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White House Press Conference; Eric Holder, Kathleen Sebelius Hold Press Conference

Aired May 14, 2013 - 13:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: And-and what that means in concrete action, we'll have to see, based on-on the information and the facts that are gathered, principally, at least at first, by the inspector general.

So you heard from the president yesterday. You heard the outrage that he conveyed at the reports of this kind of activity...

QUESTION: Outrage or potential outrage? I mean, he's only going to be-he's only going to be outraged if.

CARNEY: I don't think you would want a president to be outraged on something that turned out-about something that turned out not to be true. We have to wait...

QUESTION: The IRS already apologized for part of it.

CARNEY: Well...

QUESTION: Don't we know that part of it is fact? It's not in the "if" area anymore. It's fact.

CARNEY: Again, let's-I agree with that. And I think that that is-was reflected in-in the tone and the nature of the comments you saw from the president.

But on the broader issue here, about getting all the facts, it really is important, in our view, in the president's view, that we let the independent inspector general complete that report, that we assess it when we see it, because we haven't seen it. There have been suggestions in the reports that some of it has-has leaked out, but we haven't seen it. We don't have access to it. And when we do, we'll be able to assess it a lot more specifically than we can now.

QUESTION: And one other question, following up on Jim's question about what he called the confluence of issues. You've got Benghazi, IRS, HHS, DOJ. If you read some of the articles on this, it almost sounds like there's a siege going on. Is there a siege mentality back there in the West Wing right now?

CARNEY: Absolutely not. We are focused on the things that we can do to help the middle class, the things that we can do to move our economy forward, to help our kids get educated, to work with Congress to achieve what will hopefully be a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill that this president can sign into law, working with Congress, as you've seen over the last weeks and months, to see if we can find common ground on reducing our deficit in a balanced way that will help the economy grow, help it create more jobs. You know, we are focused on, you know, these fundamental issues that the American people sent this president to this office twice now to focus on.

And, you know, I understand the-you know, the-the effort- I mean, the understand-I understand the natural inclination to try to bunch some of these things together, but there really is a distinction here-and I think you heard it from the president- that the-you know, the ongoing obsession-and I'm quoting now somebody describing the speaker of the House-ongoing obsession with talking points on Benghazi and the, you know, attempts to politicize that constitute a sideshow that's driven purely by or largely by political interests and not the interests of finding out exactly what happened and who was responsible and taking the steps that we need to take to ensure that our diplomats and our facilities are secure.

That's what the president's been focused on. That's what you've seen in the report from the ARB, the Accountability Review Board, that was overseen by Admiral Mullen and Ambassador Pickering. And it's- it's what you've seen in the president's insistence that the investigation led by the FBI-FBI into finding out who was responsible for the deaths of four Americans, reach a point where we can bring those responsible to justice.

QUESTION: Jay, on the A.P. phone records, what prevents the president from picking up a phone, calling Eric Holder, and asking him what happened?

CARNEY: An enormous-a great deal prevents the president from doing that. It would be wholly inappropriate for the president to involve himself in a criminal investigation that, as Jessica points out, at least as reported, involves leaks of information from the administration. I mean, imagine the story on Fox if that were to happen. So that's why.

And, you know, this is-we have seen from the press reports the information about attempts to seek phone records from the Associated Press, and we're not involved in those decisions, and we can't comment on an ongoing criminal investigation for reasons that I think-I know maybe the question was rhetorical-but I think are pretty apparent to everyone who's covered these things over the years.

QUESTION: Is it your understanding that no one could have ordered this but the attorney general?

CARNEY: That is-well, it's my understanding that this is something that the Department of Justice does and that the investigators in the Department of Justice handle. There is, I believe, when it comes to these kinds of things a decision making process, but I would refer you to the Department of Justice for who actually made the decision that's been reported, because, again, our information comes only from press reports on this.

