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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 23, 2006

Press Briefing by Tony Snow
James S. Brady Briefing Room

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1:11 P.M. EDT

MR. SNOW: Hello. I don't have anything new since the gaggle, so let's just go to questions. Terry.

Q You said today that Israel should have serious talks with Mahmoud Abbas. Do you think that Abbas has the authority to conduct final status negotiations?

MR. SNOW: Well, look, we are not ready to jump to final status negotiations, you understand, Terry. But what we're going to do is we're reiterating our concern that we get two-party talks that lead ultimately to final status negotiations along the road map to peace. I mean, I know I'm using all the jargon here, but that's exactly what we're doing, one step at a time.

But let me also back up, because the meeting with Prime Minister Olmert really is, in many ways, a getting-to-know-you session. The President and the Prime Minister have known each other when they held different jobs, one a mayor, one a governor. And while they have struck up something in the way of personal relations, this is a chance to get to know each other better, but also roll up their sleeves and talk about the best ways to move forward once again a two-state solution so that we can try to create the conditions for peace in the region.

Q And what do you think about the Prime Minister's plan to impose a West Bank settlement?

MR. SNOW: Again, the President -- I'll just reiterate what I've said before -- you need a two-state solution. We know that President Abbas has gone ahead and at least supported the conditions we've always said are necessary for a two-state solution. On the Palestinian side, you're going to need somebody who recognizes Israel's right to exist, who renounces violence, who recognizes prior agreements. Now, that is not the case right now with Hamas. It is the case with President Abbas. Therefore, he's the logical person to deal with. But as far as my trying to prejudge what the President is going to say about this, I'll let them do that. And obviously, the two of them will be making remarks later in the day.

Q Changing subjects, does the White House have a view about what the government in various departments should do to protect the information of Americans, given what happened at the Veterans Administration with private data that is now out there and exposing veterans' personal information?

MR. SNOW: Well, obviously -- what was it, on the 10th, the President announced an identity theft task force. And one of the things to do is not merely to examine in the government, but around the country, how we make it possible in this era in which we're awash with information and potential access to information about people's personal finances and other things, that we protect their identities.

So the President certainly is concerned about that, and we want to make sure it happens. Here at the White House, we have safeguards. And I guarantee you at the Veterans Administration, Jim Nicholson has already said that they're going to go ahead once again and expedite their annual seminars, making sure that everybody in the department within -- I think by June 30th -- is that correct -- by June 30th, will be completely conversant and will have signed off on procedures to make sure that they don't do anything that is going to compromise that kind of information. Obviously, everybody is going to be concerned. And each department and agency is going to have to stay on top of it.

Q Tony, there's some talk coming out of the P5 plus Germany talks that there's some carrot and sticks on the table. Would America be ever in a position to sell commercial airplanes to Iran, or help with light-water nuclear reactors in exchange for Iran saying we will not pursue a nuclear weapons program?

MR. SNOW: Well, as you know, Jim, first things first. Iran has to make that declaration. Then we can start talking about other states [sic]. The United States all along has supported activities on the part of our negotiating partners to try to come up with some way to resolve peacefully and diplomatically the issue of whether Iran will create nuclear weapons. Our position is absolutely clear. We don't want it to happen. We want Iran to renounce it. I'm not going to prejudge what may happen after that point.

It's like when we're talking about North Korea. There's certain things that have to happen before we can proceed one step forward. We certainly support the efforts of our allies to make sure that the government of Iran renounces in a way that is verifiable any ambitions toward nuclear weapons and ceases the production of anything that could be used for nuclear weapons.

Q Those efforts seem to be getting more specific in nature, linking to things such as selling commercial airplanes to a country that badly needs them.

MR. SNOW: Well, at this point, the United States is not making any -- certainly not from this podium is not going to be making any proffers to the government of Iran.

Q Is the U.S. going to emphasize to Israel that the Palestinians also have a right to exist? And is the President aware that you cannot annex occupied land under international law?

MR. SNOW: The President is fully aware of all the legal complexities involved in the situation --

Q How do you know that?

MR. SNOW: How do I know that? Because I've talked with him about it. I've been in the room when the President talks about this, Helen. And he is not only fully aware of it, he is also aware of the challenges that work on both sides.

