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Barack Obama: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
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Barack Obama
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
May 21, 2009
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James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

2:32 P.M. EDT

MR. GIBBS: You don't like the tie?

Q: No, I like it.

MR. GIBBS: I was going to say, I don't want to go change. I like the tie, Chip.

Q: Now, it's the linen suit -- (laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I know, well -- (laughter) -- I'm trying to be Ben Chang. It's just not --

Q: Go for it.

MR. GIBBS: It's just -- it's just -- you think so?

Q: Before the summertime.

Q: After Memorial weekend.

MR. GIBBS: We'll see, right, exactly. (Laughter.) Since we've now clearly devolved into less important topics, Mr. Elliott.

Q: Thank you, Robert. Senator Reid said he's still waiting for details just how the President is going to close Guantanamo. It's been four months. When does the President plan on outlining his tick-tock on when he's -- how he's going to close Guantanamo?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let's understand, Phil, that there's a process, based on the President's executive order, to do a series of things. One, we set a date to close Guantanamo, understanding that there were a series of complicated and complex decisions that were going to have to be made between January 22, 2009, and January 22, 2010. That's why the date was -- that's, as I suggested, that's why we didn't close the prison camp overnight.

One of the things that this administration is in the midst of doing is something that hadn't previously been done before, which is a case-by-case review, prosecutors going through each and every individual with a fine-tooth comb to see what case can be -- what case is there, what body of evidence is available. And you know that the President has taken steps recently to reform military commissions as a way of prosecuting some.

Obviously the announcement by the Department of Justice this morning that a detainee that had been indicted I believe in 2001 will be transferred to the Southern District of New York and tried for the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. But as I said about a different issue here before, we didn't get here overnight. We're not going to get -- all the decisions aren't going to be made overnight. There's a series of complex decisions that have to be made and are being reviewed.

But we want to work with Congress to ensure that that review happens. Obviously we've got a timeline for making it happen, and I think that's -- you'll see that continue.

Q: Well, what is the timeline?

MR. GIBBS: Well, the President's executive order is to close Guantanamo Bay no later than January 22, 2010.

Yes, sir.

Q: President Obama talked today about -- he mentioned the toughest category being the detainees that can't be prosecuted but pose a threat to the United States. I just wondered, of the 240 detainees, approximately how many are in that toughest category? And are those the ones that would potentially be moved to the supermax prisons?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think -- I don't have individual breakdowns of each one. As I just said a minute ago, some of this is being determined on a case-by-case basis, and decisions about where, how, and when to transfer detainees will be made after we have a chance to have gone through each and every one of those cases.

I mentioned this yesterday, some of these cases come to us not based on any decision that was made through an executive order, but are based on the decisions that are made in the courts of the United States of America.

So there's a series of things, as the President explained today, several baskets by which we have to make decisions.

Q: But, I mean, there seems to be a lot of resistance in Congress to the idea of any of these prisoners coming to the Unites States. And President Obama seemed to suggest pretty strongly that some of them could. How are you going to persuade Congress to go along with that idea?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let me take a crack at it this way. Last night, four individuals were picked up in New York City. They either have been or will be charged with a plot to blow up synagogues, place bombs in cars; they tried to buy surface-to-air missiles. They're likely to be held pre-trial in facilities in the Southern District of New York. The same -- those are the same facilities that Mr. Ghailani, who has been -- was charged in 2001 with blowing up the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, that's likely where he will spend his time pre-trial.

I don't think anybody would -- at least I haven't heard anybody suggest that the people that the FBI arrested last night are less dangerous, right? I also haven't heard anybody suggest that the people that were picked up last night should be transferred to Guantanamo. And I would quote, as the President did today, Lindsey Graham, a senator who knows a little bit about this issue, saying the notion that we can't, if it's needed, build a facility to safely house former Guantanamo Bay detainees in the United States is just not a rational argument.

Again, Zacaria [sic] Moussaoui, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman -- there are -- many people that have been tried and convicted of terror plots are in our prisons right now.

Jake.

Q: Just to follow up on this, is it legal to put people who the President might put in indefinite detention in any facility in the United States?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think obviously some of these issues are going to have to be worked out -- two things. Obviously decisions will have to be worked out with Congress about how, where, in what manner people might be detained in that way. And I think you heard the President, secondly, say today that, certainly as it relates to preventive or administrative detention, you would want to -- he would certainly want to do that through a legal mechanism, again, in working with -- in conjunction with both Congress and the court system to ensure that there's a standard by which we're doing that.