QUESTION: If that turns out to be the attorney general or whoever it turns out to be will the president have confidence in that person? CARNEY: President has confidence in the attorney general. He has confidence in his team over at the Department of Justice. I think that the-again, I'm not going to comment on the specifics of an investigation here, and I think that it is important to note that, as I said earlier, that there is a balance here that has to be struck between our national security interests and the need to prevent classified information from leaking, classified information that can endanger Americans and harm our national security...

QUESTION: And do you believe...

CARNEY: ... on the one hand, and the president's firm commitment to- the need for reporters to be able to, in an unfettered way, pursue investigative journalism.

QUESTION: And do you believe it's possible to strike that balance, and, at the same time, subpoena the phone records...

CARNEY: I-Wendel (ph), I just can't comment on the specific reports that you cite. I can say that the president does believe that, that balance should be sought, and can be found, but it is a- it is a balance and therefore something that, you know, we need to constantly work at.

And, you've seen in the past, when the-the measures that the president supported as a senator that-that he believed action should be taken to alter the balance, but I cannot comment on this specific investigation for all the obvious reasons.

QUESTION: But we know it happened, just as the IRS admitted what it had done in terms of the Tea Party and other groups.

The A.P. knows its records were-phone records were subpoenaed because the Justice Department told the A.P. The president-but I find any way that, that might fit in the balance that you say...

CARNEY: Again, it would be inappropriate to comment on a specific investigation and the methods that have been reported.

I can tell you that it is important to protect our national security classified information. It is also, in the president's view, essential to allow journalists to be able to pursue in an unfettered way investigative journalism.

QUESTION: Jay, you keep talking about the-that then Senator Obama supported a certain piece of legislation, but as a fact, as president he killed that piece of legislation in-in October of 2009. He made it so that the protections that he supported-having judicial review on...

CARNEY: (INAUDIBLE)...

QUESTION: And then he-there was an opportunity for this bill to be passed. Chuck Schumer was supportive of it, and he said that it was the White House that had problems with it and killed it.

CARNEY: Well I think-I think, first of all, we're talking about separate pieces of legislation and-and a legislative history that bears a little more looking into. The president's position on this is what it was as a senator. The-but the fact is, I cannot then appropriately apply his support for that measure...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) if he had supported this piece of legislation, we wouldn't be having this conversation today, because there would be a-he supported a judicial review when it came to some of this... CARNEY: And what happened to it in 2007?

QUESTION: I'm asking you what happened to it in 2009 when he was president of the United States.

CARNEY: It was killed by-well again, (INAUDIBLE) legislative history here is a little more complicated than you present, but the...

QUESTION: The Democrats were in charge, you had Chuck Schumer- I mean, this is 2009, this isn't-I don't-who cares about 2007, we know what he said on the campaign trail in 2008 in front of the Associated Press when it came to this issue.

He had a chance to support this and make this bill happen.

CARNEY: The president...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Why did he change (inaudible)?

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: The administration said that they-essentially, the president changed his position because of certain things on national security. Can you explain why he (inaudible)?

CARNEY: Again, broadly speaking, the president does support the ability of journalists in an unfettered way to pursue investigative journalism. He believes that we have to find a balance between that goal and...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: (inaudible) he believed in '08, he didn't believe in once he was president.

CARNEY: Again, I think that, you know, he has addressed this some, and I think he, you know, you are obviously free to ask him when -- the next time he has a press conference to ask him about this. But the fact is as president-as president, he obviously has responsibilities as commander in chief to ensure that classified information, that the nation's secret, that is highly sensitive information, is not leaked, because the leaking of that information can endanger individuals, as well as our overall national security interests.

QUESTION: Do you think a third party should have to make that decision? I mean, you know, that's fine. As a candidate, he believed -- he said that the point of the press is sometimes to be a watch dog of the watch dog a little bit. And that the judiciary branch is probably the appropriate place for them to make that determination.

