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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
February 6, 2006

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
James S. Brady Briefing Room

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12:20 P.M. EST

MR. MCCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everyone. I've got two calls to read out to you briefly, and then I'll be glad to go to your questions.

The President this morning called Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to congratulate him, Coach Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers on a great Super Bowl victory.

And then later this morning the President made a world leader call. The President called the Emir of Kuwait to extend our personal condolences on the death of his brother, the late Emir, and to offer congratulations and best wishes as he takes over the position. The Emir expressed his appreciation for the call and indicated he would continue on the path of his brother, including building upon our strong U.S.-Kuwait relations. The President also invited the Emir to visit the White House at his convenience.

Earlier today you heard from our Budget Director, Josh Bolten, about the budget that we released earlier today. This is a budget that continues to build upon the pro-growth policies that we have put in place to get our economy growing. It calls for making the tax cuts permanent. We've seen over the last couple of years the creation of some 4.7 million -- or nearly 4.8 million new jobs; an unemployment rate that is down to 4.7 percent. We need to continue to build on that by building upon the pro-growth policies that the President has outlined and making the tax cuts permanent.

It is also a budget that restrains spending and builds upon the progress that the Congress has made over the course of the last year to reduce non-security discretionary spending and reduce the growth in our entitlement programs. And it focuses on our most important priorities, from winning the war on terrorism to strengthening our homeland defenses, to helping the people of the Gulf Coast recover and rebuild their lives and their communities, as well as funding important domestic priorities to reduce health care costs and reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy, and to keep America the most competitive economy in the world.

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

Q Scott, Iran has announced it's cutting off trade ties with Denmark over this cartoon of the prophet Mohammed. Does this worry you at all, that this sort of thing is happening?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I haven't seen what the regime in Iran has said. I think we've made our views very clear when it comes to the regime. But in terms of the issue relating to the cartoons, we have spoken out about this very issue. We condemn the acts of violence that have taken place. There simply is no justification to engage in violence. We call for constructive and peaceful dialogue based on respect for all religious faiths. Those who disagree with the views have the right to express their views, but they should do so in a peaceful manner. And we urge all governments to take steps to lower tensions and prevent violence, including against diplomatic premises, businesses and individuals.

And let me just make a couple other important comments. We have talked about the need for tolerance and respect for people of all communities and of all faiths. And that's important for everyone to heed. We have also said that we understand fully why Muslims find the cartoons offensive, and we have spoken out about that. In a free society, people have the right to express their views, even when they are offensive and wrong. We support and respect the freedom of press, but there are also important responsibilities that come with that freedom. And that's why we continue to urge tolerant respect for people of all faiths.

We also urge all those who are criticizing or critical of the cartoons to forcefully speak out against all forms of hateful speech, including cartoons and articles that frequently have appeared in the Arab world espousing anti-Semitic and anti-Christian views. So I think those are the points that we would emphasize when it comes to this very issue.

Q In the NSA hearing this morning, Specter suggested that the legality of the program be submitted to a special court set up through the FISA Act. And Gonzales initially didn't say much about it, but then he didn't exactly have any objection to that idea. Is that something the White House is considering? Would the White House agree to that?

MR. McCLELLAN: A couple of things. One, I don't want to get into doing on-the-spot analysis of the Attorney General's testimony today. This is ongoing at this point, so I'm not going to do a play-by-play commentary on it. Secondly, though, the terrorist surveillance program is a vital program. It is targeted and limited. Its one purpose is aimed at detecting and preventing attacks. And as you've heard from General Hayden and Director Mueller and Director Negroponte, it has been a useful and successful program.

And the Attorney General today is explaining the legal justification behind this program. We do remain a nation at war and surveillance of the enemy is critical to waging and winning war.

Now, with that said, in terms of the specific issue that you bring up, I'm not going to get into ruling things in or ruling the things out from this podium. This is something that we have briefed members of Congress on over the course of the last several years. We will continue to brief members of Congress about this vital program. It is critical to protecting the American people. It is one tool in our tool box that we have available to us to win the war on terrorism and to disrupt plots here at home and prevent attacks.

Q Is it safe to say then that the White House would entertain what Specter said?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think it's safe to say exactly what I just said about it.

Q Since the President has said that he strongly believes he's acting within his authority, wouldn't a review be welcomed, so it would give greater assurance to the American public that he is doing that? Would the President support that idea?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I haven't looked at everything that the Attorney General has said today. He did respond to that very question earlier today. I think I've expressed our views here from this podium. And keeping members informed about this vital program is important. That's why the President has done it from the very beginning. This is a limited program in nature. We will continue to work with Congress as we move forward.