Q: Okay. The Pentagon has an internal document indicating that, of the 540 or so detainees released by the previous administration, 14 percent are jihadists. What lessons is the Obama administration learning from those apparent mistakes in release?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think first and foremost that we have to go through each and every case; that we have to seek that swift and certain justice that the President has talked about, figure out if there -- make a determination about who these people are, the evidence that we have against them; can we try them using the reformed military commission; can we try them, as the President said, in a federal court of law, as Mr. Ghailani will be tried; and make some of those individual determinations.

But I think in many ways -- Jake, the report in many ways proves the argument that we've tried to make over the past four months, and that is that Guantanamo Bay is an ad hoc patchwork of legal theories that isn't working legally or organizationally, because let's -- for a minute, let's play this out for a second. Dick Cheney said today that Guantanamo Bay has made us safer, right? So let's set aside, then, the argument that the Bush administration, based on that argument -- assuming the Bush administration is arguing they didn't knowingly release people that they thought would go back into -- and join the battle in a different place. That leaves you roughly with two different scenarios. Either in reviewing who was there, you had, again, an ad hoc patchwork that organizationally and legally didn't work, you determined that people weren't a danger and they were. Or, they weren't a danger, you released them, but because they had been mistakenly picked up, they became terrorists. That's our second point.

I think the report very clearly demonstrates the argument that we've made that legally and organizationally the prison camp doesn't work, and that it's become a powerful argument not for our strength in the world, but a rallying cry for those who have joined the battle.

Q: Just to follow up on this one thing, how do you respond to those who say that the argument is actually the opposite; what this shows is you can't release these individuals?

MR. GIBBS: Well, but then I guess --

Q: Especially these last 240 that have been the most difficult to deal with.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I guess my question -- it's a better question for the Vice President.

Q: He's not standing in front of us. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: No, he's not, but I understand he's got some free time and doing some speaking. (Laughter.) But one might ask, if the prison kept us safer, if what they were doing was protecting the safety and security of the American people, how on Earth did they make the determination that those people should be let free? I'd be interested in the answer.

Welcome back.

Q: Thank you. It's good to be back. Since you brought up Mr. Cheney's name, I'm wondering what the President's reaction was to this Republican response today.

MR. GIBBS: He was traveling back, and when he got back, was first in his daily intelligence briefing and then secondly in the economic daily briefing. I don't believe he watched the speech. I think he asked for somebody to print it out and was likely to have taken a look and read it, but I don't --

Q: No reaction to it?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know that he's read it at this point.

Q: As to the timing of the details -- I want to follow up on that question that was asked earlier. Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, you were asked about the upcoming speech, which was today, and the question was, one would expect that plan to be detailed on Thursday, and you said a hefty part of that. What happened -- it doesn't appear that we got a hefty part of the plan today. Is the administration having a difficult time nailing down a plan?

MR. GIBBS: No, I think -- and we talked about this yesterday -- that the President believed it was important to establish a framework for how he believes -- or to demonstrate how he's thinking about these issues, the way he's working through not just detainee and detention issues, but also state secret -- OLC memos, transparency, and balancing that versus national security. But then the task forces here are at work making those determinations, as I've said, going through each and every case to establish who these people are and under what system we can bring swift and certain justice.

Chip.

Q: He said at one point in the speech, no time for finger-pointing, which he often says. But then at 12 different -- 12 or 15, depending on how you interpret them -- points in the speech he pointed the finger directly at the Bush administration. And of course he's going to do that because he's changing their policies, but why even talk about stopping the finger-pointing when he does so much of it in the speech?

MR. GIBBS: Well, Chip, I think part of this was for an understanding about -- I don't think we can talk about where we're going without establishing how we got to this point. You can't set up the decision to close, the decision to go through the cases, making the decisions about bringing people to justice or transfer, without setting the stage on how you got there. I also think --

Q: Why kind of hold himself up as, gosh, I don't finger-point; Washington has this culture of finger-pointing, I wouldn't do something like that --

MR. GIBBS: You can read me the reference that he's -- I don't have it off the top of my head, but is it in the latter part of --

Q: I understand that "It's no secret there is a tendency in Washington to spend our time pointing fingers at one another. And our media culture feeds the impulses that lead to a good fight." (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Aiding and abetting is the likely charge. (Laughter.) Well, look, is that I think in the -- is that in the section of the speech where we're discussing whether or not we should look backwards and have a commission?

Q: Exactly.

MR. GIBBS: I think he lays out the argument fairly cogently in that section about why looking back -- leaving the media culture aside -- why looking back he doesn't think would be that beneficial in using that commission to make some of those determinations.

