Press Briefing by Dana Perino
For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
October 5, 2007
James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:39 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Good afternoon. One statement on Burma and another statement on a domestic issue, and then we can go to questions.
The United Nations Security Council right now is hearing from U.N. Special Envoy Gambari. The United States urges the U.N. Security Council to send Mr. Gambari at the earliest possible time back to Burma to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta, to work with them to move Burma to a peaceful transition to democracy.
Reports from Burma that the Internet has been cut off and that, therefore, their access to the outside world has been severely curtailed, and that innocent Burmese monks and others have been detained, continue to be causes for serious concern. And we urge the Permanent 5 members of the United Nations Security Council to take these matters seriously and to act.
Here at home, the United States Senate -- I've got a little slide -- has once again gone on a recess today; they'll be gone for yet another week. They have yet to send the President any of the appropriations bills that we need to start working on. In addition to that, the House has yet to appoint any conferees. And the problem with that is that we're getting dangerously close to needing to propose another budget, and without these appropriations bills and governing by -- just by continuing resolution is not what the President thinks is the best use of taxpayer dollars. And so we urge them to get back, work on the appropriations bills and certainly to appoint those conferees so that work and compromise can begin.
With that, I'll take your questions.
Q I wanted to ask about the President's statement this morning on the interrogation method. He said -- he repeated, obviously, what he did yesterday, that the government doesn't torture -- the U.S. government doesn't torture people. But these memos make it sound like the definition of what's permissible is so expansive that you could say we don't torture and almost anything could be true falling into that. What do you say to that?
MS. PERINO: Well, what I say is the United States' policy and our laws is not to torture. We meet the laws and we also meet our international obligations. There's a public document that interprets the statute that is from the Office of Legal Opinion, from the Justice Department. It's on the website for anybody to read. Any additional documents are classified for a reason, because they have to deal with interrogation techniques.
What the President said today is, yes, we do interrogate al Qaeda terrorists. These are people who intend to harm us. We do not torture them. And the appropriate members of the Congress were briefed, and there has been no changes from that December 2004 opinion that everyone has available to them -- in addition to the briefings that the Hill has had.
Q Any of the briefing -- any of the members of Congress who have been briefed, are those the same ones who are complaining about the --
MS. PERINO: Intelligence Committee members were briefed.
Q And so they're saying -- one of their complaints obviously is that these memos were done in secret, they're secret memos. So you're saying that's not true because they've been briefed?
MS. PERINO: Well, they have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress on the Intelligence Committee. But they are classified for a reason and they are secret -- I think the word "secret" is getting a little bit too much -- it takes on the aura of mystery -- but one of the reasons they are secret is because they need to be. They need to be cloaked in the classified system so that we can keep that information private so that we're not signaling to our enemies exactly what our techniques are. And that's why they're -- they've been classified, and that's why they were briefed to the intelligence community, because it's an intelligence community program.
Q So where is the line between harsh but legal interrogation, and torture?
MS. PERINO: The experts have debated that. They have come up with an opinion. It is there for everyone to see --
Q But where does the President put it?
MS. PERINO: The President -- I'm not going to get into specifics. I'm not going to get into specific tactics.
Q But wait a minute, this is the whole issue right here. What is the President's policy? What's his thoughts? I mean, I think a lot of --
MS. PERINO: I told you what the policy is. The policy is that the United States does not torture. And you -- it's interesting to me --
Q We're not going to further define what that word "torture" means. And I think that's what -- that's the question.
MS. PERINO: Look, there has been an executive order that we've put out. There has been the -- the Military Commissions Act. There is the Detainee Treatment Act. There is this opinion that I just talked about. We have talked about this a lot. There is a lot of information out there as to how the United States is going to deal with this. The policy of the United States that the President follows is not to torture people. No matter what they will do to us, we will not torture them.
Q Is it possible, Dana, that there are actions that we're talking about that some people -- whether it's waterboarding, or head-slapping, or anything -- that some people look at and say, harsh but legal, and other people look at and say, torture?
