Press Briefing by Tony Snow
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
12:02 P.M. EST
MR. SNOW: The briefing is in order. Questions.
Q: My goodness, where is everybody? (Laughter.)
MR. SNOW: You guys have been -- you've been briefing -- I know, we've got the answer to briefing fatigue.
Please, questions. Anybody. Victoria?
Q: Is it something the President should do, as Commander-in-Chief, to say, the buck stops here and take responsibility for the scandal at Walter Reed?
MR. SNOW: Well, in a sense, the President, and also everybody within the chain of command are taking responsibility. It's time to shine a bright light on the entire system and find out where the failings may be, and address them. The people who have served have given us their best; it's time for us to make sure that they get our best when it comes to treatment.
You already have ongoing, I think, very swift and definitive action on the part of the Department of Defense, not only on the personnel side, but the Secretary of Defense has put together a team involving medical professionals, and on a bipartisan basis, to take a look specifically at Walter Reed and Bethesda.
Meanwhile, there's an interagency task force working out of the V.A. to take a look at the entire medical system and the care system for veterans. And the President is putting together also a presidential commission that will take an even broader look at the needs, and also possible future needs.
So we take a very exhaustive look at this. It is very important to figure out what's wrong, and get it fixed. And the President is committed to that.
Q: But the President hasn't said in any way, shape, or form, this is my responsibility, this is on me?
MR. SNOW: Okay, well, I'll take the rhetorical flourish under advisement.
Q: Tony, how important is the President's upcoming trip to Latin America in countering the growing influence of Hugo Chavez in the region?
MR. SNOW: I think the more important thing is, it underscores America's commitment to the region. And you will hear a lot today, when the President talks, that the United States' commitment is not only economic, but we also think it's important to bring to the people of South and Central America the full benefits of democracy, which include representation, but also the basics: health care, help with social programs, education, and so on. The United States is committed to doing what we can to make life better, and we have -- again, I'm not going to steal the thunder from the President's speech, but he outlines a lot of that in his address today.
Q: But is the White House concerned about the growing -- Chavez's growing influence in the region?
MR. SNOW: Well, there have been a number of cases in which that government has tired to intervene in elections, and so far is batting zero. I think it's more important to, again, extend the blessings of democracy throughout the region and make it clear that the United States is committed not only to the prospect of free elections, but also the follow on, so that you can continue to provide hope and opportunity for people who live in democratic nations.
Q: Tony, back on Walter Reed, the V.A. system. Some have said that the V.A. system is a whole other monster all unto itself. Has the President been hearing from anyone particularly, reaching out, making phone calls, and just asking their thoughts or their personal experiences --
MR. SNOW: What the President is really trying to do right now is to assemble people who can devote their full time and attention to an exhaustive look, as I said, to shine light on the system and to take a comprehensive look at what's going on. I'm not aware -- as you know, April, he had a very busy weekend, and he was on the road Thursday and Friday, as well. I'm not aware of any reach out calls to ask people about personal experiences. But on the other hand, what he has been doing is making sure that people take a good look to find out what the situation is -- no excuses, get the facts, get it fixed.
Q: But isn't it sad that it takes Walter Reed to go back into the V.A. system that has been a problem for so, so many years?
MR. SNOW: Well, again, that's an editorial comment I'm not willing to make. A couple of things. Number one, this administration has been committed to trying to improve things through the '08 budget that the President has proposed. We're talking about a 77 percent increase in V.A. spending, as well as an 83 percent increase in medical spending for the military. But having said that, the point I made before is, they've given us their best, it's time that we make sure we give them our best, when it comes to their care.
Q: Tony, we've just come off the weekend where Senators Clinton and Obama generated a lot of news coverage with their trip to Selma. We're sitting here now in practically an empty briefing room. The President has said repeatedly that he believes he has the microphone still. But are you concerned that you are losing the microphone, and the President is losing his microphone?
MR. SNOW: No, if you'd come earlier, it was fuller. (Laughter.) The fact is, Sheryl, the President is not losing his microphone. And when you take a look -- whether it is the conduct of the war on terror or domestic policy, the President is the one who is out there with not only a message, but proposals that are going to shape a lot of what goes on in terms of the domestic political debate, and they ought to. They're good ideas, and contrary to the suspicions of some earlier on, he is somebody who has been bold and not cautious in terms of tackling big problems.
