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White House Press Briefing

Aired May 6, 2004 - 12:25   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The Iraqi prison abuse scandal front and center right now at the White House press room. The press secretary, Scott McClellan, answering reporters' questions. Let's listen in.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No, I'm saying the president strongly supports his leadership and appreciates his service.

QUESTION: He wants him to stay on as secretary?

MCCLELLAN: Absolutely. He is doing a great job and the president appreciates the work of Secretary Rumsfeld and all our men and women in the military.

QUESTION: Does the president take any responsibility for what happened at Abu Ghraib? And as the commander in chief, or as the president of the United States, is he responsible? It was on his watch.

MCCLELLAN: The people who are responsible need to be held accountable. That's what the president believes...

QUESTION: Is he responsible?

MCCLELLAN: The actions of a few do not represent our United States military. Our United States military is committed to adhering to the highest standards of conduct, and they're committed to adhering to our international obligations, and treating prisoners...

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) abide by our international...

MCCLELLAN: ... and treating prisoners humanely. And the vast majority of our men and women in the military are upholding those standards of conduct. And we appreciate...

QUESTION: He doesn't take any responsibility; is that what you're saying?

MCCLELLAN: That the people who are responsible for this need to be held accountable. That's what the president believes.

Because what they did does harm what we are working to achieve. And it does not represent what America stands for, and it does not represent what the United States stands for.

And that's why, when these allegations came to light, the Pentagon and the military took strong steps to address it, and hold people responsible, and correct this -- correct any problems that may exist.

MCCLELLAN: And the president wants to continue to receive updates about these investigations going forward, and that's what he expects.

QUESTION: But he doesn't feel he had any role in any of this in terms of...

MCCLELLAN: The people who had the role in this were the...


QUESTION: ... the Geneva accord?

MCCLELLAN: The people who had a role in this were ones that did not uphold the high standards and the values that America stands for and committed these despicable acts. Those are the people who are responsible for this.

QUESTION: But Rumsfeld said we weren't going to abide by the Geneva accords on prisoners of war.

MCCLELLAN: No. I don't think that's what he said.

QUESTION: But, Scott, there are the actions of a few and then there's the system in which those actions took place. The United States has been running a prison system in Iraq now for the better part of a year -- for more than a year. The Red Cross for months, going back to last year, has been trying to alert the United States government of what it said were humanitarian abuses within that prison system.

MCCLELLAN: Can I stop you right there real quickly?

QUESTION: Major General Rider (ph), within the Pentagon, filed a report last October in which, among other things, he said there are humanitarian problems in the United States prison system.

It seems as if the Pentagon, under Secretary Rumsfeld, did not get on this problem when it was brought to their attention.

MCCLELLAN: Let me point out one thing about the Red Cross. We work very closely and cooperatively and in cooperation with the Red Cross. When they raise concerns, we take those concerns seriously. And I think if you talk to the military, they can talk about some of the ways we've addressed some issues that the Red Cross has raised.

But we work in cooperation with the Red Cross on these matters.

QUESTION: But I'm talking about the system problem, not the actions of individuals. But the Red Cross has said -- officials have said that they brought humanitarian problems, prisoner abuse problems within the prison system that U.S. forces were running in Iraq to the attention of the U.S. government last year. Major General Rider's (ph) report, among other things, said there are humanitarian problems within this prison system. The Pentagon didn't get after it.

Why shouldn't Secretary Rumsfeld take responsibility?

MCCLELLAN: Well, no, I think when it comes to the Red Cross that there are actions that have been taken, and the military can probably talk to you further about those actions.

And when allegations of prisoner abuse came to light more recently, the Pentagon -- or the military in the region immediately began taking steps to bring people to justice who were responsible for those actions and take steps to punish those individuals.

MCCLELLAN: They are pursuing charges and they're looking at additional criminal charges. And they also took steps to look at the entire prison system in Iraq to make sure that this was not a systemic problem.

And the Red Cross is someone that we work closely with. And we listen to issues that they raise. And the military has acted on some of those matters.

So I think you need to keep that in mind when you're talking about some of these issues.

