Press Briefing by Dana Perino
James S. Brady Briefing Room
1:09 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Good afternoon. Brief opening statement, and then we'll go to questions. Congress is starting this week another discussion, a series of hearings looking at the FISA reforms that we passed early in August. That's the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The DNI, Mike McConnell, is testifying today. Those reforms we enacted were critical to closing the intelligence gap that was preventing our intelligence community from fully protecting us from those who wished to do us harm. And we are seeking to make those reforms permanent.
If you recall, back in August when those reforms were passed, they were given a six-month sunset. And as we all know, our enemies don't work on a six-month deadline. The intelligence community needs all the appropriate tools. We encourage the Congress to listen to the testimony. And the President will visit the National Security Agency tomorrow to get an update and a briefing on the programs that they do there and the reforms.
With that, I'll take questions.
Q: Does the White House have any reaction to a House committee opening an investigation into the State Department's Inspector General, alleging that he blocked fraud investigations and potential security lapses at the embassy in Iraq?
MS. PERINO: That is the first I've heard of it, so I don't have a reaction. We'll have to check into it for you.
Q: Are you saying the President is going to veto any change in the FISA law, eavesdropping on all Americans?
MS. PERINO: That's kind of a loaded question. There is no legislation yet. The legislation that the President passed, he had one test for the Director of National Intelligence: Does this give us the tools that we need to protect our country? He said yes, and the President signed it. You can imagine that a similar question would be asked of the DNI this time. But until we have some legislation to look at -- look, Helen, we have taken great pains to make sure that we can protect the country while also preserving our civil liberties.
Q: People are unhappy with being eavesdropped on, their telephone calls and so forth. That's not the American way.
MS. PERINO: That's a gross mischaracterization of what the good folks at the National Security Agency do to protect this country, which is to focus on the threats at hand.
Q: You can call it security, but it's also taking away our liberties.
MS. PERINO: Our liberties are intact.
Q: Senator Leahy and other Democrats seem to be adding a condition to getting the confirmation hearings going on nominee Mukasey by saying they want to see the White House turn over some documents. Where do you stand on that, in terms of Fred Fielding talking to Senator Leahy and others? And what do you think about Democrats seeming to add a caveat to their initial warm words about Mukasey?
MS. PERINO: Well, I do think Judge Mukasey will be confirmed; I think that he will be confirmed hopefully by October 8th, which is the recess. We see those issues as separate. Issues that the Senate Democrats are asking about had nothing to do with Judge Mukasey. These are also the same people who have been saying that we needed leadership and we needed it quickly at the Department of Justice. So I don't think it rings true for the American people.
And I think that we've been quite accommodating. Whether or not Fred Fielding will meet with Senator Leahy, I don't have anything on the schedule. He has an open-door policy. He has good communication with them on both sides of the aisle.
I don't know if I can actually use this. I'm going to show you one thing, if it pops up -- did it come up? No. I don't know how to use it. Okay. I just wanted to point out a couple things. Tony Snow was really good at that. I'll get better. We have been very accommodating to the Congress -- on the U.S. attorneys matter alone, 120 hours of testimony time and interview time that we have provided. That doesn't include the prep work that goes into that; 10,920 pages -- almost 11,000 pages of documents, and 30,000 hours spent responding to congressional inquiries.
And if I can go to one more -- I don't know if that comes up there -- thank you. In addition to that, Scott Stanzel, at this podium, or on an airplane, I think, gave you these numbers back on July 25th -- similar numbers. There's been an increase in these numbers, that -- it's quite extraordinary. Since July 25th, we have made an additional 140,000 pages of documents available to the Congress. Over 100 people have testified or been interviewed. We think that we have been quite accommodating. I think that, by any objective measure, someone could look at that and say that we are doing our part in order to be accommodating to the Congress.
Q: For example, out of the 650-plus officials who have testified, you're not really making White House officials available for testimony; they may have been Justice Department officials. In terms of the documents you've turned over --
MS. PERINO: We did offer.