And I think you see, again, with what's going on with Walter Reed and the situation there, we are attacking problems boldly because they're not going to go away, whether it be the war on terror, or whether it be health care, education, immigration, energy. And we have had a number of constructive conversations with Democrats and Republicans. Both parties, I think, have not only an obligation, but a vested interest in showing something for their work this year.
I think what you're really talking about is something bright, shiny, and new every time we have a presidential campaign. And reporters are dispatched to look at it and get the local color and speculate and figure out who is ahead and who is behind. CPAC also had its complement of reporters last week. That's part of the pageantry, but while that's going on, there is serious legislative business that is not going to await the campaign trips of various candidates.
Q: Tony, back on Chavez, Citgo/Venezuela has a very aggressive TV ad campaign on now where they have lower-income Americans, in effect, thanking Venezuela for the low-cost heating oil that Venezuela is providing. Is that as it seems, or is that some sort of propaganda effort?
MR. SNOW: I'm not going to comment on those ads.
Q: Tony, Michael Battle, the Director of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys is resigning. As you know, this comes in the wake of firing of the eight U.S. Attorneys across the country that Congress is now investigating; some Democrats saying they were fired for political reasons. Is the timing of this resignation now all tied with any --
MR. SNOW: Well, as you know, because you've had conversations with them, no. He's made it known for many months that he's wanted to move on. So it's certainly not news. He's wanted to go the private sector.
Q: Can you comment on the investigation into the firing of these eight U.S. Attorneys?
MR. SNOW: No, because that, I think, is being done on Capitol Hill.
Q: Tony, two quick questions. The major story this weekend, all over the globe, one is, China's military expansion, and second, immigration. And as far immigration is concerned, President leaves for those countries where U.S. has more than 10 million illegals from those countries, and still coming in this country. And people around the country are worried about the illegals in the future. So what really, again, President's chance on this immigration (inaudible), immigration bill, is it going through? (Inaudible) as he has done in the last six years, he's going to push again in the Democratic Congress --
MR. SNOW: Of course. The President is absolutely committed to comprehensive immigration reform because it's the best way not only to guarantee our security, but also balance against that economic needs and urgencies, and America's long tradition of welcoming people who want to be Americans, who want to experience freedom and make the most of it. So all of those things are very important to him, and he will absolutely proceed.
As far as the Chinese military spending, a high rate of expenditure certainly is concerning some of China's neighbors. It's raising concerns. And it is inconsistent with the policy of peaceful development. But the more important issue for everybody, I think, is to have transparency, budgetary and otherwise, so people can actually see what the situation is.
Q: (Inaudible) China's neighbors, it's not right (inaudible), because that's what all that (inaudible) -- that whatever China is doing as far as building nuclear (inaudible), is going to (inaudible) the United States because they are --
MR. SNOW: I'm not going to get into -- again, that gets back into the issue of transparency.
Q: Tony, when's the last time the President had any contact with President Maliki?
MR. SNOW: Gordo? It's a good question. We'll find out. Couple of weeks maybe.
Q: Is there any sense -- I mean, there's some sort of conflicting pictures coming out of Iraq this morning. On one hand, you have this implementation in Sadr City, more troops and the security plan. On the other hand, there's a story about the intelligence agency in Basra. First of all, what's the, sort of, assessment of how things are going with the implementation?
MR. SNOW: Well, okay, a couple --
Q: And is there concern about what you're doing out of Basra?
MR. SNOW: We're still trying to figure out what the facts are. We don't have a full readout on that. If you take a look at what's been going on, the President -- the Prime Minister, I mean, gave a speech over the weekend on reconciliation, which, in fact, hit on all the themes that Democrats, Republicans, and the President have said are important. And he talked about such things as the rule of law and making sure that the law is enforced fairly across the country; reconciliation, he spoke of the oil law; he spoke of going after corruption. So all of those things certainly said the right things.
If you take a look at what's been going on, on the ground in Baghdad and elsewhere, there are encouraging signs. But I want to remind people that we're at the very beginning stages of the new way forward. There's one U.S. brigade in, out of five. The Iraqis have placed three brigades into Baghdad now. The Prime Minister has recently signed off on the orders for Baghdad security. We have seen operations in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods. We have seen some small, but encouraging signs. But, again, one doesn't want to read too much into it.
I think it's important to give everything a chance to work. General Petraeus has been on the ground for about three weeks. So I think for people to start drawing snap conclusions, let's see how things continue to work.
