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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
May 1, 2008

Press Briefing by Tony Fratto
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

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12:40 P.M. EDT

MR. FRATTO: Good afternoon, everyone. I actually have nothing to lead off with, so we can go straight to questions. Terry, you ready?

Q The President said this week at the news conference that he wanted to make -- that one of the reasons you disclosed the North Korean program in Syria last week was to make them know that we know more than they think we might. Has there been any response from North Korea? Has there been any communication since the -- last week's disclosure?

MR. FRATTO: I'm not aware of a specific response from the North Koreans. But it's clear, as the President talked about, we want to make sure that we're transparent in this and what we're seeing with respect to proliferation activities, and that the world can see what we knew. We made it clear in our briefings to the Congress, and that's the best way to proceed on this.

Now, we've had our State Department officials who were recently in North Korea, and they continue their communications in the context of the six-party talks, and they're progressing. And we just counsel some patience, and wait to see what we get back from the North Koreans, in terms of their declaration, that it be complete and accurate. And so we're working with them on that.

Q How long is the United States willing to wait?

MR. FRATTO: I don't think it's something that you can put a time frame on. Sooner is better than later, and that's what our negotiators are working towards.

Yes, Helen.

Q When did it reach this magnificent decision for transparency when it waited eight months, or seven months to reveal it?

MR. FRATTO: Those were decisions that were made by the intelligence community and our senior officials here. And we respect the concerns of Congress, that we heard from Congress, and they thought this was the best way to proceed. And the President made the decision on that.

Q You don't call this a devotion to transparency, do you?

MR. FRATTO: I think in this case it was important to be transparent, and that's a decision we made, Helen.

Q And not to put pressure on Korea and so forth?

MR. FRATTO: I think we were clear in how -- in what the context was of that.

Yes, Jon.

Q Tony, various cities are networking their government-owned surveillance cameras -- New York, Chicago and now D.C. Is there any federal effort to sort of combine all that information?

MR. FRATTO: Not that I'm aware of, not in terms of video surveillance. I know lots of municipalities do it for different reasons, some just for speeding tickets. And having been the victim myself of those cameras, on, like, two occasions now, I'm well aware of how effective they are. But I'm not aware of any federal coordinating role on those.

Q You know you just made the bloggers happy. (Laughter.)

MR. FRATTO: I'm sure I did.

Yes, Jeannie.

Q Tony, given the inevitable attention on this day and what the President said five years ago on the Lincoln, is there any reason the White House didn't schedule an event for the President to talk about Iraq on his terms? It sort of gives the impression you want this anniversary to pass as quickly as possible.

Q I didn't give her the question. (Laughter.)

MR. FRATTO: You sure, Helen?

Q You're allowed.

MR. FRATTO: I think people should go back and actually see what, in fact, the President said that day. There's a lot of focus on a banner that was hanging behind the President, but the President talked a lot about the accomplishments of our troops that were returning home that day and had completed their mission, and he talked about the brilliant success of our troops in defeating the army of Iraq, which was a unified fighting force before American forces went and defeated that army.

So those are the things the President talked about. And the President talked about, as we have for some time, a long war and a long struggle, but we defeated an army in Iraq. Today we're fighting militias and insurgents and terrorist groups like al Qaeda and those associated with al Qaeda, and in a lot of cases, criminal gangs.

Now, our goals today, looking forward, are to make sure that the government of Iraq and the new army of Iraq is an effective fighting force to continue the fight against those insurgents and criminals and militias, and bring security to the country. So that's what we're focused on, is what we're doing now to make sure that mission continues to show success.

Yes, Kathleen.

Q What does the administration think about the proposal, the legislation being proposed by the Senate Armed Services Committee that would block U.S. funding for Iraqi reconstruction projects costing over $2 million? Senator Levin says spending U.S. dollars on things like that right now is inexcusable, unconscionable, when Iraqis are exporting 2.5 million barrels of oil a day and running a budget surplus.

MR. FRATTO: Yes, look, I think it's important to remember that the Iraqis actually are spending a lot more on their reconstruction than maybe is commonly understood out there. In their most recent budget, they'll outspend the United States 10 to 1 on reconstruction. On major reconstruction, we're moving towards 100 percent of Iraqi funding. In fact, we are pretty much out of the business of very large reconstruction projects in Iraq. Those are being funded by the Iraqis.

