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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 25, 2006

Press Briefing by Tony Snow
James S. Brady Briefing Room

12:31 P.M. EDT

MR. SNOW: All right, nothing new. No announcements. Let's go to questions. Jennifer.

Q Thanks, Tony. If we could just try this again on the Blair visit today. Maliki has said that he thinks his forces will be in control by the end of the year --

MR. SNOW: By the end of next year, 2007.

Q By the end of next year, pardon me. You have said, obviously, that there's not going to be any announcement of a hard timetable, specific time frame for American troops to withdraw. But are they going to try to lay out conditions, not attaching maybe time frames to it, or specific numbers, or as you said earlier, divisions, but what does the President and Prime Minister Blair, what do they want to say to the American people tonight?

MR. SNOW: They'll answer whatever questions you have to say. Again, I think it's worth pointing out, because there's been a perception that maybe things aren't moving in Iraq -- that's different. I mean, you've got a new government. That is a significant development. And you've got a new Prime Minister. Prime Minister Blair had a chance to meet with Prime Minister Maliki on Monday. And I don't think it's inconsequential for the two of them to sit down and take the measure of the man and the government. After all, everything that we do now relies in large part on the ability of that government to be able to secure -- to provide security within its borders, to provide an effective government that will preserve the rights and freedoms of individuals living there. It depends on its ability to be a reliable and forward-leaning ally in the war on terror. I mean, all of those things.

And I know there's a real desire to think that these guys are going to sit around almost like with a chess board, figuring out how all the pieces are going to move. Right now the most important thing to do is to take the measure of the new government and figure out -- to figure out what they think is going to be feasible. I am sure that they'll talk about a whole range of options, and you can ask them at 7:30 p.m. exactly what they are, but I can guarantee you, you're not going to hear we're going to pull 10,000 out here, or 5,000 -- you're just not going to get hard numbers. And you're not going to get hard dates, because, as always, these decisions rely on the actual conditions on the ground. It doesn't matter what anybody can say in terms of blue sky. You got to figure out whether it's possible.

Go ahead. Do you want to get a follow-up?

Q I do. The formation of the government obviously is not inconsequential, as you said, but what do they want to say about that that's different, that is going to be reassuring to the American people?

MR. SNOW: I think what's going to be reassuring to the American people is we have talked for some time now about some fairly miraculous developments in Iraq, where people have gone a couple of times, under threats of violence from al Qaeda and others, and they've dipped their finger in the purple ink, they've gone and made their votes. Now they have an elected government. That elected government has an elected head, and that is somebody with whom we can deal. So all of the -- we're not talking about coalition provisional authorities, we're talking about an Iraqi government.

This is the one thing that we've said we've been working for from the start. And I think that's a hugely important milestone, and you've got to look at this as a new beginning and a new opportunity, because there's now somebody to deal with. And I think that's hugely important, and I think whatever personal observations they may have about the Prime Minister or about the government, I think those are going to be interesting and important for the American people.


Q The President has so many times said it's dangerous to set a timetable because it sends the wrong signal to the enemy. Why, then, is it okay for this new Iraqi leader to say, by the end of 2007, that's our goal? Does the President think that's prudent to lay that --

MR. SNOW: I honestly don't think the President has had any comment on it. Again, the President is not going to tell the Prime Minister what to say. The Prime Minister is an elected official. He can say whatever he wants. The President also has been clear the conditions on the ground will affect whatever decisions we make.

Again, to remove troops prematurely would not only place Iraqis at risk, it would place our own forces at risk. So we want to make sure that we keep forces on the ground only as long as necessary. Again, I'll repeat the clich one more time: they stand up, we stand down. And as the Iraqis become more capable to assume the lead combat roles and take over primary combat responsibilities, then things obviously are going to change, but we're going to have to wait to see when that actually happens.

Q So you seem to be lowering expectations in terms of specific announcements.

MR. SNOW: I think I'm lowering your expectations. I've tried never to create those expectations.

