PRESS BRIEFING BY PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
MR. CARNEY: Good Friday afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here. I appreciate your patience. Before I take your questions, I just wanted to note, because it’s been reported, we did, as many of you know, have a background briefing here at the White House earlier. I think 14 news organizations were represented, ranging from online to broadcast TV, print and the like. And we do those periodically. We hope that participants find them helpful. I will say that no one here believes that briefings like that are substitute for this briefing, which is why I’m here today to take questions on whatever issues you want to ask me about.
Q Thanks, Jay. Two subjects, starting out with the IRS issue. The IRS says it’s flagged conservative groups with names like “patriots” or “tea parties” for review, and says that in some instances that its workers inappropriately asked for the identities of donors, and it has apologized. When did the White House become aware that the IRS engaged in this? And in a tax collection system that relies on trust, isn’t the IRS’s credibility at stake here? And will the White House, as called on by Senator McConnell, call for an investigation?
MR. CARNEY: Well, two things, Jim. I appreciate the question, and we’ve certainly see in those reports. My understanding is this matter is under investigation by the IG at the IRS. The IRS, as you know, is an independent enforcement agency with only two political appointees. The fact of the matter is what we know about this is of concern, and we certainly find the actions taken, as reported, to be inappropriate. And we would fully expect the investigation to be thorough and for corrections to be made in a case like this. And I believe the IRS has addressed that and has taken some action, and there is an investigation ongoing.
But it certainly does seem to be, based on what we’ve seen, to be inappropriate action that we would want to see thoroughly investigated.
Q Given that the President was so critical of some of these groups, both in 2010 and in 2012, isn’t it natural for the public to think that these things are politically motivated? What assurances can you —
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that, first of all, two things need to be noted, which is IRS is an independent enforcement agency, which I believe, as I understand it, contains only two political appointees within it. The individual who was running the IRS at the time was actually an appointee from the previous administration. But separate from that, there is no question that if this activity took place, it’s inappropriate and there needs to be action taken and the President would expect that it be thoroughly investigated and action would be taken.
Q On Benghazi, and with all due credit to my colleague on the right, we have had emails showing that the State Department pushed back against talking-point language from the CIA and expressed concern about how some of the information would be used politically in Congress. You have said the White House only made a stylistic change here, but these were not stylistic changes. These were content changes. So again, what role did the White House play, not just in making but in directing changes that took place to these?
MR. CARNEY: Well, thank you for that question. The way to look at this, I think, is to start from that week and understand that in the wake of the attacks in Benghazi, an effort was underway to find out what happened, who was responsible. In response to a request from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to the CIA, the CIA began a process of developing points that could be used in public by members of Congress, by members of that committee. And that process, as is always the case — again, led by the CIA — involved input from a variety of agencies with an interest in or a stake in the process, and that would include, obviously, the State Department since it was a State Department facility that was attacked and an Ambassador who was killed, as well as three others; the NSS, the FBI, which is the lead investigating authority, and other entities.
The CIA — in this case, deputy director of the CIA — took that process and issued a set of talking points on that Saturday morning, and those talking points were disseminated. Again, this was all in response to a request from Congress. And the only edit made by the White House or the State Department to those talking points generated by the CIA was a change from — referring to the facility that was attacked in Benghazi, from “consulate,” because it was not a consulate, to “diplomatic post.” I think I had referred to it as “diplomatic facility.” I think it may have been “diplomatic post.”
But the point being, it was a matter of non-substantive/factual correction. But there was a process leading up to that that involved inputs from a lot of agencies, as is always the case in a situation like this, and is always appropriate. And the effort is always to, in that circumstance, with an ongoing investigation and a lot of information — some of it accurate, some of it not, about what had happened and who was responsible — to provide information for members of Congress and others in the administration, for example, who might speak publicly about it that was based on only what the intelligence community could say for sure it thought it knew. And that is what was generated by the intelligence community, by the CIA.
Q But this information that — was information that the CIA obviously knows about prior attacks and warnings about those. Does the President think that it was appropriate to keep that information away simply because of how Congress might use it?
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, the CIA was the agency that made changes to the edits — I mean, to the talking points and then produced the talking points, first of all. Second of all, I think the overriding concern of everyone involved in that circumstance is always to make sure that we’re not giving, to those who speak in public about these issues, information that cannot be confirmed, speculation about who was responsible, other things like warnings that may or may not be relevant to what we ultimately learn about what happened and why.
All of that information, by the way, was and remains part of the investigation. It’s information that was provided to Congress and to others looking into this matter last fall and throughout the winter and into this year. And that investigation continues.
But on the substantive issues of what happened in Benghazi, and at that time, what the intelligence community thought it knew, that was reflected in the talking points that were used, again, that weekend by Ambassador Rice and by others, including members of Congress. And I think if you look at the information that’s been reported, you can see that evolution and that it was — the talking points were focused on what we knew and not speculation about what may or may not have been responsible or related.
I would also say that all of this information was provided months ago to members of Congress, a fact that we made clear to all of you at the time. During the confirmation process for John Brennan as Director of the CIA, there was a request for more information, including emails around the deliberating process involved in producing these talking points, and this administration took the rather extraordinary measure of providing those emails to members of the relevant committees, as well as the leadership members and staff in Congress. And that information was available, again, in late February to members of Congress, and through March. And once that information was reviewed, in the case of the Senate, Senate Republicans, a number of whom went on record saying, well, now I feel like I know what I need to know, then allowed the process for the confirmation of John Brennan to go forward and he was confirmed in early March.