But I think the American people understand the importance of the President doing everything he can within his power to prevent attacks from happening. He has not only the authority to do this, but he has the responsibility to do this. The 9/11 Commission talked about communications of al Qaeda -- email communications, Internet communications and cell phone communications from within the United States to abroad. And that's what we're talking about here, detecting and preventing attacks, and focusing on al Qaeda or al Qaeda-affiliated communications.

Q But the President wouldn't see a benefit in further clarification?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think I already answered that question. I said I'm not going to get into ruling things in or out from this podium. We will continue to work with Congress as we move forward, and as we have done in the past.

Q Does the President think he should obey the law? He put his hand on the Bible twice to uphold the Constitution. Wiretapping is not legal under the circumstances without a warrant.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I guess you didn't pay attention to the Attorney General's hearing earlier today, because he walked through very clearly the rationale behind this program. And, Helen, I think you have to ask are we a nation at war --

Q There is no rationale to disobey the law.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he's not -- are we a nation at war?

Q That's not the question.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, that is the issue here.

Q No, the question is, the point is there are means for him to go to war, get a warrant to spy on people.

MR. McCLELLAN: Enemy surveillance is critical to waging and winning war. It's one of the traditional tools of war.

Q Nobody says he doesn't have running room to --

MR. McCLELLAN: And the Attorney General outlined very clearly today how previous administrations have used the same authority and cited the same --

Q That doesn't make it legal.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and cited the very same authority.

Q If they broke the law, that's too bad. You know what happened to Nixon when he broke the law.

MR. McCLELLAN: And we're going to continue doing everything we can within our power to protect the American people. This is a very different circumstance, and you know that.

Q No, I don't.

Q Two questions. One, --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, then you should go back and listen to what the Attorney General said, because he laid out the safeguards that are in place, and how it's the career officials at NSA that make the decisions when it comes to this.

Q The President has to obey the law.

MR. McCLELLAN: And he does.

Q Two questions. One, two weeks ago, when India voted at the IAEA in Vienna, (inaudible) the EU and U.S., after that vote, U.S. Ambassador to India, Ambassador Mulford, he brought India on the limelight and the spotlight, including the India-U.S. relations, by making comments that India must vote in favor of the U.S., otherwise they will lose the deal that nuclear -- civil nuclear deal (inaudible) U.S. signed between the Prime Minister and the President.

Now some opposition leaders there in India, they are (inaudible) -- that Ambassador should relieve all that and he should resign, because there was no need for him to bring India on the spotlight, because India was voting --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think, actually, Goyal, the State Department clarified these views that were being expressed as personal views, or personal observations that the Ambassador was making. And so they talked about this very issue and went on to comment further about it. So I think I would leave it where the State Department did, in terms of what was said.

Q But the senior diplomat in Vienna and Delhi also told Reuters that there was no need for Ambassador to make such comments now, that we are on the spotlight. He put our relations on the spotlight --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President very much looks forward to going to India here in just a few weeks, and visiting with Prime Minister Singh and seeing the country and visiting with people in India. And that's where things stand. But in terms of this specific issue, I think State Department already clarified that.

Q Second, as far as (inaudible) are concerned, bringing dictators on the spotlight (inaudible). But among those, there was no President of Iran. How does President feel about is he dictator, or how does President feel about the President of Iran, why he was not among the dictators, but Chinese were there, Pakistan was there.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure what you're -- well, if you're talking about -- you're talking about the International Atomic Energy Agency?

Q No.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q No, (inaudible) brought worst dictators on this globe today.

MR. McCLELLAN: We've very clearly expressed our concerns about the regime in Iran, when it comes to their sponsorship of terrorism, when it comes to their behavior in the Middle East, and when it comes to their pursuit of nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian program. And the international community has spoken out very clearly in terms of its views and its concerns when it comes to the regime's continued behavior that is moving it in the wrong direction. And that's why the matter has been reported -- when it comes to the nuclear program, it's been reported to the United Nations Security Council.

Go ahead, Carl.

Q Insofar as the program is reviewed every 45 days by the administration, and the President has said that he would oppose anything that might compromise the operational security and effectiveness of the program, as a matter of principle, is the administration open to the idea of making the program subject to some level of oversight, either from the legislative and/or judicial branches?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, a couple of things. There already is oversight, because we have been briefing members of Congress about that. We've talked about it. And there is oversight when it comes to the administration of the terrorist surveillance program, because you have NSA lawyers that are very involved in overseeing the administration of this program. You have an inspector general that has rigorous oversight of the program. And, again, I emphasize that the career officials are the ones that are in place making these decisions.

