Press Briefing by Tony Fratto
For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
June 17, 2008
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:33 P.M. EDT
MR. FRATTO: Good afternoon, everyone. A quick schedule update, announcement, and then we'll go to questions.
President Bush will welcome Prime Minister Dung of Vietnam to the White House on June 24th. The President welcomes the opportunity to talk to Prime Minister Dung about ways to advance our close bilateral cooperation on a broad range of issues, including ASEAN, the United Nations Security Council, food security and regional economic integration -- you might remember that the President visited Vietnam in November of 2006 -- and we'll have a statement going on shortly for you on that.
Q Hamas leaders say they've reached a cease-fire agreement with Israel. What's the U.S. reaction to that?
MR. FRATTO: I've seen news reports on that. I haven't seen anything official yet, and until we get details and hear more from parties there we're not going to have a comment on it.
Q Well, I take it you would welcome this if true, right?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I think we really want to see details of any kind of agreement and what the views are of people in the region before we comment on it.
Q A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows the President's disapproval rating has now reached 68 percent. That's the highest disapproval rating since Gallop's first in 1938. Any thoughts on that?
MR. FRATTO: No, I don't think we've commented on polls and I don't think there's a good reason to start now.
Q I mean, what would you say to Americans who --
MR. FRATTO: We don't base what we try to do here by polls. We know people have lots of different views of what's going on out in the political world and what they're hearing. But we try to focus on the policies that we're trying to accomplish for the rest of the way here and not comment on what we hear in one poll or another.
Love to take a look at the composition of those polls, though; I think that's always fun.
Q The President talked about the Disaster Relief Fund apparently being possibly depleted after what's paid for -- for these Iowa and the Midwest floods. Is he concerned that there wouldn't be enough --
MR. FRATTO: The President wants to be certain that that fund -- that we all understand -- you know the President received a briefing today from Director Nussle and others involved in dealing with the flood disasters in the Midwest.
We do have enough funding in the Disaster Relief Fund right now. We're very confident of that. It is well funded. What his concern is, is that we don't deplete it now and not be able to deal with any potential weather-related disasters or other disasters for the rest of the year.
So he's looking forward, and he believes, as he said, that the place you want to try to deal with emergencies and emergency funding is in an emergency supplemental, which is something that we have on the floor now.
Q Well, he said he wanted it to be enough, but not too much. Is there --
MR. FRATTO: Well, you don't want to have too much, but you don't want to -- you don't want to park money someplace with scarce federal dollars for lots of programs. And if you're parking money in an account that's not being utilized, then you're essentially wasting that money. You want to be very careful to make sure that you have enough, not too much, and use the best estimates that you have to deal with the period of time going forward.
Q Is there a dollar figure?
Q Yes, how much is enough?
MR. FRATTO: Well, that's something we'll be trying to determine. I think we're going to have to figure out how much this disaster is going to take and the array of other weather-related disasters that FEMA and the other agencies are dealing with, and there's a lot of them. You all reported on them, some of which we've visited, whether it's wildfires or tornado-related disasters.
And so they're expensive. We need to make sure that we get our assessors on the ground and be able to determine -- actually, once the water recedes -- which it is receding from this region right now -- be able to get into these communities and try to make determinations for what's needed, in terms of housing and the kind of infrastructure-related relief and humanitarian relief.
Q What are the concerns about food price fallout in the months ahead, the impact on the crops, and, as the President mentioned, the livestock?
MR. FRATTO: It's absolutely a concern, and something that we're going to be paying close attention to. We've been paying very close attention to food prices and agriculture, crop prices for a number of months now with what we've seen with prices this year. It's too early to say what the exact impact will be, it will certainly cause disruptions in terms of the food supply coming from that region. So the Agriculture Department is on top of it. They're doing their assessments. They're also waiting for the ability to be able to go into these areas and try to make determinations as to what the crop production would be.
Q Where in Iowa is he going?
MR. FRATTO: I don't have that yet.
Q Is it going to be one stop or two?
MR. FRATTO: It's just not settled yet. We'll try to -- as soon as we have it, I promise you we'll be sharing it with you.
Q And is there concern -- Iowa is the number one corn state, the number one soy bean state, I think. About 10 percent of the crop plant is flooded and they probably can't replant. Won't that add, you know, a couple of tenths of percentage points on the CPI?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I don't think I'd make that connection to -- that direct connection to prices. We spend a lot of time talking up here about the relationship between the prices of crops and how that affects consumer prices, and it's not a direct link. There is some relationship, but it's not very direct and it's not really one-to-one. It should have -- it will probably have some impact, but there are so many forces that play upon consumer prices, it's hard to point to any one item. It's also -- like I said, it's just really too early to say whether those figures are correct or not.