MS. PERINO: As I said yesterday, I am not saying that reasonable people couldn't look at something and disagree when it comes to legal opinion. But the legal opinion of the United States is that we do not torture. The statutes have been interpreted, the committees have been briefed. And I believe that the members that have been briefed are satisfied that the policy of the United States, and the practices, do not constitute torture.
Q But, Dana, what have they been briefed on? Have they actually -- if they haven't actually seen, like, the 2005 legal opinion, they've just been briefed in general -- you're selecting what they're --
MS. PERINO: What I can tell you is I have been assured that they have been fully briefed.
Q Fully briefed on the actual memos?
MS. PERINO: Yes.
Q And, okay, so then why are people like Senator Jay Rockefeller, who's the Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, saying, I'm getting more information from The New York Times than the White House?
MS. PERINO: I don't know -- I don't know, but I checked and I am confident that the members were briefed.
Q When you say they're briefed, Dana, do you mean they are shown the techniques, they have the techniques explained to them, they understand what the techniques are?
MS. PERINO: I don't know. These are held in a classified setting. They're classified for a reason. And I -- so I don't know what they are shown.
Q And when you say they were briefed on the memos, did they see those memos, or were they just --
MS. PERINO: I don't know. I don't know. I have been told they were fully briefed. And we have -- we feel confident that the information they were provided gives them the information that they need.
I'm going to go to Kelly. I'll come back.
Q Given the persistent questions that even after these briefings to Congress, whether they were shown the documents or just explained more broadly, would the President be open to having a wider range of members of Congress given access to this? Because as Jim points out, it's about that definition. Is it the cumulative effect of various techniques -- those done simultaneously -- is there a point at which that becomes torture?
MS. PERINO: I guess we could -- we will take the request. There has been an ongoing debate for years, well before our administration, about the request for more information between the executive branch and Congress. And we ourselves here in this administration have dealt with a lot of document requests on a variety of topics, including this one.
On the Terrorist Surveillance Program, we did provide more information. That was after a long, negotiated discussion. And if there are requests from the committee, I am sure that this White House will take them very seriously, and so will Fred Fielding.
Q And do you acknowledge the sort of perception that the matter in the minds of some in Washington had been sort of resolved with the additional legislative action that was taken in the court and so forth, and then when this comes up again, it raises --
MS. PERINO: But there's been no change --
Q The people apparently are not reassured that there's been no change.
MS. PERINO: Well, I am telling you there has been no change and the appropriate members of Congress have been fully briefed on the program.
Q Dana, why did the President feel the need today to weigh in on the subject of the CIA interrogation program in what was ostensibly to be a statement on the economy? Did he feel that the disclosures about the harsh treatment of detainees were somehow casting the administration in a bad light?
MS. PERINO: I think he wants to make sure that the American people know that, first and foremost, he's going to do everything he can within the law to make sure that they are protected from terrorists who want to harm us. And secondly, he wanted to make sure people knew that we do not torture anybody. No matter what they would do to us --
Q Just him saying it doesn't mean it --
MS. PERINO: -- the laws are that we do not torture. And many people -- there are many safeguards in all of these programs, and that from career individuals to political appointees, who are well aware of what this program is, how it is executed, and they are confident and they are assured that there is no torture.
I think the President today wanted to make sure that, given that there is so much interest, going on two days, that he had an opportunity when he -- when he saw members of the press, that he take that opportunity to remind everybody of -- we are in a war.
One of the things he's really concerned about is that every day that we get farther away from 9/11, that people will start forgetting the threats that we're under, and al Qaeda is very serious, they're very patient. And the best source of information about how they're trying to harm us is from the terrorists themselves. And that's why we created the interrogation program, and it has saved lives.
