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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
September 19, 2007

Press Briefing by Dana Perino
James S. Brady Briefing Room

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12:46 P.M. EDT

MS. PERINO: Hello. I have two statements, and then I'll go to questions.

Regarding the bombing in Beirut: We strongly condemn the assassination of a Lebanese member of parliament, Antoine Ghanem. He was viciously murdered today in Beirut, along with several other innocent persons.

Since October 2004, there has been a pattern of political assassinations and attempted assassinations designed to intimidate those working courageously toward a sovereign and democratic Lebanon. The victims of these cowardly attacks have consistently been those who publicly sought to end Syria's interference in Lebanon's internal affairs. It is no coincidence that this attack comes as Lebanon prepares to elect a new President. And the United States will continue to stand by those Lebanese who continue to courageously stand up for democracy and independence.

The second announcement is, as you know, Judge Mukasey has been visiting members of the Senate leadership and Senate Judiciary Committee. He was on the Hill yesterday and he's up there today. And we've been very pleased with the reception of his nomination, and as people get to know him and look at his record, they are coming to find the things that the President recognized in him and that he will make an excellent Attorney General.

We were pleased today to hear that the Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Judge Mukasey for Attorney General. Just one excerpt from that letter: His extensive experience both as a prosecutor and a judge demonstrates a genuine commitment to the law, and an appreciation for the challenges law enforcement faces in its ongoing fight against terrorism.

And with that, I'll take questions.

Q On the Middle East, Israel has declared Gaza an enemy entity. Do you think that that is going to complicate the search for peace?

MS. PERINO: I have not heard that particular announcement out of Israel. I do know that Secretary Rice is on her way to the region right now. The goal is to make sure that we continue to try to move the peace process forward. As you know -- or might not know -- the President will host a meeting here in November, and will talk about -- will talk with different countries in the region about contributions they can make to a peaceful situation there in the Middle East. Without having seen the Israeli statement and without checking, I couldn't comment.

Q Which countries will be at that conference in November?

MS. PERINO: Secretary Rice said today it's to be determined. It's not announced yet -- or it's not finalized yet. So I think that one of the things that she is talking about there is -- today -- is the substance and seriousness of the conversation, what the agenda would look like. And I think from there we'll be able to then figure out who is going to be able to attend.

Q Dana, is the administration directly pointing the finger of blame at Syria for the assassination in Beirut today? And if so, will there be any action taken?

MS. PERINO: No, what I said is that there has been a pattern since 2004. This could fit the pattern. And obviously there is going to have to be an investigation, but I'm not prepared to assign blame to anybody at this point.

Q But suspicions?

MS. PERINO: As I said, there has been a pattern, and this would seem to fit into the pattern.


Q Dana, the President today called for the Foreign Intelligence wiretap law to be made permanent, but what is the White House willing to do to address the concerns of Democrats that this law, as it's currently written, could be used to search Americans' homes, their mail, their business records?

MS. PERINO: I know that that has been one of the concerns that the Democrats have expressed. I do think it's unfounded. That is not how we interpret the legislation. It's not anything that we are utilizing. This is very specific parts of the law in order to gather foreign intelligence to make sure we close an intelligence gap that had opened up once the technology had changed, but the law hadn't since 1978.

To the extent that there are members of Congress -- I was going to say parliament -- members of Congress who want some changes in the law, and they have specific suggestions on how language could be clarified to suit their needs, to give them comfort with the law, but not weaken the act, we'd be willing to take a look at it. But as I said, we don't believe anything needs to be changed, but we're willing to listen to them if they can think of something that will help.

Q How do you explain then what the Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein said in a letter Friday to Congress, where he said that Justice Department lawyers "do not think" that it authorizes collection of medical or library records? But he went on to say "to the extent provision could be read to authorize the collection of business records of individuals in the United States ... we wish to make it very clear we will not use this provision to do so." It sounds like you're saying, well, just trust us.

MS. PERINO: No, I don't see how that -- I think that's exactly what I just said, which is we don't interpret it that way. It's not being used that way, that the Democrats are accusing -- well, I shouldn't say they're accusing; they have concerns. And if they have ways that they can identify that will help clarify it for them that doesn't weaken the act, and still allows us to meet the goal of what the act is supposed to do, we're willing to take a look at it.


Q As discussions about Blackwater in Iraq, or other independent contractors who provide security, if that cannot be resolved, the concerns Iraqis have, do you see any potential impact on the need for active duty U.S. military to provide some of that same security in place of these independent contractors?

MS. PERINO: I understand the question. I just think it's premature to make any comment in that regard. I do know that my colleague, deputy spokesman Tom Casey at the State Department is making an announcement right about now, if he hasn't already, regarding a joint commission of inquiry that the Iraqis and the United States are going to set up in order to look into what happened and to recommend any sort of policy changes that need to made in the future. So that's happening now at the State Department.

Q Can you describe the President's sense, his reaction to this?

MS. PERINO: I have not talked to the President about it, but in checking into it, obviously he said he was concerned. He was glad that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Prime Minister Maliki to express the deep regret for the innocent loss of life. He wants there to be an investigation, an open, transparent, clear investigation. And that would fit into this commission of joint inquiry.

