White House Press Briefing by Josh Earnest, Dec. 18, 2014

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–December 18, 2014 – 1:04 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Nice to see you.  Sorry we’re running a little behind today.  Let’s go straight to questions.

Nedra, do you want to get us started?

Q    Does the White House believe that North Korea is behind the hack at Sony Pictures?

MR. EARNEST:  Nedra, this is a matter that is still under investigation both by the FBI and the National Security Division of the Department of Justice.  I, for I think pretty obvious reasons, am not going to get ahead of that investigation or any announcements that they may make about that investigation.  But I can tell you that, consistent with the President’s previous statements about how we will protect against, monitor, and respond to cyber incidents, this is something that’s being treated as a serious national security matter. 

There is evidence to indicate that we have seen destructive activity with malicious intent that was initiated by a sophisticated actor.  And it is being treated by those investigative agencies, both at the FBI and the Department of Justice, as seriously as you would expect.  It has also been the subject of a number of daily meetings that have been convened here at the White House that have been led by both the President’s Homeland Security Advisor and occasionally by his cyber coordinator.  This includes senior members of our intelligence community and homeland security officials, military, diplomatic, and law enforcement officials as well.

Q    What is the United States going to do about it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, before we start publicly speculating about a response, it’s appropriate that we allow the investigation to move forward.  I do understand that the investigation is progressing, and that as the members of the national security team meet to discuss this matter, they are considering a range of options. 

As they do so, though, they’re mindful of the need for a couple of things.  First of all, as we would be in any scenario, sort of strategic scenario like this, they would be mindful of the fact that we need a proportional response, and also mindful of the fact that sophisticated actors, when they carry out actions like this, are oftentimes — they’re not always but often seeking to provoke a response from the United States of America. They may believe that a response from us in one fashion or another would be advantageous so them.  And so we want to be mindful of that, too.  And the President’s national security team is mindful of those two important strategic considerations as they consider a range of available responses.

Q    There’s been a big debate over Sony cancelling “The Interview.”  What has the President said?  Or is he expressing opinion about a movie that depicts the assassination of a sitting head of state?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t talked to him about that.  What I can say as a general matter is that the President and the administration stands squarely on the side of the artists and other private citizens who seek to freely express their views.  Sometimes those views can be laced with criticism, or are sometimes intended to provoke either some kind of comedic response or one that is intended to be some element of some pretty biting social commentary.  All that is appropriate and well within the rights of private citizens to express their views.
And the President has certainly been on the receiving end of some expressions like that.  And while we may not agree with the content of every single thing that is produced, we certainly stand squarely on the side of the right of private individuals to express themselves.  And that is a view that is strongly held by this administration, as it has been throughout the history of our country.

Q    And then quickly on one other matter.  The EU announced a ban on businesses doing investments in Crimea today.  Is the United States planning to take similar action?  And can you give us an update on the President’s plan to sign the Russia sanctions bill — and also NDAA while you’re at it?

MR. EARNEST:  Let me first begin with the Russia sanctions bill as it relates to Ukraine.  The President does intend to sign H.R. 5859 into law.  Signing the legislations does not, however, signal a change in the administration’s sanctions policy, which we have carefully calibrated in accordance with developments on the ground and coordinated with our allies and partners, principally in Europe.

At this time, the administration does not intend to impose sanctions under this law, but the act gives the administration additional authorities that could be utilized if circumstances warrant it.  This administration will continue to work closely with allies and partners in Europe and internationally to respond to developments in Ukraine, and we’ll continue to review and calibrate our sanctions to respond to Russia’s actions.

The United States again calls on Russia to end its occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, cease support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and implement the obligations that it signed up to commit to under the Minsk Agreements.  As the President has said many times, our goal is to promote a diplomatic solution that provides a lasting resolution to the conflict, and helps promote growth and stability in Ukraine and regionally, including in Russia.
In this context, the United States continues to call on Russia’s leadership to implement the Minsk Agreements and to reach a lasting and comprehensive resolution to the conflict which respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory integrity.  The United States, if Russia acts accordingly, remains prepared to roll back sanctions should Russia take the necessary steps.

I don’t have an update at this point as it related to the NDAA bill.  The President does intend to sign it.  It does include some riders that we have expressed concern about in the past that interfere with the administration to carry out the necessary steps to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.  The President has long believed that that prison should be closed. But there are important pieces of this legislation that, in our view, inappropriately interfere with our ability to take the necessary steps to accomplish that goal.

Q    So should we expect a signing statement with that?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have anything to preview along those lines.  I know that in previous occasions when the President signed the bill it has been accompanied by a statement.  I don’t know whether or not that will be the case this time.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it does, though.

Q    Josh, back on Sony.  If it is determined that a nation state was behind this attack, does that affect the degree to which the United States would want to respond?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jeff, I don’t want to get ahead of any investigation that’s being conducted both by the National Security Division of the Department of Justice and the FBI, who are both looking into this matter cooperatively.  I can tell you that regardless of who is found to be responsible for this, that the President considers it to be a serious national security matter, and it’s being treated as such both in the course of the investigation but also by leading members of the President’s national security team here at the White House.

Q    Is it fair to say that investigators are closing in on who’s responsible?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s fair to say that the investigation is progressing.  This is something they’ve been looking into for quite some time and I know that there is significant investigative resources that have been committed to this effort, and they’ve been making progress.  But I don’t have any update that’s more specific than that.

Q    Okay.  And on yesterday’s big news, is the White House concerned with regard to Cuba about Republicans stopping Treasury and Commerce from changing their regulations to allow expanded trade, particularly in telecoms, which the President mentioned yesterday?

MR. EARNEST:  Not particularly.  Primarily because the steps that the President announced are steps that are well within his executive authority as President of the United States and he’s directed the agencies that are responsible for implementing those regulations to make the kinds of changes that are needed to reflect what the President believes is a more effective strategy for dealing with Cuba.

That said, we certainly would welcome the kind of legislative action, specifically repealing Helms-Burton, that would roll back even more of the restrictions that are currently in place that limit some economic activity between the United States and Cuba.  The President has done all that he can do using his executive authority, and the remaining restrictions can only be removed through congressional action.  And we certainly would encourage Congress to act in bipartisan fashion to do that.

Q    And lastly, has the White House — has the President seen the Secret Service review and is he satisfied with it?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t believe the President has.  I know that senior officials here at the White House will be briefed before the end of the week on that report, if they haven’t been already.  But again, I anticipate that we’ll have more — that you’ll be able to obtain more information on this today from the Department of Homeland Security.

