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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Daily Briefing

Aired May 10, 2004 - 14:05   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Live pictures now from the White House. Scott McClellan giving his briefing. Let's listen for a bit.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... images of videotape.

QUESTION: There was no actual moving video? He didn't see any of the videos?

MCCLELLAN: No, he saw some still images from video.

QUESTION: What about further releasing of these?

MCCLELLAN: Well, we remain in close contact with the Pentagon on these issues. The Pentagon is looking at those issues. The Pentagon recognizes the importance of congressional oversight, so they're continuing to talk with members of Congress so that they will be able to take a look at some of these appalling images.

In terms of releasing them publicly, the Pentagon has to take into account other considerations. They have to take into account privacy concerns. And they have to take into account concerns related to ongoing criminal investigations. I don't think they want to do anything that would compromise ongoing criminal investigations.

MCCLELLAN: I think the president has made this views very clear in terms of the overall investigations. There are several investigations going on.

The president believes that that process should be open and transparent, and it's important for the world to see by our actions that the United States takes these matters very seriously, and that we work to hold people responsible and that we work to make sure that this doesn't happen ever again.

QUESTION: So the president has left the decision about whether these photographs should be released to the Pentagon entirely? He's not going to weigh in on that?

MCCLELLAN: I said we remain in close contact. In fact, they talked about some of these issues during the briefing. We remain in close contact with the Pentagon on these matters.

But the Pentagon is looking at these issues, taking into account the concerns that I mentioned. They have to take into account privacy issues. They have to take into account issues relating to ongoing criminal investigations.

They also believe it is very important to keep Congress informed about these matters. Congress has an important oversight role to play. And so, they'll be talking with members of Congress today -- I should say continuing to talk with members of Congress today.

QUESTION: Is it easier then for them to release through the oversight process rather than through the command structure, as it were?

MCCLELLAN: That's why I'm saying in terms of releasing these images publicly they don't want to do anything that would compromise ongoing criminal investigations, because we want to make sure that the people who committed these despicable acts are held accountable. We don't want to do anything that would interfere with bringing them to justice, as you can appreciate.

QUESTION: The Red Cross says in its report of February 2004, now public, quote, "Since the beginning of the conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross has regularly brought its concerns about the abuse of prisoners to the attention of coalition forces. The observations in this report are consistent with those made earlier on several occasions orally and in writing to coalition forces."

When did the president or anyone in the White House first learn that the Red Cross for more than a year was documenting abuse of prisoners in Iraq?

MCCLELLAN: We're aware of these issues because the coalition and our military works very closely with the International Red Cross on these issues.

MCCLELLAN: And I would point out that you might want to talk to the Pentagon about some of these matters because we believe in cooperating closely with the Red Cross. And the military has worked to address some of the issues that they raised. And they can probably brief you on some of those issues that they have worked to address.

QUESTION: They raised this from March through November of 2003 regularly. Did their warnings, did their documentation of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners reach this building?

MCCLELLAN: Yes. It's important that we work to address concerns like that. And I think the Pentagon can brief you on specifics about how we've worked to address some of those issues. We believe in working closely with the Red Cross on these matters.

Detainee treatment is something that we always are looking at and talking about. It's important that we make sure we adhere to high standards of conduct; that we are the United States of America, and we stand for rule of law and we stand for justice and we stand for treating everyone with dignity and respect. And we believe in treating prisoners humanely. And so those issues are things that are constantly discussed here. QUESTION: So the White House was aware that Iraqi prisoners were being abused before January of...

MCCLELLAN: Well, I didn't use those terms. I said we were aware of some of the issues that the Red Cross raised, and we've been working to address those issues. You can talk to the Pentagon about some of the ways they have worked to address those issues.

QUESTION: Based on what you said this morning, it sounds like, aside from what has been in the media, this is the first time that the president has seen the photographs that Don Rumsfeld was talking about on Friday, correct?

MCCLELLAN: Yes. I mean, he's seen the ones that have been in the media.

QUESTION: Secondly, after he saw them...

MCCLELLAN: And he's been briefed on them previously, obviously.

QUESTION: ... in talking to him, was he more or less likely to want to get them out, get out ahead of it and release them to the public?

