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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 21, 2005

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

Play Video  Video (Real)

2:25 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everyone. I want to begin with a few opening remarks. The President and Mrs. Bush were glad to go and visit the National Naval Medical Center earlier today, at Bethesda. They were able to visit with 21 of our bravest troops who have been wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and their families. They visited with four of our troops -- it included a sailor, Marines, and a soldier in the intensive care unit. There's one additional one that they would have visited with, but he was being treated at the time. So they visited with the family of that individual. And then they visited 17 of our troops, 16 Marines and one sailor, in Ward 5 of the unit. The President awarded four Purple Hearts during the visit.

It was, as always, an emotional and uplifting experience. It was emotional because of the tremendous sacrifice the troops have made, and it's uplifting because of the courage and strength of the troops, and the strength and spirit of their families. The President is honored to be their Commander-in-Chief. We are forever grateful for their service and sacrifice, and the sacrifice of their families. It was also an opportunity for the President and Mrs. Bush to personally thank our military care givers out at Bethesda, and others -- some were there from Walter Reed. They are the ones who are making sure our troops get the best possible medical care.

And as we enter this holiday season, we send our best wishes to the men and women of the Armed Forces. Many are spending the holidays away from home. All Americans are deeply grateful for the tremendous sacrifice they are making serving our country. We also recognize during this time of war a heavy burden falls on their families. Our nation respects and thanks them for their sacrifices and support. We pray for the speedy recovery of those servicemen and women who have been wounded. We honor the memory of those who have given their lives in defense of freedom. We will always remember their sacrifice of these brave men and women, and we pray for their loved ones to be comforted.

Now I want to jump to the legislative arena. I want to begin with a statement by the President on the deficit reduction package that passed the Senate earlier today: "The Senate vote to reduce entitlement spending is a victory for taxpayers, fiscal restraint, and responsible budgeting. And it will help keep us on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009.

I applaud the Republicans in the House and Senate who supported the legislation. This will be the first time in nearly a decade that Congress has reduced entitlement spending. This strong bill demonstrates our commitment to funding our nation's priorities and ensuring that taxpayer money is spent wisely." And again, that's a statement from the President.

The Congress has also been moving forward on some other legislation today. We are disappointed that they did not get a cloture vote on the defense spending bill. We urge the Senate to move forward quickly and pass this important piece of legislation. This is about supporting our troops and making sure they have the funding and resources they need to fight and win the war on terrorism. And you heard from the President earlier on that.

Secondly, the Senate is continuing to debate the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. We urge the Senate to get it passed. The Senate Democratic leadership has boasted about killing it. Yet there's a strong bipartisan majority who supported it in the House; there's a strong majority that supports it in the Senate. It was one of the most thoroughly debated pieces of legislation in Congress this year. There were 23 hearings, more than 60 witnesses. It went to a conference committee and the conference committee worked and came up with a good piece of legislation.

The Senate minority needs to stop obstructing its reauthorization. They are standing in the way of making sure that our law enforcement and intelligence officials have the tools they need to continue protecting the American people and disrupting plots at home and preventing attacks from taking place.

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

Q What are you hearing on a possible deal on the Patriot Act?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I saw some comments from Senator Specter. I know he's having some discussions, and I'd leave it to him to have any further updates. But we urge the Senate to move forward and get this legislation passed. The House has already acted, they've completed their work, they're now out of session. It's time for the Senate to complete their work and not stand in the way of making sure that our law enforcement and intelligence community have the tools they need to be able to prevent attacks from happening.

Q On the eavesdropping, is the President concerned that a member of the FISA Court apparently has resigned in protest?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I don't know the reason why the judge resigned from the FISA Court. The FISA Court is an important one. We use FISA in a number of instances. It's one important tool.

Q Scott, would the President veto a three-month extension of the Patriot Act? Is that something you can accept?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we need to talk about what's going on here. What's going on here is pure obstructionist politics. A minority in the Senate, led by Senate Democrats, are putting politics above our nation's security. This bill has been thoroughly debated. It enjoys majority support. They need to give it an up or down vote and quit playing politics with our nation's security.

Q So would the President veto a three-month extension?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President has already made his views known on that -- I expressed his views last week -- and nothing has changed in terms of our views. That's why it's important for them to go ahead and get this passed now.

Q So you would veto a three-month extension?

MR. McCLELLAN: I expressed our view last week; nothing has changed.

Q Can you tell me what that was again?

MR. McCLELLAN: You can see what I expressed last week. You know very well what it was.

Q Sounds like you're backing down from that.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, nothing has changed in terms of what I said last week.

Q So just say it. Just say --

Q Will you use the word "veto"? Why are you not using the word "veto"?