But I do think it is important -- I mean, I think he sets up in many parts in the speech, again, the same thing that I had talked about the last few days, is we've talked about this as a decision solely as one that the administration or this President made via the executive order on January 22, 2009, right? He talked in the speech today, though, about the fact that there are detainees that American courts ruled, not since the 20th or the 22nd, but in previous years, that we don't have the evidence -- we don't have enough evidence to hold individuals that are currently detained.

We talked -- again, I'll use the example I used yesterday that Jake asked me about last week. On Friday there was an individual transferred to France, a detainee that a George W. Bush federal judge had ruled the administration didn't have -- this government didn't have the evidence to back up a charge and ordered that person to be transferred.

I think there are obviously a confluence of events that led us to the decision first to close Guantanamo Bay, but also a confluence of events obviously that were had over the course of the past few years and a discussion about changing the way our country looks at our policies even as the President discusses the first and foremost job that he has each day in protecting the security and safety of the American people. And I think that's -- that's the way he looked at the speech today, and I think that's what he laid out.

Q: I just want to -- he's got to change a lot of votes, if he's going to get the money to do this, on Capitol Hill. Did he change any votes today? And what's the strategy at this point? How is he going to do that?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, I think there's a process whereby decisions are going to get made. There's a process for evaluating these cases and determining where they should go.

Again, the Justice Department is transferring Mr. Ghailani, somebody who was indicted in 2001 for a crime that was committed and killed Americans in 1998. The determination there has been made that that's somebody who can be tried in a federal court in the Southern District of New York, that transfer can happen, that swift and certain justice can be brought on behalf of the families of those victims. But those determinations are going to be made over the course of between -- well, from January 22, 2009, to January 22, 2010.

Chuck.

Q: Robert, earlier in one of your responses to a question about today, you indicated that "if we built a new facility." So that is one of the options on the table, building a new facility to house some of these --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, obviously there are a number of options. I assume that building a facility, upgrading one that isn't being used -- there could be many different options that are being used. Again, I also used the example of -- obviously there are existing facilities that house what we had always considered to be extremely dangerous people.

Q: Following up on the timeline question, will you present a plan to Congress on what you want to do -- whether it's a new facility, where to move, you know, what to do with these detainees -- after you've done all of the reviews of everybody that's there? Or will it be -- you said a task force is still going through each of these cases -- is it going to be when they're all done, then you can go forward so that -- because you need to know how many prisoners of war detainees?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think obviously to make some of those decisions you're going to have to go through all of them.

Q: You need to be done with all of that first?

MR. GIBBS: Some of that. I mean, again, some of this depends on which basket of which the President discussed today that each of these cases falls into. Obviously some decisions likely can be made before that entire review. In fact, as I've said before, courts are making decisions for the federal government each and every day based on their legal reviews about what's going on.

So, look, I think this is an ongoing process.

Q: Can you give us a sense, how often does this -- the members of this task force, when you guys outlined it, it's Cabinet Secretary, it's very high-level people. Obviously they've deputized people to participate. How often does this task force meet?

MR. GIBBS: Well, there's -- I think, if I'm not mistaken, there are three separate task forces. I can get information on this. I'm trying to think of -- today's Thursday. I sat in part of one of these meetings on Monday.

Q: Do they meet more than once a week? Are they meeting --

MR. GIBBS: My sense is more than once a week, but I'll try to get --

Q: Is there a full-time staff that is sort of constantly working, or is it sort of a designee --

MR. GIBBS: Let me figure out exactly -- I can clarify the number of task forces and how -- these task forces obviously are meeting regularly and have since the creation of them, via the President's executive order. This is basically the standup machinery to make these decisions.

Q: Will you release -- will you guys, after the fact, tell us how many times these task forces met and how often -- kind of transparency?

MR. GIBBS: Let me see if those kinds of records are -- where they are.

Q: Being kept.

MR. GIBBS: Right. I don't honestly know.

Laura.

Q: Is it useful, politically or otherwise, for the White House to have Dick Cheney as the prime -- most prominent voice voicing the other point of view on this issue?

MR. GIBBS: Why would you say that? (Laughter.) Look, I think that would ask me to speak to the motivations about why Vice President Cheney is doing what he's doing. I don't fully understand -- I haven't had a chance, obviously, to speak with him about this. I don't know, again, what his motivations are. I will say it does -- in reading and in watching some of these debates, it appears as if there's a continuation of a debate that happened inside of the administration over the course of many years that is still being had by the former Vice President, former Secretary of State, former staff to Secretaries of State. But I can't speak overall to the motivations.

