For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
September 14, 2006
Press Briefing by Tony Snow
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
2:20 P.M. EDT
MR. SNOW: Hello, welcome. Let me begin with a personnel announcement. Tony Fratto, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Treasury, I am pleased to announce, will be coming over to the White House as Deputy Assistant to the President and Assistant Press Secretary, or Deputy Press Secretary, a week from Monday.
A quick readout on the President's meeting and working lunch with President Roh of South Korea. They had a good meeting, and they talked about a number of topics. As the President mentioned in comments to the pool, they talked about the visa waiver program. They also talked about cooperation on the global war on terror. Naturally, they talked about North Korea. The President reconfirmed his commitment to resolving issues diplomatically, and South Korea said it had taken some steps to make clear to North Korea that it was very serious about trying to ensure that there would be a non-nuclear peninsula.
They had a long conversation both in the session, and more so in the luncheon, about a free trade agreement. They both seek a successful free trade agreement, and this would be maybe the most ambitious of trade agreements that the United States has embarked upon since completing NAFTA and some of the associated negotiations there.
Also, with regard to transfer of operations of some of the military functions, they talked about it, but this is something that more properly would be handled and will be handled at the ministerial level. The Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld regularly meeting with his counterparts, and they're working through those issues.
A lot of interest today on what's going on in the Senate. And what's going on in the Senate is that people are looking at some very complex legal issues, trying to figure out how to make good and how to put into legislation the dictates of the Supreme Court's Hamdan decision, which among other things applies Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions to the global war on terror.
The fundamental issue right now, maybe the most important issue, is something the President talked about a week ago, which is a CIA program that involves the questioning of people who have been taken off the battlefield, getting information that can be used to save American lives. In the course of that program, questioners were able to foil eight plots that we've been able to discuss publicly: a West Coast airliner plot, the 1904 [sic] U.K. urban targets plot, a plot in Karachi in 2003, 2003 plot on Heathrow Airport in London, in 2002 a shipping plot involving the Arabian Gulf, another one in the Straits of Hormuz, the tall-buildings plot that the President described, as well as one in Camp Lemonier.
The President made it clear in remarks earlier today that the program must be permitted legally to go forward. It has been the determination of the Director of Central Intelligence that a draft that was prepared for the Senate Armed Services Committee would not permit the program to go forward.
There's a bit of a dispute, and I think I want to explain the administration's position on this so that you can get a sense of the kind of talks that are going on. We believe that it's important to outline very clearly our obligations under law, under the Constitution, and in international treaties. Some of the language in Common Article II -- Common Article III -- I'm sorry -- is vague. It is not unusual for the United States Congress in such circumstances to use legislation as a way of making clear our treaty obligations. We've done it with the Genocide Convention Implementation Act; we've done it with the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism Convention Implementation Act -- that was in 2002; the Extradition Treaty's Interpretation Act of 1998; and a number of others. So it's standard procedure when you have vague language to go ahead and try to clarify it.
In the case of Common Article III, of course, you have had some of -- the "prohibitions against cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment" -- that's important to figure out what that means. As you know, in --
Q It's vague to you?
MR. SNOW: Yes, it is.
Q Mean, cruel, inhuman, degrading?
MR. SNOW: Yes, because you have to specify exactly what you mean.
Q Keep smiling. (Laughter.)
MR. SNOW: Please permit me to continue.
It's also important -- one of the reasons why we think it is important is that people in the field who would be doing this kind of questioning need to know what the rules are. They need to know clearly what the rules are. There was some discussion that it might be sufficient to tell them, look, you may break the law, but we will not prosecute you; you will be held harmless under U.S. criminal and civil statutes. We think it's important that people know that they're obeying the law and they need to know what the law is. And as I pointed out, there is a tradition of trying to spell that out and make it very clear.
Furthermore, this is an effort not to change or amend Common Article III, but in fact, to give it substance and clarity. This is to make clear the obligations under Common Article III. Common Article III has traditionally -- was designed to deal with internal disputes, as I mentioned in the morning gaggle -- things like a civil war in Rwanda. The global war on terror has now been defined as an internal war for the United States by the United States Supreme Court, so we have to figure out what that means.
Furthermore, if you have people in the field trying to question terrorists, if you do not have clear legal definitions, they themselves will be subject to the whims and the differing interpretations given by foreign courts, foreign judges, and foreign tribunals. And we don't think that's appropriate. The President wants the program to continue, but in a way that is clear and legal, constitutional and comports with treaty obligations, as I said before.
There has been a little bit of confusion about what we're up to. There was a letter that came out yesterday from General JAG Vessey, who wrote: "I call your attention to recent reports that the Congress is considering legislation which might relax the United States' support for adherence to Common Article III of the Geneva Convention. If that is true, it would seem to weaken the effect of the McCain amendment on torture last year."
Then followed today, a letter from former Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell: "I've read the powerful and eloquent letter sent to you by one of my distinguished predecessors as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Jack Vessey. I fully endorse in tone and tint his powerful argument. The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article III would add to those doubts; furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk."
What's interesting is, in a way we agree with the two gentlemen. They don't understand what we're trying to do here. We're not trying to alter or amend Common Article III. Regrettably, we hadn't known, or we hadn't heard from either of them, we could have had some discussions with them to lay out what we're trying to do.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, within the last few minutes, has released a letter to Chairman John Warner, which was not written in response to anybody's letter. She had informed him yesterday that she intended to weigh in. As I said, we had no idea that Colin Powell was going to be writing.
