Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release April 13, 2009
PRESS BRIEFING (including Spanish text)
PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS
DAN RESTREPO, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT
AND SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR WESTERN HEMISPHERE AFFAIRS
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon, how is everyone today?
Q Fine, thank you.
MR. GIBBS: Good. Before we do our regularly scheduled program, I’ve got a short announcement. And I am joined for the bilingual portion of this announcement by Dan Restrepo, a Special Assistant to the President and a Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council.
Today, President Obama has directed that a series of steps be taken to reach out to the Cuban people to support their desire to enjoy basic human rights and to freely determine their country’s future. The President has directed the Secretaries of State, Treasury and Commerce to carry out the actions necessary to lift all restrictions on the ability of individuals to visit family members in Cuba, and to send them remittances. He’s further directed that steps be taken to enable the freer flow of information among the Cuban people and between those in Cuba and the rest of the world, as well as to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian items directly to the Cuban people.
In taking these steps to help bridge the gap among divided Cuban families and to promote the increased flow of information and humanitarian items to the Cuban people, President Obama is working to fulfill the goals he identified both during his presidential campaign and since taking office.
All who embrace core democratic values long for a Cuba that respects the basic human, political and economic rights of all of its citizens. President Obama believes the measure he has taken today will help make that goal a reality. He encourages all who share it to continue their steadfast support for the Cuban people.
MR. RESTREPO: Thanks, Robert. (Speaking Spanish.)
Hoy, el Presidente Obama ha ordenado que se tomen ciertas medidas, ciertos pasos, para extender la mano al pueblo cubano, para apoyar su deseo de vivir con respeto a los derechos humanos y para poder determinar su destino propio y el destino de su país.
El Presidente ha dado instrucciones a los secretarios de Estado, Comercio y Tesoro para que pongan en marcha las acciones necesarias para eliminar todas las restricciones a individuos para que puedan visitar a sus familiares en la isla y mandar remesas. Además ha dado instrucciones para que se tomen pasos para permitir el flujo libre de información entre el pueblo cubano y entre quienes están en Cuba y el resto del mundo, y para facilitar la entrega de recursos humanitarios enviados directamente al pueblo cubano.
Al tomar estas medidas para ayudar a -- cerrar la brecha -- la brecha entre familias cubanas divididas y promover el flujo libre de información y artículos de ayuda humanitaria para el pueblo cubano, el Presidente Obama está esforzándo por cumplir los objetivos que fijó durante la campaña y desde el asumio del cargo.
Todos aquellos que creen en los valores democráticos básicos anhelan una Cuba que respeta los derechos humanos, políticos, económicos, básicos de todo su pueblo. El Presidente Obama considera que estas medidas ayudarán a hacer realidad ese objetivo. El Presidente - El Presidente alenta a todos quienes comparten este deseo, que sigan cometidos a su firme apoyo para el pueblo cubano.
MR. GIBBS: And while we have Dan here, if there are some specific questions on this we’ll be happy to take them.
Q Is this a first step toward diplomatic recognition?
MR. RESTREPO: This is a step to extend a hand to the Cuban people in support of their desire to determine their own future. It’s very important to help open up space so the Cuban people can work on the kind of grassroots democracy that is necessary to move Cuba to a better future. The President promised this during the campaign and he is making good on that promise today to extend his hand to the Cuban people, to ensure that they have more independence from the regime and the ability to start working down the path that we all want to see them succeed on.
Q Does it mean between the two countries that you have diplomatic relations?
MR. RESTREPO: This is reaching out to the Cuban people.
Q So the answer is what?
MR. GIBBS: I’m sorry, what was the --
Q I'm trying to find out if there's a movement towards the two countries getting together and having a diplomatic recognition.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think in many ways that depends on the actions of the Cuban government. The action that the President took today is one that allows -- one that allows families to visit families, one that allows families to send back some of their hard-earned money to help their family members. And I think maybe the best way to sum this up is the way the President summed this up last year -- to say that there are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans. He said, and I quote, "It's time to let Cuban Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It's time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent on the Castro regime."
Q Would the President like to see an improvement of relations, where you actually have some sort of --
MR. GIBBS: The President would like to see greater freedom for the Cuban people. There are actions that he can and has taken today to open up the flow of information to provide some important steps to help that. But he's not the only person in this equation.
Q Robert, several Republicans from Florida are charging today this is a mistake because they think it's going to -- they're claiming that it will mean something like hundreds of millions of dollars in money that winds up in the hands of the dictatorship. How do you answer that charge? And is there a way that you can specifically structure this so that you make it more likely that the money that gets -- actually get in the hands of the Cuban people and not the dictatorship?
MR. RESTREPO: There's two answers. One is that we think the positive benefits here will way outweigh any negative effects that there may have; that creating independence, creating space for the Cuban people to operate freely from the regime is the kind of space they need to start the process towards a more democratic Cuba.
And also the President is very clear that we're getting the United States out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families. The Cuban government should get out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families. It should stop charging the usurious fees that it does on these remittances. The call is very clear that that be done in addition to what we are doing.
