THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY DEE DEE MYERS
The Briefing Room
2:30 P.M. EDT
MS. MYERS: You've all had a very exciting afternoon out there. I'll start with a brief statement.
After meeting last week with Senator DeConcini about congressional concerns regarding construction costs of the National Reconnaissance Office headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia, the President ordered an immediate inquiry into all known facts related to the project and directed that the project be declassified.
The President directed that the Deputy Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence form a team to conduct this inquiry. Its inquiry will be completed as soon as possible.
The President believes the American public deserves a full accounting of how their tax dollars are being spent on this construction project, which was authorized in 1990. In an era of diminishing resources, the President believes that the intelligence community must invest prudently to ensure America's security remains strong. The administration is committed to working closely with Congress to achieve this objective.
Q What -- FY 1990?
MS. MYERS: I believe it was both FY and calendar 1990.
Q When did the President learn about this?
MS. MYERS: It was brought to his attention by Senator DeConcini -- they met a week ago yesterday. Monday, the first, I believe was the date.
Q Do the Democrats have the votes to bring the --vote to the floor?
MS. MYERS: They're working very hard on it today. In fact, the President is right now making calls. We'll continue to work on that. As you know, Congressman Bonior and Congressman Richardson were down here today reporting on the progress of that rule vote. They expressed confidence, but I think the President will continue to work very hard. We're not going to take a single vote for granted. And he'll continue to work for the next 24 hours to make sure we have the votes.
Q The House Republicans have sent him a letter saying that it's really about pork, not about guns, and suggesting that $9 billion in social spending be removed; in which case, they would support a compromise bill. Is he willing to now compromise on the social spending?
MS. MYERS: No, it's not social spending. It's crime prevention spending. And this is something that the President strongly supports, that the law enforcement community strongly supports, and that members of both parties in the House and the Senate strongly support. It is in the bill now and the President wants to keep it in the bill.
Q He'd be willing to compromise?
MS. MYERS: At this point, there's a conference report. The President is going to fight very hard to get a vote on the rule with that conference report.
Q Mr. Bennett was on television this morning saying in substance everything he had said the day before yesterday about Mr. Starr. Is he speaking for the President in these interviews?
MS. MYERS: I think Mr. Bennett said this morning that he speaks for himself, he was expressing his own opinions. He is the President's lawyer. I think Mr. Cutler spoke for the White House, the White House view. And I'll repeat what I said yesterday -- is that the President supported and signed the independent counsel statute; that that created a process; the President supports the process and will comply with the outcome.
Q? Why should we not suspect that the President is trying to have it both ways, having his White House lawyer say he supports and will cooperate with the Starr appointment, and in the meantime, having his criminal lawyer out criticizing the guy? Has the President suggested, for example, that perhaps Mr. Bennett ought to stop saying that?
MS. MYERS: I don't know that that has happened. I think Mr. Bennett has his views. The President has said -- or, actually, the White House has said the President is not calling for Mr. Starr to step aside. Again, we will comply fully with Mr. Starr's inquiry, as we did with Mr. Fiske's and with all of the other inquiries that have been ongoing in this process.
Q Does the President have any way to communicate with Mr. Bennett on this issue, do you know?
MS. MYERS: Again, as I said yesterday, it's not appropriate for me to discuss what conversations the President has or does not have with his personal lawyer.
Q Baldridge said today that they have the votes. Was he ahead of himself?
MS. MYERS: I think -- you know, you'd have to check with Mr. Bonior about that. I think our view is that we have 24 hours. This is a tough vote, it's been tough all along. The President has been working very hard, as have other members of this administration and law enforcement organizations and others who are very committed to seeing this bill passed. It is our hope that we'll have enough votes by the time the rule comes to the floor tomorrow.
Q This is a little unusual to see Mr. Panetta out there at the event sort of speaking for the White House. Is there some reason the President wasn't able to squeeze in a few moments to meet with these law enforcement and prosecutor types who were here?
MS. MYERS: I think the President has spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks working on the crime bill. I think Mr. Panetta, as the White House Chief of Staff, has certainly spent a lot of time on this as well on this. As you know, he's very familiar with the particulars of this bill, and certainly we'll willing to work with Congress, and I think he -- expect to see Mr. Panetta out there in situations like this more and more. And I think certainly both the President and the Chief of Staff were working very hard in the final hours of the crime debate.