And as General Hayden pointed out, and has pointed out repeatedly, the limited nature of this program, how it's targeted al Qaeda communications. And he talks about how we don't have time to spend our time on other communications. We only have the resources to be able to focus on ones that are relevant to what we're trying to do, which is detect and prevent attacks.

Q So as a matter of principle, your position is that the briefings that are and have been provided constitutes oversight by the legislative body, as well as by those in the FISA court that have been briefed?

MR. McCLELLAN: The legislative oversight -- absolutely there has been legislative oversight, as the Attorney General pointed out earlier today. The leadership, both the Senate and the House, Republican and Democrat, have been briefed, as well as the leadership of the Intelligence Committees in both the House and the Senate, the bipartisan leadership.

Q Would you agree, then, that there is a difference of opinion between the White House --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't want to get into talking about the FISA court, because this is a court that prefers not to comment publicly. And so I'll leave it to them if they want to say more about it.

Q But there are members of Congress who say that the briefings are, in fact, not oversight; that it's inadequate, and that what they're being told doesn't give them sufficient information, itself.

MR. McCLELLAN: I appreciate that.

Q So would you agree that there is a difference of opinion on the definition of briefing versus oversight --

MR. McCLELLAN: This is one of the most highly classified programs in our government, or was until its unauthorized disclosure. And that's why we don't -- still do not get into talking about operational aspects of it. But what we have done is brief members of Congress more than a dozen times about this vital tool that we are using in the global war on terrorism.

And you've heard members of Congress who have been briefed talk about the importance of this very program. And we will continue to keep them briefed as it goes forward. But let's go back and look over the course of history and you look at even the National Security Act. The National Security Act spells out -- or talks about when it comes to congressional oversight and briefings. And it specifically talks about how when you have a particularly sensitive national security matter like this that it's perfectly appropriate to brief in the manner that we did.

Q So to the extent that legislators may determine that they want some additional supervision and oversight beyond the briefings that you provide, would the administration oppose that as an intrusion on the President's "inherent authorities"?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, some members who have been briefed have said that the unauthorized disclosure of this program has been harmful to our national security. We've heard top intelligence officials talk about how the disclosure of this program has been harmful to our national security.

And so the concern you have is that very issue. The reason we don't talk more about it is because we don't want al Qaeda to have our play book. We know that al Qaeda is a very --

Q But that's not necessarily inherent authority, though.

MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on, hang on. No, no, hang on, hang on. We know that al Qaeda is a very sophisticated enemy. They have sophisticated communications. They are trained in counter-intelligence and counter-surveillance operations. We know that they are constantly adapting and changing their tactics. And that's why it's important that we don't get into talking about programs of this nature.

Now, because of its disclosure, we have talked about it in a very limited way, and talked about what it is and what it is not. And we will continue to point that out to the American people. I think the American people understand the importance of what we are working to do. But I'm not going to rule things in or rule things out. We'll continue working with Congress as we move forward, too.

Go ahead.

Q Scott, what is the update on the missing al Qaeda, the escapees out of Yemen? And is the administration satisfied that the Yemeni government has been cooperating with Interpol and providing the information that it needs?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that's a question probably to ask Interpol, in terms of that specific question. But we do have close cooperation with the Yemeni government. We share information when it comes to countering the terrorist threats that we both face. In terms of the prisoners that escaped, it is a disappointing development that al Qaeda operatives escaped, especially one who was involved in targeting and killing Americans. And we will continue to work with the Yemeni government and international partners to go after and capture these dangerous terrorists.

Q Has the government provided any kind of explanation as to how this happened?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have any additional update beyond that.

Q And another issue, on the budget, we've heard some folks reacting, Democrat Senator Kent Conrad calling this "the policies that dig the United States deeper into deficit and debt." There are Democrats who are obviously feeling like these are harsh cuts for the poor and the vulnerable. But there are also conservative Republicans -- Republican Jeff Flake, who says that this is disastrous politically for conservative Republicans who believe that these cuts don't go far enough. What does the White House say to those who feel that they are vulnerable to their constituents?

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't seen the specific comments that people are making. I'm sure there will be a lot of comments that are made, but Josh Bolten walked through our budget. This is a budget that continues to keep our economy growing and that builds upon the spending restraint that Congress has moved forward on at our urging, and makes sure that our national priorities are fully funded, like protecting the American people and winning the war on terrorism, helping the people of the Gulf Coast rebuild their lives and their communities, moving forward on key domestic priorities that will keep America the most competitive and innovative economy in the world. And so I think you have to look at the budget.

