Tag Archives: White House

White House: less force, more diplomacy in Syria

White House Press Secretary discusses national security after Islamic State attacks. (Sean Froelich/Medill).

White House Press Secretary discusses national security after Islamic State attacks. (Sean Froelich/Medill).

WASHINGTON — White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that no amount of U.S. military power will solve the chaos in Syria.

Earnest answered questions regarding President Barack Obama’s recent and upcoming meetings with world leaders to discuss how the Syrian civil war and threats posed by the Islamic State are being confronted.

Earnest assured reporters that international resources are being funneled together in order to meet the current U.S. plan of “degrading and defeating ISIL.”

“The success of this mission is dependent on 65 nations coming together, recognizing the common interest they have here and dedicating significant resources,” Earnest said.

Obama meets with French President Francois Hollande Tuesday as part of the international outreach.

Reporters asked Earnest about the ongoing efforts to snuff out terrorist threats in Belgium, which is currently on high alert against potential attacks following the massacre in Paris.

Earnest was mum on safety procedures in Belgium to ensure their secrecy, but suggested that security improvements Europe can make it easier for those allies to better defend their own national security.

Earnest said it is important to expand intelligence sharing within the European Union and with the U.S.

“That is certainly something we are committed to,” Earnest said. “And we are committed to helping our allies in Europe deal with this rather urgent threat.”

Congress voted last week to increase the security measures for Syrian refugees coming into the U.S. due to GOP fears that Islamic State operatives would sneak into the country.

“I think those who voted to further encumber the refugee process are accountable for their vote…it’s not likely to do much to improve the national security of the United States.”

White House calls on Congress after Virginia TV shooting

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest answers questions from reporters at Wednesday's daily press briefing. (Jenny Leonard / Medill NSJI)

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest answers questions from reporters at Wednesday’s daily press briefing. (Jenny Leonard / Medill NSJI)

WASHINGTON — In the wake of a fatal shooting during a live television broadcast in Virginia, the White House called on Congress Wednesday to pass tougher laws combatting gun violence.

“While there is no piece of legislation that will end all violence,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “there are some common sense things that only Congress can do that we know would have attainable impacts at reducing gun violence.”

Two members of WDBJ 7, in Roanoke, Virginia, were killed in the early-morning attack: reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward. The interview subject, Vicki Gardner, was shot but not killed and taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

The suspected shooter, Vester Lee Flanagan II, was a former employee at the station, who went by the on-air name of Bryce Williams. Flanagan died later at Inova Fairfax Hospital from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“This is another example of gun violence that is becoming all too common in communities large and small all across the United States,” White House spokesman Earnest said.

Closing the gun show loophole is the most frequently cited “common sense” action that Congress could take, Earnest said. The loophole allows some individuals to purchase firearms at gun shows without going through a background check.

This legislative action, he said, would not alter the United States Constitution in any way, nor would it infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens who are exercising their Second Amendment rights.

“The laws about gun safety in a sparsely populated rural community, I think justifiably, can be different than in a dense urban community like the District of Columbia,” Earnest said.

The most recent legislation seeking tougher gun laws, sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., failed to pass a Senate vote in 2013.

According to a 23-page fax that Flanagan sent to ABC News on Wednesday morning, he “put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15,” and cited racial discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying as his motivations for the shooting.

“The thoughts and prayers of everybody here at the White House are with the families of those who were injured or killed in that terrible incident,” Earnest said.

Published in conjunction with UPI Logo

Security threat interrupts White House press briefing (video)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Secret Service evacuated the White House Briefing Room Tuesday afternoon after a bomb threat was called in to Washington police.

Security threat interrupts White House press briefing from Medill Washington on Vimeo.

The evacuation came in the middle of a televised press briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest. The North Lawn of the White House was also cleared.

PHOTOS, STORIFY: Bomb threat sparks evacuation of White House press briefing 

Secret Service officials said the threat was called in at 1:53 p.m. About 30 minutes after the call journalists were allowed back into the White House. Secret Service officers on the scene said an all-clear had been issued.

“As a precaution, the White House Briefing Room was evacuated,” Secret Service spokeswoman Nicole B. Mainor said in a statement. “The evacuation was limited to the White House Press Briefing Room and did not affect any other sections of the White House.”