Q But the President hasn't lost his voice completely at this point?
MS. MYERS: No, no.
Q Did the President drop by that meeting with the attorneys general?
MS. MYERS: No, he did not.
Q He didn't show up?
MS. MYERS: No.
Q What is the new policy of the White House as far as presidential photo opportunities are concerned?
Q Will there ever be any? (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: We do a number of photo opportunities, as we have. In fact, there's one scheduled today for 5:30 p.m. with President Ter-Petrosyan of Armenia. We will continue to do them on a regular basis, as well as press conferences and other opportunities for the press to interact with the President.
Q But there is a scaling back of these opportunities to throw a question for the President. Is that a deliberate new policy that Panetta has brought in?
MS. MYERS: I think that we're looking at ways to communicate as effectively as we can. I think we'll continually evaluate how we do that. I think at the suggestion of the press and others, the President has agreed that he should do more formal press conferences with an opportunity for you to ask questions on a variety of topics. I think we'll continue to do some photo ops and other exchanges with the press and with the public, and I think it will depend entirely on circumstances.
Q But this is a new strategy.
MS. MYERS: Well, I think the President said there will be some changes, including more formal press conferences. Again, I think we'll continue to review our -- the President's relationship and interaction with the press, try to improve it for both sides, and that will be an ongoing process throughout this administration.
Q At the time Mack McLarty was appointed presidential counselor the announcement said that he would have jurisdiction over legislative and political affairs, I believe. Can you tell us what McLarty is doing with regard to the crime bill?
MS. MYERS: I don't think it said he would have jurisdiction over legislative and -- what was the other one?
Q I thought he was, among other things, would concentrate on legislative and political stories.
MS. MYERS: Well, I think he will continue to work with members of Congress, as he did as Chief of Staff. He certainly is in regular contact with them, particularly on issues such as trade and other economic matters. I don't know that he's done any particular lobbying on the crime bill, although I'm sure in his contacts with members of Congress he's urged them to support it. But this has not been one of his areas of particular responsibility.
Q What about health care? Is he very active on that?
MS. MYERS: He has been. Sure. He's particularly with regards to the business community, he's continued to work with business leaders and others in insuring their support for health care reform and in getting them to go out and to work on behalf of its passage.
Q Can you fill in a little bit more the blanks of what his job really entails these days?
MS. MYERS: I think as the President said at the time he made the announcement that Mack McLarty would continue to serve as a close, personal adviser to him. He would continue to work with Congress and with the business community and other outside interest groups or different organizations in promoting the President's agenda, and I think that's what he's done. He's focused on areas where he has particular expertise, which is particularly business, and trade issues and I think he'll continue to do that. He's also advisor to the President personally on a number of issues.
Q Have we found this Cuban boat? And if we do, what are we going to do with it?
MS. MYERS: We have not. The Coast Guard is certainly on alert. We've seen reports that it's out there, but we have not located it.
Q If you do and when you do --
MS. MYERS: Well, I think it will depend on the circumstances.
Q Fire when ready?
MS. MYERS: I mean certainly we're ready to deal with a number of contingencies.
Q Well, I mean, if these are asylum seekers who have hijacked this boat would we accept them or would we turn them back given the Cuba sent back airline hijackers at our request?
MS. MYERS: We don't have a hijacking agreement or a --I can't remember what the legal term is, let me look it up -- with Cuba. I think it will depend on the circumstances when we, if the Coast Guard should locate this ship. I mean it has been, as you know, practice that the United States admits Cuban refugees who are seeking refuge, even those on the high seas.
There is no current bilateral agreement on aerial hijacking between the U.S. and Cuba. Cuba provided notification of its desire to terminate the 1973 bilateral aerial hijacking agreement in '76 which became effective in April of '77. No bilateral agreement on maritime hijacking between the U.S. and Cuba exists. A little legal background.
Q Dee Dee, how high on your priority list is what's going on in Algeria and in France right now?
MS. MYERS: Certainly something that we've kept an eye on and I think the President has expressed concerns about the situation in Algeria and of religious extremism I think most recently when we were in Naples and I think some French citizens were killed in Algeria or by Algerian extremists. Certainly we condemn terrorism in all forms and we will continue to do that.