Q Since you bring it up, why were those emails provided in a read-only fashion?
MR. CARNEY: It is, I think, a standard procedure for administrations of both parties, going back decades, that internal deliberations are generally protected — is generally protected information that is not something that is regularly shared with Congress, and then that’s — to allow for a deliberative process in the executive branch. In this case, to answer just these concerns that members of Congress had, particularly Republican members of Congress, that step was taken and provided. And they were able to review all of these emails, which they have, of course, now leaked to reporters, but they were able to review all of these emails for as long as they wanted, take extensive notes if they chose to.
And again, once that process was completed, the confirmation of John Brennan went forward. A number of Republicans came forward and said that they felt like they had the information they needed about that aspect of the Benghazi incident.
And it’s only now for what I think is, again, reflective of ongoing attempts to politicize a tragedy that took four American lives, we’re now seeing it resurface together with sort of political assertions by Republicans that ignore the basic facts here: There was an attack on our facility in Benghazi. The intelligence community provided the information that it felt comfortable providing for public dissemination to members of government, Congress and the administration.
As we learned more about what happened, we provided it. That’s why everybody has received the information that it has throughout this process, from the — I mean, one of the things that I think is interesting about the points is that from the very beginning there was included in the points the statement about demonstrations taking place outside of the building, of the facility in Benghazi. That is what the assessment — the consensus or collective assessment of the intelligence community was that, from that, there were spontaneous attacks launched against the facility. And when we found out that that was not true, when the assessment changed, we made that clear. And that was — going back, if you remember, when we had this discussion back in the fall, that was the point that Republicans were focusing on.
And yet, it’s clear from what you see in these documents that that was the assessment made by the intelligence community. And it’s also clear from the evolution of what public officials said about what we knew that as we got more concrete information and information that we felt confident about, we provided it to the press, to Congress and to the public.
Q Jay, the substance of these emails, though, suggests — or have very specific exchanges between State Department officials and officials here at the White House, which Jonathan uncovered, in which a State Department official raises concerns about providing talking points that would include a mention of al Qaeda because of a concern that Congress would use that against the State Department and the White House.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that’s actually not — I think you need to — the State Department has said that the spokesman’s office raised two primary concerns about the talking points. The points went further in assigning responsibility than preliminary assessments suggested, and there was concern about preserving the integrity of the investigation. That concern was expressed in other quarters, not just at the State Department.
Q The email said specifically concern about giving members of Congress something to use against the State Department.
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, this was a process where there was an effort underway, an interagency process, to develop information that could be delivered by government officials — both congressional and administration officials — about what we knew and not going beyond what we knew.
Q The language of that email is pretty clear, and the response is pretty clear in terms of saying we want to address Victoria Nuland’s concerns. No matter who ended up providing the talking points in the end, it certainly seems clear that there was an influence by the White House and the State Department on the CIA talking points for that reason.
MR. CARNEY: But again, I think you’re conflating a couple of things here. The White House, as I said, made one minor change to the talking points drafted by and produced by the CIA, and even prior to that made very few —
Q But is that just parsing words, Jay? I mean, does that —
MR. CARNEY: — had very few inputs on it. The other discussions that went on prior to this in an interagency process reflected the concerns of a variety of agencies who had a stake in this issue, both the FBI because it was investigating; the CIA, obviously, and other intelligence agencies; and the State Department, because an ambassador had been killed and a diplomatic facility had been attacked. And what I think the concern was is that these points not provide information that was speculative in terms of whether it was relevant to what happened.
And what could not be known at that time was the relevance of issues about warnings. There’s the discussion about — the Republicans — again, in this ongoing effort that began hours after the attacks when Mitt Romney put out a press release to try to take political advantage out of these deaths, or out of the attack in Benghazi, in a move that was maligned even by members of his own party. And from that day forward, there has been this effort to politicize it.
And if you look at the issue here — the efforts to politicize it were always about were we trying to play down the fact that there was an act of terror and an attack on the embassy. And the problem has always been with that assertion is that it’s completely hollow, because the President himself in the Rose Garden said this was an act of terror. And he talked about it within the context of September 11th, 2001. And then we had other officials of the administration refer to this as a terrorist act.
Susan Rice, when she went out on the Sunday shows using the very talking points that we’re discussing now, talked about the possibility that we knew that — or believed based on the intelligence assessment that extremists were involved, and there were suspicions about what affiliations those extremists might have, but there were not — there was not hard, concrete evidence. And so Ambassador Rice, in those shows, talked about the possibility that al Qaeda might be involved, or other al Qaeda affiliates might be involved, or non-al Qaeda Libyan extremists — which I think demonstrates that there was no effort to play that down, it was simply a reflection of we did not, and the intelligence community did not, and others within the administration did not jump to conclusions about who was responsible before we had an investigation to find out the facts.
Q But was concern about how Congress would react a factor in what went into those talking points, as that email suggests?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think if you look at the development of the talking points, the answer to that is no, because the talking points reflect the intelligence community’s assessment of what happened. And all the other issues about who was responsible, what specific organizations may have participated, what information was available or threats were known about the situation in Libya or in Benghazi specifically — I mean, all of that was part of an investigation, and was provided to Congress, and, as we learned more, to the public by the administration.
