UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


White House Briefing, January 24

24 January 2006

Economy, Judge Alito/nomination, Pakistan/air strike, Hurricane Katrina/anticipated damage, Iraq reconstruction, Canada/softwood lumber, Abramoff/Senator Reid's comments, Iran/Newt Gingrich's comments, Bush's trip to NSA, Army interrogator case, Ford layoffs/plant closings, Afghanistan

White House press secretary Scott McClellan briefed the press January 24.

Following is the transcript of the White House briefing:

(begin transcript)

Office of the Press Secretary
January 24, 2006


-- Statement on the economy
-- Statement on Judge Alito
-- Pakistan/air strike
-- Hurricane Katrina/anticipated damage
-- Iraq reconstruction
-- Canada/softwood lumber
-- Abramoff/Senator Reid's comments
-- Iran/Newt Gingrich's comments
-- President's trip to NSA
-- Case of Army interrogator
-- Ford layoffs and plant closings
-- Afghanistan

Office of the Press Secretary
January 24, 2006


James S. Brady Briefing Room

2:13 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Let me begin with a couple of items.  First of all, there was more good economic news today.  The December employment numbers for states across America came out.  Employment increased in 47 of 50 states; the unemployment rate dropped in 32 states.  As we have pointed out previously, we've seen 4.6 million new jobs created since May of '03; 400,000 new jobs created in the last two months.  Our economy is the envy of the world.  It is growing faster than any economy in the industrialized world.  The economy is humming, and we must continue to act to keep it strong.

Secondly, I'd like to talk about Judge Alito and the confirmation process.  The Senate Judiciary Committee, earlier today, moved ahead on the confirmation of Judge Alito, approving his confirmation and sending it to the floor of the United States Senate.  I think during the confirmation process that the American people came to see Judge Alito and see the kind of person that he is and the kind of judge that he is, and they gained great respect for his brilliant legal mind, his experience and his fairness.

The American Bar Association gave Judge Alito their highest rating, a unanimously well-qualified rating.  He is someone who has been widely praised by judges appointed by both Democrats and Republicans.  He is someone that the American people can be proud of to serve on our nation's highest court.  And we urge the Senate to move forward with a swift up or down vote so that he can begin serving on our nation's highest court.

And with that, I will be glad to go to questions.

QUESTION:  I have two questions that can be dismissed with a yes or no.  One, is the President going to seek any legal -- more legal permission from Congress to spy on Americans without a warrant?  And two, does he think, does he believe that his new designation of the spy program, terrorist surveillance, will tarnish people who are spied on and are guilty or not guilty?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Let me take the first part of your question, and I think it's important to give a clearer picture of where things are with the American people, and so I want to make a few comments about it.

Q:  I want to know where you stand --

MR. McCLELLAN:  And I'm going to do that.  I've already previously answered this question with reporters and stated our view; the Attorney General stated it earlier today in some interviews.  This is an important tool that helps to save lives by preventing attacks.  It is a limited, targeted program aimed at al Qaeda communications, as the President pointed out yesterday.  This program is focused only on communications in which one person is reasonably suspected of links to al Qaeda or affiliated terrorist organizations.  And it involves international communications.

I reject your characterization to suggest it's domestic spying.  That's like saying someone making a phone call from inside the United States to another country is a domestic call.  It is billed the international rate and it is labeled --

Q:  The law says he has to seek a court warrant.

MR. McCLELLAN:  -- it is labeled an international call --

Q:  Why doesn't he seek a warrant?  What's the big problem?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, actually, we've walked through this repeatedly over the last few days.  It's important for the American people to understand what the facts are.  There is a lot of misinformation about --

Q:  Why can't you seek a warrant?

MR. McCLELLAN:  -- this program.  And we do use the FISA tool, as well.  That's an important tool, as well.  But we have briefed members of Congress more than a dozen times on this.  We continue to brief members of Congress in an appropriate manner.  This is a highly classified program and it is a vital program to our nation's security.  The 9/11 Commission criticized us for not connecting the dots --

Q:  Is it vital to go through legal steps?

MR. McCLELLAN:  This is helping us to connect the dots in a very targeted and focused way.

Q:  Why can't he seek a warrant?