Q: -- you've not really turned over White House documents.
MS. PERINO: We did offer for White House officials to be a part of that discussion. We offered interviews in a way that would not cross the line of executive privilege.
Q: But not testimony.
MS. PERINO: We did not offer testimony, but we've been very clear about what the -- what the line was in terms of the President being able to get clear and candid advice, concise advice from their advisors without the threat of being hauled up to Capitol Hill, just like we don't ask members of Congress to send their staff down to the Oval Office to explain how an earmark got into a bill.
Q: But also, on the issue of documents, a lot of those documents on the U.S. attorney probe came from the Justice Department. You really haven't turned over -- it's been few, if any, White House documents. Are you trying a strategy to run out the clock and not --
MS. PERINO: No, the White House documents were offered in addition to -- at the same time. And the response to our accommodation has been subpoenas. And so I think that -- keep these issues separate. We do not see them linked as one. And I think that -- I think the American people would be shocked -- the other statistic that we looked up was that, an average Washington, D.C., lawyer costs $375 an hour. If you were to add up all of these hours and all of this work, it adds up to about $50 million of taxpayer dollars spent on this one issue alone. I think that --*
Q: Then why don't you turn over the documents and end all that? Give them whatever they want.
MS. PERINO: Well, you don't always get what you want. We can close these out.
Q: Save $50 million.
Q: But for example, Dana, back in April, you acknowledged that up to 5 million White House emails may be missing. And you said at that time you were going to look into it. Five months have passed; have you found any of these 5 million White House emails?
MS. PERINO: I think that -- we were talking about totally separate issues, and I don't know of anybody --
Q: But in terms of documents, there are 5 million White House emails --
MS. PERINO: I don't know if any of the requests regarding Judge Mukasey has to do with --
Q: But some of the congressional investigations we've been talking about -- not just RNC, but there are -- you acknowledged back in April that up to 5 million White House emails, not RNC --
MS. PERINO: We have given regular updates on that, and I don't have the latest off the top of my head, but I know that Scott Stanzel has been available in providing lots of updates to people as we've gone through.
Q: And you found them or -- the 5 million?
MS. PERINO: Well, I don't know. Let's -- we'll get back to you, but I mean, I think that we have been very accommodating. These issues are separate. Judge Mukasey deserves to be confirmed. And these various senators are the ones who said that we need to have Justice Department leadership. They have a person in front of them now that, by any reading of the reaction, everyone agrees that he would be a good Attorney General. He should not be held hostage to politics.
Q: Speaking of politics, when the President again today invoked the name of General Petraeus when talking about what he wants Congress to do, now that the President has said he accepts the General's recommendations and it is now his policy, isn't the President making the General a political figure --
MS. PERINO: No, no. I reject the verb "invoked" his name. He is the General. He is the General in charge of 160,000 troops in the region. He is the General who is working with the Iraqi security forces in order to help bring them along. He is the one that Congress confirmed 81-0. He is the one that Congress asked to come and testify in front of the Hill last week with Ambassador Crocker. And he is the General.
And throughout our history, generals are asked to be accountable to the people. We are the ones who are supportive -- supporting our troops as taxpayers. We are supporting them both in resources and also, you saw the military service organizations today, who pour out with their heart and soul in order to help families who are here and do things just as small as providing a calling card so that troops can call home. So I reject the notion that he would be invoking anyone's name. The General is the General. And that's who he is talking about.
Q: No objection that he is the General. But there was concern among many Republicans that the General has been vilified by some, made fun of by others, has been brought into the whole process in a way that some people were uncomfortable with. So when the President continued --
MS. PERINO: I disagree. I haven't heard that from Republicans. But what I would say is that MoveOn.org made a concerted effort to impugn his reputation. That was a despicable move and it should be repudiated by other people. The President is talking about somebody who is a wonderful public servant, a wonderful leader of our military, who has made a turnaround possible in Iraq, such that we are able to start bringing some of our troops home.