MR. McCLELLAN: I expressed our views on that last week --

Q But if you still stand by them, why won't you reiterate it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, what I said last week still stands.

Q Which is what?

MR. McCLELLAN: I talked about a short-term extension. And Senator Frist has already said that there's not going to be a short-term extension of three months. And Speaker Hastert has already said it would be irresponsible to move with a short-term extension.

Let me talk about the Patriot Act, because when it went through the debate this year, extensive debate, in the conference committee there were changes made to it. There were some 30 additional protections put in there relating to civil liberties. And it seems some Senate Democrats are claiming that's the reason, but we now know from the leader of the Democrats in the Senate that all they were interested in was killing it. All they want to do is extend it in order to seek a way to weaken some of the authorities in the Patriot Act. And that's why I said they need to quit obstructing progress on reauthorization of the Patriot Act and get it passed.

Q On the spy issue, who in the White House developed that, the legal policy behind it? Did that come from the White House Counsel's Office?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to get into those details. This is a highly classified program. We've already told you why the President moved ahead with this authorization.

Q I'm not looking for details about that --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I understand.

Q -- but was it something that would have gone -- did it go through the White House Counsel's Office?

MR. McCLELLAN: This was an authorization made by the President. And, obviously, he talked to his legal advisors and others, but I'm not going to --

Q Inside the building and outside?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to get into those discussions.

Q Were there dissenters within the administration?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I'm not going to get into those discussions. This is an important authorization that helps us save lives and prevent attacks from happening. It's very limited in nature: one person -- one party to the communication has to be outside of the United States. That's the authorization that was given. There has to be a clear connection to al Qaeda or a related terrorist organization in the communication, as well.

Q Can you just explain why you can't share who in the government developed the legal rationale for this?

MR. McCLELLAN: Because this is a highly classified program, and I am prohibited from talking about classified matters.

Q And could you assure us that no wholly domestic communications got swept up, even by accident, in that --

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, General Hayden talked about that the other day, and he addressed that in two different questions that came up in the briefing here at the White House. General Hayden is the Deputy Director of National Intelligence and the former head of the National Security Agency. He's someone who is widely respected for the work he does to protect Americans. And he stated how he can -- he said, I can assure -- this is a quote from him: "I can assure you by the physics of the intercept, by how we actually conduct our activities, that one end of these communications are always outside the United States of America." And the Director of the National Intelligence Office said that they stand by that comment.

Q So are you saying that reports to the contrary today that some wholly domestic communications got swept up by accident is in error?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm stating to you what the Deputy Director of National Intelligence said to you all the other day, and they stand by that comment. And the authorization is very clear in terms of what is spelled out. And there are safeguards in place, and it's very limited in nature, and, as I said, one party to the communication has to be outside the United States.

Q So, therefore, it would be impossible for any wholly domestic communications to get accidentally swept up in that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he talked about the physics of it, and again, I refer you to what I just said; I quoted him.

Q But he also said that if we were to intercept something that we believe to be domestic, we would move off of it -- would certainly suggest that there might be --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the question was asked -- is, if you wind up listening where you realize you shouldn't have, was the question, and he said, we don't have the resources to be able to waste them. We can't waste our resources on targets that simply don't provide valuable information. And he went on to talk about that a little bit further in his comments.

Q He was not explicitly saying it never occurs. My sense of that was that he said, should it occur, we quickly move away from it because we don't have the resources --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, the specific question, are there cases where you wind up listening and where you realize you shouldn't have, and that's what he was responding to. But again, he talked about the physics of it and the technology and how they go about doing things. But I hesitate to go further in that because then you're getting into operational details.

Q Back to the Patriot Act for a moment --

MR. McCLELLAN: But I would encourage you to talk to the Director of National Intelligence Office.

Q You have been critical of Democrats in the Senate, but now eight Republicans have joined them in wanting this extension, and it was only four a couple of days ago. There's clearly movement to more Republicans standing in opposition to the President on this. Why not --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think -- let's make it clear. Almost all Republicans in the Senate support this. This legislation was passed 251 to I think it's 174, or something like that, in the House. You had some 44 Democrats support it in the House. It was worked out in conference committee. It's a good piece of legislation, and it's a -- the Senate Democrats are the ones who are pushing -- or playing politics with this issue.

Q And the Republicans are also saying they would support an extension.

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't seen the comments from those Republicans. But a majority of the United States Senate supports getting this legislation passed. And I think it's clear what Democrats are up to. All you have to do is go back and look at Senator Harry Reid's comments when he boasted to political supporters saying, we killed it. That's what they were trying to do. They're trying to weaken authorities within the Patriot Act.

