For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
November 6, 2007
Press Briefing by Dana Perino and Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:05 P.M. EST
MS. PERINO: Good afternoon. I have one statement and then I'll introduce our guest briefer.
The President appreciates the votes of senators on the Judiciary Committee to forward the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey to the full Senate. Judge Mukasey has clearly demonstrated that he will be an exceptional Attorney General at this critical time. The Justice Department is crucial to both our law enforcement and national security missions. He is a -- he would be a critical member of the national security team that the President oversees. And we look forward to his vote in the full Senate. He should be confirmed promptly and then we can move one to filling the additional openings that we have in the Senate -- positions that are pending in front of the Congress.
Today I have a special guest -- a guest briefer, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt. As you just saw, the President and Secretary Leavitt made comments just a moment ago on the Import Safety Working Group, and he'll be here to take some of your questions and then I'll come back up and finish it off.
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Thank you, Dana. I would like to just talk some about the nature of this issue and where we -- how we have arrived at this juncture and where we go from here.
First, it's the nature of issues like import safety to ripen and mature over time. There's a symbolic flashpoint and then there's a policy response that's required. This is not unique to the United States. Last week I met with the ministers of health from seven G7 [countries] plus the European Union and Mexico -- this was the health ministers. Every one of these countries is dealing with precisely this issue. This is not unique to the United States.
What I think one draws from that is that what we are seeing is an issue resulting from a fundamental change that's happened in the world over a period of some years -- and there's Tom Friedman, who wrote the book, "The World is Flat" -- what we're seeing here is the natural maturity of a global economy and changes that have to occur as a result of that.
Wisely, I believe the President acted and put forward this working group. There were 12 Cabinet Secretaries and others who were put to this task. I think it's safe to say that this is the deepest and most robust examination of the total picture on imports that has ever been done. We deployed teams into all 12 departments. They went deep. They asked questions like, "What are the current authorities that we have?" Asked questions like: "Do we need more authority?" "What are the changes that need to happen if we're to be able to respond in a global economy?" "What are the limitations we have?" "Do we have enough resources?" Et cetera.
We fanned out across the country. I, personally, went to ports and border crossings and freight hubs and post offices and I saw drugs and vegetables and fish being processed. I went to retailers and wholesalers and fruit stands. I've inspected personally everything from imported tire irons to gingerbread houses. And I think the thing that impresses you most when you see this is how much it takes to fill up and empty out the American pantry every day.
There are 300 ports of entry in this country, receiving goods from 825,000 importers. The imports this year will be over $2 trillion. To give you a sense of perspective, that's twice of the economy of Brazil. And we're likely to see it grow even further because as the world continues to flatten and as the global economy begins to -- continues to expand, we expect we'll see as much as three times the amount of import activity in this country as we do now by 2015. So this wasn't about just looking at today; it was about looking forward. As they say in the hockey world, it's skating to where the puck will be as opposed to where it is today.
Now, we have broken our work into three parts. Sixty days ago we brought back to the President a strategic framework. Then today what we delivered to him was a -- essentially a implementation plan. And in a few months from now we'll come back with some ideas on how best to knit all this together and make sure that it happens.
When we put the strategic framework forward, we suggested a basic change; fundamental change in policy needs to occur. And the change is going from an intervention strategy, where we stand at the border and try to catch things that are unsafe, to a strategy of preventing with verification. That is to say, we roll the borders back and make certain that quality is being built in at the manufacturing point.
Now, I'll illustrate that simply by telling you about a experience at a lettuce manufacturing facility I visited. The processing plant manager said, "Our motto is: Know your grower. What I mean by that," he said, "is I want to know where that lettuce was grown, I want to know the kind of water that was put on it. I want to know the nutrients that it was fed. I want to know who harvested it. I want to know the day they picked it. I want to know what happened to it after. And I want to have a certainty of what occurred, so that when it reaches my shelves, there's quality built into it."
The same thing can be said of any kind of manufacturing good. And our strategy, the basic strategic change here is going from just intervening at the border to building it in.