Q But, Dana, Republicans, like Colin Powell, John McCain, have said that if torture is going on, that could be detrimental to the United States around the world. So why leave any ambiguity out there? Why not let --
MS. PERINO: I think the key word is "if," and I don't think there is ambiguity. We are not torturing.
Q You said there's no shift in policy --
MS. PERINO: Well, what would make it better, what would make it better, that we should tell everybody exactly what we have?
Q Not everybody -- not everybody.
MS. PERINO: You want to know the techniques that we use so we can tell exactly al Qaeda what we're going to do? That's absurd.
Q No, but these members of Congress -- not us, these members of Congress have security clearances; they see classified information all the time.
MS. PERINO: And the intelligence community was fully briefed.
Q They're saying that they did not -- they were not fully briefed. You're saying "fully briefed." That's your definition of fully briefed, just like it's your definition of torture. Jay Rockefeller, the Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, is saying they haven't seen the memos. So how can they be fully briefed if they haven't seen the memos? And why did you keep them secret if there's nothing in there that you're trying to hide?
MS. PERINO: The memos -- they are applications that fall within the law, which is to not torture. It is absolutely important -- it's critically important that we keep this information secret. It is secret for a reason. We don't go around classifying things just for the -- willy-nilly. You do it for a reason. And I would object to anyone saying that this President would not do whatever needs to be done within the law to make sure that people are taken care of. And we have worked with Congress --
Q But you have questions by people in his own administration -- Goldsmith, you're got Jim Comey come forward and raise questions about whether or not it's been legal. It's not just Democrats on the Hill. People in your own Justice Department --
MS. PERINO: And I said that reasonable people can disagree on complex questions. But I will say, also, that we have paid scrupulous attention to the law, and we have made sure that we take the time that it takes in order to debate these issues.
Q Okay, but if it is legal and it's got firm underpinnings, what was the difference between 2004 and 2005, and why --
MS. PERINO: I said this yesterday.
Q -- 2004 you put it out on the Justice Department website, and --
MS. PERINO: Yes, and I said this yesterday.
Q -- but '05 it's not.
MS. PERINO: Yes, because it's different -- it's a different document. The 2004 is an interpretation of the statute that is policy, and then the applications and the specifics are what is classified, but fully briefed to the members of Congress.
Q Right, but again, those members of Congress -- they can see classified information. So why can't they see the memos?
MS. PERINO: It's an intelligence community program, and the intelligence community was briefed -- I'm sorry, the Intelligence Committee.
Q Can't it be argued that it would be more of a deterrent if the methods were made public?
MS. PERINO: No.
Q Why not?
MS. PERINO: We know that the enemy trains to any interrogation techniques that they know about.
Q The American people and the President were horrified when they saw the photographs of really, truly sadistic moments a couple years ago.
MS. PERINO: In Abu Graib? As was the President.
Q And we did torture.
MS. PERINO: The President said that that was abhorrent. He said that it was absolutely inappropriate, and that anyone should be held to account.
Q How do we know that it's over now? How do we know -- there's testimony, there's still testimony, there's secrecy. Do you think that alleged terrorist is not going to know he might be tortured by the U.S.? Our whole methods are so abominable, horrific. And I think we're really a shame.
MS. PERINO: What about the people who cut off the heads of American soldiers and put them on the video --
Q That's horrible. We're not --
MS. PERINO: Yes, really bad. We don't torture. We get the terrorists here and we interrogate them.
Q The Iraqis had nothing to do with 9/11, which you keep bringing up.
MS. PERINO: Helen, al Qaeda certainly is in Iraq, and they have murdered our citizens all around the world, and many of the citizens of our allies, as well. And the information that we get from these interrogation programs has not only protected people here, but in --
Q They're about 18 percent, and we brought them in.
MS. PERINO: No, Helen.
Q The Iraqis are fighting for their country.
MS. PERINO: Anyone else? Mike.
