Press Briefing by Tony Snow
James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:10 P.M. EDT
MR. SNOW: Hello, everybody. Before questions, just one little piece of news. The President had a regular SVTS with Prime Minister Maliki this morning. They discussed the Anbar trip. The President thanked the Prime Minister for coming out and for meeting with him there. The Maliki government subsequently has brought nearly $120 million to Anbar, which is part of the Anbar forum that they held last Thursday. They discussed regional politics and making clear that -- and also the Prime Minister's visits to Syria and Iran, made it clear that -- both sides made it clear that they're looking for actions, not words. They discussed meetings just held in Baghdad with all the neighbors, the Arab League and so on.
There's a preparatory meeting to set up a ministerial in Istanbul, scheduled for early November. This is part of the neighbors' conference process that was initiated in May in Sharm el-Sheikh. The Prime Minister also briefed the President on his conversation today with the council of representatives. He gave an address there and expressed some optimism about the legislative process going on in Iraq. He said that he believes that there has been a change in attitude, and obviously both sides made it clear -- both sides share the view that it's important to have political progress as well as continued progress on the ground militarily with regard to the surge.
Q: He said -- the Prime Minister said the Iraqi forces are not ready to take over security yet from the United States. What's the estimate now of when they will be able to?
MR. SNOW: I don't know about that. But the other thing that is clear is that there is increasing capability on the part of the Iraqi forces. So while it is certainly the case that they are not able to assume full control of security, that they are far more capable than they were six months ago or a year ago. I will leave those kinds of characterizations to General Petraeus and military commanders who can answer in detail.
Q: But the White House has no estimate?
MR. SNOW: I don't really know of an estimate, Terry. The important thing is to continue to work with the Iraqis to build capability. One of the things that we have seen in recent weeks and months is that the Iraqis have been taking primary responsibility for a number of offensive operations, including against al Qaeda. This not only involves the military piece, but also logistics, planning. And those are some of the areas really where the training does take longer. But, no, I don't have precise.
Q: Tony, did you say that Prime Minister Maliki reported a change in attitude?
MR. SNOW: Yes, he says that he's seen -- in other words, he has seen a change in attitude with regard to the council of representatives, his parliament.
Q: This is kind of a big idea, a big point for the American public. So what kind of --
MR. SNOW: I think what you're going to see is, I think there's going to be -- they are going to be presented with pieces of legislation -- deBaathification and election reform, or electoral reform. And again, at this point --
Q: Time frame?
MR. SNOW: No. No time frames.
Q: Hold on. Are we talking sooner rather than later --
MR. SNOW: No, literally all he did is he gave a general characterization. He spoke to the parliament today. They're just getting back into session. But they did not get into how many days, or what do you think -- the President didn't grill him on what the committee hearing schedule might be.
But on the other hand, the Prime Minister was sharing a general sense of how he thinks things are moving, the direction in which things are moving in terms of reconciliation within Iraq. But he did not get into detail and he was not asked to deliver those details.
Q: Has the President shared with Prime Minister Maliki or the presidency council what General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have briefed him on? So do they have a sense of what will be coming?
MR. SNOW: No, but they obviously -- they are aware that there's testimony going on, on the Hill today; they'll certainly be listening to it. Keep in mind that the Prime Minister, himself, meets regularly with the Ambassador and also with General Petraeus. It's not as if there's sort of a -- certainly they have had many opportunities to communicate their views and their assessment of the situation.
Q: You said this morning that the White House didn't get any sort of advance copy of what General Petraeus has to say.
MR. SNOW: Correct.
Q: Anything changed on that, first of all, in the last couple of --
MR. SNOW: No, absolutely not.
Q: Is there any scenario whatsoever in which the White House is prepared to part company with General Petraeus, or is what he says today pretty much the last word?
MR. SNOW: No, as we've said before, it is clearly a very influential input. The President has said that he listens to his commanders on the ground, and there have been -- there have been and will be conversations with a lot of people.
Asking hypothetical questions about parting company would imply that somehow I have perfect knowledge of what the General is going to say or what Ambassador Crocker is going to say. The President has a great deal of confidence in both of them. He said last week that he was pleased with what he had heard. We're going to have an opportunity to hear today and tomorrow what they have to say in response to questions from members of Congress, and the President will share his views with the American public, as well.
Q: Why did we send a B-52 carrying nuclear weapons from South Dakota to Louisiana, jeopardizing America?
MR. SNOW: My goodness, I don't have an answer for that.
Q: Tony --
Q: Would you --
MR. SNOW: I would suggest -- especially on a question like that, call the Pentagon, and they'll have an answer for you.
