THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY DEE DEE MYERS
The Briefing Room
2:25 P.M. EDT
MS. MYERS: Tomorrow -- not a lot to announce. A schedule addition for tomorrow; the President will address the Annual Conference of B'nai B'rith by satellite in Chicago. It will be 10 minutes of remarks followed by 20 minutes of Q&A. I'm sure we'll pipe the audio back and do all those kinds of things. The statement will be general and the Q&A will be --
Q I wonder what time that is.
MS. MYERS: It's at 3:30 p.m.
Q Can you tell us how this new Cuba policy is working now that we've got thousands of refugees leaving each day, records being broken? What do you say to people who say this has backfired?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think it's too soon to say what the actual effect will be. We're doing everything we can to make sure that those who intend to leave Cuba understand they will not be able to reach the United States if they take to the sea in boats. The only way to get to the United States is to apply for refugee status through the in-country processing channel or through other legal immigration channels.
We are increasing our broadcasts, both TV MARTI and other broadcasts in the area. We're working with the Cuban American community in Florida to make sure that they're notifying people, people they may be in contact with. And we're going to continue to do everything we can to put the word out.
I think, clearly, we're concerned about the level of immigration, level of people taking to the sea. It is unsafe. We're certainly trying to communicate that. Other Cuban American organizations, including those who fly over the area, are making broadcasts that it is unsafe and encouraging people not to use that method to try to get to the United States. It will not work.
Q But they are saying, many of those being picked up are saying that, as far as they're concerned, they only have to go 12 miles now to get to Guantanamo. They don't even have to worry about the dangers of getting all the way to Florida.
MS. MYERS: Well, I think what they have to understand is that they will go to Guantanamo and they will not go from Guantanamo to the United States. I think there's still confusion about that. Getting to Guantanamo is not the same as getting to the United States. Guantanamo is a temporary safe haven. We will be working with other countries in the region to provide safe haven in other places. We expect to have something more to say about that later when the other countries get ready to make an announcement.
But I think the more -- we will continue to do everything we can to make sure people understand that if they get picked up by the Coast Guard or the Navy they will not make it to the United States. If they go to Guantanamo, they will not make it to the United States. It is not worth risking their lives.
Q We're warehousing Haitians with the idea that sooner or later the government in Haiti will collapse either of its own accord or by American hand. Nobody is talking about invading Cuba, are they? And it doesn't look like Castro is going away, so what are you going to do with these people?
MS. MYERS: Well, our policy for the last 35 years has been peaceful change of government in Cuba. We're going to continue to pursue that.
Q I'm not talking about what you're going to do with Castro, I'm talking about what you're going to do with the people that you are going to be warehousing at Guantanamo and the safe havens if there is no possibility of admitting them to the United States and, at this point, you have no treaty to return them to Cuba. Are they facing years in detention at Guantanamo?
MS. MYERS: They are facing an indefinite period of time in safe havens in third countries. That's correct.
Q Well, who's going to pay for this? And how is this going to be handled? I mean, is there going to be some sort of permanent agency that deals with a Cuban-Haitian city on the island of Cuba on our naval base?
MS. MYERS: Well, we're working with the -- no, it will not be a permanent anything at Guantanamo. Guantanamo is envisioned as only a temporary safe haven. The other countries will provide more long-term safe haven. Obviously, that's indefinite. We don't know how long people will be at Guantanamo, but we're continuing to bring them there.
Q Have any countries agreed?
MS. MYERS: We're very close. We expect to have something more to say. As you know, we have --
MS. MYERS: I don't think we'll have anything today. But we have memorandas of understanding with three countries.
Q The difference between the Haiti policy and the Cuba policy, or at least the practice at the moment, is that Haitians are returned, Cubans apparently are not, at least as of now. Is it becoming apparent that the fact that no one is in any danger of being returned to Cuba is the reason why this isn't working and why they're still continuing to leave?
MS. MYERS: Well, Haitians aren't returned. No Haitians are forcibly returned.
Q Not forcibly returned, but they're certainly encouraged to go back.
MS. MYERS: Right, they're given the option of going back. I think some of them choose to stay, some of them choose to go back. When they found out, when it became clear to Haitians that they would not be able to go the United States but would end up in Guantanamo or some, down the line, perhaps some other third country, the number of those leaving the country dropped off dramatically. I don't think we've picked up any refugees since early August, Haitian refugees.
Q Do you really believe that the problem -- the reason why these people are continuing to leave is it hasn't dawned on them yet that they're not going to get to the United States with all of them backed up in Guantanamo the way they are? I mean, that seems hard to imagine.