Q    Today for sure?

MR. EARNEST:  That certainly would be my expectation.  It was my, actually, understanding that they were supposed to release it yesterday.  I’m not sure why that didn’t happen.  But I do anticipate that they will have figured out whatever kinks that were in the system and will take care of that important piece of business today.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  Back on North Korea.  You’re calling it a national security matter.  Does that mean you don’t consider it a national security threat at this point?  In other words, that there might be other attacks coming?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Christi, we certainly have seen — well, let me actually step back and say — I know you referred to it as the North Korea matter.  That’s certainly the way it’s been widely reported.  I’m not in a position to confirm any attribution at this point.  But certainly as a general matter, the President does view some of the attacks that we have seen in recent years as a threat to our national security.  And there has been an effort underway throughout the President’s first six years in office to do what he can do, again, using his executive authority, to try to better prepare our country to defend against those attacks and to respond to them when they occur.
I can give you a couple of examples of things that the President has succeeded in doing.  We have taken steps to better protect our infrastructure both here in the federal government and working with the private sector to help them protect their infrastructure from attacks.  We’ve worked hard to tighten up and secure federal computer networks.  We’ve sought to improve our capability as it relates to both investigating these intrusions and responding to them.  We have sought to build a stronger cooperative relationship in working with countries around the world to confront this threat.  And we have also been working at a variety of agencies to develop more sophisticated technology, again, that would better defend our networks and allow us to more effectively respond when intrusions occur.
So there have been a number of steps that this administration has been taking because of the perception of this national security threat.  That’s also the reason that we continue to call on Congress to act on cybersecurity legislation. And you’ve heard me on a variety of occasions stand up here and urge Congress to take action on this.  This is not the kind of topic that should allow us to be divided along party lines.  This is something that has a clear impact on our economy and has a clear impact on our national security.  And I would anticipate that Democrats and Republicans should be able to work together on this.

Q    And just because you used the phrase “proportional response,” does that mean that one of the things you’re considering would be a kind of attack on computers where the attacks originated akin to ones that were launched against Sony?

MR. EARNEST:  I wouldn’t speculate at this point about the range of options that are currently under consideration.  I also wouldn’t commit at this point to at some point being entirely transparent about what that response is.

Q    And could you also say how provoking the U.S. might be of benefit to the people who did this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I know that there are — it’s difficult to do that in the abstract.  But I do think that there are — it’s not hard to imagine that there may be some organizations or individuals who would perceive a specific response from the United States as something that might enhance their standing, either among their cohorts or colleagues, or even on the international stage.

So, again, I point that out only to indicate that we’re mindful of that phenomenon as we consider the range of options.

Q    And just to circle back, you didn’t rule out a proportional response of taking attack on this, the computers from which the attacks originated — you didn’t rule that out.

MR. EARNEST:  I did not.  I mean, in fact, I have indicated that we believe this destructive activity merits an appropriate response.  But I would acknowledge that an appropriate response is something that is not always obvious, but is something that is worthy of careful consideration.  And that’s exactly what the President’s national security team is doing.


Q    If there is a government — a foreign government that is behind this attack on Sony, would that merit sanctions?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, there are a range of options that are under consideration right now.  I’m not going to speculate on which options might work best.  There are people that have a lot more experience and expertise in this area who are considering this question, and once they’ve made a decision I do anticipate we’ll be in a position to tell you a little bit more about that decision.  But as I mentioned to Christi, I don’t anticipate that we’ll be in a position where we’re going to be able to be completely forthcoming about every single element of the response that has been decided upon.

Q    And is that imminent, this decision on a response?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what will come first is more information about the investigation and some conclusions about the investigation. 

Q    — get that sometime today, tomorrow?

MR. EARNEST:  I’d encourage you to check with either the Department of Justice or the FBI.  I know that they have made — that investigation has been progressing, but I don’t know the exact timing in terms of when they’ll be ready to start talking about that a little bit more publicly.

Q    You’re not prepared to say here at the podium that North Korea was behind this?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not prepared to ascribe any accountability for this specific act, or to describe who might have been the sophisticated actor that initiated it.

Q    And did the President discuss this with the Japanese Prime Minister?  I know that was not in the readout of that call.

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any more details about their conversation beyond what was included in the readout. 

Q    And yesterday you said the President would be willing  — or potentially might be willing to go to Cuba someday.  You’re not ruling it out.

MR. EARNEST:  Correct.

Q    Would the President welcome Raul Castro to the White House?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a hypothetical as well.  I don’t know that Mr. Castro has necessarily indicated a desire to travel to the United States and visit the White House.  I guess what I would say is that there —

Q    — any more outrageous than the President going down to Cuba?

MR. EARNEST:  I mean, I suppose not, considering that the analogy that we’ve tried to draw — or at least identify is that there are important national security reasons for the President to travel to other countries that have what we would describe at best as checkered human rights records. 

The President did, as we discussed yesterday, travel recently to both China and Burma.  These are countries where the President has urged the leadership of those countries to do a better job of respecting universal human rights.  The President traveled to those countries both because he believed it was in our national security interest, but also because he viewed it as an important opportunity to raise concerns about those nations’ human rights records; that having an open relationship in which the President engages with the leaders of other countries can actually serve as a useful way to shine a spotlight on the shortcomings of other countries’ records as it relates to human rights.

He did that when he was in China.  He did that when he was standing next to the Chinese President.  And that did provoke a, as many of you will recall, pretty memorable exchange between the Chinese President and an American journalist.  That kind of exchange that attracted that kind of attention would not have occurred if the President refused to visit the country, or if we refused to visit with that country because we had objections to their human rights record.

Q    You’re not ruling it out?

MR. EARNEST:  I guess the point is that the President has had the leaders of both Burma and China to the United States, and for that reason I wouldn’t rule out a visit from President Castro.

Q    Last question, I’m going to sneak it in — is the President feeling more liberated after these midterm elections?  There’s been some discussion about that — Cuba, immigration, climate.  What’s next?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I noticed that there was a cover headline in a local media outlet describing the President in that fashion but using the Spanish version of that word.  (Laughter.) 

What I’ll say is, as a general matter — here we are in what is likely to be my last press briefing of the year — that there has been a tremendous amount that the President has accomplished —

Q    Had me hanging there for a second.  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any personnel announcements to make, Jim, so don’t get too excited.

