WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) on Tuesday called recent harsh criticism of detainee treatment at Guantanamo Bay "absurd" and said many terrorists have been trained to lie to humanitarian or civil rights groups about their treatment.
"It's absurd — it's an absurd allegation," Bush said when asked what his response was to a recent Amnesty International report that characterized the prison camp as "the gulag of our time."
"The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world. When there are accusations made about certain actions by our people, they're fully investigated in a transparent way," the president added during the press event at the White House Rose Garden.
Amnesty urged Washington to shut down the prison at the U.S. Navy's base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where some 540 men are held on suspicion of links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban (search) regime or Al Qaeda. Some have been jailed for more than three years without charge while others have been released after investigations have cleared them of any suspicious activity.
Bush said all detainee complaints of harsh treatment have been investigated and noted that training by terror networks to lie about their conditions is a way for detainees to gain sympathy.
"It seems like to me [Amnesty International] based some of their decisions on the word and allegations of people in detention who hate America," Bush said.
Vice President Dick Cheney derided the London-based group for the report in a televised interview Monday while Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers on Sunday called the Amnesty International report "absolutely irresponsible."
"Frankly, I was offended by it," Cheney said. "For Amnesty International to suggest that somehow the United States is a violator of human rights, I frankly just don't take them seriously."
As the United States fights allegations of human rights violations, Bush expressed concerns about Russian millionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky's (search) nine-year prison term on fraud and tax evasion. Bush made clear the tycoon's appeal will reveal a lot about Russia's commitment to democracy.
"Here, you're innocent until proven guilty and it appeared to us, at least people in my administration, that it looked like he had been judged guilty prior to having a fair trial," Bush said. "We're watching the ongoing case."
'Hopeful Signs' About the Economy
The president's remarks came during a press conference in which he urged Congress to pass effective energy and Social Security (search) reform, as well as a responsible budget resolution.
Bush gave a brief opening statement about the economy and focused on four key priorities for Congress this session — passing comprehensive energy legislation by the August recess, ratifying the Central America Free Trade Act (search), taking quick action on Social Security reform and enacting a budget that cuts the deficit in half by 2009.
'"More Americans are working today than ever before, home ownership is at an all-time high, small businesses are flourishing, families are taking home more of what they earn. Obviously these are hopeful signs," Bush said at the opening of the press conference, adding that unemployment is at 5.2 percent after the growth of 3.5 million jobs over the last two years.
Congress needs to play a part in maintaining that economic growth, the president said, adding that a comprehensive energy bill hasn't been passed in more than 10 years.
"We've gone more than a decade without an energy strategy and as a result, we've grown more dependent on foreign sources of energy and consumers see the consequences of that at the gas pump on a daily basis," Bush said.
In response, New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said he will stop the energy bill "dead in its tracks" if negotiators insist on keeping House-passed legislation that forgives oil companies from lawsuits claiming harm as a result of the gas additive MTBE.
"The president's energy bill is of, by, and for the large energy companies, and it does far too little to encourage the number one way we can become independent of foreign oil — conservation. Moreover, the House bill, which contains the odious MTBE giveaway will cause us to do everything we can to stop the energy bill dead in its tracks. If the president wants to get an energy bill, he should come out forcefully against the MTBE giveaway," Schumer said in a written statement.
In other legislative business, the president also called on Congress to pass a budget that holds down discretionary spending enough to keep inflation down and to make his tax cuts permanent. He also said he'd continue to travel the country touting his plans for Social Security reform, which include allowing younger workers to put part of their payroll taxes into personal, voluntary savings accounts much like those congressional members can currently set up, in order to get a greater rate of return on their investments.
On those Social Security tours, Bush said, "I'll remind our seniors who are getting a check today that nothing will change, yet I'll continue to remind our people that we've got a serious problem for our younger workers."
He added: "We need to make Social Security a better deal for younger workers."
Constituents also need to tell their representatives in Congress that the system is in fact in dire need of reform in order for changes to be made, Bush said.
