White House Press Briefing, 19 December 2007
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
December 19, 2007
White House Press Briefing By Dana Perino
MS. PERINO: Hello. I have an update for you on the fire. Today, at 9:15 a.m., the D.C. Fire Department received a call about smoke in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building -- that's also known as the EEOB. Firefighters arrived and found that the second floor through the fifth floor of the EEOB was fairly filled with smoke. They located an area on the second floor of the EEOB. Initial reports is that it appears to be an electrical room, a closet -- or a telephone bank, they're not quite sure and we'll get more information from the U.S. Secret Service and D.C. firefighters later, I'm sure. But they do believe that that area is the origin of the fire.
They were able to identify, isolate and pull out the fire within -- put out the fire within 30 minutes. The Vice President's Ceremonial Office received smoke and water damage, but there is no fire damage. The D.C. Fire Department is working at the direction of the Secret Service to determine the cause. As you know, over 1,000 employees work in this building; fortunately, everyone was evacuated safely -- except for one individual suffered a minor injury, some cuts to his hand, and he is being treated at the White House Medical Unit right now.
White House Management has suggested that all staff members that work in the EEOB go home for the remainder of the day, as the smoke and the situation is just such that they can't work there productively today.
And the President and Mrs. Bush and the Vice President really appreciate all the work that the D.C. firefighters did, and the Secret Service, to make sure that all the White House employees are safe. We don't know the extent of the damage, but they said everyone was safe and property can be replaced or repaired.
Q: Will they be able to occupy the building tomorrow -- by tomorrow, do you know?
MS. PERINO: I certainly think some office will be -- and I think that they just need to do an assessment to find out how much water damage there is, because given that the fire was on the second floor, water damage can flow downwards.
And so they're going to need some time to be able to go into the building and find out how bad it is.
Q: And where was the fire located? Where was it centered?
MS. PERINO: As I said, it was on the second floor, on this side of the building. But they're still trying to determine -- it appears that it could have been an electrical room or a telephone bank. It was to -- if you're looking at the Vice President's Ceremonial Office from this angle, it would have been to your left.
Q: Was there anything of historical significance damaged in the --
MS. PERINO: That room is certainly gorgeous, and it has a lot of historic artifacts in there, and it's got a gorgeous floor, wood floor that is currently under water. So it's going to -- they're going to have to take some care in order to repair that. But they don't know the extent of the damage yet.
Q: Was it a staff member who hurt his hand? And do you know whose offices were the ones where the flames were seen?
MS. PERINO: No, I don't know whose offices they were. A staff member -- yes, it was one of the -- a member of the military.
Q: It was -- it was a staff member, not a member of the fire crews or anything.
MS. PERINO: Oh, correct, right. That's correct.
Q: Where was the Vice President?
MS. PERINO: The President and the Vice President were both in the West Wing at the time, and the President learned about it from staff -- he was in the Oval Office at the time when he learned about it.
Q: Dana, can you tell us why you decided to put out this statement this morning about The New York Times story? Why did you feel compelled to respond?
MS. PERINO: Well, the subhead of the newspaper indicated that the White House -- well, it says the White House role was wider than it said, implying that I had either changed my story, or I or somebody else at the White House had misled the public. And that is not true. And I heard now from The New York Times that they will retract that headline, and they are going to run a correction tomorrow.
Q: But the underlying facts, four White House lawyers who are named knew about the destruction or the intent to destroy the tapes beforehand. Are you disputing that?
MS. PERINO: I have not commented on that -- and when we are in that --
MS. PERINO: Helen, I'm going to finish this answer. The White House has not commented on anybody's involvement or knowledge, save for me telling everybody that the President had no recollection of being briefed on the existence or the destruction of the tapes before he was briefed by General Hayden. After that, I did not comment on anybody's knowledge or involvement. So if somebody has information that contradicts the one thing that I've said, then this would be true -- but it's not. And that is why I asked for a correction and The New York Times is going to correct it.
Q: So you're disputing the characterization in that --
MS. PERINO: Absolutely, it's wrong.
Q: -- not the underlying facts of the story.
MS. PERINO: I'm not commenting on the underlying facts of the story. I'm sticking with what I have done in the past, which is that --
MS. PERINO: Well, there is a --
Q: (Inaudible) -- it was back before (inaudible) was involved and The New York Times has information saying that they were involved. Isn't that wider than you were saying? You're only saying, well, the President had no involvement -- therefore, you're saying that, you know --
MS. PERINO: If you want to defend The New York Times, then you might look at it that way. I'm looking at it from anybody White House --
Q: It does seem like it's not that --
MS. PERINO: I think anyone -- and believe me, the people that I've talked to, the reading of it -- when I first looked at it, I felt that that was saying that I had misled the American public on this, and I have not. There is nothing I have said that has been contradictory. And there is a preliminary inquiry being led by Attorney General Mukasey and General Hayden, and it is appropriate to let that play out.