Q: I guess I wasn't asking you about the motivation, but more, given the fact that he is doing it for whatever reason he may have, is that -- is he a useful counterpoint for the President's case?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I would say this. I think that -- I think there was a fairly hefty debate in 2007, 2008, and certainly even well before that, about whether the decisions that we were making as a nation and the steps that we were taking, how that affected our security, how that affected who we are. And I think that debate in many ways was solved last year and a new administration took over with new ideas. And I think you heard the President lay them out today.

This is a President that is taking the steps to provide the resources necessary to go directly at the region of the world that planned and executed the very attacks that basically were central to both speeches today -- that's through the resourcing in Afghanistan and in Pakistan; efforts to ensure that the most dangerous people in the world don't get their hands on the most dangerous weapons; the administration's effort to renew the non-proliferation regime in order to ensure that loose nuclear material isn't available on the black market; steps that are being taken to invest in a 21st century military.

I think those are all steps that the President advocated as part of the campaign and is instituting as the Commander-in-Chief.

Q: And to what extent was the timing of this speech set by the fact that you knew that the former Vice President was speaking today on the same subject?

MR. GIBBS: If my recollection is right, this was -- we chose Thursday sometime last week, but it wasn't based on the fact that anybody else was speaking. I mean --

Q: You were conscious of the fact that --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, I think there was an awareness that he was speaking, but the speech wasn't scheduled because he was speaking on a certain day. My sense is had we given the speech on Tuesday, he might have been somebody that had an opinion about what we said that day, too. This isn't a debate that the Vice President joined over the course of the past few days. I think it's been going on with -- well, publicly, for the last few weeks, and obviously, from what you read, privately in the administration for many, many years.

Q: Robert, are you saying you object or resent the Vice President speaking out on this?

MR. GIBBS: I don't think I said that.

Q: I'm asking, are you saying it?

MR. GIBBS: No, no, I --

Q: Do you welcome him speaking out on this?

MR. GIBBS: I think it would be hard for me as the spokesperson for the President who spoke today at the National Archives, the repository for the Constitution, to be one that advocated at least publicly only a few hours later that the First Amendment didn't pertain to a former Vice President. So certainly I'm not making that.

The President believes, as I believe the former Vice President probably does, that anybody is -- the beauty of this great country is anybody can share their opinion.

Q: Although you did take a little swipe when you said he's got a lot of free time on his hands, though.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I guess I meant that he was the former Vice President -- that's all. Let me tell you, the -- I'm sarcastic by nature, Mark. I'm a little -- (laughter.)

Q: Join the club. (Laughter.) He again today raised the issue of the CIA memos that he says contain proof positive that the harsh interrogation techniques saved lives and prevented attacks. Is there any chance the President, on his own authority, will make those memos public?

MR. GIBBS: Well, Mark, as I understand the series of facts, the Vice President asked the Central Intelligence Agency under an order of mandatory declassification to declassify these memos. The Central Intelligence Agency wrote back to the Vice President that the order of classification which he asked for was precluded under an executive order updated in the administration of President George W. Bush, which, again, precluded that release if something was involved in -- if those documents were involved in --

Q: Litigation.

MR. GIBBS: -- FOIA ligation. Then that's what -- according to the CIA, that's what they're involved. Obviously if -- I'm certain that if the Vice President wants to make a formal request to the CIA based on a different manner of declassification, the Constitution affords him that right, as well.

Q: Do you not want them released?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know that -- that's, again, that's a determination that the CIA would make, and he's certainly welcome to submit that -- make a submission for that declassification.

Yes, sir.

Q: Robert, is there any progress being made in getting other countries to accept some of the detainees or have you largely dropped that?

MR. GIBBS: No, no, that effort has not been stopped. I think obviously some progress was made, as a detainee was transferred to France just last week.

Q: France, last Friday.

MR. GIBBS: I know the Attorney General --

Q: But there's only been like a handful or two or three or five.

MR. GIBBS: Well, there's been -- since our administration has come in, there's been two transfers, one to Britain and one to France. I know that the Vice -- I'm sorry, the Attorney General has -- was in trips overseas, particularly to Europe; this was something that he brought up. I know it's something that others in the administration, including the Secretary of State, talk to their counterparts about. So I think obviously those efforts are ongoing.

Q: But what's the barrier? What do the other countries say to Mr. Holder --

MR. GIBBS: I'd have to get some greater -- I guess I'd point you to Matt over at Justice to get a better -- I just wasn't in the meetings, obviously, with the Attorney General.

Q: Can I ask one other, on a separate point? Can you give us a bit of a preview tomorrow on Annapolis?

MR. GIBBS: Let me do that after this. The draft is in my inbox and I have to admit I haven't read it yet. So let me read that and I will --

Q: Just mail it around. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Send your comments by 6:00 p.m. so that the President can get it in his book not too much later.

