Today on Holden’s Obsession with the Gaggle

From Holden:

What’s with this press corps, asking no Abramoff questions today? Oh well, there were many questions about Chimpy’s extra-constitutional snooping, particularly the Assministration’s new and improved definition of domestic spying.

Q Back to the NSA. The White House last night put out paper backing up its claims that this was a terrorist surveillance program, saying the charges of domestic spying — you defined what “domestic” meant. Isn’t one end of that phone call on domestic soil? Why is the charge of it being domestic spying so far off?

MR. McCLELLAN: For the same reasons that a phone call from someone inside the United States to someone outside the United States is not a domestic call. If you look at how that is billed on your phone records, it’s billed as an international call, it is charged the international rate. And so that’s the best way to sum that up. Because one communication within this surveillance has to be outside of the United States. That means it’s an international communication, for the very reason I just said.

Q Right. But one of the people being eavesdropped on is on domestic soil.

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it leaves an inaccurate impression with the American people to say that this is domestic spying.

Q Why is that inaccurate?

MR. McCLELLAN: For the reasons that General Hayden has said, for the reasons that others have said within the administration, and for the example I just provided to you. You don’t call a flight from New York to somewhere in Afghanistan, a domestic flight. It’s called an international flight.

Q Right, but —

MR. McCLELLAN: This is international communications that are being monitored —

Q But whatever — it’s David’s point, too — I mean, whatever you call it in your trying to call it — someone domestically —

MR. McCLELLAN: It’s what it is.

Q — is being spied on. Someone’s communications —

MR. McCLELLAN: It is what it is.

Q — on domestic soil are being tracked.

MR. McCLELLAN: If there is an al Qaeda person operating inside the United States and talking to someone outside the United States, you bet we want to know what they’re saying.

Q An al Qaeda person inside the United States —

MR. McCLELLAN: Could be outside the United States talking to someone inside the United States, too.

Q But the person inside the United States, there has to be a reasonable basis that they are connected —

MR. McCLELLAN: Look, if some want to try to defend it and say that it is domestic spying, they’re leaving the American people with an inaccurate impression, just like they would be if they called an international call a domestic call.

Q But, Scott, you’re arguing that —

MR. McCLELLAN: No, you’re arguing.

Q — somebody on domestic soil is not being spied on?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I didn’t say —

Q That’s part of it.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I didn’t say that at all. In fact, we have been very clear and precise in what we have said, to try to make sure it is accurately reflected to the American people. And I would hope that everybody would do their best to make sure that it is accurately reflected to the American people. I don’t think it is when someone puts up on the screen “domestic spying.” I think that leaves an inaccurate impression that this is spying on people that are talking about an upcoming PTA meeting within their hometown. And that’s —

Q That raises a whole — an issue, because it involves people on domestic soil.

MR. McCLELLAN: That’s not what it is.

Q That’s not why it’s become an issue?

MR. McCLELLAN: And I think we all have an obligation to do our best to make sure the American people have an accurate reflection of what this program is. You have heard from General Hayden, the person who oversaw this authority. You have heard from others. This program is carefully reviewed, approximately every 45 days. It is carefully looked at —

Q Scott, is there any review outside the executive branch?

MR. McCLELLAN: — by legal authorities and others.

I need to go because we’ve got to leave here soon. I want to get to others —

Q Why is he going there today?

MR. McCLELLAN: I just said at the top. I think you missed at the top. Let me go to Ivan.

[snip]

Q I just want to button up Martha’s point on domestic spying. You mentioned General Hayden — well, General Hayden made it clear that this kind of surveillance has been going on under his authority, because he had the authority to do that. The difference is that on the domestic side, whoever was on, say, that telephone call was identified as person one or person two, and the information about that individual domestically was never shared throughout the government. With the President’s authorization after 9/11, that changed, and then you began more specifically monitoring people domestically who were in contact with somebody overseas. So how can you say that that’s not domestic? How can you say that that’s not a fundamental shift from what was occurring before?

MR. McCLELLAN: It’s an early warning system. It’s not aimed at long-term monitoring, like the FISA court was set up to do for a different enemy in a different time period when we were in the Cold War, remember. This was set up as an early warning system to detect and prevent attacks. So you’re talking about for a shorter period of time. Its one purpose is to detect and prevent attacks.

