The long-dormant White House press corps has shown signs of life in recent months, including Monday’s briefing when reporters refused to allow press secretary Tony Snow to dodge and divert their questions about the Army hospital scandal.
Q The administration’s mantra for a long time has been “support the troops.” What is the reaction, then, when you read this series of stories in The Washington Post about troops coming home from Iraq, Afghanistan and being treated so poorly, apparently, based on this long investigation? What’s the President’s reaction?
MR. SNOW: There are a couple of things. First, it’s not a mantra. I would really choose words carefully. It’s a commitment to support the troops. And the President, as you know, has visited the wounded many times at Walter Reed and we are concerned about it. And the people who—
Q Were you aware?
MR. SNOW: We are aware now, yes. And I would refer you to the Department of Defense, which I know is taking a very close look at it, too.
Look, the men and women who have gone and fought for our country over there, they deserve the best care.
Q So why has that not been guaranteed, then?
MR. SNOW: I’m not sure that—you know, when you find a problem, you deal with it.
Q So you’re saying the President learned about this from The Washington Post?
MR. SNOW: I don’t know exactly where he learned it, but I can tell you that we believe that they deserve better. And, again, Ed, this is something where I’d suggest you give DoD a call, because I know they’ve taken a good, hard look at it.
Q Tony, can I follow on that? As Bob Dole might ask, where’s the outrage?
MR. SNOW: There’s plenty of outrage.
Q Is there?
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q So the President responded how when he learned about this? What, specifically—did he order something to be done?
MR. SNOW: What I’m suggesting—there’s a reason I’m suggesting—DoD is the proper place in which we’ll be taking care of these issues. And I would refer you to them for comment. But this is something that’s going to have to be an action item.
Q But is there any evidence that it was even looked at before the paper printed its two stories?
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q Then tell us about that evidence.
MR. SNOW: That’s why—again, I would refer you, Bill, to the Department of the Army, which runs the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. This is the place where if you want to get—
Q That’s just an easy way for you not to have to talk about it.
MR. SNOW: Well, it’s also a way of pointing to the proper authorities, which is what you would want.
Q The White House doesn’t want to be on record with a more emphatic expression of amazement and upset about this?
MR. SNOW: No. David asked where the outrage—of course there’s outrage that men and women who have been fighting have not received the outpatient care—if you read the stories, there are many who are happy with it, some who are unhappy, and it’s important that we show our commitment to the people who have served. I don’t know what more you want me to do.
Q In December NPR ran a series looking at the quality of mental health care for Iraq veterans who have returned, showing that it’s shocking how little care is provided to them. And several congresspeople—Obama, Boxer and Bond—sent a letter to the Pentagon, which you’re referring us to, asking for an investigation, which they have not agreed to conduct. So you’re referring us to the DoD, but they’re not acting quickly on this. So does the President want them to act quickly?
MR. SNOW: Well, again, you’ve asked me about two separate stories.
Q It seems there’s a problem that’s endemic to the system.
MR. SNOW: Well, rather than leaping to a conclusion, as I said, I would suggest you call them, and then we can talk about it later.
Q Off camera this morning you said that you would have something at noon; you said, I’ll talk about it then. And now you’re not really—
MR. SNOW: Well, that’s because—again, I think that you may see some activity on it. And at this point I would refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q Is the system working?
MR. SNOW: Well, I’ll tell you what—is the system working? Yes. Is it working perfectly? No.
Q It’s good enough?
MR. SNOW: No, I said, it’s not good enough. I just told you it’s not working perfectly. But there are also thousands of people who have been through the system who have been cared for. But it is important that we maintain a commitment to following up or providing the treatment that these men and women deserve.
Q Do you think the President is going to say something about this later?
MR. SNOW: No.
Q You responded to me a moment ago that the administration was aware of this before the articles appeared in the paper.
MR. SNOW: That is my understanding. But, again, this is something that’s an action item over at the Department of Defense and, in particular, the Department of the Army. I am not fully briefed on the activities or who knew what, when. And I suggest—
Q Was the President aware of it? Was the White House aware of it?
MR. SNOW: I am not certain—
Q May I follow on—
Q What is the President’s—
MR. SNOW:—when we first became aware of it.* Now the President certainly has been aware of the conditions in the wards where he has visited, and visited regularly, and we also have people from Walter Reed regularly over to the White House as guests, sometimes in fairly large numbers. So as I said, the President is committed—committed to these people, committed to men and women who have served. We need to make sure that whatever problems there are get fixed. I couldn’t be any stronger or plainer about it.
Q Has he given any new orders?
MR. SNOW: No. At this point, Helen, I think the most important thing—the way this would work is the Department of Army has its own investigation about what’s going on at Walter Reed. They will be taking action. The President certainly wants to make sure that, as I said before, whatever problems there are get fixed.
Q On Walter Reed, a lot of the veterans, the medical community, the doctors, the neighbors who have worked at Walter Reed are very upset about this move, pending move to Bethesda. In light of everything that’s happening, does the administration still support uprooting—
MR. SNOW: The Department of Defense has made the decision to consolidate the treatment facilities at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center.
Q Is there any chance of a second look? Some of the facilities at Walter Reed are brand new.
MR. SNOW: Well, again, I’m just going to refer you to that. This is—all of a sudden people are trying to open up different avenues of inquiry. The fact is that those changes have, in fact, been decided upon by the Department of Defense. I am not aware of any decisions to change.