As you know, President Abbas has his own difficulties dealing with fractured -- factions within the Palestinians. And what we are trying to do is, this government has been trying to do for a long time, is to come up with a two-state solution that is going to provide safe and sovereign boundaries for both countries.

Q Does that mean apart from Abbas, the President will urge Olmert to move away or abandon his convergence plan?

MR. SNOW: Well, at this point, again, I'm not going to tell you what he is going to say in upcoming talks with the Prime Minister. That would be inappropriate --

Q But you said you've been in meetings with him, so, to date, in meetings with him, has he expressed an interest in Olmert's --

MR. SNOW: I've not been in those meetings with him today, so I will not try to blow smoke on you. I will repeat what I've said before. What we have tried to do is to talk about the importance of working toward a two-state solution; to have a two-state solution you have to have people on both sides talking toward doing this. And so I'm not going to address the specifics of the convergence plan.

Q What's the U.S. role in all this?

MR. SNOW: Well, the U.S. role is one of working with Israel and, when possible, with the Palestinians to try to generate a peace -- the same it's always been, Helen --

Q Then why is it bankrupting the Palestinians?

MR. SNOW: The Palestinians are not being bankrupted, Helen. What's happening, as you know, is that there is -- Hamas is a terrorist organization. We do not give money to terrorist organizations. What has happened is that this government has tried in a number of ways to make humanitarian aid available to the Palestinian people. We draw a distinction between Hamas, which is --

Q And they were democratically elected.

MR. SNOW: They were democratically elected and they're still a terrorist organization.

Q By your designation.

MR. SNOW: Yes. Thank you very much, Helen. They are, in fact, by the designation of this government, this administration, and prior administrations. So let me continue my answer.

Q Go ahead.

MR. SNOW: Thank you. (Laughter.)

Q You're welcome.

MR. SNOW: By the way, that's a nice apple, and congratulations on the book. I want to get all that done. But, look --

Q Here. (Laughter.)

MR. SNOW: Come here. (Laughter.) Whoever thought Helen Thomas would kiss up to me. An apple for the teacher. (Laughter.)

Q Hardly. Hardly. (Laughter.)

MR. SNOW: Now, where was I in this? Okay, what we --

Q Still spinning.

MR. SNOW: -- what we are trying to do is to make humanitarian aid available to the Palestinian people, because they need it. They need food aid, they need medical aid, they need money for other basic needs, and we're trying to make that available to them.

Q Then the follow-up, is it possible to pursue both the convergence plan and a two-state solution simultaneously?

MR. SNOW: Again, I will leave that to the heads of state and key negotiators.

Q What's the President going to tell the Prime Minister about Iran today?

MR. SNOW: The President -- I'm not aware that the President is going to be lecturing the Prime Minister. What they're going to be doing is they're going to be talking about their common interests again in a non-nuclear Iran that can be a peaceful member of the neighborhood. Now, what the President has said in the past, and I think the Prime Minister will probably ask about this, is what about threats that have been issued from time to time of violence against Israel. And the President has made it very clear if Iran attacks Israel, the United States will come to the aid of Israel.

Q Tony, the House today passed overwhelmingly the Palestinian Antiterrorism Act, which cuts off aid to many NGOs in the West Bank and also denies visas to members of the Palestinian Authority, presumably including Mahmoud Abbas. What is the administration's view of this? Will you veto it if it gets through the Senate?

MR. SNOW: Well, we did not support that measure precisely because it does tie the President's hand in some of the activities that I was talking about just now, which is providing humanitarian aid. We think it unnecessarily constrains. This is an issue that we are pretty certain is going to come before a House-Senate conference, and we hope that those differences will be resolved there.

Q You don't look for it especially for it to happen today, a Republican House to pass it on the same day he's telling Olmert he needs to talk to Abbas?

MR. SNOW: I think that President [sic] Olmert understands that democracies can be fractious things, and members of the legislative branch don't always tailor their activities for the convenience of those in the executive branch.

Q Tony, how does the President react to concerns from Republican leaders, like Speaker Dennis Hastert put out a very strong statement last night, saying he has concern that the raid on Congressman Jefferson's office could basically be an abuse of executive power?