Now, you can read the report; I won't go into a lot of details. There are 50 specific suggestions and recommendations in 14 categories. So you'll find it quite specific. It includes stronger certification; in other words, the capacity for us to require, in certain situations, that manufactures certify or have certified the safety of their product before it comes to the United States.
I just want to emphasize we are saying to the world, if you want to have access to American consumers, you need to meet the expectations of safety and quality that the United States has -- not your consumers, our consumers -- if you want access to our markets. It provides suggestions on and recommendations to actually provide incentives for people to become certified, to help us shrink the number of things we need to look at. In other words, we want to help people who are providing best practices, make it easy for them and make it hard for people who aren't.
An FDA inspector said to me, our job is to find the needle in the haystack, and our first job is to shrink the haystack. If we can minimize the number of things that we have to look at because they're unsafe, then it allows us to take our resources and focus it. You'll see increased penalties; you'll see enhanced standards; you'll see an increased presence overseas in this report; you'll see greater transparency. Consumers deserve to know who it is that imports safe products. They deserve to know who it is that is going through the best practices to assure safety. And the market will punish anyone who does not provide safe and quality products. We just need to assure that they have that information.
Q How will this -- how will these recommendations affect imports from China and U.S. trade with China?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: First, could I emphasize that this is not about China; it is not about trade. This is about assuring that we have safe products.
Now, China is obviously a major partner of ours, and I will say we are currently involved in very important negotiations with them on binding agreements on food safety, feed safety, medical devices and drugs.
But it's a very good example of the relationship I described, where we're suggesting to them, we want you to have access to our markets, but in order to do that, you need to meet standards of safety that meet our expectations. So we'll help you know what our standards are, and we'll work with you to assure that you have a process in place that can help meet that standard and we work cooperatively.
What we're going to find in the future, in a global market, is that safety is a team sport, and that it requires a culture of collaboration, not just within the borders of a country, but within the economic community.
Q Does that not perhaps run counter to the markets -- sorry, the markets, they're not bearing some of the blame of the situation we're in now, and shortcuts taken to meet the markets?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: On a subject of this type, there are obviously different philosophies. You will find, I believe, philosophies that would suggest government needs to have a strong, interventionist role. We'll find those that say government ought to let the markets play out and let the market be the force that manages this.
This report hopes to find that balance. It recognizes that there is a clear need for government to play a role that a government only can play. For example, this report proposed mandatory recall authority for the FDA on food. It has not had that authority in the past, but that is a role that government alone can and should play. Now the market works almost all of the time, but when it doesn't, government should have that authority.
Q Why did you say China has no part in (inaudible) -- that moved you people to action? And also why do you tie in frozen foods with maturity?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: First, on China. China is obviously a very important part of any import discussion, because they are such a large factor. I meant to imply that China was not the target of this, or was not individually --
Q No, but it was the emphasis.
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Well, certainly the incidents that occurred with the animal feed and the toothpaste and other -- lead paint -- have clearly been high profile. But we want the same message to be communicated to any of our partners who are currently engaged in import to the United States. And we want our markets to be open. We'd like to have access to theirs, by the way -- but doing so would, in fact, require that we have this kind of understanding.
Q In terms of cargo inspection, obviously products are very important. But did you also take a look at security as you might inspect cargo?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: You know, this is a very interesting part of this problem; we spent a lot of time on this. What we've come to understand is at our borders, the border -- our focus has been on terrorists, keeping borders safe from terrorists. But many of the same, in fact, all of the same assets that help us keep our borders safe from terrorism have to be used in making certain that our borders are safe from products that are unsafe either by design or by accident.
So we have to have what the report calls a common vision. We have to have collaboration between those who are engaged in looking for terrorists and those who are looking for unsafe products. And that's part of the cultural and transition we need to make to a global economy, is this common vision. And it will require some time and a reorientation of the way we think. It's part of this strategic change, the basic change that we're talking about.
