Hello, everyone. Good afternoon -- or good morning. Thanks for being here. Before I get started, as some of you have seen reported, I can tell you that later this afternoon the President will meet with Aung San Suu Kyi at the White House. The President looks forward to her visit as it provides another opportunity to reaffirm our longstanding support for her struggle, and the struggle of many others towards democratic, just, and transparent governance in Burma.
This is her first trip to the United States in more than 20 years. The President very much looks forward to that visit. That's all I have at the top.
Late afternoon around 5:00 p.m.
Will there be a photo spray?
We’re still -- press coverage TBD, but we’re working on it.
Thanks, Jay. Two foreign policy issues. Reports that Iran is using Iraqi airspace to deliver weapons to Syria, the issue came up today in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. What steps is the President prepared to take to prevent Iraq from allowing Iran into its airspace? Any conditions on financial aid or anything like that?
Well, let me just say broadly that we have made clear to countries around the world that we all need to work together to prevent Assad from acquiring weapons that he can use to continue to perpetrate violence against his own people, and that's a message that we carry in conversations with leaders everywhere.
I don't have anything specific for you with regards to Iraq, and I’m not aware of the meeting on the Hill that you referenced. But that is something we’re concerned about generally. We’ve worked very hard with our international partners to cut off access to weapons and financing for Assad, and we continue to do that.
On China, Secretary Panetta returned from his trip there, and we quoted that Chinese leaders are expressing concern over our U.S. military shift to the Pacific. Does the White House have any concerns that that, together with the attention that China has been getting in the presidential campaign, is increasing any tensions with the Chinese?
What I said yesterday holds true today, which is that we have a very complex, broad relationship with China that is extremely important. And when we meet with the Chinese at the level of the President and below, we engage with them on all of the issues that are part of our relationship, and that includes areas of disagreement as well as areas of cooperation and agreement. We obviously have an important trade relationship and economic relationship, as well as military-to-military relationship.
We are, as the President made clear on his trip to Asia last fall, a Pacific power. We have a presence there that's important to the United States and to the region, and we intend to pursue that. But if this is about broader issues than China, it’s about the fact that the United States is obviously a Pacific power with Pacific interests. And you know that this President believes that in the eight years prior to him taking office there was a loss of focus when it comes to Asia, by the previous administration, because of all the concentrated attention on Iraq in particular. And he has sought to rebalance our national security, foreign policy, and international economic posture towards Asia for that reason.
There are some protests in China that the U.S. presence has emboldened other countries like Japan on territorial disputes. Does the President feel that -- do you want to put your finger on the scale on issues like that?
No, look, we believe that good relations between China and Japan benefit everyone in the region. And U.S. policy on the Senkaku Islands, which I think is the issue at the moment, is longstanding and has not changed. The United States does not take a position on the question of the ultimate sovereignty of the islands, and we expect the claimants to resolve the issue through peaceful means among themselves.
Jay, does the President have any reaction to the end of the teacher strike in Chicago yesterday?
His position has been that he hoped to see both sides in the dispute come together, reach an agreement that could serve and would serve the interests that were paramount -- the interest of the children of Chicago, the students in the Chicago school system. And he certainly welcomes resolution to the dispute and welcomes the fact that kids have returned to class this morning.
And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, oil prices are falling again. Do you have anything updated today to say about the SPR and your thinking about that?
I don’t. Our thinking remains what it was. In regular consultation with our international partners, we monitor global oil markets and we keep all options on the table to deal with disruptions if necessary. But I have no announcements to make on that.
Is there a price level that would change this thinking at all of oil prices and/or gasoline prices in this country?
Again, Jeff, it’s the kind of thing that I won’t get into great specificity on. We simply monitor the situation mindful of the impact that higher global oil prices have on global economic growth, American economic growth, and mindful of all the various implications that arise when you have a situation like that. But I’m not going to get into the details of price levels or reserve levels, and suffice it to say that the President insists that all options for dealing with this issue remain on the table, and that includes the SPR.
