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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 16, 2005

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
James S. Brady Briefing Room

Play Video  Video (Real)

12:33 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everyone. The President looks forward this afternoon to meeting the Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador Sumaidaie. This will be an opportunity for the President to congratulate the Iraqi people on a successful election yesterday. All indications are that the turnout was broad and -- throughout the country. We congratulate the Iraqi people. It was an historic day for the Iraqi people and for the Middle East and for the world, and it was an historic day for the advance of freedom, which is tied to our own safety and security.

The President had a good discussion with a group of Senate Democrats and Republicans earlier today. General Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad briefed the members on the elections and the political progress, as well as on the security progress. And Ambassador Khalilzad talked about how we would work with the new Iraqi government and assist them as they work to put in place a permanent government. It will take some time to form that government. We urge them to move forward as quickly as possible once the election results are final and they begin to meet, and that it be as inclusive as possible.

General Casey gave an update on the security situation, and another sign of progress was that the violence was down yesterday. However, we know that the terrorists and Saddam loyalists want to continue to carry out their attacks. And we expect that that -- that violence will continue. That's why we've got to continue to work to train and equip the Iraqi security forces going forward. We are making important progress. There are still challenges ahead. At this point, though, we congratulate the Iraqi people for a great day yesterday.

Secondly, the President had some good discussions with some other leaders in the Middle East: the President of the United Arab Emirates, the King of Saudi Arabia, the Prime Minister of Kuwait and the King of Jordan. And he talked to these leaders, and they discussed the successful elections that took place and the high voter turnout, and how violence was down. And they talked about the importance of the formation of an inclusive government.

And the President thanked them for their support and urged them to continue to support the Iraqi people as they move forward on transition -- the transition to democracy. This is a hopeful moment for the region, and we urge all people, throughout the international community, to do their part to support the Iraqi people.

And with that, I will be glad to go to questions. Terry.

Q Scott, Senator Specter says that the Judiciary Committee is going to make it a high priority to look into this report that the President authorized the NSA to eavesdrop without warrant on people in the United States. And he says that there is no doubt that this is inappropriate. How do you respond to his characterization of what happened?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we have a responsibility to work with Congress to do all we can, within the law, to protect the American people. And that means preventing attacks and saving lives. And the President made a commitment that he would do everything within his power and within the law to prevent attacks and save lives. He renewed that commitment more than ever after September 11th. He also made a commitment that we would remain firmly committed to protecting the civil liberties of Americans and upholding our Constitution. He is doing both.

We are continuing to do all we can to save lives. That is the President's number one priority. We are sitting here talking about waging the war on terrorism. And the President is going to continue to act to protect the American people, but he'll do so within our laws. And in terms of these issues, there is congressional oversight of intelligence activities, and we will continue to work with members of Congress on those matters.

Q Will the Judiciary Committee be part of that oversight, or is that just the Intelligence Committees?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'd just say we would continue to work with members of Congress on these matters. This is about protecting the American people.

Q Will you cooperate with Senator Specter as the Judiciary Committee looks into this?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure there's any request that's been made of us at this point.

Q Is it your position that legal authority is required --

MR. McCLELLAN: Terry should turn off his phone.

Q -- for any surveillance of U.S. citizens by the NSA?

MR. McCLELLAN: A couple of things. One, I'm aware of the reports that were in the papers this morning.

Q I hope so.

MR. McCLELLAN: This relates to intelligence activities and ongoing intelligence operations that are aimed at saving lives. And there's a reason why we don't get into discussing ongoing intelligence activities, because it could compromise our efforts to prevent attacks from happening. We are doing all we can to disrupt plots and prevent attacks from happening. And it could telegraph to the enemy what we are doing. The enemy wants to know exactly what we are doing to go after them and prevent attacks from happening. And we don't want to do anything to compromise sources and methods.

Q Right, but all I asked you was whether it's your position that it always requires a court order for surveillance of U.S. citizens.

MR. McCLELLAN: What it's getting into -- again, let me reiterate. The President is firmly committed to upholding our Constitution and protecting people's civil liberties. That is something he has always kept in mind as we have moved forward from the attacks of September 11th, to do everything within our power to prevent attacks from happening. It's very important to him. We are meeting both those priorities. Those are two important priorities.

Now in terms of talking about the National Security Agency or matters like that, that would be getting into talking about ongoing intelligence activities. And they're classified for a reason, because they go to the issue of sources and methods and protecting the American people. And because they're classified, I'm not able to get into discussing those issues from this podium.