And here is part of what she said -- and it restates a bit of what I've laid out already: "In a case where the treaty's terms are inherently vague, it is appropriate for a state to look to its own legal framework, precedence, concepts and norms in interpreting those terms and carrying out its international obligations. Such practice in the application of a treaty is an accepted reference point in international law." And she goes on and works through this.
So, the question arises, all right, you're trying to figure out, what is your term? How do you define these vague terms? And we settled on a simple answer -- the very terms that John McCain used last year in the Detainee Treatment Act, because we think they're appropriate. So we're using the standard laid out by Senator McCain and we are now applying it to Common Article III, the Geneva Conventions. The House of Representatives yesterday, by a significant vote in the Armed Services Committee, endorsed this point of view, with, I think, 19 Democrats voting in the affirmative.
In addition, let me just raise a couple of other questions -- a couple of other pieces of information, and then we'll go to questions. There are several objections. I've already mentioned the notion that we would alter or amend Common Article III. It's just not true. The second is that somehow we would place our troops at risk. And General -- is it General or Secretary? Which do we prefer, General or Secretary Powell? Secretary Powell? Secretary Powell.
Q He goes by General.
MR. SNOW: He goes by General? Okay, well -- (laughter.) I just -- you don't want to do that. In any event, he was concerned also that it would place troops in harm's way. Five judge advocates general from the Pentagon have signed a letter, released a letter. They sent it to Duncan Hunter, who is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and they also sent it to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And one of the things they said is, indeed, we think these provisions would be helpful to our fighting men and women at war on behalf of our country.
There's kind of an amusing rumor making the rounds that they were coerced into doing this. As Colonel Lindsey Graham, himself a JAG, will inform you, you don't coerce JAGs. As a matter of fact, in open testimony before the United States Senate about five weeks ago, the military JAGs, in fact, said that it was important to bring definition to Common Article III. Here you have General Black: "In its current formulation, it's entirely too vague, and it puts our service members at risk, our own service members at risk." The vagueness places them at risk. Why? Because, again, they could be prosecuted by foreign governments. If they're on foreign soil and they are judged to have violated Common Article III -- not by our standards, by somebody else's -- they're placed at risk. And the same thing is one of the risks that faces those who might be doing questioning.
General Reeves said the same thing. He says, we welcome congressional efforts to better define which "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, amount to serious breaches worthy of classification as felonies."
So there you have it. There are conversations going on right now. As I mentioned earlier, we have been talking consistently -- I'm sorry, one other point, and then I'll get to it. There's a notion also that somehow by going ahead and adding definition to Common Article III that we'll be contributing to a climate of hostility to the United States and global opinion. Secretary Rice strongly opposes that point of view. But think of it the other way. What we're really doing -- because most of our allies have never had to think about Common Article III, and they do not have standards to guide what it might mean -- we're setting an example. And it's an example that has already been examined very closely and hailed and supported by the American public, which, again, are the standards that were put together in the Detainee Treatment Act, with the support and guidance of Senator McCain not so long ago.
You've got -- again, these are complex deliberations. I warned earlier today -- and I warn again -- against looking at this as the shootout at the OK Corral. The conversations with Senator McCain continue, and they've been very cordial. I talked to Steve Hadley, who had informed him of the General Vessey letter last night. He said it was very respectful, and the two sides are continuing to work together. I think everybody wants to figure out, how do you apply Common Article III in a way that is consistent with our standards and traditions, and allows the program to go forward? And this is the CIA program -- and, again, it is the judgment of Mike Hayden, the Director of Central Intelligence, that at least under the formulation being adopted by the Senate, it can't happen because it does not specify what our obligations are. And we think we can get this worked out.
Q So do you think that Colin Powell, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is just confused about what you're trying to do?
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q And you think that he would write a letter like this without an understanding --
MR. SNOW: I don't know -- it's interesting -- we didn't hear from him, so I don't know.
Q So you think that John McCain and Senator Warner and Lindsey Graham are confused about what you're trying to do?
MR. SNOW: I think what's -- no, but there's a difference here, because what -- there's a difference and there's an opportunity. The assertion that we are trying to amend or change Common Article III is wrong. And I think it's worth saying to everybody, no, we're not trying to change anything; we're trying to figure out what it means. That's what the Supreme Court -- that is the burden the Supreme Court laid before the Congress of the United States and the White House. And you need to work collaboratively with it.
There has been no suggestion that we amend or alter Common Article III. In fact, we thought we found a pretty good standard, which was the Detainee Treatment Act standard that was adopted by Congress and people subjected it to rigorous review. So that's the important point. And I think -- let me put it this way -- we think that the approach we take not only addresses the concerns that are expressed by General Powell and General Vessey. And again, we had no conversations with them; we don't know what they had seen, and I'll let them speak for themselves on this.
But the whole purpose of this is to make sure that we place our troops out of harm's way, and also the people who are doing the interrogations, by making clear what the standards are. This is not an attempt to subject detainees to lawlessness. It's an attempt to try to codify in law exactly what the rules and boundaries are.
Q Well, how do you account for the fact that three Republican senators oppose you so vehemently on this?
MR. SNOW: It's a free country, you're allowed to oppose -- and what I'm suggesting is that there are still ongoing conversations and I wouldn't prejudge.