Q He was characterized in other media reports as being furious.

MS. PERINO: I don't know where that came from. It's not the reporting that I had. But he does want it to be fully investigated.

Q One more question. Next week he's going to spend two nights in New York at the U.N., is that right?


Q What's -- is he planning on -- are there any particular unilateral meetings? Are there leaders he's trying to meet?

MS. PERINO: We'll get you a schedule soon. And also, I should let you know, one of the things that the President will do is he'll participate in a climate change dinner that Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. Secretary General, is hosting on Monday night. So we leave here I think around 2:00 p.m. on Monday. We'll get there on Monday night, have that dinner. On Tuesday there's a series of bilateral meetings. We'll try to get you a list soon; that's finalizing now. He will also give his speech to UNGA on Tuesday at 9:45 a.m. There's another dinner on Tuesday night, there's more bilateral meetings on Wednesday, and then he'll return about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday.


Q Dana, with Secretary Gates saying that he doesn't know if the Iraq war was justified, the DNI saying 9/11 might have been avoided, are we getting a mixed message out of the administration?

MS. PERINO: I don't see how those two things fit together.

Q Well, -- focus on what Secretary Gates said --

MS. PERINO: Let's take one at a time.

Q -- as the guy who is in charge of prosecuting that war, who says he doesn't know if it was a good idea.

MS. PERINO: You asked me this question this morning. I called Geoff Morrell, my counterpart at the Department of Defense. He said he'd like to -- he wanted to go and look at the transcript, because I think what I said today remains true

-- one, look at your own network, who had Secretary Gates on on Sunday. And Secretary Gates said removing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do.

But in his confirmation hearings, if you go back and look at what he said after he came out of the Baker-Hamilton commission and accepted the nomination from the President, and was going through those hearings up at the Senate, he said it's going to take a while to figure out how this all shakes out. And we're seeing that now. When we had General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker here last week, they were able to tell us that the trend lines are moving up, but we really need to focus on getting steeper gains in those trend lines.

What was the other one?

Q That's good enough.

MS. PERINO: Full pass, okay.


Q Dana, why is the President talking about FISA today? Does he have very real concerns that the law will be allowed to expire?

MS. PERINO: Sure. Well, there's a few reasons he's talking about it today. Yesterday was the first hearings that Director McConnell attended up on Capitol Hill. There's more hearings tomorrow. In August 2007, the Congress passed legislation, but put a six-month sunset on it. We're already well into that six months, and Congress has a full slate; they also have recesses that are scheduled. And the President has to push the Congress to make sure that they understand that this law has to get taken up and finalized before the end of that six-month period. We'd like it to be done before.

The two basic things that we want in the legislation would be to make the law permanent, and then, secondly, to provide retroactive liability protection for any companies that may have been alleged to have helped the country in any possible way -- again, all alleged. We got the perspective liability protection in August, but we want to make that retroactive. So those are the basic things that we're looking at.

Now, as I said to Kathleen, I mean, if the Congress has areas where they think the law can be strengthened or clarified in a way that doesn't weaken it, we're willing to take a look at it. We don't think that anything else needs to be changed, but we have an open mind.


Q A few days ago, Karl Rove outlined basically all the President's health care proposals, and yet, if you add them all together it doesn't really add up to universal health care coverage. So I guess my question is, the fact that the President, through the HHS Secretary, said he'd be willing to meet with Congress to maybe try to reach this goal -- can you do that without some sort of requirement for individual --

MS. PERINO: I think what Secretary -- what Secretary Leavitt meant was universal coverage -- that has a different connotation; that is what people think of in terms of government-run health care. That is not what this administration supports. What we do support is making sure that everyone has access to affordable health care. And what Karl pointed out in his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal just yesterday was the different policy proposals that this President has proposed in order to help us reach that goal.

Q But can't you require individuals to get health care coverage without it creating a federal bureaucracy? I mean, it could either be --

MS. PERINO: Well, if you've got an idea we'll take a look at it. I don't see how that would be possible.


Q A couple for you, actually, one to clarify something you said in the gaggle. You said Iran's comments about a plan to retaliate against Israel were -- those comments almost seemed provocative. What does that mean? Does that mean you think that Iran is trying to start something by saying that?

MS. PERINO: I can't think of any other motivation for why somebody would say that. I won't ascribe motives to them, but it does seem provocative. And I will tell you that Israel doesn't want war with its neighbors. And what the world has asked for is for Iran to comply with its Security Council obligations to stop its movement towards a nuclear weapon. And that way, the people of Iran, who can do much better than the government that they have now, would be able to prosper and have a free and good life.

I can't tell you why somebody in Iran would say something like that about Israel. It was totally unprovoked and unnecessary.