Q: For months the White House has been saying, wait until September, wait until September. It's here now. It seems like the message is: surge is working, starting to work, give it more time. So is this really more about kicking the can down the road another six months, wait till the spring, and you're going to just keep kind of running up the clock?
MR. SNOW: I don't -- number one, what we've said is, wait until September so you can see if the surge is working. And every network here has been reporting that in significant ways the surge is working. It's not kicking the can down the road, that's trying to have a factual assessment of a change in policy that the President outlined in the State of the Union address and also in an address to the nation, and that became the focus of a shift in military and on-the-ground strategy. It is clear that there have been in fact some positive results from that. So I don't think you -- I think it's a little glib to try to characterize it as kicking the can down the road.
Furthermore, again, you're asking me to make preemptive characterizations of what might come out of congressional testimony that I haven't seen. We're going to have to wait to see --
Q: The President has already been briefed by Petraeus and Crocker, you're not going to be shocked by what they say.
MR. SNOW: No, probably not, but on the other hand, again, I'm just not going to leak to try and to draw characterizations because, again, they're going to be asked to give their independent assessments of what's going on.
The question now is, is the surge producing results? You saw a number of lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, coming back after their -- during their time off last month and saying that they were -- that they were very impressed by especially the military progress they had seen and also the so-called bottom-up, the grassroots change in attitude; what had happened with tribal leaders who a year ago were shooting at Americans, have now embraced them and said, your blood and our blood are co-mingled here, we're part of the same plight.
Q: People are dying everyday.
MR. SNOW: And it's -- so it's a consequence, Ed. The real question for Congress is, how do you assess this? Rather than kicking the can down the road, it is now an opportunity to say to Congress, you have obligations as well in terms of assessing the situation and figuring out what you're going to do.
Q: Last thing. You mentioned the State of the Union, the January 10th, speech.
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q: When the President announced the surge in the months following, he talked about a key goal of the surge being, stabilizing Baghdad.
MR SNOW: Right.
Q: Is he now redefining success of the surge by going to al-Anbar and saying, well, success is there? Because you clearly haven't stabilized Baghdad. That part of it is not --
MR SNOW: Well, again, I'm going to -- let's let General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and others do characterizations. I think you -- certainly, again, your network and others have talked about dramatic changes in some neighborhoods in Baghdad. Is Baghdad fully secure? No. But on the other hand, it was the last place into which we got surged troops. Anbar was the first.
And the question is, do you see positive progress taking place on the ground? And I will leave that judgment to the people who are going to be before Congress. After all, by the time anybody goes to the evening news tonight, there will be plenty of material available.
But I think, again, what the President has said is, we're going to be changing -- we're going to change the approach that we're taking in Iraq. We have changed it. And yet I do -- no, he is not going to step away from saying that Baghdad security is important -- of course it is. But I think one thing that has happened that it became in some ways a pleasant surprise was the fact that the Iraqi people, themselves, embraced it first. Everybody was waiting for political reconciliation and lo and behold what you saw was a grassroots uprising against al Qaeda and against those who have been committing acts of terror, including Jaish al-Mahdi and so on. And it is important to realize that the Iraqis, themselves, apparently feel emboldened to act much more affirmatively in defense of their young democracy.
Q: The President has briefed General Petraeus specifically on what he's going to say about troop withdrawals --
MR. SNOW: No.
Q: -- last week.
MR. SNOW: They had conversations.
Q: They've had conversations about that, right. So the President is very aware, specifically, on the troop withdrawal point of General Petraeus's testimony. Now when you say that the President said he liked what he heard, does that cover what General Petraeus is going to say today --
MR. SNOW: We don't know -- again, let me just reiterate, we don't know precisely what he's going to say.
Q: You know on the troop withdrawal. I mean, in terms of numbers and all --
MR. SNOW: We know -- look, again, what I would invite you to do, Toby, is first listen to what General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have to say, then listen to what the President has to say, and you can match it up. I'm not getting ahead. I'm not going to preview in any substantive way things that the President may have to say to the nation. I know it's frustrating. I apologize in advance. There may be several days of this frustration. I think I'm going to let the President's words stand for themselves.
Q: And is the President's report completed?
MR. SNOW: No.
Q: You were saying the Iraqi people had embraced the surge. This new ABC News poll that's out today suggests that people are very unhappy there, that they're quite impatient about the U.S. troops, 47 percent saying that they want an immediate U.S. withdrawal --
MR. SNOW: Right.
Q: -- 65 to 70 percent saying the security situation has gotten worse; 100 percent response is negative in Baghdad and Anbar.