The Patriot Act has proven effective. It has worked. It has helped us disrupt plots, break up networks here at home, and prevent attacks from happening. And the American people expect us to do everything in our power to protect them. This law is vital to that. It tore down a wall between law enforcement and intelligence, and if this expires, that wall goes back up. And there's a lot of confusion about what information -- intelligence information we get could be shared between law enforcement and intelligence, and what kind of coordination could go on. The Attorney General and Secretary Chertoff talked about this earlier today. That's why it's so vital that they move forward and get this reauthorized. The terrorist threat is not going away. We remain a nation at war, and the terrorists want to strike us again.

This is about connecting the dots. One of the key things the 9/11 Commission said was that the government failed to connect the dots -- not just this administration, previous administration. And this President made a commitment that we're going to do everything in our authority to connect the dots and prevent attacks from happening, and that's exactly what this law has helped us do.

Q Isn't it a false premise to say that America would be less safe after December 31st if lawmakers say, we're happy to extend it?

MR. McCLELLAN: It would be taking away vital tools. Well, I just talked to you about that. The House has completed their work, they're out. And this legislation was thoroughly debated in the Congress over the course of the last year, one of the most thoroughly debated pieces of legislation. It's nothing but politics the Democrats are playing right now.

Q What political goal do they get by "weakening" the Patriot Act?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q What goal --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, they've talked about some of the civil liberties in there. This law has found the right balance. It has saved lives and it has protected people's civil liberties. And there are some Democrats who are playing to certain special interests within their party that want to see authorities within this legislation killed. That's clearly what's happening here.

Q And those Republicans, the eight that Kelly mentioned, they're playing the same politics?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I'm not sure about the number eight; I know that there are few --

Q There are eight.

MR. McCLELLAN: I mean, I know that there are a few that had expressed their reservations about the bill. But, no, I wouldn't say that. But we urge all members of the Senate that are preventing this piece of legislation from moving forward to let it move forward. But I think it's clear, if you go back and look at the comments from the Democrats, what they're doing. Again, Senator Harry Reid said, "We killed it." He boasted about it.

Q You suggested that those who are seeking an extension are putting politics above security. That now includes eight Republicans. Are you including them in that accusation?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, it's the Senate Democrats. Most Republicans -- almost all Republicans support reauthorizing this legislation. And, again, I don't think you can lump those eight in. I think there are an additional few that were talking about an extension, but those are ones that have also supported this legislation. So let's be clear on that.

Q On the budget cut bill, when you talk about halving the deficit by 2009, just for clarification, is this all that has to be done? Will other cuts have to be made?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, we need to continue to move forward in the coming years on responsible budgeting that meets our priorities and exercises spending restraint. But this is a significant advance in our efforts to control spending and make sure that taxpayer dollars are being used wisely. And that's what the American people expect.

Q Two questions. One, as we enter the new year, can you just give, on behalf of the President, some of the achievements that the global community can see as the President is fighting this terrorism? And, two, now terrorists, when they torture innocent people, nobody talks about them. And now even Saddam Hussein, who tortured millions of people, he's complaining that he has been tortured while in custody. So what's -- where do we go from here as far as torture is concerned? Terrorists can torture the innocent, but when they're caught then they complain about torture.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I think in terms of the Saddam Hussein trial, I think that's one of the most preposterous things I've heard from Saddam Hussein recently. Saddam Hussein is being treated the exact opposite of the way his regime treated those he imprisoned and tortured, simply for expressing their opinions. And so I reject that.

In terms of the President and the accomplishments, this has been a year of significant accomplishment abroad and at home. We have helped to support the advance of freedom around the world, which is directly tied to our own security for the generations to come. We have made important progress in the war on terrorism, but it continues. We must continue to fight and win the war on terrorism. We must continue to work to advance freedom and democracy, and that's what we will do.

We have moved forward on helping those who are in need. We've expanded trade and opportunity, which helps lift people out of poverty and helps open markets for American products and producers. We've moved forward on addressing pandemic flu preparedness. We've moved forward on helping those who are suffering from AIDS, with the President's emergency relief plan. There are great accomplishments we've made abroad.

There are important accomplishments that we have seen at home. Our economy is strong and only getting stronger. Today the revised GDP numbers came out and show that -- the third quarter GDP numbers, despite the setbacks from the hurricanes, that our economy is in very strong shape and continuing to grow strongly. We have seen 4.5 million jobs created since May of 2003; the unemployment rate is down to 5 percent, below the averages of the '70s, '80s and '90s. This is one of the priorities that the American people care most about, and we are acting. We're continuing to move forward on pro-growth policies. And there's more work to do.

But we've also seen good legislative progress, on class-action and bankruptcy reform, on the highway legislation, on an energy plan that will help us reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy, and the deficit reduction package I just mentioned. So there's good progress being made.