Q Okay. On Blackwater, Prime Minister Maliki says that they should be replaced. You and your colleagues at State keep saying in response to that that U.S. civilians in Iraq need protection. Is there any possible way to read this in any other way other than you're rejecting that -- you're saying Blackwater is going to stay whether or not Maliki --

MS. PERINO: No, I think what I would point you to is what I just said, is that Tom Casey, my colleague at the State Department, right now during his briefing is announcing a joint commission of inquiry into the matter, where the incident will be reviewed and policy recommendations will be presented.

Q Are you leaving open that one of those policy recommendations --

MS. PERINO: I'm just not commenting either way. I'm not.

Go ahead, April.

Q Dana, without getting into the legalities of it, there's going to be a major protest or demonstration in Jena, Louisiana, tomorrow, and the impetus of this was at a public school in Louisiana, white and black students, a tree and then nooses. Just getting off the phone with Secretary Spellings; she said, we still have a long way to go -- it shows we still have a long way to go. What are the thoughts of the White House about this? And has anyone directed the Justice Department to look at this matter, as well, to look further into it?

MS. PERINO: Well, as you said and as I told you earlier, that this is a matter that's under litigation. It would be highly inappropriate for me to comment about it from the podium. I can understand why people's feelings are hurt, why tensions are running high, but it would just be inappropriate for me to comment on the case from here.

Q Can understand why people's -- white people's feelings are hurt -- is that what you just --

MS. PERINO: I can understand that -- no, I said "people." I said all people -- it's a tension-filled situation, and I can understand why there are tensions on both sides.


Q Let me just preface this by saying I know the administration wants to stay far away from the 2008 presidential campaign. But you just introduced a concept when you were talking about universal health care -- about "I can't think of a plan" of offering universal health care, when Senator Clinton just offered one in Iowa. And I know that Senator Edwards has offered --

MS. PERINO: No, she said, can I think of a way that they could do universal health care without creating federal bureaucracy along with it.

Q Are you saying -- so would her plan --

MS. PERINO: I'm not commenting on her plan. I'm not. Universal health care has been around for -- the concept has been around for a long time. I'm not commenting on Hillary Clinton's plan. It's a really nice try, but I'm not going to do it. (Laughter.)

Go ahead.

Q Any comment on the elections of Costas Karamanlis as the Prime Minister of Greece?

MS. PERINO: As I said this morning, the President called him this morning to offer his congratulations.

Q Did they discuss any other issue?

MS. PERINO: The President said that he offered his condolences for those who had lost their lives in the wildfires.

Q Any plan to invite him to the United States?

MS. PERINO: I didn't hear of one, but of course, I'm sure that he would be welcome.


Q Thank you, Dana. Two questions. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the failed effort to give D.C. a full vote in the House, "It is clearly unambiguously unconstitutional." And my question: The President agrees with Senator McConnell, doesn't he?

MS. PERINO: We believe that Senate bill 1257 was unconstitutional.

Q Okay. And second: Both of Maryland's U.S. senators, Mikulski and Cardin, voted in favor of this bill. And my question: Does the White House know of any similar effort by these two senators to provide a full House vote for Puerto Rico?

MS. PERINO: I do not.


Q The Treasury Secretary notify Congress today that the debt ceiling is going to be hit October 1st and so they've really got to raise the debt limit. The proposal on the Hill is to raise it to $9.8 trillion. The day this President took office the debt was $5.7 trillion. We're going on doubling the debt. Why is that not an indictment of the supposedly fiscal conservative President and the party --

MS. PERINO: I wish I was fully equipped to answer that question. I don't have the specifics in front of me. I do know that this economy is strong, that we're on our way to balancing the budget. The President showed how we can do that. We have record numbers of taxes coming into the economy. Even though we cut taxes, we have record numbers of tax receipts coming into the treasury. Asking for the debt ceiling to be raised is a fairly routine matter that Treasury Secretaries have done for many years.

Let me just see if I can get someone to get you a more specific answer.

Q On the habeas amendment offered by Specter and Leahy, what is the White House's reason for opposing that?

MS. PERINO: Well, we didn't think that the law needed to be changed. It had just been changed last year in the Military Commissions Act. It's currently under litigation -- under consideration at the Supreme Court level. I don't think that Congress needs to constantly change the law while the courts are still looking at it. We think the law is sound as it is.

Q Two questions. One, -- Osama bin Laden according to

-- WTOP. And also, people in Afghanistan are really asking the President that they are still in trouble as far as al Qaeda in Afghanistan, supported by Osama bin Laden is concerned. So where do we stand on this? Videos are coming one after another -- from Afghanistan.

MS. PERINO: I couldn't comment on another video at this point.

Q And second, according to The Washington Post today, we are legal, but in limbo, talking about over hundreds of legal immigrants marching yesterday in Washington and asking the President that do something for them. They are legal, but they are in trouble as far as --

MS. PERINO: There's no doubt that immigration issues are very complex, and this President -- as you know, he has a very strong record on immigration. And I think on that particular case, that's something that the State Department is looking into.

Q Is that issue coming again on the Hill? Because there was some talk in the Senate as far as immigration is concerned.

MS. PERINO: We would like to see the Congress pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. We think the chances of that are probably slim in this Congress.


END 1:05 P.M. EDT