evaluating the strategy, who are evaluating the progress that's been made so far, and who are evaluating what steps can be taken to address some of the setbacks that have also been experienced. And so that's who the President will be carefully listening to as he makes these decisions in the weeks and months ahead.
Q On the NSA issue -- didn't the NSA say that they would start winding down these programs on Friday? And have they started to wind them down? And if so, is that increasing the risk of a terrorist plot going unfound?
MR. EARNEST: The NSA did indicate that if Congress -- that if the United States Senate did not act by the end of the day on Friday, that they would need to begin winding down this program. And they did -- I understand that they have started winding down the program. What impact that has on their capabilities, though, is something that you should ask them. I can't speak to that directly. What impact that has on our national security, you can ask them. I can't speak to that directly.
All I know is there is a simple fact which is that this is a -- that they indicated that based on the complexity of the infrastructure that they would need to begin taking steps to unwind the program by the end of the day on Friday to ensure --that if the program and these authorities were not renewed by the Sunday deadline that they would need to make sure that they were in compliance with the law. They will, of course, be in compliance with the law, and they began those preparations last week.
Q So would the program be fully wound down by Sunday midnight?
MR. EARNEST: If the Senate does not act, and if Congress has, therefore, not given our national security professionals the authorities they need to carry out these programs then, yes, the programs will lapse.
Q Josh, I wanted to ask you questions on two subjects. I want to follow up with Chris and Pam real quick to something simple. During the Bush years, they were trying to help the Iraqi forces stand up against al Qaeda. In the Obama years, they're trying to help the Iraqi forces stand up against ISIL. What's different, and what will change to create a win or success -- total success -- in this situation? I mean, because we're hearing the same words for the last couple of years.
MR. EARNEST: What will be critical to the success of the Iraqi people in facing the ISIL threat is pulling the diversity of that country together to stand up to that threat. That's going to start with the political leadership in Iraq. The previous Prime Minster -- Prime Minister al-Maliki -- had governed that country in a sectarian fashion that left the Sunni elements of the population and even some of the Kurdish elements of the population convinced that he wasn't particularly interested or vested in their security -- or in their security needs.
There are also differences when it comes to economic policy, too, and that there were some concerns about government funds and investment from the central government in the Kurdish and Sunni areas of the country.
So what Iraq will require is a central government that's committed to governing that country in an inclusive fashion. And we have seen Prime Minister Abadi follow through on those commitments in the first nine months or so that he's been in office, that he has sought to unite that country to govern in a multi-sectarian fashion.
And the United States has been pleased by that not just because we're dedicated to the notion of seeing people follow through on their commitments, but also because we know that that's going to be critical to the national security of Iraq. That if they're going to succeed in stabilizing the security situation in that country, they're going to need the diverse population of Iraq to come together and face down the external threats that they face.
So that's what will be critical to their success. And we have made that a priority. From the very beginning of this campaign, you'll recall that there were a lot of questions even in this room about why the scope of the bombing campaign by the United States was so limited in nature. And we indicated that in order to expand our involvement in that country, the United States was going to need a partner in the Iraqi central government that was committed to governing that country in an inclusive fashion. And that's what we have gotten from Prime Minister Abadi.
And it's also important that we see that kind of multi-sectarian commitment be applied when it comes to the Iraqi security forces as well. That we can't just see Shia Iraqi security forces fighting in Shia parts of the country, but rather, that we need to see a multi-sectarian force that's being deployed to every area of that country to protect it and to counter the threat from ISIL.
Q On the second subject -- domestically, here at home, is the White House watching what's happening in some of the urban cities, Chicago and Baltimore? It's the unofficial start of summer this weekend, and we saw large numbers of shootings, fatalities in Baltimore specifically. What is the thought of the White House about what happened this weekend? And what will help turn this situation around, particularly as there is a spotlight, again, on urban cities And we're seeing this rash of shootings and death in these urban cities?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, we certainly continue to be concerned by violence that we see in cities all across the country. And I think it's an indication of just how widespread this violence has become, that in some ways, it's almost -- it doesn't sort of break through in the news coverage anymore when you see this rash of violence. So this is something that the President has talked about quite a bit, and this is a reflection of some pretty entrenched problems.