Q Let me follow up. This can be complicated, so let's get down to the facts here. The legislation that the President has proposed seeks to make Article III clear, less vague, by defining --
MR. SNOW: No, it seeks to --
Q Let me just finish my point. I'm laying this out and you tell me if it's not right. Limiting the U.S. interpretation of Article III to defining as a war crime "cruel and inhumane treatment," therefore, excluding the vague language you talked about -- "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment" as a violation of the War Crimes Act --
MR. SNOW: That also falls -- all of that falls within -- we want all of that to be defined within the parameters of Common Article III, and to do that, what you use is the language from the Detainee Treatment Act, which covers all of those phrases.
Q You want to exclude that portion --
MR. SNOW: No, we don't want to exclude anything. No.
Q You don't?
MR. SNOW: No.
Q So how is it captured then? It's just captured under the more --
MR. SNOW: It's captured by saying --
Q -- tighter definition of "cruel and inhumane"?
MR. SNOW: It says that these terms henceforth will be defined under the terms that were laid out -- let me put it this way: You define it by saying, the practices that were prohibited by the Detainee Treatment Act will henceforth be prohibited because they're interpreted as violating Common Article III. That will be the subset of activities Article III.
Q The critics of this, Republicans that you've talked about, think that you are seeking to alter Article III, because you are, in effect, lowering the standards of Article III by the elimination of this language.
MR. SNOW: No, it's a straw man. As a matter of fact, what we're trying to do is we're trying to reach out and work with them to come up with the issues.
There are two things going on, David. There is one proposal that says, here's what the law is, and if you break it you won't get punished by American authorities. What we're saying is, no, you can't do that. In a law, what you have to do is to say, these activities are illegal. That's what laws do. And so, what we thought -- and again, I don't think this should be terribly controversial -- is we went back, for the purposes of defining what falls within Common Article III and the kinds of things that will be prohibited, we went back to the Detainee Treatment Act and Senator McCain's own formulation from a year ago.
Q Right. But in your attempt to redefine it --
MR. SNOW: No, it's to define it.
Q Well, right, but that's your interpretation of it. But you're defining it in a way that does not address "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating --
MR. SNOW: Sure, it does.
Q -- and degrading treatment" because you find that to be vague?
MR. SNOW: No, all of it is vague, and therefore, what you do is you try to provide some clarity by saying, here are the subset of behaviors that we think fall under those terms.
I think we're talking past each other here --
Q No, I don't -- you're certainly talking past the people who oppose you. And so maybe you can help the country understand, because I can't imagine this is clear.
MR. SNOW: Okay, well, I don't even understand the question. What exactly is it --
Q You claim -- all right, I'll restate the question. You claim that you are not redefining --
MR. SNOW: Right. Look at this --
Q -- Article III. Everyone who opposes you on this, from Secretary Powell, to Senator Warner, to Senator Graham, to Senator McCain, says, in effect, you are trying to redefine it by excluding language you consider vague that they think is actually important.
MR. SNOW: No, no, no -- oh, thank you, thank you. No, no, that's -- okay, thank you. No, we're not excluding it. We're defining what that language means, so, heart be still. No, the fact is the language is vague, and so nobody knows exactly what would be prohibited or not prohibited under it.
And we're saying, no, here are the things that ought to be prohibited under it. And that's an important point, and I'm glad you asked, because I didn't quite understand. We're saying that the language is vague, and therefore you define it by putting together the proper framework for saying, I'm sorry, if you do this, you're guilty of cruel and inhumane treatment -- or cruel and degrading treatment. You are in violation of Common Article III if you do the following, and the following are the things that are specified in the Detainee Treatment Act.
Q You do not address -- you do not address the language that you think is vague, which is in Article III now, which has to do with outrages --
MR. SNOW: No, you do. No -- I don't know how I can make it clearer. What you do is you say --
Q I hope you can, Tony. You may think I just don't get it, but, I mean --
MR. SNOW: Well, I do. And here's the --
Q Well, let me suggest to you that if I don't get it, then I bet there's a lot of people who don't get it, as well.
MR. SNOW: Well, what's interesting is that's why we're having briefings on the Hill, and it may be that the two sides are talking past each other because, again, the way you have to define cruel and inhumane is specifying which acts qualify as cruel and inhumane, correct? Is that not how you would do it in law?
Q I'm not a lawyer.
MR. SNOW: Well, no, you've been making a legal argument. Isn't that the way you do it?
Q I'm not making any argument. I'm trying to get clarity.
MR. SNOW: The following -- okay, cruel and inhumane treatment and you would say, the following behavior is illegal. Would that not be a reasonable way to try to define it in clear terms that would be accessible to people doing it?
Q I'm asking you if you want to replace the --
MR. SNOW: Okay, well, that's what we're trying to do -- we're not trying to replace. The fact is these terms for the purposes of enactment and implementation, for the purposes of the people who are out in the field trying to do interrogation, it has absolutely no meat on the bones. There is no specification of which methods are legal and which are not, which approaches are, which are not, what activities would constitute cruel and inhumane or degrading treatment and which would not. What we're trying to say is, no, guys, we'll tell you what is, and we'll do it in the context of a law that you've already passed and is already operative.
Q Does that not invite other countries to do the same, to have other interpretations of Article III?
MR. SNOW: What it allows every country to do is to have an interpretation. Our European allies don't have an interpretation.
Q And your critics say that's bad for U.S. troops if you allow those kinds of interpretations.
MR. SNOW: No, I think just the opposite. As a matter of fact, the five guys who are Judge Advocates General right now say we need it. The people who interpret the law, the people who serve as the chief legal officers within the Pentagon themselves say we need it.