Q Tony, we saw the President's meeting on Afghanistan this morning and the brief comments. Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense was saying that the number of villages northwest of Kandahar have been taken over, essentially, by the Taliban. Is there truth to that from this White House; do you believe that to be a fact? And what about that situation as it develops in southern Afghanistan?
MR. FRATTO: Well, look, I think it's -- as we have said many times, our forces in Afghanistan are facing a determined enemy. That enemy is there, it's showing itself, it shows itself in certain spectacular acts from time to time. I don't know for a fact whether Taliban troops have taken over certain villages or not, and we'll try to get that from DOD or maybe DOD can share more on that. But the Taliban forces there are certainly intent to make a fight of it. But our troops are making a fight of it also, and I think we've shown good success. And the Afghan troops are getting trained up and they're doing their work, too. But it's a tough situation, absolutely.
Q We saw the British pledge, but are we going to have to see another surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan soon?
MR. FRATTO: I couldn't give you anything on that. I think you'd have to check in with DOD and see what their estimates are. But you just heard the President on his trip to Europe talking to European leaders, and recently, on his NATO visit, talking about the need for all countries who can play a role in Afghanistan, whether it's combat troops on the ground or other support activities, to help that country succeed. The Afghan donors conference raising over $20 billion in commitments from countries around the world is important.
There is no one effort that's going to help this country succeed. We need to do it on multiple levels. We need to do it with economic development. We need to do it with infrastructure building. Remember that we're talking about a country that probably, a country for its size, has fewer roads than any other country in the world. It needs infrastructure; it needs institution-building; it needs support for democracy and freedom of expression and supporting its political situation; and it needs help dealing with these forces who are determined to stop this country from being a successful democracy.
What we're proud of is that there's a unified international community that is working together to make sure that Afghanistan succeeds. And we are seeing more troops going in from countries like France, and the commitment from Great Britain, also.
Q One last clarification, if I could. The Pakistani Prime Minister today said that he -- Pakistan will not allow more troops to hunt militants inside Pakistan -- this obviously a reaction to Hamid Karzai, who said they're not doing enough and maybe they'd have to go inside Pakistan. Can this White House say Pakistan is doing enough along that border?
MR. FRATTO: I think everyone needs to do more, and that includes the Pakistan government, that includes the Afghan government. And what we also need to see -- as you heard the President say, and Steve Hadley and others -- we need the two governments to work together to deal with the border region and to go after these groups that seek to destroy this effort at democracy in Afghanistan. We need them working together on where these militias are and whether it's Taliban or al Qaeda, and they need to come to agreement in ways to try to diminish the impact of those groups.
The President talked about bringing back the jirga process. That's one effort that has been successful in the past; we'd like to see more of that. But we need to see more cooperation between the two governments and to bring down the level of tension and understand -- come to understanding that they can work together to stop these groups, because these groups are a threat to both countries and both governments.
Q You talk about building up Afghan troops. How confident can you be that that's going well when they weren't able to stop the Taliban from blowing a hole in the wall and letting a thousand prisoners escape?
MR. FRATTO: That's the problem that we have, whether it's in Iraq or Afghanistan or here at home, is that we need to be successful a hundred percent of the time and these troops are --
Q This is about the readiness of those troops to do anything material in defending themselves.
MR. FRATTO: Yes, and we're seeing them getting better trained, better equipped, better able to be mobile around the country and deal with the threats as they see it. That does not mean that they're going to be able to stop 100 percent of the attacks of a very determined and creative enemy.
So what we need to do is to continue to increase their level of training -- the British troops and U.S. troops and others are doing excellent work on training. We need to see more numbers. We need to see their equipment improve. And you will see, and as we have seen, their capabilities will improve also.
Q And you think you can do that without another U.S. infusion of troops into Afghanistan?
MR. FRATTO: Well, we hope so. I mean, Secretary Gates has talked about what troop levels are needed in Afghanistan. Well, we've never met a commander who hasn't wanted more troops on the ground. We're going to try to make sure that we have the right number, and we've put out a call numerous times for other countries and other members of the international force to come forward with troops.
We always want more troops, and we also want to maintain this goal of making sure that the Afghan troops are well trained and able to better protect their country.