And obviously there's some common-sense things that we can do -- Certainly passage of some gun safety laws in Congress that could keep guns out of the hands of criminals would be one thing that we could do to try to limit the violence. There's more that we could do to try to address some of the dire economic circumstances in some of these urban communities. And there is more that we can do to support local governments and leaders in these communities to try to meet the needs of the local population. So this is going to require -- there's no one simple answer to try and address this. But this is certainly a challenge that the President is ready to confront.
Q So what I'm looking for right now from you is an answer in the short term. Summer has started unofficially and it's already started, the crime -- if you've ever covered local government in the summertime you know that the numbers go up in the summer. But the issue is, what is this administration prepared to do? Particularly when the spotlight is on urban cities and they are talking about not necessarily funding extra summer jobs programs, and they're closing rec centers and things of that nature, what is there on the table in the short term for this summer -- not long term, but short term that could help fix or ease this problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, why don't we have somebody follow up with you at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Labor, the Department of Education? Each of those agencies has programs that they're working with local officials to implement to try to address some of these problems that you've identified.
Q -- and the President, if he would like to talk.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. We'll see what we can do. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Jordan.
Q Thanks, Josh. So it looks like the House could take up TPA as early as next week, but there's still just over a dozen Democrats who are on the record saying that they would support the legislation. So is the White House going to intensify its outreach to Capitol Hill? Does it need to make a more intense effort than it did in the Senate to get that bill across the finish line?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jordan, I'll tell you that there has -- that the White House has already been very mindful, including the President, of how difficult a challenge this will be in the House of Representatives as well. Many political observers who know more about this process than I do believe it will actually be more difficult to build bipartisan support in the House than it was in the Senate for this particular piece of legislation.
I will say that we are gratified that there were 14 Democrats who ultimately voted to support trade promotion authority on final passage. That's about a third of the Democrats in the United States Senate, and that's an indication that when we have the opportunity to make the case to Democratic members of Congress about this being the most progressive trade promotion authority legislation that's advanced through the Senate, and when we talk about the opportunity that exists for creating jobs and expanding economic opportunity for middle-class families by opening up more overseas markets to U.S. goods and services -- that's a message that resonates with Democrats. And that's an opportunity that we're going to capitalize on in the House, too.
But I'll tell you that it won't be just today that the administration and that even the President begins to make the case to Democrats in the House about how important it is to support this specific legislative proposal. This is a case that we've been making for quite some time. We've been preparing the ground in advance of House consideration of this legislation, and we're certainly going to be making a case that's consistent with the case that we made in the United States Senate that yielded the support of about a third of the Democrats in the Senate.
Q And on one other topic, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that he would be open to peace talks with Palestinians, first regarding what settlement areas Israel would be able to keep in a final deal. Does the White House have any response to Netanyahu's offer?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have a direct response to him. What we have long said is that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only be finally resolved when the Israelis and the Palestinians sit down at the negotiating table and resolve their differences face to face.
And the United States and certainly the Obama administration has indicated a willingness to facilitate those kinds of conversations. And we've gone to very great lengths to try to do that. But this is -- I didn't see his specific comments, but based on what you said, it sounds broadly consistent with what we have indicated in the past. And that willingness to have those face-to-face conversations to try to resolve those differences is at least a start to ultimately putting in the past this long-running conflict.
Q Josh, you said something earlier that I want to make sure you meant to say -- you might have just squeezed a couple thoughts together. You said if the Senate acts, the authorities won't expire, and if the Senate passes the USA Freedom Act, they won't expire and we can protect our civil liberties -- as if to suggest two different tracks. And the reason I caught on to that is because that might be a way out, even in the short term. Were you suggesting that the President is open and the White House is open to a short-term extension of the existing authorities of some duration separate from USA Freedom Act? Were you trying to tell us or suggest to us that's a potential resolution the White House is now open to?
