The American Presidency Project
John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters • Santa Barbara, California return to original document
• Barack Obama
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
April 21, 2009
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

2:08 P.M. EDT

MR. GIBBS: My apologies for being tardy -- I never worked in high school, but I ask your patience on that. Let me make a couple of quick announcements before I take some of your questions.

First, on the Middle East. Following on a successful meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, the President has invited other key partners in the effort to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East to the White House in the coming weeks. We are actively working to finalize dates for the visits of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

With each of them the President will discuss ways the United States can strengthen and deepen our partnerships with them, as well as the steps all parties must take to help achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians and between Israel and the Arab states.

Q: Separate or the same?

MR. GIBBS: Separate meetings. No that would be -- we're going to go to Europe and do it all in one day, just to keep you guys on your toes. (Laughter.) No, it is likely going to be all separately over the course of several weeks.

Q: Several weeks --

Q: Not in the same weeks?

MR. GIBBS: I doubt it.

Q: So we can put down our BlackBerrys.

MR. GIBBS: Yes. (Laughter.)

Q: All in May?

MR. GIBBS: I don't have the total guidance on whether or not it will be all in May, but --

Q: By the end of May, do you think -- before Normandy?

Q: Yes, before Normandy?

MR. GIBBS: I think in many ways that's likely, yes.

Lastly -- if you guys haven't received a notice on this, you will soon -- the President will hold a town hall meeting in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, on April 29th, where he will give a progress report on the administration and take questions from Missourians about the administration's agenda looking forward. You all will get a travel notification about that.

Q: Next hundred days

Q: -- hundred days --

MR. GIBBS: Interesting. You guys are -- and you know, Mark Knoller isn't even here and he would be so darn proud of each and every one of you. (Laughter.) Go figure that we might want to leave town on April 29th. Yes, indeed. Veritable Hallmark holiday.

Mr. Babbington, wearing a Carolina blue shirt but not a Carolina blue tie, go ahead.

Q: Thanks for noticing. Thanks, Robert. A two-part question, if I may, on CIA interrogation practices. The President said today that if there is to be more inquiry into how these policies came about that he'd like to see it outside of the typical hearing process with independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility. Is he envisioning maybe a panel without members of Congress, something along the 9/11 Commission?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think in general, without sort of getting into the specifics of who or what might comprise something like that, I wouldn't preclude any member of Congress from being part of that. I think the President said that he is fearful that we are -- this could become overly politicized. And I think that the President would see a 9/11 Commission as a -- to be, in all honesty, a model for how any investigation or commission might be set up because I think we can all understand that the 9/11 Commission was comprised of very respected members that, despite being Democrats or Republicans, put their party identification away in order to answer some very serious questions.

So without prejudging whether a commission should be set up, I think that's what he had in mind in answering that question.

Q: It sounded as though the President took a somewhat different policy today than his Chief of Staff did on Sunday regarding possible prosecution of those who devised the policies. The President said today, regarding those who'd formulated these legal decisions, that that's more of a decision for the Attorney General. And Rahm Emanuel said on Sunday, for those who devised the policy, he -- being the President -- believes they should not be prosecuted. Is that a shift in position?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let's -- instead of referring to what anybody might have said, I think it's important -- or anything that I might have said -- it's important to refer to what the President said, and what he said over the course of many months, in all honestly, because this dates back to questions that has received in press conferences or even during the transition, and that is, very much as he said -- reiterated today, that he says as a general deal, I think we should be looking forward and not backward.

The President has also said he does not believe that people are above the rule of law. And the President stated accurately that any determination as to whether a law was broken would rightly be made not by the President but by the chief law enforcement officer of the United States.