QUESTION: Colonel Taguba's already said that in his review of this matter, it was a systemic problem. Does the president agree with that?

MCCLELLAN: I think that's all a part of the investigation. The president has been briefed on the Taguba report and the conclusions of it and the president wants to continue to receive updates.

The president's focus is on making sure that we are taking strong steps to hold people accountable and to prevent something like this from happening again.

And the military has a series of investigations going on right now, some that are more narrowly focused and some that are taking a more comprehensive look at matters. And we need to let those investigations proceed. I'm not going to try to make assumptions about those investigations that are ongoing right now.

But the president wants to continue to receive updates about where things stand and he will. He expects to.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) for systemic problems in the Pentagon, can you really trust the Pentagon to investigate itself?

MCCLELLAN: I didn't say within the Pentagon. I said looking at the Iraqi prison system and looking at the way prisoners are treated.

QUESTION: I mean, you're saying you're basically sitting back to let Pentagon officials...

MCCLELLAN: Actually...

QUESTION: ... investigate their own systemic...

MCCLELLAN: The president wants to make sure that action is being taken. And they are taking action.

MCCLELLAN: The president has confidence in the ability of the military to get to the bottom of this and to take the necessary steps to prevent something like this from happening again.

It was the military, when this information came to light, that went public and said, "We've got allegations of prisoner abuse here. We are launching investigations and we're going to pursue those individuals who may have been involved in those activities."

QUESTION: It's also the military which did not bring the full extent of abuse to the attention of the president. You really think they're going to be more forthcoming now?

MCCLELLAN: I think that as the investigations move forward, more information comes to light and you learn more about the precise nature of what occurred. And I think that's what we're seeing here.

QUESTION: Scott, you said that the president is continuing to receive updates about the follow-through on this. Back on that unknown date that we don't remember...

MCCLELLAN: Well, he talked with Secretary Rumsfeld on Monday.


MCCLELLAN: He met with him yesterday. He's received updates on the Taguba report as well.

QUESTION: OK, understood.

Back on the day sometime we think in January, you don't remember the exact date, when he was first informed of this, did he also ask for follow-through? And apparently he didn't get it, since he didn't find out.

MCCLELLAN: Actually, when we went through this yesterday I talked about how Secretary Rumsfeld informed the president that there were allegations of prisoner abuse in Iraq and the military was launching investigations and they were looking into the matter so that they could address it.

And the president wanted to make sure that that's what the military was doing; that they were working to address the matter, that they were taking action, and they were at that point.

Obviously, at that point it was more of a just general nature that there were allegations of prisoner abuse. Since that time, we've learned more about the precise nature of things. QUESTION: My question is, if there was just a general comment made by the Defense Secretary to the president about it, what happened next? What actions did the president ask to take? What kind of follow-through did he ask for?

MCCLELLAN: The president wanted to make sure he asked the questions and wanted to make sure that there was a full investigation going on to address these matters and he was told that there were.

QUESTION: But between then and last Wednesday can you give us some information about, you know, whether he was inquisitive, whether maybe that was...

MCCLELLAN: Well, actually, General Kimmitt was briefing the public and talking about how there were investigations going on and he briefed publicly about some of these matters after the initial release was put out by Central Command.

QUESTION: What is it that the president needed to know that Rumsfeld did not share with him?

MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: What is it that Rumsfeld did not share with the president that the White House is...

MCCLELLAN: Well, I think you're trying to jump into some of the media reports that we've all seen today, and I'm not going to get into discussing private meetings with Secretary Rumsfeld.

The president had a good discussion with him yesterday...

QUESTION: I know, but you're...

MCCLELLAN: ... and I'll leave it at that.

QUESTION: I'm not talking about the meeting yesterday. I'm just talking about there's obviously concern that Secretary Rumsfeld did not bring this to the attention of the president in a timely manner, did not share with him the scope of the allegations that the Pentagon was dealing with.

I'm just trying to determine what it is that the White House is concerned about.