MS. MYERS: I think, I do think that that is not entirely clear to people. I think people mistakenly hold out the hope that if they get to Guantanamo they will eventually reach the United States. It is incumbent on us to make it clear to them that they will not reach the United States and we're working very hard to do that.
Q Based on what they're saying, themselves, as they are on the beaches getting ready to leave, they say they know the policy; they don't believe it. They seem to be convinced --
MS. MYERS: That's correct.
Q that the Cuban-American community, their relatives and friends would eventually, after a few months or whatever, get them to the United States. So are you planning any steps to encourage Cuban American spokesmen or women to make statements telling people to stay there?
MS. MYERS: Yes, that's one of the things we're doing is working with the Cuban American community here so that they will communicate with their friends and relatives in Cuba and make it clear to them that they will not be admitted into the United States if they take to the seas; that the only way they can reach the United States is through the in-country processing centers or through normal immigration channels, legal immigration channels.
I think that may take some time and we don't think we expected that everybody would get the word immediately and that they would understand the impact of the change in policy. We don't know how long that will take. We do expect that once people are clear that they will not be admitted into the United States that it will have an impact on the outflow of migrants.
Q What about the notion that if this exodus continues in these large numbers that the only option you will really have is to open a dialogue with the Cuban government and work out some new arrangements with Castro?
MS. MYERS: We don't have any plans to do that now. We will continue to review our options throughout this process.
Q Well, what are your options if --
MS. MYERS: I can't discuss --
Q if there's nothing that -- if there is no prospect for changing the government in Cuba -- and it doesn't appear that there is at this point -- what are your options for dealing with these people? I mean, what can you do with the people you now have and that you're picking up?
MS. MYERS: Well, with the people that we now have and we're picking up we'll take to Guantanamo or to safe haven in a third country. We will discourage those who have not left from leaving and will continue to try to put pressure on Castro to change, to move toward a democratic form of government.
Q Once they're at Guantanamo or in a safe haven, what do you do with them, and for how long?
MS. MYERS: It's indefinite. And I think they need to know that.
Q What are the three countries? Is it Surinam, Panama and --
MS. MYERS: No. Panama -- the incoming government of Panama which takes effect September 1st has certainly expressed some willingness to be helpful. We have actually signed memorandas of understanding with three countries -- Surinam, St. Lucia and Dominica. Surinam has agreed to take 2,500 Haitians. St. Lucia has agreed to take 5,000 Haitians; and Dominica has agreed to take 2,500 Haitians.
Now, we're in discussions with those countries and with others to also take Cubans or to agree to take Cubans. Some of the other countries that we've had conversations with are Antigua and Grenada. We have agreements in principle, but no memorandums of understanding. And finally, five Central American governments -- Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador -- and Panama published a declaration on July 23 indicating that they would be willing to explore the possibility. So we've had over the course of the last few months good feedback from countries in the region and we're continuing to pursue that.
Q What about Turks and Caicos?
MS. MYERS: Turks and Caicos agreed to establish a -- I guess it was originally a processing center for Haitians. We're in discussions with them. There is actually a facility that has been constructed on the site. And we're talking to them about perhaps accepting Cubans in the safe haven.
Q But, Dee Dee, these memos of understandings are about Haitians.
MS. MYERS: They're about Haitians, correct. And so I think we're in discussions with them about extending that to Cubans. They'll announce something once an agreement is reached, but that's just by way of background.
Q But you might move Haitians from Guantanamo to those third countries to make more room for Cubans at Guantanamo?
MS. MYERS: At this point, we'll move Haitians if we need to move Haitians. We're in dialogue with these countries about creating safe haven for Cubans. And so I think that's the next step, and I expect we'll have something more to say about that in the next few days.
Q general statement that we're not interested in opening up a dialogue with Cuba. But Tarnoff said yesterday that we are interested in having these mid-level talks that would be limited to controlling the refugee situation -- something that's occurred before.
MS. MYERS: Right.
Q Is the administration actively seeking to engage Cuban officials in discussions to try and resolve the issue at the Cuban end, so that the Cuban government does more to halt the outflow?
MS. MYERS: Yes. Just to be clear, I think the question that I was asked before was in a little bit broader context -- at least that's how I heard it. We have had, since 1984, ongoing dialogue with the Cubans about migration issues. And I think there have been six such conversations at a mid level, mostly through our intersections in both countries, about migration issues.
We informed them about changes in our migration policy, both before the President's announcement and subsequent to the President's announcement. And I think we would be willing to continue to discuss migration issues with them. We have not heard back from them.
Q for being willing to do so, are we asking for talks at the mid-level to solve this particular situation?
MS. MYERS: We've had contacts through our intersections to discuss the changes in policy. And beyond that, we haven't had anything. I don't know of any requests. I'll take it and doublecheck. But we haven't heard anything back from them after we informed them about our policy changes.