I'm not sure that some of the people you point out have even had a chance to read the budget. But one thing the President talked about last week in his State of the Union was the importance of elevating the tone in this town and working together to meet our priorities and continue to make sure that we're spending the taxpayer dollars wisely. And that's what he will continue to do. We need to come together and focus on these key priorities for the American people and build upon the budget that we passed just this last year.

Congress moved forward and enacted important spending restraint. Congress moved forward on 89 of the programs that the President called for either being reduced or eliminated last year. They acted on 89 of those, I think it's some hundred and fifty or so programs. And we're calling for another 141 now to either be reduced or eliminated.

Congress also just passed $40 billion in mandatory savings. And the real fiscal danger that this country faces is from our entitlement programs, and that's why we need to continue to build upon that. The President proposed an additional $65 billion in reductions in the growth of entitlement spending. And he also, remember, in the State of the Union called for a bipartisan commission to work together to address the problems facing our entitlement programs, like Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid.

Q How does he deal with his conservative base who say that this is a political liability, this budget; that it doesn't go far enough in making the kinds of cuts that his conservative base believe is necessary?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the way I just said, explaining exactly what it is. I mean, I think you're ignoring what is in this budget and what this budget does.

Now, we will continue to talk about the importance of meeting our national priorities, but we've got to continue to cut non-security discretionary spending. We are a nation at war; we're going to fund our troops both in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. But we've also got to reduce non-security discretionary spending elsewhere. We did that last year, an actual cut. Now we are proposing another cut in non-security discretionary spending. So we have a good record of changing the direction of spending in Washington, D.C.

And that's why it's also important to continue to make the tax cuts -- keep taxes low, and that means making the tax cuts permanent. And that's something that this budget calls for. And we will continue to urge Congress to move forward and do that. That will keep our revenues up, and while we reduce spending elsewhere, that will help us keep -- stay on track to cut the deficit in half. This is a responsible budget that keeps us on track to cut the deficit in half. And it also takes steps to rein in the growth of entitlement programs.

Remember the one that was just passed, that was the first time in several years that Congress had acted to rein in the growth and reduce growth in entitlement programs.

Q Scott, I have two questions for you. It's coming up on five years since Osama bin Laden ostensibly fled Afghanistan. Isn't the President frustrated that all the intelligence sources, all these monitoring of communications, all the human intelligence, satellites can't find one tall man? What's the problem?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's al Qaeda that has been frustrated, first of all. We have already brought to justice, in one way or another, some three-quarters of their known leadership. We are winning this war on terrorism. But as the President said from the very beginning -- go back to 2001 -- this is going to be a long war. It is an unconventional war that we are fighting, as I talked about. This is a sophisticated enemy that we are up against. We have them on the run. They are under a lot of pressure. We have seen, time and again, that people have been brought to justice, people that are members of al Qaeda, as well as other terrorist organizations. And he is someone who is on the run, someone who is hiding. And we've talked about that. And I think others have talked about that, in testimony last week, why that has been the situation.

Q My point is, how could he hide for five years?

MR. McCLELLAN: But, Ivan, it's broader than just -- the war on terrorism is broader than just one person. But we have to also remember that we are a nation that remains at war. And that's why it's so important that we continue to act on all fronts, we continue to use every tool at our disposal to disrupt plots, to prevent attacks, and to go after and bring to justice those who seek to do us harm.

Q My second quick question is, how is your mother repaying you for your loyalty, a new pair of boots or home cooking? (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: My mother is doing great, thank you. I just saw her this weekend.

Q Scott, the same lobby that fought so hard against your Social Security plan last year is going to be gearing up for the fight against these Medicare proposals that the President is making in the budget, to reduce the spending levels on Medicare, especially in reimbursement to hospitals and so forth. How do you plan to battle that, which is a pretty powerful lobby?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Congress moved forward and passed important reductions in the growth of Medicaid just this year. So we have seen some important success. We need to build upon that. And, remember, the Medicare Modernization Act that we passed included some cost controls in there; it didn't go very far, but it included some cost controls. We need to continue to build upon that.

What we are going to continue to emphasize is that there are great challenges facing our entitlement programs. That is where the real fiscal danger lies, and that's why we need to start taking steps to address this issue. We need to preserve and protect Medicare for future generations. That's what this is about.

If we don't act, and it continues on the course that it is going, we are going to -- our children and grandchildren are going to be in a serious situation. We want to make sure that it is there for our children and grandchildren when they are seniors. We want to make sure that it continues to be there for people with disabilities. And that's why we need to take these steps to reduce the growth. And that's what we're talking about in this budget.

