Press Briefing by Tony Fratto
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:34 P.M. EST
MR. FRATTO: Actually, I have no announcements, so we can go straight to questions.
Q: Has the President been told about Mitt Romney since he seemed to withdraw? And what's the President's reaction?
MR. FRATTO: I am not aware that the President has been notified of it. I think some of us just saw it on TV recently. But I'm not -- I don't know if the President has heard that yet.
Q: Tony, waterboarding is, as you know, explicitly forbidden in the new Army Field Manual. One of the rationales that military officers tell me is the reason for that is that what we do to people in other countries, they will eventually do to Americans. Doesn't allowing waterboarding and not forbidding it in all circumstances essentially say that it's appropriate for U.S. troops to be waterboarded by other countries under similar circumstances?
MR. FRATTO: No, it doesn't. But in terms of the operational use of any enhanced interrogation technique, I'll let the agency comment on that -- the Central Intelligence Agency runs the program and I'll allow them to comment on it. I think it's important to note, as General Hayden did and I believe Attorney General Mukasey, that that technique is not part of the current program, it hasn't been for a long time. If there would be any change in authorized techniques within the program, it would go through a process that includes a legal review that would be conducted by the Attorney General. And then a decision would be made by the President based on the circumstances and the advice of his senior advisors.
Q: Is the President concerned at all that by not forbidding it, that raises the likelihood that it would be used against Americans?
MR. FRATTO: I think the advice that the President gets from people like General Hayden and the Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, and the Attorney General, they consider all of those considerations before they decide which interrogation techniques should be part of the CIA program. The CIA knows which techniques they consider to be effective. If there are any changes in the program it will go through a process, and it's important to note that that process will also include the notification of Congress.
And an important thing to understand with respect to any change in this program also, with respect to interrogation techniques, is that there is law that will be considered and it includes the Military Commissions Act, the Detainee Treatment Act, and the President's executive order on our compliance with Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions.
Q: Does the President think he's above the law in breaking the law on torture?
MR. FRATTO: No, the President believes he should always seek counsel of those who speak for the law, which would be the Department of Justice and the Attorney General. And that is what he has always done.
Q: He's read enough about waterboarding now. Does he think it is torture?
MR. FRATTO: I'm not going to speculate on --
Q: He knows about it, though. He knows how it's been applied.
MR. FRATTO: No, I don't think I can give a good answer to that question.
Q: Tony, if al Qaeda were to use waterboarding on an American prisoner, would the Bush administration consider that to be torture?
MR. FRATTO: I'm not going to speculate on anything that people do to U.S. soldiers or special operations forces. I can tell you this: This debate that we are having is not the debate that al Qaeda terrorists are having. They are not debating, before they decide to strap civilians with bombs and have them walk into markets, what the human rights are of the potential victims of that act are. They didn't make that determination before they flew airplanes into two towers in New York City. Those aren't the kinds of conversations that they had as to what is legal and what is in compliance with Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions.
That is a debate that we have here. When we put together a program that is intended to protect Americans and protect our interests, we consult with the law. We consult with the -- what will be most effective; the individuals who will know what will be most effective in getting us the intelligence that we need to keep the country safe. That is not what our enemies are doing.
Q: Tony, I know you did this this morning, but could you just again clarify: Does the White House believe that waterboarding is illegal? Because some of the comments you made yesterday you said were misconstrued or somehow characterized incorrectly.
MR. FRATTO: I think I was very clear on it, in that the techniques that were discussed and that were used in this program. The Central Intelligence Agency went to the Department of Justice and asked for a specific legal review, as to the legality of those techniques, when they used it, at that time, and with the -- under the circumstances in which they would be used. And the Department of Justice made a legal determination at that time.
Now, as to the use of any other potential enhanced interrogation technique, there is a process in place that will consider the law as it stands today, and I can just tell you, at this time, that technique is not part of -- it's not an authorized technique that is part of this program. And I'm not aware that anyone has plans to use it in this program, but that would be a decision that would arrive as a proposal from the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency to the Attorney General before any decision was made.
Q: Just so I'm clear -- so the legality of waterboarding, essentially what you're saying, is dependent on obviously the circumstances involved and what the outcome of the legal review is at the time. So there is no yes or no, clear-cut, blanket answer to that question, "is it illegal"?
