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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
February 15, 2008

Press Gaggle by Scott Stanzel
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

9:31 A.M. EST

MR. STANZEL: Good morning. I'll go through the President's schedule and take your questions. This morning at 8:00 a.m., the President had his normal briefings. At 8:35 a.m., as you saw, the President met with the bicameral Republican leadership about the Protect America Act, and so you saw his comments after that.

At 9:10 a.m., about 20 minutes ago, the President began his meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. This visit is an opportunity for the President and the Secretary General to discuss many of the issues of common concern on the international agenda. I expect that they will be talking about situations in Burma, Lebanon, Kosovo, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, all places where the U.N. has a very key role. Africa will also be on their agenda. The Secretary General is recently back from a trip to Africa including Kenya, so there will be a chance for the President to hear about his efforts before the President himself departs for Africa this afternoon. In addition, Sudan and the need to speed up deployment of peacekeepers to Darfur, as well as the situation in Chad could likely come up.

And the U.S. wants the U.N. to be as effective as it can be and to address important matters of international peace and security. So the leaders may also talk about U.N. reform efforts, which is something that we support.

At 10:10 a.m., the President will meet with the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia. That is in the Oval Office. The Foreign Minister is in town for various engagements, and the President looks forward to discussing with him a wide range of regional issues including the President's recent trip to the Middle East, to the region, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the situation in Lebanon.

At 11:45 a.m., the President is taping his weekly radio address and that will be about the Protect America Act.

And then at 4:00 p.m., the President and Mrs. Bush depart the White House via Marine One, for Benin, Africa. And they will be overnight on Air Force One.

One announcement. This is a statement by the Press Secretary regarding the visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict to the White House. The President and Mrs. Bush will welcome His Holiness Pope Benedict to the White House on April 16, 2008, during his first visit to the United States as Pope. The President and the Holy Father will continue discussions which they began during the President's visit to the Vatican in June 2007, on their common commitment to the importance of faith and reason in reaching shared goals. These goals include advancing peace throughout the Middle East and other troubled regions, promoting interfaith understanding, and strengthening human rights and freedom, especially religious liberty around the world. And we will release that statement here shortly.

A week ahead note: You should have pretty much the President's schedule, just one thing. There will be no public events on Friday, the 22nd, after the President's return.

So with that, I will take your questions.

Q Scott, where do you go from here on the surveillance thing? Is the administration prepared to do any stopgap measures while Congress is away?

MR. STANZEL: Well, it's unfortunate, as you heard the President talk about this morning, that the House is departing Washington for 12 days off for Presidents Day. And it is important, I think -- as you heard the President, it's important to note a few things.

It's our view that leaders in Washington have no greater responsibility than to protect the American people. But at this time, this gap that we closed six months ago is going to reopen. And as Director McConnell has said, the Protect America Act has helped us obtain valuable insight on terrorist activities and it has led to the disruption of terrorist attacks. And unfortunately, tomorrow night that law will expire. So we will continue to work with members of Congress about the importance. But the issue really here is why is the House leadership, Democratic leadership, blocking a bipartisan bill?

Q Are you going to reach out to the telecommunications companies and ask them to keep helping you in this policy?

MR. STANZEL: Well, those are conversations that are ongoing. And as you would remember, prospective liability was passed in August, and that gave liability protection to companies to assist going forward. That prospective liability comes into question with the expiration of the Protect America Act.

So as you heard the leaders talk about, those companies are increasingly reluctant to help their country and help us track the activities of terrorists in foreign lands. It becomes more and more difficult as time goes on to obtain their cooperation on these issues, and that is of great concern.

Yes, Helen?

Q What right does the President have to tell any company or any person in this country to break the law?

MR. STANZEL: I -- what's your point?

Q No warrants and so forth; that they can go and spy on us without any warrants?

MR. STANZEL: The Protect America Act was passed by Congress last August, as you know, and signed into law. So it is a lawful program that is expiring tomorrow night.

Q Well, if it's lawful, why would you not get a warrant? It still prevails, doesn't it?

MR. STANZEL: Because it's -- in 1978, as we talked about, during that period, in 1978, the law, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was passed, and that law was designed to help us gain intelligence on foreign targets in foreign lands. What we're not wanting to do here is to extend constitutional protections to terrorists in foreign countries.

So it's important that this law was modernized. It was modernized in August. As we talked about then, that the law was significantly outdated. You could have sat in that chair in 1978 and not had the ability to make a phone call from a cell phone; today you can. Today, you can send an e-mail from anywhere in the world via a Blackberry. The law was outdated, so it needed to be improved. It was improved. But Congress set a deadline for it to expire so they could review it some more and that -- they missed that deadline. We gave them a 15-day extension.

The Senate used that time to pass a bipartisan bill that received over two-thirds support from the United States Senate, has a majority of support in the United States House. But the House leadership, which seems to be beholden to class-action trial attorneys in this matter, refused to let it come up for a vote. So they are more interested in protecting the interests of one of their constituencies than in protecting the interests of Americans.

Q That's a terrible indictment for you to say. They want to obey the law.

MR. STANZEL: And we are obeying the law and it is important that this law be improved and modernized.


