Press Briefing by Tony Fratto
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:35 P.M. EST
MR. FRATTO: Good afternoon, everyone. I think you saw the President's comments earlier today. As you know, our thoughts and prayers are with the people who lost loved ones in the devastating storms that struck numerous states in the south. The President spoke with the governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. He told them that we support them in this time of tragedy. Federal officials continue to work with state and local emergency responders throughout the region. Secretary Chertoff is in contact with governors, as well. FEMA staff and resources were dispatched late last night to assist with the recovery. FEMA has also provided some information about the response to the tragedy, so I would refer you to the information that they put out.
And you know one thing we talked about earlier this morning was reminding citizens that continue to be in the path of the storm, check in with their local weather services and local authorities for information on how to remain safe and how to make themselves and their families safe. And if citizens want more information about how to prepare for emergencies, there is a great resource -- I'm going to give you the web page for it, it is www.ready.gov, that's www.ready.gov. That should be an excellent resource for information on how to be safe in the path of a storm.
One other reminder, the President tomorrow will have an event talking about the need for the Senate to confirm the President's nominees. At this time we have more than 200 nominees to the administration, judicial and non-judicial nominees waiting to be confirmed. The President is going to call on the Senate to give an up or down vote on these nominees. Some of these nominees are in critical positions to the government. We think the executive branch should have the opportunity to function with the qualified nominees that the President has nominated, and we would like the President to -- I'm sorry, the Senate to act so that these fine men and women can begin their jobs.
Q: Can I ask you one on that real quickly -- is he having breakfast -- did you say he's having breakfast with one of the nominees or -- we're hearing that he is going to be meeting with --
Q: Reid said that.
MR. FRATTO: I don't have anything on that. If I have something to the schedule I'll let you know.
Q: General Hayden confirmed yesterday that the CIA subjected three terrorist suspects to waterboarding, and you talked a little bit about that this morning. Would you tell us if there were other instances where interrogators used that technique?
MR. FRATTO: I think General Hayden in his testimony yesterday limited it to the three terrorist suspects that he mentioned.
Q: So that is all that -- those are the only three?
MR. FRATTO: To my knowledge, and according to the testimony in front of Congress of General Hayden, that's as I understand it.
Q: And how many times with each of those suspects?
MR. FRATTO: I'd have to refer you to the CIA for questions on operations and how they conduct them.
Q: But you're not saying it was just once for each of the detainees?
MR. FRATTO: I am not saying anything in terms of how the interrogation was handled specifically with specific detainees. For those kinds of questions, the best place to go is to the Central Intelligence Agency, since they operate the program.
Q: And earlier you suggested that it would not be ruled out for possible use in the future?
MR. FRATTO: Again, I think I'd refer you to the testimony yesterday where the intelligence chiefs didn't rule anything out. What I did talk about was the process whereby the administration would consider any enhanced interrogation techniques. And that process includes the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency bringing a proposal to the Attorney General, where a review would be conducted to determine if the plan would be legal and effective. At that point, the proposal would go to the President, the President would listen to the determinations of his advisors, and make a decision.
If he made a decision to authorize a specific interrogation technique, part of that process also involves going to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and the Chairmen and ranking members of the Judiciary Committees, and to inform them that a change in the program has taken place.
Q: But the fact the process exists suggests that it could be used again; you're not ruling it out.
MR. FRATTO: I'm not speculating at all on what circumstances in the future would cause the Director of the CIA to make a proposal in that way. That's something for Director Hayden to address.
What we do know is that they are taking -- they take this, the interrogation program, very seriously. They understand that it must be done with safeguards and under the rule of law. Every interrogation technique used in this program was brought to the Department of Justice, and Department of Justice made a determination as to its lawfulness, and that allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to move forward with their program. Any change would follow the process that I just outlined.
Q: But does the administration maintain that waterboarding is not torture, or that any method of interrogation that it uses is not torture?
MR. FRATTO: Yes, torture is illegal. We don't torture -- we maintain and as we have said many times that the programs have been reviewed, and the Department of Justice has determined them to be legal.
Q: But the General, himself, said in a recent interview that he thinks it's probably torture, and he has said that we have used it.
MR. FRATTO: I don't think that's accurate.
Q: Yes, well, he said it seemed like it would be to him.
MR. FRATTO: I'm sorry, to Director McConnell?
Q: McConnell, sorry, not --
MR. FRATTO: In The New Yorker -- and I think Director McConnell in his testimony yesterday in a conversation with Senator Feinstein I think explained those comments, and explained how they were out of context.