MR. EARNEST: I was not trying to leave you with that impression, primarily because we've seen -- and I think it was embarrassingly clear on the floor of the United States Senate late on Friday night -- that that's not an option. And the only real option before the United States Senate that will not put these critically important national security programs at risk is to pass the USA Freedom Act before the Sunday night deadline.
Q Okay. You got sort of away down the road I was going to try to lead you to, but I'd like you to go even farther.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Assess what you saw Friday night in the votes. Three votes short on the USA Freedom Act; a substantial 15 votes short on reauthorization of the Patriot Act.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, not even a majority.
Q Right. What does that tell you? What do you think it ought to inform the Senate? And where do you believe this puts the debate going forward?
MR. EARNEST: I think what it makes clear is that there is strong bipartisan support for the USA Freedom Act. We already saw that clear bipartisan support in the United States House of Representatives -- 338 Democrats and Republicans voted for that legislation. In the Senate, we saw that 57 Democrats and Republicans voted to begin the debate on this particular piece of legislation. That's an indication that there's similar bipartisan support for this legislation in the United States Senate. So as I was conveying to Jon, the hard work of this has already been done.
These are complicated policy issues. They deal with our national security and our civil liberties. They deal with cutting-edge technology. They deal with unimaginable amounts of data. And to work through, in this highly partisan political environment, a bipartisan compromise through what has often been a pretty dysfunctional House of Representatives is quite an accomplishment. And I don't mean that as a backhanded compliment. Republicans in the House of Representatives deserve credit for working effectively both with Democrats in the House of Representatives, but also with our national security professionals to reach that bipartisan common ground.
So the hard work of this has been done. We also know -- at least we can surmise from the vote that there is similar bipartisan support in the United States Senate. We just need to allow -- members of the Senate need to allow that piece of legislation to come up for a debate, and they need to allow that to happen before the deadline on Sunday night.
Q Rand Paul brings up what he describes as "inconvenient facts" on the point that you've made often that this is essential to national security, as the President did in the Oval Office. The President's own review panel could not find one instance in which a live terrorist threat was thwarted. An IG report also came to the similar conclusion. So if it's so important, why has it never stopped anyone?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, our national security professionals who deal with this on a daily basis, who, in a nonpartisan way are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep us safe, say that these are authorities and these are programs that benefit their efforts. And so for the details of that, or how important it is, I'd refer you to them. They can speak to that more effectively and with more detail than I can.
All I can say is that the President listens carefully to his national security team for advice about what is necessary to protect the country, and what that national security team tells him is that these programs that are authorized by the USA Freedom Act are critically important to protecting the country. And that's why we're urging the United States Senate to do what the United States House of Representatives has already done in bipartisan fashion, which is to pass that compromise proposal that will protect the country and protect our civil liberties before the Sunday deadline.
Q And two quick ones on TPA. You mentioned mathematically one-third of the Senate Democratic caucus. Is that now your goal for the House -- one-third of the House Democratic caucus?
MR. EARNEST: No, it's not. But what I've --
Q Would you settle for one-sixth? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: We'll settle for a slim, bipartisan majority. But I just used that as an illustration that there was -- when this was considered by the Senate Finance Committee, a majority of Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee supported this piece of legislation. When it was considered on the floor, about a third of Senate Democrats supported this piece of legislation. That's an indication that when Democrats focus on the legislative proposal and evaluate the arguments, that there is a reason for at least a substantial number of them to support it.
And we're confident that -- or at least we're hopeful, we're making the case in the United States House of Representatives that members of the House in the Democratic caucus will find the same thing.
Q The President has a legislative team. Lots of people work on various issues simultaneously. Which is the higher priority for the President right now -- TPA or FISA?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because of the Sunday deadline, we need the Senate to act. I guess this is a useful illustration, though. The Senate can focus on the USA Freedom Act to get that done by Sunday night. The House can focus on TPA, get that done sometime shortly after they return from their recess. We can divide and conquer, if you will.