Q Jay, since you say this is a minor change — a minor change in venue, with the wording changed in venue — why such a big deal today with this deep background, deep, deep background, off-the-record briefing? It makes it seem like —
MR. CARNEY: Well, let’s be clear, it wasn’t off the record. And that was an erroneous report. But the — I mean, it’s a big deal because Republicans have chosen, in the latest iteration of their efforts, to politicize this, to provide — leak this information to reporters — information that we provided months ago to Republican lawmakers from the relevant committees and Republican leadership, as well as Democratic. And there’s an ongoing effort to make something political out of this.
But the problem with that effort is that it’s never been clear what it is they think they’re accusing the administration of doing, because when it comes to who is responsible, we were very open about what we knew, what we thought we knew, what we did for a fact know, and the fact that this was an ongoing investigation, and we would certainly learn more that would change our view of what had had happened in Benghazi.
Q I’m understanding that, but it seems like there has been fuel added to the fire. If this was such a minor issue, why not just tell the press like you did from the podium just a few minutes ago, instead of having this background briefing with a select few, and not the whole group right now if it’s such a minor issue?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I think I talked — I’m here right now to take your questions about this issue. And we have background briefings periodically, and 14 news organizations were represented, and that’s something that administrations do regularly of both parties. And as I said at the top, it’s not a replacement for this briefing, and that’s why I’m here taking your questions.
Q Jay, how do you go from a conversation that was apparently happening between various administration officials, various officials of this government on September 14th, and in those emails — in that email exchange there is a discussion about a group, Ansar al-Sharia, and then, after Victoria Nuland raises concerns on the part of the State Department, that references to that group are then removed from the conversation and don’t make their way into the talking points? That is a not a stylistic edit. That is not a single adjustment, as you said, back in November. That is a major, dramatic change in the information.
MR. CARNEY: No, I appreciate the question and the opportunity, again, to make clear that the CIA produced talking points that was a result of an interagency process on the morning of — that Saturday morning. And to that —
Q But when you say the CIA produced talking points —
MR. CARNEY: Jim, let me just finish this and then you can follow up.
Q But they were produced with the involvement and from pressure from other parties that were involved — the White House, the State Department.
MR. CARNEY: I would point you to the numerous statements by the top officials at the CIA making clear that they wrote the talking points, that they believed that those talking points represented what they knew to the best of their knowledge at that time and did not include things that they could not be concretely sure of. Ansar al-Sharia is a good example.
If you remember, in the wake of these attacks, there was an initial claim of responsibility by that group, and a lot of people rushed out and said, well, this is the group that’s responsible. Then that group withdrew the claim of responsibility. Now neither is dispositive — that’s why it needs to be investigated.
So what we knew was not concretely for sure that that group was responsible at that time, but we knew that extremists were participants. And that’s what the talking points said. And again, there’s the idea — Jim, if I could — the idea that saying “extremists” is somehow hiding the ball, I mean, does anybody in this room not understand that extremists in Libya means the kind of people who would attack a U.S. diplomatic facility?
Q But if you go back to what Susan Rice was talking about during those talk shows, she may have left open the possibility of extremists, but this is an altogether different thing. When you —
MR. CARNEY: Well actually, Jim, as I just said, she went on the Sunday shows and she talked Ansar al-Sharia. She talked about the fact that they may be responsible. She talked about the fact that al Qaeda could be responsible or other al Qaeda-linked affiliates. So what she did not say is that we know for a fact that they’re responsible.
And that’s why in the basic talking points — again, this is all about talking points. This is not about the facts of the investigation or all of the information that has been provided to Congress in countless hearings, countless pieces of information in documents that have been provided — I think 20,000 or 25,000 pages of documents. This was just the talking points that were the baseline for what public officials, beginning with members of Congress — that’s what they were developed for, but also provided to Ambassador Rice. And then she spoke beyond that based on what could be true, as opposed to what we knew to be true.
Q But just to follow up on this, once and for all — you are comfortable, you are still comfortable —
MR. CARNEY: You promise — once and for all? (Laughter.)
Q Well, maybe not. (Laughter.) But you are comfortable with the way you characterized this back in November, that this was a single adjustment? Yes, it may have been the White House that made a single adjustment, and perhaps it was the CIA that drafted these talking points. But that’s sort of glossing over the fact that you had all of these other parties involved. These were not stylistic edits, Jay. This is very much a content-driven change in the talking points.
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me just make clear, I do stand by that when we were talking about the talking points that were produced by the CIA and provided to members of Congress on the Intelligence Committee in the House who would ask for it and others, as well as folks in the administration, that that document was — there was a suggested edit that was accepted by the White House, and that was a change from, to make it factual, the calling of the building in Benghazi a “consulate,” because it was not a consulate, to “diplomatic post” or “facility.” I can’t remember which.
Prior to that, there had been a lot of discussion and iteration, iterative process where the various issues were discussed about what could be or should be said publicly — what we know, what we’re just speculating about. And that process involved a whole bunch of agencies. And it’s also the case that in that process, the White House involvement in the talking points was very limited and non-substantive. But the issues that you mentioned had to do with limiting the talking points to what we knew, as opposed to speculation about what may or may not have been in the end relevant to what happened in Benghazi.
Q Jay, you told us that the only changes that were made were stylistic. Is it a stylistic change to take out all references to previous terror threats in Benghazi?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I appreciate the question again. And I think that what I was referring to was the talking points that the CIA drafted and sent around, to which one change was made. And I accept that “stylistic” may not precisely describe a change of one word to another.