Q All Americans should be wire-tapped?

MR. STANZEL: Helen, your facts are not correct here. If a foreign terrorist is calling to the United States, we want to know what they're saying.

Q How do you know they're a foreign terrorist?

MR. STANZEL: Because they're in foreign lands and we have to be able to track foreign terrorists in foreign lands and what they're doing.

Q Any foreigner --

MR. STANZEL: You may want to extend constitutional protections to terrorists, but that is not something that we want to do.

Q You can't automatically call every foreigner a terrorist.

MR. STANZEL: Jeremy?

Q Scott, two questions. One on this issue. The comment that you just made about the House being "beholden" to class-action trial attorneys -- Democrats have accused the White House of politicizing this. With a comment like that, how do you respond that those kinds of charges that this is just a political theater game?

MR. STANZEL: Well, the Director of National Intelligence has indicated on numerous occasions that, without retroactive immunity, the private sector -- actually, this is from the committee report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, I would refer you to that, bipartisan, came out of the committee, 13 to two -- "Without retroactive immunity, the private sector might be unwilling to cooperate with lawful government requests in the future without unnecessary court involvement and protracted litigation. The possible reduction in intelligence that might result from this delay is simply unacceptable for the safety of our nation."

That is what a broad bipartisan majority in the Senate Intelligence Committee said about retroactive liability. That's important. The President, as you remember in the debate in August said we need to give the intelligence community the tools they need to protect this country, and if they don't have those, then I will find it unacceptable.

In November, we told the House that their proposal and their approach was unacceptable. So -- and that's a statement of administration policy. We need these tools, we need that retroactive liability.

So why is it that House Democrat leadership is blocking the vote, simple up or down vote on a bipartisan proposal that received nearly 70 percent support in the United States Senate and would receive bipartisan majority support in the House -- why is it that they are blocking that?

Q And separately, on the Saudi Foreign Minister visit with the President, what prompted this meeting, since this is the first we are hearing of it? And do you expect oil to be a topic of discussion, particularly with what -- the threats out of Hugo Chavez and Venezuela about cutting off U.S. supplies?

MR. STANZEL: You know, energy certainly is a topic that does come up when the President speaks with leaders in that region. Obviously, that was something that was discussed during his trip and during his stop in Saudi Arabia. I can't project what they might talk about, but he was here, I understand, for some other arrangement, so the President looked forward to having a meeting with him. If there is more that we can offer after the fact, we will try to get that to you.

Q Is there press on that?

MR. STANZEL: It's closed press.

Q Staying with foreign matters, the Russian President yesterday had a big press conference and he his likely successor had another one of his own in Siberia. They both seemed to bending over backwards to stress that they have to live in partnership and friendship with the United States and want this to continue. First, I guess I want to ask you if you even took note of those pronouncements, whether you take them at face value and whether you want to, on your side, to do anything to have the work -- the partnership go on?

MR. STANZEL: Well, certainly our relationship with Russia is a very important one. We continue to work with them on matters of mutual importance, working with them on matters in Iran as an example. So it is an important relationship. And the President has worked over the years with Mr. Putin and I guess -- we hope that will continue.

Q Do you expect this to come up later in the year, as you give your own legacy to whoever comes here next?

MR. STANZEL: Well, I think that as time moves forward, obviously the relationship with Russia will continue to be important after the President leaves office. There is no doubt about that. And I expect that the President's successor will continue that active engagement with leaders in Russia because it is a very important relationship.

Q I was kind of wondering where you go from here, back on the Protect America Act. I mean, is there any room for negotiation at all? I mean, if immunity is the issue, are there other things you could do, like cap liability? Or is it just you have these two intractable positions and how do you accomplish --

MR. STANZEL: Well, I think -- I think that, obviously it's our view that the House should take up the bipartisan Senate-passed bill. That would pass the House. That much is clear. So a majority in the House of Representatives wants the Senate-passed bill to come up for a vote and pass. So that's where we are. If that were to happen, we could go about the business of protecting Americans and put this issue behind us. Unfortunately, the House Democrat leadership has not taken that approach.

So I haven't seen other ideas out there. It seems that the House is committed to going on their 12-day recess over Presidents Day and that is unfortunate. So certainly, if there are other ideas out there, those are ones that we would take a look at. However, it seems simple enough, the solution is well within grasp.

Q Just real quick. Why not have another -- I know you guys are sick of these, but another 15-day -- I mean, if the threat is so grave, isn't that better --

MR. STANZEL: Simply passing -- Congress -- you must remember that Congress set its own deadline. They set a six-month deadline to review these issues. We felt that that was plenty long enough, and the fact that it was going to expire is not something that we supported in the first place. The terrorist threat is not going to expire.

So they asked for a 15-day extension to again review these things. But I think as you heard, I think it was Mr. Boehner talk about, it calls into question their desire to really address these issues in a full way if we are doing extension after extension after extension, and that is no way for the intelligence community to go about its planning. And it causes greater concern, I think, to our ability to work with the private sector to make sure that we're able to track what terrorists are planning overseas.