Q: But it did seem like a sound -- at least a difference in tone, if not policy, by particularly saying the Attorney General would be the most likely one to look at those who devise a policy. That sounds different from what he has said in the past, where he always talked about let's just move forward --

MR. GIBBS: Well, again --

Q: -- and in fact, Rahm Emanuel --

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, whatever confusion might exist, I think it's important -- again, the President said throughout the campaign that he would leave determinations on science in his administration to scientists; that he would leave determinations about the law to those in the Justice Department. And I think he reiterated that today, that people aren't above the law.

I do think it's important to make a distinguishing -- to distinguish exactly what the President said last week. The President believes and was assured by the Justice Department that those that have acted in good faith on what they believed was legal won't be prosecuted. The President still believes that.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: Robert, I just want to follow up on Chuck's question, because it does seem that there is a shift there. Because if you look at what the President said today, he said, with regard to those who formulated the legal decisions, he said that that was a decision for the Attorney General, and he said he didn't want to prejudge that. But Rahm Emanuel on Sunday said that those who devise the policy, he believes that they should -- that they were -- should not be prosecuted either, so --

MR. GIBBS: Well, to clear up any confusion on anything that might have been said, I would point you to what the President said.

Q: Did he have a change of heart on this issue over the last few days? Is he --

MR. GIBBS: No, I think the President, as I said, you can date back to the -- I think was asked, at least I recall it being asked in the transition -- and discussed the rule of law, that nobody in the country is above that rule of law.

Q: And just on the issue of a further accounting, which he talked about today and which Chuck also asked you about, is he actively considering a 9/11-type of panel? Is he --

MR. GIBBS: No, I think --

Q: -- it seemed like he was trying to get at something like that, he said that he would like to see something outside of the hearing process.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think he was asked, if something were to be set up, how would it be set up. How would --

Q: Right. But wouldn't he be the one to set it up?

MR. GIBBS: Not necessarily. I'm reminded that Congress has a pretty big say in something like that, given their ability and their lawmaking power.

Q: Is he conferring with people on that?

MR. GIBBS: I will check if it's something that's active. Again, the President's position is to look forward. If there are those that want to look back, I think the President strongly believes that anything has to be done in a way that doesn't, as he said today, doesn't overly politicize and hamper either the ability of anybody involved to carry out the functions of their job or the functions that protect our country.

Yes, sir.

Q: Robert, what changed over the last 24 hours, though? Because yesterday you were flat in saying that we're not going there, as Rahm was on Sunday. And in the last 24 hours we've seen groups like moveon.org on the left come out and write a petition to the Attorney General saying they want accountability from the Bush administration. Is this an example of this White House giving in to pressure from the left?

MR. GIBBS: I don't -- I have not, and I doubt the President has been on moveon.org in the last 24 hours, so, no.

Q: Okay. But then why was Rahm so firm on Sunday, and you were firm yesterday in this very room; what changed?

MR. GIBBS: Again, to clear up any of the confusion, I would simply say that the President reiterated that there is -- that, as he said, his general posture is to look forward, and that at the same time, nobody is above the law.

Q: Why would there be any confusion, as you call it? I don't understand. This is a pretty straightforward topic.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I predicated your question then posited some confusion with acknowledgment.

Q: Did you misspeak? Or did Rahm misspeak?

MR. GIBBS: You know, I -- whether or not anybody was confused or misspoke, I would take what the President said as -- I'm informed he got more votes than either of the two of us.

Q: Can I follow on -- Vice President Cheney yesterday weighed in on this and said he found it disturbing that the President put these memos out. And he also is charging, if you can answer, that this White House basically selectively declassified some of these torture memos, and that there are other memos somewhere in the CIA that would show that the interrogation actually yielded what the former Vice President would call good intelligence that prevented terror attacks. How do you answer that?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I would suggest that you contact the CIA. You might be --

Q: Well, they're not about to turn these over to me or anyone else in this room?

MR. GIBBS: Including me. (Laughter.)

Q: But if the President wanted to declassify it, he could. He just declassified it --

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I would --

Q: So the question is, are there other memos that you're keeping under wraps?