But you may recall, we were talking not so long ago about a series of things that would qualify as benchmarks, such as having three brigades in by the end of February -- it happened. As far as pushing for the oil law, it's now been passed by the Council of Ministers, it goes to the legislature, the Council of Representatives. If you take a look at the way the Iraqis also have reached out within the region, that is a key recommendation of Baker-Hamilton, and something a lot of Democrats and this administration have talked about. We're going to have a meeting in Baghdad on the 10th of March, followed by a ministerial level meeting the following month, in April, that will include Secretary Rice and others.
So, again, a lot of encouraging signs. As you know, I'm hesitant to give out report cards on the Prime Minister, but we have seen many encouraging signs in recent days. But we also acknowledge that we're still at the very beginning of this plan.
Q: Is it discouraging, his initial comments about the Basra incident seem to focus on the invasion into the office, as opposed to the apparent torture victims found there?
MR. SNOW: As I said, what you're trying to do is to get me to comment. I'm aware of the news reports, just as you are. What we're still trying to do is to unravel everything, and I feel a little uncomfortable about trying to do it simply on the basis of wire stories.
Q: And one last question, I missed this. Has there been a location nailed down for the second meeting in April?
MR. SNOW: Not that I'm aware of, no. No, that's still pending.
Q: Two questions, one on Walter Reed and the veterans. Is there anything that the President is doing to facilitate immediate improvements in care? I understand there are long-term commissions, but anything to help people who are in need right now?
MR. SNOW: I know what's going on is that there's a full-court press both out of DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs. DoD obviously would have the lead on Walter Reed, and I'd send you in that direction.
Q: So nothing the White House knows of?
MR. SNOW: Well, no, I'm not saying that. I'm saying what the President said early on is find out what's wrong and fix it. And we have seen quick action. I know that there were some people from DoD who were out there last week, inspecting Unit 18. I just honestly don't know, Jessica, precisely what's been done. But he's made it clear that he wants improvements done, and done quickly.
Q: Why did it require media exposure for the President and the administration to act on this?
MR. SNOW: I think what happened was that people weren't aware of it. And that was one of the sources of concern.
Q: So none of the letters or the protests that have been expressed by the veterans' families ever reached anyone in a position of power?
MR. SNOW: Well, apparently, what happened was that within the chain of command, things were not getting up high enough and, therefore, weren't acted upon.
Q: And the President and the administration wasn't aware of other media reports that came out last year about these issues?
MR. SNOW: I don't want to say that nobody was aware of them, but when the President saw the story in The Post, that was the first he was aware of what was going on in Unit 18. And as I told you the following day, he wanted to know what was wrong and get it fixed.
Q: Tony, U.S. forces killed a number of Afghan civilians over the weekend, including 10 who were shot by American troops. Can you tell us -- the Afghan government has condemned it, Karzai, in particular. The U.S. military says it was -- they acted in self-defense. And can you tell us what this says about winning hearts and minds, at a time when the Taliban are resurgent and al Qaeda is regrouping?
MR. SNOW: Yes, a couple of things. First, everything is under review, so I don't want to try to presume. Secondly, there's a real difference between the Taliban, which kills innocent as a matter of policy, and the United States, which abhors the death of any innocent. And that's just -- they're two different approaches. And, frankly, in the battle of hearts and minds, the Taliban already lost that. What they're trying to do, once again, is to use terror to impose their will -- and it's not going to happen.
But it is certainly the case that -- again, I want to make it very clear that any attempt to draw a moral comparison between terrorists who kill innocents as a matter of policy, and the United States, which is trying to save innocents as a matter of policy, is utterly unwarranted. There is no moral parallel between the two.
Q: You just draw that parallel; I didn't. But what is the U.S. going to be doing --
MR. SNOW: Well, but it's embedded in the question, when you talk about winning hearts and minds -- when you're saying in winning hearts and minds, it would insinuate that there was something there that would, in fact, constitute a deliberate assault on hearts and minds. So I just -- well, I think a lot of people would construe it that way, so I wanted to make sure that there was no confusion.
Q: What will the U.S. do to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening in the future? We've had two major instances --
MR. SNOW: In a time of war you can never fully -- if somebody tries to hold innocent civilians, put them in harm's way, it's very difficult to at all times avoid unfortunate circumstances. But, look, again, we're still studying it. So what you're asking me to do is to give you a detailed explanation of what happened and how one would fix it in the future, and I'm not in a position to do it.