MR. McCLELLAN:  It is about detecting and preventing attacks.  FISA was created for a different time period.  General Hayden walked through that yesterday; the Attorney General talked about it more.  This is about moving with speed and agility, not some long-term period of time.  It's about detecting --

Q:  You can get one retroactively.

MR. McCLELLAN:  -- it's about detecting and preventing attacks.  And we are a nation at war, and the courts have upheld the President's authority to engage in surveillance.  Surveillance is critical to prevailing in the war on terrorism.

Q:  He doesn't have a blank check.

MR. McCLELLAN:  And we talked with members of Congress about whether or not there needed to be legislation that reflects what the President's authority already is, and the congressional leaders felt that by doing so it could compromise this program.  This is a vital program and it's important that we don't show the enemy our play book.  And talking about it --

Q:  Getting warrants doesn't show the enemy a play book.

MR. McCLELLAN:  Okay.  Next question.

Q:  Pakistan has been very critical of the air strike that killed a number of people, apparently some innocent civilians, last week.  Did the Prime Minister raise objections or concerns with the President today?  And what did President Bush say in response?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Prime Minister Aziz talked about this a little bit earlier.  I don't think there's really a whole lot to add to what he already said.  The two leaders had a very good discussion.  They talked about how we're working together in the war on terrorism and how it's important to continue working together.  They talked about continuing to work to improve cooperation and coordination.  And the discussion that I sat in on, both in the Oval Office and the residence, focused on our ongoing efforts to defeat al Qaeda and to prevent attacks from happening, both against Pakistan and against the United States.  And that's where the focus was.

Now, they also had some private time together in between the two meetings.  But there's really nothing else to add to what I just said and what the Prime Minister said earlier today.

Pakistan is a valued ally in the global war on terrorism.  We work very closely with Pakistan and we will continue to do so.  This President has made it clear we're going to pursue terrorists wherever they are -- wherever they are.  There is no negotiation with terrorists.  These are people who are determined to harm innocent civilians in Pakistan, in America, and in countries around the civilized world.  And the way to defeat them is to take the fight to them and prevent them from carrying out the attacks in the first place.

Q:  We haven't heard from the President on this.  Can you tell us what the President said?

MR. McCLELLAN:  As I said, I think I'll just leave it where I did and leave it where the Prime Minister did.

Q:  Scott, back on September 1st, President Bush said in an interview, "I don't think anybody anticipated a breaching of the levees in New Orleans."  And we had this Infrastructure Simulation and Assessment Center that delivered a report to the White House that, indeed, said that the levees were likely to be breached and that New Orleans would be underwater for months.  So did the President mis-speak, or did he just not get the word?

MR. McCLELLAN:  No, I think, unfortunately, you're kind of combining two things that are not related, because the President actually talked about this --

Q:  Which one is not related, the hurricane or New Orleans?

MR. McCLELLAN:  The President actually talked about this and talked about what he was referring to, John.  Of course, we know -- we knew what the potential was of a hurricane of that magnitude.  We had done exercises in Louisiana and other exercises and looked at such a possibility previously.  As the President said, what he was referring to was that there was a sense by many, once the hurricane hit and had passed, that the worst-case scenario did not happen.  There were numerous media reports saying that New Orleans had dodged the bullet.  And I can pull those up for you and show you those.  And so that's what the President was referring to.  So I think it's wrong to mischaracterize --

Q:  It couldn't have been mine, because I was hip-deep in water at the time.

MR. McCLELLAN:  I'm not suggesting it was, but what the President was referring to was what we had previously said.  And he made that very clear earlier.

Now, in terms of the issues relating to Hurricane Katrina, remember, we talked with you all ahead of the storm and provided regular updates to the American people about the steps that we were taking ahead of the storm.  The President issued emergency disaster declarations ahead of the storm hitting.  The President went public and said, listen to the warnings from state and local officials; this is a dangerous storm.  As the Governor of Louisiana said, the President called her ahead of the storm, and said, evacuate New Orleans.