Q Just to clarify, the mandatory recall authority for the FDA, that's only limited to food products; is that correct?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Yes. Food -- the Consumer Product Safety Council already has mandatory recall authority. This is for food. We have not had that in the past. And may I just suggest that -- it reminds me of something important I want to make clear to you. In addition to this import safety report, we are simultaneously releasing a new food safety initiative that includes not just imported food, but domestically produced food, so that we're meeting the same quality standards here as in other countries.
Q Secretary Leavitt, one other question, sir. The certification list, how will the consumers access that? And what will this certification assure them?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Well, the report calls for us to make the list available to them -- it doesn't go into the details yet of exactly how that will occur. The strategic recommendation is, look, consumers deserve to know; and if they do know they'll make discerning discussions about whether or not they buy.
Now, retailers are very aware of this. One of the visits I made was to a large, well-known retailer who said to me: If I put a product on my shelf, it's my brand -- not who produced it, it's my brand, and I have to be certain that it is unsafe [sic]. I went to a retail --
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Thank you. That it's safe -- that it's not unsafe.
I went to a fruit stand -- literally, a wholesale fruit provider, two people selling apples next to each other. I said to one, why do the people buy from you as opposed to your next door neighbor? He said: It's because they trust me, and if I have a bad apple one day, they will go to my competitor tomorrow. So that's part of what's at play here. But nevertheless, we have to have the capacity for recall and other situations where people are not cooperating.
Q Mr. Secretary, one of the recommendations the President mentioned was increasing penalties for companies that do not comply with the right safety standards. But the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission just last week said she had concerns about increased penalties because it could actually flood her with sort of frivolous complaints. So how do you deal with that? And doesn't that sound like a mixed message there?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: You know, I can't reconcile that. I don't know the answer to what she was saying. What I can tell you is that currently the cap on penalties is $1.8 million. We're recommending it go to $10 million. We think that the capacity to levy fines is very important in any enforcement effort. We're also recommending that we change the way we deal with administrative fines. A lot of times government agencies levy the fines and never collect them. We think if a fine is levied, it ought to be collected. And this is part of a balanced approach.
Q I want to ask you about food safety in particular. Your predecessor, Tommy Thompson, used to worry openly about the safety of the food supply, and especially that it could be used to launch a terrorist attack. Now you have gone out and inspected lettuce manufacturers, et cetera. What does your report conclude and what can you tell Americans about the safety of the food supply right now, as it is?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: I can with complete confidence say that we have among the safest food supplies on the planet. It is not perfect. We can get better. But we're very fortunate to live in a place where these problems are discovered quickly and responded to. Again, we can and have to get better over time, because so much of this is changing so rapidly. But I can -- I feel very comfortable in being able to say that, after having seen the whole thing.
Q And so what is your aim with this food safety initiative, then? How much better do we need to be?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Well, we need -- first of all, part of the problem is we're seeing a shift in where our food is grown, and we need to -- we have a domestic system that needs to be improved, and that's what Dr. von Eschenbach and the FDA have put forward an agenda to do. And we also need to assure that the parts of our supply -- go to any grocery store; you'll see fruit from every Central American country, you'll see products from almost -- from Asia. We need to get better at being able to coordinate that part of it.
Q Mr. Secretary, you have met with some Indian health officials in Washington. What message do you have for them, as far as foods and drugs and medicine coming from India? And some of them, what they found, that they bring the merchandise on the ports of the U.S. here, and then they are told that they are not meeting standards. So what message you have for them, before they come to the U.S. ports?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Our message to everyone who desires to produce food for American consumers, or products of any sort, if you want access to our markets, you need to meet our standards for safety and quality.
Q Mr. Secretary, a lot of these measures take more money, they take some congressional action. What can you tell the public about what you are doing right now, today -- or in the next week or so, in the immediate future -- to improve food safety?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Well, I can give you the example of -- I mentioned earlier, we are working right now in the final phases of negotiating agreements with China on food and feed, on drugs and devices. We hope to sign use agreements later this year at the next session of the strategic economic dialogue in Beijing.