"Social security is a problem ... that's the first step in getting Congress to do something," he said. "Social Security is a serious problem that requires bipartisan cooperation to solve the problem."
These priorities, combined with passing CAFTA, are aimed at strengthening the country's long-term economic security, Bush said. And in order to get that done, lawmakers need to reach across the aisle and stop the intense partisan bickering that has marred Congress during the past year, the president said.
"The American people expect the two parties to work together ... setting aside partisan differences and getting something done, and so do I," Bush said.
On Iraq, Bush reiterated his desire to bring American troops home as soon as Iraqis can defend their own country and their fledgling democratic institutions are all up and running.
"I think Iraqis will be up to the task of defeating the insurgents," Bush said in response to a question asking whether the commander-in-chief really thinks Iraqis can effectively quash the insurgency that's been killing Iraqi civilians, aid workers and others on a near-daily basis.
"What the insurgents fear is democracy because democracy is the opposite of their vision," Bush said, noting that the elections that recently took place in Iraq dealt a "serious blow" to those attempting to derail democratic progress there.
"I'm pleased with the progress," he said, referring to progress not only in setting up a new government but also in training Iraqi troops to fend for themselves.
"Our strategy is very clear — we will work to get them ready to fight and when they're ready, we'll come home," Bush said. "And I hope that's sooner rather than later but nevertheless, it's very important we complete this mission because a free Iraq is in our nation's long-term interests."
Separately, Bush said Iran should be allowed to apply for membership in the World Trade Organization (search), and it could help Europe as it negotiates with Tehran on ending its nuclear program.
Bush: Give Bolton a Vote
Bush also called on the Senate to vote on John Bolton (search), the embattled nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. That nomination brought the Senate to a near halt this month as the two parties warred over giving the current State Department official an up-or-down vote. Before leaving for recess last week, the Democrats blocked Bolton from getting a vote, saying they wanted more information on certain National Security Agency intercepts he requested
"Clearly he's got the votes to get confirmed," Bush said of his nominee, calling the Democrats' move a "stalling tactic." "I was disappointed once again the leadership in the Senate didn't give an up or down vote ... I would hope when they get back, they would stop stalling and give the man a vote."
It's vital Bolton gets that vote so that the United States can send its ambassador to a world body in much need of reform, the president added, especially since the United States pays it $2 billion a year in dues.
Bolton is a "no nonsense kind of fella who can get things done and we need to get things done at the United Nations," Bush said. "It's an organization that's beginning to lose the trust of the American people if it hasn't done already."
The president also said he'd make good on his promise to veto a bill passed by the House last week that would allow federal funds to be used on experimental tests involving new embryonic stem-cell lines.
While it's OK to use federal funds to study existing stem cell lines, it's not OK to use taxpayer money on experimentation that would create life just to destroy it, Bush said.
"It's a position that violates a principle of mine and I stand strong on that to the point that I will veto the bill as it exists," he vowed.
He noted that federal research involving embryonic stem cells is already ongoing; over 600 experiments are active on existing lines, while scientists say another 3,000 potential experiments can go forward with cells they already have. Other experiments are continuing on adult stem cell lines.
While he is calling for reform on a myriad of issues, Bush told the American public to not lose hope just because they don't see fast action.
"Things don't happen instantly in Washington, D.C. … it takes awhile ... [and] it takes a president wiling to push people to do things," Bush said. "I'm asking Congress to do some difficult things ... I feel comfortable in my role as the president and my role as the president is to push for reform. The American people appreciate a president who sees a problem and pushes."
Tuesday's event continues a trend Bush has followed during his second term of formally meeting with the media about once a month.
Previous sessions with the press included a general news conference on April 28; one focusing on Social Security and the Iraqi Assembly on March 16; one on Feb. 17 to announce his intent to nominate John Negroponte (search) to be director of national intelligence (search); and one on Jan. 26 that focused on his second term agenda; including the Iraqi and Afghanistan elections, as well as those in the Ukraine and among Palestinians.