Q Tony, there's a Senate hearing today on the treating on detainees. And one of the ways the White House has defended its policy before is by saying that the International Red Cross is able to go into Guantanamo Bay and other prisons and check out what's going on.
At this hearing today, a memo surfaced -- a previously secret memo -- suggesting that when the Red Cross came into Gitmo over the past few years, prisoners who were treated harshly were being hidden from the Red Cross. Is the White House concerned at all? Would you condone such --
MR. FRATTO: I haven't seen that memo, and haven't had a chance to follow the hearing. I can tell you it's always been the policy of this government to treat these detainees humanely and in line with the laws and our legal obligations.
Q Well, along those lines, another memo came out suggesting that a senior CIA lawyer, while they were debating this in 2002, said the only sure test for torture is if a detainee dies or not, and said, "If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong." Does that fit into the guidelines --
MR. FRATTO: I don't know who that is or who that came from. I'm telling you that abuse of detainees has never been, is not, and will never be the policy of this government. The policy of this government has been to take these detainees and to interrogate them and get the information that we can get to help protect this country, which we have been very successful at doing, and we've been very successful at getting the information that has saved lives and prevented attacks on this country and on our allies.
Q But the White House policy does not -- the bar is not --
MR. FRATTO: The White House policy --
Q -- the bar is not whether or not you die.
MR. FRATTO: No, the White House policy is what I told you, which is that we do not abuse and we treat detainees humanely and comporting with the law.
Q To follow that up, Tony, because one thing that struck me from those hearings was something a Republican senator said, Lindsey Graham. I'll quote it at you and ask for your response, if I may -- that the analysis that the military got from the administration civilian lawyers would "go down in history as some of the most irresponsible and short-sighted legal analysis ever provided to our nation's military intelligence community." What do you say to that -- a Republican?
MR. FRATTO: We have great respect for Lindsey Graham. We're not going to review every legal opinion that has ever been proffered by this government. I'm telling you what our policy has been has been to deal with these detainees humanely, get the information from them that we can to protect this country, and as we've been working through the process with Congress and putting in place laws to deal with them in a legal way.
Q His conclusion clearly is that that's not the advice that the military was getting.
MR. FRATTO: Yes, Les.
Q Thank you, Tony. Two questions. Last week, Senator Leahy told the American Constitution Society -- and this is a quote -- "We need a President who has actually read the Constitution, understands the Constitution, and will respect the Constitution." Now, my question: Aside from this slur that the President has neither read nor understands the Constitution, how does the President imagine that this Judiciary Committee Chairman can expect any respect for what Mr. Leahy alleges is neither read by, nor understood by the President?
MR. FRATTO: Les, I'm not sure I followed the whole line of the question, but let me just say, the President has read and is sworn to defend and protect the Constitution, and he does that.
Q Senator Leahy also said the Guantanamo decision was a stinging rebuke of the Bush administration. "I'm in support of the Constitution of the USA. If we turn our backs on the Constitution where would we be?" And my question: How can this be interpreted as anything but a charge that the President has turned his back on the Constitution? And is that either accurate or fair?
MR. FRATTO: Again, I think you lost me somewhere along the long line of that question. I'll just tell you that we expressed our views on the Boumediene decision. We disagreed with it. The President said he would --
Q And you disagree very strongly with the Senator from Vermont, don't you?
MR. FRATTO: But that's usually where we are, is disagreeing with the Senator from Vermont.
Q Tony, two quick questions. One, going back to Afghanistan, how seriously you think President is taking President Karzai's threat to attack Pakistan, because this seems like the first time, because when President Karzai was here at the White House, also at Camp David, he mentioned the same things. And also --
MR. FRATTO: Goyal --
Q -- also, as far as the new Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. is concerned, speaking at Atlantic Council, he said that we will be close or seal our borders -- Pakistan to Afghanistan -- only if U.S. closes its border with Mexico.
MR. FRATTO: Goyal, I don't think President Karzai's comment was a threat. I think President Karzai is dealing with a very difficult situation on his border. He is a strong leader of that country, and he's interested in protecting his people and his citizens from these forces who want to attack them. We'd like to see President Karzai and the Afghans and the Pakistanis work out, on their own, ways to help improve security on the border region. We think they're going to do that. We want to help them do it. And certainly our troops are on the ground doing that.
Q But then as far as the President's visit to Europe is concerned, and upcoming visit to G8 in July, do you think as far as oil prices and food price and gas going on around the globe, because every -- most of the countries depend on the U.S. economy, do you think it will ease or bring some (inaudible) to the --
MR. FRATTO: On prices?