The Iraqis are spending the money they get as they get it. They have to go through a fairly conservative budget process, but when they get the money, they find ways to spend it effectively. Iraqi officials recently announced in -- sometime over the past few weeks that they'll be putting in place a $5 billion supplemental budget for reconstruction efforts.

So the Iraqis are trying to fund their needs. There are some things that we need to do. We're going to -- we want to work with Congress on a way forward to make sure that our troops get what they need, and that we can be as effective as we can possibly be. I think it's one thing -- one thing that's very, very important to keep in mind, if your goal is to see American troops coming home and to see the mission be a success, we want to make sure that we're being successful -- I'm sorry, effective and efficient in doing that. And that involves us doing some things. If it's a matter of training Iraqi troops -- for every Iraqi troop that we train, that's an eventual American combat troop that will be coming home.

So those are the kinds of things that our military commanders have in mind. And Secretary Gates will continue his conversations with the Armed Services Committees and the appropriators. So we just want to make sure that we're getting the funding that we need in the way that we need it.

Q In other words, if it doesn't disrupt things that are critical, like the training of Iraqi forces, then you might be supportive of it?

MR. FRATTO: Look, all I can say is we'll take a look at what they're doing. We'll review it and see how it affects the ability for our military to carry out their mission.

Q Can I follow up?

MR. FRATTO: Yes, Wendell.

Q If the U.S. is pretty much out of the business, then, of funding Iraqi projects, you have a problem then with Senators Collins, Bayh and Nelson attaching this legislation to the supplemental that's --

MR. FRATTO: Large reconstruction projects. I don't know what the cut-off is between --

Q Two million dollars.

MR. FRATTO: I'm aware of what their cut-off is. I'm not aware of what we consider a large reconstruction project. And so I might want to refer you to DOD and State on how they define it. I don't have a definition on that.

Q Will the President veto the supplemental if they attach the legislation, as they intend to do?

MR. FRATTO: That's premature. We're too early to talk about what our final determination will be on that bill.

Q Can I ask you a question on a different subject?

MR. FRATTO: Does anyone have anything else on this subject? Yes, Laurent.

Q Moving on to -- Muqtada al-Sadr has refused talks with an Iraqi delegation in Iran, too, and clashes in Iraq between his fighters --

MR. FRATTO: I'm sorry, you said the Iranians have refused?

Q No, Muqtada al-Sadr, the (inaudible) leader, has refused talks with an Iraqi delegation in Iran to end clashes. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. FRATTO: I'm not -- I wasn't aware of that, so we'll see if maybe we can get something for you later, if we have a reaction.

On the same subject? Iraq? No? Let me finish with Wendell and then we'll go on.

Q Senator Clinton has accused the President of enabling an Indiana company that makes components for smart bombs to basically farm this production overseas. Is there anything to that?

MR. FRATTO: I saw some of the reporting on this, and I just -- two things. I'm not going to get involved in campaign politics and commenting on campaign commercials. The other thing I would point out is that I think it's in reference to a -- the kind of transaction that would probably have gone through the CFIUS committee -- the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. Those aren't things that we generally comment on, so I'm going to have to decline to comment on that.

Q Doesn't the timing suggest otherwise?


Q Decisions made I guess in the mid-'90s on this?

MR. FRATTO: I think some of the facts out there are in the public space and you can look at them and draw your own conclusions. Those aren't the kinds of things that I can comment on, unfortunately, Wendell.

Yes, Jeremy.

Q Is the President still wedded to his top number of $108 billion for the supplemental?

MR. FRATTO: I think the President was pretty clear on that the other day, yes. Hasn't changed.

Q Hasn't changed today?

MR. FRATTO: Hasn't changed, no.