MR. GIBBS: And I just said, I don't know. Again, that's why I would -- I know sometimes when I ask you to contact the agencies with the wherewithal to answer your questions, you think that I'm not answering your question. But as you just said, they're not going to give them to you, they're coincidentally not going to give them to me. And I think the best place to ask about their existence is the CIA.

Q: Okay, last point is Vice President Cheney saying he's disturbed by all of this.

MR. GIBBS: Well, you know, I -- we've had a at least two-year policy disagreement with the Vice President of the United States of America. That policy disagreement is whether or not you can uphold the values in which this country was founded at the same time that you protect the citizens that live in that country. The President of the United States and this administration believes that you can. The Vice President has come to, in our opinion, a different conclusion.

But, again, this was a -- this has been a policy disagreement for at least the better part of two years, maybe longer than that, I'd have to go back and look. But, you know, the President -- the Vice President was also happy to talk about the way we're conducting our foreign policy, which has also been a several-year disagreement with the Vice President. The President of the United States, President Obama has on his first two foreign trips changed the image of America around the world through leadership and engagement that advances our national interests, makes us safer and more secure, and stronger.

I think that's the main disagreement that we have with the Vice President.

Q: So as we come to the end of his first hundred days is the President's hope of bipartisanship dead now or -- I mean, you've got various Republicans saying --

MR. GIBBS: Tell the Vice President that --

Q: No, various Republicans also beyond the former Vice President saying the President has been weak, the photos with Chavez. Do you have any hope of moving forward and having bipartisanship in the second first hundred -- the second hundred days?

MR. GIBBS: The second first hundred days? (Laughter.)

Q: Can the rest of us leave? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: No, please stay. (Laughter.)

The President, as I've said and as the President will continue to do, will reach out to those that want to work with him on the priorities in making our country not just safer, but stronger economically.

In terms of -- again, the Vice President had a particular way of conducting the foreign policy of this country. The election I think spoke to a change in the way that foreign policy is done, as I said yesterday, in order to make us more secure. Again, I'll back this up and give the answer to some of you that I did yesterday.

Go pull the pictures of three years ago at the Summit of the Americas. Maybe the former Vice President of the United States thinks we are more secure in the important region of the world of Latin America with thousands of protestors burning in effigy something that looks like leaders or an American flag. I don't think the President -- the current President of the United States doesn't believe that.

Let's break the tie. (Inaudible) me, take the Vice President, take the current President. I've been asked on occasion what did -- about Prime Minister Harper of Canada, who talked to NBC yesterday and said, let me be a bit of a conservative defender of the President -- so we'll posit him on one side of the political spectrum:

"I thought President Obama did an excellent job of expressing the values and priorities of the United States of America. I thought he allowed a dialogue to take place in a good spirit to animate the room. And I thought the meetings were productive. I think it made the United States -- took the United States to a higher plane than the Venezuelans of the world. And I think it was very effective at moving the vast majority of countries, reaffirming a very centrist position and a very progressive position on the things that concern us: democracy, human rights, open markets, trade. I know he got some criticism, but you know, the U.S. is bigger than Venezuela in the end. The U.S. is the U.S. And I thought President Obama led in a way that was very effective at the conference."

So maybe that's the best summation for the Vice President's criticism of a change in our foreign policy.

Q: With 60 votes we can stop a filibuster.

MR. GIBBS: We have 60 -- Jake. (Laughter.)

Q: Is the President of the belief or in possession of information that members of the Bush administration who formulated these interrogation policies broke the law?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I think I would point you to the comments that the President made today, that a determination of who -- of whether a law was broken or who broke a law was not a determination that would be made inside the confines of the White House. It would rightly be made inside the confines of the Justice Department.

Q: But I would be the fourth of four that has pointed out that there is at least some rhetorical change between what the administration has said in the past on this question of prosecution, and what the President said today. And I'm just wondering what changed.