MR. SNOW: I read the news story, too, and I want to see the poll questions, especially -- you don't ever get a hundred percent response to an answer, unless it's -- that, to me, is sort of a red flag question --
Q: Just in Baghdad and Anbar.
MR. SNOW: Well, just in Baghdad and Anbar. I think what you have seen -- ask yourself the simple question: When you see tribal sheikhs getting involved in turning against al Qaeda, is that a sign of change? When you start seeing people lining up in thousands, volunteering for army and military duty in Anbar and elsewhere, that seems to be a pretty powerful signal that something is going on.
So I would -- rather than trying to answer to your poll and a BBC poll and an NHK poll, which I'm sure is just perfectly marvelous, I'm not going to try to get into reacting to a poll that I haven't seen, haven't had an opportunity to take a look at the internals, try to figure out how on earth do you get a hundred percent response to any question.
But on the other hand, ask yourself again, U.S. forces coming back -- I mean, U.S. political officials coming back, they report progress. It's interesting, BBC, part of this, had a report today, somebody waxing effusive about how in fact things had improved in Baghdad. This is a fellow who, six months ago they interviewed who said that things were perfectly awful.
So you're asking me to quibble with a poll. The fact is that there has been a demonstrated change in real attitude, where people are stepping up. You've seen it dramatically in Anbar. You've seen it in Diyala. I have not seen anybody came out of those -- members of Congress or reporters come out and try to dispute those. So I think the actions probably speak louder than polls.
Q: Tony, obviously some Democrats are questioning General Petraeus's independence. You talked about this in the gaggle this morning, this ad by moveon.org and The New York Times. What's the reaction?
MR. SNOW: Well, the ad, especially the idea that General "Betray-us" -- it is boorish, it is childish, it is shameful, and unfortunately, it's predictable. What has happened is that you have seen a number of reports that indicate success of the surge, therefore being unable to argue with the facts, the idea is to smear the person responsible for the policy, or the person who at least came up with the counterinsurgency plan. I think -- Democrats who all voted in favor -- at least none voted against General Petraeus; he passed 81-to-zip in the United States Senate -- probably ought to stand up and say, look, there is fair comment, but this is outrageous. This is the kind of stuff that is designed merely to smear up a general who has come up with a counterinsurgency strategy that again seems to be bearing fruit. If you want to have -- certainly you can be skeptical, certainly you can ask tough questions. But it's just silly -- this is sandbox stuff, and it is supposed to be --
Q: How many people have we killed in the last year?
MR. SNOW: (Inaudible) heckling.
Q: Tony, two questions. One, as we remember tomorrow, the painful events of 9/11, how does the President feel? And also, whenever we talk about Osama bin Laden, then he comes up with another new video, and there have been yesterday many, many thousands of walking for peace and security here, including (inaudible). So where do we go from tomorrow?
MR. SNOW: Which of those five questions would you like me to answer, because you've combined a whole series of things, Goyal. It is clear that after September 11th, the world was introduced to an entirely new series of security challenges that persist to this day. And al Qaeda remains a threat. Osama bin Laden, himself, no longer has freedom of movement or complete freedom of communication. He is somebody who has to operate out of hiding. Furthermore, the sort of command structure that he used to have has largely been destroyed.
But it's obvious that al Qaeda remains committed to the task of trying to kill Americans and also to destabilize democracies. You saw the plots over the weekend in Denmark and Germany, both of which were aimed at Americans. And so it's important for us to remain vigilant, determined and steadfast in our support not merely of democracy and freedom, but also our resistance to those who have their own views, which is a view of a society that is bleak, totalitarian and bloodthirsty.
Q: Tony, back on the issue of polls and Petraeus. Another poll came out, The Washington Post basically said that Americans are looking at the Petraeus report as something that's going to be exaggerated, and again something that the President -- something along the lines of the President. People don't have confidence in what is being said about this surge. This poll is ultimately saying --
MR. SNOW: Let me read you some of the other polls here.
Q: But I want --
MR. SNOW: I'm telling you that people tend to trust commanders far more than they trust politicians. Seventy percent say -- 68 percent, CBS/New York Times poll, that they trust military commanders with successfully resolving the Iraq war. Only 21 percent repose such trust in Congress; 63 percent have confidence in the Iraq recommendations of General Petraeus.
So, look, we can start playing poll versus poll, but the fact is that General Petraeus is somebody who is sufficiently respected that not a single member of Congress voted against him. He is somebody with a long career, and one that is distinguished especially in the area of counterinsurgency. He is somebody who won plaudits from Democrats and Republicans just a few months ago. And I think rather than trying to play the poll game as an indirect way of trying to discredit somebody who has served his nation well, and apparently is making what some people think is the politically unforgivable sin of succeeding, let us in fact let him give his testimony to members of Congress.