These will be groundbreaking agreements. It will be two nations who wish to be trading partners working together to collaboratively make their regulatory systems work in a fashion that will produce safe outcomes. That's just one example. The food safety initiative that we just announced today, many of those things we can roll out without congressional authority, under executive authority. Parts of it will require congressional activity. We'll be proposing budgets -- this makes clear, this will not happen for nothing; this will require new resources. And we'll need to put that into our budget, not just this year but in years to come.
Q But nothing in the plan announced today can go into effect immediately, isn't that true?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Well, many parts of it can. And those are actually delineated in the report, in some cases. And if you look through that, you'll see those points.
Q Mr. Secretary, can you -- you're saying that the Consumer Product Safety Commission already has the kind of mandatory recall authority over its jurisdiction that you're recommending with the FDA?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Yes, they do.
Q So then why has it taken so long for the government to establish that kind of authority for the FDA over food when you know dangerous materials might be on the market?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Well, I'm not able to speak to the history of it. I will tell you that I was surprised when I found out that the statutory authority needed to be improved, mostly because right now if we go as the FDA to a food producer and say, we believe your food is unsafe and we think you ought to recall it, they almost always do. No one wants the FDA saying your food is unsafe; they want to respond to it voluntarily.
And that's the way this will continue to work. If the FDA says to a producer, look, take care of this problem or we're going to make certain the world knows about it, they take care about it. Now, there will be isolated circumstances where that isn't necessarily the case. I mentioned this is a global problem. I was talking to my colleague from Canada, who told me they don't have the authority in their FDA either, but they concluded they need it, just like we have, because in certain cases -- and he accounted one for me -- the voluntary withdrawal wasn't made and they needed to use it. So we'll have that.
Q You said earlier that you're going to come back in a few months with some plan to knit all these proposals together. Can you elaborate on that? What do you mean by that?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Well, you've got 12 different federal departments. You have vast portions of the American economy. You have international interests, all of which operate independently. And we're looking to find ways to better coordinate all of that action.
Now, as it is today, this report has someone responsible to take care of every recommendation we can act on now. But one of the things we acknowledge in this report is that there needs to be a coordinating function that we weren't quite prepared to say to the President, this is how it should be done. We want to think about that more, and to talk more with others.
Q Mr. Secretary, how is your cooperation with the European Union on this crucial matter?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: I spoke with the Commissioner of the European Union responsible for this over the last week a couple of times. And this is a matter of great concern to them, and we will be coordinating with them. There would be some value in having standards that align so that as food is produced, as devices and drugs are produced that there is some alignment. If we're in a global marketplace standards, ultimately, will be what defines the capacity to keep things safe.
Q You said there will be some cost involved. How much would that be? And is OMB onboard?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: We all acknowledge that this cannot be done simply without resources.
Q How much --
SECRETARY LEAVITT: We haven't gotten to the point of putting a price tag, but we have said that in our '09 budgets and subsequent budgets that we'll need to include those resources necessary to implement this. Think of this as a master plan. When I was in state government, every campus of a university had a master plan that in sequence, this is the things that we'd give top priority to and each legislative cycle we'd build on that.
What we now have is a master plan, something for the private sector, for the public sector, for local and state governments to begin working toward.
Q In terms of the toy safety, you talked about stepping up inspections in the life cycle of a product overseas. But how do you reassure parents now, with the toys that are currently on the shelves that are coming from overseas that it's still going to be safe for them to buy it now, especially with the holiday season coming up?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: I am a parent, I am a grandparent with three little toddlers and I -- this has occurred to me. And here's my advice: Buy from people you trust. And that's a very serious recommendation. I've been with major retailers who have told me the process they go through to assure that they're not in a position where they have unsafe products on their shelf. I think I mentioned earlier, they said: If I put a product -- it doesn't matter where it came from, it doesn't matter who it was that produced it -- if it's on my shelf, it's my brand. And so my suggestion is shop with people you trust.
Q Mr. Secretary, how can you not put a price tag on this if it's a top priority?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Well, because we know that with 12 different departments in essence what you'd be replicating to come up with that would be the entire budget process. And so we concluded rather than try to determine what the entire cost would be, to acknowledge that it's going to require more resources and then to make it part of the normal budget process.