MR. GIBBS: The President was clear, and I would go with what --

Q: But he hasn't used language like that in the past. He hasn't said --

MR. GIBBS: Well, no, no, no. I don't -- I think the President -- we'll pull it for you, specifically. I mean, I --

Q: We've all read it.

MR. GIBBS: Excellent. We're ahead of the game. Never mind.

I think when the President states that people are not above the rule of law that he expects that the laws of the United States of America will be upheld.

Q: But has he -- I guess the question is, has he learned anything since those previous comments --

MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of.

Q: -- to (inaudible) his language --

MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of, no.

Chip.

Q: Thank you. Are you suggesting, are you saying, that there was absolutely no change in policy today?

MR. GIBBS: I would -- again, I'd point you to what the President said. It's --

Q: Did he change his policy today with regard to --

MR. GIBBS: I don't think so, no. I think, again, the President has stated on any number of occasions -- and as he stated today -- in saying, I think we should be looking forward and not backward. I don't think it's altogether newsworthy that the President believes that the laws of the country should be upheld -- at least, let's hope not.

Q: But didn't he leave the door open to the kind of panel we're talking about? He left the door open.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President understands that if there -- the President commented on what a panel might look like if it were to be set up. Whether that determination is made by members of Congress to do such a thing -- and I've been asked in this room about different ideas for different panels to look into many of those instances.

Q: But he certainly didn't oppose the idea of a panel, and if he's willing to go along with it, he's looking backwards.

MR. GIBBS: His general -- that's why he didn't propose it, because he's looking forward.

Chuck.

Q: Let me ask you another question.

MR. GIBBS: Sure.

Q: Has he talked to the Attorney --

MR. GIBBS: Are you going to filibuster? (Laughter.)

Q: You don't have 60 votes. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Don't I know. (Laughter.)

Q: Has he talked to the Attorney General about this? Is there a possibility that the Attorney General was blind -- and the Justice Department were blind-sided by this?

MR. GIBBS: Blind-sided by?

Q: Blind-sided by his non-change in policy today by what he said today? Or did he talk to the Attorney General about this ahead of time?

MR. GIBBS: About the commission?

Q: About what he said today in the Oval Office.

Q: Not the commission part, the Attorney General part.

Q: To the prosecution.

Q: Yes, about prosecution.

MR. GIBBS: See? There's confusion. I don't know when the President last spoke to the Attorney General. I mean, obviously the Attorney General was involved in discussions last week about the release of OLC memos.

Chuck.

Q: I guess I'm confused by the rule of law comment, which is, the President wants to make the exception for the interrogators that carried out the policy and not hold them accountable, but potentially leaves open the door for holding the lawyers that wrote the opinions about the legality of this. So he is making an exception rather than saying -- is that not right?

MR. GIBBS: No, no. You're right, you're confused. The President and the Attorney General, in both of their statements, said that you have applicators of a policy that acted in good faith on what they were told would be legally permissible, and that those people should not be prosecuted.

The President also said today that no one should be above the law. The President's determination -- I guess it's a little bit like --

Q: I've watched "A Few Good Men" one too many times, I guess. But if you're going to start --

MR. GIBBS: I was going to do a line, but I just stopped -- (laughter) -- you know, sort of like, "Can you handle the truth, Chuck?"

Q: If you're going to keep going up the ladder here, then where does it stop?

MR. GIBBS: Well, that's a determination for the legal department to make. Again, Chuck, I --

Q: Those would be bosses of those folks who wrote the legal opinion. So then does it become Alberto Gonzales? Then does it become the President of the -- former President? I mean, where does it --

MR. GIBBS: Well, no, no -- I think it is important to understand that the President has stated on any number of occasions that he's not the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America. We've got pretty good historical examples of what the Attorney General's power is. I think a determination as to whether a law was broken should be made by the Justice Department.

Q: And then if a law was broken in the interpretation of it, the people that were carrying it out are not held responsible in this case.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, I think --

Q: That's a flat determination you guys have made.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, because they're acting in accordance with and in good -- in the good faith of understanding what someone told them was legally permissible to do.