Shortly after the evacuation Earnest wrote on Twitter that the briefing would resume shortly after the room was cleared. “Hopefully won’t be long,” he wrote.

Bomb threat sparks evacuation of White House press briefing

WASHINGTON — The White House Briefing Room was evacuated Tuesday afternoon in the middle of a press conference in response to a bomb threat, the Secret Service confirmed via email.

“At approximately 1:53 p.m. today, a telephonic bomb threat concerning the White House Briefing Room was called into the Metropolitan Police Department,” a Secret Service statement said. “As a precaution, the White House Press Briefing Room was evacuated.”

According to the statement, no other parts of the White House were affected by the evacuation.

“Sweeps concluded at 2:36, the area was declared safe, all occupants were returned to the White House Press Briefing Room,” the statement continued.

You can view photos from the scene below:

  • Tourists look on as Secret Service officers checks IDs of individuals attempting to gain access to the cordoned-off area during a June 9 White House Press Briefing evacuation. (Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory/MEDILL NSJI)

Here is a moment-by-moment rundown of the evacuation, as narrated by reporters who were attending the briefing when the evacuation occurred via social media:

FAA backed away from proposing privacy regulations for drones – but that might be a good thing, experts say

WASHINGTON—When the Federal Aviation Administration released its proposed “framework of regulations” for governing the commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems last month, people were surprised. After years of failing to act on a 2012 congressional order to develop regulations, the FAA’s proposal seemingly fell from the sky – unexpected, and as it turns out, an unexpected gift to the drone community.

But noticeably missing from the proposed regulations? Privacy.

And the FAA owned up to it. In a privacy impact assessment issued along with the proposed framework, the agency stated that it “acknowledges that privacy concerns have been raised about unmanned aircraft operations. … These issues are beyond the scope of this rulemaking.”

That makes sense, according to Matt Waite. Privacy is not in its wheelhouse.

“The FAA has said all along that it is not a privacy organization – It is an aviation safety organization. They don’t have the experience or the skill[set] to be in the privacy business,” Waite added.

A professor of journalism and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Waite said that the FAA more or less intentionally walked away from building privacy regulations into its proposal. “They had been talking about it and had been claiming that that was the reason it was all being delayed [as] they were considering privacy regulations … But ultimately, nothing.”

Waite said that the implications of that choice suggest that states are going to have to make up the difference.

“The FAA has wisely backed off all privacy issues [because] there’s no need for a new federal privacy bureaucracy [when] states already have protections in place,” said Charles Tobin, a privacy rights lawyer and partner at Holland & Knight.

“The laws that are on the books are all technology agnostic. They apply to computers, they apply to still cameras, they apply to wireless microphones, they apply to video cameras … and there’s no reason that they can’t be applied – as already written – to UAVs,” Tobin added.

He said he understands why people are concerned, but suggests we look to history for any insight we might need. “Since the turn of the century, people have expressed concerns about every single new phase of technology [that has been] developed to allow people to gather information in public places and private places, and so over the decades, states have developed a strong series of statutes and precedents in the courts that deal with electronic surveillance, eavesdropping, trespassing and just about any other concern for invasion of privacy.”

To add additional statutes would be more than redundant, Tobin said. It would be confusing for everyone involved. It also leaves the possibility that one law could potentially violate the other.

While recognizing that the FAA made the appropriate call when it chose to step aside, Tobin said the baton has simply been passed on down the line. A presidential memorandum issued the same day as the FAA’s proposed regulations relays the responsibility to “develop a framework regarding privacy, accountability, and transparency for commercial and private UAS use” to the Department of Commerce. The memo states that the department must initiate a “multi-stakeholder engagement process” within 90 days of the memo’s release – so it must begin work by mid-May. According to Tobin, “the development of private industry best practices” by the Department of Commerce is a positive step – but it should avoid stepping further.

Government trying to involve itself in the regulation of a specific piece of technology is just a terrible idea, Waite said. “As we are already seeing, the government lags way behind technology when it comes to laws that would deal with that technology. It’s taken the FAA a long time to come up with rules for these drones and they’re flying around right now. They’re being used for commercial purposes even though the FAA says, ‘No, you can’t do that.’” Law will forever lag behind technology, he said.