Q On terrorism? As far as terrorism --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me keep going.

Q On that last part, how disappointing is that, to lose the ANWR provision?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there's a majority of the Senate that continues to support it, and a clear majority in the House supports it. So we'll continue to push to get that provision passed. The President believes very strongly that we need to continue to act to address the root causes of high energy prices. The American people expect us to do that. We passed a comprehensive energy plan that is helping us meet our energy needs and puts us on a path to reducing our dependence of foreign sources of energy. This legislation is a good piece of legislation that will help build upon that, and help us reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil. And that's what the American people want us to do. I think they expect us to act on a number of fronts, and that's one front.

Q Back on the Patriot Act for a moment. Isn't it a mixed message for the President to say that he's doing everything possible to protect the American people, but at the same time, reject the idea of a three-month extension --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's not the case here. Again, it's Senate Democrats who are playing politics with this piece of legislation. They are putting politics above our nation's security. And what is in the balance now is important provisions that our law enforcement and intelligence community have used to better protect the American people since the attacks of September 11th.

It was passed overwhelmingly in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. There have been some issues that have been raised over the course of the last few years; there are some changes that were made to the Patriot Act and we supported those changes. It's been thoroughly debated. There is no reason why they shouldn't move forward now and get it done. And why are Senate Democrats pushing for a three-month extension? Simply to obstruct getting this reauthorized so that they can try to weaken some of the authorities within it later.

Q So you're contention is, by giving in, you feel you will lose it completely? But for three months, though, if the White House would go along with a three-month extension, you believe that would --

MR. McCLELLAN: The Majority Leader in the Senate has said we're not going to do the three-month extension. The Speaker of the House has said it would be irresponsible to do so. It's time to act now and get this done.

Q Scott, is there anything the President can do to try to end the transit strike in New York? Has he been in touch with Mayor Bloomberg, and is he concerned about the security implications of this --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, a couple of things. One, we urge the parties to come together and resolve their differences. It's important for the people of New York City that they -- that this be resolved, particularly for those who depend on mass transit, including seniors and people with disabilities and people in need. The federal government, though, is prohibited from intervening in transit strikes. This is a situation that we view as unfortunate and we hope that they can come together and resolve their differences. Mayor Bloomberg has talked about how this is costing New York City -- the economy of New York City hundreds of millions of dollars a day.

There is federal mediation -- the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service are available to the parties to help resolve the issues if they are invited to get involved. But the federal government is prohibited from getting involved in a transit strike like this.

Q Even if it's on national security grounds?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the -- I mean, I think you can talk to the Department of Homeland Security, but in terms of any concerns about homeland security, I don't think there's any specific intelligence suggesting any threat to New York City at this time as a result of the strike. And the Department of Homeland Security could probably talk to you about that. But they have a significant presence in New York City, probably the largest of any outside of the Beltway here.

Q They can't get around.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q They can't get around -- in an emergency, they can't get around.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think, again, they can talk to you about what they have in place. And it's important that the parties come together and resolve this.

Go ahead, Sarah.

Q Thank you. Connie just asked my question.

MR. McCLELLAN: So go to your second question.

Q I have a second question. Secretary Rumsfeld, as you fully know, is visiting Iraq for Christmas. Is the President also visiting Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think we've put out the President's schedule. As always, if there's any updates to his schedule, we let you all know. But we are certainly thinking about our men and women in uniform who are serving in Iraq, and we wish them all well during this holiday season, and their families here at home.

Q You spoke earlier about the President's support for passing the defense appropriations bill that includes ANWR. What specifically is the White House doing to get the defense appropriations bill passed? And has the President personally telephoned members of the Senate this morning to urge them to quash the cloture?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he went out publically and urged them to get this passed. And what he said was that we need to make sure that our troops have the funding and resources they need to fight and win the war on terrorism. Now, it failed to get a cloture vote because of the ANWR provision, and I know the Senate is looking at -- about the next step that they take. It's important that they get the defense bill passed.

It also, in addition to providing important resources for our troops, it provides funding for Gulf Coast recovery and funding for pandemic flu preparedness. And that's why we urge the Senate to get it done and get it done now.

Q Does he approve of Senator Stevens' tactics regarding ANWR?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we're beyond that at this point. But I'll leave it up to the Senate to talk about which legislative techniques they used to get things passed. But we continue to support passage of the ANWR provision.

Q Fine, but can you tell me the name of a single senator he's personally telephoned to get him to vote for cloture?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President talks to members of Congress on a pretty regular basis and stays in touch with them on these priorities. And he's urged members of Congress to get this passed, too.

Q So he has talked to senators --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we stay in touch with them through a lot of different ways.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: All right, thank you all.

END 2:49 P.M. EST