You know, if somebody tells you the speed limit is 55, and then you get pulled over for doing 55 and they say, well, sorry, sir, the speed limit shouldn't be 55 -- well, you're following the law.

Q: Yet if you're in -- have an ignorance of the law, that's usually not an excuse.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the existing -- the existence of the memos removes the notion that somebody was acting in ignorance of the law.

Q: Well, let the record show these are two non-lawyers are having a conversation. (Laughter.)

One other question is, both Senators Feinstein -- what seems to have changed between Sunday, yesterday, and today, both Senators Feinstein and Feingold both seem to be more -- both seem to take issue with what Rahm said on Sunday about this. Did this have some influence on what the President said today?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of, no.

Laura.

Q: Two questions. The first, just following up on this. I guess my question is that if the Justice Department is going to review whether prosecutions are appropriate for those who formulated the policy --

MR. GIBBS: Let's understand what the Justice Department would review. The Justice Department would review whether or not a law was broken. That's what the Justice --

Q: In formulating the policy.

MR. GIBBS: Well, they're sort of the -- they make the -- they're the ones that determine whether the laws of the country are being upheld, yes.

Q: But by -- right, because it is the actors they're looking at are the policymakers, and ultimately --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think their charge is ultimate -- their larger charge is to look at whether the rule of law is being followed. In specific example, they would determine whether or not a law was broken.

Q: Right. Well, in this specific example, where they're determining whether a law was broken in the formulation of the policy, my question would be, since ultimately, as we all well know, decisions on policy are finally -- the final decision is made by the President, why would that not be something you'd hold the President accountable for?

MR. GIBBS: I don't think -- the President doesn't determine who the Attorney General charges with breaking the laws of this country.

Q: No, I'm talking about the last President, the previous President. I'm saying that those legal opinions --

MR. GIBBS: You confused me. (Laughter.)

Q: Okay, I'm sorry, let me try again.

MR. GIBBS: All right, try one more time.

Q: Those legal opinions that formulated policies that led to torture by this country, those opinions were drafted by lawyers who worked for the Justice Department, but they were not -- they were approved by the former President of the United States. He's the one who makes the final decision on a decision like that. So why would, logically speaking, if the Attorney General is going to be reviewing, as he said right here, with respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, ultimately the decision on those legal decisions was the President's. Why would he not logically be in at least part of the review?

MR. GIBBS: I shouldn't, in this instance, speak either for the Justice Department or speak in absence of a review about whether the rule of law was carried out. I just think it's --

Q: Is there something wrong with my logic?

MR. GIBBS: No, I think it might be ahead of anything that determines what has happened.

Q: Can I just ask about something else?

MR. GIBBS: Sure.

Q: It might be a relief for you to have a question on something else, which is, would you say that the meetings you've announced on the Middle East coming up are a sign that the review that was underway on Middle East policy is concluded and the U.S. is ready to push for a two-state solution?

MR. GIBBS: Well, the President, even in reviewing how we move forward and are best able to help the two sides create a lasting peace, has spoken in favor of and continues to support a two-state solution.

Q: So that's -- so that's what this is all about, is the U.S. trying to move that process forward.

MR. GIBBS: Yes.

Q: Just to follow up on that, the use of the word "abyss" by the President today really connotes some sense of urgency. Is there some reason, some concrete reason, that he's taking his involvement to another level now by inviting all these other leaders in here?

MR. GIBBS: No, I think in many ways this is a continuation of what the President began the very first day of his administration -- very -- since you and Mark share a seat, the very first full day of his administration -- so as not to get all the counting off.

But, you know, the President, in -- I guess the overlap isn't complete, but the President on that first full day made calls to many of the same people that -- granted, one of the governments, obviously in Israel, has changed -- but many of the same actors and heads of state -- to reaffirm this administration's commitment to acting in a way that helps the two sides create that lasting peace.

