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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 6, 2008
Press Briefing by Dana Perino
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:41 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Hi, how is everybody? Two announcements for you. First of all, the President is pleased that the U.S.-Russian Agreement for Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy -- also known as a 123 Agreement -- was signed today in Moscow, Russia. The conclusion of this agreement, which advances U.S.-Russia non-proliferation and civil nuclear energy cooperation goals, has been a priority for both President Bush and President Putin.
In the strategic framework declaration issued in Sochi on April 6, 2008, the two leaders made clear that this agreement will create the necessary legal basis for expanded cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. And I'll have a statement that comes out from me a little later on today.
Also today, the U.S. Agency for International Development has allocated an additional $3 million in funding to help meet the most urgent needs of the Burmese people. This brings the total U.S. assistance to $3.25 million to date, which will be allocated by the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team -- also known as DART -- that is currently pre-positioned in Bangkok awaiting permission to enter Burma.
According to the U.N., the most urgent needs of populations in affected areas include plastic sheeting, water purification tablets, cooking sets, mosquito nets, emergency health kits, food, and possibly fuel supplies. We urge the government of Burma to grant full access to the affected areas to international humanitarian relief teams and nongovernmental organizations so that they can help provide assistance to those in need.
For Americans who want to assist the people of Burma, we encourage you to make cash donations to a reputable NGO working in the disaster region. Nothing will get there faster or help more at this time. And for a list of those types of NGOs, that can be found on the USAID website.
Q The President said today the United States wants to do a lot more for Myanmar. Is the $3 million the dimension that he was talking about?
MS. PERINO: Well, it's our best assessment, based on the information that we have right now for the needs in the area. What we'd like to do is be able to get our team in there to be able to assess, because they are experts, to be able to know exactly what type of supplies are needed so that we're not duplicating efforts and so that relief is getting to the people who need it in the quickest way possible.
In addition to the $3 million, the other thing that we have in the region is a Marine expeditionary unit with -- ships there with Naval personnel that were doing exercises for disaster assistance and disaster relief. So we have multiple ways that we can support them. This would be our initial assessment for what we think is the need right now, and we'll continue to work with the U.N. or any other organization that is allowed into Burma to try to help the Burmese people.
Q But it's not a condition, is it, that they allow our assessment team in from the United States?
MS. PERINO: Certainly not. The assistance that we are providing is needs-based and it's dependent on only us wanting to help them. And if the unfortunate circumstance comes to pass that our team is not granted the visas in order to get into the area, we will continue to work out of Bangkok, and we will work with the U.N. agencies or anyone else who is able to get there. But certainly the relief that the Burmese people need would be much better handled if we could get into the country.
Q Is the $3 million a down payment? I mean, is there more to come after this?
MS. PERINO: I think we just need to see. I think that right now -- remember yesterday we were at $250,000, which was our initial help. And also, information that we're getting out of Burma is changing. Even today, the estimated death tolls has climbed dramatically to over 20,000. And so we just have to continue to assess the best we can. This $3 million will go a long way, but also if we could get our ships there to be able to help them, more and more people could be helped.
Q Dana, could you give us an idea how you do assess that? I mean, it was $250,000 yesterday, and the death toll was staggering then, and it's far more staggering today. Why you choose $3 million? Just a little bit about how --
MS. PERINO: I think I would have to refer you to the USAID, who has the experts who can look at the models and try to figure out what they think is need, based on what they have.
Q The $3 million is for, as you said, plastic sheeting and other things?
MS. PERINO: Well, that's the best estimate right now that we have, again, without being able to be there, of what they would need right now. I understand the World Food Program actually has a shipment of food that was in the area, in the country. So we're not sure if food is necessarily the first thing that they need. But we do think that clean drinking water, and certainly mosquito nets so that we can prevent against the spread of malaria -- those types of things are what we know. But one of the problems is, if you can't get there to assess, you're really just guessing. But we do have experts that have been dealing with these types of humanitarian disasters for over many periods of years, and so they can get -- have a good idea of what they think is needed.
Q Dana, can you tell me, is this $3 million cash or is it in supplies?
MS. PERINO: What I know, it's $325 million that is at the USAID DART team, at their disposal, to be able to use, and they can start using that right now -- $3.25 million.
Q And do you share the reservations of the French Foreign Minister, who said today that, frankly, they don't trust Burma's government to spend that sum of cash wisely?
MS. PERINO: Well, of course we would be concerned, given their past and the way that they have treated their people, that that would be a concern. But our focus has to be on how do we help the Burmese people that are suffering as quickly as possible? And so we're going to do that. And we're not going to condition -- make that assistance based on any conditions other than that the President and Mrs. Bush feel very strongly that the American people should try to help the Burmese people in their time of need.