Q: May I follow up on the question to the --

MR. GIBBS: Hold on, I'll come back -- yes.

Q: A follow-up on Mark's question, does the President agree or disagree with the Vice President's contention that he has the authority to declassify the CIA memos? Does he agree with that?

MR. GIBBS: I think the government obviously has the ability to -- but I don't want to be flip --

Q: Cheney says the President, if he wanted to, could declassify --

MR. GIBBS: I don't want to be flip on this, but I --

Q: I just want to make sure that the President -- do you agree with that or disagree with that?

MR. GIBBS: That the government has the ability?

Q: The President has the sole executive authority, if he chose to, to declassify those memos and make them public, redacted --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the original executive authority would be at the CIA. That's the determination that was made on his first request and, again, Major, we were -- as I understand it, the CIA was very cognizant of the process by which it was asked and the process by which it went through, that that was treated --

Q: Right, and the Vice President acknowledged that process in his speech, then he said, the President has the authority to overrule that. I'm asking if you agree or disagree with that.

MR. GIBBS: I would suggest that if there's a formal submission by the Vice President for renewed declassification based on another method --

Q: Who would he make it to? The President?

MR. GIBBS: No, well, I think he'd send the letter to the same place he sent it in -- many weeks ago to the CIA.

Q: But do you agree with his contention the President, if he so chose, could declassify these memos?

MR. GIBBS: I think the President has declassification powers, yes.

Q: Okay.

MR. GIBBS: But I don't --

Q: But at this point he has no intention of exercising those for these memos.

MR. GIBBS: I'd have to ask him.

Q: Please do.

MR. GIBBS: Again, I think that there's -- the Vice President has used the submission process -- again, I'm not trying to be flip here, but I don't want to -- I guess it's the short answer of saying that I think the CIA would probably want --

Q: What Mark and I are getting at is the Vice President is alleging that the President is intentionally depriving the country of a certain amount of facts it could evaluate on its own.

MR. GIBBS: That I would disagree with. That I would disagree with because, again, the process was gone through -- the Vice President understands the declassification of very sensitive classified information. That's why he made the -- I assume the reason that he made that request originally was -- through that process was done so because he understood how that process worked.

Q: Right. But we've asked, many of us here, in the last couple of weeks, does the President have any intention of declassifying these. And I guess renewing that --

MR. GIBBS: I will certainly --

Q: -- general request, since you've acknowledged he has the power to do so?

MR. GIBBS: I will check.

Q: Okay. On the supplemental, has the administration given up hopes of getting money for the closure of Guantanamo in the vehicle of the supplemental? Is that something you're just basically inevitably now, because of political resistance, going to take up in the natural appropriations process and leaving out of the supplemental debate?

MR. GIBBS: Yes.

Q: Okay. So you've waved off for now. All right. Explain to us, the Ghailani case, what does it mean in the larger way the country should interpret the future of Guantanamo detainees, and why did it take so long? It sounded as if Ghailani, in your interpretation, is one of those cases that he could go to the Southern District, he could be housed there safely, he could be tried by the federal court. Why did it take five months to handle this case? And does that speak to the difficulties of some of these other cases?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think, as I've said, that each of these cases is being reviewed. I would posit to you that it has been far too long for people that lost loved ones or family members in embassy bombings that happened not in the previous administration but in the administration before that in 1998, as I've argued many times from this podium, that justice has been delayed for those -- the victims of the bombings of the United States embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, in the bombings that happened in the fall of 2000 for the USS Cole, and other activities with which we have the ability to prosecute people.

The process by which -- and I would again, Matt Miller at Justice would have the exact tick-tock, and I know that there's some dates certainly in the press release today, but justice delayed -- has been delayed far too long for many of these detainees.

The process that -- this process was done to evaluate how best to deal with this case. The task force and the Attorney General determined that Mr. Ghailani could be tried in a federal court, as you mentioned, in the Southern District of New York. It's a court that's tried and convicted previous individuals who have been charged with acts of terrorism -- as I mentioned, Sheikh Rahman -- I don't think that Zacarias Moussoui went through the Southern District of New York. But again, the court system that's set up to deal with these cases is working, as the President said. These decisions will be made and the President is hopeful that justice will be served.