Q: General Mukasey has been -- in his confirmation hearing was so adamant about not talking about this, and all of a sudden yesterday and today the administration is willing to talk about it. Why is that?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I think it is unfortunate. The Attorney General, Mukasey, he made a commitment to the Senate Judiciary Committee to talk about the legality and his review of the current program. And so that's what he did. He conducted a thorough review. He looked at the legal memoranda, and how the program works, and what components of the program are currently authorized. That is what the Attorney General discussed in his testimony, and that's what he had committed to do.
What the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency did was talk about the specific use of an interrogation technique. And again, as a reminder, he also talked about the intelligence that was gathered from this program, the valuable intelligence that was actionable that allowed us to locate al Qaeda operatives, to locate their plans, and to greatly increase how much knowledge we had of how this organization works in ways that help us to prevent attacks and to find other leaders in the organization.
Q: So is waterboarding currently authorized?
MR. FRATTO: No, it's not. It's not, and I think that was mentioned yesterday, and the Attorney General Mukasey last week also made clear it is not currently authorized in this program.
Q: But, Tony, if a big enough fish is captured, the President could authorize the intelligence community to waterboard based on the belief that there may be actionable intelligence there; is that accurate?
MR. FRATTO: What I have said is -- first, I'm not going to speculate on what the President may or may not do or on what proposal the Director of the CIA will bring to the Attorney General and to the President.
What I have said is that any change in the enhanced interrogation techniques that may be used will follow the process that I outlined, which includes a legal review and notification of Congress.
Q: Just to clarify, so you're saying that it's not torture and you're saying it's effective -- then why is it not currently authorized, waterboarding?
MR. FRATTO: General Hayden addressed that, he talked about any technique that you use, you use it under certain circumstances. It was something that they felt at that time was necessary and they sought legal guidance to make sure that it was legal and that it was effective. What he has said is that the program has evolved and the knowledge of the enemy has evolved. And their knowledge of how to interrogate in effective ways has evolved also.
So they're the professionals, they determine what is effective and what gets the information that we need to keep the nation safe. So it is a decision that the agency made. I could refer you to them, to see if they can explain it further; but it was their decision, they're the professionals.
Q: Tony, Senator Durbin, who has been talking about this on the floor says, look, this technique has been used since the Spanish Inquisition; for five centuries it's been known as torture, American prosecutors actually obtained convictions against Japanese after World War II because of what they did to American captives. What about it makes it not torture now? Is it just the circumstances?
MR. FRATTO: I don't think that's a question I can answer. But that is a question that the Department of Justice answered on behalf of the CIA when they reviewed the components of the program. So I don't -- I wouldn't purport to be an expert on the technique and how it's used and the legal backing, so I would refer you to DOJ on that. But they did go through a process of determining the legality of it.
Q: So they have basically changed the definition of torture because of the requirements of U.S. --
MR. FRATTO: I don't think that's accurate, no.
Q: -- of the moment?
MR. FRATTO: No, I don't think that's the case at all, and I don't think that's the way DOJ would explain it. I think they -- going back again to the Attorney General's testimony last week, what the Attorney General said was that any use of any enhanced interrogation technique depends on the circumstances: who is carrying out the interrogation; who the target of interrogation is; what the threat environment is; what is the information that you're attempting to seek.
These are all the kinds of things that factor into how they make a decision as to which technique is appropriate to use. And then there is a review in terms of the legality of it. And that has been reviewed a number of times by a number of different people at the Department of Justice, and it was a determination that they made that it was legal.
Q: So it -- just one more. Senator Durbin has asked for an investigation. You don't think it's necessary?
MR. FRATTO: I leave that decision to the Department of Justice. I think they have carried out their review and they have spoken to the issue.
Q: Is passing the economic stimulus package by Congress after the President's Day recess too late?
MR. FRATTO: I think every day that we wait is too late. Sorry, maybe "too late" is too strong a way to put it, but there are costs to delay. Every day that we wait to pass this plan and not let our businesses know what the benefits are to going out and buying new equipment and hiring new employees, the tax benefits to that, and the process for getting checks in place, is a delay that we don't need. I can understand --
Q: But is that -- is the President's Day recess a marker for saying, look, it has to be done by this point?
MR. FRATTO: Look, it's a marker in the sense that Congress goes out for recess at that time, and so if you get to President's Day weekend and nothing has been done, then we know it's not going to be done the following week either so it is a -- it's a much longer delay. It becomes a 10-day delay.
Q: Shortly after the agreement was reached on the House side, the President said that everyone should be realistic about how quickly this will move, given the way Congress works.