Q    Earnest libre.  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  Exactly.  I will say that it has been — in many ways, it has been a rather consequential year in this administration — in this President’s tenure in office; that if you review the substantial accomplishments that we’ve racked up here, particularly in the last few weeks, from the historic climate deal with China to finally taking action to address some of the broken aspects of our immigration system, to obviously this substantial historic announcement on Cuba — that the President is pleased with the kind of progress that we have made; that we began this year suggesting that this would — that 2014 would be a year of action and here in the last couple of weeks of the year, I think, looking back, we can say that, by any measure, that goal has been accomplished.

But there is a lot more that needs to get done, and the President has a long list of things that he is looking forward to tackling in the new year after a couple weeks with his family over the holidays.


Q    In light of what you just said to Jim about engaging with Cuba, I’d like to follow up on a question from yesterday that Ed asked you.  So if engagement works when you’re dealing with a country with a bad human rights record, or a country that behaves poorly, why not North Korea?  Can you explain the difference?  Because you answered very directly yesterday — you said, no, the President is not considering normalizing relations with North Korea.  He wouldn’t welcome Kim Jong Un to the White House.  He wouldn’t visit Kim Jong Un. 

MR. EARNEST:  All of that is correct.

Q    But can you explain why, given what you just said about how you think that kind of engagement is what works?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, because the principal concern that’s been raised about Cuba is about the deplorable human rights record that the Castro regime has.  And for 50 years — more than 50 years — for five decades, there was in place a policy to try to compel the Castro regime to change that record by isolating them.  And the fact is, that policy failed, because the Castro regime remained in power and continued to take steps that oppressed their people.

Q    But the Kim family has been in power a long time.

MR. EARNEST:  They have.  And the point is that policy had failed and it’s time for us to try a new strategy to get the Castro regime to better implement policies that don’t oppress the basic universal human rights of their people.

Our concerns about North Korea’s behavior certainly include their deplorable human rights record, but they also include other things, too.  It includes significant concerns with their nuclear program.  It concerns the threatening statements that they have made about their neighbors who happen to be strong allies of the United States of America.

So our concerns with the regime in North Korea are different than the concerns that we have with Cuba.  There is no concern that the Cuban regime is, for example, developing a nuclear weapon or testing long-range missile technology.  That was, frankly, from a previous era.  That era has closed, and that is why we believe that the policy needs to be changed to reflect the fact that that era no long exists.

Q    But do you think this policy of isolation is ultimately going to work with North Korea?  I understand that the transgressions of North Korea are in many ways qualitatively different than Cuba, but I’m talking about the approach.  Because all the same things could be said — this has been a long time and there’s certainly been no progress in changing North Korean behavior.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think there has been.  I mean, at the end of the previous administration there was a move to begin to relax some sanctions in exchange for the North Koreans to take some steps to come into compliance with the international community’s concerns about their nuclear weapons program.  The North Korean regime walked back from those commitments.

So there have been some attempts to at least consider changing our policy towards North Korea.  But there’s no doubt that the problem of North Korea poses a rather vexing policy challenge to the United States but also to the broader international community, particularly our allies that are much closer to North Korea.  And the United States continues to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Republic of Korea and Japan as they confront the threat that’s posed by North Korea.

Q    And on the Sony hack, what does the President think of the decision of Sony Pictures to pull the movie, to basically give in to the blackmail?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, this is a decision that Sony should make.  This is a private company, these are artists who have created a film and it should be their decision about how and whether to release it.  This is not a decision —

Q    This was a decision made under duress.  This was a decision that was made as the result of a direct threat.  They clearly didn’t want to pull this movie, but they were forced to.

MR. EARNEST:  It’s a decision that they should make — a decision that they should make, not one that the federal government should be making.  But I can say again, as a general matter, the United States stands squarely on the side of artists and companies that want to express themselves, and we believe that that kind of artistic expression is worthy of protection and is not something that should be subjected to intimidation just because you happen to disagree with the views.

Q    But the intimidators won here, whether or not it’s North Korea — and I guess we’ll find out officially soon, but regardless of who it was, they won.  They succeeded.  They wanted this movie pulled; the movie was pulled.  I understand the government is not going to force Sony to go forward with the movie, but what do you make of that?  This was a direct threat. This was an act of cyberterrorism, or whatever you want to call it.  It worked.  It succeeded.

MR. EARNEST:  What we have seen, Jon, is we have seen that there has been destructive activity with malicious intent.  And the administration believes that that activity merits an appropriate response from the United States.  And that is — this is something that is being investigated, and the appropriate response is something that is being carefully considered by members of the President’s national security team.


Q    So in part, this is a detective story.  Is it fair to say that North Korea is a nation of interest in the investigation of the Sony hack?

MR. EARNEST:  I’d refer you to the FBI and the Department of Justice on that question.

Q    It’s not even within your range to say that?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t want to say anything that would be perceived by anybody as interfering in any way with their investigation.  What I’m prepared to say at this point is to confirm that the National Security Division of the Department of Justice is working with the FBI to determine what happened and to determine who’s responsible for it.  And what I can tell you is that investigation is progressing, but I don’t have any more that I can say about it than that.

Q    Is part of the problem that this could be somewhat murky and that the direct responsibility might not be a national — nation state actor, but someone contracted or affiliated or financed through various means by a nation state actor, but the direct responsibility may lie elsewhere?

MR. EARNEST:  I wouldn’t want to speculate on this other than to confirm what I think is the premise of your question, which is that these kinds of investigations are extraordinarily complex because the issues at play here are necessarily murky, as you describe them.  I would agree that that’s an appropriate description of the circumstances here.

And that is why — we’ve got a team of experts that’s very focused on this.  That’s why I’m reluctant to get out ahead of what they’re learning over the course of their investigation.  And it’s also why some of the senior members of the President’s national security team have been meeting on a daily basis here at the White House to consider this matter and to consider the range of appropriate responses.

Q    How would you describe the direct level of participation of the President in these meetings so far?

MR. EARNEST:  So far, I can tell you that the President has — is understandably interested in the conversations that are underway, and this is something that he’s monitoring very closely himself.

Q    Is he participating in these meetings, or has he to date?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any presidential participation to read out at this point, but I can assure you this is something that has taken up some time on the President’s schedule on a daily basis over the last several days at least.