MCCLELLAN: Look, again, those are issues that the Pentagon is working to address. And we're going to stay in close contact with them.

QUESTION: He's the president. He has to have an opinion on this, particularly since you described them as disturbing and disgusting.

MCCLELLAN: Well, he appreciates the issues that the Pentagon has to address. And the Pentagon is working to address those issues.

QUESTION: He said quite clear there are issues of compromising criminal investigation. If those issues can be addressed, is it the president's position that he wants these photographs released?

MCCLELLAN: I'm not going to try to speculate on that. You also have...

QUESTION: Is his basic position that they should be released if these other concerns can be addressed?

MCCLELLAN: You have privacy issues. You have ongoing criminal investigations. And they have to look to address those issues. They are working to look at those issues and working with Congress to make sure that Congress can play their proper oversight role in these matters.

And we will continue to stay in close contact with the Pentagon on these matters.

QUESTION: But the president hasn't yet decided whether in principle he thinks they ought to be released? MCCLELLAN: The president believes that the process on investigation is moving forward, as they have been, should be an open and transparent process. He's made his views very clear on that.

But he recognizes the importance of making sure that those individuals who committed these shameful and appalling acts are held accountable. And we don't want to do anything that would interfere with that.

QUESTION: What's important to us, though, is, as a general principle, should pictures like this be released to the public so that people have a right to make up their own mind about it, understanding that there are side issues that need to be resolved. If those issues are resolved, is it the White House's opinion -- is it the president's opinion that in principle these ought to be released?

MCCLELLAN: I'm not going to play the what-if. We have to look at the reality of this and look at these issues in the context of ongoing criminal investigations. That's what the Pentagon is working to do. And they're working to address those matters.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) that you want the pictures to go to Congress first because of the oversight responsibility. And if there's some decision later on to share them, it would be after the Congress has seen them?

MCCLELLAN: I think the Pentagon is working with members to try to address this in a way that would provide them with the information they need to carry out their oversight responsibility.

QUESTION: The other things that you mentioned, privacy concerns. What are the privacy concerns?

MCCLELLAN: I think there are obvious privacy issues involved here. I'm not a legal expert, but they would be looking at issues that could involve lawsuits and things of that nature if they got into releasing these pictures. I think you can address those questions to some of the legal authorities over at the Pentagon.

QUESTION: You mentioned the Red Cross, and a Red Cross representative had said a few days ago that the administration actually was somewhat responsive to their concerns and had taken some actions.

Can you shed any light on what actions were taken and in what ways the administration might have been responsive?

MCCLELLAN: I think the military and the Pentagon would be glad to share some of that information with you.

QUESTION: When did the White House become aware of these Red Cross concerns?

MCCLELLAN: I'd have to go back and check the exact time period. But these issues have been -- they go back awhile, so I'd have to check that. QUESTION: Did you know about them before the "60 Minutes"?

MCCLELLAN: Yes, we were aware of them, because we worked very closely with the International Red Cross. We believe it's important to cooperate closely with the Red Cross on these issues. These are important matters.

And as I said, the actions that a few individuals committed do not represent the United States military.

MCCLELLAN: There have been more than 200,000 people in our military who have served in Iraq. They have done so in an honorable way, and they have done so in a way that upholds the high standards our military is committed to adhering to.

As the president has pointed out, there are thousands of acts of kindness and decency and compassion carried out by our soldiers on a daily basis. Our soldiers work to help orphans in Iraq, they work to help build schools in Iraq, they work to help provide medical care for the Iraqi people, and they work to help the Iraqi people reconstruct their country and move forward to a free and prosperous future. And we should always remember that the acts committed by a small number of individuals do not represent the United States military.

QUESTION: Scott, you said, "Before the '60 Minutes II' story." Did you know about -- did the White House know about his reports before this investigation began in mid-January?

MCCLELLAN: I haven't gone and, like, done a time line on this, but these concerns have been brought to our attention previously. And like I said, we are always in close contact with the principals on these issues of detainees.

QUESTION: My last question is, you just made reference to a few individuals, a small number of individuals. What is your basis for thinking that?