MR. FRATTO: Lower the expectations.
Q: Yes. Is it past a realistic point? I mean, at this point are they just moving too slow?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I think that -- we want to have faith that the Senate is going to be able to take up this bill, work through some of the amendments that the senators have, continue their conversations with Secretary Paulson, and get a bill to the President as quickly as possible. They're having these conversations; I know the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, is discussing it with Majority Leader.
So we want to be optimistic, we just want to continue to make it clear that there are costs to waiting. There is very little reason to wait when we know what the main elements ought to be. We were encouraged by the very rapid progress and bipartisan cooperation we had in the House. So we've shown that it can be done quickly. We've talked about the benefits of moving quickly, and we'd like to see that happen in the Senate.
Q: Thank you, Tony; two questions. If the United States is working with and providing any money to Fatah, shouldn't we expect Fatah to speak out against all suicide attacks as approved or committed by Hamas?
MR. FRATTO: I think everyone is speaking out about some of the terrorist attacks that we've seen in the region.
Q: So we do expect --
MR. FRATTO: (Inaudible) seen it.
Q: -- them to speak up, don't we?
MR. FRATTO: I think President Abbas has spoken about the danger that terrorist attacks in the region can cause to disrupting the peace process.
Q: Thank you. The frightening possibility of a "Billary" co-presidency will persuade most conservative Republicans to support Senator McCain or possibly Governor Romney, don't you and the President think?
MR. FRATTO: We're not doing political analysis.
Q: But, I mean, what do you think?
MR. FRATTO: For me to express what I think would be publicly doing political analysis. I'm going to pass on that.
Q: Tony, two quick questions. One, as far as the hearing on the Hill by the intelligence experts -- also they (inaudible) many senators that al Qaedas and terrorists are along the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, and there is a danger to the General Musharraf's government. But the question is, many experts are saying (inaudible) that they have been there for the last six or seven years, and nothing has been done, or even $10 billion, $12 billion has not brought all the top leaders. So what the U.S. is going to do now, which I'm sure President Bush is also very much concerned.
MR. FRATTO: The border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, I think everyone is aware of the difficulty and the challenges presented by that region. Pakistan has been an important ally in going after al Qaeda within its border. We want to continue that progress. We can always continue to make better progress in that, working with Pakistan.
Intelligence chiefs said yesterday that al Qaeda continues to be a threat, and maybe even a growing threat, because of their ability to constitute themselves in that region. So that's a focus of ours. It's a major challenge and goal to be able to dislodge them from that area, and stop their operations. We're going to do that in cooperation with both the Pakistani and the Afghani authorities.
Q: A second, if I may -- I'm sorry. As far as the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement is concerned, now, after the departure of Mr. Burns, Under Secretary Nicholas Burns, do you think President or anybody is now in touch with the Indian government? Or where do we stand on this agreement --
MR. FRATTO: I think we'll continue our cooperation in order to achieve that goal of getting the agreement completed.
Q: The investigation the Justice Department is running on the CIA tapes by the U.S. Attorney, the scope of that investigation, as you understand it, is the destruction of the tapes, what was on the tapes, both of those? And any additional information?
MR. FRATTO: I understand that the scope is the destruction of the tapes. But I'm going to refer you to the Department of Justice to talk about, you know, further -- if there's any further widening of the scope, or any reason for it. The case is in the hands of the U.S. Attorney that the Attorney General appointed to handle this case. We have great faith in his integrity and his independence to follow the case and follow the facts.
Q: Is there -- does the President know what was on the tapes? He doesn't need any further knowledge as to what was actually on those tapes?
MR. FRATTO: Not that I'm aware of.
Q: Tony, is there any concern, now that this discussion about waterboarding in these three instances is so public, that if a big fish is brought in at some point, that you may lose a technique that might be useful for the right person?
MR. FRATTO: You've heard us, I think, talk about this a lot, about our great reluctance to talk about particular interrogation techniques, because of the fear that our enemies will train to those techniques and that they won't be effective.
This decision to allow General Hayden to talk about the technique wasn't taken lightly. There was discussion. There was great concern about starting to talk about something that we don't ordinarily do, for reasons that we feel very strongly about.
Director Hayden, he runs the program, he knows what techniques are at his disposal, he knows what can be effective and what he will need going forward. But I can tell you it wasn't an easy decision.
Q: Tony, a couple quick questions. On the tornados, should we expect, or how likely is it, that the President might visit some of the affected areas?
MR. FRATTO: I don't have anything for you on that right now. No changes on the schedule. I can let you know that if we make any decision in that way, you'll be the first to know -- "you," collectively, will be the first to know. (Laughter.) No favorites.