But we are getting ourselves out. The Cuban government should get itself out of the way, and allow Cuban families to support Cuban families -- that creates the kind of space, in our view, that is necessary to move Cuba forward to a free and democratic Cuba.
MR. GIBBS: Jennifer.
Q I have one on this and one on pirates. I don't know how you want to do that.
MR. GIBBS: Let's do this, and we'll save pirates for the second --
Q The second half?
MR. GIBBS: After the intermission.
Q In that same speech in Miami that you referenced, the President, as a candidate, said he would talk directly to the Cuban government without preconditions, but with a clear agenda. But he's also said that he's not going to lift the trade embargo because there are certain steps he wants the government to take that -- you know, and not give up that leverage first. So it kind of sounds like he's saying two things: first, it's talk without preconditions; then setting conditions in order for relations to move forward.
MR. GIBBS: And you may have something on this, too, but I think that -- I think the President has made clear that he is willing to talk to our adversaries. I think at the same time the President has said repeatedly that that is not talk for talk's sake, whether that's with -- well, whether that -- despite what adversary that might be.
But I think that the actions that were taken today are intended to, as I said, open up the flow of information, to facilitate that information from getting directly to the -- facilitate it getting directly to the Cuban people, and to set up a system whereby we see some results. And I think the President is willing to do that.
Q But are there conditions before he will engage the government directly or not --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I do think there are steps that we would -- that the Cuban government can and must take, and I think, as Dan said, the actions that the government undertakes regarding remittances should stop immediately.
Do you have anything to add to that?
Q Why are you and Dan making this announcement and not the President? I mean, he's here, right -- he's in the building?
MR. GIBBS: He is. He's -- I think he's in his office, yes.
Q Probably hearing the vibrations from the music.
MR. GIBBS: I was going to say, hearing the dance music, not unlike I am. (Laughter.)
Q Yes. So why isn't he making the announcement? Why -- I mean, it looks like as if you were trying to avoid having his voice and picture --
MR. GIBBS: I'll certainly try not to take any of that personally. (Laughter.) And I noticed the music stopped right as you asked. (Laughter.)
No, I mean, Chuck, I -- a few people showed up to today's briefing. I don't --
Q But this isn't a small talk -- this isn't a small change of policy. So having the President not talk to the camera about it seems to be a little like a political decision.
MR. GIBBS: No. Again, I'm standing in the White House briefing room as the spokesperson for the President of the United States. I assume that when you ask me questions when we get to pirates or anything else, that my answer won't seem less than what any President would make. As I undertake that task, the President is doing today what the President promised he would do, not only on camera, but in Florida many months ago.
So I think this is less about the so-called "choreography" of some announcement, and more -- has to do with the fact that the President is taking some concrete steps today to bring about some much needed change that will benefit the people of Cuba: to increase the freedom that they have, and more importantly, to allow Cuban Americans to see their families and to send them money.
Q Daniel, do you know -- is the Cuban government going to be represented at the Summit of the Americas?
MR. RESTREPO: They will not be.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.
Q If you guys could just explain a little bit more about the part of today's announcement that deals with telecommunications firms being allowed to – I mean, what --
MR. RESTREPO: Certainly. We want to increase the flow of information among Cubans, and between Cubans and the outside world. And one of the ways we can do that under U.S. -- existing United States law, back to the Cuban Democracy Act, is to allow U.S. telecommunications companies to seek to provide services on the island. The licensing process has never -- never really went forward. We're allowing that process -- the President is directing that that licensing process go forward, and directing that the regulations system be put into place to allow U.S. persons to pay for cell coverage that already exists on the island -- again, so Cubans can talk to Cubans, and Cubans can talk to the outside world without having to go through the filter that is the Cuban government.
Q So just cell phones is what this is talking about?
MR. RESTREPO: This is cell phones, satellite television, satellite radio. This is forms of -- modern forms of telecommunication to increase the flow of information to the Cuban people so that if anyone is standing in the way of the Cuban people getting information it is the Cuban government, and it is not some outside technical problem that can be pointed to.
Taking away those excuses and putting -- and trying to create the conditions where greater information flows among the Cuban people, and to and from the Cuban people.
Q To follow up on that, if I may. So if this happens as it's intended to happen, is the idea that a U.S. company would be providing sort of U.S. television programming on -- beaming it in -- onto the island, is that the idea?
MR. RESTREPO: The idea is to increase the flow of information, be it what we see here in the United States -- the global marketplace of television and radio, to make that a possibility for the Cuban people and to ensure that the United States government is not standing in the way of that; to make clear that more -- we stand on the side of having more information rather than less information reach the Cuban people, and for them to be able to communicate among themselves.
Q But the Cuban government would have to allow it to move forward? I mean, they could stop this if they wanted to I assume.
MR. RESTREPO: The Cuban government could stop this and they -- could stop part of this, part of the providing -- allowing U.S. persons to pay for cell coverage and ongoing services on the island today is something that the Cuban government would have a very hard time getting in the middle of. In terms of allowing or disallowing U.S. companies to provide services on the island is something that would clearly require participation of those entities that control information on the island.