Q Let me follow with one other question. Is it your position that the congressional authorization for war against al Qaeda in 2001 allows the President to take some steps to collect intelligence?

MR. McCLELLAN: I just told you why I'm not going to get into discussing ongoing intelligence activities.

Q You mean you cannot say whether it's lawful to spy on Americans or not?

MR. McCLELLAN: We have a Constitution and we have laws.

Q We're not asking for any details. We're asking you --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I'm making a broad statement to let you know that we --

Q It is broad. Is it legal to spy on Americans?

MR. McCLELLAN: We have a Constitution and we have laws in place, and we follow those --

Q You say you are abiding by the law?

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely. And there's congressional oversight of intelligence activities, there's other oversight of intelligence activities.

Q Why do you have to have secret orders then?

MR. McCLELLAN: Does anybody have a question? Go ahead.

Q And how many secret orders have been issued by this President?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the American people appreciate what we do to work within the law to prevent attacks from happening. The Patriot Act is being debated right now.

Q It's never been within the law to spy on Americans.

MR. McCLELLAN: The Patriot Act is something that members of the Senate are debating right now. The House has already acted on it. And the House, in a strong bipartisan fashion, renewed these vital tools for our law enforcement intelligence officers to protect the American people. This law has helped prevent attacks from happening by breaking up terrorist cells in parts of the United States.

And while the Senate didn't pass the vote that they were looking to do right now, their -- the leadership is committed to moving forward on this. They're still in -- there's some more time this year. We urge them to get this done now and pass that legislation. The President has made it very clear that he is not interested in signing any short-term renewal. The terrorist threats will not expire at the end of this year. They won't expire in three months. We need to move forward and pass this critical legislation.

Carl, do you have something?

Q Yes. To what extent is the administration confident that it has maintained communications with the necessary committees and jurisdiction on the Hill so that they're not going to claim that they're kept in the dark on this? Is there -- are you prepared to assert from the podium today that there is the necessary communication with the Hill so that their oversight remains intact?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. We stay in contact with members of Congress -- the appropriate members of Congress who are responsible for these matters on intelligence activities.

Q To the extent that there has been --

MR. McCLELLAN: I noticed that report pointed something like that out within it.

Q To the extent that there has been "shock and dismay" already expressed on the floor of the U.S. Senate this morning, does that run contrary to your understanding of some of the communications that would allow them their oversight jurisdiction?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let me, again, just repeat that the Congress does have an important oversight role. We stay in touch with them on intelligence activities. We all share the responsibility of doing our part to prevent attacks and save lives, and we will continue to work with members of Congress on those efforts.

Go ahead, Goyal.

Q Scott, two questions. Writing opinion for the year-end issues of India Globe in Asia today, on two subjects. One, on international terrorism. How President will have -- or what kind of message he will have for the world leaders as far as terrorists, terrorism, and terrorists is concerned in the future and coming new year? And what they can do and what President will do to protect other nations?

MR. McCLELLAN: What message does he have for -- you said terrorists?

Q For the world leaders, what they can do, how they can work together to --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we remain engaged in an ongoing war on terrorism, and it's critical that we all work together to do everything within our power and within our laws to protect our citizens. We are making good progress. But this is a long war against a deadly and dangerous enemy, an enemy that wants to strike us again -- wants to strike America again, wants to strike the civilized world, and they have. We must continue to take the fight to them, we must continue to work to spread freedom to bring hope and opportunity to troubled regions in order to prevail in this war on terrorism, and we will win. And the terrorists need to be reminded that they cannot shake our will.

Q Scott, second, before his visit to India, most probably in February, what do you think that he will say today, what are -- how he can put the relations between India and the United States today and --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think we've made any announcements about any upcoming trips for the next year. But at the appropriate time, I'm sure we can talk about those issues.

Q How about the relations, because --

Let me go -- we have a good relationship with India. Go ahead, John.

Q When is the next decision point for a possible draw down of U.S. troops? And is that decision at all affected by what happened yesterday with the elections?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the next point is after the elections, our commanders have made it clear that we will be able to draw down some of the troops that were there ahead of the elections. Remember, we ramped up ahead of the elections to help with security in the anticipation that there was going to be an increase in violence. And so we went from, I believe it was 137,000 to approximately 160,000. So the Department of Defense has already made it clear that they will be going back down to the pre-election period levels.