I think the involvement of what the President is doing in these meetings is simply an extension of what he started a few months ago.

Q: But what does he mean; what's the "abyss"?

MR. GIBBS: I have to admit, I did not catch that part. Do you have that sentence? I didn't --

Q: I've got it right in front of me here, but he warned them about approaching this abyss.

MR. GIBBS: Let me check on that and I'll get back to -- go ahead.

Q: On the Mideast, is it fair to say that the President, with this fresh batch of invitations today, the fact that he's got -- Mitchell has been in the Mideast at least three times since January -- that there's a new pushing or a prodding in some -- is that fair --

MR. GIBBS: Absolutely. I mean, again -- but I don't -- it didn't start today, it didn't start yesterday, or didn't start with the invitation for --

Q: Today was another peg --

MR. GIBBS: Right, absolutely. I mean, King Abdullah was here, and obviously an important player in the region as it relates to moving this forward. But again, I think the President spoke throughout the campaign about the simple notion that it is in the interest of this country to seek that lasting peace, and that this country should be engaged in a constructive role to move that process forward and to be engaged in it early and often, as he's done.

Q: I have his quote, by the way -- Chuck gave it to me -- "What we want to do is to step back from the abyss, to say, as hard as it is, as difficult as it may be, the prospect of peace still exists."

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think in -- I think what the President meant there was, obviously we've seen over the course of the last few months, you've seen news that might lead you to believe that peace in the region wasn't possible. I think the President has always believed that it is and that it can be primarily because the United States can play a role, an active role, an engaged role, in helping to move that peace forward.

Q: Robert, I'd like to follow up on another question, if I may. The President visited Caterpillar in February -- part of the stimulus rally just a few days before passing. Caterpillar was out today with its earnings, and it took the occasion to call the stimulus package was -- calling it disappointing. It said it missed an opportunity to correct past under-investment, and said the package was less effective than China's. Jim Owens, the CEO's good friend, he's on the recovery board, if I recall. I was just wondering if you had any comment.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I -- yes, I mean, look, I think -- I mean, I think part of what -- part of -- well, let's take a couple of different ways of looking at this. One, understand that the investment made through the recovery and reinvestment plan represented the single greatest infrastructure investment in this country since Dwight David Eisenhower conceptualized and built the interstate highway system.

The President is in strong agreement with many that believe for quite some time our infrastructure needs have been neglected. That's exactly why the President believed we could get people in the short term back to work and in the long term to build the economic foundation that we've talked about many times -- infrastructure being part of that -- that can create jobs for the future.

There's always been a tension in stimulus bill about -- and you guys ask me many times what percentage of spending can be accomplished in a two-year or year-and-a-half time frame, what's the spend-out rate, all these intricate CBO numbers. I think in some ways there's a tension between some infrastructure projects which are being funded through the reinvestment plan -- 2,000 approved to date -- that are in accordance with the definition of recovery and stimulus, and then there's long-term projects.

The President has been actively involved and has met with Governor Schwarzenegger and Mayor Bloomberg about the important decisions that are going to be upcoming about the long-term transportation policy of our country as it's enumerated every four or five years in a larger transportation funding bill. I think in many ways, without having read the story or the report, I think in many ways there's a tension between what's a infrastructure project, what's a stimulus project, how they overlap, and why.

All that's to say the President believes that we do have urgent infrastructure needs that need to be met. He'll be addressing that as he and the Congress undertake the reauthorization of the -- what's commonly known as the transportation bill that's up for reauthorization -- but at the same time I think takes great pride in the notion that the greatest investment that's been made since the '50s was made under his administration.

Q: Do you think he was surprised by the company's comments?

MR. GIBBS: I doubt he's aware of them.

Major.

Q: I'd like to go back to the CIA quickly for a moment.

MR. GIBBS: Sure.