You can't tell somebody to enact a program if you don't tell them what they can and cannot do. And what we're trying to say is, thou shalt and thou shalt not. And it's really that simple. And again, that's why I think ultimately, David, I think we're going to get to a resolution on this because I think both sides want clarity. You cannot have a program -- this is what Director Hayden was saying the other day. If you can't tell people what the rules are, the program can't go forward. And both sides say they want the program to go forward, and I think both sides would agree they want to figure out what the ground rules are. And that is the approach we have taken, and that's what we hope to achieve.
Q Tony, I'm confused. Everybody I talked to today on the Hill says, look, you've had the Geneva Conventions in place since 1947. This isn't the Migratory Birds Treaty we're talking about. This is the Geneva Conventions.
MR. SNOW: Right.
Q And it's a very simple argument. We don't want to talk about the definition of amend or change, but that it stands on its own as written, hasn't been tinkered with since 1947, doesn't need to be tinkered with now. So if that seems to be the position from a former JAG and a former POW and a former Secretary of the Navy, where's the room to work anything out?
MR. SNOW: Well, I think there is. For instance, in 1987, we didn't know what the Genocide Convention said, so we passed a law to deal with it.
Q Not the Geneva Conventions.
MR. SNOW: It appears. Yes, the Geneva Convention.
Q But not Article -- it has nothing with this specific article --
MR. SNOW: Well, that's because Common Article III had never been construed as applying to any conflict in which the United States had ever been a party. And furthermore, it has not been construed as applying to conflicts for the most part that afflicted any of our allies, to which they've been a party. It is something that they had never had to think about, and for which there was not a substantial and settled body of law that would define what the terms mean. And this is a key point. Nobody has defined in law what the terms mean. And we think it's important not only that we define what the terms mean, but that our -- the people who are working for us, either as soldiers in the field, or those who are doing the questioning for the CIA, they have to know that it passes constitutional muster, and it is defined and approved as abiding by our international treaty obligations.
The reason nobody talked about this from 1948 is, it hadn't come up. And there are times -- you'll be surprised to know --
Q There's been a lot of wars.
MR. SNOW: But, you know what, Helen, it didn't apply to most of those wars. It didn't apply to most of those wars which is why people have not asked the questions.
Q This seems -- hang on a second -- this seems to be --
MR. SNOW: Well, and let me just make the point here, the predicate of your question was, it had been sitting around and everybody knew what the meaning was, and the fact is, nobody knew what the meaning was.
Q That's not my reading of it. That's what's coming off of the Hill, so if this sounds eminently reasonable, what you're explaining --
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q And so you have these guys with a little bit of experience and certainly their own perspectives that have been developed by very direct experience with this stuff, they're saying, you know what, not so reasonable; we don't need to do this.
MR. SNOW: Well, again, I think it will be interesting to see how this plays out. I think people are still talking about it. You had 58 members of the House Armed Services Committee vote for this. You're talking about three people. And guess what, Senator McCain is still talking and working with us. I believe that it is his intention to come up with a way of clarifying what happens under Article III -- Common Article III of the Geneva Convention.
The Supreme Court decision itself says that you need to define what it means, thereby continuing what I said, which is people did not know what it means. So we have an obligation to figure out what the terms are. I think everybody has the same goal, which is: We want to keep intact a program that foiled numerous plots that saved American lives; we want to figure out a way that comports with the Supreme Court's decision and also with our law and our treaty obligations. And you're absolutely right. It's complex, and therefore, there have been times, I think, when people have been talking past one another.
Let me reiterate, Senator McCain, in his conversations with us, has been very supportive. Today, Senator Specter came out and supported our interpretation of the need to clarify the terms of Common Article III. I think what we need to do is rather than saying, he says this and he says this, is to realize that it's a complex situation, and that everybody wants to get to the same endpoint.
And what I'm trying to lay out to you is our position. And if it sounds reasonable, it's because it is.
Q Tony, two questions. One is, is the administration surprised by this push-back from Senator McCain when you're trying to use his language in the amendment that defined the convention on torture? Are you surprised by that?
MR. SNOW: Again, I know I keep saying it and disappointing everybody, but we don't anguish and we don't surprise. It is a fact. And so what we -- what we continue to do is to work with Senator McCain to figure out the best way to resolve it.
Q All right, the second question is, you kind of laughed off this rumor you said on Capitol Hill that the JAG had been coerced to write this letter.
MR. SNOW: JAGs, yes.
Q The officers, the JAG officers.
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q Senator Graham is telling reporters on Capitol Hill that the White House had them in a meeting for five hours last night and tried to force them to sign a prepared statement. And he said, reading this JAG letter they ended up writing leaves total ambiguity on interpretation. This is Senator Lindsey Graham. What's your response to that?
MR. SNOW: It sounds like he's talking there's a detainee crisis.
Q Wait a minute, I think he deserves an answer, a real answer.
MR. SNOW: Well, here's the answer -- here's the answer, the real answer is, go back and read the testimony from August.
Q Was there a meeting?
MR. SNOW: I don't know if there -- there was not a White House meeting -- I don't think so. I don't think there was a White House meeting. I do know that they were asked to express in a letter the opinions that they had -- that they had expressed in open committee, in testimony before the United States Senate -- I believe it was the Judiciary Committee, maybe Armed Services -- in August. I don't know who asked.
Ask who -- the thing is if you start going into who asked whom to write letters, I don't know. We can ask each side. Here's the important thing --
Q You say it wasn't a White House meeting. Were there White House people there? Who called it together?