These resources will have to compete with other needs. And if we were to try to put a budget process in just for this, it would make it impossible for us to have those trade-offs.
Q So you're talking about the President's budget for next year?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: And the year after that and the year after that.
Q But in the meantime, between now and then, how do you deal with the problem?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Well, there are parts of this that will not require budget. There are parts of it that we can do with rule and regulation. There are parts of it that are just good, old-fashioned changing the way we act with what we have. And that's the way we'll respond. There's a lot to do here. And we're not going to be inhibited by the fact that Congress has yet to act. We've got plenty to do without being delayed by that.
Q Mr. Secretary, can you say foods coming from India are safe and sound?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: That is not a question I'm able to respond to. I will tell you that Americans expect that food that comes from any source is done in accordance to American standards. And we want to work with all nations to provide a means by which we can have that confidence.
I think I probably ought to take two more and then I'll quit. We'll go to you first, and you next.
Q You mentioned that there have been increasing presence of U.S. inspectors overseas. Do you envision that as moving U.S. inspectors from the U.S. border? Or do you envision hiring new inspectors, an overall net increase in inspectors?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Oh, I expect that -- as I said, all of this is going to require some resources. In some cases it will be new, in other cases it will be a reallocation of an existing priority. But let me just emphasize that we're not going to inspect our way to food safety. We have to build safety in. Now that doesn't mean inspection isn't a very important part of the process. We have to screen everything and inspect the things that have the most risk to it so that we're shrinking the haystack and not having to look for as many needles.
Q Sir, do you envision as you move U.S. inspectors overseas, do you envision any kind of reciprocity where, say, Chinese inspectors would come to the United States? And can you flush out this agreement that you hope to sign later this year with China?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: The time will come when we'll be more detailed about the agreement that we're working on. We're still in the process of negotiation, so I'm sure you can appreciate the limited amount I will say about that.
However, let me acknowledge that we're looking for an agreement that allows us to work together, because we're working to open up our markets mutually, we need to have standards that we understand -- we understand how their system works. In many ways we have found we have to take two regulatory systems and find ways to make them work together. They don't have to be identical, they simply have to have common objectives and well-defined outcomes.
And it's been a fascinating experience to get as detailed as we have on it with China. They have the picture here. They know. They know now if they want to produce goods for the United States they've got to meet our standards, and we've been working aggressively to solve that.
Thank you all.
MS. PERINO: I will answer any questions outside of that. Bret.
Q Dana, the headcount is there is for the veto override this afternoon --
MS. PERINO: On the water bill?
Q Yes, water resources bill. What is it -- what's the reaction to the first veto override on this President?
MS. PERINO: The President vetoed this bill because he felt it was fiscally irresponsible. The House passed a bill that was $14 billion; the Senate passed a bill that was $15 billion. And when they got together to work out their differences, they came out with a bill that's $23 billion. This is an authorization bill; not a penny goes out of the coiffures to pay for any projects. It is a chance for members of Congress, from all areas of the country, from both sides of the aisle to come forward with their ideas for what they think would be the best project.
One thing we know, the Corps of Engineers is stretched to the limits right now. Adding more projects to their schedule would mean spreading more money over more projects, ensuring that nothing gets done. That's why the President vetoed the bill. We've anticipated the override and we expected it, and the President is fine with being overridden on this bill.
Q Some Democrats are painting this as the first crack in the dam of overrides that they believe that they can muster.
MS. PERINO: Well, we'll see about that. One thing that the President would like to do is make sure that he's on the right of the federal taxpayers, and that's what he's doing with this veto. I don't know if I would be proud, as a member of Congress, to be overriding the President in spending -- in authorizing spending worth billions of dollars of extra taxpayer dollars that would go to projects that won't necessarily get done for many, many years.
Now, when they go to the appropriations process the members of Congress can fight it out and, you know, we'll continue to work with members of Congress as we move forward. But not a penny goes out the door with this bill. And the President feels very comfortable with what his position is on it.