Under our Constitution the press is free to speculate as much as they want, and they can report on as many former administration officials or unnamed current officials that they want to, that contradict each other throughout this story. I'm not allowed to do that. I am an employee of the federal government. I respect the request from the White House Counsel's Office that we not comment from this podium, and I have not. And for someone to imply that I had is offensive.
Q: Well, you're the one (inaudible) implication. You're the one who said --
Q: You're the one who's drawing the implication. Would you have been happy if the subhead had read, "White House role was lighter than previously understood"?
MS. PERINO: I have not -- what it says is that I had changed my story, and I have not.
Q: It doesn't say that.
MS. PERINO: It -- that's how I took it, and I am not --
Q: It does not say --
MS. PERINO: -- the only one.
Q: It simply says that the White House does not comment on this, then it goes on to --
MS. PERINO: That is not -- that's not what it says in its headline, Bill. And there was editorial decision that led to this subheadline, because if they didn't want to make this point to try to say that the White House had misled the public, why would they put it in bold face above the fold, and then not -- and then it's not supported by any of the facts or the contradictory statements in the article.
Q: But that's very difficult to judge when you won't give us the facts.
MS. PERINO: I respect the fact that Attorney General Mukasey has asked for a preliminary inquiry, that he's working with CIA General Counsel on, as well as General Hayden. Our White House Counsel is supporting that. And CBS News is free to speculate as much as it wants, but I'm not going to do that. And I haven't done it in the past.
Q: But it's --
Q: You're not even --
Q: -- you say it was contradicting you --
MS. PERINO: It says the White House role was wider than "it" said -- "it" is referring to the White House, I am the spokesperson for the White House.
Q: Okay. Okay, but you're defining it that way. In fact, right after the first -- this story first broke, people within the administration did say privately that, in fact, Harriet Miers had told the CIA not to destroy the tapes and that that suggested that the White House, in fact, was saying don't destroy. Now this New York Times story is saying four people in the President -- or Vice President's inner circle actually talked to the CIA about it. So that does suggest a wider role.
MS. PERINO: I am not accountable for all the anonymous sources that you turn up. I'm not. I am accountable -- I speak for the President and the White House. This says that I was misleading, and I was not.
Q: It doesn't say you. It doesn't say you at all. And there were other people in the administration who --
MS. PERINO: The White House does not comment. The only thing that I have said from this podium is regarding to the President and his recollection. And if CNN has different information that they want to provide to me that contradicts what I've said, you know, let's see it.
Q: They didn't specifically say it's you. It's talking about the White House, the administration in general.
MS. PERINO: I speak for the White House. I represent the White House.
Q: Why do you take it personally?
MS. PERINO: I'm not taking it personally. I'm taking it -- I speak for the White House. It's not a personal thing. The White House asked for a correction. And I would remind you, The New York Times is going to do one.
Q: What's the correction going to say.
Q: But, Dana, why would it compromise the investigation for you to say one way or the other whether these officials knew of the tapes?
MS. PERINO: Well, the question --
Q: (Inaudible) that you had --
MS. PERINO: -- some of the questions that you had are legitimate questions that the public has and that the Attorney General and General Hayden has is who knew what when. And that is part of the inquiry. And so that is what they have asked us not to comment on.
Q: But why would that compromise the investigation? I mean, it's pretty straightforward. There's four people cited in the story and to say whether they knew or whether they didn't is a very simple matter.
MS. PERINO: Look, I think that in any case, you know, if I were to have said something to you two weeks ago when this first started, that then as more information has turned up, provides more information that makes it look like maybe I had misled you, then we would be having a very different conversation here. There's a good reason why I'm not commenting and why the White House is not commenting, and General Mukasey and General Hayden are doing a joint preliminary inquiry.
Q: Can you tell us when you expect to hear some of the results of this inquiry?
MS. PERINO: I don't have a read on that from General Mukasey.
Q: Does the White House have an opinion now on whether those tapes should have been destroyed?
MS. PERINO: That's part of -- I'd just refer you to the same answer that I just had, which is I'm not commenting on it in any way, shape, or form.
Q: Well, that's on the investigation of what happened.
MS. PERINO: I've been asked that question before and I have not commented on it, either. There is an investigation and -- preliminary inquiry, they call it, and I have to leave it at that.
Q: Do you know anything about it?
MS. PERINO: What I'm saying is I'm not going to comment from the podium.
Q: But there are other people in the White House who know things and have talked.
MS. PERINO: I'm not saying if there's things that I know or don't know; I'm saying I'm not commenting.
Q: Dana, why do you just want the executive branch to --
MS. PERINO: I'm going to move on.
Q: No, but I need to ask why will you only allow the executive branch to investigate itself? Congress wants to investigate this, and the Attorney General is saying, we're not going to cooperate.