MR. SNOW: I don't think so -- I honestly -- Martha, I'll find out.
Q You've got to get us some clarity on that meeting.
Q It's been reported that Jim Haynes, who is the counsel at the Pentagon, convened this meeting and got these guys to write this letter. And it's something that they told people they didn't agree with.
MR. SNOW: Well, I don't think so because these -- if it's possible --
Q You don't think so, or you know that's not the case.
MR. SNOW: It's not the case. They were asked to write a letter that reflected their views, and they edited and signed the letter. Furthermore --
Q Who asked them?
MR. SNOW: I honestly don't know. I honestly don't know.
Q You only know what didn't happen.
MR. SNOW: I don't know who asked Colin Powell to write letters. I don't know who asked others to write letters.
Q But you say you don't know, what didn't happen --
MR. SNOW: Please, please let me finish, and then you can -- then you can pick away at the process. These are the same guys who opposed us on other matters of the legislation here. It's not as if these guys are a bunch of toadies who sit around and say, what does the White House want us to do. These are JAGs who have important obligations that they take seriously. I think maybe the best thing to do is go swarm them and ask them. They're generals -- there is one colonel on the letter. They're able to speak for themselves.
Q Just quickly, on these eight plots, you're saying that they would not have been broken up if not for this program?
MR. SNOW: The information -- apparently -- look, I'm repeating to you what the President said, which is as a result of information gleaned in the program. And there are insights, operational, personal and otherwise that would be -- that would have been obtainable nowhere else. Now, in some cases, there was some corroborating evidence, but I think the characterization that was given a week ago is, these plots were broken up thanks to information that was gained through this program and could have been gained through no other source.
Q But, yes, Colin Powell, what about his larger point, that the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis for the war on terror?
MR. SNOW: I don't think so. Look at what happened on September 11th. You had Jacques Chirac sending regards this week. We've had a number of other people. I think everybody understands that the moral basis of the war on terror is that there are people who are determined not to abide by any of the standards of civilization. And they want to slaughter us, and they want to scare us, and they want to change the way the world works.
Q But this is the assertion of a former Secretary of State who was with the administration --
MR. SNOW: I understand that.
Q -- at the outset of the war on terror. He is now, obviously, not part of the administration and it's X number of years later, and he is looking at the world and saying, they're having doubts.
MR. SNOW: Go ask him. I don't want to read his mind. It's worth having -- you can ask Colin Powell precisely what he meant.
Q Outside Colin Powell's mind, is that not an issue for this administration? Is that not something you should be thinking about?
MR. SNOW: Well, why do you think -- why on earth, Martha, do you think we're not taking such pains to try to be absolutely transparent and lay out for the entire world not only standards by which we conduct these things, but say to the rest of the world you've got to be precise --
Q But you said, "I don't think so," about moral basis, you didn't think so because Jacques Chirac --
MR. SNOW: He said, "moral basis of the war on terror." The moral basis of the war on terror is -- I don't think you're going to try to claim moral equivalence between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden. I don't think you want to go there. And that is --
Q I don't think I'd be going there.
MR. SNOW: Okay, well, then you've made my point, which is that there are competing ideologies in this world. And the moral basis of the war on terror is to fight back against the ideology that impelled people to slaughter our fellow citizens on September 11th and furthermore has led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents around the world since.
Q But it's how you carry out the fight. I mean, we're not -- you didn't make my point -- I mean, I didn't make your point.
MR. SNOW: Well, no, but you were talking about two different questions. You were talking about the moral basis for the war, and you were talking about the tactical operations that are involved in it. Those are separate issues, and I'm trying to be clear.
Q But isn't that what Colin Powell is talking about, in a sense --
MR. SNOW: I don't know.
Q -- about how you carry out interrogations? That's part of it.
MR. SNOW: But it's -- I'm not sure that Colin Powell knows what happened with interrogations. Again, I think it's unfair to try to make me try to do a mind-meld. What I was trying to do and I know that Knoller is now going to correct me on the proper use of mind-meld, but that for another time. I think it's important to say that the key issue that he mentions in there, which is the fear that somebody is trying amend or change Common Article III, is one that we address. We agree with them. You need to have clarity on this.
And so I actually think there's a basis for going forward on this, and it's on that specific issue -- providing clarity about what Common Article III means, which was the chief instruction by the Supreme Court of the United States to the President and Congress.
Q Does the President think water-boarding and all of the other things that we saw at Abu Ghraib were cruel and inhumane --
MR. SNOW: You didn't see water-boarding at Abu Ghraib. What you saw were violations that were immediately prosecuted and vigorously. What the President believes is you need to find ways to question people legally and save lives, and that remains his absolute determination.
Q But has he ruled out those measures?
MR. SNOW: I am not going to go into what's ruled in or ruled out for the same reasons that we've discussed many times here. People who are committing acts of terror pay very close attention to what we say. And if we start specifying means and methods by which people get information, they will adjust.
Now, let me also add that in a democracy you do provide safeguards, and in this particular case, there were safeguards in effect. Members of Congress are regularly briefed on what happens, the means and methods, and they know what's going on. And I guarantee you if people think that there is stuff that is so horrific that it would violate standards, they will let you know. Torture is illegal. The meaning of torture is fixed in international law and convention. Murder is illegal. That is fixed by our law. The meaning of rape is very clear. The meaning of a lot of these things is very clear. What is unclear is a couple of phrases that we are trying to provide clarity, again, by using the standards that Senator McCain proposed last year --
Q But don't you think most of the public thinks these are abusive treatments --
MR. SNOW: You know what I --
Q -- of any human being?