But you guys will claim classified, you know, and it's not just you. It's an administration-any administration claims everything is somehow a national security leak and can fall under the rubrics of that. But having a third party make that decision about is it truly going to endanger lives, is it truly going to do this, and you make your-make your case in front of a third party. Does the president put forth that kind of...

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: ... that kind of protection for media sources?

CARNEY: I don't have an answer to that specific scenario that you laid out. I can tell you that the president does support...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: (inaudible) support it in 2008.

CARNEY: Well, then, he does support protections for the media. He does believe that we need to take measures to ensure that the media can pursue investigative journalism in an unfettered way. And we have to balance that goal with the very real national security interests that we have as a nation.

And, you know, understandably, there is great concern when classified information is leaked that can jeopardize our national security interests or endanger individuals.

QUESTION: I want to follow up on the IRS. I still-still don't quite understand the timeline. We had members of Congress complaining about this for two years. Did it just never reach you guys here at the White House that there was these complaints that conservative groups felt that they were being singled out and targeted? Any (inaudible)?

CARNEY: I mean, I'm not sure that people-I'm sure people were aware of and knew some of the stories that had been reported about the complaints, but we were not aware of any activity or of any review conducted by the inspector general until several weeks ago.

QUESTION: Should you have been made aware sooner?

CARNEY: Well, I was asked that before and I don't want to...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: I don't understand the-I don't understand...

(CROSSTALK)

CARNEY: Let's-let's just say that...

QUESTION: Why wouldn't you want to know? CARNEY: Well, first of all, we-you know, for all the reasons why there should be a distance between-you know, why the IRS should not be politicized, you know, there has to be that distance. But on the specific question you have, I want to wait and see what the report says, and wait and see what we actually know happened, and what the facts are before we comment beyond what the president said yesterday on this matter, and before we make any decisions or pronouncement about what actions should be taken.

I mean, you heard what the president said about what he believes and what he feels should what's reported about specific targeting turn out to be true. But we need to wait and see if that's in fact the case and how-and-and what the scope of it is before we make decisions about how to proceed.

QUESTION: Do you have any update about when you're going to-I know that Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee is saying he's been waiting for an explanation on-on the-on Hamid Karzai claiming cash payments from the CIA, and that these cash payments are continuing.

And he's been confronting this and claiming it in Afghanistan and Senator Corker was hoping for an explanation from the president. And he says it's now been two letters and he hasn't gotten any explanations.

CARNEY: I-I-I'm not aware of the letters. I'll have to take the question. You know, I-the specific story itself involves the CIA, and I'd have to refer you to them. But...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: With regards to the letter...

CARNEY: ... I'll let you know if-if there's a response.

QUESTION: Jay?

CARNEY: Yes?

QUESTION: Jay, you've used this formulation about the president's support for unfettered investigative reporting a number of times here. To what extent is he-does the former constitutional law professor in the Oval Office torn between that philosophy and the case for, you know, going after leaks?

CARNEY: I think the appropriate way to describe it that the president believes there needs to be a balance because there is an interest in making sure that classified information that is sensitive is not leaked and because of the consequences to national security and the individuals, but there is also an interest, in the president's view, in ensuring the press can pursue investigative journalism and be unfettered in that pursuit.

And, you know, to-to the earlier point that Chuck was making, you know, even after he became president, the attorney general and director of national interest-after the president took office, his attorney general and his director of national intelligence sent a letter to Congress in November of 2009 expressing the administration's support for media shield legislation.

So the position that the president held as a senator, he continues to hold as president. But that balance is important. And, you know, again, without commenting on specific reports about specific cases, you know, we have to be mindful of the fact that national security interests are significant and classified information needs to be protected.

QUESTION: Well, he has to know that a reporter can't be unfettered if-if a reporter is subjected to a fishing expedition of personal phone records and office phone records.

CARNEY: Well, you know, I-broadly speaking, I think that the president understands that a reporter needs to be shielded in the way that he supported as a senator and has supported as a president. I cannot, because of the nature of your question, express an opinion about reported developments in a criminal investigation currently underway at the Department of Justice.