Q That’s totally off point. You’re challenging the notion of domestic spying, when the truth of the matter is that heretofore the person domestically that was being surveilled was never identified, was never tracked in any real fashion. That changed when the President —

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me ask you this. Is an international communication overseas by an al Qaeda member coming into the United States, that is monitored overseas, is that a domestic communication?

Q Well, first of all, I ask the questions, I don’t answer them. Number two —

MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sure you don’t want to answer that question.

Q No, because I’m not in the business of setting the rules on this.

MR. McCLELLAN: That’s a very simple question. I can put it right back to you.

Q I’m a reporter, I’m not responsible for authorizing these things. You speak for the President —

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, okay.

Q — so that’s why I ask the questions.

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, you don’t want to answer that question. Got it. (Laughter.)

Q Isn’t it a fundamental shift in the program that adds a domestic component to it? Why are you —

MR. McCLELLAN: It’s international communications. And I gave you a very clear example of international phone calls. We’re talking about international communications. So I think I answered that question.

Go ahead, Peter.

The Asministraion’s Katrina stonewalling was also a big issue.

Q Another question, on Katrina. Why won’t the White House provide the specific information that senators want who are trying to do a detailed postmortem on what went wrong, particularly who knew what when from the President and among senior staff? Isn’t that an important question to answer?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, we are providing information to the House and Senate so that they have the information they need to do their job.

[snip]

Now, the issue you bring up goes to separation of powers issues. The President believes that Senator Lieberman ought to have the right to confidential conversations with his advisors, just like all Presidents have asserted they ought to have that same right. That’s what this is about. That’s the bottom line here.

Q You always fall back on that, but the President also made a promise to report to the American people about where the ball was dropped, and if it was, in part, dropped within this White House, doesn’t he have an obligation to forego the crutch of privilege and tell people what the White House was told, when it was told it, and where the ball got dropped?

MR. McCLELLAN: That’s good rhetoric, too, and that’s ignoring the facts, though, because we are doing a comprehensive lessons-learned review within the White House and the administration, headed by our Homeland Security Advisor. It’s nearing completion. It is taking a broad look at issues and looking at where we need to improve things for future responses. And we’re also, as I pointed out, working very closely with Congress and the committees to make sure that they have what they need to do their job. And we believe they are getting that information. As I pointed out, there’s been an enormous amount of information provided.

[snip]

Q But, Scott, back on that. That’s fine, well and good, the financial part, but why — it’s almost seems that there’s something to hide if people are not being forthcoming with the information —

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, actually the information you cite —

Q — during and after the —

MR. McCLELLAN: The information you cite has been reported in the news because we provided that information to the committees.

Q Well, why not the key officials here at the White House who had — who were supposed to —

MR. McCLELLAN: I think I answered that question at the beginning.

Go ahead.

Did more than 5,000 people die as a result of Katrina? I’m going to have to check into this.

Q Real quick on Katrina. The last estimate on the death toll we had was 1,300 people across five states, from state and federal officials. Has that number gone up to 5,100? Has the White House been told that the death toll number has increased?

MR. McCLELLAN: I’ll be glad to check into this. I think the ones who keep track of that are the state authorities. They’re the ones who keep track of the official numbers. And of course, we mourn the loss of all those who lost their lives during that devastating storm.

Q You have no knowledge of the number increasing to 5,100?

MR. McCLELLAN: I didn’t get an update before I came out here this morning. As I said, I’ve been participating in these meetings with the President with senators, and another interview that he had this morning.

Finally, your Daily Les.

Q AP reports from Caracas that Venezuela’s Vice President Jose Rangel declared that Senator John McCain can “go to hell” after Senator McCain referred to “wackos” in Venezuela. And my question: Does the President believe that Senator McCain was inaccurate in his referring to Venezuela’s Chavez as a “wacko,” and, if so, why?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President believes Senator McCain is a good friend and appreciates all that he’s doing. We work very closely with Senator McCain on issues that you bring up, and I think we certainly share the same outlook when it comes to countries that are moving away from democratic institutions and principles.

Q In other words, this guy is a wacko, in the President’s view, right?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that’s a question for Senator McCain.