Press Gaggle by Tony Fratto and Fran Townsend
For Immediate Release
May 23, 2007
Aboard Air Force One
En route New London, Connecticut
Tony Fratto, Deputy Press Secretary
Fran Townsend, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor
10:07 A.M. EDT
MR. FRATTO: Good morning, everyone. We're on our way to New London, Connecticut, Coast Guard Academy commencement address. I think this is actually the President's fourth commencement address this year -- I believe that's right, we'll go back and check. This will be the second I've been to.
Just let me run through the schedule a little bit. I also have the President's Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor with us today. What I'm going to try to do is run through the schedule, a couple of announcements, and then see if we can take some questions that don't have to do with the speech today. And then I'm going to turn it over to Fran Townsend, and she can give a little brief on the speech and take some questions that are directly related to some of the issues in the speech.
The President this morning had his normal briefings. With us on the flight today, by the way, is Admiral Thad Allen, the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. You probably did not see, upon departure this morning the President had the Navy Blue Angels with him in the Oval Office today, had an opportunity actually to take a photo with them in the Oval Office and spend some time with them. And they were outside on the lawn, so we got some pictures out on the lawn that the pool got this morning.
Some schedule items. The President, this afternoon after the commencement address, will spend time with family members of fallen military -- members of fallen military families, thank you. And another schedule update. As you know, Treasury Secretary Paulson has been leading the strategic economic dialogue discussions with the Chinese delegation. That delegation is led by Madam Wu Yi, the Vice Premier of China. Those meetings are this week. I just want to let you know that tomorrow morning, shortly before 10:00 a.m., the President will meet with Madam Wu and the Chinese delegation for some of these discussions. So maybe give you a little bit more on that this afternoon, or certainly tomorrow morning.
I think that's it for the schedule for today. Oh, I'm sorry, one more thing on the First Lady. Today, Mrs. Bush will join senators Dianne Feinstein and Kay Bailey Hutchison and a bipartisan group of women senators to launch the new Senate Women's Caucus on Burma. Mrs. Bush held an event at the last U.N. General Assembly to bring attention to human rights issues in Burma. And last week the President extended sanctions against Burma for their policies of large-scale repression of the democratic opposition in Burma and violence against ethnic minorities in the country.
Any questions that don't have to do with the speech?
Q Can you tell me (inaudible)?
MR. FRATTO: Madam Wu Yi is the --
Q Can you spell that?
MR. FRATTO: W-u, and Y-I. Okay. Madam Wu Yi.
Q At the White House?
MR. FRATTO: Yes, it will be at the White House -- actually, in the Old Executive Office Building.
Madam Wu Yi is the top economic policymaker in China. It's a very different organizational structure in the Chinese hierarchy, but she is the top economic policymaker and, as Secretary Paulson is the President's top economic policymaker, they're counterparts.
Q -- President Bush want to discuss with her in particular?
MR. FRATTO: He's going to receive an update on the talks. As you know, Secretary Paulson created this structure working with the other colleagues in the Cabinet to put in place a structure that covers the breadth of economic issues between these two countries.
You've heard me say this before, that if you look forward over the next 10, 20, 50 years, the bilateral economic relationship between China and the United States is probably the most important bilateral relationship in the world. And what we want to do is put in place dialogue and structure to deal with problems as they come up. There seems to be -- you know, some people are surprised when they hear about economic friction between countries like the United States and China. And the truth is, the more you trade, the more you invest with each other, the more friction you're going to have.
I remind people that we've had economic trading and investment relationships with Europe for hundreds of years, and we still have economic frictions from time to time and issues that need to be worked out.
I think maybe our relationship -- our economic relationship with Europe sometimes might have gone better if we had something like a strategic economic dialogue 150 years ago, to deal with these issues as they come up. So it's a very long-range view, but also with an eye to -- for short-term achievements in the areas of intellectual property rights, issues related to the currency, issues related to policies that the Chinese can take to ensure that their economy is safe and doesn't cause disruptions in the broader economy.
Q Is the plan being released on the ground? Is the plan for this meeting being released on the -- to correspondents on the ground?
MR. FRATTO: -- here, first and only. I think we'll update it on the schedule at some point.
Any other questions?
Q Tony, now that the Democrats have abandoned their idea of having a deadline for troop withdrawals, does the President expect to have a bill on his desk to sign by the end of the week?
MR. FRATTO: I think certainly the leadership in Congress has indicated that that's their goal. We haven't, as far as I know, have not yet seen any final legislation. We know that they're working towards it, and we want to be helpful in that. But that's certainly the goal, and we're cautiously optimistic that we'll be able to get there.
Q Doesn't this, though, set up a new deadline -- September?
MR. FRATTO: Look, you know, between -- we're always looking forward, and I know people want to put in place deadlines. You know that General Petraeus has said that he's going to come forward with an assessment in September. We want to see that. We want to see the Iraqi government deal with the commitments that they've made to achieve benchmarks. I think that's something that everyone wants. But I'm not going to talk about specific dates in terms of what that means for American involvement. We'll let the leaders deal with that on the ground.