Q To clarify, were these—any actions that the Pentagon has taken, these action items, were they done on its own, or did they do this in response to some order from here?
MR. SNOW: Again, I’m not aware that anybody has—look, when you have a problem like this, the imperative is to fix it. I’m not sure that you have to issue orders; there are people there who know if they’ve got a problem they need to fix it. So I don’t think that—I will try to find out for you, but I’m not aware that the President has cut any special orders. But I will try to get for you additional information.
Q I think what we’re—
MR. SNOW: I know what you’re trying to do, you’re trying to get a tick-tock on what did he learn and how did he respond and who did he call.
Q Yes, we’re trying to determine if someone here built a fire under someone over there to do something.
MR. SNOW: You know, that’s assuming that people there are callous about the fate of the people who are serving.
Q It isn’t—
MR. SNOW: No, I think it is. When you say “light a fire,” it’s as if, you know, you find out that there’s a problem and you don’t move quickly to try to correct it. My sense is that there’s plenty of fire for trying to get it right. But this is why I’m telling you if you want a more direct answer about this, you do need to talk to the people at the Department of the Army—
Q But, Tony, when you read—
MR. SNOW:—who are at the ground level involvement here.
Q—an account that says a commanding general, quotes a commanding general as saying, well, gee, we ordered repairs done, but they weren’t done—you’d think they would have known this hadn’t been accomplished.
MR. SNOW: Well, again, that’s why—you’ve just made my point, which is you need to get back to them, and I will also get back for you with a tick-tock about what’s going on at this end.
Q It’s not just—you’re describing kind of a cold, detached bureaucratic process. We all know how this works. Something like this, this kind of story gets people’s attention. You are now—
MR. SNOW: Well—
Q Wait a minute. You’re now in the PR business, you know if something like this happens it’s at odds with the commitments you make; the Commander-in-Chief might well stand up at a meeting and say, darn it, let’s get to the bottom of this now and let’s get answers. And this happened over the weekend, and you’re saying you think the White House knew, but you’re not sure; you’re not sure when the President knew or if he said something to somebody. It just seems like you should have those answers.
MR. SNOW: Okay, but you also—fine, I’ll try to get them for you. But when you talk about cold detachment, I don’t think saying that if it needs—
Q You’re calling it an “action item”?
MR. SNOW: Well, yes, because what I’m telling you is that it is something that falls under the providence of the Department of the Army. Therefore, if you want the detailed answers about who knew what, when and how it’s been handled, you do need to ask them, because they’re going to have the information, David.
I can tell you that the President feels passionately about them, and you should have no doubt about it—you’ve been at enough events where when he looks these people in the eye there is a commitment, a strong, profound emotional commitment to the people who serve this country. And it is one where the President is committed to doing right by the men and women who serve. There should be no doubt about that.
Q But, Tony—
MR. SNOW: Wait, wait. In that case, what I’m telling you is let’s sort through the facts. I know that what you want is for me to tell you more than I know right now. So you keep at it—
Q But it would not be unreasonable for you or the President, through you, to express some kind of outrage over what has happened up there.
MR. SNOW: Well, it’s also a matter of trying to figure out precisely what has happened. You have news stories, it is important to investigate. As you know, the most important thing is to fix a problem, correct? And there is absolute determination to fix the problem. The President is somebody, again, whose passion for these forces should never, ever be a topic of doubt on the part of the forces or the American people.
Q Right, but Tony, when you say he looks in the eyes of the families—but what if the bureaucrats on the ground are not actually following through on the commitment you say he has? Doesn’t he have a duty to follow through and say, what—
MR. SNOW: That’s why I’m asking you to direct your questions to the people who are in direct line of responsibility for this, who are going to have more information on this than I do right now.
Q What is your reaction of Major General Weightman, who is the Commander at Walter Reed, also says in the bottom of the article on Sunday in The Washington Post, said that he’s concerned and that they’re bracing for, “potentially a lot more casualties,” people coming to Walter Reed because of the surge. Does that cause the White House to think at all about that policy, because you have the Commander of Walter Reed—
MR. SNOW: There are a whole series of things, and, again, this is why you need to talk to people who are in the chain, because—
Q But this he said on the record.
MR. SNOW: I understand, Ed. But there are a series of things. First, for Walter Reed, what you end up having is treatment of people who are wounded—and also this is Bethesda, as you know, different sorts of injuries are treated at the two facilities. And many of those people are there for months. And this story deals with outpatient care after that treatment, right? So it’s important, I think, to understand that you’ve got to be prepared for all things that are going to come your way, including getting the piece right when it comes to outpatient care, and continuing also to do well by inpatients.
But, again, I know you want me to—I’m simply not going to go beyond what I know. And in this particular case, the people who do know the facts and do know what’s going on, and do know how the investigations are proceeding are the guys over at DoD.
Q I think that’s part of the question. It doesn’t seem like—beyond what you know, it doesn’t seem like you’re asking that many questions to find out. I mean, you have a limited knowledge about the situation.
MR. SNOW: It’s because they’re working the issue, and I’m telling you, those are the people to talk to, the DoD.
Q—I mean, you keep putting me off on other people—
MR. SNOW: I know.
Q This is a commitment the President has made, you said, to the families, right?
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q So why isn’t the President, why isn’t his staff saying, let’s get to the bottom of it now?
MR. SNOW: We are trying to get to the bottom of it, and the people who are responsible for getting to the bottom of it work on the other side of the river.