You mentioned yesterday -- just last follow-up on this -- you were pleased about Saudi Arabia’s action. Can you talk a little bit about what types of negotiations or discussions happened between the White House or U.S. officials and Saudi officials on this?
No. I can simply say that we welcome the Saudi Arabian oil minister’s recent remarks and share his concerns about rising oil prices, broadly speaking, not in recent days, but rising prices in the international oil market. And we welcome Saudi Arabia’s continued commitment to take all necessary steps to ensure the market is well supplied and to help moderate prices. But we have ongoing consultations and conversations with our allies and our partners, including Saudi Arabia, on this issue and many others.
In the wake of the attacks in Benghazi, the Pentagon and the State Department both made statements but then had to correct the Pentagon involving whether there were Marines at the embassy in Tripoli -- there were not -- and the State Department, regarding the presence of security firms at the Benghazi compound. Why was there such confusion? And is the White House or anyone conducting any sort of internal investigation as to what went wrong?
Well, there is an ongoing investigation into what happened in Benghazi that’s being led by the FBI and --
Not that one. I’m not talking about the criminal act. I’m talking about the -- obviously, there wasn’t adequate security -- along the lines of what went wrong, what the administration could have done better.
Right. I think I would refer you for questions about security at the Benghazi diplomatic facility and broadly speaking at diplomatic facilities, consulates, and embassies around the world to the State Department. In terms of statements that were corrected by Defense or State, I would refer you to those departments.
From our perspective, we got out to you the information that we had as soon as we had it and it was available. And our assessment of what happened has been based on the best available information that we’ve had. There is an ongoing investigation led by the FBI, now going back to specifically what happened in Benghazi, and we await the results of that investigation for more information about the protests and the attacks and what precipitated them and who participated in them, with the primary objective here of fulfilling the President’s commitment that those people responsible for the deaths of four Americans be brought to justice.
What reason could there be -- or let me rephrase that -- who made the decision that there should not be Marines at our diplomatic post in Libya? More than half of our diplomatic posts have Marines. I understand they're not there to protect people, they're there to protect classified data, but it doesn't hurt to have them there. Who made the decision?
Well, I think security at diplomatic facilities is overseen by and run by the State Department, so I’d refer you to them about how decisions are made and what the allocation of resources was in Benghazi and elsewhere. I think they're the best people to answer that question.
Is the President concerned that there was a failure by someone in the administration to ensure adequate security measures whether through --
The President is concerned that violent actions were taken that led to the deaths of four Americans. You can be sure that he’s concerned about that, and he is absolutely concerned that we take the necessary measures to make sure that those who killed Americans are brought to justice. And he has been focused from the beginning on ensuring that adequate security reinforcements be brought to bear at embassies and consulates and diplomatic facilities where that's deemed necessary.
Again, there is an investigation -- I think a broad investigation into what happened and how and why in Benghazi. And we will await the results.
But that's about the perpetrators of the violence.
Well, I think it encompasses everything that happened. I’m sure that they will look at everything that happened there. I mean, I would refer you to the FBI for details. Look, Jake, I think what happened in --
It just seems -- you have the anniversary of 9/11, an unstable country with roving bands of individuals who are armed, a government that says it itself cannot provide security, it’s not ready to do so yet, and it would just seem not that complicated to discern that there need to be some sort of serious security effort there to protect our diplomats.
Jake, I appreciate the question, and I understand it. And I can simply say that there is an active investigation into what happened in Benghazi that led to the killing of four Americans. And the President has taken action to make sure that we have reinforced security at facilities as deemed necessary and is very focused on ensuring that we bring to justice those who killed Americans abroad.
But I appreciate your question, and I think that we are awaiting the results of the FBI investigation.
Okay. On one other subject. Did the President have any response to the Office of Special Counsel report on Secretary Sebelius violating the Hatch Act?
I have not spoken to him about it. I think that Secretary Sebelius has responded to that and made sure that what was in -- her remarks were extemporaneous. The Health and Human Services Department has since reclassified the event to meet the correct standard. The U.S. Treasury has been reimbursed, and Secretary Sebelius has met with ethics experts to ensure that this never happens again.