MR. FRATTO: No. I mean -- and I think the Attorney General is testifying on Capitol Hill right now. He answered this question and he said that to make -- it would be foolish to speculate on what the law would say about the application of a particular technique in a particular circumstance; that he would need -- he needs the facts that surround those circumstances before he can make a legal determination. That's what the Attorney General said.
Q: Is that a slippery slope, though, for other countries who are then looking at the United States as -- people have been posing these examples. I know you don't want to speculate --
MR. FRATTO: No, I don't think so. I think other countries should be impressed that there is a rigorous process with legal review that takes into account the law and that we have national laws that govern what we do.
Q: The flip side of that is you're still not ruling it out. It remains a possibility.
MR. FRATTO: I'm not in a position, and no one is in a position, to rule anything in or out, because I can't speculate in terms of the future as to what Director Hayden or any future director of the Central Intelligence Agency may bring as a proposed technique that he or she believes will garner the intelligence that they're seeking. You know, we can't speculate on what all of those factors are, and I'm not going to do it for one particular technique, and I don't think anyone else can either.
Q: No, but you leave the impression that the United States is willing to do it if it feels necessary.
MR. FRATTO: No. I think we acknowledged that it had been done in the past and in an exceedingly limited way, with safeguards and under certain circumstances. We have made clear that the law has changed, that has given greater clarity to these questions and to the policy of the United States. But we are not going to speculate on the future. That's all we've said.
Q: What you're saying -- sorry, Tony. What you're saying is that the law has changed, but it has not changed enough for a blanket "we rule this out forever"?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I think that's clear. I mean, we can go back to the debate on the -- I believe in the Military Commissions Act -- I'm sorry, it might have been the Detainee Treatment Act -- where they went through a discussion of whether to, through statute, ban certain techniques. And the Senate failed to do that. They chose not to do that.
Q: But Senator McCain and some of the other authors of that law believe that they did do that.
MR. FRATTO: I understand. I understand that.
Q: Tony, there's a news report out today, or maybe yesterday --
MR. FRATTO: Is this on the same subject or a different subject?
Q: Yes, it is.
MR. FRATTO: Okay.
Q: -- that the original revelation of waterboarding, the Negroponte comments, was an accidental revelation. You seemed to suggest yesterday that it was not, that it was a response to misleading or inaccurate news reporting.
MR. FRATTO: I'm sorry, the -- when Secretary Negroponte's?
Q: When we asked you about the Hayden/McConnell comments, you seemed to suggest it was actually in response to inaccurate or misinformed reports.
MR. FRATTO: It wasn't in response to any one particular revelation.
Q: Okay, I'm just asking whether it was an inadvertent revelation by Mr. Negroponte, or whether it was an actual response to inaccurate reporting. And the reason I'm asking about that is the administration has now talked about Camp 7 publicly, at Gitmo, which is the super classified serious target, whatever you want to call it, the top terrorist held there. Is there a new openness about these super classified methods and facilities now?
MR. FRATTO: No. And that's not something that I can comment on. It's nothing I have any factual knowledge on. But with respect to the situation involving our speaking in a more public way with respect to interrogation techniques, it was a decision that developed over a period of weeks, and it was -- there was no one revelation that led to that decision. But we did have the circumstances of the Attorney General in particular, who was about to testify to Congress and wanted to be clear in his responses to senators, and to be responsive to the questions that they had.
But certainly over a period of time, certainly over the past year, we've seen many unnamed sources in stories talking about this technique and the interrogation programs; some of it accurate, some of it not accurate. And we thought that it was important at this time, if we were going to have to be -- or want to be responsive to Congress, to be able to talk about it in a clear and transparent way.
Q: Tony, on another subject. What does this administration think of John McCain, as right now he -- if reports are indeed true Mitt Romney is going to pull out, and he could be, indeed, the nominee -- what do you think about John McCain and the infighting that his nomination inspires?
MR. FRATTO: I'm not going to get involved in talking about '08 politics or candidates right now.
Q: No, but it looks like it's already been determined almost, to a certain extent, if Romney --
MR. FRATTO: Oh, "looks like," "almost," "to a certain extent." (Laughter.) That's so determinative. (Laughter.)
