White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest asserted on Monday that the United States “was not involved” in the detention of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner in the United Kingdom — although he wouldn’t rule out the possibility that U.S. authorities obtained information as a result of the detention.
During a routine news conference on Monday, Earnest fielded questions from several reporters about the detention of David Miranda, 28, whom British authorities detained under an anti-terrorism law for nine hours in London on Sunday in addition to reportedly confiscating his laptop computer, cell phone, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.
Miranda is the partner of Greenwald, who increased his notoriety as journalist after writing about the classified National Security Agency information leaked to him by intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
In response to initial questioning from Reuters, Earnest asserted the U.S. government had no involvement in the British government’s decision to detain Miranda and directed additional questions to British law enforcement.
“The United States was not involved in that decision or in that action,” Earnest said. “So if you have questions about it, then I would refer you to the British government.”
Under later questioning on whether this detention was concerning to the White House, Earnest said he doesn’t have a specific reaction other than to say the U.S. government wasn’t involved.
However, as questioning continued from CNN’s Jessica Yellin, Earnest said the British government did give the United States a “heads-up” the detention would take place. Earnest also wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the U.S. government obtained information from the material that was confiscated as a result of this detention.
“I’m not in a position to do that right now, no,” Earnest said.
Asked by NBC News’ Chuck Todd whether the United States objected to the detention upon the heads up given by the British government, Earnest dodged.
“I’m not going to characterize the conversations between law enforcement officials in this country and law enforcement officials there other than to say that those conversations occurred and to point out the fact that this is a decision that they made on their own,” Earnest said.
Earnest also said he understands concerns among journalists about maintaining an independent media in the wake of leaks of security information and media reports the Justice Department has gathered personal information of reporters, but reiterated President Obama’s belief that media has a right to do its job.
“The President, I think, in the course of the debate, has made pretty clear his support for independent journalists, the important role that independent journalists have to play in a vibrant, democratic society like ours,” Earnest said. “He’s also talked about the responsibility of the government to protect the right of independent journalists to do their job.”
A partial transcript follows of questions that reporters asked Earnest about the detention of Greenwald’s partner:
REUTERS: British authorities detained David Miranda, who, as you know, is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who wrote about the secrets that Edward Snowden revealed. Human rights groups have called this detention — which was for nine hours — harassment. The Brazilian government has said there was no justification for it. Was the United States government at all involved in this? And what is the justification for it, if so?
JOSH EARNEST: Well, Mark, what you’re referring to is a law enforcement action that was taken by the British government. The United States was not involved in that decision or in that action. So if you have questions about it, then I would refer you to the British government.
REUTERS: Does the U.S. feel that Miranda could have revealed information that’s useful in terms of finding Edward Snowden or pursuing its case against Snowden in any way?
EARNEST: Like I said, I’m not aware of any of the conversations that Mr. Miranda may have had with British law enforcement officials while he was detained. But that detention was a decision that was made by the British government and is something that if you have questions about you should ask them.
YAHOO! NEWS: Josh, you’ve talked about the Mubarak detention as being a Egyptian legal matter. You’ve talked about Morsi’s politically motivated detention. And then with regard to Mr. Greenwald’s partner, you called it a “mere law enforcement action.” Given that the White House has never been shy about criticizing detention policies overseas, do you have any concerns at all about the U.K.’s law enforcement actions in this case?
EARNEST: Well, what I can say is I don’t have a specific reaction other than to observe to you that this is a decision that was made by the British government and not one that was made at the request or with the involvement of the United States government.
YAHOO! NEWS: But you’re not going to go as far as to say it’s wrong or it’s cause for concern? You’re just separating yourself entirely from it?
EARNEST: Well, I’m separating — what I’m suggesting is that this is a decision that was made by the British government without the involvement and not at the request of the United States government. I think it’s simple as that.
Q: Just to follow then, does the U.S. government expect to be briefed on those — the questioning that took place in London, or the information that was taken away from Mr. Greenwald’s partner?
EARNEST: To be honest with you, Steve, I don’t have a way to characterize for you any of the conversations between the British government and the U.S. government on this matter other than to say that this is a decision that they made on their own and not at the request of the United States.
But in terms of the kinds of classified, confidential conversations that are ongoing between the U.S. and our allies in Britain, I’m not able to characterize that for you.
