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Axelrod Defends Effort to Block Release of Detainee Photos

May 14, 2009 at 6:15 PM EST
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White House senior adviser David Axelrod discusses President Obama's move to block the release of detainee abuse photos, the search for a Supreme Court justice, and controversy over the president's planned speech at the University of Notre Dame.
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JIM LEHRER: Now to our interview with David Axelrod. I spoke with him earlier this evening from the White House Briefing Room.

David Axelrod, welcome.

DAVID AXELROD, senior adviser to President Obama: Thanks, Jim. Good to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you. On the detainee abuse photos, how does the president’s opposition to releasing them, to making them public, square with his positions on transparency and public disclosure?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, Jim, his positions on transparency and public disclosure are strong and well known, but they don’t — they’re not without limit.

When he believes that the release of materials may jeopardize the national security, then he’s going to make that case. In this case, his concern is that the release of the photos from acts that happened years ago will serve to inflame the situation now and endanger our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that’s something he’s not inclined to do.

JIM LEHRER: And on what is that based? Why does he believe that it will inflame these folks in Iraq and Afghanistan?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, obviously, the photos are provocative. We’ve seen them, photos like them the past. They’ve had an inflammatory effect. They were used by our opponents and al-Qaida as propaganda tools and recruiting devices. And so we don’t want to go back there again.

JIM LEHRER: Have you seen these photographs, as well as the president?

DAVID AXELROD: I’ve seen some of the photographs.

JIM LEHRER: You agree that they would be inflammatory?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, I think the president has made the right decision. And his first responsibility is to protect the safety of our troops and to protect the country. He’s making the decision on that basis.

Cheney's criticism

David Axelrod
White House Senior Adviser
My fundamental understanding from the president is that he feels strongly that this would have a deleterious effect on our troops, that it would put them in jeopardy, and he wants to pursue all legal avenues to prevent their release at this time...

JIM LEHRER: Did Vice President Cheney's criticism of President Obama and saying that he's jeopardizing the safety of the country have any influence on this decision of President Obama?

DAVID AXELROD: Absolutely not. Believe me, I've been with the president as he speaks about these issues, and he's got one thing on his mind, which is to make the right decision for the troops, for the country, for our national security. I don't think he's worried about comments from the sidelines by anybody.

JIM LEHRER: For the record, there's no concern among the president and his advisers such as you about what Vice President Cheney's been saying about President Obama?

DAVID AXELROD: I don't have any concerns at all. I mean, the vice president has his own motivations, whatever they may be. He is free to offer his opinions.

But the president has responsibilities, and he's going to discharge those responsibilities through his best judgment, regardless of what the vice president has to say.

JIM LEHRER: On the photos, is the president prepared to take this all the way -- it's now in a federal appeals court. If he loses in that case, is he going to go to the Supreme Court with it?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, let's see what happens, Jim. But my fundamental understanding from the president is that he feels strongly that this would have a deleterious effect on our troops, that it would put them in jeopardy, and he wants to pursue all legal avenues to prevent their release at this time, which is a sensitive time in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So, you know, I expect that he will pursue all legal avenues.

Supreme Court nominee

David Axelrod
White House Senior Adviser
I think he feels a sense of urgency about getting this done, so that whomever is selected can be involved in reviewing petitions and other documents in September before the fall session begins.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Speaking of the Supreme Court, how close is the president to making a decision on the nominee for the new associate justice?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, the president is hard at work on that. He's going through the process. There are, as you know, several candidates. Some of those names have been made public; others have not. And he's doing quite a bit of reading. He'll be doing interviews.

And I expect that he'll make a decision sooner rather than later. I think he feels a sense of urgency about getting this done, so that whomever is selected can be involved in reviewing petitions and other documents in September before the fall session begins.

JIM LEHRER: Is it safe to assume the nominee will not be a white male?

DAVID AXELROD: I don't want to characterize that, Jim. Obviously, there's been a lot of speculation about that, and everybody understands what the current composition of the court is.

But the president is -- I can tell you that the group of candidates he's looking at include men and women and people of all backgrounds. And I don't want to prejudge what he might do.

JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to consider issues of gender and race, for instance, in making that decision?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, I think the first qualification for the office or for that job is a deep and rich understanding of the Constitution, constitutional law, and an ability to deal with those issues. But certainly there are other elements, as well, and he'll consider all of them.