Q: Tony, just as a brief follow on that, has the President and Karzai, have they communicated on this, talked about this at all?
MR. SNOW: I don't believe -- no, no direct conversation. Again, look, when things like this happen, there is always immediate diplomatic contact.
Q: Tony, maybe you commented on this already, but I saw the mention several times over the weekend that this line of analysis about Walter Reed, that the administration can't afford another Katrina, and that Walter Reed is viewed as if it is another potential Katrina.
MR. SNOW: I think that was done by a polemical columnist, but I don't see any parallel. Here you have a very rapid and definitive response on the part of the Department of Defense; you have a very rapid and definitive response on the part of the White House and the V.A. No comparison.
Q: Is the "rapid and definitive" response, in some part, out of the memory of what happened when there wasn't a rapid and definitive response?
MR. SNOW: No. It's out of being concerned and alarmed by the reporting.
Q: But, Tony, the reason there's no comparison is that Katrina was a natural disaster, whereas this situation at Walter Reed is something over which the administration had control. And it would suggest there was incompetence or, you know, not --
MR. SNOW: And what did you see -- and you saw the immediate holding of people accountable. Again, Sheryl, the first the President saw of that was in the pages of The Post. And that set in train without having to -- the President didn't have to call Bob Gates, people in the higher levels of the chain of command were not aware of it and that is a failing of the system.
Q: But doesn't it speak to the larger level of incompetence --
MR. SNOW: No, I don't think so.
Q: -- or a failing of the system, that it happened on the President's watch?
MR. SNOW: It is failures within the system that led to this. But I would also caution you against having wholesale indictments of a system that has saved many, many lives. There has been an extraordinary improvement in the quality of military medicine during the course of this conflict that has saved lives that otherwise would have been lost, and dedicated people -- look, I go to Walter Reed. I get my regular cancer checkups there. These are people who are really devoted to what they do. And so I would strongly caution against trying to use the broad brush of "incompetence." What we're talking about at this point is outpatient care. We're also talking about administrative problems.
But there is also, I think -- and I would direct you to V.A., because I know they've done some analysis of this, in terms of the levels of satisfaction with care -- but the fact is, look, as long as you have one of these cases, it's too much. But, again, I would just warn against trying to do a broad and sweeping allegation of incompetence based on this. It is simply something that -- but on the other hand, it is utterly unacceptable.
Q: Tony, there was a front page story about a lack of a Plan B for the Baghdad security plan. Is there a Plan B?
MR. SNOW: Let me put it this way: Plan A is barely underway. And it is always -- the idea that the administration would talk freely about a Plan B is -- it's silly. But you also know, as you have long experience with the Pentagon -- that people have lots of plans, and continue to plan for every imaginable contingency. But as Secretary Rice said, the real secret right now is making Plan A work. And Plan A is -- we've got about 15 percent of the troop complement on the ground. As I said, we have seen encouraging signs, but there's a lot of work yet to do. And before people start casting about for Plan B, Plan A first has to be implemented.
Q: Just to follow up, since you know Walter Reed very well, and since thousands more wounded warriors are coming into Walter Reed, have you or the President discussed changing plans to close down Walter Reed?
MR. SNOW: I am aware of no -- I certainly haven't discussed it with the President. It is important to try to figure out how to provide the most effective care for all veterans. I am simply not going to get into the debate about facilities and BRAC decisions. But the point is we remain committed to first-class care for everybody.
Q: Change of subject, immigration. I wanted to just do a spot check, based on discussions on the Hill. Does the President still believe that the guest worker program has to include a path to citizenship to be effective to work?
MR. SNOW: Well, first, the way the guest worker program operates is there's a path to citizenship -- the path to citizenship and the guest worker program are separate items. The guest worker program is something in which people would come here for a specified stay, and they would return. They wouldn't bring family members; you'd have workers coming, being matched for jobs that Americans are not taking, and after a specified time, return. If they decided that they wanted to become citizens, then they would go through the regular process of trying to get green cards, and so on.
The path to citizenship -- I think you're referring to trying to figure out how to deal with 12 million people who are here illegally and coming up with some sensible way of dealing with the problem, knowing that you are not in a position to kick them all out, nor does it make any sense to ignore the fact that they're here as a result of having broken a law.
