Earlier today, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and Counselor to the President Dan Bartlett held a briefing (in lovely Riga, Latvia) to the assembled press. But those pesky journalists just wanted to talk about Stephen J. Hadley’s “we can’t trust Maliki” memo. Snow and Bartlett simply couldn’t comment on that…
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and Counselor to the President Dan Bartlett two Unnamed Senior Administration Officials could!
Revel in the utter absurdity of the White House beat, after the jump.
From the transcript (funny bits highlighted):
MR. SNOW: We will start on the record with a brief comment on the President’s NATO experience on the trip.
MR. BARTLETT: [Boring stuff] If you want a few comments for tomorrow, we can do that.
MR. SNOW: We’ll do a little of that, and then we’ll go on background.
Q Can we get a on-the-record comment on the Hadley memo, or do you think that the memo shows –
MR. SNOW: No, because, again, you’re asking us to do a direct conversation on a classified memo.
Q But just on the reported assessment.
MR. SNOW: What we’ll say on the record is, the President has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki. And also, the administration is working with the Prime Minister to improve his capabilities in terms of dealing with the fundamental challenges in Iraq, which are security concerns, economic growth, political reconciliation, and regional diplomacy, so that you are going to have an Iraqi government that has the ability to operate independently, that can sustain, govern and defend itself, and can serve as an ally in the war on terror.
MR. BARTLETT: And I would just add, as we set up this meeting — I think Steve had touched on this in some of the other briefings he’s done — is to recall the last time the President and Prime Minister Maliki somewhat saw each other in person through the video conference session they had. The thrust of that conversation, again, was how can we grow the capability of Prime Minister Maliki, particularly when it comes to Iraqi security forces and him taking a more direct hand in dealing with the sectarian violence, whether it be the Sunni-based insurgent aspect of it, or the illegal militia aspect.
And both leaders tasked key members of their cabinet and their military to work on a game plan to see how that could happen. And a key aspect of tonight and tomorrow morning’s meeting will be for the two leaders to get updated on where those are — where areas that we can accelerate and expand Prime Minister Maliki’s capacity to deal with these issues. So that will be a dominate subject of today and tomorrow’s meetings.
MR. SNOW: Let me add a couple more notes. We’ll obviously be giving you enough on the record here that we could — Prime Minister Maliki also has been very aggressive in recent weeks in taking on some of the key challenges. You have seen him making changes at the Ministry of the Interior. He has been taking a good, hard look at police forces and trying to comb out those who have been involved in acts of violence, rather than peacekeeping.
You also have the Prime Minister’s avowed goal of developing great security capability, because he understands that ultimately it is going to be the Iraqi people who have to govern, sustain, and defend themselves.
The Iraqi people also have been working on a series of steps that are very important. There was a conversation about de-Baathification; there are conversations ongoing about the hydrocarbon law that would permit the sharing of oil and natural gas revenues throughout the country, providing a very powerful economic incentive for people in all regions and of all backgrounds to work to sustain the Iraqi state.
You also have the fact that the Iraqi government, through a tough time, has maintained its unity. And there’s another important point, which is that the Prime Minister and his entire government came into office really in midstream when it came to the sectarian violence that was inaugurated by the Samara mosque bombing in February. They have an enormously complex task in front of them in terms of dealing with building a political apparatus in a nation that has not had one previously, that is a free political apparatus. They also have the difficulty of dealing with long pent-up angers with different factions within the country. But at the same time, they have demonstrated unity and determination.
And the Prime Minister, along with the Deputy Prime Minister and the President, have all been out publicly stating their commitment to the goals that we’ve outlined all along, which is building the kind of strength within Iraq that will enable it, again, to sustain, govern, and defend itself.
* * * * *
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: With that, we’ll go to questions. And we’ll play around with this. If we can keep stuff on the record to the best of the ability, we will, but there are going to be some areas where we can’t.