Q Scott, a two-part. In their very extensive page one and biographical reporting on the new House Majority Leader, John Boehner, neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post ever mentioned his lawsuit of Democrat Congressman McDermott of Seattle for violating the federal wiretapping law, in which a federal court ordered McDermott to pay $560,000. And my first question: Do you, as the President's Press Secretary, believe these two circulation-shrinking newspapers ought to tell the whole truth?

MR. McCLELLAN: Les, obviously you have some opinions on those newspapers, and I'll let you express those on your show. I try to avoid being a media critic.

Q Republican National Chairman --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me just add that the President looks forward to continuing to work with the new Majority Leader, Congressman Boehner. They had a good conversation last week, and the President looks forward to working with him and Congressman Blunt and all House Republicans to move forward on important priorities for the American people, particularly the ones that we outlined today in our budget.

Q Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman said yesterday, "Whether it's the comments about the plantation or the worst administration in history, Hillary Clinton seems to have a lot of anger." New York Daily News Columnist Michael Goodwin wrote, "Clinton seems to have gone off the deep end." And my question: Does the President disagree with these statements by Mehlman and Goodman?

MR. McCLELLAN: Look, we've already expressed our views on those comments that were made.

Go ahead, Victoria.

Q Scott, there have been various reports that photographs of the President with Jack Abramoff have disappeared from the archives of photographic studios, at least one. Could you tell us whether the White House or anyone working at the White House's behest has taken any steps to remove any photographs that the President --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know anything about that. I think that I saw some story where the very company that you're mentioning said otherwise. So I think you ought to see what they said.

Q They acknowledged that the photographs had disappeared from their work site.

MR. McCLELLAN: I think they said something other than that.

Q Scott, is there any discussion underway as to why the prisoners in Yemen were not transferred to Guantanamo earlier, since they were involved in the bombing of the Cole, and that would have been a more secure place --

MR. McCLELLAN: I would just reemphasize that we have good cooperation with the government in Yemen. We will continue to work with the Yemeni government as we move forward in the war on terrorism. And we are going to do all that we can to help the government and help our international partners go after and find these dangerous terrorists.

Q Should they have been in Guantanamo, though, sir, instead of Yemen?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I'm not going to say anything beyond what I just said. I think that's the points that are important to make.

Q Scott, the OMB today announced a new website called expectmore.gov, in which they reported some of their findings. It shows -- their findings -- that 28 percent of the federal programs it studied are either ineffective or can't prove results. What is the public supposed to think of a federal government where more than a quarter of the programs are ineffective or can't prove results, and does the President, as the CEO of this operation, bear any responsibility for that --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why we're acting to address this very issue. And I think what is important for the public to look at is the trend that we are on. We instituted important management reforms when we came into office, and put a great person in charge of that effort, Clay Johnson, over at the -- Deputy Director over at the Office of Management and Budget. And I think that what it points out is that there is great progress made when it comes to achieving results that agencies and departments and programs are supposed to be for the American people.

But what this also does is help us measure and look at these programs. And that's taken into account when the President does his budget. So when the President proposes to reduce or eliminate some 141 programs that are ineffective or something that we shouldn't be involved in, Congress can look at this and use that as they move forward to act on the proposals the President outlined.

Go ahead, April.

Q Scott, in 450 we were told about the budget. And the President has continued to say that Katrina is one of the number one priorities. Why not have new money earmarked in the budget if it's a number one proposal for the '07 proposal?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think Josh probably explained that at the budget briefing, as well, but let me go back and talk to you about where we are. First of all, there were some immediate needs that the people needed in responding to the unprecedented hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast, and then there was another one, as well. And so we provided immediate assistance to help them recover in the immediate aftermath of those attacks and get them cash assistance and direct help, and also to cut through all the bureaucracy.

We've already provided some $85 billion in funding to help people in the Gulf Coast rebuild their lives and their communities. We've indicated that the federal government, and the President has indicated, that we are going to do our part to help. It's going to be a locally inspired vision, but the federal government is going to do our part to help.

And as we know what those needs are -- and a couple things here. One, it's important for there to be plans in place, as I indicated, but those should be locally inspired plans. And there's been progress being made on those plans. We need to know where that taxpayer money is going. But we are fully committed to doing our part at the federal level to help people recover and rebuild. Now --

Q So Katrina and Rita --

MR. McCLELLAN: And now what we have said is that as we move forward and look at what the needs are going forward, we will continue the work to meet the needs of the people in the region. And so that's why we have indicated that we'd be coming back with an additional -- some $18 billion on top of the $85 billion that has already been allocated. Only I think somewhere around $30 billion of that has been spent at this point of that initial $85 billion, but that money is being dedicated and allocated on a very quick basis so that we can continue to help people build upon the progress that has been made in those communities.

Thank you.

END 12:50 P.M. EST