MR. GIBBS: I'm going to go back there in one second, but I want to add something to your original question, Chuck. I think one of the things that's important about today's announcement -- I don't know Spanish, the President knows a few words of Spanish, but I think what's important today is we're doing this in a way that is not just going to be heard by a few people. We're doing this so that Cuban Americans can hear it loud and clear the steps that the President is taking --
Q Don’t you try to send a message to the Cuban people, as well, and his image --
MR. GIBBS: Well --
Q -- would you argue is an important image to --
MR. GIBBS: Again, Dan is not going to take that seriously -- (laughter.)
Q -- no, but to beam into Cuba?
MR. GIBBS: It is, but I think what's important, too, is that that image that is beamed in there today is in a language that they can all understand and take heart in.
Q This announcement comes in the wake of the Summit of the Americas. And several Latin American leaders have been pressuring for strong change of policy to Cuba, and they think of the embargo and the acceptance of Cuba in the OAS. How much of this is pressure by Latin American leaders, and do you expect this to quell some of the Cuba attention in the summit?
MR. GIBBS: Well, this is a fulfillment of a campaign promise that the President made a little less than a year ago. So this is in no way designed to, or done in a way to quell so-called pressure. It's simply the fulfillment of what the President believed was right in 2007, right in 2008, and in 2009 he has the ability to change.
MR. RESTREPO: (Speaking Spanish.) ¿Lourdes, lo quieres en español también?
I'm going to do that in Spanish for her. (Speaking Spanish.)
Esto, esta es una reacción, este es una propuesta, no es una reacción, es cumpliendo con algo que el Presidente dijo hace más o menos un año, que prometió durante la campaña. Y estos son medidas del Presidente a extender la mano al pueblo cubano. Esto no es reacción a cualquier presión de cualquier otro gobierno.
Reconocemos que otros gobiernos tienen su punto de vista con respeto a la situación en Cuba y la -- la -- las relaciones entre los Estados Unidos y Cuba. Los -- lo que todos queremos ver, que todos cooperan, y trabajen para avanzar lo que todos queremos ver, que es una cuba que está viviendo libre, que -- le -- donde el pueblo cubano puede decidir el destino, su propio destino, su propio futuro, y que nadie esté por medio. Esa es la razón por la cual se están tomando estas -- estas medidas hoy, cumpliendo con una promesa y avanzan -- avanzando la libertad del pueblo cubano.
MR. GIBBS: Sheryl.
Q Robert, a couple questions. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers -- some lawmakers are urging the administration to go even further and lift all travel restrictions for all Americans to Cuba. So how does the administration feel about that? And secondly, it's my understanding that the State Department has said the Cuba policy is under review, which would suggest that there may be further changes coming, and if you could talk about that and whether you view this step today as perhaps a prelude to further normalization or greater diplomatic engagement with Cuba.
MR. RESTREPO: It's important to focus on what is being done today. This is a significant step in reaching out to the Cuban people and supporting their desires to live in freedom. We understand that others have different views on how best to accomplish that. The President is very clear today that this is the step that he is taking to advance the cause of freedom of the Cuban people, to advance our national interest. This is a decision driven by our national interests and how best to advance it and how best to bring to fulfillment the promise he made.
He was very clear that when he made that promise that the best ambassadors for freedom was to begin with family; to allow family members to support family members, to allow direct humanitarian reaching out, because you know where it's headed. That's an important piece here, and it's the most direct means of opening the kind of space that is crucial for advancing the cause of freedom in Cuba.
U.S. policy towards Cuba is not frozen in time. It's not frozen in time today. These are the steps that the President believes makes sense to advance the cause of freedom in Cuba. Obviously, like all aspects of policy, you have to react to the world that you encounter. And so I don't think we should think of -- that we shouldn't think of things as being frozen in time.
Q Do you have a position on the travel ban, the overall travel ban?
MR. RESTREPO: The President believes that a place to start is with allowing Cuban Americans to visit family members, to support them through remittances, to extend the flow of -- free flow of information, and to allow people to send humanitarian packets that have the full range of humanitarian aspects to it -- allowing people to send clothing and fishing supplies and seeds and soap-making equipment that was stripped out of what was allowed a few years ago; allowing people to do that again, allowing people to do that to anyone on the island who is not a member of the -- senior member of the Cuban government or the Communist party.
Those are the steps that the President believes are the most effective, under the current circumstances, to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.
Q So you're saying this isn't frozen in time. How long will you give this policy a chance to work before reassessing it and maybe going further?
MR. GIBBS: We just did this a few minutes ago. Let’s -- (laughter.)
Q No, the President has set timetables for other policy reviews. Does he have a timetable for the --
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q -- this review?
Q In light of what has gone over the -- gone on over the last two days in Somalia, it proves that failed economies create failed states, Robert. Is the President thinking of any programs, especially for some of the more fragile economies in this region, whereby he might enhance the travel exemption for purchasing power for the Americans who travel there; increase that kind of flow, as well?
MR. RESTREPO: Yes, I'm not sure I fully understood the question. In terms --
Q We've got quite a -- Americans get quite a substantial tax exemption when they travel to this area. In fact, I think it's the best for Americans. Will the President, because of the situation now, the economy, will he look for enhancing that tax exemption to allow more purchasing power for Americans as they travel to that area?