Q    To follow up on Jon’s question, do you believe, as some in the artistic community have suggested, and it may be a larger corporate-culture conversation, that there could be broader repercussions from Sony’s decision and what this illustrates the vulnerabilities are and the potential corporate consequences of a cyber attack?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m sympathetic to the very difficult decision that they had to make, and there are a lot of equities that they had to balance, both in terms of the way to release this movie, the way that it could be shown.  I know that there was a reluctance from some of the movie theaters to commit to showing the film, and that certainly weighed on the decision that Sony had to make.  So I’m sympathetic to that.  But ultimately this is a decision that they had to make based on their own best interests and based on the freedom that they have to express themselves as artists.

And I can tell you that this administration and this President stand squarely on the side of a right to free expression, even when the expression of those views by some is considered to be offensive. 

Q    And I may be dense, but you described this as a national security matter.  Can you flesh that out a little bit?  Because to many of us — maybe just me — it looks like principally an economic security matter, or a matter of economics, commerce, artistic freedom, things like that.  What is the broadly defined national security component of this from your perspective?

MR. EARNEST:  Certainly, those elements apply here, that there is a financial impact of this activity.  But what we saw here that is maybe not unprecedented but is certainly unique is that the activity that we’ve seen here is destructive with clear malicious intent.  And it was carried out by, all appearances, a sophisticated actor.  And that is something that, in the mind of the President, elevates this to the level of being a legitimate national security matter, and it’s being investigated as such by the FBI and the Department of Justice.  And that’s why you’ve seen members of the President’s national security team assembled to consider a range of responses that we believe at this point is appropriate.

Q    Just to clear up one thing from yesterday — you made mention of it.  There was blowback from the Hill about this — funding for an embassy.  But there is an Interest Section building in Havana currently; rather large, somewhat spacious.  Does the United States even need to construct a new embassy in Havana to facilitate the opening of diplomatic relations?  You mentioned yesterday you’re going to need appropriations for a new building, suggesting you might still need one.  I’m just trying to figure out — this is a rather large building there now.  Can we do all the business that we intend to do there, and this is kind of a non-issue entirely?

MR. EARNEST:  This is something that we’ll have to evaluate as we begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba.  But as I mentioned yesterday and as you’re pointing out now, there is already a substantial American diplomatic presence in Cuba and it resides at a significant structure that essentially is the American Interests Section there in Cuba, and there is business done on a daily basis with Cuban citizens.  And obviously the range of engagement that American diplomats have with Cuban government officials will expand as a result of this decision and as a result of our efforts to begin to normalize relations with Cuba.

One of the leading proponents of this strategy of shutting off funding for the construction of an embassy and the appointment of an ambassador to Cuba is Senator Rubio of course. In thinking about this, it occurs to me that it seems odd that Senator Rubio would be reluctant and, in fact, actively seeking to block the appointment of an ambassador to Cuba when earlier this year he voted to confirm the ambassador to China that the President nominated his former colleague, Max Baucus — who’s doing an excellent job representing the United States in China, I might add.

The other thing that I noticed is that in the context of those hearings, Senator Rubio said something that this administration wholeheartedly agrees with.  Let me read it to you.  (Laughter.)  All right?  Isn’t this good?

Q    (Inaudible.)

MR. EARNEST:  I know.  Be careful what you ask for. 

Senator Rubio said, and I quote, “I think you’ll find broad consensus on this committee and I hope in the administration” — he does — “that our embassy, the American embassy, should be viewed as an ally of those within the Chinese society that are looking to express their fundamental rights to speak out and to worship freely.”  We think the exact same thing can be said of the new American embassy in Cuba.

Q    Last question.  Since you intimated that this is your last briefing of the year, can I put on my calendar that President Obama will be the briefer tomorrow?

MR. EARNEST:  You can put on your calendar that the President will convene his traditional end-of-the-year news conference tomorrow.

Q    Very good. 

Q    Time?

MR. EARNEST:  I believe it will be in the afternoon.  We’ll get some more details on the timing to you before the end of the day. 

Q    Glad I asked.

MR. EARNEST:  There you go. 

Mr. Dorning.

Q    News you can use.  Afternoon.

MR. EARNEST:  There you go.

Q    On the Russia sanctions, two questions.  First, today, President Hollande of France is publicly raising the idea of easing up the sanctions.  Is there some distance opening between the U.S. on these sanctions and European partners, or do we agree with him that maybe we should think about easing up on the sanctions?

MR. EARNEST:  I’ll say a couple things about that, Mike.  The first is that we have said from the very beginning that the success of the sanctions regime depends upon the effective coordination and cooperation of the United States with other members of the international community, including France, and we have worked very effectively with France and other countries to maximize the impact of this sanctions regime on China [Russia] and to focus the costs on the Russian economy without disadvantaging American businesses. 

The second thing that I will point out is that after the latest ratcheting up of the sanctions regime that was announced at the NATO meeting earlier this fall, the President convened a news conference at the end of the NATO meeting and said that if Russia were to begin to live up to the commitments that they signed onto in Minsk and were to begin showing tangible evidence of their commitment to respecting the territorial integrity of a nation like Ukraine, that the President would be prepared to begin rolling back our sanctions regime.

So I didn’t see the entirety of President Hollande’s remarks, but based on the way that you described them, it sounds consistent with the sentiment that the President expressed earlier this fall.

Q    Separately, a day before the President end-of-the-year news conference President Putin had his end-of-the-year news conference today.  And he didn’t sound like he was giving in.  He was saying, we have to be ready in Russia for two years of economic downturn, and he compared what the U.S. is trying to do to Russia with the sanctions to trying to chain a bear and then rip out its teeth and claws.  Is that what we’re trying to do?  And what do you read from his comments?  It doesn’t sound like someone who’s giving in easily.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’re certainly aware of President Putin’s comments.  I can tell you that President Putin has repeatedly attempted to shift blame for the conflict in Ukraine and the internal problems that Russia is experiencing away from his own policies, both in his speeches and in the government-funded propaganda that is disseminated not only inside Russia but beyond its borders.  The revisionist narrative of the crisis in Ukraine is deeply troubling but utterly unconvincing. 

The United States has made clear repeatedly that it’s the choices of Russian leaders and actions that Russian leaders have taken with respect to Eastern Ukraine that has caused this conflict in the first place.  And it is in response to those destabilizing actions that the United States and the broader international community has imposed sanctions.