Q: What does this White House say -- I mean, you just said as you came out, you were looking -- you saw the Romney --
MR. FRATTO: This is what I'll say. We have felt that all of the Republican candidates are on the right side of issues, in terms of protecting the country in the global war on terror, on taxes, on keeping the economy open for trade and investment. And broadly speaking, all of these candidates who have been out there on the Republican side running for President have been in the right place, and we're very comfortable with the major Republican candidates.
But I'm not going to get involved in commenting on particular Republican candidates in any way.
Q: So you said, all the candidates, all the major candidates seem to be on the right side?
MR. FRATTO: The right side and the correct side. (Laughter.)
Q: At what point -- the President said that once the Republican field was clarified he would speak out. When will the President speak out now that Romney is getting out?
MR. FRATTO: I think when it's clarified and when he feels comfortable to do it. Like I said, it will be a decision that the President makes on his own when he feels comfortable enough to make that decision -- and at 12:46 p.m. today, he's not quite there yet.
Q: What will the President tell the CPAC audience when he talks to them?
MR. FRATTO: I think he'll talk about the Republican values that he has tried to promote in this administration, conservative values that he has tried to promote in this administration. I think we're going to have a chance to have Scott at some point over the next day to give a little bit more background on the President's speech tomorrow, so I'm going to let Scott handle that.
Q: Tony, on nominees, we heard the President make his case this morning for his nominees. But is he hopeful that some or many of them will get through? It doesn't sound like the Democrats in the Senate are in a big hurry at this point.
MR. FRATTO: Well, I mean, we want to be hopeful and we're certainly encouraging, and we want our friends on the Republican side of the aisle who have been trying to be helpful in this -- to allow them to do what they can try to do to try to get these nominees moving forward. We thought it was very important to talk about this today. Certainly the President feels very strongly about it. You know, you're the President of the United States and you're trying to fill out your administration, I think this is a completely foreign -- it's a foreign concept in foreign countries. I think people looking at the United States would find this whole episode bizarre, that the head of state of a country cannot fill out his staff.
So we're hopeful that it can get done. We'd like to see it move quickly. A lot of nominations are pending out there, and we encourage the Senate to move them.
Q: Tony, if I could follow up just a little bit about the Republican infighting, is the President aware of this sort of infighting that's been going on? Is that good for the party, bad for the party? Is he concerned about it at all?
MR. FRATTO: I haven't had that conversation with him. Obviously, he follows the debate within the party, and he's been following the campaign, but he's also been focused on other things right now. But I haven't had that conversation with him, so I can't comment on what he thinks.
Q: Has he listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio?
MR. FRATTO: He hasn't had the time, I don't think.
Q: Has the President spoken to Prime Minister Maliki in the last 48 hours, 72 hours?
MR. FRATTO: I believe he has, and I can get back to you on that. I can't be sure right now.
Q: Can you get back to everybody?
MR. FRATTO: I can get back to everyone on that.
Q: On sovereign funds, the President in Torrance made a fairly blanket welcome to sovereign funds, saying that if they've got all this money, they should feel free to invest it. This morning you said that's good, as long as they make -- that we're assured that they're transparent. Is that a signal to the Congress that you would be okay with legislation requiring transparency?
MR. FRATTO: No, no. I think we should be very, very careful with -- to look at legislation that may affect investments coming into this country, and be very, very careful of the signals we send to foreign investors who are looking to place their money in this country. And so it should not have been interpreted that way, and I hope it wasn't.
Q: Thank you, Tony. Two questions on the budget. Congressman Roy Blunt, the number two Republican in the House leadership, said yesterday it was a mistake for the administration to include a call for $70 billion to projected revenue from the Alternative Minimum Tax in fiscal year '09 in the recent budget; that this was not a good move because the fate of AMT has not been determined, the patch has not been finalized; and that the AMT, there is still a movement in Congress to abolish it, one the White House hasn't commented on. Your reaction?
MR. FRATTO: Well, we certainly would like to abolish the AMT, but it should be done in the form of more comprehensive tax reform, and that's something that we've said for a very long time. We've gone through this period of patching the AMT every year, on a year-by-year basis. It's not our preferred way of doing it. We would prefer to do it in a comprehensive way that can account for the structure of taxes that impact the American people, going forward for many years.
So that's the way we would prefer to do it. And it's unfortunate that we have to do it year-by-year, but right now I don't think there's any other alternative because I think most likely the prospects for comprehensive tax reform in the near-term are pretty remote.