MR. RESTREPO: And when you say, "that area," you're saying Cuba or the Americas at large?
Q No, I'm not saying Cuba. I'm saying for the Caribbean and for South America, which is very generous to begin with.
MR. RESTREPO: I think that the President in -- as we look to the Summit of the Americas at the end of the week, is looking -- understanding that the economic crisis and the effects of the economic crisis are being felt very hard around the hemisphere; understanding that U.S. economic recovery is a very important piece of hemispheric economic recovery; understanding that the steps that were taken in London at the G20 have important implications for the countries of the hemisphere; and ensuring that assistance and support gets to the most vulnerable aspects of society throughout the region.
He's focused on those things. As we head in towards the summit, you're going to see more of that. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but you're going to see a very clear focus on the most compelling issue facing the Americas today, which is the same issue facing us, of how do you deal with the economic crisis and how do you ensure that economic recovery reaches all levels of society.
Q So this may be on the table?
MR. RESTREPO: I guess I'll have to admit -- plead ignorance as to the specific of what you're -- to my understanding of the specific thing you're talking about now. But I think as the week unfolds you will see a clear set of policy proposals and ideas that the President is going to put forward to help the economy and the Western Hemisphere.
Q When you come to this country, you're allowed to bring, I think, $1,500 worth of tax-free, duty-free goods. Will that be increased? Will that level be increased to increase -- attract commerce?
MR. GIBBS: I don't think that's something that we're working on right now.
Q Will you allow -- does this announcement allow direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba? How will Cuban American families get there?
MR. RESTREPO: The announcement puts in place or directs the Secretaries of Commerce, Treasury, and State to authorize those transactions necessary to make this a reality. There are charter flights that exist, which Cuban American families under the current, very restricted travel, have access to. Those, in all likelihood, will have to be expanded if there is an increase in demand for that activity.
Q You would allow a commercial airline right now to start --
MR. RESTREPO: There are flights that -- there are flights --
Q Charter flights, I know that, but --
MR. RESTREPO: -- charter flights now.
Q -- you would allow a commercial airline to start more regularly scheduled stuff or --
MR. GIBBS: I think that's exactly what he's instructed --
Q To look into whether to allow that to happen?
MR. GIBBS: -- to looking at the best way to do that.
Q Does the President want to see -- excuse me -- does the President want to see Cuba admitted into the Organization of American States?
MR. RESTREPO: The President looks forward to the day when a Cuban government that respects the basic principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter -- which are the rules that the hemisphere has come up with to govern itself -- abides by that. Everybody who abides by the Inter-American Democratic Charter should have a seat at the Organization of American States.
Q Let me follow up. The Latin American countries are going to be pressuring the American -- President Obama for greater normalization of relations. Is the announcement today an attempt to inoculate the President and the White House a bit from this?
MR. GIBBS: I think I answered that about four questions ago. The answer to that is no, because, like I said, Peter, this was a promise that the President made during the campaign I think in both of the years that we were a candidate. And it's fulfilling of that promise, not anything related to, as I said, so-called "pressure."
MR. RESTREPO: Do you want to do this in Spanish?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Robert, could I ask --
MR. GIBBS: Hold on one second, we're going to do an OAS --
MR. RESTREPO: The OAS question in Spanish. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Un momento. (Laughter.) Pretty good, wasn't it? (Laughter.)
MR. RESTREPO: Actually, Robert, you can take over.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no, no. (Laughter.) You just hit my limit on --
MR. RESTREPO: (Speaking in Spanish.) Con respecto a la participation de Cuba en la OEA – los EEUU piensa que todos los gobiernos que cumplen con la Carta Democrática Interamericana deben tener su sitio en la mesa de la OEA. Y esperamos ese día cuando un gobierno Cubano, que vive bajo los requisitos de la Carta, puede llegar a sentarse en esa silla.
MR. GIBBS: Wendell.
Q You said the President would look into the idea of allowing direct commercial travel, presumably for relatives. I mean --
MR. GIBBS: Well, no, no, what I said was -- what's that?
Q For relatives.
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, the policy relates to Cuban Americans that have relatives in Cuba. I think what Chuck was asking was the -- no pun intended -- the delivery vehicle.
Q How they get here, yes.
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, as Dan said, there are charter flights. I think they're -- in some of the stories I've seen travel agents in Florida talk about hearing from a far greater number of potential clients today, and in the previous couple of days, anticipating the change that the President announced today.
Q And the idea is that family travel might sustain direct, commercial flights between Miami and Cuba?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the answer to that is at current unknowable. But that is exactly why the President has directed the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Treasury, and the Secretary of Commerce to come up with plans relating to the lifting of these restrictions.
Do you guys have anything back there?
Q I have a question.
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q I'm from Colombia, and I know this is not a topic about this President really, but for me it's impossible not to ask you if President Obama is planning to have a meeting with President Uribe in Colombia, and how it's going to be, that relationship between both governments during the Obama administration? Because, of course, Colombia was like a child in Latin America for the White House, but it's not -- I know it's not going to be like that anymore.