Q I just want to know if you've asked them to meet.
MS. MYERS: And I just said I'll take that; not that I know of.
Q How close are you to the 60 votes on the crime bill?
MS. MYERS: We're working on the crime bill. Obviously, the President has made some phone calls on that today, as have other senior administration officials, including, I think, the Attorney General and others. I think it's a little thought to put a specific number to it now, but I think we have very good support.
Q Does that mean you're confident of getting 60?
MS. MYERS: I think we're hopeful that we'll get 60.
Q Biden said he had 58 the other day.
MS. MYERS: Yes, it's close.
Q Is the President calling Democrats, Republicans?
MS. MYERS: I think he had a list that included both today, and I'm not sure who he's contacted at this point.
Q Do we have any events this afternoon?
MS. MYERS: No other events this afternoon.
Q He's not going to have the senators come up --
MS. MYERS: No, no meeting today. They're continuing to work up on the Hill.
Q When do you think they're going to vote?
MS. MYERS: I don't know, we don't know yet. I mean, we haven't received any word on them. I don't know that they've made any kind of a formal indication that they expect to vote on the point of order. But I think just by way of background, there are a few quotes here I'd like to share with you.
MS. MYERS: Just a few. Senator Dole -- this is just on the issue of the trust fund. Senator Dole, back during the debate in November on the crime bill said, "from day one, Republicans have insisted that any anticrime bill we pass must be fully paid for. Security has a price, and it is the price we at least attempt to pay by establishing a violent crime reduction trust fund. In the months ahead, we will see whether we live up to the trust fund commitment."
Q Dee Dee, none of those people are saying that they oppose the trust fund on the substance of it; they're just using it as a device to try to reopen the bill on other issues.
MS. MYERS: That's my point.
Q I mean, everybody admits that.
MS. MYERS: I don't think the members of the Senate --
Q Gramm and Dole and those guys aren't saying they're opposed to the trust fund, per se, they're just trying to open the bill up.
MS. MYERS: Well, I think that's my point. And I just want to point out that it's not exactly consistent with what they've said in the past.
Q It's a procedural mechanism.
Q They all agree.
MS. MYERS: Well, we do have a new spirit of bipartisan cooperation. (Laughter.) I think that's encouraging. And obviously, we'll do everything we can to -- the conference report was worked out on a bipartisan basis in the House. The President was willing to work with Republicans as well as Democrats to meet some of their concerns about it.
Q Is he prepared to do that again?
MS. MYERS: You can't open up the conference report without going back to the House. We have a conference report. We'd like to see it passed in the Senate, and we're going to fight hard for that.
Q What would be the damage if the Senate works out a new version, makes some modest changes or some significant changes, and then waits until after Labor Day -- let the House review that and go through this process for a few more weeks and get a perfect, improved bill?
MS. MYERS: Well, Wolf, I'm glad you believe in perfection in the legislative process. We've been working very hard on this bill for -- I guess it's now going on six, or a little over six years. I think that a version of this bill, similar to what's in the conference report, was passed by the Senate 95 to 4. It was passed by the House. It was passed by the conference. It was passed again by the House. I think we've seen a lot of negotiations on this. I think what the American people want is a crime bill passed now that includes a ban on assault weapons, 100,000 more police officers, tougher punishment and additional prevention, which has been supported across the board by Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate.
It's time to get on with it. It's time to stop with the tactics of delay.
Q The Washington Times today says that the President is going on vacation Saturday, come what may. Is that correct?
MS. MYERS: That's not correct. That is flat wrong. He will go as soon as the House -- so, where's Paul? So, there. He will go as soon as the House and Senate have finished their business. He said he will not go as long as the House and Senate are in session working on crime or health care.
Q So if George Mitchell is telling his reluctant colleagues that they have to stay and do health care --
MS. MYERS: We'll be right here with him.
Q we're all trapped by that. Would you like the weather report today is for Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard and California? (Laughter.)
Q It's 70 degrees and sunny.
MS. MYERS: We're waiting for it to warm up a little. It's a little cool for my --
Q You interrupted a phone call to someone up there; it's very nice.
MS. MYERS: Yes, right.
Q So the crime bill's not the only thing held hostage. (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: That's right. Right here we have 50 of you.
Q Dee Dee, so then are you saying -- is the President asking Mitchell to keep the Senate in session and thereby to have lost his own vacation?
MS. MYERS: I don't think he sees a connection between the two. The President has urged the Congress to stay in session to keep working on the crime -- to finish the crime bill and to keep working on health care, to make progress on health care. As long as the Senate's in session doing that, the President said he will stay here in Washington to work alongside them.