Q On a different subject, on Burma. What is your assessment of the Gambari mission, and does the President at all feel disappointed that it doesn't seem to be --
MS. PERINO: We are going to get an update later today, so I don't have a full update for you yet because they went from a public session into a closed session up at the U.N. Security Council. So when Mr. Gambari is done and we get more of a readout, maybe we can tell you some more later today.
Q Dana, on S-CHIP, MoveOn.org and part of organized labor have come from a press conference this morning saying they were going to spend a million dollars or more to try and get the bill overridden.
MS. PERINO: That seems like money well spent.
Q One of the people said that "the President has essentially told America's kids to drop dead, and we're quite simply not going to allow that to happen."
MS. PERINO: And this comes from the same organization that calls General Petraeus "General Betray Us."
Q "We are not going to let President Bush get away with this." Do you have --
MS. PERINO: The President wants an expansion of S-CHIP. He wants a 20-percent expansion and he wants to spend an additional $5 billion. His radio address is on S-CHIP. He vetoed the bill this week because the bill continues to get away from the original intent of the program. What the President wants to do is take care of children from poor families who are struggling. He wants to take care of them first. He thinks that the 750,000 of them who are currently eligible, but not enrolled, should be taken care of first and go to the front of the line before middle-class families get on that program.
In addition, he does not agree with the policy of moving children from government -- from private health insurance to government-run health care, of which this bill would certainly do.
And then finally, I would say that the members who voted against this bill did so on principle. They didn't do it for politics. And if MoveOn.org and the unions, which seems like a match made in heaven, want to get together and waste another two weeks and lots of money to try to pressure votes, when any reasonable person can look at this and realize that in the House they are not going to get those votes to override the President's veto -- the President has extended a hand. He has asked for members of Congress to come together to work on an agreement that will find common ground so that we can make sure that children can be taken care -- the poor -- the struggling kids in those families can be taken care of first.
He's also said, and he will say in his radio address tomorrow, that if more money -- if people come to the conclusion that more money is needed to take care of that population that he thinks needs to be taken care of first, he's willing to talk about that, too. But instead, they decide to -- to, one, go on recess; to not appoint conferees to any of the appropriations bills; to waste two weeks of the American people's time on a political matter. It just seems unseemly. The compassionate point of view is from the President, which is, let's take care of the children who need it most first.
Go ahead, Roger.
Q Different subject. The Post this morning had a story on means testing in Medicare drug benefits, and said that Ensign of Nevada is pushing this. But he also said the White House was backing this -- is that correct?
MS. PERINO: Well, it's in our budget.
Q To what extent is the White House backing this or pushing this --
MS. PERINO: Well, it's in our budget so we back it. And it's part of the appropriations process.
Q Well, there's a difference between putting it in the budget and actually really pushing it --
MS. PERINO: Well, the issue is moving through the Congress in these appropriations bills as they move through. That's part of the discussions. It's one of the reasons that members of Congress should get back and actually get to work on that.
Q Thank you, Dana. Two questions, if I might. The first on the budget. We're early out in the process, and as you've said, you've not received appropriations bills. A few years ago when the highway bill came up, the President set a limit, a ceiling on what he would veto if Congress went over it in terms of appropriations. Are you going to do the same with the overall budget or individual appropriations?
MS. PERINO: Well, we have veto threats out on many of the appropriations bills. But that sends a signal to let Congress know, here's the policy issue that the President is going to have trouble, let's work together to see if we can get a bill done that wouldn't result in a veto. What we don't want to see is a large omnibus bill at the end of the year where all sorts of mischief can occur. And so I don't think we're at a point yet where I could anticipate whether we're going to set a limit or not, because we don't want that to happen. We want the individual bills to be passed.
Q And he would veto an omnibus bill then?
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to speculate.
Q All right. The other thing I wanted to ask, on Burma, a number of members of the exiled committee in the United States were quoted over the weekend as recalling in 1990, when the military had its last crackdown, how President Bush's father said he was monitoring the situation closely, and they had all kinds of hopes that he would break off diplomatic recognition with Burma and send a message. Given the recent developments there, is the administration considering ending diplomatic relations with Burma?