Q: On the other hand -- one more question, please. On the other hand, the administration has also said it would veto the farm bill if it goes over a certain figure. How is it that it can quibble with Senator Harkin and others on the price tag of the farm bill, and yet make a promise for major cuts at Doha?
MR. FRATTO: Actually, I don't think our views on the farm bill are limited solely to the cost; they're also limited to the policy, and we would like to see a strong farm bill that reforms our farm and agricultural programs. So it's not -- I don't believe it's simply limited to the cost.
Q: Quick follow-up on the nominations -- is it true that Senator Reid told President Bush over breakfast a while back that he would let all of these nominations go through if the name of Steven Bradbury was withdrawn?
MR. FRATTO: I don't usually comment on conversations between the President and leaders --
Q: Reid announced it on the floor.
MR. FRATTO: -- and I saw that Senator Reid said this on the floor, and I think he had conversations with Chief of Staff Bolten, and I think that conversation had something to do with recess appointments of Steven Bradbury, not withdrawing Steve Bradbury's nomination. So it was a very specific offer from Senator Reid, but I think -- you know, let's be clear about this and take a step back.
Getting nominees through the Congress should not be a game of "let's make a deal." I don't think that's what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they conferred the advice and consent powers on the U.S. Senate to -- that it would operate that way. They gave the Senate this authority as a check on the executive and to make sure that there was a process to ensure that qualified individuals were serving in the executive branch. This is not what they had in mind; they didn't have in mind that nominees would be held up for two years, and that it would take this kind of deal making to get qualified individuals into government.
Q: Can you say "politics"? (Laughter.)
MR. FRATTO: Living it.
Q: Tony, Reid's quote on that was -- he said he called John Bolten, who, "He called me back and said it is Bradbury or nobody. I said, you're willing to now allow 84 of your people to get approved because of this guy? He said, yep, that's what the President wants."
MR. FRATTO: I think what the ask of the administration was, was for the President to give up his constitutional authority to make recess appointments. The power to make recess appointments is granted to the President in the Constitution. And that's what the President was being asked to forego.
Now, the Senate, then, went and took the extra constitutional act of -- over the holidays, of engaging in speed sessions with the soul purpose of frustrating the President's constitutional authority to make appointments.
So it's not an offer that we make -- you know, that we would find credible or appropriate. And it's also, again, not the way this system is intended to work. The system -- the way it is intended to work is the President nominates, the Senate reviews the nominee, and they can give an up or down vote on these nominees, and we can either put them in place, as the President intended, or the Senate can vote them down. That's the power that the Constitution gives them.
Goyal. Then I'll come back to you, Mark.
Q: Two quick questions, thank you. One: As far as this election is concerned -- or immigration issue is a major issue going on, and all those candidates are using the money -- immigrants say they are using them. But two things -- one, their relatives are still waiting to be legalized or come to the U.S. or many immigrant -- many illegals are still here. So how the President taking as far as -- because somebody is going to lose the immigrant -- immigrant votes are going to make difference in this election.
MR. FRATTO: I'm going to have to apologize for not being expert enough on that issue to give a very good opinion on how that would play out in this election, I'm sorry. But Scott Stanzel is our local expert on it and he would be happy to answer that question.
Q: As far as Olympics are concerned, many human rights organizations, including the Human Rights Watch and also Amnesty International, they have already started protesting and asking the President to stand up as far as human rights and concerned, because China is stepping up against the people who love democracy and all that. So what President is going to do?
MR. FRATTO: Well, these are the very issues that we discuss with China. It's something that we've taken every opportunity to raise, democracy and human rights issues, when we speak to the Chinese, and that's the way we generally handle it.
Q: On the Tennessee trip, can you give us a preview of what the President is looking to see down there and what his message will be?
MR. FRATTO: I think his message will be very clear in terms of compassion for the victims, and the offer to help in any way appropriate, and to make clear that the government stands ready to provide whatever assistance is deemed appropriate, and to act on an emergency basis if necessary. He'll have an opportunity to, I think, have an aerial view of the damage, and to meet with local officials and possibly meet with some of the victims, as well.
Q: Thank you.
MR. FRATTO: Thank you.
END 12:58 P.M. EST
George W. Bush, Press Briefing by Tony Fratto Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/277027