Q Do you see any links between what's going on in the Near East, in North Africa and in Iran?
MS. MYERS: I don't know whether there have been any particular links to that. I can certainly take that question.
Q Back on the crime bill. Are you saying that the White House is unwilling to negotiate any further compromise at this stage?
MS. MYERS: At this stage we're fighting for the passage of the conference report, which is expected to come up for a vote on the rule tomorrow.
Q Was it the White House that gave -- the Attorney General who came out there -- that sign, "Crime Bill Held Hostage, Day 12" -- is that a White House sign?
MS. MYERS: I think it was produced here at the White House, yes, that's a fair assumption.
Q But there's no hostage negotiating team -- (laughter.)
MS. MYERS: But it's been 12 days. Tomorrow will be the 13th day. There is a number of important provisions in this bill that are being held up for political reasons by special interests, and the President would like to see it passed. He's continually called on Congress to act on it so that we can get on with putting 100,000 additional police officers on the street, providing money for crime prevention, implementing three strikes and you're out as the law of the land, and other measures.
The President, as he's said repeatedly, would like to see it passed so he can sign it right away.
Q Do you know anything if Attorney General Reno is going to ask the courts to name an independent counsel to investigate Espy?
MS. MYERS: I don't. She'll have an announcement once she makes a decision on that. That's entirely up to her.
Q What is the status of negotiations with North Korea?
MS. MYERS: Well, as you know, there were nine hours of talks yesterday. They are very specific and business-like. On Friday the United States had a chance to present its position, which North Korea considered over the weekend. North Korea presented its response yesterday, which we're now evaluating. Talks will resume tomorrow.
Q They will definitely resume tomorrow?
MS. MYERS: Yes, they're scheduled to resume tomorrow.
Q Is there a compromise in the works about the reactor, about the U.S. giving --
MS. MYERS: Well, certainly, light-water reactor technology is among the topics being discussed in the context of an overall settlement of nuclear issues. I don't think we're going to discuss the specifics of the negotiations and discussions that are underway other than to say that there has been some progress, but there's still a lot of complicated issues yet to work out, and they'll go back at it again tomorrow.
Q Has the administration got a better feel for the son of whatever his name is? (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: We're continuing to -- obviously, to watch the situation and we will judge the new regime or the post-President Kim Il Sung regime by their actions. They have -- so far they've committed to go forward with a third round of talks, which they're doing, and those discussions are ongoing. But we'll continue to watch the situation on the ground.
Q Any reaction from the White House to the appeals court ruling on census undercounting? Do you know if you're going to follow that?
MS. MYERS: I don't. I'll have to take that and see -- that may come out of the Justice Department, but I'll take it and get an answer to you.
Q Dee Dee, this morning, I know you spoke about the President's remark about violent extremist interests in this country that are trying to do in his health care bill. And then, again, just this morning, Mrs. Clinton used this same word, "violence," you have to draw the line on "violence." You have to draw a line on protests that incite violence in the context of the health care legislation. What is that all about? I must have missed -- what violent interests are trying to do in health care?
MS. MYERS: I didn't see that in Mrs. Clinton's comments. I will have to take it.
Q Which ones was the President referring to then?
Q What about Mr. Clinton's?
MS. MYERS: Generally, the President, when he talks about violent extremists, is talking about those who resort to violent tactics. I think one example of violent extremists would be people who committed murder over the issue of abortion. I think Americans on both sides of the abortion debate condemn that kind of activity.
Q Is the President now got it in his head that people are committing murder on the health care bill?
Q It didn't seem to make sense in the context he said it, Dee Dee.
Q What is he talking about?
Q He wasn't talking about abortion.
Q was the health care debate, and that's my --
Q He said "violent extremists were a disgrace to the American Dream."
MS. MYERS: I think that violent extremists are a disgrace to the American Dream. (Laughter.) I stand by that.
Q In the context of the health bill, though, who are the violent extremists?
MS. MYERS: I don't have any better explanation for you.
Q Are you telling us -- you won't rule out the possibility the President was talking through his hat? (Laughter.)
Q Since you are following the French and the British in Bosnia -- when finally do you --
MS. MYERS: What?
Q get out of this car you are in, doing the thinking and driving is --
MS. MYERS: What?
Q I'm talking about Bosnia.
MS. MYERS: I'm sorry, I don't understand the question.