MR. SNOW: Well, as I said earlier, we are certainly -- we are hoping that there is a way to balance the constitutional concerns of the House of Representatives with the law enforcement obligations of the executive branch. Those are two things that are in play here. And obviously, we're taking note of Speaker Hastert's statements.

Q But can I just -- that balance, why were you not trying to strike that balance before you raided the office? Can you really strike a balance after you've already raided some --

MR. SNOW: I did not raid the office.

Q You personally did not.

MR. SNOW: The President did not raid the office.

Q The President's Justice Department raided --

MR. SNOW: The Justice Department executed search warrants. I think using the term "raid" makes it sound a little like the cavalry is storming into the halls of Congress.

Q The Speaker's chief of staff called the Justice Department and various reports say was basically yelling at them. And so --

MR. SNOW: Let me just say, the Justice Department -- and I would refer a lot of this back to the Justice Department -- the Justice Department has been speaking with the Speaker's office, and leaders in the House of Representatives. Now, let me just say, again, we are hoping for a resolution that will balance the concerns of Congress with the obligations of the executive branch.

Q But just a final thing. Why wasn't -- those conversations you say that are taking place, negotiations, why did they not take place before they visited Congressman Jefferson's office, rather than --

MR. SNOW: They were executing a search warrant. My understanding is that there were conversations that went on between the Justice Department and the legal authorities in the House of Representatives. So, again, I'm going to have to redirect you there, because they're the ones who are involved in whatever conversations took place before the fact.

Q Tony, the Israelis say that the election of Hamas basically holds them hostage in the peace process; they have no partner to negotiate with. Do you disagree with them on that?

MR. SNOW: Well, again, please do not get me in the business of disagreeing with a sovereign nation and a friendly government. We are -- the President is going to talk, again, about looking for ways to have a two-state solution. President Abbas is somebody who has made himself amenable to that. And I'll leave that answer dangling just as it is.

Q That suggests the President will try and persuade the Israelis that their read of Abu Mazan's power is not necessarily accurate.

MR. SNOW: Again, I'm not going to get into whether the President is going to talk about reads of Abu Mazan, Abu Abbas, whatever you want to call him. His particular status within the Palestinian Authority, he is a duly elected official and he's a person with whom we have done business and had contact.

Q A question on Iran. As far as Prime Minister of Israel's visit is concerned, here at the White House is the first meeting after so many threats from the Iranian President -- Iranian President and Hamas work on one, they are both friends and -- so what do you think that is possible to have peace in the region when Iran President making so many threats, even today, that nuclear weapon he is making is supposed to be used on Israel?

MR. SNOW: Well, again, we're engaged in ongoing diplomatic efforts to try to make sure that the government of Iran not only becomes a good neighbor in the region, but also renounces any nuclear ambitions.

Q On the economy, what message you think the President has for small investors and small businesses, because 20 years ago I invested $1,000 in an Indian-American Liberty National Bank in Washington. Today the value is $180, after 20 years -- $1,000. I bought it from a credit line, 21 percent. So what advice will he have today for small investors as far as the economy is concerned?

MR. SNOW: You're asking me what advice the President should have because you put your money in a bank account 20 years ago? I think I would encourage you to contact your personal investment counselor.

Q Today, what advice the President will have for me. Should I put $1,000 elsewhere? Should I invest it?

MR. SNOW: The President does not engage in handing out personal investment advice.

Q You have told us that that is what the President is going to urge --

MR. SNOW: No, I've not told you what he's going to urge. I'm just going to -- I'm repeating to you what historically the American position has been and what it is.

Q I guess I'm trying to see what the President sees in Mr. Abbas that even Mr. Olmert doesn't seem to see --

MR. SNOW: Well, again, rather than asking me what the President sees, there will be opportunities later in the day for questions, and you may pressure your colleagues to ask the pointed and perfect question when it comes to that. I'm going to let the President answer that question.

Q With regard to Tony Blair, is he coming for two days here? Is he going to be meeting --

MR. SNOW: He is coming Thursday and he's leaving Friday. Let me -- again, and I apologize for those of you who weren't here this morning -- the Prime Minister will be arriving Thursday. There will be a press conference, a joint press conference at some point. I don't have the time on it. He will be here for part of the time Friday. He will -- the Prime Minister will be delivering a speech on Iraq and on the global war on terror also on Friday, the details I do not have. But I know he's going to be delivering a public address on Friday.