MS. PERINO: Well, what we are considering is any further steps, whether it be additional sanctions or other types of actions, and it would be premature for me to announce those from here. Those discussions are underway. We are paying very close attention to it. The President and Mrs. Bush are very concerned, and I can tell you that they're very interested. They're also -- they're calling on Mr. Gambari to go back immediately so that he can meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta to try to get them on the path to a peaceful transition to democracy. Then in the meantime, we are considering what other steps we can do in the federal government.
Q Is breaking off diplomatic relations on or off the table?
MS. PERINO: I'm going to decline to comment on that until we have more.
Q Dana, about the S-CHIP --
MS. PERINO: Okay.
Q Why hasn't the President made a counteroffer? I mean, I can't remember when last we heard him say, hey, take some more money, just, you know, if the kids --
MS. PERINO: Why hasn't he made a counteroffer?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that -- I think that asking people to come to the table is signaling a willingness to have a conversation about it. I think the question you ought to ask is, why haven't they offered a counteroffer?
Q I'm asking it especially in the context of Orrin Hatch, and some of these others who said, oh, the President was let down by his staff on this, that he could have avoided this --
MS. PERINO: The President has said he's willing to talk to them. If they think additional money needs to be approved so that we can take care of this population that he thinks is being neglected, then he's willing to do that. The President has extended a hand; it's Congress that hasn't. There's no counteroffer coming from Congress. They've sent a veto, and now they're going to wait for two weeks before they take any other action.
Q Dana, I went back and read the 2004 memo --
MS. PERINO: Did you get through the whole thing?
Q -- or tried to get through it. I was looking for a definition of "torture," because we know that in 2002 you defined it a certain way, and then the 2004 memo was intended to redefine it, or to, I believe, broaden the definition of "torture." And I wasn't sure if I came up with the definition. I saw language that said, "specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering." Is that the definition from --
MS. PERINO: I don't have the document with me, so let me decline on that. But what I will tell you is that -- you might not have gotten to the parts -- the footnotes of that document, in which it says that it's their legal conclusion that in the analysis in looking at the earlier memo that their legal justification that the -- that it would have been the same, that there wasn't anything going on between 2002 and 2004 that they would have considered to be outside of the bounds of U.S. law. That's one part of it. As to the -- I would just have to refer you to the Department of Justice. It's a very complicated legal matter. Steve Bradbury is one of the experts over there at the Office of Legal Counsel.
Q Just as a follow, I think a question would be, why can't the White House come up with some definition other than just saying, we don't torture?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that the question is part of -- I could speculate, and I shouldn't. I do think that it's appropriate that applications of the laws and techniques are kept secret. And I don't think that providing those to the American public would serve them well. I just fundamentally disagree that that would be a good thing for national security.
Q Right, but I'm more or less talking about why can't the White House articulate a definition of torture, rather than just saying, go read the memo, which is extremely dense?
MS. PERINO: It is extremely dense. It's very complicated. I'm not going to do it from here. I'm not a lawyer.
Okay, go ahead.
Q Thank you, Dana. Two questions. Congressman McCotter says that he's concerned about a Chinese company that is purchasing 3Com, which develops defense network computer technology. And my question: Given the hacking attempts reported in the defense computer systems in the United States, does the President share McCotter's concerns?
MS. PERINO: There's a process in place that is run out of the Treasury Department, and I'll let that -- they take into consideration any possible national security concerns on those big mergers, and I'll let that process play out before commenting.
Q The Baltimore Sun, among other media, reported that when Republican presidential candidates appeared at Maryland's Morgan State University, that university refused to display the United States flag, despite a protest from Congressman Duncan Hunter. And my question: Since the President is head of the Republican Party, what was his reaction to this Morgan State U.S. flag banning, which was nationally televised by PBS?