Q But nobody, in your words, is going to be "kissing in Times Square tomorrow."

MR. SNOW: Right.

Q I understand that. But if you have --

MR. SNOW: Well, there may be people kissing in Times Square for different reasons. (Laughter.)

Q If you have --

MR. SNOW: I said, "kissing," Lester. (Laughter.)

Q If you have secure transatlantic phone lines, I'm still unclear why this needs to be a face-to-face, in-person briefing, unless it's sort of the ceremonial hitting of the reset button. I mean, is that what tonight is?

MR. SNOW: No. There are going to be times -- let me stress again. This is hugely important. You've got an elected government and you've got an elected head of government. He started work last Saturday, he had his first meeting with the Prime Minister on Monday. I suppose you could do some things with a phone conversation, but I think in a lot of this -- what the President -- I mean, I've seen the President when he talks about these things. He's intensely practical, and he's going to want to talk face-to-face. These sometimes are conversations that are best had with the two guys sitting in the room asking the questions, reacting to one another, and I think it's probably a much more efficient and effective way to transmit knowledge and information and perceptions than just sort of picking up the phone.

Q Does it have anything to do with both men having very low poll numbers --

MR. SNOW: No, and I know everybody has been trying to read this a political play on poll numbers. No, it has to do with the fact that you've got a new elected head of state in Iraq, and I really do think it not only changes the realities on the ground, it changes the way in which we're going to approach it, because, to repeat, we've got somebody with whom we can deal now. We've got an elected official who is going to be there.


Q You've said that the Prime Minister -- in regards to the troops, the Iraqi troops taking the lead in 2007 -- that the Prime Minister can say anything he wants. Are you saying that you don't necessarily agree with that?

MR. SNOW: I'm not saying I agree or disagree.

Q Whatever he says, is, we're still just looking at conditions?

MR. SNOW: I was responding to Kelly's question about the fact that the President has said if -- and he's talking about American troops -- if you set timetables, you send signals to the enemy. I think, if anything, what Prime Minister Maliki is trying to -- if he's trying to send a signal, it's this: he's serious, he's going to fight the bad guys, and he's serious about taking command in Iraq. I don't think -- I'm not going to draw judgments on whether he can or can't make it, because as I've said before, any of these judgments depend on what happens on the ground.

Q But back to Kelly's question, then, again -- is he sending a signal to the enemy by saying he believes the Iraqi troops can be in the lead by 2007?

MR. SNOW: Well, I think that the signal he's sending is that he means business.

Q Can you also -- when we talk about the U.S. moving to more of a support role -- and you've said this in the past -- what do you mean, exactly, by that?

MR. SNOW: It means, taking people out of lead combat positions and doing -- you can refer back to Prime Minister Maliki's remarks over the weekend, where he talked about going back and doing more of the support -- and I don't want to lay out each and every thing, because you know more about that stuff than I do, but you know what a support role is.

Q But let's clarify what you mean by it. Do you mean pulling back out of the major cities, being more of a rapid reaction force?

MR. SNOW: It could be any of those. I would refer -- literally, I'm going to refer military questions to General Casey and General Abizaid and people who have operational responsibility. It would be irresponsible for me to go beyond where I've gone.

Q Talk about the Iran piece of this for a second. Are they going to have a discussion about the incentives that are being offered to Iran, and ways to entice them into this?

MR. SNOW: I'm sure they are. They're certainly going to talk about the EU3, and also other extended conversations with the Russians, the Chinese, trying to draw them into it, as well. The Prime Minister, I think, has said that -- earlier today, that -- I don't want to paraphrase, but essentially he didn't want a showdown with Iran, he wants to find a diplomatic path to this. And I think the United States does, as well. We want to find a diplomatic way to ensure that Iran suspend all enrichment and reprocessing of uranium. We also have concerns about human rights and democracy. The Secretary of State was very strong about that.

So yes, they're going to try to figure out how to get the job done, and to try to do it through diplomatic means.