Q Right, prices.
MR. FRATTO: Well, look, we'd certainly like to see prices come down from the elevated levels that we've seen, whether it's food or oil, and there's some connection there. I can't predict where prices are going to go.
Q Yes, has the President seen the report on the VA testing drugs on Iraq and Afghanistan vets? And if he's seen it and have been briefed on it, does he have a reaction?
MR. FRATTO: I don't know if the President has seen it. I saw the reporting in your paper and on -- I think it was ABC this morning. I thought actually some of it was some of the most -- certainly at least what I saw in television this morning was some of the more irresponsible reporting that I've ever seen, in terms of taking what this one -- the experience of this one veteran and trying to leave the impression that this was a situation for all veterans.
We're in a difficult position in being able to comment on this case because of the privacy concerns of the veteran in question and the other veterans in this program. But I can tell you the VA is doing everything they can to be mindful of the safety of these veterans in all their programs, and trying to help them. This is the Veterans Administration under wonderful leadership by General Peake -- Secretary Peake, who's interested in the health and safety of these veterans that are under his care. And every other member of that VA system is the same.
And to try to imply that -- and, in fact, not even imply -- I see the words scrolled on a television screen this morning, that the VA is using our veterans as guinea pigs I thought was one of the most awful things I've ever had to watch on television. These are people who care for our veterans, they care for the troops that have been out there every day fighting for this country, and they're interested in their safety. Remember, this is a program dealing with former soldiers with PTSD and it's a smoking cessation program, and they're interested in helping these veterans.
So that's my reaction to it.
Q If I could follow -- just follow up on one other topic.
MR. FRATTO: Sure.
Q FEMA, having learned lessons from Katrina -- did Administrator Paulison mention any ways in which their experience in Katrina has led them to react better to the flooding in the Midwest?
MR. FRATTO: I wasn't in the briefing. I'm not sure if Paulison put it in that context in the briefing with the President, but I think it's certainly the case. Look, you know, when Katrina occurred -- I mean, the history on that, we're still dealing with it.
But there is absolutely no question that the agencies involved in emergency disaster relief across the country and the states and localities who are on the front lines in dealing with it, remember that, you know, even today -- you've asked about how things are going with the floods up there -- it's the state and local communities who take the lead and are on the front lines in dealing with their citizens in any disaster.
So they're on the front lines and they're taking the lead, and the federal government is there to give support and make sure that they have all the equipment and resources and logistics and logistical support that they need. A lot of lessons were learned from Katrina, and I think you have seen them in place in how FEMA and the other agencies have responded to disasters since then.
Q Anything specific?
MR. FRATTO: I would let them explain that to you. I mean, I think there's some things I could mention in terms of logistics and coordination and communication, but I think they could tell it better than I can.
Q Do you have anything on the beef negotiation?
MR. FRATTO: I don't. I know that they continue the talks. Sue Schwab, the USTR, and the Korean negotiators are continuing to discuss these matters. We hope they can come to a conclusion that's good for both countries.
Q Is the President's trip to Korea in jeopardy because of this?
MR. FRATTO: We haven't announced anything on the President's travel yet.
Q Tony, what's the President's view on what's happening in California with same-sex marriage? And does the President have any effort -- anything he plans to re-restart a constitutional amendment --
MR. FRATTO: That's an issue that the state is dealing with. They're going to have a referendum and we're certainly monitoring. You know the President's views on this, that a marriage is between a man and a woman, and we've been very clear on that. But yes, I mean, we do notice it and we'll follow what happens in California.
Q But does he still believe, as he said it in 2006, that a marriage amendment is necessary?
MR. FRATTO: His position hasn't changed on that.
Q The American Red Cross announced that all their funds have been depleted; in fact, they're taking out loans to help with disaster relief. I believe in the past the White House or the President has made appeals for private contributions to the Red Cross. Is there any plan to do that again --
MR. FRATTO: There's nothing specific I can point to right now. I can tell you we saw the same reporting this morning also and I know we've got people in contact with the leadership over at the Red Cross. And we'll be interested to see what's the best way to help them, and certainly, obviously, we want Americans to feel welcome to contribute to the American Red Cross and other agencies out there who bring relief to so many of our citizens when disaster strikes. These people are really remarkable in the places they go and how quickly they go there, and their commitment to helping their fellow citizens is wonderful. And so we want to make sure that they have what they need.
Q Thank you.
MR. FRATTO: Thank you.
END 12:57 P.M. EDT
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