Anything else? Okay, let me turn it over to Fran Townsend.
MS. TOWNSEND: Okay, I spoke to many of you last night. This is really an opportunity -- the Coast Guard speech is really the President's opportunity to speak to the American people about the ongoing threat to our homeland security from al Qaeda. He will talk about several disrupted plots -- three of them are aviation-related plots, al Qaeda plots, threats to the homeland that have been successfully disrupted.
He will use this opportunity to talk about the progress we've made in homeland security and across a spectrum of activity. The Coast Guard is really a wonderful place to do this because they fight both at home and away. I mean, they're patrolling the Persian Gulf, they're patrolling around Guantanamo, they're also patrolling coastal and inland waterways in the U.S., and as we all saw the pictures of September 11th, they were heavily involved in the evacuation of people off Manhattan on that day.
And so this is an opportunity, one, to praise the Coast Guard; two, to talk about the threat and the progress, but also about the ongoing challenges that we face. The President, as we've said, has worked with the intelligence community. We understand that bin Laden, in 2005, tasked Zarqawi in Iraq to put together an external operations cell whose number -- whose focus ought to be attacks in the United States, that there were follow up conversations involving bin Laden and bin Laden's direction, to try to get assistance to Zarqawi to do that. The President will talk specifically about that in his speech.
In the end, what we understand is, putting pressure on the enemy, staying on offense in the away game helps us prevent attacks here at home, and it underscores the importance of the fight in Iraq. Clearly we know from bin Laden's statements -- and the President will make the point, I expect -- that if we don't keep pressure on them, their intention is to use it as a safe haven to plan attacks, not only inside Iraq, but outside Iraq and here in the homeland.
With that, I'll take your questions.
Q I'm sure you probably know about the classified homeland security bulletin that was written about, back in March '05. So what part is new?
MS. TOWNSEND: Okay, there's a couple of things. One, as you point out, Deb, the bulletin that DHS put out, based on this intelligence, one, was classified. It has never been declassified before, certainly never acknowledged by the President before, publicly. Second, this one gives you a much greater breadth of detail than we knew at that time. You'd have the benefit of Faraj has been captured, Zarqawi has been killed, Hamza Rabia is dead. And we've had the opportunity to follow what was vague intelligence at the time -- as you'll recall from what we know about the DHS bulletin and what was reported was that it was credible but not specific.
What we do now -- it's not that we have specific targets in the U.S., but we do have a greater understanding of what bin Laden and al Qaeda's intentions were, and so -- and we've had the opportunity to investigate it further over the last two years. And that's why the President is talking about it today.
Q For all of the administration's talk about how much intelligence and defense that have been able to disrupt his ability to communicate, why was he able to do so, to the extent that the President is going to be outlining today?
MS. TOWNSEND: I'm not sure I understand your question.
Q Well, I mean, the President has often boasted about interfering with Osama bin Laden's ability to communicate. Why was he able to do so to the extent that the President is outlining today in ordering these plots, communicating with these people?
MS. TOWNSEND: There's no question that we've made it much more difficult for bin Laden today to communicate with his allies and partners around the world, including in Iraq. It doesn't mean he can't do it at all, we've just made it more difficult. And by making it more difficult, we have more opportunities to successfully intercept them, like what you're hearing today.
Q What's -- what do you think his status is?
MS. TOWNSEND: I'm not going to speculate. I don't imagine he's very comfortable, though.
Q I mean, is it still -- you've always said in the past, and others in the administration, that he's probably along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and operating in that area. Is that --
MS. TOWNSEND: There's no reason not to think that that's still the case, but I will tell you it is a huge priority for us, working with our allies around the world, but particularly in that region, to find him and capture or kill him.
Q Thank you.
Q -- suggestion that one man doesn't really matter?
MS. TOWNSEND: I am not, A, a political person; B, I'm not going to get into the '08 campaign, much as you invited me to.
Q Fran, can you explain --
Q -- information at the right time, right place, then you can -- the President's war strategy --
MS. TOWNSEND: You know, we've heard General Petraeus say al Qaeda in Iraq -- al Qaeda is public enemy number one in Iraq. The answer is, it would have been really helpful for the President to have been able to use this classified information earlier. This is kind of late to be able to bring this to the game. The reason that it wasn't used sooner, frankly, from what you're suggesting would have been to the President's political advantage, is because those leads were being followed. And it's not just a matter of one or two intercepts. It's a matter of bringing all the intelligence sources and methods together, whether they're results of interrogations, the results of going through documents or captures or intercepts. You've got to bring all that together and give the intelligence community time to exploit all that, to be satisfied you've gotten through all the leads and that you're not going to lose anything by making it public. We're to that point now, but frankly, if political advantage was the name of the game, we would have gotten it a lot sooner.
MR. FRATTO: Thanks.
END 10:20 A.M. EDT
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