Q: You had a notation that the Congress had not passed any appropriations bills up there a minute ago --
MS. PERINO: That's true.
Q: Committees have dealt with, by my count, 11 of them. The President has threatened to veto 10 of those and -- with strong opposition to the defense appropriations bill. I'm not sure there is a veto threat out on that now. I wonder if this
-- two things -- Republican lawmakers said they welcome the fight over this. Is this an effort to appeal to the President's base, these veto threats? Is this an example of good government when the President says up front, your spending policies I reject pretty much across-the-board?
MS. PERINO: I think what you're seeing is actual -- the wonderful system of the -- I'll get to you, Paula -- the executive branch and the legislative branch who are having the debates that they have had throughout the history of our country. Let me take it back a couple steps, which is, the President, even in a Republican Congress, would issue veto threats on legislation. He did not veto a bill in the first, I guess, six years of his presidency. Part of that was because we were able to help try to hold down the line on spending. There's two reasons that you veto a bill, basically. One is because you're concerned about the spending priorities or overspending, of which we've seen a lot of that in the Democratically-controlled Congress; and secondly, because some people try to change policy within those appropriation bills.
And so each bill I think needs to be looked at individually. But I do think that it is effective for the President to talk about what his powers are and how he can affect the debate.
Q: And with Congressman Boehner and Blunt saying they welcome the fight, they're looking forward to this, you don't see any politics here?
MS. PERINO: I think the Republicans have stood firm on their spending priorities, and I'll leave it to them to describe what they responded to.
We'll go to Matt.
Q: Dana, the Iraqi government has said it's going to review the status of foreign security firms there, after the Blackwater -- the shooting involving the Blackwater firm. Does the administration share the concerns that many Iraqis seem to have that some of these firms have become like private armies acting with impunity? And does the administration see the Iraqi government even having legal jurisdiction over these firms?
MS. PERINO: You know, I did not -- I have to refer you to the State Department in terms of the legal jurisdictions and what the CPA rulings are. I think, specifically in talking about the incident yesterday, any innocent loss of life is deeply regretted by the United States. And on behalf of the United States, Secretary Rice did call Prime Minister Maliki to express that.
The State Department is looking into it. I'm going to have to refer you over there because there is an investigation. It will be open and transparent. It is important that people who are there working for the State Department and other departments across the federal government are given a protection that they need. Obviously it's in a war zone and it can come under attack. And so before commenting on any specific incident in terms of what exactly happened, I'll have to wait until the investigation is done.
Q: On the FISA law, does the President want a simple extension of the current law, the six-month law, or are there amendments? And if so, what are the one or two most important ones?
MS. PERINO: I think there are a couple of things that are the main points that the President was looking for. One, he believes that the law should be made permanent because he doesn't believe, as no one should, that al Qaeda works on a six-month deadline structure. But in addition to that, we asked for retroactive liability protection for companies who were alleged to have helped the United States in the days following 9/11 -- they helped their country; it was their duty to. If any of these alleged activities took place they should be protected. And those are the two basic things that we're looking for. And we'll have to take a look at whatever legislation comes to pass because then we'll be able to tell a little bit more specifically on what we're looking for.
Q: Are we going to hear a little bit more specifically tomorrow when he goes out to Fort Meade?
MS. PERINO: I don't know how much more specific you'll get from the President in his statement to the pool, but I would encourage you to look at Director McConnell's testimony today. And, obviously, the questioning will give us an indication of where they're headed.
Q: A follow-up to that, though. Is the President willing to cite, perhaps, more examples of how this law has prevented terrorist attacks?
MS. PERINO: We've tried to do that to the extent possible. When things are able to be declassified, we like to provide that as information to the American public. I don't know if that's possible, because obviously some of these things are classified; I don't even know about them. But it was just two months ago that we had this debate. I don't even know if people realize that we were going to have to come back to it, but mostly we're coming back to it because of the six-month extension issue.