MCCLELLAN: Well, there are criminal charges being pursued against, I believe, seven individuals already. There are additional criminal charges that the military is looking at. And if you look at the images, there are a small number of individuals in those images who are carrying out these appalling acts.

And I would also point out that the reason I say that is because I know that those individuals do not represent our United States military. Our men and women in uniform are serving and sacrificing with dignity and honor and representing the best of the United States.

QUESTION: How does the president view today the information you have? You don't have any information that would indicate to you that there's any other individuals, any other prisons that are involved...

MCCLELLAN: Actually there are several investigations ongoing right now. It's important that we let those individuals proceed, including an investigation looking at whether or not there was a systemic problem. So it's important to take a comprehensive look at the entire prison system in Iraq.

I would also point out that Secretary Rumsfeld announced on Friday the appointment of former senior officials to an independent review team to go in and look at these matters as well and make sure that it's being pursued to the fullest. The president believes there must be a full accounting for what occurred.

QUESTION: At the Pentagon this morning the president said that Secretary Rumsfeld is courageously leading the nation in the war on terror, that he's doing a superb job, that he's a strong secretary of defense, that the nation owes him a debt of gratitude.

QUESTION: Beyond the signal this sends as far as whether or not he wants Secretary Rumsfeld to resign, does this indicate that the president thinks he has no -- should share none of the blame for whatever breakdown of leadership or command there was on all of this?

MCCLELLAN: I think Secretary Rumsfeld addressed that situation on Friday before members of Congress.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCLELLAN: The president thinks it's important to get to the bottom of this.

He also thinks that it's important to make sure we stay focused on the mission at hand. We have a difficult and important task that we are working to accomplish and it's important that we stay focused on that mission, because a free and peaceful Iraq is vital to our nation's interest.

QUESTION: Does the president believe that anybody other than the individuals who were directly involved in these acts is culpable not just in a direct sense for the acts, but for whatever breakdown of leadership?

MCCLELLAN: I'm not going to prejudge investigations that are ongoing at this point. There are investigations that are ongoing to look into all these matters.

QUESTION: But the president seems to have prejudged Secretary Rumsfeld's role by giving him a very fulsome...

MCCLELLAN: The president has made his views very clear about Secretary Rumsfeld. He stands firmly behind him.

QUESTION: What was the president's reaction to WorldNetDaily's report that photographs circulating all over the Middle East that depict American soldiers raping Iraqi women are false and originated on porn sites? So our embassy in Cairo issued this statement: "We have done a thorough investigation of the origin of these photos and have conclusive evidence that they originated on a pornographic Web site. They are clearly staged photos done by actors, as the site itself states."

MCCLELLAN: I don't know what's being sent around the Internet in terms of pictures that may be real or may not be real.

The president's made it very clear that there are people who are opposed to freedom that will seek to take advantage of this situation. What we've got to do is show the world that we take this matter very seriously, that we act on it and that we bring people to justice and we work to make sure that nothing like this happens again.

QUESTION: The Federal Bureau of Prisons' public relations office this morning was unable to say how many of our 104 federal prisons have male wardens of female prisons, or female wardens of male prisons.

But presuming the number of female wardens of male prisons is small, my question: Why in a Muslim country was a female general assigned to head all 12 of our military prisons and detention camps with such disastrous results?

MCCLELLAN: That may be one you want to address to the military.

QUESTION: Does the president consider the abuse of Iraqi prison damaging to his reelection bid, or does he feel the scandal will be a non-issue by November?

MCCLELLAN: No, he's not looking at it in that context. He's looking in the context of making sure that we're getting to the bottom of this and making sure that we remain focused on the important mission at hand, and that is to help the Iraqi people build a free and prosperous and democratic future, and peaceful future, and that's where our focus remains.

We will hold people accountable who committed these acts. And we will work to make sure we put in procedures and policies to make sure that this kind of activity does not happen again.

But we must not lose sight of the mission at hand. This mission at hand is vital to our nation's interests. A free and peaceful Iraq will transform the Middle East for the better.

O'BRIEN: We have been listening to Scott McClellan live from the White House, the daily briefing. The briefing continues and so do we with some other stories. We'll keep monitoring for potential news.

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