Q Jay, this was not a change of one word to another. Jay, these underwent extensive changes after they were written by the CIA; that these were concerns that were raised by the State Department that the White House directed the interagency process to use in making these talking points. The CIA original version included references to al Qaeda, references to Ansar al-Islam. The original CIA version included extensive discussion of the previous threats of terrorist attacks in Benghazi. Those were taken out after the CIA wrote its initial draft.
MR. CARNEY: And then the CIA wrote another draft.
Q Based on input from the State Department. Do you deny that?
MR. CARNEY: No, Jon. What I’m saying is — and I’ve answered this question several times now, but I’m happy to answer again if you let me answer it, and that is that there was an interagency process, which is always the case, because a lot of agencies have a stake in the matter like this — the investigative agency, the intelligence agencies, the State Department in this case, the national security staff. And everybody provided information and comment.
And then on Saturday morning the CIA said, we’re going to take a crack at drafting these points based on what we know. And the things that you’re talking about don’t go to the fundamental issue here, which was what would — could be said concretely about what the intelligence community knew to be true, not that some people thought it was Ansar al-Sharia, some people thought it was other al Qaeda affiliates or Libyan extremists, so we knew it was extremists or we believed we knew that extremists had participated.
There was also the belief from the beginning by the intelligence community in these points that there had been protests out of which the attack occurred, protests in response to the demonstrations that were in Cairo at our embassy that were in response to that video. That turned out not to be the case, but it demonstrates the fluidity of the information, the fact that it was hard and continues to be hard — in an investigation — to know concretely, especially in the first days afterwards, what happened.
And that’s why we were so careful to say here’s what we know or we believe we know. And every time we’ve said that, we fully expect this information to change as we learn more. And it did, and we’ve provided it.
And the whole effort here by Republicans to find some hidden mystery comes to nothing because the President called it an act of terror. The Ambassador to the United Nations that very Sunday that has caused Republicans so much concern talked about the possible involvement of al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia. All of this is a distraction from the key issues: A diplomatic post was attacked by individuals in Libya, in Benghazi. Four Americans lost their lives. From the beginning, the President has committed all the resources of this administration, of this government, to finding out who was responsible and to bringing them to justice.
He also, very clearly, together with the Secretary of State, said we need to make sure that we find out what went wrong, what problems there were with security that allowed this to happen, to hold people accountable and to make the necessary changes so that it doesn’t happen again. And that process happened — was stood up by the Secretary of State. It was a process led by two of the most experienced and widely regarded figures in national security in Washington, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, and Ambassador Tom Pickering — nonpartisan, serving both parties for different administrations. They conducted an extensive review of this. They’ve said they had access to all the information they needed. They had access to all the people they needed to talk to. And they produced an unsparing report with a series of very critical observations and very serious recommendations, every single one of which the State Department has adopted.
So that’s the way the system should work, and it worked that way because the President and the Secretary of State insisted that it work that way.
Q But, Jay, can we come back on what you said? You said that the only changes that were made by either the White House or the State Department were stylistic and a single word. What we see here is that the State Department raised objections about the references to Ansar al-Sharia. They raised objections to the fact that the CIA had warned about terror threats in Benghazi prior to the attack. Those subjects were taken out of the CIA talking points at the direction of the White House based on the objections from the State Department.
MR. CARNEY: No, they weren’t. First of all, they weren’t at the direction of the White House. The only — this process, as everybody is an equal player in this process says, everybody’s concerns have to be listened to and taken into account. But ultimately these were intelligence community talking points that the intelligence community, led by the CIA, had —
Q Changed because of objections from the State Department.
MR. CARNEY: Jon, could I finish? You’ve had a long time there — that the intelligence community has to sign off on and believe represents the intelligence community’s view of what they knew at that time about what happened. And again, this would be more significant if we didn’t acknowledge from the beginning that extremists were likely involved, that we didn’t acknowledge from the beginning that it could very well have been Ansar al-Sharia that was involved or al Qaeda itself or other al Qaeda affiliates.
This is an effort to accuse the administration of hiding something that we did not hide. In fact, we spoke publicly about it. The Secretary — I mean, the Ambassador to the United Nations, who was the lead administration official talking about this that weekend, spoke openly about that possibility. And every bit of information that’s come out about what we know happened in Benghazi has been a result of information provided by various agencies of the administration.
This investigation, in fact, continues to this day. Just last week, the FBI released photographs of individuals that they believe might be connected to the attack on Benghazi in their effort to bring those people accountable. That’s the important business that remains to be done when it comes to Benghazi.
Q Just a clarification —
MR. CARNEY: Let me let some others. Last one.
Q When you said what you said, did you know that this had gone through 12 versions and that there had been extensive changes made? Were you aware of that at the time?
MR. CARNEY: Jon, there is always a deliberative process. There is always input by agencies, and I knew that. And what I also knew was that the CIA, on Saturday morning, said, we’re going to draft these points. They drafted those points and those points were delivered virtually unchanged, with the exception of the one change I mentioned, to members of Congress and to the administration for use.
Q Jay, to ask it in a slightly different way, do you acknowledge that your initial characterization of the White House’s involvement was to some extent a mischaracterization of the extent to which the White House was involved in the evolution of those talking points?
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s really important to examine now the information that we provided Congress months ago, which they have chosen for political reasons to leak today, which is their prerogative, I suppose. But the fact is the White House’s involvement to the talking points that were generated by the CIA that Saturday was to make the single change, suggest the single change. By the way, we suggest — the White House suggests a change; everybody signs off, or doesn’t — because, as a matter of fact, I think people were fine with it. And even prior, in the deliberative process that I was referring to that Jon was talking about, the White House involvement in the actual — in any changes that were made to the so-called talking points was extremely minimal and non-substantive.