Q: The CIA has said in testimony and again today that it believes the use of these enhanced interrogation techniques obtained valuable information that in one specific instance at least, an alleged plot that would have occurred in Los Angeles, information was derived that prevented an attack. Does the President believe that, yes or no? And secondarily, would the President have an opinion as to whether or not that would be a mitigating factor in the Justice Department evaluation of whether to proceed with an investigation or prosecution?

MR. GIBBS: I'd have to take a look at exactly what you're referring to and then -- and I would leave any determination legally up to the Justice Department. I think that's where --

Q: Okay. Going back to Laura's question. If there's a continuum from those who were in the field carrying out these enhanced interrogation techniques to those who authorized them at the highest levels, is what you're saying at the podium today: The Justice Department will not, under any circumstance, investigate or prosecute those field officers who did it, but the field above them is open, all the way to the top?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let me -- instead of yes or no, let me be --

Q: I tried to formulate the question as clearly as I could.

MR. GIBBS: Sure. Let me -- let me do it in my own words. The President and the Attorney General believe and both stated last week that those that undertook actions based on their legal understanding and their good faith understanding of what was legally permissible, as the President said today, shouldn't be prosecuted. At the same time, the President believes that nobody in the country is above the rule of law. I just don't want to prejudge in your continuum -- I'm just -- I'm not a part of the --

Q: Is it possible for the good faith standard to be applied to those who formulated the policy -- that is, that they believe that the circumstances and the asymmetrical nature of the war which not only the Pentagon but the Justice Department, this White House have always acknowledged there are no flags, there are no countries, it's a different kind of situation, that that good faith application of what they believed was legal could apply not just to those who carried it out but who formulated it?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that's a legal determination that, again, I'm going to leave to the lawyers.

Q: One last question. On the question of looking back, if the President is asked about a hearing or a group to investigate and says, "I am open to it," isn't that the same -- or how is that different from him proposing it? Isn't that the same way -- he's sending a signal to Congress that it's okay to look back. If he didn't want to look back, couldn't he just say, "I'd prefer that Congress not do this. I prefer that we not have a 9/11-type commission hearing and I want us to focus all of our attention forward."

MR. GIBBS: You've enhanced the powers of this President in this town, and I --

Q: Is he sending a signal, though, that he's open to it,

and by that very nature, greenlighting looking backward?

MR. GIBBS: No, I think the President was asked if it were set up, and he said it's something that he would consider. I don't -- he's not proposing it. I mean, I think you saw the statement that we put out last week. I think it was pretty fulsome.

Mike.

Q: What is the President going to talk about when he goes to the Holocaust Museum on Thursday?

MR. GIBBS: I will get you some information. I don't have that ready in front of me. I was working on other things, my apologies, but I'll get you something more specific on that.

Yes, sir.

Q: At the risk of belaboring this, I want to --

MR. GIBBS: Oh, come on. (Laughter.) Nice try. (Laughter.)

Q: Someone was asked yesterday in the building about Rahm's comments. We were told that Rahm's comments -- when he said, those who devise a policy was distinct from the lawyers: those who devise a policy -- in that were those who took the lawyers' advice and said, our policy is -- Major was talking about it -- our policy is to do thus and such; and then there are those who actually executed it. And that what Rahm was talking about was this middle category, in effect, between the lawyers who said this is possible, this is not possible, and those who actually conducted the interrogations.

So there are three categories, right: people who say -- the lawyers who say, this is what's legal; the policymakers who say, okay, if that's legal then we authorize this; and people who then conduct the interrogations. Right?

We were told yesterday that what Rahm was referring to was this policymaker category, people who took the advice of the lawyers and said, okay, our policy is to do thus and such.

Is that -- when the President says -- I guess the question then -- again, it's parsing, I know -- but when the President says, those who formulated those legal decisions, those who -- is that lawyers or policymakers, or potentially both?

MR. GIBBS: You know, I obviously -- without parsing that, I don't know the answer to that.

