Aboard Air Force One
En Route Mooresville, North Carolina
12:58 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: So to get it started this afternoon, Secretary Duncan is here to talk to you a little bit about the announcement that the President is going to make at Mooresville Middle School today. I know there have been some reports on this already, but the Secretary here can talk a little bit more about the details and the benefits of this program.
And then, if you have some questions for him about that program, he’ll answer them and then we’ll get on to some of the other things that might be on your mind today.
SECRETARY ARNE: Thanks. Thrilled that the President is going to Mooresville today. This is a huge deal for education for years to come. And Mooresville is a fascinating school district. I know this may not be exact, but out of like 117 districts in North Carolina, I think they’re the 100th in terms of funding. So this is not a well-funded district.
They made the courageous choice in about 2007 to stop buying textbooks, and they used all the money that they put in for textbooks to put in to technology. So they have sort of paved the way on this move from print to digital. And it’s been amazing to see not just increase in test scores, but significant increases in high school graduate rates.
I fundamentally think technology is a game changer. It can empower students to be engaged in their own learning in really important ways. Young people should have access to AP classes, to foreign language classes, to online tutoring. It’s a fantastic way to help teachers do their job better and engage them in really important ways. Teachers can collaborate across the country with their peers. They can individualize instruction in ways that just hasn’t been able to happen historically.
This sounds like common sense. It should be a no-brainer. It just doesn’t happen in this country. And if we can invest to create access to high-speed broadband, we open up a new world of educational opportunity.
So the President has challenged us and the FCC to look at what we’re doing. The FCC has had the e-rate program for about 16, 17 years. It’s done some great things. But I think there’s some real efficiencies there. If this takes a temporary slight increase in fees for the short term to get this done, we think it’s the best investment we can make.
The final thing I’ll say is not just about improving education; this to me is really about economic competitiveness. This is the norm in countries like South Korea; this has already happened. And as a country, I keep asking the question educationally -- are we going to be a leader or are we going to be a laggard? And I want to keep good jobs in this country and a globally competitive economy with a knowledge workforce, jobs to go to where the most educated folks are.
And I think the President is really challenging us and helping to create an opportunity where the United States could lead the world in terms of making sure students have access to a high-quality education regardless of where they live or their zip code or their own socio-economic status.
So a really big deal. Mooresville gives you I think a glimpse of what should be the norm, but it’s just simply not the case today.
Q Mr. Secretary, did you bring this idea to the President’s attention?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes, we’ve talked about it. The superintendent in Mooresville is a good friend. He has done a remarkable job. He came in a while back and briefed our entire team on this. I spend more and more of my time looking at what our counterparts are doing across the globe, because, again, we're not competing for jobs in a town or a county or state. We're competing for jobs internationally.
So I look at what other countries are doing. And they're moving faster; they're investing more; they're innovating more. South Korea, who has made this commitment, is already ahead of us educationally and we're trying to catch them. And when I see examples of what works and what's possible, I think one of the things we can really do is shine a spotlight on best practices and try and take them to scale.
So this is an example -- and the superintendent will be the first to say that their improvement is not -- it doesn’t begin to have everything to do with technology. Technology is an important lever and an important strategy. But engaging students in their own learning, empowering teachers in very different ways, working with parents -- there's no magic answer, but this is a significant part of what's possible. And to have a real demonstrative site -- this is not a community that has an abundance of wealth. It’s really, I think, a powerful example of what should be the norm, of what should be the norm across the nation.
Q You mentioned the temporary surcharge to pay for it. Is there a dollar figure on what it would cost?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: The FCC has to look at this. I think it's really important the FCC looks at existing resources in the e-rate program. And, again, over the past 16, 17 years there's been some really important progress. Every school -- virtually every school in the nation now has access to the Internet. But the stat that’s sort of stunning is that the average school has less bandwidth than the average home. Just sort of think about what that means -- if you think about how many more kids are in the school and if you want them to all have access at the same time to online learning, to video streams and those kinds of things.