But, understand, the president comes at this with his own very rich understanding of the Constitution, having taught constitutional law. He's a constitutional scholar. And he prizes both the court and those issues very, very highly and the ability to deal with those issues. So that's going to be number one on his list of concerns.

JIM LEHRER: You say a decision sooner rather than later. Within another couple of weeks or so?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, as I said, I think that there is a -- we want to give the Congress -- we want to give the Senate the time to do its work. And in order to do that and meet the schedule of having someone on the bench after Labor Day, in September, we'd have to make that that decision relatively soon.

Controversy at Notre Dame

David Axelrod
White House Senior Adviser
I think he's very comfortable giving the speech. And one of the things that's been very heartening is the many expressions of enthusiasm he's received from young people at Notre Dame who are looking forward to his speech.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Axelrod, what do you make of the controversy surrounding President Obama's planned commencement address to Notre Dame on Sunday? The abortion issue has come up. What's going on?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, abortion has been a divisive issue in the country for a very long time. Obviously, it's a significant issue within the Catholic Church.

But the perspective the president brings to this address is as someone who came to Chicago in the 1980s to work in a program that was sponsored by the Catholic Church to help lift neighborhoods that had fallen on hard times as a result of steel plant closings.

He understands the sort of -- the social gospel of the church and what it's meant to the community at large, and so does many of the young people there who have gotten a rich Catholic education at Notre Dame.

So I think he's going to speak to the common humanity that we have, you know, and not dwell on the things that divide us.

JIM LEHRER: So he probably will not mention abortion in his speech?

DAVID AXELROD: He may address the issue, Jim, but that's not the essence of his speech, nor should it be the essence of our discussion.

JIM LEHRER: For the record, did he give any consideration to backing off and not making the speech?

DAVID AXELROD: Absolutely not. No, I think he's very comfortable giving the speech. And one of the things that's been very heartening is the many expressions of enthusiasm he's received from young people at Notre Dame who are looking forward to his speech. I think he's very -- very much looking forward to it.

JIM LEHRER: On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to meet with the president at the White House. Are the reports correct that President Obama's going to press him to endorse enthusiastically a two-state solution between the Palestinians and Israel?

DAVID AXELROD: I'm not going to preview what the conversation will be. Everyone knows what the president's position is.

The president believes strongly in a two-state solution. He believes strongly that all the parties need to live up to previous commitments. And he wants to be deeply engaged in a constructive way in this process.

The prime minister will bring his own thoughts on these issues, and I expect they'll have a very candid and productive discussion.

New commander in Afghanistan

David Axelrod
White House Senior Adviser
Look, the goal in Afghanistan should be what it was when we first went, which is to contain the terrorist threat that was manifested on September 11, 2001.

JIM LEHRER: It is likely that they will discuss the growing reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu is interested in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue before he gets to the two-party-state thing and that will be a matter of discussion, as well, on Monday?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, I think that the threat that Iran poses is something that's a concern of everyone. A nuclear Iran, a weaponized, nuclear Iran is a concern the president has spoken about.

Obviously, the Israelis are deeply concerned about that. I'm sure it will be a topic of discussion.

And I think the president -- it will be an opportunity for the president to talk to the prime minister about everything that we are doing and intend to do to try and head off that looming threat.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, on Afghanistan, a new commander, a new strategy. Is there, in fact, a new goal, a new definition of what success is going to be in Afghanistan for the U.S.?

DAVID AXELROD: Look, the goal in Afghanistan should be what it was when we first went, which is to contain the terrorist threat that was manifested on September 11, 2001.

The people who orchestrated that attack are active in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and that is a threat not just to us, but to those two countries and the world at large. So our goal is to eliminate that threat, and we want to work with those countries in a regional strategy to do that.

JIM LEHRER: How long is it going to take, Mr. Axelrod?

DAVID AXELROD: Well, obviously, we've said that we are going to review this on a regular basis, and that's what we'll do. I'm not going to set a time limit...

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID AXELROD: ... here, but the president is mindful that we want to do this in a way that makes sense, that doesn't keep our troops there longer than they need to be.

But what we want to do is see Afghanistan and Pakistan step up to this threat and be in a position to repel that threat. And we're working closely with them toward that goal.

JIM LEHRER: All right. David Axelrod, thank you very much.

DAVID AXELROD: All right, Jim. Good to be with you.