MCCLELLAN: What we're concerned about is making sure that strong steps are being taken to hold people responsible and punish those individuals who were responsible and that strong steps are being taken to prevent something like this from happening again. That's where the president's focus is.

QUESTION: But the Pentagon says it was in fact doing that, and I know there's some consternation here that the president wasn't brought in sooner or more fully briefed. What is the nature of those concerns? MCCLELLAN: Well, we have learned more about the precise nature more recently, and the president has had discussions and talked with Secretary Rumsfeld on Monday to make sure that strong steps were being taken and to make sure that a comprehensive look was being done to see whether or not this was a systemic problem.

And the president's focus is on making sure that those actions are being taken seriously and that they're being addressed.

QUESTION: Is there any concern that this would have been so much better if someone had come out and laid out the scope of these allegations, had been more forthcoming here to let people know -- I realize it came up in...

MCCLELLAN: I appreciate where your interest is. The president's focus is on making sure that we're taking the appropriate steps to address this matter. That's where the president's interest is.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) is also focused on the impact overseas, and I'm just wondering if part of the consternation at the White House is over the fact that the president didn't know enough to get out in front of this or to instruct other people to.

MCCLELLAN: Any time there are allegations of abuse like this it's a serious matter, and you learn more as investigations move forward, and I think you're seeing that that's what's occurred here.

QUESTION: But is it accurate for us to say that the White House is not happy with the amount of information it received from the Pentagon about these allegations?

MCCLELLAN: I think it's accurate for you to talk about where the president's focus is right now. And the president's focus is on making sure that we're getting to the bottom of this, making sure that our military is getting to the bottom of this. And he has great confidence in their efforts to address this matter.

QUESTION: When you've been using the word "systemic" the last couple of days, I think you've been limiting it to Iraqi prisons.

QUESTION: Is there any interest or concern about military prisons elsewhere?

MCCLELLAN: Oh, I think, obviously, you always want to look at those issues. And I think the Pentagon's talked about those issues in recent days.

QUESTION: The L.A. Times' lead story today mentions the day January 13th, and then it says about that time, in January Secretary Rumsfeld mentioned the prison abuse investigation to the president at a regularly scheduled White House meeting. I wondered if having that data point helps you narrow down when this might have...

MCCLELLAN: Well, I think having those data points show when this information rose up to higher levels within the military. And certainly, as I said, Secretary Rumsfeld was the one who informed the president and so it would have been some time after Secretary Rumsfeld became aware of it.

But the exact dates -- I cannot pinpoint that exact date of when the president was told.

QUESTION: It says in January that the secretary mentioned it to the president. Now...

MCCLELLAN: And I don't know where that came from. I saw that Pentagon officials said they weren't aware either.

QUESTION: Now, you said just a few moments ago that at that time the president asked questions. That's typically memorialized. I wonder if people...

MCCLELLAN: No. I wouldn't necessarily say that that's the case. He meets with Secretary Rumsfeld on a regular basis and meets with him once or twice a week at least here at the White House in the Oval Office. So, I mean, he has regular meetings with Secretary Rumsfeld. Talk about a number of important issues when it comes to our security concerns and what we're working to do in Iraq.

QUESTION: So if I may ask a last question, have people who were associated with that meeting, responsible for that meeting, looked in notes, e-mail, phone calls to see if there was any follow-up done on these questions the president asked?

MCCLELLAN: Well, the Pentagon and the military continued to brief about the follow-up that was going on and the investigations that were proceeding. That was all very well known publicly.

QUESTION: But the White House -- I'm sure the White House, it's in your interest to figure out what this date is.

MCCLELLAN: It's in our interest to make sure something like this doesn't happen again. That's where our focus is.

QUESTION: So you're not answering? You won't say if people are making effort?

MCCLELLAN: No. I mean, our focus is on making sure that something like this does not happen again and to make sure that people are being held accountable.

BLITZER: Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, being bombarded with questions on the Iraqi prison abuse scandal. I guess the headline being the White House expressing confidence in the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, saying the president does not -- repeat, not -- want him to resign, wants him to stay on, wants this investigation, though, to go forward quickly to determine precisely what happened.


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