Bush holds rare unscripted session

MAASTRICHT, The Netherlands — At home, President Bush regularly travels the nation for “conversations” with hand-picked audiences who routinely shower him and his policies with praise. But abroad Sunday, some Dutch citizens had a rare, unscripted opportunity to ask questions that some Americans might want to pose if given the chance.

Based on the questions reporters were allowed to hear before being ushered from the room, this group — at a “youth round table” — might not have passed muster at a typical choreographed White House event.

After all, other than the occasional news conference, the president is rarely put on the spot about his domestic agenda.

“I have a question ... concerning the terrorism,” said the first to be called on, a young woman identified in the White House transcript as Madeline Hoffmeister.

“And you made many laws after 9/11, many — many laws and many measures. And I’m wondering, will there be a time when you drop those laws and when you decrease the measures?”

“Look,” Bush replied, “a free society such as ours, obviously, must balance the government’s most important duty, which is to protect the American people from harm, with the civil liberties of our citizens. And every law we passed that was aimed to protect us in this new era of threats from abroad and the willingness for people to kill without mercy has been scrutinized and, of course, balanced by our Constitution.”

The president explained that Congress was reviewing the Patriot Act, the controversial measure that gives law-enforcement agencies greater power to conduct surveillance and share information.

He told her that the 2001 attacks had changed his nation’s mind-set, resulting in the need for different laws.

“I mean, it was more than just an attack; it was a whole mind-set,” he said. “And that’s why your question is really relevant — did that mind-set, did that change of attitude cause us to then begin to take away certain civil liberties, and I would argue, it did not.”

Bush’s co-host at the event, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, wondered whether the young woman was still skeptical.

“You’re convinced by the president?” he asked amid laughter.

“Don’t put her on the spot,” Bush quipped.

The next question — the last heard by reporters or included in the White House transcript — concerned the cost of the Iraq war. The unidentified questioner noted that the United States had been involved in “a lot of wars,” and wondered about the impact on Americans at home.

He said he had recently received a brochure seeking donations for poor people in the United States and asked Bush: “What’s the balance between the responsibility to the world and the responsibility to your own people?”

Said Bush: “I think we have a responsibility to both.”

Reverting to what resembled a campaign stump speech, he listed the value of small businesses in creating jobs and spoke of the U.S. role in fighting HIV and AIDS in Africa and safeguarding freedom around the world.

The meeting went on for another half-hour after reporters were asked to leave.

Bush met with Latvian civic leaders Saturday and is to meet with a group of Russians today, but Sunday’s round table with Dutch college students, held in a window-filled room at a glorious chateau near Maastricht, was the only one that was scheduled to include reporters for even part of the session.

In their opening statements to the students, Bush and Balkenende stressed their two nations’ cooperation, both in the wake of the liberation of Holland in World War II and in the battle against terrorism today.

Culturally, however, the Netherlands is more liberal than the United States on issues such as euthanasia, gay rights and drugs.

“Holland is a free country,” Bush said in an interview with a Dutch TV journalist last week. “...If that’s what the people of Holland want, that’s what the government should reflect.”