And what the President has proposed is a way of acknowledging the rule of law by requiring those who have gotten here illegally, effectively, to acknowledge it by paying penalties, and also, at the same time, going to the very back of the line when it comes to immigration -- I mean citizenship -- should they want to apply for it, and during that time, have to maintain continuous employment, good behavior and mastery of the English language.
Q: Following up on that, Tony, if I may, really quickly. The President will talk about, I assume, defense with President Calderon during the trip --
MR. SNOW: I'm not sure precisely what it is. I'd refer you back to Steve Hadley's briefing. He gave that to you about an hour ago.
Q: Okay. Let me also follow up, then, on the V.A. Is it your expectation that there may be more big fish, if you will, to fall in the wake of this particular circumstance?
MR. SNOW: I don't know. Our primary concern is to make sure the system gets fixed. I don't know if that implies that there are going to be other personnel changes, or not. I know that makes for, sort of, saucier reporting, but it's much better to get into the real and important business of ensuring that the people who have risked their lives and have been wounded in service to their country receive first-class treatment from the moment they're in, through the rest of their lives. That's what they're promised; that's what they deserve.
Les, and then in the back.
Q: Thank you, Tony. The New York Times reports this morning that yesterday, in Selma, Mrs. Clinton recalled going as a teenager to hear Dr. King speak in Chicago in 1963, but she made no mention at all of what is in her autobiography, that in 1964, she campaigned as a Goldwater Girl, and Senator Goldwater opposed the '64 Civil Rights Act. And my question: The President believes she surely should have admitted this at Selma yesterday, doesn't he?
MR. SNOW: Oh, please don't waste my time with this silly stuff. I've already told you we're not commenting --
Q: It's not silly stuff, that --
MR. SNOW: Yes, it is.
Q: -- was from The New York Times. Do you think that's a silly paper?
MR. SNOW: Yes, it's a silly question because we have told you the President is not going to play pundit-in-chief. As much as you want to go --
Q: -- just want to know where he stands on this.
MR. SNOW: As much as you want to goad me into doing judgments about Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, it's not going to happen. So don't blow one of your questions by asking something you know I'm not going to answer.
Q: Well, let me ask you about another one, not Obama or -- the AP reported that Bill Clinton's induction yesterday into Selma's Voting Rights Hall of Fame -- do you, Tony, know of any record that, in March of '65, when 18-year-old Bill Clinton -- that he participated in the Selma march with those of us who did, and who came from a lot further away than either Arkansas or Georgetown?
MR. SNOW: I'm unaware.
Q: You're unaware.
MR. SNOW: Paula.
Q: The Employee Free Choice Act is under consideration; the White House has put out a veto threat based on the secret ballot provision.
MR. SNOW: Right.
Q: But those who support the bill have said that the current system allows employers to intimidate anyone that wants to join a union, and threaten relocation. Does the administration dispute that --
MR. SNOW: I'm not going to get into that, simply because what you're asking -- if you've got specific instances you want to bring up, we'll be happy to refer you to the NLRB. That sort of activity, as you know, is illegal.
On the other hand, a secret ballot has always been a hallmark for protecting people's civil rights, as you know, and why people who are in the process of trying to decide whether to join labor unions would be denied that, is peculiar, and it is -- it's one of the reasons why this administration, the senior officials, have recommended a presidential veto if that provision carries forth.
Q: Tony, real quickly, can you describe the process as the Secretary of Defense is making personnel changes related to responsibility at Walter Reed? How is he working with the White House to either fly those by him, choose the replacements --
MR. SNOW: We place a lot -- the President places a great deal of trust in Bob Gates. I am not aware that this is something where he does a flyer. I think he informs the President about what he's going to do. But this is my acting on instinct, rather than on direct knowledge. I have not been in on any meetings. It's not my understanding that it works in that way. Bob Gates was selected as Secretary of Defense in part because of his no-nonsense manner and also because of his managerial abilities, and we've seen both of those in evidence recently.
Q: Thank you, Tony.
Q: On North Korea, U.S.A.-North Korea will discuss normalization of relationship between U.S. and North Korea in New York today. Would you be more specific to tell us that normalization (inaudible)?
MR. SNOW: No. What's going on is within the context of the six-party talks, there are five different working groups, two of them involve normalization -- one with Japan, one with the United States -- and this is the first meeting under the six-party agreement that was signed off on a couple of weeks ago.
Q: Thank you.
END 12:28 P.M. EST
Tony Snow, Press Briefing by Tony Snow Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/272982