Q How does the President make al Maliki feel as though he’s highly regarded by the U.S., say, in the light of this memo?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, he makes — the way he makes him feel highly regarded by the United States is that Prime Minister Maliki is in regular consultation with our Ambassador, with the President, with General Casey. Furthermore, the two governments have already been involved in ongoing cooperation, as my colleague mentioned. And if you take a look at key parts of the memo, including — key parts of the memo, you have a constant reiteration of the importance of strengthening the Maliki government — “need to work with him to augment his capabilities.” This, in fact, has become the focal point of U.S.-Iraqi cooperation — helping develop the capabilities necessary in unusually and incredibly challenging time for the government of Iraq.
The President’s conversations on a regular basis with Prime Minister Maliki I think have not only provided the personal relationship that is very important in this case, but also the ability of both men to talk candidly about the challenges that the Maliki government faces. And the approach of this government is, how can we help Prime Minister Maliki? And that continues to be the way in which the President reaches out to him.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’d just add that I think a little bit of getting beyond just the headline of the story and taking it in complete context and tenor of the memo demonstrates that important questions and obvious points of assessment are being made by the administration. But the broad conclusion, as identified in that very memo is that the big deficiency is capability. That’s something that Prime Minister Maliki has discussed publicly, as well as privately, with us; it’s something that we have acknowledged. One of the central tenets of this meeting is, how do we increase his capability to turn his good intentions, as described in this memo, into concrete action.
And everybody recognizes it, and those who understand the command and control issues, when it comes to Iraqi security forces, they come under MNFI authority and command. What he is looking for and what he is hoping to demonstrate is more direct effect on the security situation, particularly the sectarian violence. He believes he needs greater autonomy and control over certain aspects of his security forces in order to accomplish that. A lot of the work that has been done in the last month is to determine how best to do that, and that’s what the two leaders are going to be spending a lot of time tonight and tomorrow morning on.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just say that while we’re discussing the memo I want this to be ON BACKGROUND. We can try to sort out things beyond this.
Q Were those last comments on the record?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, those are background comments. We said any comments about this was on background.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If you ask about the memo, it’s going to be on background.
Q What about the troop levels? The memo talks about the possibility of sending additional troops to Baghdad. Is the President leaning toward doing that? Will he discuss that with Maliki?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No doubt it’s going to come up, but also, the President has made it clear that he will continue to base troop assessments on what he hears from generals. The President has said, as you know, recently that there’s a possibility, for instance, as we continue to embed U.S. forces helping to train Iraqis, that you might see some of the troop levels go up. But this is — as Steve Hadley noted yesterday, we’re not going to prejudge either up or down in terms of troop levels. Those are very practical considerations that are made on the basis of conditions on the ground.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And take — the definition of troops doesn’t necessarily mean U.S. troops. It could be increased Iraqi troops. You’ve seen some of the issues of the Baghdad Security Plan from over the summer, is that some of the Iraqi security forces that had hoped to materialize and be deployed in Baghdad have been slower than expected. So some of the deficiencies may be filled with Iraqi security forces. So don’t rule that out when you say troops.
Q Can I get back to something the senior official on the left said?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Your left, or our left?
Q It makes clear that the deficiency is capability — my left — the deficiency is capability, how to turn good intentions into concrete actions. Doesn’t the memo itself say that there is a question about the Prime Minister’s intentions
– one of three — whether his intentions are at fault; whether he’s being undermined; whether he simply doesn’t have the capability — isn’t that a question? And two, is this meeting between the President and the Prime Minister, in fact, a response to the memo? Is Bush going to talk to the Prime Minister to try and answer this question about whether, in fact, he does have good intentions and they’re simply being undermined?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll help you — even though I’m on your right and our left, I will take on the latter question…
This about sums it all up:
Q At what point precisely did you go on background?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Everything — every question with regards to the memo is on background.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. I mean, that goes back to quite awhile ago.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The opening — the opening remarks we made before we went to questions, because the questions started on this topic, we made very clear that answers to these questions about — specifically about the memo are on background.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You can either consult the recording, or transcript.
And the Times dutifully plays along:
“The president has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki,” the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, told reporters, adding that the administration “is working with the prime minister to improve his capabilities in terms of dealing with the fundamental challenges in Iraq.”
Two senior administration officials, who insisted on anonymity in exchange for talking about a classified memo, said it was unclear whether Mr. Maliki has seen the memo, but suggested its contents would be no surprise to the Iraqi prime minister, who has been in regular consultation with Mr. Bush.