Q Could it possibly go lower than that?

MR. McCLELLAN: And in terms of -- well, that will be based on the conditions on the ground and the progress we're making and what our commanders on the ground say. We're looking to our commanders on the ground because they're the ones in the best position to make those judgments. But we're making real progress, and we say that -- as we've said -- as we make progress and the conditions change, then we'll be able to look at changing our posture. But that will be driven by what our commanders say, not what politicians here in Washington, D.C. say.

And what the Iraqi people need to know on this day after such a historic, milestone moment, is that we are going to stay with them and stand with them as they work to transition to a free and peaceful and democratic nation. We will win. We are winning and we will win. And that's what they need to hear from all of us in the international community, that we will stand with them as they move forward and as they continue to show the courage and determination to live in freedom and defy the terrorists.

Q Scott, do you have a reaction to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service's study that rejects the President's frequent assertions that the Congress had access to the same intelligence -- pre-war intelligence that he had? Apparently in this report it says Congress was routinely denied access to intelligence sources, collection, analysis methods, raw, lightly-evaluated intelligence, PDBs.

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think it's an accurate reflection.

Q That Congress does not get the same intelligence the President gets.

MR. McCLELLAN: We provide the Congress a lot of intelligence information, and they did have access to the same intelligence that we saw prior to making the decision to go into Iraq. And some have chosen to play politics with that now, people that had previously supported the efforts to go in there, and saw the same intelligence, the intelligence that other agencies around the world used. And I saw there was a reference to the Presidential Daily Brief, where the Silberman-Robb Commission already addressed that issue, and said that if anything, the Presidential Daily Brief was less nuanced than the intelligence that members of Congress saw and that we saw, as well.

Q Scott, on budget reconciliation, it looks like there's a snag now over the ANWR drilling provision, and that Senator Stevens is even considering putting that or trying to get it into the Defense bill, Defense spending. Does the White House support ANWR basically at all costs, even if it means budget reconciliation would either be delayed or the Defense bill could be filibustered?

MR. McCLELLAN: Two things. Congress needs to move forward on the deficit reduction package. That's an important piece of legislation, and we want to see Congress get that done, because it will help us continue to meet important priorities, but it will also provide significant savings to the American people and keep us on track to cut the deficit. The President is strongly committed to that, and it's an important step in keeping our economy growing as strong as it is. The President urges Congress to move forward on that. We also urge Congress to move forward and pass the ANWR provision. That's an important provision that will help us build on our efforts to address the root causes of high energy prices.

The American people have been hit by high energy prices year in and year out. And what we need to do is continue to act to address the root causes of why those prices are high. And that's because of our dependence on foreign sources of energy. And ANWR will help us reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy, and build upon the comprehensive energy plan that Congress passed at the President's urging just last year, or just earlier this year.

Q And also, a moment ago, you said that the administration has provided a lot of the same intelligence to Congress as they have, but you didn't answer whether you had more intelligence than they had. And I just wondered --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well I think the issue that -- one issue in that report was the Presidential Daily Brief, and that was something that they cited. And that's why I pointed out what the Silberman-Robb Commission said about that. And, you know, there have been -- we've seen some Democratic leaders who supported the decision to go into Iraq based on the same intelligence that we saw come out and play politics with that recently.

Q But they didn't address pre-war intelligence.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q That particular commission didn't address pre-war intelligence.

MR. McCLELLAN: They looked at the -- it had access to information in the President's Daily Brief.

Q I have a question about -- one about Iraq and one about The New York Times.

On Iraq, you say troop levels are up to our commanders. Well, what if the new freely-elected government of Iraq says we want you to pull your troops down by X tens of thousands. Do they trump our commanders?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's a sovereign nation. But I think that the Iraqi people understand the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform; what they are doing to help them build the foundations for a lasting democracy. And the President is focused on victory. And he's defined victory very clearly for the American people. Victory is making sure that the Saddam loyalists and the terrorists can't threaten the Iraqi people; it's making sure that Iraq has a security force in place that can defend its own people, and it's making sure that Iraq is not a safe haven from which terrorists can plan and plot attacks against the American people. And so that's where our focus is.

And all of us want to see our troops come home. The way to get them home is to win, and to continue to support the Iraqi people. And all indications we've received -- the President met with some Iraqi voters who are here in the United States. A number of them were Fulbright Scholars. And they talked about how much they appreciated the President going out and making it very clear over the last couple of weeks that we are with you, and we are going to finish the job. There was one person in this meeting yesterday.