Q: Dana, is there any plan for the President to get involved in the outreach to the Iraqi government over Blackwater?
MS. PERINO: Not that I'm aware. I think Secretary Rice is handling that.
Q: Dana, this is on another subject. The President has said, and this White House has said, that he's the President of all Americans. And there is a Republican debate that's coming up later this month at an HBCU, which President Bush -- HBCUs President Bush continues to fund, and fund more than other Presidents. John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson are not attending. Is there any concern from the White House that the next crop of presidential Republican candidates are somewhat leaving minority communities behind by not --
MS. PERINO: April, I'm just not -- I'm not going to comment on their decision. I don't know anything about this debate or about their decision, so I'm going to decline to comment.
Q: But let me ask you, this President has set the standard. He talks about the soft bigotry of low expectations as far as education, no child behind -- leave no child behind effort, and also he banned racial profiling in his first term. He has set an example. Do you think that the upcoming Presidents who are running for the Oval Office should try to take a stand?
MS. PERINO: I only speak for this President, and I can't speak for any other candidates.
Q: Is it wrong for them to walk away?
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to comment.
Q: Dana, are there any circumstances under which the President would consider signing an S-CHIP bill out of Congress?
MS. PERINO: Yes, the President would sign an S-CHIP bill today if they sent him one that was an extension and -- he's asked for an extension; I think it's $5 billion more over five years. I might now have the exact right figure there. But we have said he would sign it today, he would reauthorize S-CHIP today if they would send him a bill. And the Congress has known for many months what his position is on this. And the bill runs out on September 30th. They should send him a clean bill so that we can make sure that poor children continue to be covered under this program.
Q: The way the debate is going in Congress, do you think he's going to have to act on his veto threat? Does it still stand?
MS. PERINO: I hope not. I hope not. There's debate and conversations going on right now.
Q: Does the threat still stand?
MS. PERINO: Yes.
Let's go to Mark, Mark and --
Q: Back to FISA. One of the knocks on the legislation that passed is that the language, perhaps because of the haste in which it was passed before the recess, is imprecise. For example, Democrats are saying their reading, which you disagree with, would allow things like business records and library files to be opened without a warrant. Why not just sharpen it? Would you be okay with sharpening the language?
MS. PERINO: I have to tell you, I'm not an expert in that particular piece of the law. We do have a myth fact sheet I think that we are working on that we can try to get out and get to you.
Q: But I mean, if there's language that's in dispute, why not come up with new language?
MS. PERINO: Well, it's a possibility. Congress has said that they're going to bring this bill up again. I told you the two things that we would like to see. If there are other issues that they want to talk about, I'm sure we're going to be willing to do that. But again, the final test is going to be, do we or do we not have a bill here that is going to continue to protect the American people?
MS. PERINO: Goyal.
Q: Two quick question. One, FISA. Does this bill include also -- because a lot of money, billions of dollars are going and coming out of the U.S. in the name of charities, and it's been used by the terrorists.
MS. PERINO: I don't know what that has to do with FISA.
Q: Nothing to do with --
MS. PERINO: No, I don't think so.
Q: Second, if I may quickly, please. Many, many legal immigrants are marching today -- not illegal, but legal, for their rights. What they are saying is that they have to wait for years and years before their illegal status goes into legal status.
MS. PERINO: I'm not sure about that. Let me refer you to Homeland Security or State Department on that.
Q: Back on the nomination and the documents, you said they're not related. The way that Leahy relates them is he says that they need these documents to describe to the nominee what has happened before and question him about how he would change these practices, or how he would --
MS. PERINO: I'm sorry, but I think Judge Mukasey is a very sophisticated individual, up on current events, and I don't think he needs a tutorial from Senator Leahy on that. I just reject that.
Q: USA Today reported that Secretary Leavitt told them in an editorial board meeting that the President would not only veto S-CHIP if it had the $35 billion increase over five years, but that he also would like to work with Congress to find a way to provide health care coverage for all Americans. So is the President -- was he speaking for the President when he said that he would support universal health care?