The other thing that I would point you to is what I said in response to the question about whether or not the President would sign the sanctions bill that’s on his desk.  What I noted is that we do believe that a diplomatic solution is one that will provide a lasting resolution to the conflict and help to promote growth and stability in Ukraine and in Russia.  And I think that is pretty clear evidence about what our aims are here.

I don’t think that President Putin’s rather colorful imagery is at all an accurate description of either the situation or our goals.  The goal of the international community is to resolve this conflict in Eastern Ukraine.  President Putin has repeatedly refused to take steps that even he has committed to, to try to resolve this conflict.  And that is why the international community has acted to send a clear signal to President Putin that there will be economic consequences for his failure to respect basic international norms, including the territorial integrity of a neighboring country.

So the person with the most influence for resolving this situation is actually, and maybe even somewhat ironically, President Putin.  If he lives up to these commitments and if he lives up to the international norms that are generally accepted across the globe, he can have some influence over the international community in terms of prompting the international community to start to roll back the sanctions regime that’s been in place.

Q    And logistically, when you say the President will sign the sanctions bill, is he going to do that today, do you know?

MR. EARNEST:  I anticipate that that will be today, but we will let you know through the usual process of sending a pro forma notification. 

Mr. Viquiera.

Q    Thanks.  If I could reframe Major’s question — how did the Sony case go from a case of corporate espionage to a national security threat?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, because of the destructive activity with malicious intent that is evident from this situation.  I know there have been reports about the substantial number of computers and other equipment that have been destroyed as a result of this attack.  I think that’s an indication that the intent of whatever this sophisticated actor is went beyond what you described, and it ventures into the territory of being destructive.  And the President believes that that kind of behavior is consistent with a national security matter.

Q    Was there one revelation, piece of evidence, discovery that led to this sort of escalation in rhetoric here?  And does it go beyond Sony?  Is that the implication?  Is that what you’ve found?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, in terms of what’s been found, I’m going to let the Department of Justice and the FBI speak to that.

Q    Does it go beyond Sony?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’d refer you to the FBI and the Department of Justice.  They’re looking into — among the other things that they’re looking into is the scope of this activity.  So you can ask them about that.

Q    And finally, the 2:00 p.m. meeting the President has scheduled, is this on the agenda, this issue?

MR. EARNEST:  This issue?  No, I don’t believe it is. 


Q    I’m going to rephrase another question if I can, Josh. Sony — and let’s — if we call this terrorism, whether it’s something state-sponsored or it’s cyber terror — and I don’t want to draw a direct analogy, but in the way that you’ve said many times from the podium that the U.S. is against ransom in the case of kidnappings because it encourages other kidnappings, is there a concern that Sony, in withdrawing “The Interview,” might encourage further similar activity?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you did draw one analogy that I do think is appropriate, and I do think — well, and I can actually say that it has influenced the way that we here at the White House and the way that this administration responds to these specific incidents.

Within the last year, Lisa Monaco, who’s the President’s top counterterrorism advisor, has stood up something called the Cyber Response Group.  And she did that based on the recognition that our administration, and the U.S. government more generally, even predating this administration, has learned a lot about the appropriate way for us to respond to acts of terror and incidents of terrorism, or even threats of terrorism.
And Lisa identified something I think that is appropriate, which is that for a long time the risk of cyber-attacks was sort of siloed in a compartment of individuals that had extensive expertise as it relates to information technology and computer networks and the like.  And what Lisa found is that it’s useful for us to pool our knowledge in the same way that we pool the knowledge of a variety of agencies when responding to terror threats.  And so what that allows for is it allows for different agencies to come together and sit around the table, literally — these are members of intelligence community, military leaders, diplomatic leaders, law enforcement officials and homeland security officials — to sit down and evaluate a problem.
This will allow us to have the kind of agile defense and response that’s necessary when dealing with a threat like a cyber-attack.  And this is consistent with the kind of response that this administration and, again, even the previous administration has honed in responding to threats from terror; that what’s required is a quick evaluation of the problem and an effective, prompt, coordinated response.  And so that’s something that we have tried to deploy over the course of the last year to these specific situations.
Q    But given the global economic reach of the movie industry, is there concern that giving the terrorists, the criminals what they wanted just encourages others to do the same?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the truth is, Chris, I’m not sure exactly what this sophisticated actor was trying to accomplish.  What’s clear is that —

Q    Well, they didn’t want the movie shown.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’m not in a position to identify who the sophisticated actor is, so it would be hard for me to ascribe any motive to an individual whom I do not know.  What is clear, however, is that they did carry out destructive activity with malicious intent.  And that is something that this administration takes very seriously.  We view it as a legitimate national security matter.  It’s being investigated accordingly.  And an appropriate response will be attendant as well.

Q    A couple quick questions on the Secret Service report that’s coming out.  Jeh Johnson said today that already the Acting Director has made some changes, which we all know about, and that he’s encouraging him to continue with those changes.  Is there any urgency to name a permanent new director?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I suspect that the interim director probably feels some of that urgency.

Q    Does the President or the White House feel the urgency?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, certainly this is a very important job. And as I have said on a number of occasions, the President, the First Lady, and everybody here at the White House is appreciative of the commitment that Mr. Clancy has made in leaving his private sector job temporarily to come over here and to assume this very important responsibility at a really important time for the agency.

So his brief tenure so far has been characterized by the kind of professionalism and confidence that, frankly, is exactly what we all expected.  So he is somebody that has a sterling reputation and he’s lived up to it in the confines of his current role.

What I’ll say is that we certainly do believe that having a permanent director in place is important, and that’s why you’ve seen this independent panel that was stood up take very seriously their responsibilities.  We’ll be sure that their recommendations are carefully reviewed.  But I don’t have any update for you in terms of timing about when a new director would be appointed.
Q    Last question.  Secretary Johnson also said that — obviously he’s seen the report, reviewed the report — that there are fundamental systemic issues with the Secret Service.  Does the President feel he and his family are safe in the interim while these changes are going to be made?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as I mentioned earlier and on a number of occasions in briefings earlier this fall, the President does have confidence in the men and women of the Secret Service.  These are dedicated professionals with a lot of expertise who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect the President and his family.  They also work hard to protect all of us, and that’s certainly something that we’re grateful for.
It is clear that some changes are needed.  As you pointed out, Mr. Clancy is putting in place some of those changes, and we’ll consider the recommendations from this independent panel of experts about additional changes that be necessary.