Q But why not come forward initially and say, Friday night, White House officials were involved in the interagency process that you’ve been describing? Why not offer that information at the start?
MR. CARNEY: Again, look, there was no intent here to do anything but answer the question. The questions were related to — this was the Republican accusation that everybody was very excited about at the time — that did the White House change the intelligence community’s assessment of what happened? Did the White House tell the intelligence community to say that there were demonstrations? And the underreported fact of all the revelations today is that these documents bear out what we said all along, and the answer is no. The answer is no.
Q So Speaker Boehner — I have a few more questions, Jay. Speaker Boehner has asked that you release the emails, and according to our sources, House officials are also asking that they get more documentation about the Saturday, September 5th meeting at the White House. Will you release those additional emails and documents?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think they’re asking for emails that they’ve already seen, that they were able to review and take extensive notes on, apparently provide verbatim information to folks. So I think — including the Speaker’s House, and maybe he’s unaware of that.
Q Just one more, on the IRS. Is the President —
MR. CARNEY: The Speaker’s office, sorry.
Q — concerned about the allegations? And will he make sure that those who are involved are held accountable?
MR. CARNEY: Allegations of what, sorry? On the —
Q The IRS story, targeting —
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think I made clear I haven’t spoken to the President about that, but you can be sure that if there was inappropriate conduct here, that he would want it thoroughly investigated and we would not tolerate that.
Q When did the White House become aware that the IRS was looking into the tax-exempt applications of conservative —
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have an answer to that specifically. I know that when the IG began investigating it, that it’s been investigating it for however long the IRS has said, but I don’t have a specific answer to that. It was — but what I can tell you is, based on what we’ve learned today, two things: One, the IRS has clearly taken action to correct this, clearly stated from the leadership of the IRS that this is inappropriate and unacceptable behavior. And we concur with that, and we would expect a thorough investigation and for all the necessary corrections to be made.
Q Conservative groups were complaining about this all through the period between 2010 and 2012. Was the White House aware of that then?
MR. CARNEY: Of what, the complaints?
Q Yes, the complaints that they were being targeted by the IRS.
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any information on that. I think there were public reports, but I don’t — I would refer you to the IRS. I don’t have information about that.
Q And there’s no call on — by some reporters on the Hill for a congressional investigation.
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think — the IRS is an independent agency. The inspector general is an independent investigator, and that office is investigating this, and that’s entirely appropriate.
Q To follow up on Kristen’s question — I think Speaker Boehner’s office, they know — they have seen the emails, but they wanted them to be released to the public, at least the unclassified ones. Is that something the White House will do?
MR. CARNEY: Again, as I mentioned at the top, there is a long precedent here for protecting internal deliberations. This is across administrations of both parties. And we took the extraordinary step, which is unusual — and in fact, I think especially unusual with regard to our predecessor — of providing these emails in-camera so that the relevant committee members and their staffers, as well as leadership members and their staffers could review them, take notes, spend as much time with them as they like. And that was an extraordinary step because it was demanded by Republicans as part of what they were asking for during the confirmation process for John Brennan.
And I would remind you that in response to that, a number of Republicans said they felt they had gotten the information they needed. The Brennan nomination moved forward and he was confirmed.
Q But wouldn’t it just help clear up, I guess for people who still have a lot of questions about what exactly —
MR. CARNEY: But here’s the thing — we’ve provided this information to the committees. The fact that the very people who have reviewed this and probably leaked it — generally speaking, not specifically — are asking for something they’ve already had access to I think demonstrates that this is what it was from the beginning in terms of the Republican handling of it, which was a highly political matter.
From the hours after the attack — beginning with the Republican nominee’s unfortunate press release, and then his statements the day after — there has been an effort to politicize a tragedy here, the deaths of four Americans, to try to suggest that even though the President called it an act of terror, even though the Ambassador to the United Nations referred to possible responsibility not just by extremists but possibly by al Qaeda or al Qaeda affiliates, that we were somehow not talking about that when the publicly available evidence proves the opposite.
Q Jay, on a different subject.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, Wendell.
Q The House will vote again next week to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Speaker Boehner says it’s for the benefit of 70 new members who haven’t had a chance to vote on the Affordable Care Act. What’s your response?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I appreciate that, Wendell. I think that what I’ve said in the past holds true today, which is the now 40th attempt, I think, or 40th vote by the House of Representatives — that’s a rough estimate — to repeal the Affordable Care Act will achieve nothing beyond what it has achieved in the past, which is nothing but, I suppose, a waste of time.
The Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. And we are implementing the Affordable Care Act. And it just seems to me if — whether it’s the vote this week by the House of Representatives to pass on a measure that would prioritize debt payments — in other words, default by any other name; to basically accept a situation where they would tank the world economy if they didn’t get the tax cuts for the wealthy that they wanted, to make that — to pass that law — that doesn’t seem like a great use of time, a representation of what the American people want their members of Congress to be doing.
And then, next week, to go through the charade again of voting to repeal a law that has been upheld by the Supreme Court and that was passed into law and signed into law just seems misguided.