Q: A question on the transport of detainees to foreign countries. My country, Germany, could be, would be willing to accept certain detainees that met certain criteria -- mainly four criteria. First of all, they are not dangerous anymore, they can be released; second, they can't go home to their home country -- for example, with regards to China; third, the United States is willing to accept them in the United States, but these individuals don't want to be released to the United States because what they have gone through in Guantanamo. And I'm not quite sure whether the discussion in this country and my country is the same. And to this question, whether the United States first should offer to those detainees to be released into the United States, and only if they don't want, they would be released to a country which is willing to take them?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I don't -- I'm not involved in the negotiations nearly at that level, obviously. I don't know whether Justice or State is the best place to go to answer that question, except to say obviously that officials with this administration continue to speak with countries throughout the world about the transfer of detainees at Guantanamo.

Yes, sir.

Q: Robert, thank you. Two questions, please. One, India has now a new Prime Minister -- or the same Prime Minister under the new government. And yesterday Indian ambassador -- new ambassador to Washington presented her credential to President Obama. And if the President is making any phone calls to the Prime Minister or visiting India or inviting him to the U.S.?

And second, as far as the cries of the Tamils outside the White House, every day they are there. And the President last week, he made a very strong case to both parties in Sri Lanka -- Sri Lankan government-Tamils, but still what they are saying is -- they told me that Sri Lankan government is not hearing yet the cries of the people and the presidential statement of presidential warning.

MR. GIBBS: On the first one, the President has not talked to -- has not lately talked to the Prime Minister. Obviously we had a statement based on the largest election and most participants of any election in the world, something that I think many can be proud of. So no recent calls on that. I can get you something from NSC on the second situation. Obviously it's a concern to the President.

Q: Do you have any reaction to the House Republicans' effort to try and force an investigation into Speaker Pelosi's charges on the CIA?

MR. GIBBS: No.

Q: A couple questions about California. We've heard a bill might be necessary if the federal government is to provide California the loan guarantees. Would the Obama administration support such a bill and be willing to work with Congress to pass such a bill?

MR. GIBBS: Well, Peter, obviously -- let me break this up a couple of different ways. Obviously the administration, at the very beginning, was concerned with the fiscal situation facing many states across the country and the impact that it would have in cutting through those fiscal situations -- cutting important and vital serves that are particularly important in an economic downturn.

The administration proposed, and Congress passed, a recovery plan that provides significant aid to the states, as many of them struggle with budget challenges. Obviously California is probably first and foremost in a list of those states struggling with those challenges.

We're continuing to watch the situation, but I think it would be premature to get into a discussion of what you're asking about. Obviously, again, I think Secretary Geithner addressed, in a question about whether California would fall under the TARP plan, in his estimation it didnít. But obviously the fiscal situation is something that we're monitoring.

Q: And a quick follow-up. Given the voters rejected these ballot measures Tuesday, is the case for federal assistance to California weakened in the sense that voters knowingly opted for this course?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, without getting into the will of the voters in California, I do think obviously that the state has to make some very tough fiscal decisions. They understand the laws with which they operate under and the budgetary constraints that they have. They're going to have to make a lot of difficult choices, and we'll monitor that situation.

Q: Can I ask one last question? If the federal government does extend aid to California, does that sort of open the door to every governor?

MR. GIBBS: Well, that's not the least of -- that's one of the primary reasons I'm not going to get into the second or the third question.

Q: Robert --

MR. GIBBS: Yes, ma'am.

Q: With the weight of all of these issues -- national security issues, from Gitmo to the issues of investigating the interrogation tactics of the last administration, and the fact the President is interested in what the former Vice President had to say, do you think that this administration at any point -- or has this administration at any point reached out to former President Bush to talk, or has President Obama reached out to President Bush to talk about these issues? And will there ever be a time where the former Vice President and this President will sit down, as he has done with some other Republicans to talk about some other issues? I mean, could there be a meeting of the minds at some point, some kind of unity -- will there be unity here at the White House? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I don't believe that President Obama has spoken with former President George W. Bush since right before the speech on our plan on Iraq, sometime in -- it all blurs together -- sometime in February, from North Carolina. And I don't know of -- I don't know whether the Vice President has called here. I don't believe the President has called the former Vice President.

Q: Do you know the last time they talked?

MR. GIBBS: I don't.

Q: But do you -- seriously, I mean, he does --

MR. GIBBS: It would be interesting to know. (Laughter.) I share your curiosity. Go ahead, I'm sorry. I'm serious, I'm focused.

Q: Thank you. I want to keep the lines --

MR. GIBBS: Chuck is distracting me.

Q: I know he is. That's all right.

Q: We didn't get our fifth question. (Laughter.)

Q: Chuck, turn around. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Oh, boys, girls, hold on, all right.

Q: If you don't get it, that's your problem. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: All right. Careful. It's hard to ask a question about unity and civility with that. (Laughter.) All right, let's -- whew, man. All right, let's take it down here. I'm going to make somebody's cell phone ring just to break the tension. (Laughter.) Go ahead, I'm sorry, go ahead.