Q: But there are consultations on this matter taking place?
EARNEST: I’m telling you I’m not able to provide any insight into those conversations at all.
CNN: Can you state with authority that the U.S. government has not obtained material from the laptop the British authorities confiscated from Glenn Greenwald’s partner or from any of his personal devices they also confiscated?
EARNEST: I’m just not in a position to talk to you about the conversations between British law enforcement officials and American law enforcement officials.
CNN: So you can’t rule out that the U.S. has obtained this material?
EARNEST: I’m not in a position to do that right now, no.
CNN: You also didn’t condemn — the White House didn’t condemn the detention. Is the President pleased that he was condemned — I’m sorry, is the President pleased that he was detained?
EARNEST: Well, again, this is a law enforcement action that was taken by the British government, and this is something that that they did independent of our direction, as you would expect — that the British government is going to make law enforcement decisions that they determine are in the best interest of their country.
CNN: Was the White House consulted or given a heads-up in advance?
EARNEST: There was a heads-up that was provided by the British government. So, again, this is something that we had an indication was likely to occur, but it’s not something that we requested, and it’s something that was done specifically by the British law enforcement officials there.
CNN: Is it at all concerning to the President, this sort of a nine-hour detention?
EARNEST: Well, again, this is an independent British law enforcement decision that was made. I know the suggestion has been raised by some that this is an effort to intimidate journalists. And with all of you, we’ve been undergoing a pretty rigorous debate on a range of issues related to an independent media — an independent journalist covering the application of national security rules, questions about national security leaks and other classified or confidential information and policy.
The President, I think, in the course of the debate, has made pretty clear his support for independent journalists, the important role that independent journalists have to play in a vibrant, democratic society like ours. He’s also talked about the responsibility of the government to protect the right of independent journalists to do their job.
So that’s something that the President feels strongly about and has spoken candidly about in the past. But, again, if you have specific questions about this law enforcement decision that was made by the British government, you should direct your questions to my friends over there.
NBC NEWS: Why was the United States given a heads-up by the British government on this detention?
EARNEST: Again, that heads-up was provided by the British government, so you can direct that question to them.
NBC NEWS: Right. But was this heads-up given before he was detained or before it went public that he was detained?
EARNEST: Probably wouldn’t be a heads-up if they would have told us about it after they detained him.
NBC NEWS: So it’s fair to say they told you they were going to do this when they saw that he was on a manifest?
EARNEST: I think that is an accurate interpretation of what a heads-up is.
NBC NEWS: Is this gentleman on some sort of watch list for the United States? Can you look that up?
EARNEST: You’d have to check with the TSA because they maintain the watch list. And I don’t know if they’d tell you or not, but you can ask them.
NBC NEWS: If he’s on a watch list for the U.K., would it be safe to assume then that he’s been put on a watch list in the United States?
EARNEST: The level of coordination between counterterrorism and law enforcement officials in the U.K. and counterterrorism and law enforcement officials in the United States is very good. But in terms of who is on different watch lists and how our actions and their actions are coordinated is not something I’m in a position to talk about from here.
NBC NEWS: Did the United States government — when given the heads-up, did the United States government express any hesitancy about the U.K. doing it — about the U.K. government doing this?
EARNEST: Well, again, this is the British government making a decision based on British law, on British soil, about a British law enforcement action.
NBC NEWS: Did the United States, when given the heads-up, just said okay?
EARNEST: They gave us a heads-up, and this is something that they did not do at our direction and it’s not something that we were involved with. This is a decision that they made on their own.
NBC NEWS: Did the United States discourage the action?
EARNEST: I’m not going to characterize the conversations between law enforcement officials in this country and law enforcement officials there other than to say that those conversations occurred and to point out the fact that this is a decision that they made on their own.
NBC NEWS: But if the — is it fair to say if the United States had discouraged it, you’d tell us?
EARNEST: No, because I think it’s fair for you to determine that those kinds of law enforcement conversations are not ones that we’re going to talk about in public.
Q: Just quickly on the British detainment. When was the U.S. given a heads-up? How much — how far in advance?
EARNEST: I actually don’t have that information. I’m not sure how much of a heads-up they got. But in advance of his detention, American officials were informed.
Q: Do you know what American officials were informed? Or which department — was it the White House?
EARNEST: I don’t.