MS. PERINO: I haven't seen his comments; I wasn't there. But I can imagine what he is talking about is that the President is trying to get to a solution that addresses the root causes of the health care disparities that we have in our country. We want every child to be insured, we want Americans to have coverage, and we want to do it in a way that provides for competitive, free-market principles to help drive down the cost and make sure that people have choices.
As I said, the President would sign a bill today -- it is a 20 percent increase in funding, Maura, I just saw that -- it's $5 billion. It's what the President would sign today. Congress has known that for months, and we encourage them to send that.
Q: And also, may I ask another question related to education and No Child Left Behind? Secretary Spellings yesterday indicated that even if that law is not reauthorized that it could still continue on the books without reauthorization. But if that were the case, wouldn't that mean there would be no federal funding for it? And then if there's no federal funding for it --
MS. PERINO: No, we have our budget request up. And as Wendell pointed out, the Congress hasn't worked on any of their budget priorities for this year yet. They haven't sent us appropriations bills. I take that back, obviously, they may be working a little bit, because they have some things in committee. They just haven't passed anything yet.
The No Child Left Behind reauthorization -- what Secretary Spellings was saying, is that if you can get to a reauthorization, you can then hopefully infuse some additional resources into it, of which the President has asked for.
Q: But if you don't, then doesn't that mean that there would be no federal funding for --
MS. PERINO: No, I don't -- no, I don't think that that follows.
Q: Thank you, Dana. Two questions. From Moscow, the London Telegraph reports the Russian televising of their new non-nuclear bomb, which is said to be four times more powerful than our Massive Ordinance Air Blast bomb, which is capable of destroying nine city blocks in one strike --
MS. PERINO: What's your question, Lester?
Q: I'm right on the question.
MS. PERINO: Okay.
Q: What is the White House response to this report from Moscow?
MS. PERINO: It's the first I've heard of it, so I don't have a response. Quickly the next one.
Q: Teamster Union President Hoffa praised the Senate for its 75-23 vote in what Hoffa describes as, "slamming the door on the Bush administration's reckless plan to open our borders to trucks from Moscow." And what is the White House response to this Hoffa statement and the Senate vote?
MS. PERINO: I think you mean trucks from Mexico. Obviously, our position on that is well known, and we have the Department of Transportation who is seeking to push that through.
Sheryl, did you have one?
Q: You've mentioned the spending bills several times today. And I'm wondering, what is your expectation about what will happen? Do you think that we could have a government shutdown, and is the President prepared to take his veto threat to that level?
MS. PERINO: I don't think that anyone in Congress wants to go to a federal government shutdown. That's not in anyone's interest. They can work on the appropriations bills. They've had them in front of them for months. They've spent hours and days worth of time working on other issues, and I think they could do this.
Q: But the President is threatening to veto 10 out of the 11 bills, you said. So how do you expect --
MS. PERINO: Sheryl, you're an expert in how Congress works. And oftentimes when the pressure is on and they're forced to work on something, it gets done. So I think that's -- I can't predict for you, I don't have a crystal ball, but I'd point you back to your own expertise.
Q: But when they get done, he is threatening to veto what they do. So I'm asking you --
MS. PERINO: That's not any different from any other President in the past. I think that Congress has shown that they can get its work done, and we expect them to.
Q: Can I follow? Are you counting on the pressure, or continuing resolutions? I mean, are you counting on the pressure prompting a compromise or --
MS. PERINO: We want them to pass actual bills.
Q: -- or are you counting on a continuing resolution?
MS. PERINO: We want them to pass actual bills.
END 1:32 P.M. EDT
* If you were to add up all of these hours and all of this work, it would add up to about $50 million of taxpayer dollars spent on this one issue alone if private attorneys were hired to conduct this work.
George W. Bush, Press Briefing by Dana Perino Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/276465