MR. SNOW: I think what the public wants is safety. They want to beat the terrorists, and they want to keep our principles intact and that's what we're trying to do
Q You think they want abusive treatment?
MR. SNOW: No, they don't want abusive treatment. That's why we're trying to define it.
Q Tony, you say that you're following the Geneva Conventions, but it seems, reading the Geneva Conventions, there are solutions to this problem. Why not go back to some of the resolutions that talk about the interpretation, various questions of the interpretation? "Resolution one: The conference recommends that in the case of a dispute relating to the interpretation or application of the present conventions, which cannot be settled by other means, the parties concerned endeavor to agree between themselves to refer such dispute to the International Court of Justice. Resolution two: Whereas circumstances may arise in the event of an outbreak of a future international conflict in which there would be no protecting power, who approves cooperation, and under true scrutiny, the conventions -- the protection of victims of war can be applied."
MR. SNOW: Well read.
Q Thank you.
MR. SNOW: Again, the International Court of Justice, as you know, was a topic of controversy earlier in this administration. It is our view that U.S. law -- that we use U.S. law as the benchmark for determining our treaty obligations where it is unclear; and furthermore, that has been the practice of this country through many administrations and will continue to be.
Q Wait a minute -- no, no, no, I want to follow up.
MR. SNOW: All right, please.
Q Why use U.S. law when this is an international convention, international document --
MR. SNOW: Because -- precisely because you do -- I think if you put before the American public: do you want international tribunals that do not acknowledge U.S. law and are not answerable to U.S. citizens to define what may happen to U.S. citizens, I think they would find that unreasonable and unjust. What we do try to do is take a look in observing our treaty obligations where there is settled law, and in this particular case there is no settled law. And I would refer you, for the more nuanced portions of your questions, to the lawyers who can go through chapter and verse.
Q But I find it kind of odd that you keep talking about you're following international law, but you want to interject where it comes -- where it suits you to follow your own law?
MR. SNOW: No, no. There is no clarity on these phrases. We're not interjecting --
Q But you have the people to go through --
MR. SNOW: Will you please -- so what you're saying is, at a time like this -- will you please show me the statute that lays out precisely what these terms mean? I'd be interested in seeing it?
Q Tony, can you give us a sense of what the President is doing to help bring these Republican senators around? Or is he leaving the lobbying right now to Hayden and Hadley?
MR. SNOW: What's going on right now -- and I think the conversation here, which I'm sure is bewildering to many people watching it right now, gives you a sense of how difficult it is to sort through it, but I think it comes down to a simple issue, which is, do you spell it out, or not? And I think a lot of members are trying to do their best.
I think members of both parties want to figure out -- and we saw this in the House yesterday -- again, big bipartisan support for a measure that tries to lay out what the rules are. And the President is not going to be picking up the phone and saying, well, what do you think of this, that or the other.
I think we're in phase right now of deliberation where members of the Senate -- today they're going through a markup, and I suspect tomorrow they'll go through a markup, and they're going to talk about this stuff. And that's what they should do, for reasons that I cited earlier in answering Jim. Common Article III has never been a subject of intense scrutiny on the part of the United States because it was never deemed to apply to any conflict to which we were a party. And therefore, everybody has to go sorting through that --
Q Does that include Somalia?
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q So U.S. soldiers didn't get protection under Common Article III?
MR. SNOW: Common Article III did not apply because it was not seen as an internal conflict, a U.S. internal conflict.
Q So is it too early for him to be working the phones right now? Are you saving that for later?
MR. SNOW: I don't think it's too early. I think what you want to do is to let people debate it and talk it through. That's what they're doing. He's obviously keeping apprised, and what we do have -- Steve Hadley and Candi Wolff and a number of others are in very regular contact with people on the Hill, trying to get it set right --
Q But it seems to be more than Steve Hadley and Candi Wolff. You've had the Vice President, Josh Bolten, General Hayden. Yesterday you put out Director Negroponte; now Secretary Rice --
MR. SNOW: Right, it is a serious and sustained and exhaustive effort -- you're right. I forgot some of the names.
Q And can you describe that serious and sustained and exhaustive effort any further for us?
MR. SNOW: No, I think what we're doing is we're talking to people -- and we're trying to answer questions, just as I'm doing here. I mean, there are a lot of tough questions to answer, and they're trying to do it. They're trying to be -- this is not -- and again, let me reiterate, this is not something where people are going into rooms and screaming at each other. I have been in many meetings over the last few weeks where very long discussions, trying to go through fine points of the law, and that's kind of what's going on here. People are trying to spread it all out and figure out what Common Article -- how you address the problem of the vagueness in Common Article III, what's the appropriate way to do that. What is the appropriate way to say to the world, here is the law, our people are going to obey the law, our Constitution approves of the law and it is consistent and provides implementation for Common Article III in this dispute.
Q And who's directing this serious and sustained --
MR. SNOW: The President is at the top, and people work for him.
Q And how closely is he being kept apprised of his top aides' and officials' contacts --
MR. SNOW: Quite regularly. I don't have a phone count, but this is something we talk about all the time.
Q When will he pick up the phone?
MR. SNOW: I don't know.
Q What are other countries to make of the U.S., as you put it, adding definition to the Geneva Convention? Is the U.S., in effect, saying, all the rest of you do this, too -- adversaries and friends, alike?