MS. PERINO: I don't know, I haven't talked to him about it. But, obviously, he would have liked to see more participation at the debate from the Republicans.
Q Well, he believes that they should have the United States flag above that presidential debate, doesn't he?
MS. PERINO: I think that a university or a college can make their own decisions about that.
Q But doesn't the President believe the flag should --
MS. PERINO: The President loves the flag.
Q He loves the flag. I want to know does he believe the flag should have been displayed there, or not, as Congressman Duncan Hunter --
MS. PERINO: I think it's a decision that's up to the college.
Q A bulletin that the President loves the flag. Can I wildly change the topic? The President spoke about his concern about steroids in athletics in a State of the Union address, and has hosted Olympic gold medalists and champions here at the White House. What is his reaction to Marion Jones' admission, and how that reflects on U.S. athletics?
MS. PERINO: I talked to him about it this morning. He was saddened by the news. He's long been concerned about the issue of steroid use. He, in the 2004 State of the Union, dedicated time to it. Any time that something is in the State of the Union, it shows the weight of that issue on an administration. And then from there, we had hearings that really have shown a light on it. What the President is really concerned about is that any professional athlete or any athlete, or anyone who aspires to be a professional athlete thinks that they have to use performance-enhancing drugs in order to achieve their goals.
And so he was sad about the news, and hopes that parents can talk to their children about making sure that as they grow up they can avoid any type of steroid use because they can really get by on their own skill and talent.
Q I just want to go back one more time to this definition of "torture." This is an issue, obviously, which speaks a great deal to sort of who we are as a people. And as we're going back and forth with this, you need a law degree to understand what the administration thinks is torture. In terms of understanding and informing the public debate, can't you tell us, to follow on the question that was just asked, what the President defines as "torture"?
MS. PERINO: If what would be helpful for you is for me to go back to the lawyers and try to get specific language that's taken from those documents, I will ask them to do that. I am not a lawyer; I'm not equipped to do that.
Q But if the American people can't, for themselves, decide if what is being done in their name is appropriate or not, or something they agree with or not, they can't even understand what it is that we're talking about.
MS. PERINO: I disagree. I think that the American -- I think the American people recognize that there are needs that the federal government has to keep certain information private in order to help -- there are national security --
Q I'm not arguing that.
MS. PERINO: We cannot provide more information about techniques; it's not appropriate.
Q I'm not asking for that. I'm asking for a definition so that instead of any kind of wink-wink, or "you understand," or -- here's what we think "torture" is.
MS. PERINO: Part of that -- in my opinion, part of that is then detailing out techniques, which we would not do. So let me see if I can get additional things from the lawyers, and we'll provide it.
Go ahead, Connie.
Q Dana, in all these agreements with North and South Korea, is the United States asking for any confirmation North Korea won't send nuclear material to Iraq, Syria or other countries?
MS. PERINO: We would strongly -- that's part of the six-party talks, Connie. We strongly oppose that. And it would actually be -- well, it would be totally against the agreement, and it would not comply with the action-for-action principle that we've established with the North Koreans.
Q Has there been any assurance so far in what happened this week between North and South?
MS. PERINO: I have not heard anything discussed about that. I think that, one, we were supportive of the inter-Korean dialogue, for them to have a discussion. I know that one of the things they talked about is wanting to sign a peace treaty. And if at the end of the six-party talk process we get to the goal of a denuclearized Peninsula, then that could result from that, and that's what we're -- that's what we're working towards, but we have to see action for action.
Q Thank you.
Q Dana, can I just have this one quick -- the Housing Secretary is now under federal investigation. Is the President concerned about a Cabinet member being under a cloud?
MS. PERINO: Well, the President expects that Alphonso Jackson will comply fully with the investigation. He has indicated that he will do so. And our Counsel's Office has been in touch to make sure that that is happening, and we are assured that it is. Beyond that, I'm not going to comment while there's an investigation.
Q Thank you.
END 1:06 P.M. EDT
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