So we were taking a number of steps ahead of the storm.  And what's important now is that we continue to help the people along the Gulf Coast recover and rebuild their lives and their communities, and that we continue to move forward on a comprehensive lessons-learned review.  That's what this administration is doing.  Fran Townsend, our Homeland Security Advisor, is heading up a comprehensive review so that we can look at what went wrong, what went right, and then apply the lessons learned.  We've already taken steps to address some of the issues relating to Katrina, and to prevent a recurrence of some of the problems that occurred.  And that's what we will continue to do.

Q:  Evacuate with what, though?  FEMA, in its hurricane PAM simulation, suggested that 600 buses and 1,200 drivers would be needed.  The bull's-eye was on New Orleans 48 hours before the hurricane hit.

MR. McCLELLAN:  Yes, and Max Mayfield, of the Hurricane Center --

Q:  Where were the resources to evacuate?

MR. McCLELLAN:  -- was issuing warnings.  And these are all issues that are being looked at as part of the comprehensive review.  It is very important that we look at these issues.  As the President indicated, all levels of government dropped the ball, to an extent -- the federal, state and local.  The President accepts responsibility for the federal response efforts.

Now, there were also a lot of good things going on and important work being done to save lives.  The Coast Guard is a great example.  They were working around the clock to lift people off of their rooftops and take them to safety.  And we can't discount all of that.  But what we've got to do is make sure that we learn the lessons, and that we apply those lessons to future response efforts.  And that's exactly what we are doing.  We're also working with congressional committees.  They're moving forward on hearings and looking at these issues.  And the comprehensive review that we have undertaken is nearing completion, and we'll be talking more about it soon.

Q:  Is it fair to say you had pretty good warning of what would happen prior to the hurricane hitting?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, we walked you through the warnings that we were issuing ahead of the hurricane.  We knew it was a very dangerous storm.  I just walked you through the steps that we were taking and the steps that the hurricane center was taken under Max Mayfield's direction, to warn state and local officials along the whole Gulf Coast.  This was a very dangerous storm, and we knew that well ahead of time.  We were taking it very seriously.  Now, with that said, the President --

Q:  You knew what the consequences might have been --

MR. McCLELLAN:  With that said, the President wasn't satisfied with the response.  Of course, we understood what the impact of a hurricane of that magnitude could do if it hit directly on New Orleans.

Q:  Scott, just a little bit of a follow-up on that, to get this straight, then.

MR. McCLELLAN:  Because there were exercises ahead -- there were exercises that were done well ahead of that hurricane.

Q:  When the Situation Room was told about this report about five hours, I believe, before it hit landfall -- you're saying that did not have anything to do with what the President was saying?  Because the President said to Diane Sawyer on September 1st, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.  They did not anticipate a serious storm."  So --

MR. McCLELLAN:  No, Martha, what I'm saying is that it's important to take a comprehensive look at the response efforts at all levels of government, what was being done.  And that way, the American people can have a clear and accurate understanding of what happened with the response efforts.  I'm not going to try to get into a play-by-play analysis of an ongoing look at the response efforts.  That's undergoing, both by --

Q:  -- look at why the President would make a statement about that?

MR. McCLELLAN:  -- both by the administration and it's undergoing by members of Congress.  And that's an important part of helping us move forward and prevent something like this from happening again, in terms of the response efforts.

Q:  Okay, but you'll look at statements by the President, for instance -- "they did not anticipate a serious storm," as part of looking into this?

MR. McCLELLAN:  I'm sorry, what statement by the President that said that?  The President --

Q:  He said, "They did not anticipate a serious storm," on September 1st.

MR. McCLELLAN:  I reject that wholeheartedly.  The President said ahead of the storm, this is a very dangerous storm, and warned citizens all along the Gulf Coast region to heed the advice of state and local officials.  He held a press conference that was carried nationwide the morning ahead of the storm and reemphasized the importance of taking this storm seriously.  Now, what we are focused on --

Q:  All I'm telling you, September 1st, he said, "I don't think anybody anticipated a breach of the levees.  They did not anticipate --

MR. McCLELLAN:  Okay, that's a different issue, and I addressed John's question --

Q:  -- a serious storm."