MR. SNOW: Look, I think this is something that we'd be -- we would not be frightened if adversaries did this. We would not be at all frightened if they did this. I think there's a perception going around that this is going to condone and counsel all sorts of horrible treatment. It's not. And therefore, if we allow -- if we set a standard to treaty obligations that in the past have been vague -- and again, we did it with genocide; we did it with other things. This is not unusual. And I think what we're doing is setting a standard for clarity and transparency, because we do want people to know what the rules are, and the people we especially want to know what the rules are are our people going out in the field who are going to be charged with trying to bring back information and save American lives. We want it to be legal. We want it to be constitutional. We want it to be consistent with Common Article III.
Q So it would be okay if, say, what the President has described as the axis of evil, for Iran, North Korea or Syria or any of those countries to do this --
MR. SNOW: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. The bad news is, quite often the people we're fighting don't give a damn about this. They'd much rather slit a throat on video.
Q Can you say what's going to go on the rest of today, and I assume tomorrow, in terms of the contacts with members --
MR. SNOW: Have you ever been in one of these negotiations? You don't know what's going to happen five minutes from now. The fact is, constantly -- you try to answer questions, you try to maintain contact, and also you want to try to maintain the right tone and spirit, because this has to be a collaborative effort, and it has to be an effort where everybody, again, works together so that the program goes forward.
The President -- and I'll stress it again -- the President will not accept something that prevents the program from going forward. And furthermore, I believe that the chief people on both sides of this argument believe the same thing. They want the same goal; they've got to figure out how to achieve it.
Q Do you think this is going to get resolved this week, or is it going to spill over into next week?
MR. SNOW: Well, we've got a markup in the next week. So I imagine that there's still going to be debate in the Senate through tomorrow or over the weekend and into next week. But I don't know. I mean, John, again, as often happens in situations like this, when people say, oh, nothing is going to happen, some resolution will pop out, I just -- I can't predict.
Q Can I follow up on this question here? Does the President share any of this sort of general concern you hear from folks like Powell and such that this does subject U.S. troops in the custody of other nations to harsher treatment --
MR. SNOW: Actually, no --
Q He doesn't share that concern at all?
MR. SNOW: No, he doesn't, because, again, the point here is that under -- the problem we have right now is that there are no standards and anybody can do whatever they want; in some cases, maybe they are. If you lay out what's going on, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, then everybody is off the same playbook. So, no, this is -- and somehow I think there's this construct in people's minds that we want to restore the rack and start getting people screaming, having their bones crunching, and that's not at all what this is about. Torture is prohibited, murder is prohibited, rape is prohibited, cruel and degrading treatment is prohibited; all those things are prohibited, and what we're trying to do is to make clear what the prohibited list is. That's a good thing, not a bad thing.
Q I think it would be fair, then, for some people in the world to look at this process as a questioning of defining how close you can go to Common Article III before you reach cruel and inhuman, until you put that stuff into play in an interrogation?
MR. SNOW: Explain to me how that would work. Explain to me how they would draw that conclusion, because I don't get it.
Q You don't understand how someone could draw that conclusion?
MR. SNOW: No, I don't.
Q By trying to create a definition of an article --
MR. SNOW: So what you would rather have is a law with no definitions so that people would go into the field not knowing whether they're obeying or not obeying the law? I mean, that's the whole point here. You've got to know what the law says; nobody knows.
Q That's what you guys say is the point here. I'm saying people around the world could view this process very differently, and, frankly, through a much more sinister lens, that you're actually --
MR. SNOW: Well, no, I think what you're trying to do is to import a sinister -- I don't think -- there's nothing sinister about trying to say what the law is. Do you disagree?
Q It's not for me to agree or disagree --
MR. SNOW: Well, wait a minute, of course you are, and what you're doing is that you're putting a highly cynical interpretation on what should be an open and transparent attempt to try to figure out what the rules are.
Q There are people -- I think it's fair to say there are people around the world who have questioned this administration's commitment to the Geneva Conventions, starting with GITMO, some of the questions on POWs versus --
MR. SNOW: Would these people have visited GITMO? Would these people have firsthand experience with GITMO?
Q A lot of people have been through GITMO at this point, and seen it, and come away --
MR. SNOW: And you know what, it's -- a number of you have been down there. I mean, it was described by a recent delegation as a model prison. I don't think -- what you're getting at is vague smears about the United States, which quite often are reiterated by cynical interpretations of what we're trying to do, which is to be absolutely straight and up front about making sure the rules are clear. What's interesting is, a lot of people say, you guys are lawless, you want to do whatever you want. No, this is a way of saying, we don't want to be lawless. We want to tell people exactly what they can do, because if you have vagueness about it, you do not have the proper conditions for the discipline you need and the protections of people who are going to be questioned, and furthermore, you run the risk that your own people are going to be put in harm's way. They put their lives on the line, they risk everything, they think they're obeying the law, and next thing they know, they're being indicted by somebody. You can't have that situation, and that's what we're really trying to address. Far from being cynical, it's an attempt to really -- to implement the ideal of being open and honest with everybody.
Q Tony, on the JAG's letter?
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q You've cited it frequently, in the briefing here, the President cited it, as well, as if it was an important legal opinion. In reading it, however, it's simply two paragraphs -- they say we would like to clarify our views, we do not object to section six, we do not object to section seven --
MR. SNOW: Right.
Q It doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement from five men who wholeheartedly support the entire proposal.