Q: But he said those who followed four squares within the guidelines that the lawyers came up with shouldn't be prosecuted. Could policymakers have followed foursquare within the guidelines that the lawyers gave them and therefore not be prosecuted?

MR. GIBBS: Again, I think -- I think the parsing of some of this is better done through a filter of the rule of law, and done at the Justice Department, and not done here at the White House.

Q: But it's just been done by the President. Now we're trying to figure out what he meant.

MR. GIBBS: Well, and I will endeavor to get some further clarity on that. But again, I think what he speaks to more generally is that the determination of rule of law is not one to be made in this building. It shouldn't be; it should be made at the Department of Justice.

Q: Robert, I think that's an important point, because if you read what the President says literally, he's not ruling out prosecutions up to and including his predecessor.

MR. GIBBS: I know there's a desire to whip right through this, but again, I think you're well ahead of any possible determination or even any possible investigation. That's, again, a determination that -- the determination as to the rule of law is, again, it's going to be made at the Department of Justice.

Q: But you've asked us to look at what the President said. That's all we're trying to do.

MR. GIBBS: I understand, and I'm looking at it right here.

Q: Do you understand it? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I have endeavored to try to find greater clarity in all of what he said.

Q: Why is it fair to say what was just said, that it leaves --

MR. GIBBS: I didn't -- I'm just --

Q: But he has made a determination, in terms of the people who carried out the policy. He didn't leave that to the Justice Department. He said the people who actually did the interrogations are not to be prosecuted.

Q: So that's -- right -- these are determinations he's already made -- so what's been made here in this building; isn't that fair?

MR. GIBBS: Based on the fact -- I think it's a fairly sound legal precedent that the determination based on legal representation, following that in good faith and enacting those policies shouldn't fall under prosecution.

Yes, the President has made, and the Attorney General have made that determination, absolutely.

Q: Middle East, a follow-up on what was said. The process, the Middle East peace process has been moved forward by an international effort, with the participation of the Quartet. So my question is, are you making a new proposal here -- by inviting these people to make a new proposal, are you pushing the broad process, the Quartet process -- how is it coordinated?

MR. GIBBS: Largely through the President's envoy, in George Mitchell, has been working in the region. Before I get into, and before we get into any sort of specific policies or ways forward -- I'm not going to do that today here. The President has stated quite clearly that he is going to be very active in using his power and his ability to seek a lasting peace.

Q: But when you talk to these leaders, regional leaders, do you also talk to your partners in the Quartet about what you're discussing, what you are proposing --

MR. GIBBS: Yes. I think the President would, and the administration would believe that -- are we interrupting your call, David? Sorry. All right, all right, I hope I didn't interrupt. Yes, the President is actively engaged, because the President understands that this is -- one country is not going to do this alone. The President's foreign policy is, as he's stated and as I've said, to engage all the world.

Q: And lastly, the Russians and the Palestinians have been pushing for a follow-up conference after Annapolis to be held in Moscow, basically. Are you aware of this proposal?

MR. GIBBS: I don't have any guidance. I'm sure there are folks that are better apprised of that than I am.

Q: What exactly does "actively engaged" mean in terms of how the President is planning to pursue this sort of engagement in the Middle East? Some people criticized President Clinton for being too personally invested. Others leveled the opposite criticism at President Bush. Is there sort of a model that he's trying -- is he going to be a facilitator, a mediator, a negotiator?

MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously there are many issues that both parties are going to have to resolve on their own. And I think that's important for everyone to understand.

The President hopes, without -- I don't want to pick a specific model, but I think the President believes that the value of this country's input and the value of helping to lead the world in working toward that progress can't be done -- can't be done on a part-time basis. It can't be done in a way that focuses on that at some point and then leaves the playing field empty in the future. And I think that's why the President was involved in this, as I said, the very first full day of his administration and why he continues to be.

Thank you.

END 2:52 P.M. EDT

Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs", April 21, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86028.
 
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