Q    Josh, given your transparency to Major about the news conference, any sense on early next year when the President would like to do a State of the Union?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have a date yet.  I don’t believe that the President has been invited yet by the Speaker of the House, who traditionally does that.  I can tell you that there have already been some conversations about this.  But we’ll let you know as soon — well, I guess the Speaker’s office will let you know as soon as they have made a decision.  But there’s obviously a lot of coordination that goes on behind the scenes to make sure that we choose a date that’s appropriate for the President’s schedule but also appropriate for the schedule of the members of Congress who will be in attendance as well.

Q    I want to go back to Sony.  I know you said the White House does not want to dictate to Sony about what they should or shouldn’t do.  But the Daily Beast has gotten some emails that show that at least two Obama administration officials screened a rough cut of this movie, “The Interview,” some months ago — I believe back in June — including the final scene that allegedly shows the dictator’s head explode.  And essentially, these administration officials felt, despite the sensitivity, it was okay to move forward.  Can you, first of all, tell us what involvement the Obama administration had months ago in this film, and why you even got involved?  Was it because you were concerned that this would become a big deal?

MR. EARNEST:  No, Ed, there is no policy at the administration for screening films before they are released.

Q    So that didn’t happen?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that there’s no policy in place that requires this.  I wouldn’t be surprised, however — and I think this is apparent in the emails that were released — that administration officials were consulted about the film prior to its release at the request of officials from the company that was producing the movie.

Q    I’m not suggesting you were dictating to them, but I’m saying you had an involvement months ago in this.  So did this administration underestimate the impact this was going to have?

MR. EARNEST:  No, because we would not have been in a position of dictating an outcome or dictating changes to a film.

Q    Why get involved at all?

MR. EARNEST:  We did so at the request of the company.  So again, you had this private company that had come to administration officials seeking their input, and that was — presumably that input was shared.  But certainly nothing was dictated.  And changes that were made to the film were made by the film’s creators themselves; certainly nothing that was created by the administration.

Q    And you make an important distinction that the President can’t tell Sony, do this or don’t this.  But given the fact that they were twisting in the wind, the company, for several days about what to do, why didn’t the company and other senior officials here speak out and say, look, whatever decision you make, you’re an American company, we’ve got your back?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the President was asked something along these lines in the interview he did with Jon’s network just yesterday.

Q    About theaters.  And he said people should go to theaters.  But what about the fact that —

MR. EARNEST:  I think that is a pretty strong show of support for the artists who are making films these days.

Q    I thought the context of the question was about the concern about terror threats out there.

MR. EARNEST:  It was.  But I think it was also a show of support for artists and others who are making films, including the artists who made this film, that they have a right to be able to express themselves and produce these kinds of movies, even if some people happen to find their brand of humor offensive.

Q    Okay.  I want to go to a last subject.  On executive orders, executive actions.  USA Today has taken a look, and you’ll remember some months ago the President claimed that he was using executive orders “at the lowest rate in more than a hundred years.”  And then USA Today looked at the fine print and, yes, 195 executive orders less than Democratic and Republican predecessors.  But when you add on 198 presidential memoranda, it actually turns out he’s using a lot more executive action than his predecessors, right?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think there’s no doubt that the President has sought to use his executive authority to move this country forward within the confines of the law, oftentimes in the face of congressional inaction.  That I wouldn’t disagree with.

Q    But why did he make this public claim that there’s this criticism that I’m acting on executive basis, and I’m doing that less — the lowest level in a hundred years?  That wasn’t really true, right?

MR. EARNEST:  It was true, because the level — the number of executive orders that this President has issued is lower, as you pointed out, than executive orders that have been issues by many of his previous predecessors.

Q    Presidential memoranda have essentially the same effect.  It’s called something different.  But the fact of the matter is that he’s taking a lot more executive action.  Why would he —

MR. EARNEST:  There is an important difference between executive orders and presidential memorandums.  But I would not  — but I would grant the premise that the President has used every element at his disposal to try to move the country forward. And he has done that in a way that is consistent with the law, that is consistent with precedent, and is often carried out in the face of pretty rigid congressional obstruction.

Q    And last one.  What do you see as that distinction?  I understand there are legal distinctions.  But, big picture, what is the difference?  Because both — it’s still executive action. So what is the big difference according to you or the President?

MR. EARNEST:  Generally speaking, presidential memorandums  — presidential memoranda are associated with more technical issues and are often directives that are related to a subset of agencies.  Executive orders, therefore, are more sweeping and often more impactful.  But again, I would readily concede that this President has, using executive orders and presidential memoranda, used his executive authority to try to move the country forward as much as he possibly can.
And whether it’s taking action on climate change, fixing — adding some accountability to our broken immigration system, or even relaxing some of the failed trade restriction policies as it relates to Cuba, the President has taken a number of steps, using his executive authority, to move the country forward.  And I recognize that this was something that was done over the objection of many members of Congress, but frankly, a lot of this was done because Congress was refusing to act.

Q    But you just said executive orders usually are more sweeping, but in the case of immigration, which you would acknowledge was pretty sweeping, it was a presidential memorandum, not an executive order.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s correct.

Q    So, by your definition — I’m slightly confused.  You said that executive orders are quite sweeping; the immigration one, which you acknowledged was sweeping, actually was not.  So doesn’t that make the point USA Today was trying to make, that no matter what you call it, he was kind of misleading people about how often he’s using executive action?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I think the President was being specific about the fact that his predecessors have issued far more executive orders than he has.  I don’t think anybody has ever made the case from here about this President, that he is not willing to use his executive authority to move the country forward.  In fact, he has, and I think the numbers that you cite demonstrate a commitment to doing exactly that.

Thank you, Ed. 


Q    Josh, yesterday President Obama issued another batch of pardons, and yet six years into his presidency he’s issued far fewer pardons than nearly all of his predecessors over the last half-century.  And I wonder if he feels that he’s stingy with pardons, as some of his critics have said.

MR. EARNEST:  The President and his administration take this issue very seriously.  And we have had the opportunity to talk quite a bit about criminal justice reform over the last few months, and this is something that the President believes is critically important.  One of the things that the President has done is sign into law the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  This was a bill that would address the unjust disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine, and this reflected some improvements in the way that the law is being carried out and the way that it’s enforced.

What we have also seen is we have also seen some changes to the sentencing guidelines that have freed up judges to use more discretion when applying sentences and penalties.  So we certainly have made some important progress in trying to address some of the current concerns that the President has identified about criminal justice reform.  But the President believes that there is more work that can and should be done.
The good news is that there are some Republicans who believe that there is more work that can and should be done.  And this would be one area where we would hope we could work with Republicans in the new year to make some progress on an issue that both Democrats and Republicans have identified.  But I would anticipate the President will continue to use the clemency authority that he is granted under the Constitution to try to address some of these problems as well.