MR. McCLELLAN:  I addressed John's question, what he was referring to in those remarks.  And what he specifically was referring to is exactly what media reports were citing at the time.  The hurricane had hit; it had passed New Orleans; and there was a sense by many that the worst-case scenario did not happen.  And that's what the President was referring to in those remarks, and he said so when he was asked a follow-up question about those very comments.  I said so, as well, at the time.  So I'd encourage you to go back and look at that.

Of course, we recognized the potential damage from a hurricane of this magnitude.  We had conducted exercises before the storm hit, well before the storm hit.

Q:  With respect to the OIG report on reconstruction in Iraq, I know the President has acknowledged that there has been some problems with reconstruction and the way projects were emphasized, shifting to smaller --

MR. McCLELLAN:  Right -- from larger to the smaller projects.

Q:  From that report there were concerns between State and Defense and who was in charge.  What's the President's reaction to those findings?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, first of all, they're not findings at this point.  I think that there's a report in the news referring to a preliminary draft report.  I think that the Inspector General's Office indicated that could still go through significant changes.  We strongly support the work of the Special Inspector General for Iraq reconstruction, and we look forward to seeing those results once they're finalized.  The President has pointed out that we have learned some lessons and we have had to adjust our reconstruction efforts, where initially they were focused on some larger projects and we realized that it was going to -- it would be better to focus on some of the smaller projects that could have an impact very quickly.  And that's what he's focused on in his remarks.

Q:  Would he concur that between State and Defense there was some confusion about who was in charge of those projects?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, again, this report is something that's not finalized at this point.  We look forward to seeing it.  So I'll wait until we see that report.

Q:  When is Fran's report scheduled to be complete?  And given the questions here and the questions on Capitol Hill, is it safe for you to say at least that this email from August 29th is clearly going to be a thrust or at least one of the priorities in her review?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, those are all issues that are looked at as part of the review, absolutely.  And this relates to the PAM exercise that was conducted well prior to Hurricane Katrina, and looked at issues like this.  And of course, that's part of the lessons learned review that we look at.

Now, in terms of the review, I would describe it as what I did previously.  It is nearing completion; it should be finished soon.  And we'll have more to say on it once it's complete.

Q:  And you would like to know where that email went, who saw it and when -- those are the kind of questions --

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, again, let's let the review come to a conclusion, and then we'll be able to talk more about it at that point.

Q:  This morning there was a program at the American Enterprise Institute on the election in Canada.  And Stephen Harper was just elected Prime Minister.  And three former members of the administration -- David Frum, who was a presidential speechwriter, Roger Noriega, who was an assistant Secretary of State, and Phil Swagel, who was chief of staff for the White House Council of Economic Advisors -- discussed the softwood lumber dispute.  And they all agreed that the U.S., they said, acted like a rogue nation in this dispute, that the U.S. is in the wrong.  And I'm wondering if the administration would agree with that, and if we might see some resolution of the softwood lumber dispute now that we have a new leader in Canada.

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, first of all, let me offer our congratulations to the new government that is taking place, taking form in Canada.  We congratulate the Conservative Party and Stephen Harper on the victory.  We have had a strong and broad relationship with Canada, and we look forward to working with the new government to strengthen our relations even more.  So we offer our congratulations.

In terms of the softwood lumber issue, this is something that we've had a disagreement over.  The President has discussed it on a number of occasions when he's met with the Prime Minister there.  And we are continuing to work to try to bring it to a resolution and that's what we will -- that's what we are committed to doing.

Q:  Scott, going back to Prime Minister's visit, Prime Minister of Pakistan visit to the White House.  United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, they wrote a letter to the President, concerned about the religious freedom in Pakistan, and also some groups on the same issue were demonstrating outside about human rights and religious freedom in Pakistan.  And yesterday, Prime Minister speaking at the -- he said that Pakistan is a nuclear responsible nation and we have never given our nuclear secrets to anybody, and also he said we are democracy in progress.

My question is, when he was sitting with the President, who is fighting against terrorism around the globe, especially in his country, where all those terrorists coming from there, what message do you think President had for him, for a person who has -- a country has given nuclear weapons or nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, Iraq and -- he's not talking about A.Q. Kahn and all those things.  He said that his country is a responsible nuclear nation.

MR. McCLELLAN:  They did talk about nuclear non-proliferation issues.  They had a discussion about that.  Much of that discussion was centered around Iran and its nuclear program.  They discussed some of that over lunch.