Q Okay, there's talk of the President -- or the administration unveiling a additional contribution to food aid crisis, potentially as early [as] today. Do you have anything on that, and --

MR. FRATTO: I don't have anything that I can talk about right now. I think Secretary Rice and maybe others have said that we are working on ways that we can continue to help alleviate the severe need around the world, especially in developing countries, as a result of the increase in food prices. And you heard Josette Sheeran at the World Food Program and Bob Zoellick over at the World Bank talk about this need. The President responded two weeks ago with releasing $200 million from the Emerson Trust. And there may be some additional things that we can do, but nothing I can announce right now.

Q With his top line of $108 billion in the supplemental, are there ways that you all can contribute to --

MR. FRATTO: Well, we have an existing request for supplemental funding and -- but let's give it some time, and we'll let you know if we can say more on what can be done.

Yes, Mark.

Q Sticking with food and food prices -- you talked about this a little this morning -- you seemed to suggest this morning that the whole business of ethanol is really a kind of vanishing, small part of the problem, as least in America. Can you elaborate on that? Because a lot of the experts are saying, no, this is a big part of the problem.

MR. FRATTO: No, I wouldn't say vanishing. I don't want to minimize it; I also don't want to overplay it. And I've seen a lot of reporting that has tried to draw a direct link between ethanol and food prices. And if you really take a look at the breakdown of food prices in this country and the contribution because of biofuels, it's not as significant as some of the reporting that I've seen has made it appear -- and for a lot of different reasons. One, there's a lot of other factors that are affecting our food prices. We have competition for exports. We have the increasing costs of energy that makes things like fertilizer more expensive. It makes transporting and distribution of food more expensive.

But the biggest thing -- you ask why in certain countries do you see much higher increases in the price of food than you're seeing in the United States. That's because the vast majority of the food that we eat in the United States is processed or served in restaurants, and a lot of the cost comes from these other value-added efforts, whether it's the packaging, the marketing, the distribution, serving it to you at your table -- and that's where most of the cost comes from.

Also remember that the biggest impact on price with respect to grains in this country is pretty much limited to corn, where -- and you're seeing corn prices rise, and that's only a portion of most food products. If you go to a developing country, if you go to -- or even if you go to Mumbai and walk -- in India and walk into a market, what you'll see are stacks of flour and rice and milk in large containers. These are people who are living on $1 or $2 or $3 a day, and they're buying commodities.

So if the price of rice doubles in Thailand at the local market and you're used to spending 70 cents out of a dollar -- the dollar a day that you earn -- on food, now all of a sudden you need to cut back your food. And so it is a very acute problem in poor countries that the bulk of their food purchases are commodities with not a whole lot of value-added to them.

It's less acute a problem in this country -- and I don't say that to minimize it. A lot of families out there who buy the staples -- you know, are buying milk and eggs and bread and seeing these price increases, it's significant for them, and it's something that we're keeping a close eye on. It just has not had the same explosive effect in this country that you would find in poorer countries.

Q Are you suggesting that biofuels are unfairly taking a lot of the blame here?

MR. FRATTO: Yes, they're just one of a handful of reasons for -- and not the biggest reason.

Q And nothing there that would cause the administration to change plans for ramping up biofuels in a big way?

MR. FRATTO: Well, I think we're going -- we'll always continue to look at our policies. And if we see that it is having a particularly large effect, maybe there would be some reconsidering of our policies. But the President answered this question the other day, that it is not -- it's not just an economic decision; it's also -- there's a security issue involved also. And so there is a benefit that we're trying to achieve for the country, and that is security from -- or dependency on foreign sources of oil, and that is an important benefit for the country in terms of our national security, and so we need to keep that in mind too. I don't know how you put a dollar figure on that, but our national security is important.


Q You said this morning you might have a little bit more on Russia and Georgia.

MR. FRATTO: I don't, unfortunately. Just in terms of our communications with the Russians, we are -- we're concerned about the reports we're hearing. We don't want to see any actions that would increase tensions in the region. There's a long history of tension in the region, and we'd like to see the countries, both Georgia and Russia, NATO, and even the republics involved, try to find a way to work this out in a peaceful way.

Q Is this anything that would rise to the level of a presidential phone call to Putin?

MR. FRATTO: It hadn't as of this morning, but we'll let you know if it does.


Q In the new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, only 15 percent of people think that the country is moving in the right direction, and 27 percent approve of the job that the President is doing. To what does he attribute this, and is he concerned about this?