Q Some have suggested that the letter from the President of Iran and that his remarks last weekend saying he wanted to talk with the Bush administration represents a sea change for the Islamic Republic that has ignored the United States and called it the "Great Satan" for the last three decades. What's the President's response to those critics who say he's missing an opportunity here to talk to people who up until now have just been antagonistic and not willing to talk?

MR. SNOW: Well, a couple of things. First, if anything, what that letter and the subsequent stories about trying to reach out through secondary channels indicates is the pressure is working, that the President's diplomatic strategy is working. The President also is continuing to work through diplomatic channels. Look, we don't have formal diplomatic ties with Iran. The President has worked through appropriate international forums; he's going to continue to do that. The message is clear: There are certain things that Iran has to do, period. And that's the American position, that hasn't changed.

Q In the past, it's been said that their behavior has raised questions of trust. Are these overtures dismissed as parlor games and stalling tactics or does the administration take them with even a modicum of seriousness?

MR. SNOW: Well, I'm not going to go behind the scenes and tell you how people are interpreting this. This is a private communication between Ahmadinejad and the President, and he tends not to talk about private letters, even those that have been leaked to the global press. I'm just not going to -- I'm not going to push any further forward yet.

Q Tony, we're told that White House aides are involved in some sort of negotiations over Congressman Jefferson's documents, negotiating with House leaders about maybe giving these documents to the House Ethics Committee or some other body while the legal and constitutional questions are worked out. Can you tell us how those talks are going --

MR. SNOW: What I'll tell you is to stay tuned. You've got a shifting situation where, just to repeat what I've said all along, this White House is interested in maintaining and recognizing the constitutional concerns of members of Congress and the law enforcement obligations of the executive branch.

Q Has the President been personally involved in that because of Speaker Hastert going to him and talking about it?

MR. SNOW: I'm not going to give you any behind the scenes tick-tock right now. As I said, just stay tuned.

Q Okay, one other quick thing. Speaker Hastert gave a radio interview to WGN where he said this ABC news story last night about him possibly being investigated by the Justice Department was an attempt to "intimidate him," and that he won't be intimidated, basically. There are suggestions --

MR. SNOW: That's his interpretation. I'd refer you back to the Department of Justice, and I talked to him last night. They said, this simply didn't happen. And so, I don't know --

Q False information can be leaked to intimidate someone, as well, whether it's true or not --

MR. SNOW: Any official in a position of responsibility -- the Department of Justice said it's just not true, and that they're not leaking -- that they're not leaking information to try to undermine the House Speaker. Just false, false, false. I got pretty categorical denials, but for further information, it's probably smarter, again, to refer you back to them because they can answer any follow ups and try to answer any suspicion, skepticism, or question.

Q Final thing. Is the President at all, though -- all of these issues on the table, concerned about his relationship with the Republican Speaker of the House deteriorating because he seemed to be fighting on all these issues? He's concerned about whether the President's Justice Department is intimidating him. Whether any of that is true or not, there is -- seems to be a palpable battle here between the Speaker --

MR. SNOW: As far as I can tell, the Speaker, today, didn't call out the President. He was talking about officials at the Department of Justice. And again, I'm telling, as far as I know, it's a bogus story. But the one thing I haven't heard -- and I've seen the Speaker twice this week. I have not -- and I've seen him interact with the President. I have not seen him getting angry at the President.

Q Has the White House made any progress on helping the veterans on this theft situation? With Memorial Day coming, I just wondered if there will be any special statement from the President?

MR. SNOW: Well, what's interesting is, the assumption of the question, Connie, is that there is harm done. We don't know. We're proceeding with an abundance of caution. We are letting everybody know not merely that a theft occurred, but we've given out numbers for a hotline. Let me just flip through my thing here, because it's probably worth reminding people, once again, what the hotline number is, and also the website. First, the website: First -- And the 800 number is 1-800-FED-INFO. 1-800-333-4636. Apparently, in the first couple of days, it got about 100,000 calls, average wait time about 11 seconds.