There was one person in this meeting yesterday who made a very interesting and powerful comment, I thought, yesterday. He talked about how the Iraqi people are trying Saddam Hussein in court. Yesterday he pointed out the Iraqi people were trying Saddam Hussein in public. The Iraqi people showed the world that they want to live in freedom.

Q What --

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, I'm sorry, go ahead.

Q The New York Times -- they sat on a very important story about possible breach of our Constitution for a full year, and they reached an agreement, I guess, with somebody in the White House. I'm wondering if you could give us a tick tock about how the White House reached --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think I've already said that I'm not going to get into discussing any matters relating to ongoing intelligence activities. And that means not getting confirming or denying such reports.

Q Scott, I'm sure -- I have a two part. I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that you will, for us, thank the First Lady and the President for that wonderful reception last night, where among the non-White House correspondents I saw talk radio host Neal Boortz of Atlanta, Blanquita Cullum and Laura Ingraham of Washington, and even Scott Hennen of Fargo, North Dakota.

MR. McCLELLAN: Do you have a question?

Q Yes.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll be glad to pass on your appreciation.

Q Thank you. You've been attending these parties for five years, and I have since 1974. Have you ever seen so much of talk radio invited before?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'd have to go back and look at the list, Les, but we try to invite a diverse group from within the media. And we were glad to have everybody here last night. I know the President and Mrs. Bush very much enjoyed it.

Q This means that the White House recognizes the growing significance of talk radio, even as newspaper circulation and old, liberal TV network viewers are both plummeting, doesn't he?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, Les, we reach out to the American people in a lot of different ways.

Q The Philadelphia Fed announced today that its President is stepping aside early next year. Given that now a lot of Americans are seeing mortgage rates go up, and other borrowing costs go up as a result of the Fed's actions, how much longer is the White House going to leave the Fed's Board of Governors short handed by two governors? And do you suspect that -- do you have any reason to believe that those two nominations will come before Ben Bernanke takes over in January?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, two things. We appreciate that the Senate has moved forward very quickly on Ben Bernanke's nomination. He's going to make an outstanding Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Second thing, we have great confidence in the Federal Reserve to address monetary policy and to take the appropriate actions. It's also important, as I pointed out earlier, that we continue to act on the fiscal front, and that means moving forward on the deficit reduction package. That's what we've got to do.

On those vacancies, we will move forward -- we are moving forward as quickly as we can. We want to make sure you have -- that the right people are in position to continue building upon the great work that the Federal Reserve does.

Go ahead.

Q On the Patriot Act, you said that it's -- these tools are really important for law enforcement to have, they shouldn't be without them for even a moment, I think was your phrase.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's right.

Q If that's the case, what's so terrible having a short-term extension so that lawmakers can work out what have been bipartisan concerns about some of the provisions?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've expressed our views how we believe the provisions should be permanent. Fourteen of the 16 provisions are permanent under the conference committee agreement. And I think what's happening now is that some people are playing politics with this legislation, and our point is that they need to put the American people's safety and security above politics and come together and get this passed. There is no reason why Congress can't act on this now. But you have some that are choosing to filibuster this legislation. They need to end the filibuster.

The terrorist threat, as I indicated, does not expire at the end of this month, and it does not expire in three months. Congress has had plenty of time to work on this legislation. This has been vital to our efforts to disrupt plots and prevent attacks from happening. I've talked to you about how we've disrupted terrorist cells within the United States because of the tools in this legislation. These are vital tools for our law enforcement and intelligence officials. And they use them every day as they work around the clock to protect the American people.

Q My question was about a short-term extension while they try and work these issues out. What's so terrible about that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Congress has been working on these issues, and the conference committee came together and reached an agreement on these issues, and we think it's a good piece of legislation and that they ought to move forward on that legislation and there's no excuse why they can't. The House passed it. I think it was 251 to 174 -- some 44 Democrats. There was broad bipartisan support. There's no reason why the Senate shouldn't get this done. The American people expect their elected leaders to act, and particularly on -- in priorities that are this important.

Go ahead.

Q Scott, you spoke before of renewing the Patriot Act in context of the NSA reports. Does this administration believe that the Patriot Act would allow for the use of the NSA to keep tabs on Americans?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, this question I think was already asked by someone in the front row here, and I already answered that question, told you why I'm not going to get into discussing national intelligence activities.