Thursday will largely be a meeting between the two, with a press conference also. But they're going to spend a lot of time together. The Prime Minister will be reporting on his recently completed trip to Iraq. Obviously, the subject of Iran is going to come up, and all the other matters of mutual concern.

Q But the press conference will be on Thursday then?

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q Tony, the Associated Press reports the President saying, "Doubt it," when he was asked if he intends to see Al Gore's documentary film about global warming. And my first of two-part: Does the President, as a devout Christian, intend to see or have shown at the White House "The DaVinci Code"?

MR. SNOW: Lester, somehow it did not occur to me today to ask the President which movies he is going to watch?

Q Would you ask him? I mean, since this is --

MR. SNOW: Probably not. He would probably arch his eyebrows and say, "that's all you've got?" (Laughter.)

Q AP was wrong?

MR. SNOW: I was there, Lester. What he said when somebody asked him, he said, "Doubt it." So, I'll tell you what -- if you get him outside on the lawn, you can ask the question and pursue the answer.

Q Since you have reportedly confirmed the President's support for the proposed amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman, could you tell us if the President also supports the proposed amendment to protect the United States flag from public desecration?

MR. SNOW: Do we have a flag desecration -- I apologize; this is something that, believe it or not, in the last two weeks has not come up. So I'm afraid --

Q Flag burning.

MR. SNOW: -- flag burning. I'll just have to get back.*

Q I'll check with you on both things.

MR. SNOW: Thank you very much. I may give you an answer to, at most, one.

Q Back to Israel. Does the President want Israel to hold off, or to -- hold off on West Bank withdrawal? What does he want?

MR. SNOW: Jim, please don't place me in the position of having to speak to the President before he's spoken to the Prime Minister. That would be very bad manners on my part and lead to a very short tenure in this position. I think, instead, what you'll do is, I will let the President and the Prime Minister speak. I'm repeating again what the position has always been. We want a two-state solution; we want it consistent with the road map. And I'm sure the two of them are going to have some pretty candid exchanges about this, and they'll also have public statements in advance of the press conference so they can lay out what their positions may be.

Q A quick follow-up. For tomorrow, the Pottstown

-- can you give us a quick preview of what to expect?

MR. SNOW: Dana?

MS. PERINO: He will speak on energy and on nuclear power clean development.

MR. SNOW: A speech on nuclear power clean development and energy. I don't think he's been to Pottstown recently. (Laughter.)

Q Tony, you said that if Iran attacked Israel, we'll come to the aid of Israel. I wonder if you'd be a little bit more specific. Would we be supporting them in their retaliation against Iran, or would we ourselves be retaliating against Iran?

MR. SNOW: I don't -- I'm not going to give you a specific answer because I've given you a general answer to a hypothetical question. I cannot give you a specific answer to a hypothetical question.

Q Do you have any kind of specifics --

MR. SNOW: No, I don't. I really don't, because what you're asking about is the categorization of -- I mean, if there's an attack it could take any number of forms, and a response could take any number of forms. And for me to begin trying to list them, again, would be, A, above my pay grade, and I think, B, irresponsible. I think just leaving it with the general statement that the President has given -- I can't go beyond what the President has said, and I'm not going to try.

Q Would you say then that nothing is off the table?

MR. SNOW: We've always said that.

Q Okay.

MR. SNOW: Let me put it this way: The use of force is off the table. All right? Let me be specific. That is what the President has said. Is that not correct?

Q Is off, or is not off?

MR. SNOW: I'm sorry -- is not off the table. Thank you. (Laughter.) Yes, it's on the table.

Q -- clear up the confusion for me. You keep talking about the President and the administration want to pursue the road map for Middle East peace, a two-state solution. Yet, on the other side, where the Palestinian government is composed of people who even refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist. So how does Israel negotiate with these people?

MR. SNOW: Again, we don't expect Israel to negotiate with Hamas, and Israel said it isn't, and we haven't told them they should.

Q Well, then how can they negotiate with Hamas --

MR. SNOW: You've got a President who is not a member of Hamas, who has, in fact, publicly in the past committed himself to the conditions we've outlined as being necessary precursors to recognition by the United States.

Q If he doesn't control the government and he doesn't have any power, isn't that just kind of whistling in the wind?