Q: Do you think -- I mean, as the Vice -- I mean, as this President is very concerned about what the Vice President had to say, that this administration may reach out to him, put those two to have a conversation, to clear the air, and to maybe get some misunderstandings understood together?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I don't know that they're -- I don't know if they have spoken, I don't know when the last time they have spoken. Judging from the speech that was given today, I don't think this is a series of misunderstandings, I think this is a different philosophy. I think the way that the President and the former Vice President view how to conduct activities to keep our nation safe are fundamentally different. I think they were discussed a lot over the course of the past eight years and certainly during the election. But I'll check and see when the last time they spoke was.

Q: So the twain shall not meet?

MR. GIBBS: I'm certainly not aware of when that might happen.

Savannah.

Q: Was the announcement of the Ghailani transfer timed to coincide with the President's speech today?

MR. GIBBS: No. I would --

Q: It's a coincidence?

MR. GIBBS: I would point you to the Department of Justice, as they announced it. So I don't -- the White House isn't going to get involved in judicial determinations.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: Actually, it's a follow-up from yesterday, since I didn't get a follow-up then, but you said yesterday that --

MR. GIBBS: Apparently that's your own fault. (Laughter.) I'm joking. I don't want to get into it. Look what you've done to me. You've got me in this place -- nature versus nurture. (Laughter.) Sorry, go ahead.

Q: So you had said that the President is working with the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on "don't ask, don't tell," but earlier this week the Pentagon said that the conversations were "initial" and that there is "no sense of any immediate developments in the offing on efforts to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell.'" So I wanted to give you a chance to correct the Pentagon on that.

And I have two other questions. What other policies are there --

MR. GIBBS: If you ask like that you're going to get bumped up to, like, the first row. (Laughter.)

Let me address the first question because, if I'm not mistaken, the Pentagon did correct that statement on efforts regarding the reform on "don't ask, don't tell."

Q: So there are active conversations happening now?

MR. GIBBS: Yes. Yes.

Q: Okay. And then I wanted to know if there are any other policies that the President believes to be, as you said yesterday about "don't ask, don't tell," not in our national interest but is content to let Congress take the lead on? And second, President Truman didn't see it necessary to clear desegregation through Congress, so how is this different?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but maybe I was -- maybe I used some poor language, but the President is involved in these discussions. It was the President's commitment to overturn the policy that's not in our national interest that is the reason for these discussions and for the effort to overturn this. So I think the notion somehow -- the reason Congress is involved is the only durable and lasting way with which to overturn the policy is to do it by law. That's the --

Q: So when can we expect a durable policy on racial desegregation in the military, since that's never gone through Congress?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I'm out of my depth as a lawyer. And I'm not exactly sure the timing of when President Truman did that, but my sense is that there were also some legal proceedings around that. Try as one may, a President can't simply whisk away standing law of the United States of America. I think that's maybe been the undercurrent of some of the conversations we've had over the past few days on Guantanamo Bay. But if you're going to change the policy, if it is the law of the land, you have to do it through an act of Congress.

Q: And so there's pending legislation? I didn't see any.

MR. GIBBS: I don't know what's been introduced in Congress.

Q: Robert, if shouting helps, can I shout? Can I shout? I mean, it's been five weeks.

THE PRESS: Awwww!!

Q: Five weeks. But if you want --

MR. GIBBS: With that whining, I'm tempted to make it six -- (laughter) -- but I'm feeling charitable today, David.

Q: I'll go for a record -- I'm happy to go for a record.

MR. GIBBS: I think there's people sitting even farther back than you're standing today that might argue -- look, see? -- that it's been maybe longer than five weeks. (Laughter.)

Q: I would gladly trade my question if you would give less to the first two rows and give more to the back two rows. I'll make that sacrifice.

MR. GIBBS: I'll take you up on that today and I thank you.

Q: Okay, go ahead. Fine.

MR. GIBBS: Right there.

Q: Okay. Robert, the President was talking about this category of detainees that cannot be prosecuted, but that you cannot release them because they're too dangerous -- but they cannot be held in a prison, so there must be some other kind of detention camp. Are there any thoughts going around what kind of facility it should be where they can be detained?

MR. GIBBS: The last part of it? They couldn't be?

Q: This special category of prisoners or detainees that cannot be prosecuted but should be incarcerated because they're too dangerous to release them -- but where can you incarcerate them? Not in a federal prison if they're not prosecuted. So what kind of facility --

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think the President talked about discussing with Congress a way in which administrative or preventive detention would be allowed. Obviously the courts have allowed, and I've seen certainly commentary on it today listening to members of Congress and senators that obviously there are laws around war that allow dangerous individuals to be held.