And what would be great I think for members of Congress to do would be to focus on the things that the American people want them to focus on — like measures to help the economy grow; to focus on some of the things the President was focused on yesterday in Austin, Texas, where he highlighted remarkable advancements being made in high-tech manufacturing, advancements that are helping build the economy of the future, where he announced an initiative to fund another innovation institute so that we can develop these jobs for the middle class that are the jobs of the future, and then to assist middle-class Americans in obtaining the skills they need to fill those jobs, and to ensure that those jobs pay the kind of wages that can sustain a middle-class life. That’s what the American people are focused on and what they want.
I think efforts to refight the political battles of the past are not looked upon kindly by a majority of Americans.
Jon-Christopher, then Julianna, and then Peter.
Q As the British invasion continues, Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron will be here meeting with the President. David Cameron met with Mr. Putin today in Russia. Aside from the discussions about the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland in June, how much of this discussion will be on the crisis in Syria? And can you give us any more detail about the meeting and the topics that might be discussed?
MR. CARNEY: Well, as is always the case when the President meets with Prime Minister Cameron, they will speak about a range of subjects. The relationship between our two nations is extraordinarily close, and we work and cooperate on matters across the international spectrum.
The upcoming G8 will of course be a topic of conversation. The United Kingdom is hosting that important meeting on the international economy. They will also clearly discuss Syria. They will probably discuss Iran. They will probably discuss the Middle East peace process and a whole host of other issues. That is always the case when these two leaders get together.
Q I just want to follow up on some of the questions about the IRS and conservative political groups. Did anybody at the White House know that this was going on during the campaign?
MR. CARNEY: I have to take that question. I just learned about it today. I think that the IRS has addressed when it learned about — at the headquarters level — when it learned about it, and what actions that were taken in the IG investigation. And so I would just refer you to the IRS.
Q But any sort of White House involvement or knowledge that you can’t say at this time?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I learned about it today, and I’ll have to take the question.
Q Jay, you said that the Republicans were being political about it. Is it not also political to say we want to keep something out of the talking points because we might be criticized by members of Congress? Is that not a political motivation there?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think the State Department has addressed what the concerns of the spokesperson’s office were when that office engaged with a number of other agencies in discussions about what they knew and what the various agencies knew and what was appropriate to include in public talking points. And I think one of the concerns, as I said, was that we don’t put information in that would suggest by its inclusion was relevant to or determinative about who was responsible when, in fact, we didn’t know that.
As we learn more information, we provided it. And officials of the administration, including Ambassador Rice, openly engaged in conversations that allowed that it was possible that groups like Ansar al-Sharia might have been responsible, or other extremist groups. And remember that the issue at the time was were we somehow by including in the talking points the assessment by the intelligence community that there had been protests that led to this attack outside of the facility in Benghazi, were we trying to play down the fact that it was an act of terror — again, a hollow claim when the President himself called it an act of terror when the talking points referred to the participation of extremists. And I think everybody understands what “extremist” means.
So I think the effort underway was simply to provide in those talking points the information that the intelligence community felt confident it knew for sure, as opposed to information it could not be confident of. And I think that was what the CIA has said produced the points that they drafted.
Q But the phrase doesn’t say let’s not put this out because we’re not sure it’s true; the phrase is, let’s not put this out because we don’t want to be criticize by our political opponents. Is that not political in itself?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I think the State Department has addressed the spokesperson’s office’s concerns about this. But they focused on not assigning responsibility prematurely before — based on preliminary assessments by experience and definition were likely to change, and that we not use language that was inconsistent with what — that members of Congress not be deploying information about this that, again, wasn’t based on what we knew or believed to be true, or that other administration officials had been using.
There was an effort to focus everyone who was talking about this publicly on what the lead agencies here were, the information they had as opposed to speculating about who was responsible or what — what relevance there might be to the fact that there had been threats and warnings in Libya in general and in Benghazi specifically.
Q I hear what you’re saying. Sorry, on the backgrounder you had earlier you said, well, everybody does it basically; Republicans and Democrats, everybody has backgrounders. You all came to town, though, saying you were going to be different, change the rules, be more transparent. Don’t you think it encourages the idea that you had something or your colleagues or whoever did the backgrounder — I wasn’t there — had something to say they didn’t want to say it out here?
MR. CARNEY: Not at all. There’s nothing that — that was an effort to, as we do periodically, to walk people through what we knew with granularity, which I’m happy to do for as long as you want here.
Q You might have done that on the record then. Why did it have to be on background?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think we — look, again, Peter, we provide information on background, but it is not a substitute for on-the-record, on-camera briefings where I will take any question you have and attempt to answer it. And that’s what I’m doing.
Q But what purpose is there for doing it on background?
MR. CARNEY: Again, to provide reporters with information that we then follow up with the public briefing.
Q Did you provide that information from the background in this briefing do you believe today?
MR. CARNEY: I can go into — this is mostly — people ask questions, I can answer the questions. I was able to listen to the briefing as well, and I think it helps me answer the questions that everybody here has.
Q But do you think that you gave much of that information from the briefing, that background briefing today, in your briefing today on the record?
MR. CARNEY: The answer is yes, but my familiarity with the subject predates today significantly.
MR. CARNEY: Alexis.
Q Jay, just overarching — looking back at — because a lot of were in the Briefing Room with you that day that day after the attacks. Is the President satisfied with the way the administration handled this? Would you do anything differently? Would he want the administration to do something differently looking backward?
MR. CARNEY: No, I think that the administration has focused on what’s important here: Investigating what happened, working to bring those who killed four Americans to justice on the one hand, investigating what went wrong with security, and taking steps to ensure that it never happens again. And those two tracks have been pursued from the beginning at the President’s direction.