MR. RESTREPO: President Obama values the deep and historic, constructive, positive relationship that's existed between the United States and Colombia, and looks forward to advancing that relationship. He looks forward to seeing President Uribe and his fellow colleagues at the Summit of the Americas, and working as -- sees the summit as a first step in creating the kinds of relationships and partnerships in the hemisphere to advance the basic responses to the common challenges we face, all countries face in the hemisphere. A positive relationship with Colombia is certainly part of that. The United States and Colombia share a deep connection.
I'm half-Colombian, my last name is something of a dead giveaway on that, so I feel this very -- at a very personal level. But it's important to recognize the importance of the relationship, from government to government, that has not been dependent on one President or another President, but the deep relationship that exists between the United States and Colombia. And we look forward to working with the Colombian government and the Colombian people.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.
Q After these steps -- the White House is waiting the Cuban government to do something similar towards this direction?
MR. RESTREPO: Everyone is waiting for the Cuban government to respect the basic human, economic, and political rights of the Cuban people; to release political prisoners unconditionally, not as a result of this decision, but as a result of complying with its basic international commitments. What the President has done today is to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire for the very same thing.
Q Can you repeat that in Spanish for us?
MR. RESTREPO: (Speaking Spanish.) Perdon. Lo que desea -- no es que los EEUU desea una repuesta del gobierno Cubano. Lo que queremos todos - creo que todo el mundo quiere ver – es que ese gobierno respete los derechos políticos, económicos, humanos básicos del pueblo Cubano, que el pueblo Cubano pueda vivir con la libertad que merecen. Hoy, el Presidente Obama no está esperando una repuesta, está extendiendo la mano al pueblo Cubano a decirles que nosotros apoyamos su deseo de vivir en la libertad.
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me go back. Yes, sir.
Q There are economic implications to your announcement. I would bet that on Wall Street right now airline stocks are through the roof, and so are telecommunications.
In this first step, are there any other economic implications in this announcement?
MR. GIBBS: You're looking for a stock tip? (Laughter.) You just gave us two, for goodness sakes. (Laughter.)
MR. RESTREPO: Right. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Can you buy --
Q I'm the Washington editor from -- (laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Maybe you can. (Laughter.)
MR. RESTREPO: The thrust here, again, is reaching out to the Cuban people, and making sure that the United States government isn't standing in the way of their desire to live in freedom, making a clear call to the Cuban government to also get out of the way, and to support that basic desire. The implications, kind of one way or the other, may distract from the central premise here, which is support for that day that everybody wants to see, where the Cuban people get to decide the future of their own country.
Q Now, translate that into financial talk. (Laughter.)
MR. RESTREPO: I'm bilingual, not trilingual.
MR. GIBBS: That would be inexplicable to virtually everyone here.
Do you have one more follow-up on this?
Q No, I’m thinking about pirates.
MR. GIBBS: All right. Well, thank you.
MR. RESTREPO: Thank you, sir.
Q So, pirates.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, what's next?
Q Well, the President talked, both in his statement yesterday and in his remarks today about addressing the bigger picture here, the increasingly problematic situation off the Horn of Africa. In his briefing over at the Pentagon, the Defense Secretary said, you know, some language, something like we're going to have to figure out what in the world to do, which implies that there really isn't much -- a plan or a strategy yet to figure out how to attack this problem. Can you talk about what's going on here?
MR. GIBBS: When you say that, you mean the -- do you mean specifically maritime or do you mean -- I mean, obviously, you've got -- look, I think you've got a number of problems.
Q Well, I mean, the maritime piracy problem, which I think is what the President was referring to when he said --
MR. GIBBS: Right. Well, I think also -- you know, the President has spoken about this before, and I'm sure will continue to speak about and work on the issue also of ungoverned spaces. And I don't think that can be in any way really minimized here.
That's something that -- that trip when -- when he went to Africa in 2006, we spent some time in this region of the world and --
(Cell phone interruption.)
MR. GIBBS: At least it's a normal ring. (Laughter.)
We spent some time in this region of the world, and you quickly understand some of the challenges that lay before you.
I think some of the things that we can -- that we have done and can continue to do to ensure maritime safety is to work for sustained international cooperation in order to coordinate security.
Q Does that mean more military power on the part of the U.S.?
MR. GIBBS: I think that is certainly -- operationally, I would point you over to the Pentagon, but I know in terms of the increased risk that we had over the past few days, you saw more resources and assets. Obviously this is a -- it's also a very huge expanse of space that has to be patrolled. I think also what has to happen is we do have to evaluate and be prepared to take stronger action interdicting acts of piracy. And I think another thing is to encourage greater efforts to bring individuals and groups suspected of these type of acts, to bring those to justice.
We have seen an increase in this type of violence and I know the President is concerned about the safety and security of men and women that are in that area.
Q Back on Cuba. Is there any consideration of some sort of special envoy for Cuba, like Senator Lugar suggested? And also, looking forward to the summit, is -- or the visit to Mexico, is there any likelihood that we'll get some sort of announcement on movement on issues like trucking or immigration?
MR. GIBBS: We'll have more on -- a little bit of a trip overview for Mexico later. I don't know of any current envoy plans for Cuba.