In terms of the A.Q. Kahn network, I think we've talked about that in the past.  That's a network that we've worked with others and we've helped to break up and it was a significant achievement by our intelligence community and others.  But these are issues that we talk about with a good friend, like Pakistan, in a very open way.

Q:  -- and the religious freedom?

MR. McCLELLAN:  I'm sorry, what was the question on religious freedom?  Well, they actually had a discussion about -- they were talking about the issue of winning the war on terrorism.  And they also had a discussion looking at making sure that there is good cultural and religious understanding between countries, particularly a country like the United States and a country like Pakistan, a country that has a predominantly Muslim community there.  So they talked about inter-faith understanding and working on those efforts, as well, to address some of the issues that relate to our overall efforts in addressing the root causes of terrorism.

Q:  And the President is still willing or going to visit Pakistan, even though there is so much hatred against the United States, and demonstrations and all that, in that country?

MR. McCLELLAN:  I think there is a lot of appreciation in Pakistan for what the United States has done to help the Pakistani people respond to the devastating earthquake that hit the region.  Our United States military and many American citizens have been helpful in those efforts, in terms of saving lives and helping to rebuild communities.  There is a private sector effort that was launched, as well.  I think we've contributed -- I know we've pledged and are contributing somewhere in the range of $500 million in resources to help with the ongoing recovery efforts.  It was a devastating earthquake and I think the Pakistani people saw the true compassion of the American people with our response efforts.  And they're continuing to see it on the ground.  And I think that that's something that needs to be taken into account.

The President looks forward to going to both India and Pakistan, as he said earlier today, and he will be doing so in March.  We'll be having a more official announcement soon, on the trip.

Q:  Scott, back on Katrina.  What has been the instruction given to White House staff about cooperating with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee?  Senator Joe Lieberman today said, "Almost every question our staff has asked federal agency witnesses regarding conversations with, or involvement of, the White House has been met with the response that they could not answer, on direction of the White House.  There's been no assertion of executive privilege, just a refusal to answer."

MR. McCLELLAN:  I haven't seen that, Elaine.  But what I can tell you -- because I've been in the meetings with the President earlier today -- we are working very closely with Congress as they move forward on these hearings to make sure that they have the information they need to do their job.  We are working with them in a cooperative way and we will continue to do so.

There are thousands of documents that have been provided to the committees.  There are numerous administration officials that have gone before the committee and testified.  We've had specialized briefings by the National Security Advisor for the committees.  And we will continue to work with committees in a cooperative way to make sure they have the information they need to do their job.  I know there is always some separation of powers issues involved in some of these matters, but we're committed to working in a cooperative way.

Q:  Another question?  Ahead of the State of the Union address, Senator Harry Reid is out with a statement, and part of it reads, "In his 2000 campaign, George Bush promised to bring dignity to the White House.  But we've since found that he brought Jack Abramoff instead.  President Bush needs to quit stonewalling about his White House's connection to corruption and finally tell us how he's going to reform Washington."

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, this is more of the kind of partisan attacks that we see in this city that only lower the discourse in this town.  This President has worked from day one to elevate the tone and to elevate the discourse in this town, and that's what he will continue to do.  And in terms of Mr. Abramoff, he is someone who has contributed to both Democrats and Republicans alike, whether it was directly or indirectly.

Q:  But if there was nothing improper about contacts with him, why not open up records about any visits or meetings Mr. Abramoff might have had?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, I've already talked to you about that information and responded to questions that you have.  There's a difference between responding to questions like that and engaging in a fishing expedition that has nothing to do with the investigation.

Q:  Thank you, Scott.  Last Thursday morning, when I asked you about the administration having any contact with exiles from Iran opposed to the current regime, you said there were no conversations, but you stood with the Iranian people and you were critical of the government.  Yesterday in an interview at our publication, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was highly critical of the administration for not building up exiled groups opposed to the current President, whom he likened to Hitler in 1935.  And he suggested the administration's attitude toward Iran was very much like that of Britain toward Germany in the '30s.  Would you care to comment?

