By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006
President Bush set limits yesterday on White House cooperation in three political disputes, saying he is determined to assert presidential prerogatives on such matters as domestic eavesdropping and congressional inquiries into Hurricane Katrina.
In a mid-morning news conference, Bush told reporters he is skeptical of a proposed law imposing new oversights on his use of the National Security Agency to listen in on electronic communications. He also said that he will block White House aides from testifying about the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and that he will not release official White House photos of himself with former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Facing repeated questions, Bush distanced himself from Abramoff, who is at the center of the biggest political corruption and bribery scandal in a generation. Bush said he does not recall having his picture taken with Abramoff or ever meeting him. Abramoff was a member of the exclusive club of Bush's $100,000 fundraisers known as Pioneers.
"Having my picture taken with someone doesn't mean that I'm a friend with him or know him very well," Bush told reporters.
According to three people who reviewed half a dozen photos of the men, Bush is pictured at official gatherings and fundraisers with Abramoff and his children. He also attended a White House meeting with some of Abramoff's clients, including tribal leaders and the then-speaker of the House for the Northern Mariana Islands, the sources said. Abramoff has pictures from the event, they said.
If prosecutors "believe something was done inappropriately in the White House, they'll come and look and they're welcome to do so," Bush said. The White House has also refused to detail meetings between Abramoff and top White House aides.
The president was similarly adamant about not allowing top aides to testify about Hurricane Katrina. Bush, who has moved on several fronts over the past five years to strengthen the power of the presidency, said it would be damaging to him and future presidents if aides feared providing candid advice.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a staunch supporter of Bush on foreign policy, has accused the White House of undermining the probe by refusing to detail the role of White House officials. "If people give me advice and they're forced to disclose that advice, it means the next time an issue comes up I might not be able to get unvarnished advice from my advisers," Bush said. "And that's just the way it works."
On the issue of NSA eavesdropping on overseas communications to or from U.S. citizens, Bush said he is concerned about Congress writing a new spying law because it could force the government to provide details and clues about a top-secret program used to hunt down terrorists.
"There's no doubt in my mind it is legal," Bush said. Democrats have accused Bush of breaking the law by authorizing the spying program without approval from Congress or the courts. The debate is expected to dominate hearings, scheduled to begin Feb. 6, on the highly classified NSA program.
"But it's important for people to understand that this 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," he said. "Why tell the enemy what we're doing?"
In his 10th news conference since winning reelection, Bush talked at length about presidential power but also previewed next week's State of the Union speech and weighed in on several foreign policy issues, including the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections.
The performance was quintessential Bush: He joked and sparred with reporters, and betrayed no sense of second-guessing his decisions. When pressed about the election victory of Hamas, which the United States and other countries have called a terrorist group, Bush initially portrayed the vote as a triumph of the democratic process and a wake-up call to the current Palestinian leadership. Later, he conceded the results could set back the Middle East peace process, a top Bush priority.
Bush was often blunt, at one point taking a reporter's challenge to declare with "Texas straight talk" that the United States will never torture prisoners. "No American will be allowed to torture another human being anywhere in the world," Bush shot back. He said that is why the White House supported the law sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that outlawed cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees. A statement released by the White House when Bush signed the law, however, left vague whether the administration is asserting that a loophole exists.
Bush endorsed a plan to allow Russia to help produce nuclear energy for Iran as a way to keep the anti-American regime from building nuclear weapons. But he mischaracterized Iran's public position by saying, "The Iranians have said, 'We want a weapon.' " Publicly, the Iranian government has insisted the opposite is true, though Tehran is widely believed to be actively seeking nuclear weapons.
Although he has not vetoed a spending bill since taking office, Bush warned he is "fully prepared to use the veto" if lawmakers overspend. The government is more than 25 percent larger today in total spending than it was the day Bush took office, and conservatives are calling on the president and Congress to reduce the size of the federal budget.
Bush is expected to talk about new spending restraint during his State of the Union address Tuesday night. The speech will be the official start of a legislative year that will be confined by high budget deficits and a tight legislative schedule. As Bush was speaking, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the 2006 deficit at $337 billion, up from 2005.
Bush will forgo expensive new programs in his speech, aides said, though he will call for new tax breaks to mitigate the cost of health insurance, which has skyrocketed in recent years. With the House and Senate up for grabs in November, politics, not policy, will likely drive much of the congressional agenda.
Bush said he is excited to be campaigning for GOP candidates in the midterm elections, which he predicted will be about "peace and prosperity."
At hearings on the NSA spying, Democrats plan to press administration officials to explain why Bush did not consult Congress more broadly about the program, why he does not believe Congress should write a new law governing eavesdropping programs such as the NSA operation, and why he believes the super-secret Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act courts should not be consulted before eavesdropping on communications to and from the United States. In his news conference, Bush emphasized that FISA was enacted in 1978 -- "a different world," he said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Bush's explanation that the Constitution and the war resolution passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks provide the president with extraordinary wartime power is wrong. "Congress can't roll over in the face of these outrageous claims," Kennedy said. "No president is above the law."