We're just simply -- we're not in the game. And I think we're putting our students at a competitive disadvantage. We're doing our teachers a disservice. Some people ask if technology is going to somehow replace teachers. That's never going to happen. The answer is always great teachers empowered with great tools, with technology. And as you survey teachers, less than 20 percent think they have what they need today. Our teachers, we’re asking so much of them. This work is so hard and so important. We owe it to them to give them the tools they need to be successful.
Q So is there a price tag on how much it would cost to wire up all the schools?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, again, I think it’s really important that the FCC do that analysis, figure out what we could do with existing resources. If there's a need on a temporary basis for some additional resources, we need to look at that. But I really look forward to the FCC's leadership and expertise in that area. And we just want to be a good partner, but they're going to do the hard work. They're going to do the heavy lifting.
Q And none of this requires any congressional approval?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Which is the fantastic part of this. (Laughter.) We can get this done. And our kids can't wait and our teachers can't wait. We're trying to get better faster educationally in tough economic times. We want to partner with Congress in everything we do. And, as you know, we try to work in an absolutely bipartisan, nonpartisan way in everything we're doing. But we have to educate our way to a better economy. And the path to the middle class goes right through our nation's public schools.
And we're either going to see children in South Korea and India and China and Singapore have competitive advantages, or not. And I just think that's not fair to our kids. Our children are as smart, as talented, as committed, as entrepreneurial as children anywhere in the globe. We just have to give them a chance to compete on a level playing field. And today, quite frankly, we're not doing that.
And what that means for our children and families, communities, and ultimately our country -- we have to do something better. This is a really big deal what the President is talking about today.
MR. EARNEST: I know there's at least one story that all of you may be interested in: the reports overnight about a purported order from a FISA judge, as reported. So why don't I read a statement at the top just to give you a sense about where we are on this, and then I’m happy to answer your follow-up questions after that. So if you'll bear with me, we’ll do this.
It won’t surprise you to hear that I'm not in a position to discuss specific classified or operational issues. But what I can explain to you are our policies. The Patriot Act was signed into law in October of 2001, and included authority to compel production of business records and other tangible details with the approval of a FISA Court. This provision has subsequently been reauthorized over the course of two different administrations -- in 2006 and in 2011.
The Obama administration has made public that some orders issued by the FISA Court, under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, have been used to support important and highly sensitive intelligence collection operations on which members of Congress have been fully and repeatedly briefed. And I think you’ve heard a couple of members of Congress in both parties today acknowledge that fact.
The intelligence community is conducting court-authorized intelligence activities pursuant to a public statute with the knowledge and oversight of Congress and the intelligence community in both houses of Congress. There is also extensive oversight by the executive branch, including the Department of Justice and relevant agency counsels and inspectors general, as well as annual and semi-annual reports to Congress, as required by law.
There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted, pursuant to the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act. That regime has been briefed to and approved by the court. And activities authorized under the act are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and the laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties.
The order reprinted overnight does not allow the government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls. The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to call details, such as a telephone number or the length of a telephone call.
The information of the sort described in the article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.
My final point here: The President welcomes a discussion of the tradeoffs between security and civil liberties. Many of you covered his speech at the National Defense University just a couple of weeks ago. In that speech, the President said, "…in the years to come, we will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are. That means reviewing the authorities of law enforcement so we can intercept new types of communication, but also build in privacy protections to prevent abuse.”
Q Does the President worry about the potential of overreach by the NSA under the Patriot Act?
MR. EARNEST: The authorities that you're talking about were authorities that were in place before this President took office. But when this President did take office, he put in place a stronger regime of oversight that included, as I described before, important notifications to relevant committees in Congress, but also important notifications to every member of Congress.
There also is a requirement and important role to play for the judicial branch, including the FISA Court. There is also an independent role to be played within the executive branch. So there’s a role for general counsels and even inspectors general to provide oversight in terms of how information is collected, and subsequently, how that information is used. So there is a strict regime that’s in place that has been in place for some time and was strengthened under this President.
Now, the thing that I want to make clear is that the top priority of the President of the United States is the national security of the United States and protecting this homeland. And we need to make sure that we have the tools we need to confront the threat posed by terrorists, to disrupt plots that may exist, and to otherwise protect the homeland. The President is committed to that. That is his top priority.