“So if that’s the case, then legislatures and policymakers need to acknowledge and accept that and begin to craft rules that are technology agnostic,” Waite added. Because therein lies the solution to any concerns that privacy might be invaded.

Waite said that the key is deciding what we don’t want people to do – what we need to prevent from happening. “We need to start thinking about what we consider a reasonable expectation of privacy in our modern times. And if that’s not allowing [me to] photograph [someone] streaking in their backyard, then that’s great. We can say I can’t do that. But it shouldn’t matter how I do that, [just that] you don’t want me to do it.”

It’s about understanding what we’re offended by. And then realizing that if privacy was violated, then how it was done is unimportant, he added.

The drone-related privacy concerns of the average American are actually pretty obvious, Waite said. They’re afraid of a drone operator peering into their windows like a 21st Century peeping tom, or using them to stalk and harass people. And they’re also afraid that someone might gather information about them and their behaviors.

Amie Stepanovich, senior policy counsel for privacy advocacy group Access Now, said these concerns are genuine because drone technology is in a league of its own. “Drones have [the] capacity to bring a bunch of different surveillance technologies onto a singular platform and to reach into areas that other vehicles have not been able to get to. For example, up into very high buildings or into inside spaces.”

But many of the acts people are fearful of are actually crimes, Waite said. They’re already illegal. “It is illegal for you to fly up and peer in[to] someone’s window, those peeping tom laws already handle that.” He admitted that some states aren’t as advanced as others because they require that an offender physically be on the property to be prosecuted as a peeping tom. “[But] that doesn’t take a great leap of mind to fix that real quick,” he added.

Gathering information through surveillance is a different issue, however, one steeped with potential for abuse. Stepanovich said that limitations should be put in place to restrict the ways in which government agencies can use drone technology. “It’s highly advanced and gives them a great deal [of] increased capability and can be used to collect a great deal of information,” she said.

“We need things that will, for example, protect users’ location information from being collected and tracked. … It comes back to tracking people over time without a warrant and being able to pinpoint their exact location. And this is true with drones but … there are several other different kinds of technologies that are coming out. And we need to make sure that that information is adequately protected.”

The presidential memo issued in conjunction with the FAA’s proposal states that agencies must “comply with the Privacy Act of 1974, which, among other things, restricts the collection and dissemination of individuals’ information that is maintained in systems of records, including personally identifiable information.”

The White House’s assurance that government agencies will be held accountable to legacy privacy standards is a good thing, Stepanovich said, but she recommends further attribution and transparency.

“The FAA has a publicly accessible database of who is able to fly airplanes in any specific geographic area in the United States. But they haven’t made a similar commitment to do that for drone operators,” Stepanovich said. She calls that a double standard.

People won’t know which agency, company or person is behind the remote of the drone flying over their homes. They’re already fearful, so that’s not the best way to go about this, Stepanovich added.

“And so the FAA definitely has a role to play in protecting privacy,” and she recommends the agency operate a full registry. “We’re talking about transparency, requiring that drone users register what technology they are deploying on their drones, and what capacity these drones will have. This just gets at making sure people are aware of what’s going on in their own area,” she added.

“But it should be up to Congress and other agencies to ensure that users don’t violate one another’s privacy rights.” That requires a separate law, but Stepanovich said it would be a mistake to make a new law for a singular piece of technology.

Like Waite and Tobin, she advises technology agnosticism when it comes to lawmaking. Because technology changes frequently. And for that same reason, Stepanovich said the drone privacy debate is an important one: “It will definitely be worth paying attention to because it’s really deciding the future of this technology in the U.S.”

All three agree that the next 24 months will be very exciting. “We’re sort of in the early years of the Wild West stage here, where the rules and the court cases [haven’t happened] yet,” Waite said. “But things are going to happen and they’re going to be tested in court and they’re going to be squared to our constitutional values and when they are, we’ll actually have a fairly stable system.”

“But until then you’re going to have some crazy stuff going on,” Waite added. “You’re going to see people doing things that were never envisioned and you’re going to see [drones] being used in ways that we hadn’t thought of yet. And some of that’s going to be cool and neat and some of it’s going to be kind of ugly.”

One thing is guaranteed: The waiting game has just begun.