MR. SNOW: I don't know, we're going to have to see. Again, I'm laying out our position. I am fully acknowledging that there are numerous complexities involved in the situation, but that has been the case of every President before who has had to grapple with this, and we are hoping that we are going to be able to proceed forward.

Q Do you expect the meeting between the President and Prime Minister Blair to include some specific discussions about troop withdrawals?

MR. SNOW: I honestly don't know. What happens is -- what's interesting is, you had the press conference the other day with Prime Minister Maliki, and they were talking generally about timetables. Our position has always been the same, that when the conditions are right we will certainly be prepared to withdraw. Furthermore, we are there at the request and behest of the Iraqi government. We'll stay only as long as the Iraqi government wants us to stay there. But at this point, we are not going to harness ourself to an artificial timetable. The more important task is to get the job done.

And the Prime Minister sort of made that clear, also, in the press conference with Prime Minister Maliki, pointing out, again, conditions on the ground will determine if and when there are troop withdrawals.

Q What do conditions on the ground tell us now about what's possible?

MR. SNOW: Well, conditions on the ground tell us that our job is not done.

Q When did the White House find out about this decision to execute a search warrant on a Congressman's office?

MR. SNOW: I believe it was right about the time you did, literally. I mean, it was 7:15 p.m. -- was it Friday?

Q Saturday.

MR. SNOW: It was Saturday evening.

Q How was the White House advised of this?

MR. SNOW: I don't know the particulars.

Q Are you saying you found out about it through the media, or did the Justice Department call and say, we're doing this?

MR. SNOW: I honestly don't know. I'll have to get you an answer on that, Peter. I don't know the specifics -- but I do know that it was after the fact.

Q Tony, on VRA, is the President talking with any of the Republican senators who are stalling the Voting Rights Act right now?

MR. SNOW: I don't know that -- the President, of course, on each and every piece of legislation, doesn't necessarily call individual members of Congress. That's what the department of Legislative Affairs does. We have made it clear that we support the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. The President has called it one of the crown jewels of American civil rights, and therefore, he is eager to see its continuation.

Q But, Tony, at issue, they're looking at fairness for all 50 states, instead of certain Southern states, to be clear. And one of those is a Texas senator who wants to have --

MR. SNOW: Again, April, I am not aware of specific conversations. Again, quite often -- you're asking me if the President has called specific members of Congress on this. I just don't know. I know that as an administration, we, as a matter of routine, make our views known through Candi Wolff and other members of the Legislative Affairs team, who do convey the President's wishes and desires to members of the Senate.

Q Well, does he have a major concern, because, as you're saying, it's one of the crown jewels?

MR. SNOW: Again, look, he's concerned. I don't know how you catagorize. I always -- you're probably learning, I don't answer state of mind questions, especially major concern, minor concern, middle concern. I don't know -- I know it's your right to ask, but it's an unanswerable question, because it involves a sliding scale of valuation that is subject to the whims and vagaries of the person standing behind this podium. It is not subject to any hard, quantifiable sort of representation. Therefore, having said all that, I will simply tell you that the President is concerned. He views it as a very important -- it's a priority; we want to make sure that it gets renewed.

Q Thank you, Tony. Yesterday North Korean Deputy Ambassador to United Nations said only when the United States agrees to -- with North Korea, then North Korea will consider giving up nuclear program.

MR. SNOW: We've been through this many times, and we'll go through it one more time. The United States has made it very clear, as part of the six-party talks, that the first condition for moving forward is for North Korea to renounce its nuclear weapons program, period.

Now, as you know, the September accords, also, the September agreement also has provision for separate track negotiations that have to do with declaring a peace to the Korean war. But, first things first, and North Korea first has to go ahead and deal with the nuclear piece. Then after that, other steps may be taken in parallel.

Q Tony, on immigration, in his speech last Monday, on the issue of temporary workers, the President said, temporary workers must return to their home country at the conclusion of their stay.

MR. SNOW: Right.

Q Subsequently, Senator Hagel said that's not what the President feels; the President supports letting temporary workers say, or seek to say. Is Senator Hagel correct and what the President said is now inoperative?