He is going to speak independently. He will speak his mind, he will give his impressions. And I don't think any member of Congress who has had significant dealings with him believes that they're going to get anything other than his straight views on these matters.
Q: Tony, tomorrow -- six years. America was dealing with Osama bin Laden, now we're dealing with Iraq. Things have been twisted and turned. When will the American public's views or thoughts or poll results play a part in the mind set or the thinking of this administration?
MR. SNOW: We understand keenly the importance of public support. We also understand even more keenly what happens if the United States walks away and creates a vacuum in Iraq, which is a world that is far more dangerous, and in the long run will require a much greater expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure in trying to succeed in going after a terror network.
April, the terror network exists. It existed before September 11th, but it obviously was something that operated for the most part outside of public view and public awareness. But members of al Qaeda had been plotting patiently on an international basis, and they ended up pulling off the most horrifying attack on America in our history. And therefore the American people also need to understand that the President is not going to walk away from the necessity of taking on a terror network that exists to this day.
The fact that al Qaeda still exists after seven years is simply a reflection of the fact that you have a committed terror network. And it is important for the President of the United States, whose primary obligation is to the security of the American people, to make it clear even though people are understandably weary of war, not to leave before the job is done and not to leave this country less safe as a consequence.
Q: Last question. Is it really necessity, or is it the President just being stubborn and standing on what he believes?
MR. SNOW: No, that is such an outrageous way of trying to present the way any President would think about this. Presidents do not commit themselves to war other than out of a deep and firm belief that it is the thing that is required to keep us safe and secure. This President pursued the diplomatic track extensively with regard to Iraq before. And, frankly, you simply -- if you have seen the President interact with anybody who has lost a loved one in Iraq; if you've seen him interact with the troops, this is not somebody -- this is not a President who thinks this is about him. This is not a President who says, I'm going to do this because I'm stubborn. This is a President who feels very deeply the importance of success in fighting the war on terror, and furthermore feels very deeply the personal sacrifices that have been made by families, by loved ones, by men and women who have fought, those who have died, those who have been wounded.
And so this kind of cheap caricature, that a President engages in something like war -- I guarantee you, you ask any President who has ever had to have a commitment of forces, they will tell you that it is the most difficult, the most emotional, the most trying decision they ever have to make. It doesn't matter whether it's a Democrat or a Republican.
Q: By placing so much emphasis on what General Petraeus has to say, is the White House in any way making him a political figure, in addition to being --
MR. SNOW: No, we try to avoid that. I think what's happened is others are trying to make him a political figure.
Q: Tony, you had Frances Townsend on the TV shows yesterday saying that Osama bin Laden is impotent. You've just talked about the ongoing strength of al Qaeda. And the national intelligence report said it's growing in strength. Which is it?
MR. SNOW: Well, what the National Intelligence Estimate said is, it's growing in strength in some areas within the tribal lands of Pakistan because there had been a growth, in terms of training bases and elsewhere. It also noted that globally, many of the al Qaeda assets and operations have been degraded. And furthermore, public opinion, especially in the Arab world, was turning against al Qaeda.
So it is not -- it's not that -- it's a complex picture. What you have in the case of Osama bin Laden is somebody who does not have the ability to strut around a training camp the way he was able to do before September 11, 2001. He is a man in hiding. Nevertheless, al Qaeda is a serious organization. It is a key threat to American security. We continue to regard it as such. And as Fran pointed out yesterday, there continue to be very active efforts against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda clearly was trying to make a difference in Iraq in Anbar and elsewhere.
But what has happened is that the demonstration of U.S. seriousness has had an impact, certainly in places like Iraq, but also elsewhere. You have seen that al Qaeda, in fact, does not have the kind of support that it used to have in areas. So when you talk about the growing strength of al Qaeda, that is a reaction to the fact that there were safe havens in some areas of Pakistan. It was not in fact a global characterization.
Q: But Tony --
Q: Wait a minute. Can I follow up, please? To what extent has the war been an impetus for al Qaeda's influence?
MR. SNOW: Always -- I mean, it's a legitimate question and one that I'm not sure one can answer with precision. It is clear that al Qaeda has tried to use the war as a recruiting tool. Right now it's not a very good recruiting tool for them because they have gotten smashed in Anbar and they have lost the support of the Iraqi people. Furthermore, as I pointed out, again, in the Arab world, the way in which al Qaeda has gone into places and has tried to terrorize the local populations and has committed atrocities against local populations has in fact turned out not to be a winner for them. So again, it's -- well, I'll just leave it at that.
Q: Does the White House feel that impotency formulation was a good choice of words?