But what we need to do is we need to balance that priority with the need to protect the civil liberties and constitutional rights of the American people. And that is the subject of a worthy debate -- that there are people who have a genuine interest in protecting the United States and protecting constitutional liberties -- constitutional rights and civil liberties that may disagree about how to strike this balance. We welcome that debate. The President has spent a lot of time thinking about this. I think that was evident in his speech and I think that's evident from the way these programs have been conducted.
But striking that balance and having a debate about how to strike that balance is something that the President and this administration welcomes.
Q A couple of members of Congress have suggested today that this was a renewal of an order to look at records -- or an order from the court has been in place actually for seven years. Do you believe that that's accurate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not in a position to talk about purported orders, even if they’re -- orders that are issued by FISA judges are classified, so I'm not in a position to talk about those. I'm also not in a position to talk about operational details.
But what I can tell you is that the authorities that are referenced by this purported order are something that have been in place for a number of years now, prior to this President taking office. And as I mentioned, when this President took office, one of the decisions that he made was putting in place an oversight regime involving all three branches of government to provide oversight over the exercise of those authorities.
Q But I thought that the act made these records available to the government when sought, when they were in relation to a particular investigation. Do you think that this relates to a specific investigation? Even if you can’t say what it is, can you say if it is a specific investigation?
MR. EARNEST: It is my understanding that -- I'm not in a position to talk about this because a lot of the information that we're talking about here is classified. All I can tell you is that these authorities have been in place for quite some time, prior to this President taking office. And these are authorities that, when acted upon, are regularly briefed to Congress, and when we act on these authorities, the judicial branch is involved in providing oversight.
But in terms of specific operational details, I just can't get into them.
Q But can I just ask this -- it’s an echo of Steve’s question -- but in what the President said in his speech at the National Defense University, the part that you cited at the beginning of this briefing, does he believe that the interpretation of the law has perhaps become more flexible than he is comfortable with? Is this something he’s reacted to since this news broke or since it was last under discussion in the White House, that he thinks perhaps the meaning of the interpretation of the law needs to be tightened somewhat?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s the view of the President that there is in place a very strict oversight regime that, again, involves all three branches of government. It includes a federal judge -- or judges. It includes very robust congressional oversight, and an important role to play for inspectors general. So even people who are independent within the executive branch have a role to play here, both in terms of how this information is collected and how this information is used.
And this strict regime reflects the President’s desire to strike the right balance between protecting our national security and protecting constitutional rights and civil liberties. So this is something that the President spends a lot of time thinking about, and when he came into office he made some changes to ensure that the proper level of oversight was incorporated.
That said, it’s understandable that there are people that have a genuine interest in protecting our national security and who are committed to being thoughtful about protecting constitutional rights and civil liberties, and that the close examination of some of these complicated issues could cause people to arrive at differing opinions about how to implement -- about how the executive branch should exercise these authorities. The President welcomes that debate.
He’s thought about this a lot. He has his own ideas; he’s presented them. But he welcomes the debate and the different point of view from people who are informed and have the right perspective on this in terms of prioritizing our national security and who properly value the constitutional rights and civil liberties of the American people.
Q Just to clarify -- has every member of the House and Senate been briefed on this? Because some, it seems, have been a little caught off-guard.
MR. EARNEST: I want to read to you specifically from a letter that was sent by the Assistant Attorney General back in October of 2011 on this. And I’m not going to -- it looks long, but I’m only going to read you one line, which says, “In December of 2009 and in February of 2011, the Department of Justice and the intelligence community provided a document to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to be made available to all members of the House and Senate, describing the classified uses of Section 215 in detail.” Section 215 is the part of the Patriot Act that explains the authorities that are granted to the executive branch related to some of this surveillance.
So I can get you a copy of this letter, if you don’t already have it, that details that. And I also think that Senator Chambliss today noted that every member of the Senate, as far as he knew, had been briefed on this.
Q Senator Collins said otherwise.
Q Right. Senator Collins and I think Senator Tester said otherwise as well. And how do you reassure the American public that this information won't be misused for political purposes or purposes beyond the scope of intelligence, given what's been going on with the IRS and other sort of scandals?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the reason that an oversight regime is in place -- a strong oversight regime is in place is to protect the constitutional rights, the privacy, and the civil liberties of the American public. So there are federal judges who are involved in making sure that this information is obtained and handled properly. Members of Congress are regularly briefed on this process. There are also independent members of the executive branch who are briefed on this process so that they can provide proper oversight.