Q You're welcome. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Kevin.
Q Josh, thanks. I've heard you say on many occasions that the administration's position is to support the Iraqi people, but this is a problem they have to solve on their own. I'm curious if you feel the same way or if the President feels the same way about the problems that are currently ongoing in Ukraine, that this is a Ukrainian problem. We can assist them in a broad way, but ultimately it's Ukraine's problem and the problems that they're facing right now in particular with Russian aggression.
MR. EARNEST: Well, each of these situations is different. Obviously, we're talking in Ukraine about a sovereign country that's being menaced, and their sovereignty is being violated by their larger neighbor.
Iraq is dealing with a much different kind of threat from a terrorist organization. But what's true in Iraq is also -- I guess one thing that is true in Iraq that is also true in Ukraine is that the United States is standing by our Ukrainian partners as they try to confront this threat to their own security. The United States is not prepared to go to war over Ukraine. We've made that clear. But at the same time, there may be an opportunity for the United States and our NATO partners to help them confront the threat that they're facing from Russia, who so flagrantly violated their sovereignty and their territorial integrity. And this is something that I anticipate the President is going to be talking about quite a bit next week when he travels to Europe to attend the G7 meetings.
Q I wanted to ask you about the events that are ongoing in the South China Sea. Has the President been briefed on China's alleged island building, for lack of a better description? And is he aware of some of the back-and-forth between the U.S. military reconnaissance and aircraft and Chinese aircraft?
MR. EARNEST: The President has often talked about how critically important the security situation is in the South China Sea. It's critical to the national security of the United States. It's also critical to the global economy that the free flow of commerce in the South China Sea is something that needs to be maintained. And the United States is committed to working with other countries in the region to protect it. And because it is a priority, yes, you can expect that the President has been briefed on the latest in this situation and will continue to be.
Q I want to ask you about the approaching deadline -- June 1st is when the Taliban Five are alleged to be released. They were swapped in the Bowe Bergdahl exchange. I read -- actually heard today General McChrystal tell Fox that he knew immediately that Bergdahl had walked away, and he suggested that Admiral Mullen also knew immediately. And I'm curious, did the President know immediately that Bergdahl had walked away?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, there is a process in the United States military that's described in the United States military Code of Military Justice, and that is a process that is being conducted right now; that there are Army investigators who are responsible for interviewing Sergeant Bergdahl and others who may have had information about the circumstances that led to his disappearance. And I'm not going to weigh in on this particular situation until that justice process has run its course.
Q So you're unwilling to state whether or not the President knew that he walked away and that was common knowledge?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, there is a justice process that is conducted by the military, that's described in the Code of Military Justice, and that is a process that is underway right now. And when you're talking about the Commander-in-Chief, I'm going to be particularly sensitive about the need to make sure that anything that I say from here on his behalf is not perceived as interfering in that justice process in any way. So I'm going to be cautious and not weigh in on this.
Q Completely understand. I just -- I'm wondering if that would have mattered. Would that have mattered?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the principle that was at stake in the mind of the President was the principle that we don't leave anybody in our uniform, any man or woman who is wearing the United States military uniform behind. And in this case, as the Commander-in-Chief, he has a special responsibility to live up to that value. And that is the value that the President applied in this case. But at the same, the President also believes that every man and woman who is serving in our United States military is also subject to the U.S. Code of Military Justice, and it's a process that's also working its way through right now as we speak.
Q Lastly on NATO, anything more that they can be doing to support the Iraqi people?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, we have a coalition of more than 60 countries. And we continue to be in regular touch with our partners about steps that they can take to support our ongoing strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And whether that is a military contribution, or a contribution to the training effort or the ongoing effort to shut down the flow of foreign fighters, or to counter ISIL's messaging online, that there is a variety of elements to this strategy. And we certainly welcome the contribution that we have received from so many members of our coalition.
MR. EARNEST: Richard.