Q Since you lined up with the French and the --behind the French and the British, is there a possibility that you are getting out of this car, into thinking and driving yourself?
MS. MYERS: No, the Contact Group remains united on issues regarding Bosnia. They put forward a peace plan. The Bosnian government has accepted the terms. The Bosnian Serbs have refused. As a result, two things have happened. One, the Contact Group has agreed to go forward with additional action, including tightening the sanctions, expansion of exclusion zones, and ultimately, if the Bosnian Serbs remain intractable, the multilateral lifting of the arms embargo. At the same time, President Milosevic has said that he will honor the arms embargo, the embargo against the Bosnian Serbs. That appears to be happening. There has been some tightening along the borders, and we'll continue to keep an eye on that.
Certainly, we will continue with the steps outlined by the Contact Group if the Bosnian Serbs remain intractable.
Q To what extent do you agree with the French and British position regarding Bosnia, to come out and to treat all parties equally?
MS. MYERS: I think that's been the position of the Contact Group. The United States shares all parties should be treated equal. All parties -- both parties to this were presented with a peace plan. The Bosnian government signed onto it, the Bosnian Serbs have refused. The Contact Group made very clear that there would be consequences of that action, and we're now moving forward, we're carrying that out.
Q Can you give us a little bit of a readout about what kind of contacts are today with the White House and members of the Senate on health care, what's going on and that sort of thing?
MS. MYERS: Yes. The President will continue to meet with members of Congress, both Houses on health care. He will have some meetings today. I think we've made it a policy not to announce those meetings in advance. He spent most of the day this morning, most his contacts with Congress so far today have been on the issue of crime.
Q How many calls has he made on crime today?
MS. MYERS: He was in the process. I didn't have a hard count.
Q Can you get us a number --
MS. MYERS: I doubt it --
Q how many members he's called?
MS. MYERS: He has a list that's several dozen, and he'll continue to call.
Q Is he calling Republicans as well as Democrats?
MS. MYERS: Yes.
Q Are you still 10 or 15 votes shy?
MS. MYERS: That's ballpark.
Q Will he have something to say about this when he has his photo opportunity later in the day?
MS. MYERS: He may get a question about it. I think he would respond to a question. I think he will probably open up with something to say about it. He will be there with the President of Armenia and he'll probably make some comment about --
Q And then segue into the crime bill. (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: I think the Armenian people are against crime.
Q Usually the Democratic leadership does not bring up a major issue it knows is going to lose or it expects might lose. You said this morning and again now that they are in the ballpark of 10 to 15 votes shy. Bonior outside said that they had the votes and then he came up here and told the President that. Does he do or does he don't?
Q Is he talking about health?
MS. MYERS: No, crime. Crime.
Q Has the President told the leadership who came here that the votes were there for the crime bill?
MS. MYERS: What he was told was that by tomorrow they expect to have the votes, that they know essentially where they think they're going to get the votes and by tomorrow they expect to have them. In the meantime I think the President is going to continue to work on it.
Q He said something a little different outside. He was more definitive in saying, "We have the votes. It will pass." And he indicated that they told the President that
MS. MYERS: Well, I certainly would take him at his word. I didn't -- I mean, I wasn't there, but if Congressman Bonior believes he has the votes, he'll have the votes.
Q That's what he said that on NAFTA, too. (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: He didn't have us on his team that time. But certainly I think we, the President remains very optimistic, but he's not going to take any votes for granted. He's going to continue to work on this just as he did on NAFTA to make sure that he has them when the vote actually happens.
Q What is the President's view of further need for deficit reduction beyond that contained in last year's five-year bill? Does he have any plans in this next budget in the next five years in January to chop away at the deficit beyond what the law will require?
MS. MYERS: Well, certainly that's been the pattern of the last two budgets. As you know, last year the President introduced a five-year $500 billion deficit reduction plan. This year there were hundreds of cuts in programs, additional spending cuts. And the budget deficit is much lower --
Q to the five-year plan. My question is, is he going to go beyond the --
MS. MYERS: Well, I mean it would depend on the circumstances. Clearly, he's committed to reducing the deficit. I think the record speaks for itself. He'll continue to look for opportunities. I'm not going to commit to a specific number at this point. But, yes, he believes we need to continue to reduce the deficit. That's why he's brought it down by 50 percent as a percentage of GDP in the first two budgets, and he'll continue to move in that direction.