Q Dana, speaking of Mrs. Bush, what was the motivation behind having the First Lady speak out yesterday on Myanmar, instead of the President? Whose idea was it? And was there any concern at all that one part of that dual message, the criticism of the military junta, could be hindering the other part, which was the offer of U.S. aid?
MS. PERINO: No. Mrs. Bush -- it is no surprise that Mrs. Bush feels very strongly about Burma, and she and the President have been working as partners on this issue for a long period of time. And we were very happy to have her here in the briefing room, and I think it sent a really good message, especially to the people of Burma -- if they got a chance to hear her, hopefully, through some of the radio programs that they would be able to hear -- that the United States cares; that we want them to live in freedom and democracy and justice -- have justice for their citizens. And we'd be happy to have her in the briefing room any time she would like to come.
Q So, in other words, because she has spoken out in the past, you felt it was appropriate for her to carry that message on yesterday?
MS. PERINO: I cannot see any reason why it would be inappropriate for the First Lady of the United States to grace the press briefing room with her presence.
Q But, again, any concern that by -- because she did criticize the junta -- that that would in any way deter them from accepting U.S. aid?
MS. PERINO: Our position about the way that they have governed has been very clear. That was not the first time that Mrs. Bush or anyone in the federal government has expressed that concern. And, in fact, if you look back over a period of the last couple of years, those public statements have been made in a variety of ways and a variety of places. I can remember one in the Diplomatic Reception Room, as well. So, no concern that our position would be -- that our position would change, or that they should think that just because Mrs. Bush came here, that we're sending a different message.
That message was about the referendum. It so happened that the referendum and this cyclone happened to coincide. And Mrs. Bush felt it was important to let the people of Burma know that we care about them, we are worried about their health and their safety, and we want them to have a brighter future, which is why we're providing the assistance that we are.
Q Can I just follow -- quick one.
MS. PERINO: Quickly.
Q The best way -- like Mr. Wendell said, that you cannot trust the Burmese government -- like you said in the past also, history. The best way is that China is very close, or the military junta in Burma is close to China because they are the ones supplying all the weapons and all that against innocent people. So have you sent the clear message to China today that this is a time -- that time has come for a democracy in order to help the victims, and --
MS. PERINO: We talked to China about that. We have talked about that with them before. You will have to call USAID and find out what sort of coordination they are doing -- or State Department. I will say that -- I know that the Indian government has been wanting to send ships there. But again, people who are willing to help and provide humanitarian assistance are not being received yet in Burma, and we really hope that they would change their mind, because we do want to help out of a deep desire to help the people who are suffering.
Want to stay on Burma, anybody? No? Okay, go ahead.
Q Senator Obama said that food rise prices -- rising food prices around the globe is because of ethanol and all that. And now he's sending a clear message to the White House, which is the federal government, that now they should rethink that people need to eat -- food to eat, not ethanol at this time.
MS. PERINO: We've been talking about this for the past several days. I would refer you to the briefing yesterday where Scott Stanzel handled that question, and I'm not going to get myself involved in the '08 politics.
Q How is the administration going to respond to this House push for a subpoena of the Vice President's Chief of Staff?
MS. PERINO: Well, I understand that David Addington issued a letter last week in which he said he would be responding to the committee, and I know that he will do so. And I'm going to refer you to the office of the Vice President --
Q So is he going to testify?
MS. PERINO: I'd refer you to him for more. They -- the office of the Vice President's Press Secretary can handle that.
Q Don't hold your breath.
Q They don't tell you what they're doing?
MS. PERINO: Look, the subpoena was just served. He said he would respond appropriately, and I'm sure he will.
Q The head of the National Institutes of Mental Health says that it's possible that the number of suicides among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan may turn out to be greater than the number who actually die in combat. And at least two senators say that the VA has withheld the actual number of suicides and attempted suicides, and have called for the resignation of the VA's Director of Mental Health. What's your reaction?
MS. PERINO: Well, I'm aware of the hearing today where the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Peake was answering questions about this very thing today. And I'm sure that you are covering that, as well. President Bush is very concerned about the mental health of our veterans and has made sure that we are doing everything we can to make sure that American veterans are getting the care that they need.
He's also been very troubled by the idea that veterans would feel that they wouldn't be able to express or ask for help if they are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression of another sort, or any type of mental disorder, because we have resources to be able to help them and they deserve the very best that we could provide. So he would encourage -- he was encouraged that Secretary Peake was testifying today to let people know that that is where our position is. And I would refer you to Department of Veterans Affairs for more on the statistics.
Q Well, has the White House or the Pentagon been aware of the possibility that the VA has been withholding the statistics on the number of suicides and attempted suicides?