This is something everybody is taking seriously. We hope that there has been no compromise of personal information. But nobody is taking any chances. And so they're doing everything possible to try to figure out what happened.

In addition, Secretary Nicholson today, testifying on the Hill, not only made abundantly clear his displeasure with a lot of the things that happened prior to his notification, but also he's outlining a series of steps that the Veterans Administration is going to take to make sure that veterans' information is secure, and that people within the department know exactly what they have to do, what they need to do, what they must do.

Again, for further detail and texture on that stuff, I'll refer you back to the department.

Q Tony, two quick questions. As far as the global terrorism is concerned, there is another tape from Osama bin Laden. He's warned, and we are still living under fear. He's -- apparently that he's watching everything we do, including this press conference, what's happening in our lives. We have -- the United States has the best intelligence, CIA, and the best military in the world. What's happening? Somebody is protecting somewhere Osama bin Laden, so what's going on? Even though there is a big reward on his life or capture or bring to justice --

MR. SNOW: I'm glad you asked that, because now I'll just tell you everything we know about bin Laden, we'll just get it off our chest. I mean, look, it's pretty clear that it's been a priority to look for Osama bin Laden. It's also pretty clear that that's a very difficult part of the world to travel in, let along track somebody down in. Are people helping him? Probably. Are our people doing their very best to find him? Absolutely. It's a tough business.

Q And second, on Hamas and Iran. As I said yesterday both are one, and both are not moving anywhere or giving up their ideas or ideals. Now, from time to time Iranian President threatens Israel, and last time he said that the Holocaust never existed. But last night, Oprah on her show showed everything -- what really happened -- so where do we stand now as far as all those statements destroying Israel and no Holocaust and supporting Hamas?

MR. SNOW: Well, I think we've made it pretty clear that each of the statements you have outlined are ones that -- in the case of the Holocaust, he's wrong; and in the case of threatening Israel, we've said, if there's any attack on Israel, we'll stand by Israel's side. I mean, the President has been abundantly clear about that.

Q Does the United States at this point have a formal assessment of whether it would even be possible for Iraqi security forces to take over security for the whole country in 2007?

MR. SNOW: I am sure there's an assessment going on right now, but I honestly -- I haven't seen it, haven't been privy to it. But it would seem to be part and parcel of trying to proceed forward.

That would be something -- toss it to Eric Ruff over at Defense.

Q Do you have a sense that we will hear from Mr. Blair and the President an endorsement of that possibility --

MR. SNOW: I'm just -- I know everybody wants -- you want to be able to put on your calendar, we leave on this date. It's just -- it's not going to happen. Boy, I'm sure a lot of people wish that that were possible, but, again, in a war, conditions constantly change. Sometimes things are worse than you expected, sometimes they're better than you expected. I will repeat the same phrase. I know it's frustrating, but it's the truth, I can't go beyond it. You react to the conditions on the ground.

Q The Prime Minister does seem to be putting that on his calendar. I mean, that --

MR. SNOW: No, no, no -- you can ask him about that, as well. When somebody talks about in very general terms --

Q I mean, Maliki seems to be putting that on his calendar.

MR. SNOW: Yes, well -- and look, we'll see if he's able to follow through on it. I mean, it's an interesting question.

Q Yes, Tony. Patrick Fitzgerald yesterday indicated that they would like to speak, they would like to have the Vice President come and talk in defense of Mr. Libby since the state of mind of the Vice President was relevant to Libby's actions since Libby was subject to his direction. Would the White House be prepared to allow the Vice President to testify --

MR. SNOW: Number one, I'm not going to -- number one, I'm not sure you characterized properly what was -- the stories were that he'd released information, he was interested in that line of questioning, and that there may be some thought of bringing the Vice President to trial. Having said all that, I'm not going to make any advance legal comment about a situation other than to say that the Vice President and his office, at all points, have been thoroughly cooperative with the Special Counsel, and do what we always do in these particular cases, which is to refer you for further elucidation to the Department of Justice.