Q The White House -- President Obama gave a special -- with Pentagon permission -- authority to send special forces on Friday and Saturday. What were the rules of engagement for those forces? Were they able to shoot at the pirates immediately? Did they have to wait until they felt like Captain Phillips was under some sort of imminent danger?
MR. GIBBS: I can -- I will check and I would point you also to the Pentagon in terms of whatever operational details they feel safe in giving. But I don't know that I'm going to get into a lot of operational detail from here.
Q Okay, just one quick follow-up. Do you guys have any response to the fact that a Somali Islamist group took credit or blame, however you want to look at it, for firing mortars at a plane that Congressman Payne was on?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, again, I think it goes to a certain lawlessness in the area. Obviously it is an area of -- a region of the world that is extremely dangerous, and that we, in coordination with our international partners, have to take steps to control. These are areas that -- and this is true for many ungoverned spaces -- is that you breed very bad people that want to do very bad things.
And the President is focused on the safety and security of the American people and will take steps to ensure that that's the case.
Q Robert, there's a report today suggesting that the Treasury Department may want GM to be pushed into bankruptcy pretty quickly in the next few weeks. What's the President's latest thinking on the best route for GM?
MR. GIBBS: Well, in reading the story, I, in all truthfulness, don't find that the story is much different, if at all, than what the President said in making his initial findings on the plans for seeking more aid for GM and for Chrysler. The President said that for GM this is a path that might ultimately have to be taken in order to put it back on a path towards -- a strong path towards sustainability.
The President and the Auto Task Force haven't prejudged anything. The President believes, as well as the members of the Auto Task Force, that all of the stakeholders involved -- the company, the workers, the bond holders -- everybody has to understand that we're going to have to give in order to get GM strongly back on its feet.
So I think the story, in my viewing of it, in all honesty recounts exactly what the President said a couple of weeks ago.
Q So bankruptcy has always been an option, basically. And so there's really no -- nothing new in terms of more imminence or pressure from the administration to go in that direction.
MR. GIBBS: No, I mean, look, again, I think it's important that all of those involved understand that the President desires an auto industry that is strong and is resilient and is able to function without government help. I think that's the goal, quite honestly, for every business and bank.
The stakeholders involved -- I think many of them understand that, and have to take steps to make sure that their understanding of that is matched by their actions. The eventuality of that bankruptcy or not in some ways will be determined by many of the stakeholders.
Q Somalia. Is the country a national security risk? Do you guys view the country as a national security risk to this country, the United States?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I -- I don't want to get out of my lane here on what the national security guys might say. I obviously -- I will say that whether it is -- whether there are people that are planning and doing things in that country and other countries around the world that seek to do this country harm, there certainly -- as I said, because of those ungoverned spaces, there's always that concern. I'm not briefed on specific intelligence that would allow me to make such a --
Q Was there any interaction between representatives of our government and representatives of the Somali government during this -- during this crisis?
MR. GIBBS: I will check with NSC, but I'm sure --
Q Would there be anybody to deal with? I mean, is that the issue?
MR. GIBBS: No, I don't think -- again, I think the situation, without drawing a sort of broad brush here, I think the situation obviously involved a captive American citizen; that the commanders on the Bainbridge believed he was in imminent danger and that the President had authorized the use of what actions they deemed necessary to protect his life and ensure his security.
Q Can you preview tomorrow's speech at all?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, tomorrow the President -- the President will, I think, discuss again where we are economically, give people -- give the American people an update on where we are in many of the challenges that continue to lie ahead. You heard the President late last week talk about some glimmers of hope.
I think the President also understands that even as there are some promising statistics -- whether it's housing or something like that -- that we still are likely to see many, many months of unemployment where hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs.
But I think the President wants the opportunity to update the American people on where we are, what we have to do going forward, and lay out the steps that are being taken to help our economy recover, and to build from recession to recovery; to update the American people on the steps that are being taken related to financial stability and in regulation; and to, as he has talked about and I have talked about on a number of occasions, address some of the long-term gaps that he sees that have to be addressed in order to ensure that sustained economic recovery that he and the American people want so badly.
Q You may not know the answer to this, but has another language other than English ever been spoken from this podium as far as you know?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know the answer to that, but I -- my sense is no, but I honestly don't know if there's been
MR. KNOLLER: I don't think so.
Q Mark doesn't think so and he's a better source -- (laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I was going to say -- yes, if -- look, if the answer is no from Mark, that's, quite frankly, good enough for me. (Laughter.) I think -- again, I think it's important -- we didn't do it on accident, we weren't trying to set a record, but it's neat that we did.
I think it's important that the people of the -- the Cuban people and the people -- Cuban Americans here hear directly in a language -- in any language that they can understand that the President promised to take steps to encourage and bring about greater freedom for the Cuban people, and that's what he's done so today.
Q One other thing. On the -- a slightly more complicated question -- on the telecom policy change that you're announcing, I guess I'm just trying to get my head around especially the TV portion of this since it would require the Castro regime's approval. Is this more of a symbolic step, or do you really expect that there's going to be a rush of satellite TV --
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me get a better -- let me clarify that for you better with Dan, but I think, as he said, I think the announcement also puts great pressure on the Cuban government to take some steps to ensure that sort of openness. I'll get you some specifics from Dan on licensing and things like that because I know the satellite part is somewhat complicated.
