By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006 2:48 PM
President Bush today dismissed the significance of photographs showing him with disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and indicated that the White House would continue to oppose releasing the photos, which he said are irrelevant to a federal investigation.
"I've had my picture taken with him, evidently," Bush said in response to a question at a White House news conference. "I've had my picture taken with a lot of people. Having my picture taken with someone doesn't mean that I'm a friend with him or know him very well." He said that "it's part of the job of the president to shake hands with people and smile."
Bush said the photos, if released, "will be used for pure political purposes, and they're not relevant to the investigation." He referred to a continuing federal probe of illegal lobbying activities directed by Abramoff, who pleaded guilty this month to felony conspiracy and fraud charges. A plea agreement said Abramoff bribed public officials, including a member of Congress.
The president said he has no idea how many photos were taken of him and Abramoff, and he declined to discuss reported meetings that the lobbyist attended with White House staffers. Federal prosecutors are "welcome" to look into those meetings if they believe they involved improprieties, Bush said.
Abramoff "contributed to my campaigns, but he contributed, either directly or through his clients, to a lot of people in Washington," he said.
Asked whether he personally has ever been lobbied by Abramoff or other lobbyists, Bush said: "I, frankly, don't even remember having my picture taken with the guy. I don't know him. . . . But I can't say I didn't ever meet him, but I meet a lot of people. And, you know, evidently he was . . . at the holiday party: Came in, put the grip-and-grin, they clicked the picture and off he goes."
Bush said that "obviously, we went to fund-raisers, but I've never sat down with him and had a discussion with the guy."
As for whether he meets with lobbyists, Bush said, "I try not to." However, he said he could not attest to "never having met with one." He made an exception for meetings in which "people are helping on issues" such as promoting trade or tax relief.
"If you consider that a meeting, the answer is yes, I'm sure I have, in a room full of people, as we either thank people for success in policy or thank people for going out of their way to help get a piece of legislation passed on the Hill," Bush said.
Bush was also questioned at the news conference about a controversial eavesdropping program that he authorized after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that critics have charged violates U.S. law. Asked if he would resist efforts in Congress to modify the law or write a new one to specifically allow the program, Bush said he is convinced he is already on firm legal ground.
"As I stand here right now, I can tell the American people the program's legal, it's designed to protect civil liberties, and it's necessary," he said.
"Now, my concern has always been that, in an attempt to try to pass a law on something that's already legal, we'll show the enemy what we're doing," Bush said. The program "is so sensitive and so important that if information gets out to how we run it or how we operate it, it'll help the enemy. And so, of course, we'll listen to ideas. But I want to make sure that people understand that if the attempt to write law . . . is likely to expose the nature of the program, I'll resist it."
Bush denied trying to "circumvent" the nearly 28-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires intelligence agencies to obtain a warrant from a special court to eavesdrop on communications in the United States.
"I am upholding my duty and at the same time doing so under the law and with the Constitution behind me," Bush said. But he added: "The FISA law was written in 1978. We're having the discussion in 2006. It's a different world."
While FISA remains "an important tool," he said, intelligence experts had informed him that it did not fully meet today's requirements.
"I said, 'Look, is it possible to conduct this program under the old law?' And people said it doesn't work in order to be able do the job we expect us to do," Bush said.
Bush was also asked to clarify his stand on the torture of terrorist suspects by delivering some "Texas straight talk" on the subject in view of criticism by human rights groups.
"No American will be allowed to torture another human being anywhere in the world," he said, repeating the statement a reporter asked him to make.