Q Tony, only two questions. Has the President studied the 1986 comprehensive immigration reform plan approved by Congress and signed by President Reagan? And if he has, why does he think this comprehensive immigration reform plan, which does essentially the same thing, will be successful?

MR. SNOW: Well, I don't think I've got a full roster of the President's bedside reading, but I think it's safe to say that in assembling the comprehensive immigration reform, people have taken a very close look at what happened in 1986. Let me give you a couple of examples. In 1986, Congress declared an amnesty for three million people who were here illegally, that said, okay, fine, go about your business, no crime, nothing. They also drafted a bill that made it a misdemeanor to cross America's borders without proper documentation or having done what is standard and usual for those who wish to become citizens. For this misdemeanor, it assigned no penalty.

Now, what the President has done is he's taken a look at this and he's said, that's not good enough. So as part of comprehensive reform, what are we saying to those who are here illegally? And during that span, during that 20-year span, 11 or 12 million people have made their way illegally into the United States, many across the Mexican border, many from elsewhere. The President has said we need to make sure that we have penalties not only that are serious but enforceable.

So for those that have crossed the border, those who have committed that misdemeanor, number one, you're going to have to pay a penalty. Members of Congress are talking about $1,000, $2,000. That will be hashed out. Number two, you're going to have to pay back taxes. Number three, as the Senate voted this week, at least according to one proposal, you're going to have to -- if you've committed one felony or three misdemeanors, you're out of here. There is also a continuous work requirement; you can't not work.

So what you're putting together now is a requirement. This is just -- these are baseline requirements for people who have been here illegally. Now, once you've met all that, what do you do? You basically go to the back of the line and you're on probation for 11 or 12 years. During that time, you have to keep your nose clean, you have to keep working, you have to pay taxes. We've got to know where you are. You're going to get a -- you're going to get an identification card, a tamper-proof ID, that is going to have biometric information. Furthermore, your employer now, who in the past may have had excuses, that employer may have been able to say, I don't know, that driver's license looked good to me, that fake birth certificate looked perfectly legal, can't do it anymore. You've now got somebody who's got biometric information, and if that employer does not, in fact, have that information, the employer now is liable in a way that he wasn't before. There's no place to hide.

In addition -- I know you want to ask the question, but I'm giving you the full answer here. You've got to relish every moment of this.

Q I'm very grateful.

MR. SNOW: So now you're in this process, they got a dozen years probation, they got to keep clean, the employers don't have any place to hide, they've got to master the English language. People who, at the end of this process stand up, put their hands up and take the oath will have spent more money and waited longer than any group in American history for the right to become American citizens.

So these are -- if you want to test the people who really want to be Americans -- I mean, really, really want to be Americans -- this is it. It's a significant difference from 1986, which is, hey, come on, no harm, no foul.

Q The other one is, Sayed Hashemi was an officer of the Taliban who was present when CNN interviewed Osama bin Laden. Now Hashemi has been admitted to Yale University, and yesterday, during a news conference, Howard Dean told what he called a "great story" about Yale graduation speaker Anderson Cooper welcoming members of the Taliban, which Governor Dean said, brought down the house. And my question, does the President, as a Yale alumnus, agree with his fellow Yalie, Howard Dean, that this was a "great story?"

MR. SNOW: I think I'll refer that back to Yale. Ask Yale if they think that's a great story.

Q Tony, the President often mentions corporate crime in his speeches, as recently as yesterday. We've had the Enron convictions now over the noon hour. Any comment from the White House?

MR. SNOW: Well, any comment is that the Justice Department -- you know, we congratulate the Justice Department on successfully concluding a highly complex conviction, a set of legal proceedings that led to the convictions today in the Enron case. I mean, the administration has been pretty clear there is no tolerance for corporate corruption. And furthermore, the Justice Department has been going aggressively after those who are involved in corporate corruption.