MS. PERINO: We're aware of the accusations and I do believe Secretary Peake answered those today.
Q Well, what is the answer?
MS. PERINO: I would refer you to -- nobody was covering it, so I wasn't able to see it directly.
Q Well, I mean, what is the response from here? I mean, what are you going to direct people to do about it?
MS. PERINO: Well, the President has full confidence in Secretary Peake and believes that he is handling it appropriately.
Q What about the head of the mental health services at the VA?
MS. PERINO: Well, again, he works for Secretary Peake and I'll refer you to them.
Q What's the White House position going to be on the Democrats' idea of including unemployment benefit extensions in the supplemental?
MS. PERINO: Well, remember that right now -- in fact, just last week, we had mixed reports on the economy, and one of them was the unemployment rate remains relatively low by historic standards, at 5.0 percent, recognizing that some people are on unemployment for longer than they would like. And we're aware of that. The stimulus checks are going into effect right now. We believe that by the end of the year that those will create an estimated additional 500,000 jobs in our country. So hopefully that will alleviate the pressure for anyone who's looking for a job.
And I think the one thing we have to consider is -- we hear calls for a second stimulus package -- the one thing that I think is important is to, first of all, let the first stimulus package have a chance to take effect. And those checks have just started going out, as we've been telling you. But also it's very important, if you look back to the first stimulus package that we did, one of the tests that everybody agreed to was that it had to be stimulative. It had to have a stimulative effect on the economy. And one of the things that they could do right away to help stimulate the economy is pass the agreed-upon Colombia free trade agreement, because that would level the playing field for our workers.
And so if we want to have a stimulative effect on the economy, we know how to do that. But we would be curious as to what a second stimulus package, how that would stimulate the economy. And I think that that is a test that would have to be met, if we get to the point where we would need one. Our position right now is that we have a stimulus package that is just going into effect, and we want to let it take root.
Q The Democrats are talking about it in the House, including it in the supplemental, the Iraq supplemental.
MS. PERINO: We feel strongly that the Iraq war supplemental should remain for national security needs. We understand that there could be debates on other issues, such as unemployment benefits and food stamps, other issues that are important to a lot of people. But those issues can be taken up separate from our national security needs in the Iraq war supplemental.
Q Dana, you mentioned the calls that have come out for a second stimulus package. Speaker Pelosi issued another one of those calls today, but she also said in the process that the President has for a long time been in denial about the state of the economy. Any response to her?
MS. PERINO: For everybody in this room who has been covering the President, who regularly talks about the economy, you know that he is well aware of our situation in the economy, and in fact has called it very straight and been very transparent about the forecasts that we've seen, and taken action to make sure that we are alleviating the slowdown, alleviating the pressure on people who are having a harder time right now in our economy. And we do believe that the pro-growth policies that we've put in place will have the effect that we're looking for, which is more jobs, more business incentives, and more development.
And so there's ways that we can do that in our -- with the United States Congress. One of them is passing the Colombia free trade agreement. And we have a deal that is on the table, and unfortunately, she decided to renege on that deal. And we would ask her to change her position on that if she really wants to help workers in this country.
Q Dana, I just wanted to return quickly to clarify something about the aid going to Myanmar.
MS. PERINO: Okay.
Q Yesterday it was made pretty clear that any aid would go not to the Myanmar government, but would, in fact, be funneled through international agencies and World Food Program. Is any of this new $3 million in aid going to go directly to the hands of the government?
MS. PERINO: I don't believe so. I think that the -- well, the DART team is allowed to make decisions based on what they think that they need, and they can work with NGOs and try to spend that money appropriately. So I'd refer you to them on exactly how they're going to do that. They just got this $3 million package so that they can start working and figuring out what they need. But, again, they are hindered by the fact that they aren't exactly sure what is needed.
Q So, Dana, let me clarify that. So they're hindered by -- they don't know whether they can get in. So getting that money quickly into the area, are they making plans now to go through World Food Program or something else? I mean, it seems like the need is so great immediately, what are they doing now?
MS. PERINO: That is our major concern. That's our major concern, Martha. If we can't get there, we can't help them. And the Burmese government isn't at a place right now where they are capable of taking care of their population in the aftermath of this humanitarian disaster. And so I'd refer you to USAID on how they're going to do that. They just got the money.
Q But I think World Food Program is getting some sort of money or food in there at this point.
MS. PERINO: Well, I think the food is already there. And my point is that if they already -- that's one of the things that this team can do. You don't want to duplicate efforts, so if they already have -- if the World Food Program already has food available there, the last thing you want to do is spend this $3 million on food when what they really need is first-aid supplies or health care kits or mosquito nets. And that's what this team is going to try to continue to assess. They can do their best at guessing, but if they can't get in we're going to have a harder time helping people.