And I also pointed out that the President is firmly committed to upholding our Constitution and protecting civil liberties. And that's what he has done; that's what he will continue to do as we move forward to do everything we can to protect the American people.

Q Should we take away a linkage from that?

MR. McCLELLAN: A linkage?

Q The fact that you mentioned -- you brought up the Patriot Act when you were asked about the NSA report.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that the report is a separate issue from the Patriot Act.

Go ahead.

Q Scott, what you have said in response to the Times story is that the President's highest priorities are protecting American life and preserving civil liberties. As we see in the Patriot Act fight, unfortunately, sometimes those two things conflict. Which is a higher priority for the President?

MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree with your characterization of the Patriot Act, because the Inspector General at the Department of Justice has actually looked into how the Patriot Act has been carried out, and they have found no verified instances of abuse.

Q But the questions in Congress are about --

MR. McCLELLAN: But you're assuming that there are problems with it, and they have oversight measures in place. And that's what the conference committee worked on. They came to an agreement on protecting American civil liberties. They put in additional protections when it comes to protecting civil liberties and safeguarding those civil liberties.

Q But in a situation where those two priorities might conflict, which one is a higher --

MR. McCLELLAN: We can do both. They're both priorities. And we're committed to meeting both. And let me point out that in the Patriot Act that, again, not a single verified abuse of any provision has been identified, and the Inspector General has looked into that a number of times.

But there are literally dozens of additional safeguards that were put in place in the reauthorization bill to protect Americans' privacy and their civil liberties. It puts in place four-year sunsets on three of the provisions that relate to these issues. And there are a number of additional steps that are in there. I would encourage you to go and look at that.

Q I understand that. But I don't see how you can say that these two priorities at times won't conflict. I can see a situation where --

MR. McCLELLAN: You're absolutely right. You're absolutely right. These are difficult issues to address.

Q Which would be the President's priority, protecting life or protecting the civil liberties?

MR. McCLELLAN: Both. We think we can do both and we have done both. And --

Q Do you think they never conflict?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think these are difficult issues that you have to address in a post-September 11th world. Some people go back to a post-9/11 [sic] mind-set now that we're four years after the attacks of September 11th. The President said he would never forget what happened on September 11th. We are going to do everything within our power to prevent something like that from happening again.

The terrorists are determined to strike us. They are dangerous and they are deadly and they are sophisticated. They are going to continue to try to strike the American people here at home. That's why we're taking the fight to them abroad; that's why we're also working to advance freedom in the center of a dangerous region of the world. And that will inspire other reformers in the broader Middle East and help bring about real change in a dangerous part of the world. And so --

Q Do you think those priorities never conflict with each other?

MR. McCLELLAN: I didn't say that. In fact, I said that these are difficult issues that you have to work to address and we believe we have.

Q When they do conflict, which one takes priority?

MR. McCLELLAN: They're both priorities. And we can meet both.

Q But Scott, the administration did not suggest that life is perhaps more important than liberty, is the question that's being driven at here.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, no, I think the question is going to --

Q If there is a conflict and you can't do both, when push comes to shove, the question is, which is more important: life or liberty?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, you're asking me, one -- you're asking me, one, to get into hypothetical situations. But what the President has made clear is that we abide by our values, we abide by our laws, and we abide by our treaty obligations. He's made that clear in all that we do. We have a responsibility to protect the American people. And the issue we're getting in today is talking about intelligence. We have made a number of improvements relating to our intelligence in the aftermath of September 11th so that we can connect the dots and prevent attacks from happening -- go after and disrupt plots from happening in the first place.

And the point Ken gets to goes to the law. And our law has protections in place when it comes to -- and our Constitution when it comes to people's civil liberties, and when it comes to privacy. And the point I'm making to you is that those are both priorities to the President, and we can meet both. Now there may be difficult issues that you have to work to address when you're trying to fight a different kind of war and when you're trying to go about preventing attacks from happening here in the homeland.

And I'll go back. The Patriot Act helped us break down a wall that existed between law enforcement and intelligence so that they could share vital information to keep the American people safe. That's why it's so critical that Congress moves forward on this act.

But no one's saying these aren't difficult issues to work to address. But that's why there's oversight in place for these kind of matters. Some people suggest that the President is just going off and doing certain things. Well, there's congressional oversight in place, there's other oversight in place, there's our Constitution, there's the laws. And we abide by them.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you. And have a good weekend.

END 1:00 P.M. EST