MR. FRATTO: I don't think he was paying attention to it.

Q Do you think that perhaps he should?


Q Why?

MR. FRATTO: Goyal.

Q Tony, two quick questions. One, going back to food prices. One, this has become a issue in the press and in the -- around the globe, certainly, I mean, as far as this -- whenever we had this news of the food is going into ethanol and all that. Also, World Bank and IMF and U.N. is also very much concerned about these prices. Have you, or the White House, has received any requests, or food aid requests, from any country because of this chaos going on?

MR. FRATTO: A bilateral request? Not that -- I'm not aware of specific requests. We have longstanding relations, where we provide food and agricultural assistance with a lot of countries. I don't have the numbers. It numbers in the dozens of countries that we provide food. But we provide food and agricultural assistance in lots of different ways, whether it's through the World Bank and the World Bank Group of banks, like the African Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank. We do it through the World Food Program. We do it on a bilateral basis. We do it on emergency basis, where our Defense Department might be delivering food assistance, where there's a natural disaster. We have the USDA providing technical assistance to countries on agriculture techniques and seeds, and helping to teach agronomists. It is a wide-ranging array of assistance efforts to help countries become more efficient in the production of food, and hopefully a little bit more self-sustainable for their own citizens, and also be able to export and help their country develop.

Q And second, as far as the President's visit to Middle East is concerned, I'm sure President must have seen the letter or what's written in The Washington Post by the new Prime Minister of Pakistan. There he said that this is the best chance for his country to have a democracy and to continue in the path that other countries have built. But also he said that he had a message for the 1.3 billion Muslims and Arabs, that this is the best hope for them also. You think President is going to foster this idea or this democracy around where he's going to visit?

MR. FRATTO: Well, we certainly hope that we can do more to foster more democracy and a commitment to democracy. I think it's clear that no other country in the world has committed as much energy to it, and it's something the President believes in. I'm not sure if he actually saw the -- if he saw the column.

Q Tony.


Q Earlier this morning several lawmakers, including Senator Brownback, Senator Menendez, called on the President and all U.S. officials to stay away from the opening ceremonies of the Chinese Olympics. Is the President's schedule, specifically that, still in play? And when you hear pretty strong words like "the worst enabler of human rights violations in the world" coming from people like Senator Brownback and Congressman Wolf, does that get the President's attention?

MR. FRATTO: Well, I think we always listen to the senators you mentioned. We know that they have strong feelings. There are a lot -- lots of U.S. officials and others have strong feelings, but I don't have anything to add in terms of the President's schedule. He will go to China and -- but I have nothing on his schedule.


Q Tony, concerning the statement yesterday on North Korea Freedom Week, does the President have any assurances that North Korea will not be removed from the state sponsors of terror list until there is progress on human rights?

MR. FRATTO: Well, we control whether they would be removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list, so assurances -- we've talked about this a lot. This is a process that involves actions for actions, so if the North Koreans meet their obligations, which we're encouraging them to do, the other five members of the six-party talks will meet their obligations. Secretary Rice, I think, spent some time talking about what the process would be on some of our actions, and I would just refer back to her comments on that. But nothing is assured. The only thing that's assured is if there are verifiable actions, they will be met by actions on the part of the other members of the six parties.


Q Just a quick follow-up on North Korea. Have you gotten any indication from North Korean side that a declaration would come out soon, anytime soon?

MR. FRATTO: Nothing specific, no.

Q What is the reason for the almost simultaneous timing of the release about the Syrian reactor as well as the Kadish spy affair?

MR. FRATTO: Unless you know something I know, it's a coincidence. I don't know.


Q The Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj has been released from Guantanamo after having been held since 2001. Do you have any information about the circumstances of his release?

MR. FRATTO: I don't.

Q Which country he was sent to?

MR. FRATTO: I'd have to refer you to DOD. I don't have anything on that.

Q By releasing him, is the government acknowledging that he's not an enemy combatant?

MR. FRATTO: I honestly have nothing for you on that. I have to refer you to DOD and let them comment on it.

Q Thank you.

END 1:02 P.M. EDT