QUESTION: Can you just say categorically-I mean, you could say "no one from the White House" or "and the president's political team was involved."

There's a pretty unequivocal answer on your part. And yet the bulk of this press conference is you saying you don't have all the facts. It's a...

(CROSSTALK)

CARNEY: What I-what I can tell you is that...

QUESTION: What gives you that confidence?

CARNEY: I can tell you that, as I think I said yesterday, the White House counsel was alerted about this I.G. review and the general topic of it several-just a few weeks ago. And prior-I mean, and I, you know, didn't find out about the...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... from being categorically certain that no one from the White House team or the political team was involved?

CARNEY: I have no reason to believe and...

QUESTION: You mean you're doing it on good faith, so this is just an assumption?

CARNEY: Yeah, because I-I-I can tell you that I am not aware of anyone here knowing about it. It would be, obviously...

QUESTION: So it's down to your direct knowledge of being aware of anyone here.

CARNEY: Yeah, and you know you can ask me if somebody who works on...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: You've asserted something categorically, and I just don't understand how you can say that.

(CROSSTALK)

CARNEY: ... I-I am certainly not aware of and am confident that no one here was involved in this. We found out about it just a few weeks ago, and only, you know-when I say "we," I didn't, the president didn't, but the White House counsel's office only found out about the review being conducted and coming to a conclusion by the inspector general. QUESTION: So what gives you the confidence?

CARNEY: I think-I think I can say that I feel confident in that, but I-you know, I don't have any... QUESTION: But do you have any facts? CARNEY: You're asking me to prove a negative.

QUESTION: Well, you-you've made the assertion. You've asserted that you're confident that no one-you're the one that actually put the-you know, put it out there.

CARNEY: Again, you heard the president express his views. And we're going to wait and see what the facts are based on the independent inspector general review. And then we will make judgments about-about those facts and what next steps might be taken and by whom and with- what actions might be taken. But I'm just not going to get into any more details about it, because it would be inappropriate to do so.

QUESTION: I want to follow up on a question Jessica asked that has nothing to do with the specific investigation. This administration in the last four years has prosecuted twice as many leakers as every previous administration combined. How does that reflect balance?

CARNEY: I would say that the president is committed to the press's ability to pursue information, to defending the First Amendment. He is also, as a citizen and as commander-in-chief, committed to the proposition that we cannot allow classified information to be-that can do harm to our national security interests or to endanger individuals to be-to be leaked. And that is a balance that has to be struck.

QUESTION: But the record of the last four years does not suggest balance.

CARNEY: That's your opinion, but I...

QUESTION: No. It's twice as many prosecutions as all previous administrations combined. That's not even close.

CARNEY: Well, I-I understand that there-you know, that there are ongoing investigations that preceded this administration, but I-again, I'm not going to-I can tell you what the president's views are, and the president's views include his defense of the First Amendment, his belief that journalists ought to be able to pursue information in an unfettered way, and that is backed up by his support for a media shield law, both as senator and as president, and it is also true that he believes a balance needs to be struck between those goals and the need to protect classified information.

And-and, you know, you're not going to hear him say that it's OK for the nation's secrets to be freely reported when that information can endanger our national security and do harm to individuals and endanger individuals.

QUESTION: Do you think a fair analysis of this administration's actions reflect the views you've just described?

CARNEY: I believe that the president supports balance and-and that he has made that clear, both as president and within his administration. You know, I-I cannot comment on the specific case, but I can tell you what the president believes in, what his actions have been in the past. QUESTION: Jay, on Pakistan elections?

CARNEY: Let me-let me move around.

QUESTION: You just mentioned that you said the president has made the goal of balance clear within his administration. Can you describe how he's communicated that within the administration or within the Justice-within the Justice Department as far as guidance?