The error was immediately acknowledged by the Secretary and promptly corrected, and no taxpayer dollars were misused.
Is it safe to assume that as far as the President is concerned, that's the end of the matter?
Well, I think it’s safe to assume that action has been taken by the Secretary and the department to remedy what was the result of an inadvertent error based on extemporaneous remarks. And she acknowledged it immediately, promptly corrected it, and ensured that no taxpayer dollars were used, and that the department reclassified the event to make sure that the correct standards were met.
Thank you, Jay. Aside from the FBI investigation, doesn’t the White House have its own intelligence that would allow you to say with some degree of certainty that the attack in Benghazi was either a coordinated attack or a spontaneous reaction to the movie?
The White House doesn’t have its own intelligence, Dan. The White House has --
The White House doesn’t have its own intelligence on this? I mean --
Outside of the intelligence community of the United States government?
No, outside of the FBI investigation? You don’t have --
Are you suggesting that we have a clandestine intelligence operation here in the White House?
No. You are able to find out a lot of information on your own, independently. And what I’m saying, in addition to what the FBI is doing, does the White House not have information that it has gathered that will allow --
I think the FBI is leading an investigation that will encompass all of the information available to the White House and to the intelligence community and to the broader diplomatic community. What I can tell you is that, as I said last week, as our Ambassador to the United Nations said on Sunday and as I said the other day, based on what we know now and knew at the time, we have no evidence of a preplanned or premeditated attack. This, however, remains under investigation, and I made that clear last week, and Ambassador Rice made that clear on Sunday. And if more facts come to light that change our assessment of what transpired in Benghazi and why and how, we will welcome those facts and make you aware of them.
But again, based on the information that we had at the time and have to this day, we do not have evidence that it was premeditated. It is a simple fact that there are, in post-revolution, post-war Libya, armed groups, there are bad actors hostile to the government, hostile to the West, hostile to the United States. And as has been the case in other countries in the region, it is certainly conceivable that these groups take advantage of and exploit situations that develop, when they develop, to protest against or attack either Westerners, Americans, Western sites or American sites.
And again, this is something that’s under investigation. We have provided you our assessment based on the information we’ve had as it’s become available. As more information becomes available, we will make clear what the investigation has revealed.
And another question on Afghanistan. Given some of the developments that we’ve seen there recently, does the President still believe that Afghan forces are capable of handling their own security and will be able to do so in time for the 2014 deadline?
The President believes that after a decade of war, we can and should pursue a strategy that transitions security authority over to Afghan forces and allows us to end the war in Afghanistan and bring home our men and women in uniform. That process is underway.
We have gotten to this point because the President, having inherited a policy in Afghanistan that was widely viewed as adrift, without a focused mission, under-resourced, he very deliberately, working with his national security team, honed in on what the proper objectives should be in Afghanistan; made clear that our number-one objective in that region was to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat al Qaeda, and to ensure, in support of that goal, that Afghanistan could not become a safe haven again for al Qaeda or other extremists who have as their objective attacking the United States or U.S. allies.
And the execution of that strategy continues. It led initially to a surge in U.S. forces, which halted the Taliban’s momentum; which allowed us to take the fight to al Qaeda in the region in a way that we had not been able to before; that led to the decimation of al Qaeda’s leadership, including the elimination of Osama bin Laden; and has now allowed us to draw down the surge forces and to continue the transition to Afghan security forces’ responsibility for security of that country.
That process continues, as I said the other day. We are very concerned about the green-on-blue attacks that have been taking place in Afghanistan, the increase in those attacks. And our commanders are taking measures to ensure that there is more security for our troops in Afghanistan. But the process of partnering with and training Afghan security forces continues, and the process of transitioning to Afghan security lead continues. And the President has made clear that the pace -- that the drawdown of U.S. forces will continue. The pace of that will depend on evaluations by and assessments by commanders on the ground. But it will continue, and he remains committed to ending the war in Afghanistan in keeping with the NATO objectives by 2014.