MR. SNOW: No, I think what -- again, you go back to the President's speech. Perhaps Senator Hagel is not making his -- temporary worker program deals with people who come in after any piece of legislation is passed, and they make themselves part of a program that will be established by the federal government. The way it works is that you work for three or six years, and you have to go back to your home country after that period. It may just

-- I think that's -- the President has been pretty clear about that, and there has been no change in administration position since the President's speech.

Q A follow-up on this Veteran's Affairs theft, because this is such a major problem. Does the administration have any indication that the disk was intentionally sold to somebody for the purpose of fraud? And can the White House order a blanket fraud alert on all 26.5 million --

MR. SNOW: A couple of points, Connie, and I'm glad you asked it, because to the best of our knowledge, speaking with law enforcement authorities, this was not a targeted burglary, it was not somebody going after certain data pieces. It was a burglary in which this data -- these data were taken.

At this point, we have no indication that these have been used to defraud the 26.5 million people whose personal information would have been contained. Nevertheless, we've also decided that we're not going to take any chances here. We're going to proceed with absolute caution to make sure that everybody knows what's going on. The Identity Theft Task Force met yesterday, and they're going to do everything.

Let me also just -- while we're at it, I'm -- give me a moment to flip -- for those who are watching who may have concerns, there are two places they can go to get information. One is www.firstgov.gov. Again, www.firstgov.gov. And also, a hotline -- 1-800-FED-INFO. That's 1-800-333-4636. The line, I think, took 20,000 calls yesterday.

I mean, we understand that people are going to have anxieties. At this point, there is nothing to indicate that that information has been purloined and been put to bad use. But again, this is something people need to know about. And let me further add that as the law enforcement activities proceed apace, we'll be in a position to give you more information. A lot of what we're doing right now is necessarily restricted based on the specific recommendations and requests of those who are doing the law enforcement activity.

Q But as far as the fraud alert, because it's really hard to get through to some of these credit companies, could the White House just advise these credit companies to put a fraud alert on?

MR. SNOW: You know, this is -- let me just get back to you on that, because the answer is, I don't know.

Q Back to Iran, if I may. Does the President support the EU3 giving security guarantees to Iran within the incentives package?

MR. SNOW: You mean, in other words -- at this point, I think -- let me refer you back to my prior answers, which is, let's have Iran renounce and in a verifiable and credible way any nuclear ambitions, and then we'll start talking about terms and conditions.

What's interesting is that every time the EU3 or EU5 have made an offer to Iran, it's been rejected. So it's a little difficult for me to get up and try to say, if Iran does this, because so far, the only answer Iran has given is, no.

Q In 2003, the President said in the East Room, very emphatically, Hamas must be dismantled. Is it accurate to say there is no chance of the establishment of a Palestinian state as long as Hamas does exist in any way, shape, or form?

MR. SNOW: It is fair to say that the United States government will not recognize Hamas as a diplomatic entity.

Q They are the government, though, right now.

MR. SNOW: They are the government, and we do not recognize them.

Q To follow up on the VA thing, it's a routine burglary. Was there any thought given that maybe the best course was to just keep quiet about it, instead of -- I mean, the burglars might be now digging through the dumpster, looking for --

MR. SNOW: The problem is, if we'd been quite about it, people would say, well, why on earth are you quiet about the 26.5 million names? I think in a case like this, what we've tried to do is be as non-specific about who, what, when, where and why precisely because we don't want burglars to think, oh, lookey here, look what we've got. But on the other hand, when you have even the slimmest possibility that people who serve this nation in the military -- anybody on active duty from 1975 forward, anybody who has applied for or received benefits prior to that, they have served their country. And as a consequence, you want to make sure that they are fully informed.

Q Tony, do you have White House reaction to the death of Senator Bentsen?

MR. SNOW: Yes, we'll have a -- obviously, we will have a formal statement coming out in a bit. But, obviously, Senator Bentsen served his country long and well and faithfully, was a much-loved character here in Washington, somebody who got off probably the best known line in the history of vice presidential debates -- (laughter.) And we certainly send our condolences not only to the family of Lloyd Bentsen, but all of his many friends and admirers.

Thank you.

END 1:42 P.M. EDT

*Flag desecration: The Administration supports H.J. Res. 10, which would propose to amend the United States Constitution to authorize the Congress to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States. (SAP issued 6/2005)