And our effort has been to be — to provide as much information as we have when it’s available and when we feel confident that it’s accurate. And even then — and I think is reflective of major incidents like this all the time — that the initial information may not turn out to be wholly accurate. And we made clear from the very beginning that the investigation was just beginning; that as more information became available we would make you aware of that. And that’s exactly what we did.
Q So to follow up on that — because some of us were here that day talking to you — you talked right away about the video. And I’m wondering, when you are saying now that you didn’t want to be speculative, some of us then were wondering why you didn’t just wait and say there was an investigation. So why are you saying the video discussion was not speculative to reassert —
MR. CARNEY: Well, I was — well, I was using — what I was saying was based on the points that the CIA had provided, just as Susan Rice had.
Q Right, but now —
MR. CARNEY: And that’s what the — that’s the CIA had — and I think it’s instructive because at that time — and obviously there different people thought different things — but the leading intelligence agency in this process decided that that’s what it believed it knew at the time, and that is what it provided to us, as well as to members of Congress. And as that changed we made clear that it —
Q But don’t the —
MR. CARNEY: What’s that?
Q Don’t this series of emails now suggest that your discussion of the video was speculative, you were cherry-picking?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think again, you’re — no, because — I mean I would ask the CIA. The CIA — one thing that’s consistent throughout the material that was provided to Jon and others is that from the beginning that was in the talking points, that the CIA was prepared to disseminate. And it was based on what they thought they knew at the time.
And I think the fact that parts of that — and really the only part of that that turned out not to be the case, which was that there were protests over the video that preceded the attack on the embassy reflects how fluid information is and how risky it is to make declarations about what we know to be true in the immediate aftermath of an incident like this.
But it is very important actually to stand back and look at that. The talking points that have gotten so much attention — and let’s remember that these are talking points — it’s not policy, it’s talking points — to this day have been shown to be wrong in only one instance, and that was the existence of demonstrations preceding the attack. Everything else about them was true, including the assertion that extremists might have been involved, and the assertion that as we got more information we would — that this account would likely evolve and change, and we would provide that information as we got it.
And so all of this from the beginning, the Republican attempts to politicize this, has been based on that single thing, which we corrected once we knew that it was no longer a correct description of what happened.
Q But today the President had a health care event that gets wiped off because this has continued because that information was not put out.
MR. CARNEY: I don’t understand. What do you mean “that information?” Are you saying we should have overruled the intelligence community? I mean that — we relied on what they thought they knew. So did the members of the House Select Intelligence Committee, so did other members of Congress. But we also made clear that it was preliminary information that was subject to change as more information became available.
Q Jay, on the point you just made, it seems like you’re saying contradictory things. You’re saying that the first iteration of the talking points that the CIA drafted was what they thought happened, and the last version was what they knew happened.
MR. CARNEY: No, in both cases I think I said what they thought they knew happened.
MR. CARNEY: And based on their assessment that’s what they thought they knew. But even then it was couched. In all iterations it was couched, and there was a caveat that as more information became available, the picture would likely change.
Q But by nature of the CIA signing off on each iteration of the talking points, they were perfectly fine with members of Congress or officials discussing anything they included in any of those versions that they signed off on. So why was it necessary — why was it deemed necessary to then refer them back to not including certain information in the final draft version if they were perfectly fine with that being —
MR. CARNEY: Well, when you say they were — the process began because the CIA got the request from the House Select — the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee. And they began the process of drawing up points.
And again, as I’ve said, as that process evolved, there was clearly inputs from other agencies who had a direct stake in this, including the FBI, the State Department, the national security staff and others, the ODNI. And when the CIA then redrafted the points on Saturday morning, it kept those points to what they believed they knew at the time —
Q But why —
MR. CARNEY: — based on the information. I think I’ve addressed that. Again, there was no concrete determination. There were some people who believed it, some people who didn’t — concrete determination that Ansar al-Sharia was responsible. There was no concrete determination that warnings about the threats that existed in Libya were or were not directly related to what happened in Benghazi.
All of those matters have been openly discussed and matters of investigation, but they weren’t what we knew or what the intelligence community knew to be true at the time.
And again, Ambassador Rice, who is — has been the focus of this and the use of these talking points, and the very partisan focus of Republican complaints on this, openly discussed the possibility that and even the likelihood that the extremists that we felt were involved might have some al Qaeda affiliation or some other affiliation to an extremist group, as opposed to just unaffiliated violent actors.
Q But if it was a problem for the CIA to speculate about those things, why would they sign off on the first version for others to review?
MR. CARNEY: Again, you’re talking about a draft process that involves a bunch of agencies offering their views.
Q But the CIA is not going to spill secrets they’re not comfortable putting out there. I mean — or is that an assumption?
MR. CARNEY: I would simply say that the — here’s a good point. I think there was in one of the stories I read — and again, these are documents that somebody, I don’t know who on the Hill, provided to reporters — but one of the things that has been noted that was removed was an assertion about a warning from social media about potential demonstrations in Cairo.
Well, you don’t hear a lot of Republicans citing that because that would have, if it had been included, reinforced the assertion that demonstrations preceded an attack in Benghazi, that those demonstrations were the result of reaction to the violent demonstrations in Cairo. And I think the focus of these things was to write just what we knew or what we thought we knew based on the intelligence community’s best assessments. And that’s what was produced.
Q It’s coming up on eight months to the day since the Benghazi attack. The FBI just got around two and a half weeks ago to releasing three images of people they were looking for information for about perpetrators of the attack. Is the President confident that the FBI is capable of solving and finding the perpetrators, something that you just said a few minutes ago is a priority of the President? And is the President doing everything in his power to do that as well?