CARNEY: Well, the president's-I think I just cited a November 2009 letter to Congress from the attorney general and the director of national intelligence expressing the administration's support-the Obama administration's support for media shield legislation, so that is a clear expression from several components of the administration about the president's views.

I can tell you that, as somebody who spends a lot of time with him and speak about the press frequently, that he firmly believes in the need to defend the First Amendment and the need, you know, for reporters to be able to do their jobs.

He is also, as commander-in-chief and as citizen, interested in the protection of sensitive information that can, if released, endanger our national security or endanger individuals. And I think that is a balance --

(END LIVE FEED)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I want ot cut away from Jay Carney.

Momentarily, Eric Holder, the attorney general of the United States, is answering some questions as well.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: -- gathering operations, violation of the department's own guidelines and asking you to return those records and destroy all copies. Will you consider doing so?

(BEGIN LIVE FEED) ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: If I don't remember the whole question, I'm sure you'll come back to me with those.

I testified, I guess, back in June 2012 that I had been interviewed by the FBI in connection with this -- with this matter, and to avoid a potential appearance of a potential conflict of interest, and to make sure that the investigation was seen as independent, I recused myself from this matter. We'll get to exactly when that happened. It was early on in the investigation. This matter has, therefore, has thereafter been conducted by the U.S. attorney here in Washington, D.C., under the supervision of the deputy attorney general. The deputy attorney general would have been the one that would have had to authorize the subpoena that went to the A.P.

Now, I'm not familiar with what went into the formulation of the subpoena. I'm recused from that matter. But I'm confident that the people who are involved in this investigation, who I know for a great many years and who I've worked with for a great many years, followed all of the appropriate Justice Department regulations, and did things according to DOJ rules. So --

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: You understand why people in the news gathering business such as us would find this troubling?

HOLDER: Well, you know, as I said, I don't know all that went into the formulation of the subpoena. This was a very serious -- a very serious leak and a very, very serious leak. I've been a prosecutor since 1976. And I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I've ever seen and puts the American people at risk. That's not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk. And trying to determine who is responsible for that, I think, required very aggressive action. And as I said, I'm sure the subpoena, as formulated, based on the people that I know, I don't know about the facts, but based on the people I know, I think that subpoena was done in conformance with DOJ regs.

QUESTION: The A.P. says that it found out about this after the fact, after the records were already taken. Why was no attempt made to seek the A.P.'s voluntary cooperation?

HOLDER: Again, you're getting into matters that are beyond my knowledge. I was recused in the matter. So I don't know.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: -- because ordinarily wouldn't protocol require you would try to approach for voluntary cooperation?

HOLDER: I don't know what the circumstances were here. So, you know, how things are done in particular investigation have to be dictated by the facts and I frankly don't have the knowledge of those facts.

QUESTION: The real question here, the underlying question is the policy of the administration when it comes to the ability of the media to cover the news. And I think the question for you is given the fact that this news organization was not given an opportunity to try to quash this in court, as has been precedent, it leaves us in the position of wondering whether the administration has somehow decided policy-wise that it's kind of going to go after us.

HOLDER: That is certainly not -- I mean, I can talk about policy. That is certainly not the policy of this administration.

If you will remember, in 2009, when I was -- after my confirmation hearings, I testified in favor of the reporter shield law. We actually, as an administration, took a position in favor of such a law. Didn't get the necessary support up on the Hill. That's something this administration still thinks would be appropriate.

We've investigated cases on the basis of the facts. Not as a result of a policy to get the press or to do anything of that nature. The facts and the law have dictated our actions in that regard.

QUESTION: You said it is not hyperbole that this puts American lives at risk. If the underlying investigation was basically being run with the knowledge and with the hand of the U.S. government, why was there any risk to Americans when that information came out?