Q Last thing. Democrats are saying that this is newfound fiscal responsibility, and that's the continued phrase that you hear.
MS. PERINO: Well, that's rich coming from the Democrats. I will tell you that this President, who held the line with budgets in the first administration -- and yes, he has increased the number of veto threats that he's put out since the Democrats have been in office and in the majority, but that's because they wanted to add new spending, new taxes, and fiscally irresponsible ways of paying for new programs that the President doesn't think is the right direction for this country. And that is why he has vetoed the bill. Anyone who thinks the President won't veto those bills I think has been proven wrong.
Q Why is the President dodging a personal phone call to Musharraf?
MS. PERINO: The President has had his Secretary of State --
Q I'm asking you directly why doesn't he call him?
MS. PERINO: The President feels very strongly that President Musharraf knows exactly how he feels about the situation.
Q That isn't the point.
MS. PERINO: It is the point.
Q Dana, does the White House believe that Musharraf is now a dictator?
MS. PERINO: Look, I think that that is -- it's premature to say that. This is a President --
Q Well, why is premature when the First Lady --
MS. PERINO: -- who has worked closely with an ally in the war on terror, President Musharraf. We're doing two things with them: on the one hand, working cooperatively to take the fight to the enemy, to fight against terrorists; and on the other hand, trying to help President Musharraf and the other members of the Pakistani government to move along the path to democracy, because ultimately what's going to help solve this problem is a free society, a democratic society. And yes, President Musharraf, we believe, has made a mistake. We are gravely concerned about the situation. We are calling for an immediate return back to --
Q But wait a minute, why are you calling it a mistake? You seem to be giving Musharraf the benefit of the doubt.
MS. PERINO: -- we are calling for an immediate return to civilian rule, and we are in communication with them because we have a lot of cooperative interests. We have a broad relationship, and we cannot lose sight of the fact that we have very serious counterterrorism operations that are currently underway in Pakistan as well.
Q Why did -- the First Lady was very clear in her op-ed in The Wall Street Journal about Burma, Myanmar, saying it's a military dictatorship; what they're doing is wrong. We're not hearing the First Lady, we're not hearing the President being that sharp either on Pakistan. Why do you seem to be giving Musharraf the --
MS. PERINO: And what you have heard -- what you have heard from the President and this administration is that we were made aware that this state of emergency could possibly be declared. We have averted it before, in trying to work cooperatively with President Musharraf. This time the President of Pakistan decided that this is the direction he wanted to go in. We disagree with it. We want him to return to civilian rule. We want the normalcy of the democracy to come back. We're in the early stages of this crisis, and it's going to evolve. We're assessing the situation, and we're reviewing our aid packages.
Q But why is it evolving? It's been days that he basically said, no more constitution, and we're going to round up political --
MS. PERINO: We have condemned the action. We have condemned the action. We cannot support any means that are happening outside of the constitution. And that's why we are calling for him to return to the constitution. But remember, this is a country that we want to see democracy. There is a way to get them back on that path. It would be in the best interests of not just the Pakistani people but for people like those of us in the United States, who want to work with an ally in order to fight against terrorists.
Q But why should Musharraf believe that you guys are really serious about what you're saying from this podium when the President doesn't actually pick up the phone and call him to let him know personally? That carries a lot more weight than having Condoleezza Rice or somebody else talk to him.
MS. PERINO: Well, we disagree. The President has made his points very clear with Musharraf; he's had many meetings with President Musharraf. And Secretary Rice has delivered those messages. And we feel that we are going to keep pressuring them to get back to that rule of law, working with our Ambassador, Anne Patterson, who is in constant contact with President Musharraf.
Q It still does not carry the same weight as the President having direct contact with Musharraf -- (inaudible).
MS. PERINO: Well, I'll let you -- I'll let that be your opinion. I'll let that be your opinion.
Q But what is the tactic? I mean, what is the strategic reason for President Bush not to actually pick up the phone and talk to him?
MS. PERINO: I feel confident that the President is being well served and advised by his senior national security team. The decision has been made to have Secretary Rice be the one directed to have this communication.