I think what the President wants to do is ensure that this is done through a system where, as he said on many occasions, somebody watches the watchers; that this is done with, as I said earlier, Congress and the courts. I think obviously those are -- the President denoted that this is a very difficult thing to deal with and it's something that's going to have to be dealt with, with both the legislative and judicial branch.

Q: Thank you, Robert.

MR. GIBBS: I'm going to take a few questions here in the back, just for -- (laughter.)

Q: But remember the deal. Remember there was a deal.

MR. GIBBS: What was the deal?

Q: I said if you gave less time to the front two rows and gave more time to the back two rows I would gladly sacrifice my question.

MR. GIBBS: And the deal is I took you up on that. (Laughter.)

Q: But you have to make good on it.

MR. GIBBS: Go ahead.

Q: Is the President aware about the developments going on in Burma with Aung San Suu Kyi being put on trial by the Burmese (inaudible) junta. What are the President's views on how does he plan to --

MR. GIBBS: Let me get some information. I don't have anything right now on it.

Q: Robert --

MR. GIBBS: Hold on, I'll get everybody, don't worry. On behalf of David, I'm coming that way.

Q: In light of the Tanzanian President's visit, what's the nature of his visit and what is the administration policy towards Africa?

MR. GIBBS: Well, the policy toward Africa is probably a bit of a longer question.

The President is, as we've announced, will visit -- make a visit to the continent around the trip in July to go to the G8 and to go to Moscow. Today the President will discuss regional security. Obviously I think a discussion on terrorism is likely to happen. I think regional concerns like economic development and health will also be on the agenda. I think the President obviously will continue his outreach in the lead up to his speech in Cairo with continued outreach to elected Muslim leaders like the President. And I think you'll -- over the course of this you'll hear us lay out a little bit more on our policy toward Africa.

Q: Is there a specific reason the President chose to visit Ghana?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President believes that there -- it's a place that we can highlight democracy and freedom and the hope I know that many Africans have to share those hopes and dreams, just as the Ghanans do and just as millions of Americans do.

Q: And last one, please. It's very difficult --

MR. GIBBS: Boy, I tell you what, you are -- go ahead.

Q: It's very hard to cover the White House, especially for a foreign correspondent. Is there any specific reason you don't give out hard pass to a foreign correspondent?

MR. GIBBS: That I can check on. Yes, yes, I will check on it. I honestly don't -- I don't have the slightest idea. I don't --

Q: So from the podium you are saying that, you know, "We are open, we are open to questions," stuff like that, but it's very (inaudible) the country to go through the bureaucracy.

MR. GIBBS: Well, we will -- let me check on the bureaucracy for you.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: Merci. A lot of --

Q: Chuck doesn't have a hard pass. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Chuck is saying he doesn't have a hard pass, either, so I hear you. (Laughter.) We'll check on it.

Q: Merci. Robert, a lot of people all over the world today, after this week and this speech, don't understand why this administration is not pushing further to prosecute former members of the Bush administration. Can you clarify this position?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I will reiterate what I said earlier, and that is the President believes it's important, as he enumerated today, to focus our efforts looking forward rather than looking backward. Obviously this is a discussion that we had surrounding the release of the memos written by the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice. Obviously there's a review of professional -- professional review initiated many months ago that the Justice Department -- part of the Justice Department is undertaking, and if -- I'll reiterate what I've said any number of times, that if people knowingly broke the law, that those determinations will also be made at the Department of Justice.

Q: I have a follow-up. You don't think it could be a problem when --

MR. GIBBS: These guys now want to go to work, so --

Q: You don't think it could be a problem for you when you're saying all the time that you want to restore the image of America in the Arab world?

MR. GIBBS: No, I think the President believes that he -- well, first of all, he doesn't make determinations about who broke the law. That's what happens at the Department of Justice. I think he understands that he has control over his actions going forward as the best way to demonstrate to the entire world what he means by "change" and how he sees our policy as different.

So I'm going to let these guys go back to work. I will start in the back row tomorrow on behalf of David.

Q: I only have one question.

MR. GIBBS: All right, one more.

Q: One question. The U.S. Ambassador to Japan was recently appointed to John Roos, California attorney. What's the background on this?

MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry, say that again? John Roos?

Q: John Roos was appointed to Japanese Ambassador. What's the background on this?

MR. GIBBS: Let me get -- we'll get you information on his nomination and his background and experience.

Thanks, guys.

Q: Thank you, Robert.

END 3:27 P.M. EDT



Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs," May 21, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86192.
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