Q: I have another one, actually.
MR. FRATTO: Oh, I'm sorry; I'll come right back.
Q: And this one on the nominees. I know the President, obviously, is scheduled to make his remarks tomorrow in the East Room, but Senator Reid is already out calling this a political stunt. He basically says that the President only cares about one nomination, and that is Steven Bradbury's, and that is the President who is holding these nominees, in his words, "hostage," because Reid says he offered to make a deal --
MR. FRATTO: It seems to me that the Senate only cares about one nominee, because they are willing to not fill over 200 positions in the federal government over the one position that they claim to have a problem with.
Let me say this about Steve Bradbury: He is one of the most highly respected and impressive people in this government that I've ever dealt with. I know the President thinks very highly of him. The Attorney General, Mike Mukasey, thinks very highly of him. He is really an incredible person, an incredible lawyer, and we back him. We have more than 200 qualified people who are waiting to get into government slots that they probably have sacrificed something to put themselves in a position to be. We have countless other individuals. We had an announcement -- I think it was last week -- one of our nominees for the Council of Economic Advisors who withdrew his nomination after waiting for no apparent good reason for the Senate -- because of the Senate's delays in considering his nominations.
These are good people who decided they wanted to come into government and do a job. The time available for them in this administration to do the job is dwindling, and it's outrageous that they have to wait this way because of these kinds of delays that the Senate causes. It's not fair to any administration, not just this one. It's not fair to any administration to have their nominees held up this way. It's not the way government ought to function.
Q: Tony anything new today on Iran -- sorry, on the missile testing? I understand the Russians have now expressed concern. And do you have any idea what steps are next, concerning Iran?
MR. FRATTO: I don't know. I'm sorry, I don't have anything new on that today.
Q: Can you check and see (inaudible) cooperation with the Russians on the confirmation?
MR. FRATTO: Absolutely. Olivier.
Q: A spokesman for the NATO Secretary General, whose visit you just announced, came out over the weekend and said that he wanted to see an end to the very public discussion of the Afghanistan dossier, and said he appealed for a return to what he called "the normal quiet channels." Secretary Gates came out today and said he would continue to be a public nag -- "nag" was his word -- on the issue. Why do you think the public route is more effective than the quiet route?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I don't know which is effective. I mean, Secretary Gates has conversations with his counterparts in NATO that will continue. Secretary Rice, of course, does. Look, I'm going to be very, very clear on this. Frequently when we talk about NATO we talk about NATO collectively, and that includes American participation in NATO and the needs that all of us have to meet in order for NATO to be successful in completing its mission. We have -- you know, we're very grateful, as are the countries in which -- you know, Afghanistan is a primary country, NATO is carrying out combat operations -- for the sacrifices of all of our NATO partners, in whatever contribution they make.
That doesn't mean that we can't all look at ways to improve our contributions and make the NATO effort in Afghanistan more effective. And I think that is the overarching message. We have great respect for the partners who are contributing to the combat operations in Afghanistan, and other support operations in Afghanistan. We want to see that continue, and we know that the Afghan people are very appreciative of NATO's efforts as well.
Q: Tony, who is to blame for the fact that al Qaeda has been able, to some extent, reconstitute itself in the Pakistani border region?
MR. FRATTO: Well, first of all, it's al Qaeda who is to blame for reconstituting it, because that is their mission. This is not --
Q: Well, that's -- I mean, that's a clear dodge. I mean, that's like --
MR. FRATTO: Well, I wasn't done. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh, I'm sorry; go ahead.
MR. FRATTO: I wasn't done. But we have to remember that the enemy is to blame for what they do. And we, in this global partnership, who are fighting al Qaeda, are trying to fight -- defeat them every way and in every place that we can. And whether that's in combat in the border region in Pakistan, which is an incredibly difficult challenge, or whether it's al Qaeda in Iraq, or other related terrorist organizations around the world -- and we do it through -- we do it with intelligence, we do it with combat operations, we do with special operations, we do it by following their money trail -- and these are all part of it, and we have partners around the world who work on it.
You know, I guess collectively we are to blame if al Qaeda is successful again in carrying out an attack on America, or one of our allies, or one of our vital interests around the world. So, you know, collectively we'll work together to try to defeat al Qaeda. If we fail in an instance, I think it's a collective failure.
Q: What do you mean -- who's in the collection? What do you mean, "collectively"?
MR. FRATTO: All of our partners who are allied to defeat al Qaeda.
END 1:01 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/277031