Q Why shouldn't we see this as double standard? I mean, it's not the same standard as applied to Burma.
MS. PERINO: I can understand why that question would be asked, but I think everyone has to remember that we are in the early days of a crisis, looking at a country who had decided to try to move down the path to democracy in establishing freedom of the press, civil societies, improving the education system, the public health system, allowing for freedom of expression and assembly. Democracies take time to develop. It is not easy. And this is certainly a setback, and we're --
Q Well, they certainly don't have freedom of the press or assembly at the moment.
MS. PERINO: And we have called for a return to it.
Q Dana, where does the review on aid stand?
MS. PERINO: It's still ongoing. It's early to say.
Q I mean, is there a sense of urgency to it? Do you expect any --
MS. PERINO: I can assure that people have been working on this ever since we had heard that the state of emergency may have been what he was going to decide to do, and early on -- early to mid last week that they decided to have Secretary Rice call once again to President Musharraf to make our feelings known. The aid review that you talked about is ongoing. It's interagency, and I don't have anything more on it right now.
Q And more broadly, you've outlined, again, the White House strategy of urging Pakistan to return down a democratic path, reviewing aid. But you also said yesterday that you shouldn't rush -- you shouldn't rush into a strong action.
MS. PERINO: I don't know if I said that. I said that we have to be mindful to make sure that we do not undermine any of our counterterrorism efforts. We have -- the President has to protect the American people. Pakistan is a country where extremists try to take -- are trying to take hold and have a safe haven, and we had to deny them that. And working -- we have been working with the Pakistani government, through President Musharraf, for the past several years on that.
Q What I'm wondering is, are you concerned at all of a world view that perhaps the White House response to this is too passive?
MS. PERINO: We -- I believe our -- look, our allies understand that we have -- that we have a problem here. It is difficult. The world is not tidy. It is certainly a difficult situation in Pakistan right now. But they also understand that we have counterterrorism efforts there. And I believe that the world community would understand that we would like to try to get him back on the path to democracy, to have the free and fair elections, for him to take off his uniform. And that's what we are going to continue to push to do.
Q Dana, may I quick follow, please?
MS. PERINO: I'm just going to go -- since you had a couple, I'm going to go back to others who haven't.
Q Doesn't Musharraf's actions, in rounding up lawyers, judges, activists, people who have opposed him politically, doesn't that betray his stated reason for the state of emergency, which was supposedly to -- out of concern over Islamic militants? Does the White House perceive that --
MS. PERINO: Clearly we are very concerned that people who wanted to express themselves freely would have been put in prison. We would like for them to be released immediately. The common enemy that we all have are the extremists and the terrorists, and it's not just the extremists and the terrorists that want to attack Americans or other Western allies, but they have attacked the Pakistani people as well. That's the common enemy.
Q Has Secretary Rice or anybody else in the government engaged the Pakistani government on this level, saying, why are you arresting people, lawyers --
MS. PERINO: Yes, certainly. Ambassador Patterson and Secretary Rice have been very involved in it. And Steve Hadley has talked to his counterpart as well.
Q And have you had any feedback from the Pakistan government that talked about the Attorney General, about elections? Have they talked at all about --
MS. PERINO: I would say that we do not have official word, and we certainly don't have a date yet. So hesitant to say that for sure that those are going to take place.
Q But, I mean, have they talked about releasing any of those folks that have been arrested?
MS. PERINO: I have not heard that.
Q Can you concede that the U.S. doesn't have the leverage that it once did over Pakistan? And perhaps the reason the President isn't picking up the phone is because it's easier to point out that Musharraf turns his back on Secretary Rice than it is to point out that he turns away from the advice --
MS. PERINO: No, the President feels strongly that he and Musharraf have had a good relationship in the past. They have worked well together to help prevent terrorists, as well as the President has helped him on the way to establishing a free and fair Pakistan, one that is democratic.
The United States is certainly a powerful country, and the President feels very confident that his feelings are well known by the Pakistanis, especially President Musharraf.
Q But as far as our leverage over what's happening in Pakistan.