But what I can tell you is that this is a -- that these decisions are made by national security professionals who have, as their priority, protecting our homeland and protecting the safety of American citizens. But there is a very strict oversight regime in place that includes all three branches to make sure that the constitutional rights and privacy of the American public are protected.
Q So just to be clear, the President is comfortable with the NSA domestic surveillance program as it stands today?
MR. EARNEST: The President believes that we have in place a very strong oversight regime that includes all three branches of government, and that that strong oversight is a key part of balancing the need to protect our national security and protect the constitutional rights and civil liberties of American citizens.
And at the same time, we understand that there might be people who have looked at these facts who have the right values in terms of they believe that our security is a priority, they believe that protecting constitutional rights is a priority. And they may arrive at a different opinion. And if they want to have a debate and a discussion about striking that right balance, we welcome that discussion.
Q Is he willing to change anything based on looking at these facts, as you say?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the strict oversight regime that’s in place is in place because the President put it there. But if there are people that have a different opinion about how to appropriately strike the balance between our national security and civil liberties, the President is welcome to have that conversation with individuals. But he is also more than willing to have a broader public debate about this.
The American people have a legitimate stake in the outcome of this discussion. So he welcomes, to the extent practicable, talking about some classified issues here. But to the extent practicable, he believes that there is a legitimate public debate that can be had about this as well.
Q Have other telecom companies besides Verizon been asked to turn over records?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to offer up any additional operational details about this.
Q Can we expect the President to come out and talk about this at some point? Or --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t anticipate that this will be part of the President's remarks today.
Q Not necessarily today, but at some point as people become more aware of what’s been going on.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. He incorporated a speech on this exact issue -- or he incorporated his thoughts on this exact issue in the speech that he gave a couple of weeks ago. So it certainly wouldn't be a surprise to me that he might bring this up again.
Q Will the government investigate this leak?
MR. EARNEST: Those are decisions that are made by the Department of Justice, by law enforcement personnel over there. So I'd refer that question to the Department of Justice.
Q DOJ has said that there’s been reports that they are investigating this leak. Does the President support that?
MR. EARNEST: I've seen those reports, but I can't comment on the veracity of those reports. So I'd refer you to the Department of Justice.
Q Can we just talk about just more about of what Lisa said, the general perception of this just being one more thing that the American people are seeing after a long line*? Has the President continued to push his message and his agenda when he’s just so distracted by yet another thing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll tell you that the President is not distracted. The President is focused on the core part of his domestic agenda, which is expanding economic opportunity for the middle class. That, after all, is why we're on this plane to North Carolina. The President is looking forward to the opportunity to talk about it, as Secretary Duncan just mentioned -- the difference that smart investments in technology can have in our education system.
And the reason that we're talking about that issue is because a high-quality education is so critical to expanding economic opportunity for the middle class. The President believes that if we're going to strengthen our economy, we need to have a strong and thriving and growing middle class. That’s what the President is focused on. And he's not at all distracted from that priority.
Q Can I ask one question not related to this -- about immigration? Last night, there was a stalemate in the House. What does the White House think about the lack of an agreement from the House when -- the Congressman leaving the talks from the Gang of Eight?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen some of those reports. I don’t have a lot of insight into the private negotiations that are going on in the House, but obviously there is some bipartisan progress that’s being made in the Senate. And we look forward to the compromise immigration proposal that’s been put forward coming to the Senate floor next week.
I would expect a pretty robust debate on a range of issues related to that piece of legislation. I know that there are many amendments that have already been considered in committee that will also be considered on the floor of the Senate.
This is a compromise proposal. Not everybody is going to get what they want, but at the end of the day we're optimistic that if we're going to have a common-sense immigration reform package that largely reflects the principles that the President has laid out, and that will also get bipartisan support. And that’s something we're encouraged by.
We're getting close. Is there any -- we're done? Okay. Thank you.
1:24 P.M. EDT