But I think ideally what we would try to do is try to fix some of these problems statutorily so we could fix them on the front end, and future Presidents won’t have to resort to using their clemency authority to try to address some of these disparities that we see in the law.

Q    Can you describe what his criteria are for granting pardons?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m sure there’s a pretty legal description related to this that I wouldn’t want to venture into.

Q    Like he’s President, he can grant a pardon to anyone he likes.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as a factual matter, that is true.  Let me follow up with you to see if I have some more specific guidance I can share with you about how these kinds of decisions are reached.

Q    Perhaps I could ask him this tomorrow.

MR. EARNEST:  Perhaps you could.  (Laughter.)


Q    Josh, buried in the spending bill was one provision affecting the consideration of the sage grouse and a couple of other grassland birds.  The federal government is involved in extensive negotiation with 11 governors out West about what to do.  Could you comment on how the White House views that provision and how it will affect what could be a very significant decision regarding endangered species?

MR. EARNEST:  Once again, Juliet, this highlights the fact that the omnibus legislation that the President signed earlier this week is a genuinely compromise proposal.  It includes some riders, like this one, that would essentially prohibit the Fish and Wildlife Service from issuing an endangered species act rule related to the sage grouse.  That’s not a rider that we believe is the right policy and certainly wasn’t appropriate to include on a piece of legislation like this.

That said, this rider does nothing to stop the administration from continuing bipartisan work with the governors that you cited to put conservation measures in place with the aim of avoiding the need to list the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered in the first place; that we can take some of these steps as it relates to conservation that would prevent them from reaching the point where they are threatened or endangered in the first place and that would obviously make it so that the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t have to issue this endangered species act rule.
In fact — and this is where the good news comes in — the bill contains funding that will enable the Department of Interior and the United States Department of Agriculture to continue their work to continue sage grouse habitat.  The Fish and Wildlife Service will still be able to do the critical data collection and analysis work that’s required to meet a court-ordered deadline to decide whether a listing is warranted under the Endangered Species Act.

So we certainly do not agree with this provision, but the bill does contain funding for the kinds of conservation measures that we believe will be important to protecting the sage grouse and hopefully preventing the need for any sort of Endangered Species Act rule to be implemented.


Q    Josh, a couple for you.  Under what circumstances would the President showcase his support for artists by screening this movie at the White House?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any announcements about that now. As I think you know, the President is preparing to leave tomorrow night with his family to go to their traditional Hawaii holiday vacation trip.  I know that he’s looking forward to getting that time away.  So I guess the point is I don’t think we’re going to be showing the film here anytime soon.  But I wouldn’t rule it out necessarily in the future.

Q    And then — and I apologize, I missed your briefing yesterday, so if this is well-trod ground just say so.  But how will we know in six months, in a year, in 18 months, whether the President’s overtures to Cuba have worked?  Based on your own internal guidelines and your own internal criteria, are there very specific concrete deliverables?  Can I look at the news out of Cuba in six months and say they’ve let those 53 released prisoners stay and continue their activities?  Can I look at they’ve freed up the resort workers to keep more of the money they make in resorts that cater to Western European tourists, say?  Are there things I can look at in six months, in a year, in a year and a half, to make that judgment?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the first thing I’ll point out, and I think you’re alluding to this in your question, is that the President acknowledged pretty directly that we’re not going to see changes overnight in Cuba, that these kinds of broader social and political changes take time.

And that said, we certainly should have seen a lot more progress over the last 53 or 54 years since the embargo was put in place than we did see.  And I think that is a reflection of the fact that that policy failed.  That’s why the President is advocating a different approach, one that emphasizes openness and engagement, and that focuses on empowering the Cuban people to assert more authority and to take more control over their daily lives and to try to bring about the kinds of political and social and economic changes that they would like to see in their own country.  Ultimately, it should be their decision.

But I do think it’s appropriate — I do think it would be appropriate for us to evaluate the progress of the Castro regime when it comes to respecting basic human rights by watching how they treat political prisoners, particularly those who have recently been granted their release or soon will be released.  There was talk, as the President mentioned yesterday, of the Cuban government taking steps that would allow their citizens greater access to the Internet and greater access to the kind of information that has in many other societies, including this one, succeeded in empowering citizens and individuals to take greater control over their own lives.

We saw specific commitments from the Castro regime to engage more deeply with both the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross.  The engagement and cooperation with those international institutions that champion human rights I think would be another legitimate way for us to evaluate their progress.

Now, the other thing that I’m confident the President would be quick to point out — and maybe you’ll have the opportunity to probe him on this tomorrow — is that when we see this kind of change, it doesn’t occur in a straight line.  It wouldn’t be uncommon for us to see a step forward, a step back, two steps forward, another step back.  What we’re looking at is over the longer term.  And certainly we do anticipate that because of the strategy change, we will see the Cuban people become more empowered. 

And we will also see that the U.S. policy toward Cuba will no longer be a distraction, and that our partners and allies in the Western Hemisphere who’ve previously come to us complaining about our policy toward Cuba can now spend more time talking to us about the Cuba government’s policy toward its own people.  That would be a welcome development.  That would shine a light on the situation and put more pressure on the Castro regime to protect and advance the kind of basic human values that we have long championed in this country.


Q    Would you argue that the same thing has happened in China and Vietnam? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I certainly — I think there is a clearer story to be told about Vietnam, that the progress that they have made has been important — certainly not complete, and certainly not a long a straight a line, as I was describing to Olivier — but we continue to believe that the progress, the economic progress that we’ve seen in Vietnam will lead to the kind of political and social progress that we have seen.

Again, this should be about the people of an individual country realizing their aspirations and having some say over how their country and their society is run.  And it is the philosophy of this administration, as it has been of previous administrations, that greater openness, that greater engagement, that deeper economic ties facilitates the kinds of economic changes that often lead to the political and social changes that we believe are important, that reflects the kinds of values that we believe should take priority.

Q    I know you think they will do it.  I’m just wondering, in our experience so far, has that happened in China?  I mean, to date.

