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Many questions remain as to whether the objects pose a risk to national security


As we just heard, U.S. senators are expected to get a classified briefing on the unidentified flying objects later this morning. But lawmakers of both parties have complained that the White House still has many questions to answer. To talk about how a White House manages the knowns and the unknowns in a moment like this one, we've called up Josh Earnest. He's - who served as White House press secretary in the Obama administration. Good morning, Josh.

JOSH EARNEST: Good morning, Leila. How are you?

FADEL: I'm doing well. Thanks for being here. So why do you think the White House is saying so little about what these UFOs are, and why haven't we heard from Biden?

EARNEST: Well, Leila, I think what's important for your audience to understand...

FADEL: Yeah.

EARNEST: ...Is that there are basically two responsibilities that a White House, you know, communications strategists have. The first and most fundamental of them is, of course, being as transparent as possible with the American people about what the president's doing and why he's doing it. But the second opportunity that this strategy has is to actually aid and support our national security and foreign policy apparatus. And in doing so, we can actually successfully lay out pretty clearly to our adversaries what we'll tolerate, what we won't and what we're prepared to do about it if they do things that we won't tolerate. In this instance, that's exactly what the strategy and what the White House is doing.

However, there are times where that strategy comes into conflict, and there are certain things about what we know about this program or about these objects that we may not actually want to disclose to the Chinese. We may not want to let them know what we know. And that puts in the - that runs into conflict with the responsibility that those people have to be transparent with the American public.

FADEL: I mean, this situation is so unprecedented, shooting three objects out of the sky in three days with fighter jets. And critics are implying the White House is deliberately withholding facts that the American people should know. In your view, is that what's happening?

EARNEST: No, I don't think that's what's happening. I actually think that the White House is navigating that friction pretty well right now. As the - as Scott pointed out, there are daily briefings with the White House right now...

FADEL: Yeah.

EARNEST: ...In which, you know, both Admiral Kirby and Ms. Jean-Pierre are actually doing a pretty good job, I think, of answering questions about what's happening. They're not saying everything that they know. I don't think that we want them to. There are also certain situations where, you know, the intelligence community is likely saying things - here's what we assess is happening. These assessments may have low confidence or medium confidence or even high confidence. Those kinds of assessments are actually helpful when trying to make good, measured strategic decisions. They aren't necessarily the most helpful when you're trying to communicate clearly and publicly and definitively with the American public.

FADEL: So basically, from what I'm hearing from you, this is the strategy you would use if you were in this position right now.

EARNEST: Well, again, I don't know any more than you do.

FADEL: Right.

EARNEST: So it's hard for me to draw my own real clear assessment about that.

FADEL: Yeah.

EARNEST: But I do think - here's one thing we do know about this White House. They actually have shown in the past, in not too distant history, that they are pretty effective at using information to advance our national security interests. About a year ago, the White House was steadily putting out very detailed information about our intelligence assessments related to Russia and what Russia was planning to do to lay down a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine. That clearly put Russia off balance. It helped fortify the commitment of our allies to responding to it. So we have actually seen that this White House is pretty effective in using information to advance our national security interests. And at least for now, that appears - they appear to be doing the same kind of thing in a different context here.

FADEL: Josh Earnest served as White House press secretary in the Obama administration and did not have to assure the public that it's not aliens. Thanks so much, Josh.

EARNEST: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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