Q Isn't there a risk that some of the Democratic senators who are running for reelection against House members who are now back home campaigning are going to suffer, and the real loss will be much more significant than a week or two's delay on health care?
MS. MYERS: Well, I'm sure Senator Mitchell has taken that into account. Certainly, he wants to see all members have an opportunity to go home and tend to business, including campaign for reelection if they're up. But I think Senator Mitchell and the President also believe that we're at an historic point in the health care debate and that if we can continue to make progress, that the Senate ought to stay in session and continue to make progress. And we'll see what happens.
Q At the risk of losing control of the Senate?
MS. MYERS: I don't think the two are necessarily connected. The elections aren't until November, and I think the members will have plenty of time to campaign over the next few months.
Q Do you feel you are making progress? I mean, Senator Moynihan doesn't seem to think so.
MS. MYERS: Well, I think Senator Mitchell does think so. I think he's -- there have been good meetings between the mainstream group and others; conversations are ongoing. Obviously, they've had to interrupt work on health care, exclusively on health care, to deal with the crime bill, but I think certainly there's still a possibility for progress.
Q A possibility for progress?
Q Can you list some of the senators, especially Republicans, that the President is calling on crime today, and how many? And are senators coming in here late?
MS. MYERS: We're not putting out lists of who the President is calling and we haven't put out lists in advance of who he is meeting with. If there was a large group coming, we certainly would have notified you about that. There is no one scheduled to come down this afternoon. I think throughout this process you should know that if the President decides or the leadership decides it would be useful that somebody may come down, but there's nothing scheduled for this afternoon.
Q Is he basically focusing on the 10 who voted for the assault weapons ban?
MS. MYERS: I think those are among the people who might be -- might want to support the bill, again, like Senator Specter who's already come out publicly and said he supports the bill as is. And there are a number of other Republicans who have sort of indicated they are leaning favorably. So at present we'll certainly continue to try to, not only to work with them, but some of the Democrats who may have some questions about the bill as well.
Q Has the President talked to Senator Chafee since he produced the mainstream plan?
MS. MYERS: Not to my knowledge. I'll take that and see if I can get an answer. But not to my knowledge.
Q How about Senator Feingold since he came out against it?
MS. MYERS: I think -- I'm not sure that Senator Feingold said absolutely one way or another. He clearly has some problems with the bill. But I think we'll continue to work hard for his vote as well. I think people have to understand that if this bill goes down that the next bill will be, I think, substantially less to their liking.
Q Is the President willing to provide an accounting for all the personal loans he and Mrs. Clinton have taken out for campaign purposes since he was elected governor in 1978?
MS. MYERS: I can certainly take that question. I think some of that information is public; some of it is not.
Q And could you also take the question of whether he's willing to provide an accounting of what's happened to the $35,000 from 1990 campaign he's kept in an account at --
MS. MYERS: I'd be happy to take that.
Q What was the question?
MS. MYERS: Did you write that down, Dave?
Q Did you get that?
THE PRESS: Thank you.
Q Dee Dee, just one more -- back on Cuba. What is the disincentive, what is to stop a Cuban refugee who goes to a third country from then coming to the United States?
MS. MYERS: They won't be admitted. I mean, the change -- if they were to arrive, they're treated like any other immigrant, which is that they have to go through a sort of screening process. They have to meet the criteria for immigration. And if they don't they're returned to their country of origin. They will not have any better odds of reaching the United States from a safe haven in a third country than they do from Guantanamo. And the odds of that are nil, zero.
Q Dee Dee, what is the cost of all this keeping the Haitians and Cubans in various detention places? Do you have an estimate of the cost of the whole operation?
MS. MYERS: I don't. I'm not sure how it's broken down. I can take that and see if we can provide --
Q You said -- what struck me is you said "indefinitely". That could be so expensive when you say indefinitely.
MS. MYERS: Correct, and I'm sure how the agreements work with the third countries in terms of funding. That's a question --
Q Could you take that as well?
MS. MYERS: Sure.
Q Because when you say indefinitely --
MS. MYERS: Yes, it is indefinite; I just don't know what the funding mechanism is -- how much financial liability, if any, that the third countries are willing to accept.
Q Given Clinton's experience -- isn't he concerned there's going to be serious problems in some of these camps if it goes on and on?
MS. MYERS: I think we're doing everything we can to guard against that, but clearly that's a problem. There have been a couple of incidents with the Haitians already. We'll do everything we can to guard against that, but we can't guarantee there won't be some frustration.
Q Isn't this briefing over?
MS. MYERS: Yes, I think was supposed to --
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MS. MYERS: Thank you. The senior wire correspondent.
END 2:44 P.M. EDT