MR. CARNEY: Absolutely. And I think that “just getting around to” is probably not a characterization that reflects the very hard work that the FBI is engaged in, in investigating this, working with other agencies of government as well as obviously authorities in Libya. And that process continues.
And you can believe — and I think this President has a record to prove it — that he will keep focused on this until those who are responsible are brought to justice. And again, I think this President has a record that backs that up.
Q Thanks, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Steve and then George. I already gave them more time. Sorry, Steve and George.
Q Yes, you talked about the talking points being about what we knew or what the CIA believed it knew. The first few drafts, it says, “we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda participated in the attack.” This is not couched. It says “we do know.”
MR. CARNEY: I believe the CIA — the CIA —
Q That this appears —
MR. CARNEY: The CIA — again, these are —
Q — from the drafts and four and five —
MR. CARNEY: Right, and that’s — and you should direct those questions to the intelligence community where obviously there were different inputs within the IC about what they thought they knew and what different people who provided information within the intelligence community thought they knew. And it was the assessment of the leadership at the CIA and those who were —
Q In their first — when they said they knew in their first draft that they were wrong?
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s reflected that we — that there was not concrete enough information. And the head — the then director of the CIA, or after he left the directorship, has testified on this, as has — as did the acting director — and made clear that the points as they emerged and were disseminated on that Saturday reflected what they felt they knew, what they could say concretely based on their assessments.
And that’s what — the intelligence community doesn’t deal in facts just picked off a shelf. They have to assess a wide variety of information. In a situation like what happened in Benghazi that was so chaotic, they had to base it on a variety of streams of information, and they made the assessment they did. And even then when being very cautious not to go beyond what they knew, they — one of the points they made turned out not to be true. And when that became clear, they corrected it and we corrected it. And that’s — in real time, and that’s how the public and the press became aware of it.
Q Back on the IRS, I want to get your reaction to two things Speaker Boehner just — he said that this “echoes some of the most shameful abuses of government power in 20th century American history. And then he asked if other federal agencies use government powers to attack Americans for partisan reasons. He seems to be likening this White House to the Nixon White House.
MR. CARNEY: Well, there’s so much I could say about that.
MR. CARNEY: But all I will say is that this is a matter of concern and needs to be thoroughly investigated. As I understand it, it is being investigated by the Inspector General that is responsible for the IRS, which is an independent enforcement agency. And the activity, as described, is inappropriate. And that’s the view of this White House, and it should be thoroughly investigated and acted on.
MR. CARNEY: I’ll do one more. Voice of America, because — yes.
Q Back to Syria. In this interview with NBC, with Ann Curry, Prime Minister Erdogan said — just came right out and said chemical weapons were used, mentioned the number of shells used — I think it was 200 shells — that it was based on intelligence and interviews with people who have come across the border. I mean, do they have different intelligence than —
MR. CARNEY: Well, we work cooperatively with a number of allies and partners in assessing the situation in Syria on the ground, and specifically with — in relation to this very important matter, the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
What the President has said and what we have said is that we have information that chemical weapons were used, but we do not have a complete picture about how that was used, who was responsible, what the chain of custody was. And we need to build a case, if you will, about that use before we make policy decisions based on it. And I think that’s something that the American people would expect us to do — to be very deliberate about this, and to rely not just on an intelligence assessment — interestingly we’ve been talking about intelligence assessments and the fact that they evolve and sometimes in the first instance aren’t accurate — and we need to build on that.
In this case, we believe very strongly that the intelligence work done here has been very solid, but it is not the end of the process; it’s closer to the beginning. And we’re continuing to work with our partners. We’re continuing to press for a United Nations investigation. But we’re not leaving it only to the United Nations. As I’ve said on several occasions, we’re working with our allies and partners, and, importantly, with the Syrian opposition to gather more information and evidence about chemical weapons use in Syria.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you.
Q Week ahead?
MR. CARNEY: I think we’ll have to provide it. Do I have it here? Oh, yes I do. Okay. Thank you all very much for reminding me — Jim, as ever.
The schedule for the week of May 13th, 2013: On Monday, the President will hold a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Cameron of the United Kingdom at the White House. The Prime Minister’s visit will highlight the fundamental importance of the U.S.-U.K relationship through which, together, we address a broad range of shared global and regional security concerns. Later on Monday, the President will travel to New York City for DNC events and a joint DCCC/DSCC event before returning to the White House in the evening.
On Tuesday, the President —
Q Are any of those open?
MR. CARNEY: I’ll have to get that information. Yes, I believe one of them — my trusted deputy says one is open.
On Tuesday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
On Wednesday, the President will deliver remarks at the National Peace Officers Memorial Service, an annual ceremony honoring law enforcement who were killed in the line of duty in the previous year.
On Thursday, the President will welcome Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey to the White House for meetings and a working dinner. The Prime Minister’s visit underscores the close friendship between the United States and Turkey and the strategic importance we place on broadening and deepening our relationship moving forward.
On Friday, the President will travel to Baltimore, Maryland in his second Middle-Class Jobs and Opportunity tour event. More details regarding the President’s travel to Baltimore will be forthcoming.
Q Do you expect two-by-twos or one-by-ones either with Cameron or with —
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have the answer to that. We’ll get back to you when we have more details. Thank you all very much.
Q Have a nice weekend.
MR. CARNEY: You, too.