Q Robert, does President Obama view the Somali pirates as terrorists or the equivalent thereof?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what the pirates did in this instance and what they have done in many other instances is violate longstanding international law and to disregard any sort of basic responsibilities. They are no doubt serious criminal activities. They involved the safety and security of an American citizen, and the President, the Department of Defense and many other agencies acted quickly to ensure that safety and security.
I think that whether or not -- whatever label you put on them, there was a lawlessness, pervasive lawlessness that threatened the life of an American. And the President and this administration, working with some very brave men and women in the military, acted accordingly.
Q And can you tell us what the President's thinking was in not making any public comment on the episode until after it was over?
MR. GIBBS: Yes -- I was a little reticent to talk about this during the activities, but a little bit less so now. I think that -- I think obviously the captors understood -- well, they certainly I think understood they might have bitten off a lot more than they could chew. But I think that -- we did not want to have the President's image unduly -- or his words make what happened on Sunday harder to accomplish in protecting an American life and protecting the lives of the crew. I think what was important throughout this process was that the President was actively engaged, I think as many of you saw from the timeline that we put out yesterday to have you better understand some of his activities even if we were more reticent to speak about them at the time.
Q Robert, two quick questions, please, on piracy. Number one, you said that the President intends to work for sustained international cooperation and coordination. Can you give us some examples of what he plans to do? And is this a problem -- as we know, has been around for years -- illustrative of the fact that the President has had so much else on his plate that it was a distraction until now for something to -- for him to deal with?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me start with the second part. I think whenever an American is taken, is held hostage by something like this, I don't think the President would term this "a distraction." And I think obviously you can see from the activities that he was involved in over the course of the past several days, that it certainly was no less important than anything that he has to deal with on a daily basis; the protecting of an American life certainly is of utmost importance to him.
But in terms of your first question, I think -- and I think that this is true with the Department of Defense, I think it is true with all countries that are using the shipping lanes in and around the Horn of Africa and places nearby -- to work with and also in conjunction with the commercial operators to ensure better coordination; to ensure that better communication happens related to potential acts that could be out there; that there's coordination and communication surrounding different threats in different areas; and as I said, if there are events that do happen, that actions are taken quickly to ensure that those that are trying to commit these type of acts are charged and ultimately brought to justice. I think all of that is important.
There's been an interagency maritime working group that I know has thought about this and is working on other activities that can be undertaken in conjunction with our friends and allies to ensure safety. Obviously it's a -- I mean, this was a ship trying to get food aid to Africa. So there are -- it's undertaking an important activity and we want to ensure its safety and security.
Q Two different issues, if I may. Representative Kirk thinks the President was a little premature today in declaring a kind of victory in the stimulus bill, especially in light of China's announcement over the weekend that its purchase of U.S. Treasuries is something like 8 percent in the first quarter of what they were a year ago. Are we in danger of running up against a kind of limit on the national MasterCard because of the stimulus spending? And is that something that's --
MR. GIBBS: Let's understand that the composition of national debt related to the amount of money that's been promised as part of stimulus is miniscule at best. The President has said repeatedly that he would take the actions necessary to stimulate this economy from recession to recovery. And understand, Wendell, that the debt is only going to get far worse if the economy continues to languish at the level that it is now. The debt is not going to get better if the economy contracts 6 or so percent each quarter. The President understood that and took direct and decisive action to ensure that we're taking the steps necessary to move it to recovery.
Secondly, let's understand that this President has recognized what hasn't been recognized in a long time in Washington, and that is continuing to simply put down the MasterCard, the Visa, the Discover card, the American Express, and apply for all new cards under each of those names is not sustainable in the long term. It's not -- it's not a policy that is going to grow us out of the troubles that we're in. That's why he speaks to the long-term needs of our economy. And that's why the budget that he sent to Capitol Hill and Capitol Hill passed cuts the budget deficit in half in four years.
All are very important -- important things to have done.
Q On the other issue, can I get you to weigh into this dispute between the Vice President and Karl Rove on whether Mr. Biden scolded former President Bush?
MR. GIBBS: On whether he scolded former President Bush? I'm not sure that I'm going to come out as the middle-of-the-road arbiter on such a dispute. I think that -- I will leave it at that.
Q Robert, back to the pirates for a second. Despite the timeline that you guys put out yesterday, I'm still a little fuzzy on exactly -- on the President's role, what the President knew. Did the President -- did the military provide the President with details about the kind of rescue they wanted to -- they were going to do if they got the chance? Did he review it? Did he say, yes, I like that, and -- or no, or didn't -- and was there ever a moment prior -- we know the two authorizations that he gave, but was there ever a moment prior to those two authorizations where the military asked for something and the President urged patience, or urged them to wait and said, no, we should -- you know, before we act, we should give more time for them to give up?
MR. GIBBS: Let me check on the second one. I know that leading up to both Friday and Saturday, there was, as you know, still active discussions going on to seek the release of the captain. So I can certainly look at the second one.