Q Do you have a health care event tomorrow?
MS. MYERS: Not yet.
Q Is it looking possible?
MS. MYERS: Something is possible. As soon as we have details on it, we'll let you know.
Q Dee Dee, has anyone at the White House talked to Mikva possibly replacing Cutler when Cutler leaves?
MS. MYERS: As you know Mr. Cutler is serving as a special government employee which is restricted to 130 days. He has said he expects to leave sometime, I guess, perhaps as early as the end of next month. Certainly we're looking for a replacement. I'm not going to comment on specific names, but I think the Counsel's office and others have been hard at work on that and are getting toward the final stages.
Q How close?
MS. MYERS: I don't want to put a deadline on it, but I think they are getting, again, they are narrowing the field and getting a final decision on that.
Q Does Mikva have attributes for the job?
MS. MYERS: I think he's a very well respected judge, somebody who has had a broad range of experience, and is certainly well-regarded in Washington and around the country.
Q Martin Indyck as ambassador to Israel?
MS. MYERS: No, I think we're working, again, through the final phases of that, doing things like reaching agreement with the government of Israel. I expect we'll have an announcement on a new ambassador to Israel soon, but again, I don't have a date. We're still working through the details on that.
Q Does the President feel he should have been told or should have known about this intelligence complex that is being built?
MS. MYERS: I think he's taken action. I think that certainly Senator Deconcini brought it to his attention. He's doing everything he can to address it. He, as you know, took steps immediately to declassify it, to put Department of Defense and the CIA on the job of looking into it further, answering the Senate's questions and reporting back to him as well to make sure the American people know exactly how the money is being spent and that there's some accountability in the system.
Q Has the President asked the intelligence community if there are any other similar stealth projects? (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: I think that is probably part of the review that Secretary Deutch and Director Woolsey are conducting now. And I think they'll be able to report back on a variety of issues.
Q Did he express any irritation at Woolsey that Woolsey hadn't told him about it?
MS. MYERS: I don't know.
Q Dee Dee, in this particular case, what can you all do? I mean, this building is up and going. Aren't you basically stuck with it anyway, no matter what anyone decides to do at this point?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think there's a number of questions that the Senate had raised about this particular project. And I think one of the things we can do is to make sure that it -- the construction period goes on through '95. I think it's scheduled to be completed in early '96 -- make sure that it is completed as costefficiently and cost-effectively as possible and that people know that they're getting their money's worth on these intelligence projects. That's one of the things, again, that this review is going to address.
Q Does the President think the American people ought to know how much money is spent in their name for intelligence gathering each year?
MS. MYERS: I think the President thinks that people ought to have access to information about this project which is why he declassified it and is making sure that there's accountability in the process.
Q Do you support keeping the total cost of intelligence gathering secret?
MS. MYERS: I don't think there's been any change in our position on that.
Q Dee Dee, does he think spending on this project has been excessive or is excessive?
MS. MYERS: That's one of the things that this is going -- that this review is going to address, and I think it will be a few weeks before they're able to complete it but they are expediting it and will report back to the Secretary, to the Director and to the President.
Q Was he angry that he's the President of the United States and his government is keeping something like this from him?
MS. MYERS: I think he's moved to declassify it to make sure that this information isn't kept from anyone. I don't know that the information is being kept from him but, certainly, Senator DeConcini brought some questions about this to his attention.
Q How could he have not known?
MS. MYERS: Who? How could Senator DeConcini have not known?
Q The President.
MS. MYERS: I don't know what he knew. But I think once this was brought to his attention and there were questions raised about it, the President took action to begin to declassify it immediately and to begin to demand some accountability in the process. Again, I think this is a project that's been ongoing for several years.
Q Dee Dee, the people you have inquiring about it are the people who are building the building. Shouldn't you have someone from the outside looking into it?
MS. MYERS: I think the President believes that Secretary Deutch and Director Woolsey are the appropriate people to take a look at this. Their staffs are working on it now and they'll report back.
Q What about Les Aspin?
MS. MYERS: I don't think he's involved.
Q Do you know whether Panetta knew what the real purpose of this spending was for in his role as budget director?
MS. MYERS: I don't know.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:55 P.M. EDT