MR. SNOW: These are not political activists. They're military attorneys; they play it straight. Colin Powell's letter is three paragraphs long. I mean, what you have here is an attempt to be pithy and factual. As you know, anybody in the military takes great pains not to get themselves caught in the swamp of partisanship -- that is not their job, and, as a matter of fact, it is something that they're proscribed from doing.
So I think it reflects their desire to maintain the appropriate level of professionalism, and to say we want clarity -- which is a pretty important statement.
Q And you insist that they were not influenced, coerced, persuaded, pushed, raked over the coals by anyone, including William Haynes?
MR. SNOW: Absolutely. They're not victims of a detainee program.
Q Tony, I have a two part --
MR. SNOW: You know what, Les, let me say this. I want to stick with this stuff right now.
Q Okay, but will you come back?
MR. SNOW: I can't wait.
Q Thank you very much.
Q It seems like what this debate is all about at, sort of, the end of the day, is how to conduct the war on terror, correct?
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q Okay. So the President is having this debate not with a bunch of Democrats on the other side; he's having this debate with some Republicans on the other side -- there would be no attempt to question their commitment to the war on terror. Senators Warner and McCain and Graham are just as committed to winning the war on terror as anybody else.
Is the President concerned that should you give ground on this, or what the American public is hearing is not a debate between Republicans and Democrats, where it's easy to box the other side in as being weak on terror, but that perhaps the examination of the administration's policies for fighting the war on terror are going to be looked at through a different prism, and that perhaps you end up sort of losing a lot more ground by getting involved in this fight.
MR. SNOW: I hate to tell you, but once again you're trying to apply a political construct to the practical matter of trying to fight a --
Q Which couldn't possibly be here?
MR. SNOW: Look, I've got to tell you -- again, the President is not going to sit around and look at polls and say, you know, I need to change, because if I do that I'm going to go up two-tenths here. He doesn't think of it that way. His determination --
Q Doesn't this potentially carry a little bit more potential for damage --
MR. SNOW: You know what you do as a leader? You lead. You do what you think is necessary to protect the public. That's what the President is doing. And, frankly, the Republican versus Republican and Democrat versus Democrat, you know, again, what you had is big bipartisanship in the House Armed Services Committee. You're talking about Senators Graham, Warner and McCain, and, yet, we're talking with them -- we're talking with them, we're working with them, Jim. It is not unusual for people to work hard through these things. And I don't think either side wants to be pressed into a corner. This is not the shoot-out at the OK Corral. This is not a crisis. This is, in fact, the very important business of trying to figure out how to proceed, how to write laws. See, that's what this is all about. This is not about, you know -- you talked about how to conduct the war on terror. It's how to write the laws that are appropriate.
Q Isn't this the first great philosophical divide within the party of how to fight the war on terror since the ports deal?
MR. SNOW: I don't know. I don't know. The fact is, it's a legal dispute and it needs to be worked out. Again, let me take you back to the basics. And, by the way, there are two sets of this, of course. We're talking mostly about the CIA program; there are also -- some of the questions about how you do questioning of detainees, and we're doing comprehensive talks on all these things. And it would be surprising if people didn't disagree. Democrats for the most part just sitting back, watching. We hope that they'll join in. And I suspect you will find some Democrats agree with this administration and the United States Senate on it.
This is what happens in democracies. People give it their best shot, they argue, they think it through. We don't expect people to march in lockstep. We expect them to study carefully, to take a look at the arguments, and work with us to come up with the right conclusion.
Q Tony, you mentioned that you were not informed by Colin Powell in advance of his letter, and that he was confused. Has anybody reached out to him from this administration since the letter to unconfuse him?
MR. SNOW: I don't know. I think -- yes, I probably shouldn't have said confused.
Q You did.
MR. SNOW: Might get another call with him. What I think is that there's a misunderstanding about what the crux of it is, and therefore, I think it would be perfectly good to talk through and explain that we are not, in fact, trying to weaken or amend or change Common Article III. And furthermore, we're doing some of the things that, in 2002 -- yes, he was Secretary of State then -- we were clarifying some of our Geneva Convention obligations by writing a law to try to figure out how to do it. So I don't know what he's seen or not seen, and I know that Colin Powell wants to beat the terrorists, too. Everybody in this debate -- let me just reiterate: The goal is, keep the program intact, figure out how to draft the laws, and move forward in fighting the war on terror. Let there be no further legal confusion. Let's make it clear what the rules are so we can proceed.
Q Well, I'm sure he's possibly watching this at home on television, wrapped -- is anybody --
MR. SNOW: He's waiting for your story tomorrow.
Q No doubt. Is anybody calling from the administration to give him a briefing, to tell him why he's wrong, so he can't put out a letter saying, gosh, I was wrong, I misunderstood?
MR. SNOW: I don't know, I don't know. Maybe we ought to just set up a phone tree.
Q Thank you.
MR. SNOW: Okay, thanks.
Okay, what are your questions, Les? Andre? On Putin.
Q One thing on Putin. He said the U.S. government prevented Russia from hiring lobbyists in Washington.
MR. SNOW: They may hire whatever lobbyist they want; they need to register. That's the answer, that's the law.
Q And the lobbyists need not worry about doing business with Russians?
MR. SNOW: No. Are you kidding? It's legal to lobby in this country. All you need to do is register and pay your -- and after that -- but, no, there is no blanket rule against it.
Q Do you even know if it happened?
MR. SNOW: No, I don't.
END 3:10 P.M. EDT