MR. McCLELLAN:  I haven't seen his comments.  I would reject the characterization that you make.  I don't know if that's accurate, or not.  But the President has made it very clear that we stand with the Iranian people who seek greater freedom.  We stand with all those around the world who seek to live in freedom.  And we work in many different ways to support the efforts of those who desire to live in freedom, and we will continue to do so.

I think what I said last week was that I didn't have any update to provide you.  Maybe the State Department could provide you additional information.  But we stand very firmly with the Iranian people.  What they have is a regime that is controlled by an unelected few and that does not have their best interests at heart.  They have their own interests at heart, continuing to strengthen their own power within Iran.  And all this regime is doing is acting in a way that further isolates Iran from the rest of the international community.  And their behavior and action is unacceptable, their comments are unacceptable.  That's why we are working with Europeans and others to send a very clear message to Iran that such behavior, when it comes to their nuclear program, will not be tolerated.  They continue to violate safeguard obligations, and fail to comply with agreements that they previously made.

Q:  On Iran, as things deteriorate in this relationship -- there may be sanctions and maybe some more dramatic action --

MR. McCLELLAN:  I'm not sure if a "relationship" is there.  Go ahead.

Q:  What are we going to do about the potential diminution in the supply of oil?  It's the fourth largest oil producer.  Are we working with our allies?  Do we have a strategy to contain a loss of oil supply in the world?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, I don't want to get into speculation at this point, but we are discussing with our friends and others the way forward to address the situation when it comes to Iran.  The international community continues to be deeply concerned about Iran's behavior and about the comments coming out of the regime.  This is a regime that is failing to live up to its international obligations and failing to comply with its agreements.  It has not acted in a good faith way in the negotiations --

Q:  I'm not disputing that.  I was wondering what we're going to do --

MR. McCLELLAN:  -- and what we are focused on right now is the emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency that will be coming up on February 2nd.  And we're talking about the step that needs to be taken there.  We believe very strongly that Iran needs to be -- the regime in Iran and its behavior needs to be referred to the United Nations Security Council.  That's what noncompliance calls for under the statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  So that's the first step.  Right now we're focused on this first step.  And then when it gets to the Security Council, there would be additional discussions about what steps to take.  And I think the question is assuming certain actions would be taken, and I just don't want to get into speculating about those matters.

Q:  My question was, do we -- what are we doing about a sudden cut in the world's supply of oil, should things go badly with Iran?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Again, that's a "what if" question, so I don't want to --

Q:  It's not, it's a very practical question, I thought.

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, we're still discussing with Europeans and others these matters and what action we may take.  That's assuming certain action might be taken.  And we're focused on the first step right now, and then we can talk further about those issues after we've had those discussions.

Q:  Scott, this morning you said that President Bush would call the Prime Minister from Canada, Stephen Harper.  Can you give us an update --

MR. McCLELLAN:  No, I don't have an update on that.  I expect he will be calling him soon to offer him his congratulations and say that he looks forward to working with him.

Q:  Can you give us -- there's a bit of a sense in Canada that this conservative government in Canada will be better able to work with the conservative Bush administration.  Can you just give us a historical significant comment on --

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, we've had a good working relationship with Canada for a long time.  There are many areas where we have worked closely together with the government.  We look forward to working with the new government and strengthening those ties even more.  I'm not going to try to compare one administration to the next.  We congratulate Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party on their victory, and look forward to working with them.

Q:  Could the fact that they have a very short minority government be a problem?  Could that force Stephen Harper to adopt a stronger, tougher attitude --

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, that's getting into internal politics inside Canada.  I'll leave that analysis to others.

Q:  Scott, you came out touting good economic statistics again, which have been good for the most part of the past year.  Yet when we poll the American people, they seem to think that the economy is getting worse, not better.  Why is there a disconnect?

MR. McCLELLAN:  I think you spend too much time on polls.  No.  (Laughter.)  The President is focused on acting.  And I say this with all seriousness.  The President is acting.  We have taken steps -- and you have to consider what we've been through.  This economy has been through a lot over the last several years.  It was heading into recession when we were coming into office.  The President inherited that.  We took action by passing tax relief to get the economy growing again and to creating -- to create jobs.