MR. SNOW: I think -- look, Fran was making a point about the fact that Osama bin Laden, again, does not have the kind of freedom that he had on September 10th, 11th or 19th or 20th of the year 2001; and that the leadership chain that he used to have, two thirds of it has been killed or captured; that there is much better intelligence about a number of operations around the globe; and that we continue -- we have made it clear that we are not going to rest in our pursuit of al Qaeda and its operations.
Take a look at what happened over the weekend. Again, as a result of, by the way, listening in on conversations involving al Qaeda, or at least doing surveillance work, there was uncovered -- there were uncovered plots against American citizens in Denmark, in Germany. That's significant. What it means is, it sends a message to al Qaeda that we are using every means at our disposal to figure out what you're doing, and if we find out, we're going to go after you.
Q: But Tony, why, if bin Laden is weak, why is it that the President over the weekend said the latest bin Laden videotape shows why we need to stay in Iraq because we can't let him take over?
MR. SNOW: Well, because, again, what bin Laden is trying to do -- bin Laden serves as an expression of the hateful ideology of al Qaeda.
Q: Just to follow on this first, you also said today that the al Qaeda command structure has been destroyed. There's been a lot of reporting recently that that's largely been reconstituted. Is that --
MR. SNOW: Well, no, I said it was the al Qaeda command structure that bin Laden had in 2001. Of course you're going to have people who fill the slots. I believe the number three slot has been filled four or five times. As a matter of fact, as a result of allied activities, they've had to refill a number of those positions.
You know, but do not -- I mean, don't mistake the seriousness of the terror network. The terrorists are serious about their ideology.
Q: Okay. Also, and on the Petraeus testimony, you have said that the White House has not reviewed his testimony. But to what extent has the White House sought to influence or contributed to these --
MR. SNOW: Zero.
Q: Zero? No influence at all?
MR. SNOW: Right.
Q: No suggestion or anything?
MR. SNOW: No. Again, now look --
Q: Even data or anything like that?
MR. SNOW: Well, actually, they're the ones who -- MNFI collects the data. If you take a look at the information that is put out, that is collected in Baghdad, not in Washington.
I don't want to want to insinuate that there were never conversations between General Petraeus or the White House and so on. But when it comes to this testimony, we have stayed out of it. We have let General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker do this independently and we have not tried to play any role in shaping, in influencing, in dictating, in doing anything with regard to the content of what they do. It's important that they be able to give their own independent testimony and judgment to the Congress and the United States.
Q: Thank you. Tony, Senator Biden suggests --
MR. SNOW: Did you want me to wait until you finished eating that and then we can go back? (Laughter.)
Q: (Inaudible.) (Laughter.)
MR. SNOW: Oh, you poor thing. Okay. Go ahead.
Q: I have one. I have (inaudible), so I'm sorry. (Laughter.)
Q: Tony, is the President going to watch the --
MR. SNOW: I don't know.
Go ahead. Go ahead, Sarah. Continue.
Q: Senator Biden suggests that Iraq be broken into three states or provinces: Sunni, Shiite and Kurds. Why is the President so opposed to this suggestion, which would perhaps move Iraq forward politically?
MR. SNOW: Sarah, that is -- that's a year-old question. Joe Biden has been talking about this for a year. I mean, we've been through this a bunch of times. The fact is that you have a democratically elected government of Iraq in which people at all sectors of the country have voted and participated. They risked their lives in early elections. And it is our view that you ought to respect the democratically elected government of Iraq rather than saying, well, we're impatient with our progress, let's break it up into three.
Q: I have two domestic questions.
MR. SNOW: All right.
Q: I'll yield to anybody.
MR. SNOW: No, that's fine.
Q: I have another foreign.
MR. SNOW: Well, we'll get to it. Go ahead.
Q: All right. Since you are the only White House Press Secretary who has ever been a talk radio host, I wanted to ask you about your reaction to an organization called Media Matters for America, which is financially supported by George Soros and is campaigning for returning the so-called fairness doctrine.
MR. SNOW: Well, again, I don't -- look, our views on the fairness doctrine are well known, which we don't think it's necessary. I'm not going to comment on Media Matters because I haven't seen their ads.
Q: Well, what is the White House reaction to former conservative David Brock, who founded Media Matters for America, which has denounced talk show hosts Limbaugh, Savage, O'Reilly, Beck, Forts, Gibson, and Smerconish, among others?
MR. SNOW: I'm not going to get into David Brock-dissing.
Q: Thank you.
MR. SNOW: Thank you.
END 12:37 P.M. EDT
George W. Bush, Press Briefing by Tony Snow Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/276382