MS. PERINO: That's a question that -- look, I understand the question and I said to you yesterday that General Mukasey and General Hayden have done a -- have asked everyone to cooperate in the preliminary inquiry. General Mukasey answered that question to members of Congress, I guess four days ago, and I refer you to him for more.
Q: Do you believe in checks and balances?
MS. PERINO: Of course we do.
Q: Dana, yesterday you mentioned conflicting reports about the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq. You said you couldn't comment on the incursion, or alleged incursion until you had more information. Do you have more information now? Can you say what happened, what the United States thinks of it? And when did Turkey first let the United States know that it was doing this?
MS. PERINO: Well, there are still conflicting reports, and there were also three different operations. And so I'd refer you to the Department of Defense for more on that. But as Secretary Rice said yesterday, we have asked Turkey for -- reminded Turkey that we need to have increased coordination and cooperation between the United States, Iraq and Turkey as we all jointly work together to try to eliminate the PKK.
Q: Two quick questions, Dana. One, how does President feel about President Putin of Russia is the Man of the Year of Time Magazine -- and also, President's rating has gone up, but how does he feel about this -- but Russian President?
MS. PERINO: Well, President Putin is certainly an interesting figure, and Time Magazine makes its decisions based on its own editorial decision-making. And we won't comment on that. But clearly, I think that it's a -- he's an interesting figure. I haven't spoken to the President about it yet. I'll see him in a little bit.
Q: And second, on Burmese leader, in the House, Congressman Crowley and Congressman Manzullo both had this resolution passed that same honor to be given to the Burmese democratic leader and (inaudible) like the Dalai Lama. Do you think President will make effort to bring her here to honor her, just like Dalai Lama?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that we would all hope that Aung San Suu Kyi would be able to leave her home and to travel freely. But I don't have information about whether or not that will be able to happen.
Q: Can I follow up on that? Yesterday the First Lady had a statement saying that Myanmar (inaudible) Burma is not cooperating, not doing what the U.N. has called on it to do. On December 11th, the President said that if that were the case, then the United States would spearhead an international push for sanctions. Is the First Lady's statement an indication that, in fact, the United States has now launched a new push for sanctions?
MS. PERINO: No, not that I know of, but we will check. Mrs. Bush got a report yesterday from the U.N. Envoy Gambari, and was troubled by what she heard, which is why she issued the statement. And so if there's going to be a push for sanctions, we'll let you know.
Q: Dana, the Attorney General talked this morning about FISA. And what's the feeling in this White House about the prospects?
MS. PERINO: Well, we're very disappointed that the Senate decided not to move forward and take up the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee bill on the floor, because we think it could have passed and we think that the debate is one that we have been having for well over a year. It's not a debate we've just been having the past few months, but we had a debate leading up to the vote in August, which was a bipartisan vote, which closed the intelligence gap, which is what the DNI, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Attorney General have said.
Now Attorney General Mukasey is in charge at the Justice Department, and he sees the very real need to get this bill passed and to get it done before the clock runs out on February 1st.
So I suppose that the first order of business when Congress gets back is going to be looking at this issue.
Q: Thank you, Dana. Two questions. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, Senator Clinton said, and this is a quote -- "I am absolutely overwhelmed personally to have my friend of 25 years, Bob Kerrey, endorse me." And my question: Can you deny, Dana, that the White House was astounded by this when only 11 years ago Senator Kerrey declared, "Clinton is an unusually good liar, unusually good"?
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to comment.
Q: No comment on that?
MS. PERINO: No. What's your second?
Q: Eighty-one-year-old Fidel Castro, while announcing that he won't stay in power forever, also mentioned a Brazilian architect who is still working at age 100. And my question: Does the White House believe that this indicates Fidel will stay in power for 19 more years, if he can, or not? (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: I don't have a comment on his health. Obviously we hope that democracy could be restored to Cuba soon.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Dana, do you have any indication of whether the President is going to sign the federal terrorism insurance extension?
MS. PERINO: The TRIA bill? Yes. (Laughter.)
Q: How about the -- bill?
MS. PERINO: We are reviewing that bill. Last spring we had concerns about the bill in SAPS -- statements of administration policy -- that we put out. We are looking at the bill right now. Some of the concerns we have regarded the time frame that they allowed in the bill for responses, which I think was 20 days, and also an inability to collect on fees if you go past that 20-day mark. So they're reviewing the bill now for the final scrub of it before we can decide whether or not he'll sign it.
Q: Does the President plan to sign a military tax relief bill if it reaches his desk?
MS. PERINO: I know you've asked Tony Fratto this question, and we are looking into this bill. I don't have a lot of information on it, but we'll try to get it for you.
Q: And also, I have just one question, if you could clarify on -- you repeatedly keep saying the President has no recollection of the issue at hand. So does that mean that he could have heard about it beforehand, but it simply slipped his mind?
MS. PERINO: It means what it means, that he had no recollection.
Q: Thank you.
END 12:49 P.M. EST