HOLDER: I can't answer that question.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) -- on your decision to recuse yourself and when --

HOLDER: Towards the beginning of the investigation. Perhaps we can get for you the exact date. I don't know when that was. But as I said, it was -- because I was one of the people who had knowledge of this matter. I have frequent contact with the media and try to make sure that this investigation was seen as one that was independent and to avoid the possibility of an appearance of a conflict, I made the determination to recuse myself.

QUESTION: On the IRS controversy, is there any concern that -- on the IRS controversy, is there any concern that any criminal laws have been broken? If so, have you ordered an investigation?

HOLDER: I have ordered an investigation to be begun. The FBI is coordinating with the Justice Department to see if any laws were broken in connection with those matters related to the IRS. Those were, I think, as everyone can agree, if not criminal, they were certainly outrageous and acceptable, but we are examining the facts to see if there were criminal violations.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Are you also recused from the investigation out of Maryland?

HOLDER: I'm not going to comment on that.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) -- with the IRS and A.P. situation, a lot of Americans say they don't trust the administration now. What can you say to them that you can ensure they should trust all of you?

HOLDER: Well, to the extent that we have determined that actors in government have gone beyond what they were supposed to do, broken regulations, broken rules, broken the law, we have prosecuted people. We have held people accountable. We have tried to do things according to the rules. There are going to be people occasionally who will not do so. It is then incumbent upon us, who have enforcement responsibilities, to make sure we hold those people accountable. And I think our record shows over the last four and a half years we have done that.

QUESTION: The regulations require these things to be drawn as narrowly as possible. Do you believe, in this case, where there is a two-month period of 20 different phone lines, is that in your view a narrowly drawn request?

HOLDER: One thing I would refer you to, the deputy attorney general has written a letter in response to the A.P. letter. I assume -- I don't know if it's been made available yet, but that has a number of factual assertions in it that contradicts some of the assertions that came from the letter of the A.P. So I would refer you to that with regard to a response to that question.

QUESTION: The A.P. story, the IRS story, the failure to close Guantanamo, there are -- there is a growing sense that this administration's record on civil liberties has not lived up to the promises that you and others made beginning in 2008, and the criticisms of the past administration. Looking broadly at the civil liberties record, are you disappointed and why hasn't more been done?

HOLDER: I'm proud of what we have done. The policies that we put in place with regard to, let's say, the war on terror, we decided that certain interrogation techniques were not going to be used. We have been, I think, very aggressive in our enforcement of the civil rights laws. There have been a whole host of things that this administration has done, this Justice Department, in particular, that are consistent with what I think the president campaigned on and what we promised at the beginning of this administration.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) -- during the last administration, the president signed executive orders that effectively just continued what had already happened. It mentioned civil rights laws, but there are so many other examples where people are disappointed in this administration, civil liberties record, both on the left and the right. Do you need to change course? And aren't you trampling on civil liberties the same way the Bush administration did?

HOLDER: No, we're not. This administration has put a real value on the rule of law and our values as Americans. I think the actions that we have taken are consistent with both. If one looks at, in a dispassionate way, what we have done in a whole variety of areas, we -- I found a moribund civil rights division. And that is a division now that has brought record numbers of cases, protected record numbers of people. I would take issue with you with regard to how we have conducted the war on terror and with regard to interrogation policies. There were changes made by this administration, a repudiation of OLC (ph) opinions that existed when we came into office. So we're talking about, I think, changes that were consistent with, as I said, with president campaigned on and what we talked about early on.

Carrie?

QUESTION: You expressed some concern about lack of transparency with regard to the administration's drone program and promised more transparency. What are you going to do about that?

(END LIVE FEED)

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, let me come back out, and let you know you've been listening to Attorney General Eric Holder answering a barrage of questions on what we assumed would happen here as part of this Department of Justice briefing where he and Kathleen Sebelius were talking Medicare fraud, and now all these reporters are asking questions about this, what's made public now about this secret decision to seize these phone numbers and records from the Associated Press, from A.P. offices and reporters. This was for a two-month period last year. So this is the first time we have heard from Eric Holder talking specifically about this investigation.