Q And so until they can assess where it's needed, it's going to sit there?
MS. PERINO: Not necessarily -- no, I don't think that that's necessarily true. I know that we're trying to work with the U.N., but I think the U.N. relief agencies still have not been granted access to the area. So they'll be working hard. They are experts at this, they know how to go around a system in order to try to help people directly. And I'll refer you to USAID for more -- Henrietta Fore's office.
Q Dana, a Georgian minister -- whose name I won't butcher here -- says that Russia is trying to provoke Georgia into war with its troop deployments out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Is there a concern here that Russia is trying to provoke a military conflict? What's the status on that?
MS. PERINO: I do have an answer for you on that. In recent days and weeks, as you have been reporting, the Russian government has taken what we would call provocative action, which have increased tensions with Georgia over its separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And these include -- the Russian government's, first of all, unilateral withdrawal from Commonwealth of Independent States economic and military sanctions; April 16th presidential instructions increasing Russia's relations with Georgia's separatist regions; a Russian aircraft shoot-down of an unarmed Georgian, unmanned UAV -- aerial vehicle -- in Georgian airspace; and Russia's unilateral decision to deploy a large number of Russian forces and equipment to the peacekeeping mission in Abkhazia.
These steps have significantly and unnecessarily heightened tensions in the region, and run counter to Russia's status as a facilitator of the U.N. Friends process on Abkhazia.
In contacts with both the Russian and Georgian governments at the highest level, the United States has firmly reiterated our support for Georgia's territorial integrity, and strongly urged Russia to de-escalate and reverse its measures. We have urged the Georgian government to continue to refrain from any military measures, and pursue a political settlement to its separatist conflicts. We again call on the Russian government to reiterate its commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty, to reverse its unilateral measures in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to cease from further provocations.
We also call on Russia to actively support direct meetings between the Abkhaz authorities and the Georgian government in an effort to reduce tensions, and advance a permanent peaceful resolution of the conflict, which provides the people of Abkhazia with a path toward a more secure, prosperous future within a unified and democratic Georgia.
Q When you say "at the highest levels," how about "the" highest level?
MS. PERINO: In terms of from the President --
Q -- you just talked about, between --
MS. PERINO: -- I'm not aware of a phone call.
Q Thank you, Dana. Two questions. A Washington Post editorial this morning denounced the Peace Corps for getting rid of a 25-year-old male who has become HIV-positive. Does the President believe, as does the Post and the ACLU, that this was wrong of the Peace Corps to do?
MS. PERINO: I don't know the details of the particular case. I do understand that the Peace Corps does not have a policy of automatically excluding people with HIV. And the Peace Corps does conduct individualized medical assessments of all volunteers and applicants, including those who are HIV-positive. And the Peace Corps would have more information for you.
Q Does the White House know of any demands from the Post or the ACLU that our armed forces not discharge those who contract AIDS?
MS. PERINO: No.
Q Thank you. On the ongoing Middle East peace talks, I've heard criticism -- there's been criticism that this administration is pushing too hard to get two Palestinian -- or two states before the administration runs out. Do you have any response to that kind of criticism?
MS. PERINO: We hear all sorts of criticism, that we're pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough. The President is looking forward to going to the region next week; Secretary Rice has been in the region, and trying to work with both the Palestinians and the Israelis to help them come together and continue to work. A lot of that work is done behind the scenes, and a lot of it is not done in the public eye. So some people might criticize us for not doing enough, while others would criticize us for doing too much.
We think that this is a problem that the Israelis and the Palestinians have an opportunity to solve. And the President looks forward to going there next week, and he'll not only be having the meetings in Israel, but also in Sharm-el-Sheikh.
Q Yesterday, according to The New York Times, we dropped a bomb on a home in Sadr City and burned alive a pregnant woman and her children. How long is the siege of Sadr -- how long are we going to keep bombing Iraqis?
MS. PERINO: Well, I'm not aware of that particular report. I have not -- I've not seen it.
Q Well, it was pretty buried in the story.
MS. PERINO: Okay. Well, the operation against the militias in Sadr City will continue until they root them out. And that is expressly in order to protect people like you just mentioned.
Q Root who out, Iraqis, in their own country?
MS. PERINO: It is Prime Minister Maliki's government which is going after the militia, which is appropriate.
Q Why are we bombing these people?
MS. PERINO: Any time anyone that is an innocent civilian is hurt in a conflict, we obviously regret it, and we go out of our way to make sure it doesn't happen.
Q Thank you.
END 1:03 P.M. EDT