If you look at the economic indications, it shows that the economy is poised for continued, strong growth.  But at the same time, there are issues that directly affect American families that we need to continue to address -- high energy prices, increasing health care cost.  We've taken some steps, but there is more that we need to do.  We need to continue to build upon the pro-growth policies we've put in place.  We need to continue to build upon what we have done to address the root causes of high energy prices, our dependence on foreign sources of energy. And that's what we have done, and that's what we will continue to do.

We passed a comprehensive national energy strategy just this past summer.  That was a significant step.  There's more to do.  Gas prices continue to be too high; energy prices continue to be too high.  And American families are concerned about health care costs.  And that's why the President is going to be -- has been talking about the steps that need to be taken, and will continue to.  And we'll be urging Congress to continue to build upon some of the steps that we've taken to address those rising costs.

Q:  Scott, a two-part.  With regard to reports of the President meeting with Secretary Rumsfeld, considering the just concluded fast of an Episcopal Navy chaplain, why hasn't the President, as Commander-in-Chief, ordered the United States Navy to stop any action whatsoever against Christian chaplains who mention Christ, Jewish chaplains who mention God, and Muslim chaplains who mention Mohammed?

MR. McCLELLAN:  I don't know that I agree with your characterization.  I think you ought to look at what the Department has said about this very issue.

Q:  I have looked.

MR. McCLELLAN:  And look at what I said about this just a couple -- I think two or three weeks ago.  We strongly support the ability of our men and women in uniform to worship as they choose.  And we support military chaplains; they provide a lot of important contributions to our men and women in uniform, and those are important contributions.

Q:  Yesterday, the President, in his phone call to the March for Life, said this, and this is a quote:  "These principles call us to defend the sick and dying, persons with disabilities and birth defects, all who are weak and vulnerable, especially unborn children" -- which category means, of course, from conception, when they're invisible.  And my question:  Does this statement mean that the President also believes that unconceived, as well as unborn children, consisting of living, moving human sperm and egg, also deserve the right to life, rather than being killed by contraception?

MR. McCLELLAN:  I think the President has made his views very clear when it comes to the issues of life.  This President has worked to build a culture of life in America.  He will continue working to build upon those efforts.  And that's the way I would describe it.

Q:  How does he feel on contraception?  Is he opposed to contraception, or not?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, the position he has taken is that when it comes to educational programs for teens, we ought to be spending at least as much as we do on teen contraception programs on abstinence programs.  And that's what we have worked to do.

Q:  But he does believe in birth control, right?

MR. McCLELLAN:  That's what the President has talked about and said.

Q:  Scott, can you describe what the President is going to see at NSA tomorrow, and what he --

MR. McCLELLAN:  Sure.  The President looks forward to going back to the National Security Agency tomorrow.  He will be -- when he gets there, he'll participate in a tour of the National Security Agency.  I think that the first part of that will be closed, and then I think the pool might be able to see some of the second part of that tour.  And then I expect the President will be talking to all our personnel at the National Security Agency.  This will be a closed portion of it, like he does at other agencies when he goes there and visits.  And I think it will be fed out to National Security Agency personnel, wherever they are, and he'll thank them for all that they're doing to help save lives and prevent attacks from happening.  They work 24/7, with one objective in mind, and that is to protect the American people.  And they do a great job.  And he wants to express his appreciation to them.

And then, following that, I expect the President will be making some remarks to the pool, and looks forward to talking about the importance of this vital tool and how it's been successful in helping us to prevent attacks from happening.  It is a limited, targeted program aimed at al Qaeda communications.  It is about detection and prevention.  There's been some misrepresentations of what it actually is, and so that's why we're continuing to talk to the American people and educate them about this vital tool in the war on terrorism.

Q:  Is he going to actually see where this vital tool is being run from or --

MR. McCLELLAN:  We'll keep you posted tomorrow.

Q:  Scott, yesterday an Army interrogator was slapped on the wrist after being convicted for killing an Iraqi general by stuffing him into a sleeping back, wrapping him up in cord and straddling him.  Are you concerned that this slap on the wrist sends a message to the Iraqi people that we're okay with techniques like that?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Because there are chain of command issues involved here, I can't get into commenting on specific cases, and I won't do that.  There are rules regarding that, and so I can't do that.  But what I can emphasize is that when there is wrongdoing or abuse, people are held to account, and we have seen that time and time again.  This country holds people to account if they don't follow the law, if they don't follow the rules that are in place.  And that stands in stark contrast to a number of countries that I think we've talked about in this room.