Q But why isn't a temporary extension still better than nothing? I mean, I understand why you want to get the retroactive immunity and why you think that's important. But if the leadership isn't offering that, why wouldn't another temporary extension be better than nothing?

MR. STANZEL: I would put it another way: What is it that they need more time for? The solution is there. The solution is before them. But they are blocking the solution. Why are they blocking the solution? For partisan reasons. They are blocking that because they are beholden to class-action trial attorneys.

Q But given that they seem to be intractable right now, wouldn't you still prefer to let the law keep going for a while, than to have it expire?

MR. STANZEL: Well, an extension was rejected by a majority in the House of Representatives.

Q Right, and I'm asking why, given that they're allowing that to happen, it seems to me to call into question some of these statements that now there are going to be gaps -- dangerous gaps in intelligence-gathering.

MR. STANZEL: There will be.

Q Well, I'm saying, if you believe that, wouldn't you rather have --

MR. STANZEL: Well, it's up to House leaders to figure out how we should protect our country. The solution is there before them. So the majority in the House supports the solution before them. So all it has to have is an up or down vote; simple as that.

Q What do you say to Nancy Pelosi, though, who -- she accused the President yesterday -- I know you heard this -- of fear-mongering. She said, obviously you can still pursue the targets that are covered by the current law; right now you can still pursue any investigation that has already been initiated. And then new ones, all you'd have to do is get a warrant.

MR. STANZEL: Right, but the warrant process is the exact process that was problematic. In 1978, the law wasn't designed to have warrants on foreign targets -- plain and simple. And how fast the FISA Court acts is not the issue; it's how long it takes to put together a very lengthy application leading up to the FISA Court acting. So that's problematic. And so how would we respond? We are very concerned about the safety of Americans. We all should be concerned about the safety of Americans. That is why the Senate took the action that it did, in a broad bipartisan way, to pass the Protect America Act. The House should do the same.

Q You can get a warrant after the fact.

Q How much serious consideration did the President give to delaying his trip to Africa? I mean, he mentioned that yesterday and then he decided to go ahead and go anyway. Was it an idle threat?

MR. STANZEL: No, that was an offer. I wouldn't call it a threat at all. It was an offer to stay here -- if the House wanted to stay here and work on these issues, and if he could be of assistance to them to get this work done, he was willing to delay his trip.

Q But he knew at that time that the House had already decided to adjourn.

MR. STANZEL: Well, I don't know that their decision was made final. But certainly, he wouldn't have said it if he wasn't prepared to delay his trip.

Q And why is he going -- is it simply --

MR. STANZEL: Because the House has made it clear that they don't intend to act.

Q May I ask about the meeting with the U.N. Secretary General, specifically on Kosovo? What is the message to the U.N. from the United States on Kosovo at this point? You guys move ahead, you've done your job, the EU will now take over? Or do you want the process still to be in the Secretary Council? How do you want it --

MR. STANZEL: Well, I can't speak for the U.N., Andre, but in terms of our position, the decision -- our position hasn't changed, obviously. We are working with our allies, working with Kosovo and with Serbia. We believe that the prompt implementation of the Ahtisaari plan is the right approach. That is where we have been. So our position hasn't changed.

Q Right, but it seems like the EU is now taking over. They are sending a mission there. What is there for the United Nations, for the Secretary Council to do, from your point of view?

MR. STANZEL: I can try to get more information for you on that, or you can check in with the State Department. But I'd have to take that question.

Q I'm just still not clear on the question about the -- why the administration decided that, hey, we're not going to do an extension.

MR. STANZEL: I would take -- the question is premises on the fact that an extension was available. An extension is not. A majority in the House of Representatives rejected that approach.

Q But that's based on --

Q -- said he would veto --

MR. STANZEL: They've known since November -- they've known since November that our approach has been very clear, that --

Q But if the President is serious about protecting the United States, which is the point that he has made in now three statements in three days about this, that if this is so vital and that the process is so cumbersome to get the kind of warrants you need through the previous process, before PAA, then why not tell the Republicans on the Hill, his party, that, okay, you know what, we need an extension, to continue doing it the way that he wants --

MR. STANZEL: Democrats are in control of the House of Representatives. If they're serious they will bring up the bipartisan Senate-passed bill for an up or down vote. Simple as that.

Q Can you speak to what actually happens now logistically, when the legislation expires, what's the process? Are the wiretaps going to stop? Are you going to start pursuing the warrants? What's going to happen?

MR. STANZEL: Well, those may be questions that are best addressed to the intelligence community. But certainly the tools that we have will be weakened. As Kathleen mentioned, some of the efforts that are currently underway have an opportunity to continue; new efforts would have to go through the old process. So -- but further, what concerns us the most is the ability to compel the assistance of private companies to continue to assist with this effort. If we don't have the help of these private companies, we don't have a program, plain and simple.

So that -- with each step and each time this issue seems to falter in Congress, the companies become increasingly reluctant, out of a responsibility as I think the leaders mentioned, to their shareholders, to figure out if they want to be subject to these billion-dollar class-action lawsuits. And that is not something that is good for the companies, it's not something that's good for the security of the American people.

All right, thank you.

END 9:54 A.M. EST