MR. EARNEST:  I mean, I think there are people who are probably better equipped to evaluate this than I am, but I do — so I’ll let somebody else pass judgment on that.  I will say that I believe that the strategy that the President has pursued to engage them is clearly in our national security interest.  That goes without saying.  And I do think it serves to put more pressure on the Chinese leadership to respect those basic universal human rights.

Again, as a result of the President’s trip there, there was extensive coverage and debate about this that would not have occurred had the President not traveled to China.  And again, there are a variety of ways to evaluate how much progress has been made and whether that progress is lasting.  And I think, again, we’re not going to see that kind of progress travel along a straight line, but the President does retain a lot of confidence in the strategy that it’s worked in many other places too.


Q    A couple of Sony.  The first is, I know you mentioned the cybersecurity legislation.  Back in 2012, the administration was pretty active in lobbying for this up on Capitol Hill.  There was a series of classified briefings for lawmakers.  Since then, kind of overtly, you guys have said that you’ve shifted towards kind of trying to handle it administratively.  But since you mentioned it to Christi, as much as I’m sure you’ve had great success calling for Congress to do things from behind the podium, I’m wondering if there’s additional work that you’re going to do on this issue with Congress in the new session, nd also if Congress is being briefed right now on kind of the developments of the investigation.

MR. EARNEST:  Justin, we do retain hope that advancing cybersecurity legislation in the new year can be a bipartisan pursuit.  As I mentioned earlier, there’s no reason that there should be divisions along party lines when it comes to an issue that’s important.

I can understand given the complexity of the issue that there might be differences of opinion on this, but they shouldn’t break down along partisan lines.  We shouldn’t allow partisan differences to interfere with our ability to tackle something that’s this complex, but yet at the same time, that’s this important to the country.  So I certainly would hope that we would see some bipartisan movement on this in the new year. 

The steps that we have taken on our own using the President’s executive authority were done out of necessity.  And there is also a need for Congress to act here, and we hope that they will recognize that and take action in the new year.

As it relates to your other question, it is not uncommon at all for the administration to work closely with Congress as we confront these kinds of situations related to cyber-attacks.  So I don’t know of any specific conversations that have occurred, but that is part of the standard operating procedure when it comes to these matters.

Q    And since you’ve mentioned differences of opinion, I know it will shock you to hear that Senator John McCain has been critical of the administration’s response to the cyber hack.  He said that because you guys haven’t responded so far that you’re effectively yielding to the hackers, and that you also kind of created the window by not responding sooner for Sony to have to make a decision on pulling the movie.  So I’m wondering if you could respond to that, but also if there’s any concern that by maybe slow-walking this investigation to some extent that this window has been —

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest that this investigation has not moved at the pace that is appropriate.  This is a matter that the President takes very seriously.  This is a matter that the National Security Division of the Department of Justice and the FBI take very seriously, and they’ve been conducting the kind of investigation that you would expect them to do in light of the fact that this is considered by the administration to be a serious national security matter.

And it would be inappropriate to get ahead of that investigation to start publicly discussing what our response is going to be, particularly in light of the fact that I’m confident that at least some of the measures that will be considered as a response are the kinds of things we wouldn’t want to telegraph in advance.  So what you have seen is a very professional approach to dealing with this situation, and that reflects the seriousness with which we believe this issues should be confronted.

Zeke, I’m going to put a lot of pressure on you, man, and give you the last question of the year.  (Laughter.)  So make it a good one.

Q    I got to rethink this now.  So, still on Sony.  You said that White House officials are contemplating a response and that response needs to be proportional.  How do they — who are they contemplating responses against?  Is there an array of potential perpetrators that we’re working off of?  Are they sort of shooting blindly from the hip who is behind it, or do you actually have a culprit in mind and you’re just not telling us?

MR. EARNEST:  You’re asking a very good question, and it illustrates why it’s necessary for us to allow the investigation to make some more progress before we start talking publicly about the range of options that are being considered.

Q    Then why do you keep talking about the range of options that are being considered?  Isn’t that then premature, what you’ve just before in that if you’re not comfortable talking about who’s behind it, why are you talking about the response?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess because I’m not talking — I think I’ve been pretty candid about the fact that I’m not talking in a lot of detail about what our response is going to be.

What I am suggesting, though — and I think this is because of the activity that we have seen — is that we believe an appropriate response is warranted.  And that is why we have begun the process of considering the range of appropriate responses.  But any more information about the range of appropriate responses will not be provided until more information about the investigation has been nailed down.

Q    And just in terms of having a counterattack, that’s not something that you would do normally when there’s a criminal ring behind this.  Is that an indication that, when you say significant actor, that is something larger than what we’ve seen, very large cyber-attacks at — whether the American businesses that have seen large numbers of credit card numbers stolen or other intellectual property stolen before — that this is a step beyond that?  This is not — you’re not going to go carry out counter-cyber-attacks against a band of cybercriminals somewhere overseas?  This is different.  Are you indicating that this a larger actor here?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me try to answer your question as best I can.  I think the direct answer to your question is, no.  What I — I described him as a sophisticated actor, which does not necessarily describe their size, but it does describe their level of, well, sophistication.  (Laughter.)  And so that is what we’re focused on. 

And the other thing — the other line that I would draw here is that you cited previous incidents in which we saw other sophisticated actors take actions related to cyber theft.  And you’ve seen public reports that some people believe that acts of cyber theft have been committed by both state actors as well as more conventional criminal rings.  I’m not going to speculate at this point about which category this one falls into, other than to say cyber theft is treated differently by this administration than something that is — than an activity that is destructive with a malicious intent.  And because of that, that destructive activity with malicious intent that we’ve seen, we consider this to be a serious national security matter.

So, Alexis, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Can I just follow on that?  Zeke was asking something that struck me, and that is, last night the NSC’s statement talked about the government working hard to bring “the perpetrators to justice.”  That is not what you’re saying here today.  You’re saying that you’re looking for a range of options proportional to what has occurred.  So just to follow on what Zeke was saying, did something happen between the statement last night and the knowledge today that left justice, which reflects crime, out of your commentary?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no.  I think you might be over-reading the statement a little bit.  I don’t think that justice necessarily only refers to crime.  After all, it’s the National Security Division of the Department of Justice that is working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to review this matter.  So I wouldn’t suggest any sort of change in policy or perspective based on last night’s statements and my extensive statements here today.

Q    — more facts, a set of facts?

MR. EARNEST:  Correct.

Q    Okay.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  Thanks, everybody.  Happy New Year, everybody. 

2:15 P.M. EST



Summer and Fall at Prairie State College