Q:  Do you think a $6,000 fine and restriction to his place of work and barracks is sufficient?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Again, I can't get into talking about specific cases.  But it's important to hold people to account when they engage in behavior that is outside of the law, and that's what this administration has been doing.

Q:  Two questions, please.  The Ford Company announced it is going to close 14 plants and lay off as many as 30,000 workers.  Is the President concerned that this layoff would downturn the nation's economy?

MR. McCLELLAN:  I'm sorry, that it will what?

Q:  Downturn the nation's economy.

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, I think one important aspect to keep in mind when looking at this issue is that the job market is hot.  There are a number of available jobs, and we need to make sure we're doing everything we can to assist workers who are in transition to find new jobs.  And that's what we do.  We are always concerned when there are job dislocations.  We live in a changing economy, and there is a safety net that we have in place to help workers and families when there are dislocations like the one that you bring up.

The best way to help, as I said, is to help them find a job as quickly as possible, and that's what we want to do.  As we work to help them find a job, there is also assistance that is available, unemployment insurance, there's job training help, and there is other government assistance available.  The Department of Labor is working very closely with state and local officials to address these issues.  One of the positive things that came out of the Base Realignment and Closure efforts was that we were able to gain a lot of experience and identify resources that are available to help communities transition more smoothly when they go through situations like this.

And that's why it's important that we keep our economy strong.  Our economy is strong.  Economists will tell you they see continued strong growth ahead.  As I mentioned, 4.6 million new jobs created.  There are a lot of good, high-paying jobs that are available.  We need to make sure workers have the training and skills to fill those jobs, and that's what we will continue to do.  Thank you for bringing that question up.

Q:  The President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, reportedly admits drug production in his country is now at pre-war levels.  And there are published reports that those opposed to the U.S. in the areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan have now regrouped and are growing stronger.  Facing these major problems, how does the administration plan to keep democracy alive and well in Afghanistan?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Well, democracy is taking root in Afghanistan and we've worked very closely with the government in Afghanistan.  And this is a government that is committed to strengthening democratic institutions, and we will continue to work with them.  The British government has worked very closely with Afghan authorities on these issues to address the drug problem that you bring up; we've worked with them and we'll continue to do so as we move ahead.

Q:  Scott, the President has been making the case to the public that this enhanced surveillance is vital.  Is he laying the groundwork to go to Congress and seek explicit legal authority for this through the Congress?

MR. McCLELLAN:  This question actually came up yesterday and it came up at the beginning of this briefing.  And I pointed out that the President -- as I pointed out yesterday, the President has the authority and the responsibility to do what he's doing to prevent attacks from happening.

The Attorney General, earlier today, again went into detail about the legal justification behind this program.  When the President took the oath of office, he took an oath based on the Constitution that said he will do everything he can to protect America from all threats, foreign and domestic.  This is a program that is critical to our efforts to disrupt plots and prevent attacks from happening.  It is aimed at international communications involving al Qaeda or affiliated terrorist organizations.  And the American people expect us to do everything within our lawful power to prevent attacks and to prevail in the war on terrorism.  And this President will continue doing so.

We also work closely with Congress on these matters.  That's why we have briefed Congress more than a dozen times prior to the unauthorized disclosure that occurred about this program.  And make no mistake about it, the unauthorized disclosure is harmful to our national security, because it tells the enemy what we are doing to try to go after them.  And General Hayden has talked about that, the former head of the National Security Agency and our Deputy Director of National Intelligence.

But we will continue working with Congress as we move forward.  One of the issues that was discussed with members during the briefings that occurred over the course of the last couple of years was whether or not they should move forward on legislation that would reflect the authority the President already has.  And those congressional leaders felt that moving ahead on legislation could compromise the efforts that are ongoing under this vital program.

Q:  Thank you, Scott.

MR. McCLELLAN:  Thank you.  I'll be back tomorrow.

END       2:53 P.M. EST

(end transcript)

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list