Repeat your -- to me your first one.
Q The first one was how much did he know about their -- what the rescue would have looked like if -- I mean, you know, we've sort of been told that he gave a general kind of --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think the President is -- the President gives an order as he did to ensure whatever actions are necessary to protect the safety and security of an American. And the President has great trust in those that carry out his orders. And I think that that trust is well founded after seeing the results of what happened that led to the release.
Q So is that a "no, he didn't know the details"?
MR. GIBBS: I'm going to --
Q -- I still remain fuzzy.
MR. GIBBS: I'm going to give sort of a blanket answer and not get into all of the operational details.
Q Robert, the pirates are holding many hostages from other countries. And I'm wondering how concerned is the President, if at all, that the successful operation that released Captain Phillips will result in some sort of retaliatory act that could endanger the lives of other hostages who aren't Americans? Is he talking to leaders of other countries? I understand there were some German hostages, maybe some French. What's the concern there?
MR. GIBBS: I know there are staff-level discussions about policy. I don't know whether there's a reaching out to individual governments, and I can certainly look into that. I'm certainly not an expert on all of these matters. I did notice comments today from the Department of Defense that would seem on the other side of that, which is I think -- I think there's at least a small group in Somalia that knows that their actions have serious consequences. And that, in and of itself, though not -- I don't want to say that's in any sort of complete solution, but whether or not that could be -- I think that could be a deterrent in the future if people know that there are consequences to what they do.
Q Robert, back to tomorrow's schedule. Can you describe for us plans for Bo's debut? (Laughter.)
Q We went almost an hour. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I've now run like the full -- I've now run the full gamut. You may have noticed the music in the background. That's merely a sound check for tomorrow's activities. (Laughter.) I will admit I know that he will arrive tomorrow, and I think there will be an opportunity for you all to get a chance to see the new dog.
Q Barney bit a reporter. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: And I've been training him throughout the morning. (Laughter.)
Q He's not here now?
MR. GIBBS: I do not believe he's on the site. I think he's -- I can't imagine what he would do out in the front yard with 5,000 kids. (Laughter.) But he'll be here tomorrow and you'll get a chance to see him with his new owners.
Q All of the new owners, the entire family?
MR. GIBBS: I believe that's the case, yes.
Q What time is that?
MR. GIBBS: I don't have that with me but I will -- I'm sure that will be in tomorrow's guidance.
Q Thanks, Robert. I had a question on the Swat Valley, but I first wanted to just get a clarification on something you said about why the President didn't speak out on this earlier. You said that would make it harder to accomplish protecting an American life -- and I did want to ask about Swat Valley, that's important -- but could you clarify what you meant by that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me -- and that's a good question because I don't want to be real oblique. I think it was important -- I mean, look, I got many questions about whether or not he made calls, whether we were going to say something directly. And I think there was advice given not to -- not to take -- not to have somebody that had an American captive and make this even potentially more dangerous by putting the President out there for captives to see.
I think what was important was that the President was actively involved in decisions around this, was actively involved in keeping up to date and aware of the situation, and made decisions accordingly.
Q The concern would be that by recognizing or, I don't know, appearing publicly and speaking, you're validating them or giving them too much recognition?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think you could be giving them too much recognition, you could -- in many ways, you could be upping the ante a bit on the potential of what the pirates held. The President always knew and always acted understanding that the protection and security of the captain was always the primary goal of any of his decisions or any of his actions, and that's why he acted the way he did.
Q Real quickly on Swat Valley, President Zardari today signed the deal implementing sharia law in that province or region. What's the administration's reaction to that? Were you guys involved during this period where President Zardari was going back and forth, telling him either way, don't sign it or --
MR. GIBBS: I haven't seen that before I came out here, but let me get NSC to pull something for you on that.
Q Did you have a position on it before --
MR. GIBBS: Let me get NSC to -- and I'll take one more.
Q Can I ask you a couple cleanups on the pirate thing?
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q Big picture, is it right to say that the administration is now engaging in serious consideration of expanding or revising the U.S. policy toward pirates? And are you looking at a multilateral approach, or just a national approach? And real quick, just so you know why I'm asking -- any decision on how the fourth pirate is going to be charged? And are you also reviewing Somalia policy as an aspect of this?
MR. GIBBS: As it relates to the fourth pirate, I would point you to the Department of Justice as the appropriate agency to deal with that.
I think it's important to understand that the group that the President had assembled to work on these issues was not stood up upon the news but was actively involved in looking at this and other issues.
This region of the world has struggled with and had been a challenge to this country for quite some time. The issues aren't new. But I think the President and this administration are certainly focused on ensuring that we are doing all that we can, that we are doing all that we can in conjunction with our international partners and allies, to coordinate and communicate effectively, to coordinate that security, to ensure the safety of Americans as well as others that are using this area for shipping; and that the President and the administration want to continue to seek ways, as I said, to ensure that greater efforts are brought to bring those to justice that are involved in these acts, and to work with others and discuss actively how best to interdict acts of piracy that are going on or will go on in the future.
4:34 P.M. EDT