MS. PERINO: I think that we are quite comfortable with where our leverage is. This is a situation where, look, the United States, we can be a powerful country; we can urge, we can provide aid. But Pakistan is a sovereign nation. And they made a decision that we disagreed with. We think it's a mistake. We'd like to see them move to democracy, because ultimately what they want is peace for their region and peace for their country, and that's going to come from democracy. This is a step backwards. And in order to get to that peace that they say that they want, and that we certainly would like to see, getting back on that path to democracy is the only way to do that.
Q This might be a little bit arcane, but has the President met with any Pakistani opposition figures in the last six-plus years, that you know of?
MS. PERINO: Olivier, I don't know.
Q Yes, sorry. I thought it was --
MS. PERINO: When you start off a question with "it's going to be arcane," it can only be from Olivier. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you, Dana; two questions. Oklahoma's House Bill 1804, just passed and signed by the Democrat governor, has been described as "the toughest state-level immigration reform bill in the nation by Republican representative Randy Terrill. And my question: What does the White House think about this bill?
MS. PERINO: What we would like to see is a comprehensive national immigration reform bill. We think it is difficult for all 50 states and localities and jurisdictions and counties to have a cohesive immigration policy when everyone is doing their own laws. We can understand that they want to increase enforcement, and that's what the President called for in his comprehensive bill.
Q Agence France Presse reports thousands of illegal aliens coming into the U.S. every year could include terrorist spies and those with communicable diseases, largely due to the under-staffing and low morale among Border Patrol agents, according to our GAO report. And my question: How does the White House believe the morale can be improved with such agents as Ramos and Compean still in prison --
MS. PERINO: Wow, what is the question?
Q -- for doing what they believed was defending the nation's borders?
MS. PERINO: The President has made a pledge and he is making good on it to double the number of Border Patrol agents that are working for the government. We are well on our way to making that happen. I think we have about 18,500 now; we're on our way to getting a full 20,000, and that should help because I know that they're overworked and they work very hard.
Q Dana, when and how did the White House find out about the head of Immigration and Custom Enforcement's involvement with this incident involving an offensive costume at a government party?
MS. PERINO: I'm not exactly sure how different individuals were informed. I was informed this morning by Fran Townsend, who's the -- actually, I'm sorry, I heard about it earlier from somebody at the Department of Homeland Security who alerted us that this story was underway. Obviously we do not tolerate inappropriate behavior at the Department of Homeland Security. The Secretary has asked for an inquiry into the facts surrounding the incident, and once the facts have been determined we are sure that the department will take all necessary and appropriate actions. But then Fran Townsend did inform senior staff this morning.
Q Do you think there should be disciplinary action? I mean, wouldn't you think that a person at this level of government would know better than to pose next to someone in a costume like that?
MS. PERINO: Since Secretary Chertoff, the head of the department, has asked for a review, I'm going to let that review take place and let him make any personnel decisions.
Q Dana, thank you. There have been some positive comments in the past couple days from Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Abbas about the prospects for an Annapolis peace conference. Can you give us any kind of update on whether a date is more settled and the prospects for that conference?
MS. PERINO: I don't have a date to announce for you yet. Secretary Rice was in the region over the weekend. She's just getting back now. We are hopeful that we would be able to have a successful conference, but we are also mindful that there is a lot of work to get done between now and then. And there is not a date yet to announce, but as soon as we have something, we will.
Q Does the White House get the sense that things are on a better track than they were maybe a week or 10 days ago, given Secretary Rice's trip?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that she even reported that she thinks that the two sides are coming together, that they have a common goal of trying to get to a vision so that we can get to a Palestinian state and have Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace. But she is also very aware that there's a long way to go to make sure that that happens smoothly.
Q One question on Cyprus. Do you know, finally, if President Bush and the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed yesterday the Cyprus issue too?
MS. PERINO: I don't. They had a little bit of a private discussion as well, and so I wasn't in there, and I'm not positive. We can ask Stephen Hadley.
Q Thanks Dana.
MS. PERINO: Okay, thanks.
END 1:46 P.M. EST