White House pushes for student data regulations

WASHINGTON — When the educational company ConnectEDU filed for bankruptcy about a year ago, it tried to do what any business would — sell off its most valuable asset: student data.

Millions of students submitted personal information such as email addresses, birth dates and test scores to the college and career planning company.

The Federal Trade Commission eventually stopped any transactions involving the data after noting that they violated ConnectEDU’s privacy policy.

Some student educational records are protected through the Family Educational and Privacy Rights Act, or FERPA. Originally signed into law in 1974, FERPA essentially protects the records schools collect on students and gives parents certain oversight and disclosure rights.

The growing influence of technology in classrooms and in administrative data collection, though, is making FERPA out-of-date.

Teachers, students and parents now routinely submit information to educational services companies, such as ConnectEDU. FERPA does not regulate how these companies use that data. And there is no other federal law that does. The companies’ own privacy policies are the only limit to what the companies can do with the information users provide.

The concern is that ConnectEDU may not be the only education technology company that is trying to sell its data to third parties.

ConnectEDU’s databases, for example, were filled with students’ personally identifiable information including names, birthdates, email addresses and telephone numbers. The sale of that information to other companies is not regulated.

In order to make FERPA up-to-date, President Barack Obama, in conjunction with partners in the private sector, called for a legislation to establish a national standard to protect students’ data in January.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” Obama said in a speech at the Federal Trade Commission. “We’re saying the data collected on students in the classroom can be used for educational purposes — to teach our children, not to market to our children. We want to prevent companies from selling student data to third parties for purposes other than education. We want to prevent any kind of profiling about certain students.”

Dubbed the Student Digital Privacy Act, the White House’s plan is loosely based on a 2014 California law that prohibits third-party education companies from selling student information. While other states have laws regulating and increasing the transparency, regulation and collection of student data, the California law seems to be the most far-reaching.

Because FERPA doesn’t cover third-party use, some private sector leaders have taken a vow to establish clear industry standards for protecting student data through the Student Privacy Pledge.

Created by the Future of Privacy Forum and the Software and Information Industry Association in the fall of 2014, Obama mentioned the pledge as an encouraging sign for the protection of student information.

“I want to encourage every company that provides these technologies to our schools to join this effort,” Obama said. “It’s the right thing to do. And if you don’t join this effort, then we intend to make sure that those schools and those parents know you haven’t joined this effort.”

So far, 123 companies have signed the pledge, including tech and education giants such as Apple, Microsoft, Google and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“There was a lack of awareness, information and understanding about what school service providers did and didn’t do with data and what the laws required and allowed,” Mark Schneiderman, senior director of education policy at SIIA, said. “Rather than waiting for public policy and public debate to play itself out, we figured, let’s just step in and make clear that the industry is supporting schools, is using data only for school purposes, not selling the data, not doing other things that there was a perception out there that maybe [companies were doing].”

The National Parent-Teacher Association and other groups support the pledge, according to Schneiderman.

“It is imperative that students’ personal informational formation is protected at all times,” the National PTA wrote in a statement.

The companies that signed the pledge are not subject to any policing body, but by signing the pledge they show consumers their commitment to student privacy, Schneiderman said.

But many notable educational technology companies, like Pearson Education, have not signed the pledge. Pearson was recently the subject of a POLITICO investigative report that revealed that the company’s use of student data was unmonitored.

According to the report, Pearson claims it does not sell the students’ data it collects.

The College Board, ACT and Common Application are often viewed as integral to the college admissions process, but are also not included in the pledge.

Instead, these education companies point consumers to their privacy policies, which can often be difficult to understand because of the legal jargon and ambiguous terms.

Some groups such as the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy think the pledge and the privacy policies aren’t enough.

“We also need strong enforcement and security mechanisms to prevent against breaches,” Leonie Haimson, one of the group’s co-chairs, said in a statement responding to Obama’s speech. “This has been a year of continuous scandalous breaches; we owe it to our children to require security provisions at least as strict as in the case of personal health information.”

Out of the 12 commitments listed in the pledge, only one deals with preventing leaks or breaches.

The signees must “maintain a comprehensive security program that is reasonably designed to protect the security, privacy, confidentiality, and integrity of student personal information against risks,” the pledge states.

