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Reporters Demand Answers on 'Ashcroft Hospital Visit'

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Reporters Demand Answers on 'Ashcroft Hospital Visit'

Article excerpt

At a press briefing this morning at the White House, reporters peppered Bush spokesman Tony Fratto with questions about the growing intrigue surrounding the attempt to get a hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign off on domestic spying. President Bush deflected questions on the matter yesterday, refusing to confirm that he had dispatched two aides to the hospital or even that the incident too place.

Fratto seemed to confirm that it happened today, correcting one reporter who said it happened in a "hotel room", saying it was actually a "hospital room."

Reporters also appeared to trap him when he re-stated the president's position that the White House will not comment on this because it involves a classified program, even though the hospital visit itself is not classified. A reporter replied: If it's so secret and vital, why aren't you proposing that charges be brought against James Comey, the former #2 in the Justice Department, who revealed the details in congressional testimony earlier this week?

They also jumped on his statement that the proper committees in Congress had been briefed on the allegedly illegal program, thereby suggesting that they had approved it. Reporters asked if they indeed did approve it (which is unlikely). Fratto dodged that one.

And, asked if there was anything factually incorrect about Comey's testimony, Fratto replied: "I'm not in a position to comment on reports of Comey's testimony."

The full exchange follows.*

Q. Let me just follow up on that. Yesterday, Kelly asked the President straight up about the report of when Gonzales was counsel and sending Andy Card down to the hospital. The President refused to answer, saying it was a national security issue. No part of her question had anything to do with national security issues.

MR. FRATTO: No, there are two points there. One is the discussion of classified programs; and the second is deliberative discussions among and between advisors to the President -- and neither of which is an open window for us to look into and talk about.

Now, I think the President -- I think that's the point that the President was making. It puts us in a difficult communications position, because we understand there are questions out there and it's difficult for us from the podium. But that's not something that we can get into, and we're not going to get into.

Q He can unilaterally declassify, so --

MR. FRATTO: He could, but I think he'd prefer to put the safety and security of Americans ahead of that interest.

Q How does it jeopardize the safety and security of Americans, to say whether --

MR. FRATTO: Any time we talk about --

Q -- to say whether he ordered those guys to go to the hotel room?

MR. FRATTO: The hospital room --

Q I'm sorry, hospital room.

MR. FRATTO: -- according to the reports.

Q -- former acting Attorney General.

MR. FRATTO: Any time we talk about classified programs you're opening the door, and we need to be very careful in how we talk about it.

Let me make another point that the President made yesterday. All of our programs have been appropriately briefed to Congress. They have all had appropriate oversight. So I think that is the forum for discussing our classified programs, and I think that is where we're going to leave it. …

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