Q A couple on this, actually. First thing, is the President satisfied -- I just want to go back to ISIL for a second. Is the President satisfied with the air support and the airstrikes on the ground? Is he satisfied with the results out of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Richard, we have seen that the airstrikes have had an important impact on the battlefield, that there are a number of situations -- Tikrit is the best example -- where Iraqi security forces struggled to displace ISIL fighters from Tikrit, but when they restarted that offensive with the backing of the United States and our coalition military airpower, they were much more effective on the battlefield. So there are a number of examples where the effective deployment of military airstrikes has degraded ISIL.
Q But it hasn't had that impact on Ramadi, obviously.
MR. EARNEST: No, it has not had that impact on Ramadi. Each of these situations is different. But there is a strategy that we employed in Tikrit to great success that we'll also employ in Ramadi, which is making sure that we have a multi-sectarian security force that's under the command and control of the Iraqi central government, and when they get training and equipment and when they're backed by coalition military airpower, we believe that they can be effective in operating on the battlefield.
Q How does the President feel -- talking about equipment -- when he sees that when the Iraqi forces leave, rushed away from Ramadi, for instance, they leave millions of dollars of U.S. equipment on the ground?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Richard, this highlights one of the things that we talked about earlier, which is that the military forces, the security forces that were operating in Ramadi did not have the benefit of U.S. military training.
Q But they had the equipment.
MR. EARNEST: They did have the equipment, but they didn't have the ability of -- they didn't have the benefit of U.S. military training. And that's why we would like to see greater capability and greater training so that they can operate more effectively on the battlefield.
Q Last question -- does the President share the frustration of Secretary General Stoltenberg towards the cuts in defense budget from other NATO members?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you've heard the President talk about this on a number of other occasions, as well, that we have expectations about the kind of contributions that are made by our NATO allies to our mutual defense. And that requires a substantial financial commitment on the part of each of our NATO allies to this shared effort. The United States has certainly lived up to the responsibilities that we have, and we're counting on our alliance partners to do the same.
Q And you don't plan on making some phone calls or reaching people next week in -- reaching leaders next week in Germany about that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have anything to preview at this point. But this continues to be a priority for the United States. And we do have expectations that our NATO allies are going to live up to the responsibilities they have to dedicate the necessary resources and funding to provide for the security of every NATO ally.
Q I wondered if the President and the NATO Secretary General talked about the military exercises that Russia resumed today. And, if so, what was the reaction from the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have seen that Russia has engaged in these kinds of military actions and exercises in the past, so it's not a particular surprise. But it is something that we closely monitor for any impact that it might have on the safety and security of NATO allies.
And so we know there is a tendency in some situations where Russia has engaged in those kinds of military exercises near some of the Baltic members of our NATO Alliance. Sometimes these operations take place in the North Sea. So we're certainly mindful of these kinds of exercises that we have seen in the past, and we certainly do monitor them for any impact they may have on the security and safety of our NATO allies.
Q And this has nothing to do with Ukraine and the current situation there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is something that we're closely monitoring. I'm not sure that the latest military exercises are taking place all that close to Ukraine. But we have seen other instances where military exercises around Ukraine have had an impact on Ukraine's security situation. And given the frequency with which the Russian military facilitates the movement of weapons and personnel across the Ukrainian border, those kinds of movements in the vicinity of Ukraine are a source of some concern. So, again, that's why we monitor the situation closely.
J.C., I'll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. Does the President hold Bashar al-Assad personally responsible for ISIL's sacking of the ancient city of Palmyra and its execution of hundreds of its citizens?
MR. EARNEST: Well, J.C., the thing we have made clear is that the situation in Syria is one that is the responsibility of the Assad government and it is Assad's failed leadership that contributed to the chaos and instability that allowed ISIL to both organize but also to expand their footprint. And, ultimately, it is that failed leadership that has destabilized the situation inside of Syria, contributed to this spread of violence, and even had a negative impact on their neighbors in Iraq.
So we continue to believe that President Assad must go; that a political transition in Syria needs to occur so that we can try to bring some stability to Syria and have an impact on our ability to fight ISIL and bring stability to the broader region.
2:20 P.M. EDT
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