Haimson said the policies are a decent start, but do not go nearly far enough in protecting educational data.

Regardless, a bill for a comprehensive national standard has yet to be introduced despite the White House’s push.

In early February, though, the White House said that it had been working closely with Republican Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana and Colorado Democrat Rep. Jared Polis to introduce a bipartisan bill to Congress.

The bill’s release is expected by the end of the month, according to Messer’s office.MINTZERPRIVACY (9) 2

U.S. response to Israeli flotilla raid shows an administration paralyzed

WASHINGTON—The White House still appears to be a bit tongue-tied when it comes to Israel’s recent deadly confrontation with ­a Gaza-bound flotilla .

Israel Defense Forces Navy killed nine pro-Palestinian activists last Monday after commandos stopped nine ships trying to run Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. The group, which said it sought to deliver aid to the Hamas-controlled region, had publically declared it would steam through the Israel’s three-year blockade. The sanctions, meant to keep weapons out of Gaza, have also blocked food and building materials.

But, as American and Israel officials predicted, things went awry. When the IDFN  boarded The Mavi Marmara in a late-night ­ siege, firefights broke out. One week later, the U.S. is left in the awkward position of sticking up for an ally, while many in the international community now condemn the incident as an Israeli attack. (Israel says it was attacked enforcing a lawful blockade; Gaza sympathizers say it was an unprovoked assault.)

For proof, look no further than the public record. Transcripts of press briefings, gaggles and official statements all reveal an administration that appears to condemn what happened, but is too wary to get involved. It’s typical of America’s increasingly fraught relationship with its biggest ally in the Middle East, according to some observers, who said ­that at some point things need to change.

As Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, told The New York Times this week:

“America has three choices. Either say, it’s politically too hot a potato to touch, and just pay the consequences in the rest of the world. Or try to force through a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, so that the Palestinian grievance issue is no longer a driving force or problem.” The third choice, he said, “is for America to say, we can’t solve it, but we can’t pay the consequences, so we will distance ourselves from Israel. That way America would no longer be seen, as it has been this week, as the enabler of excesses of Israeli misbehavior.”

It’s still unclear which direction the U.S. is headed.

After the May 31 attack, the UN Security Council spent 10 hours drafting a painstakingly carefully worded statement. “The council, in this context, condemns those acts ­,” the statement reads. “The security council stresses that the situation in Gaza is not sustainable.”

For the next several days, this became the only comment the White House would offer on the matter. When pressed with follow up questions ­, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told the Associated Press’s Ben Feller, “well, Ben, let me simply restate what the international community and the United States supported early this morning at the U.N. Security Council through a presidential statement.”

That would seem to suggest that the U.S. is not on Israel’s side on this issue. But as Vice President Joseph Biden stressed June 2, two days after the incident, this is not the case.

“Reports of fissures between the United States and Israel are ‘vastly exaggerated.’”, Biden said, according to a pool report from The Journal News in Westchester County, N.Y. “No administration has been more supportive of Israeli security than this administration.”

Granted, the vice president is known to veer from the White House script. Yet he’s not the only example of administration doublespeak on the matter.

One of the administration’s main talking points is that until an impartial investigation is completed, as demanded by the UN, it’ll withhold judgment. In a June 1 phone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a vocal critic of the Jewish state, President Barack Obama “affirmed the United States position in support of a credible, impartial, and transparent investigation of the facts surrounding this tragedy,” according to White House press release.

Three days later, when journalists on Air Force One cited rumors that Israel would go it alone in the upcoming investigation, Gibbs evaded a response.

“We’ve had some discussions with them,” he said, according to White House transcripts.  “I think, let me make sure, because I have not checked my email on the flight.  I think there may have been some movement on that.  Let me check on that.”

The one consistent message thorough the whole affair has been that the current situation in Gaza is a humanitarian nightmare. “Unsustainable,” has become the administration’s descriptor of choice, and a National Security Council Statement dated June 4 says the U.S. is working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to solve the matter.

More recently. ­Israel defense officials formally announced that they would conduct their own investigation of the incident­, just one day after ­Defense Minister Ehud Barak said his government will not allow foreign investigators to scrutinize Israeli soldiers,­according to a Voice of America report.

The White House had no immediate ­comment.