Q The Senate is expected to pass its immigration bill today, and at that point, the President has been urging them to get their work done and then have the bill go to conference. When it goes to conference, do you expect the President to stay at the broad level and push for just a comprehensive agreement out of conference, or is he going to fight for specific principles and specific parts of that?

MR. SNOW: You know, let's -- I hate to use this dodge, but I'm going to use an artful dodge here, which is that, at this point, let's get a bill through the Senate, let's figure out where the fault lines are. I am sure that many members of this White House -- but I'm not going to speak for -- I'm just not going to commit the President right now. I'm not his scheduler. He is the one who is going to make the decisions about whether he picks up the phone.

But it's abundantly clear that this is of enormous importance to the President, and he wants to make sure, not merely immigration reform, but comprehensive immigration reform, along the lines that he laid out to the nation a week ago, Monday, that that take place. So certainly, many people here -- the President, I don't know, we'll find out.

Q Where do you see those fault lines at this point shaping up? Can you talk about that?

MR. SNOW: No, come on. You let the guys on Capitol Hill tell you where the fault lines are.

Q Tony, you may want to touch on this one, also, but -- (laughter) -- the guys in the House are pretty definite that they don't want the Senate bill. If what comes out of conference is much closer to the House bill, is that something the President is prepared to sign?

MR. SNOW: Let me address the first part, because there's been a lot of talk about, we just want immigration -- I mean, we want enforcement first. I think members of the House realize that the other parts of this comprehensive package are important, and a question they're going to have ask themselves is, do we really want to oppose comprehensive reform? You're not going to close the borders overnight. The President has already said, we're going to start working on this. As a matter of fact, come what may, with or without the supplemental budget appropriation, we're going to start moving National Guard forces into relief of Border Patrol agents in the first few days of June. So that's already beginning to happen.

Now, the question is, if you are a Republican member of Congress and you're concerned about illegal immigration, do you really want to say to your constituents, you know, I'm going to wait a couple of years before I take up the issue of people knowingly hiring illegal aliens; I want to wait a couple years before I go ahead and try to identify who the illegal aliens are; I want to wait a couple of years before I start grappling with what to do with these 11 million or 12 million people who are here illegally?

I think, in many ways, the President has answered the fundamental concern of many House members in saying, we're going to go ahead, in taking affirmative measures, to shore up the borders. And so I think it's going to be interesting -- in other words, I'm not dodging the question, I'm quibbling with the premise, because, as you know, quite often at the beginning of these negotiations, people stake out hard positions, and then over time, as they hear from constituents, or they hear from people at the White House, or as they begin to reflect on things, sometimes those positions soften a bit.

I can tell you this: It's pretty clear that members of both houses understand that they pay a heavier political price for failing to act, than for acting. And so that's one thing that I've heard from Republicans in both houses. They want to get something done. So we'll figure out what comes out of conference, but don't forestall the possibility that House members may say to themselves, you know what, my constituents really are worried about people hiring illegals, illegally, and knowing it; they're worried about trying to identify who's here illegally, for security reasons; they want to go ahead and start grappling with these issues.

I would not rule out all of those things becoming attractive to people who, at first blush, before they heard the President's proposal, were a little bit skeptical.

Q Tony, can I follow up on that just a minute?

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q You and the administration have been cautious to not criticize House conservatives for their reluctance for the comprehensive aspects that the President wants. But in saying that it's pretty clear they'll pay a heavy price for inaction, are you not now, on the threshold of Senate passage, essentially warning House conservatives that if they do this they are going to pay?

MR. SNOW: No. I'm telling you what I've heard them say, which is that they feel they need to act. You know, people may have different definitions of what they call action, but they all agree they need to do something.

Q Can I ask one more on Enron? Does the administration favor compensating the victims now in some way?

MR. SNOW: I honestly don't know. I mean, I don't know.

Q Thanks very much.

MR. SNOW: Thank you.

END 12:58 P.M. EDT