THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
12:50 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: For those of you who -- I think, since you're all here now, I'll just go ahead and take a few more questions, and that will constitute the daily briefing.
Q Did the President sign off on the Cuban policy himself?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q When did he do that?
MR. MCCURRY: The President did -- the President has been working closely with his national security advisers and others as they have examined these issues related to Cuban migration, and obviously supports and approves of the steps that were announced by the administration --
Q This is his policy --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. This is the President -- the administration officials appearing here, they announced this on behalf of the President.
Q A question on the 2,000 -- I mean, the 20,000 no net increase figure. Each year it's far less than that -- isn't it -- that are allowed in. It's like in the hundreds --
MR. MCCURRY: No, that is -- that was an issue that was raised and discussed in the context of the agreement that was signed in September of 1994. That is, there had been commitments made, if you look back at the September '94 agreement, to raise that level of migration up to a minimum of -- so that the 20,000 became a minimum. It was authorized at that level before, but it became a minimum as a result of the September --
Q Well, how many come in each year?
MR. MCCURRY: I got that roughly right, didn't I?
Q How many come in each year, Mike? I mean, how -- how many come in each year, average?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the new number will be 20,000. What the history was prior, I'm not certain. You might ask Mr. -- next to you, or you might check over at the State Department --
Q Mike, has the White House any more information at all on the -- what's the next step of Mr. Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I -- I had heard somewhere that they may be doing something on that today, but I don't have any information --
MR. MCCURRY: You'd have to check with the special counsel.
Q Is there any report about a sealed indictment of --
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't seen anything to that. I've seen a news account from down in Arkansas that is much different than that.
Q To follow on Paul's question and also on Terry's, still only 800 have been allowed in since the agreement. Has -- have in-country applications tapered off? Has there been something that will offset what would appear to be the Guantanamo Bay Cubans suddenly taking up all the slots, at least for the next year or so?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Attorney General stressed that 7,000 had come in through the in-country processing. If I may -- if I heard her correctly, the 800 number is the number currently at GITMO, who had come in through the humanitarian parole, I think is right. Did David Johnson take off --
Q Mike, could you just go over the number -- how many people --
Q But in any case -- but do they not basically take the slots of people who would apply in-country? And is that --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there will be an overall limit, and these, as indicated in the briefing you just had, these numbers apply into the 20,000 calculation.
MR. MCCURRY: I can run through the latest on -- on numbers if you want me to. They're available over at the -- they're available over at State, too. There are about just under 21,000 Cubans who are currently at Guantanamo. I said earlier today it was above 21,000. They've actually been making some transitions, so the number is actually 20,916. Over 10,000 migrants have been paroled into the U.S. on humanitarian grounds --
Q From --
MR. MCCURRY: From -- well, there were 9,000 from Guantanamo and another 1,200, 1,300 from Panama. You recall at some point there were direct patriations to a safe haven in Panama, which is now closed. There are no Cubans at that safe haven.
Q And, Mike, what percentage of these people do you expect will make it into the United States?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it will depend on the evaluation that is done case by case, as the Attorney General indicated. Doris Meissner, who was here, would have told you that they will actually have to go through and look at each case. There will be some people who are excludable because they are either guilty of some crime committed while at Guantanamo, or they are -- have done something that violates the status -- there's not an estimate that that's a high number. It's a relatively small number.
Q If you guys know their educational history, can't you say 90 percent of those --
MR. MCCURRY: You could say -- I don't have a percentage number, but you could say it would be a relative few who wouldn't meet the admission criteria and would not be allowed to be paroled in under that criteria.
Q Are there any more numbers -- you were running numbers, I mean --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's -- I mean, look, the State Department does this almost daily, so you might want to check with them. But they -- there have been some people who have gone from Guantanamo voluntarily back to Cuba. There's -- roughly over 500 of them. There have been some who have left of their own accord and just disappeared from Guantanamo and presumably have returned to Cuba.
Q The Attorney General really didn't answer Mike's question when he essentially asked, why shouldn't this been seen as a reversal of policy and why shouldn't Cubans now considering taking to small boats be encouraged by this development?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the big difference is that in the past they may have presumed that they would wind up in Guantanamo. And now they know as a result of the announcement that we've just made that they will be returned directly to Cuba. And that's a -- that is a -- something that I think would presumably discourage anyone from setting out very unsafely, very generally under conditions where weather and other circumstances might make it a hazardous journey. And we suspect that that will be communicated pretty quickly and that people understand as long as they see, as the Attorney General said, that the in-country processing works and is the avenue available for legal migration, that that will be far preferable to taking out in boats that will just wind -- you know, send them back to Havana anyhow.
Q In terms of legal immigration working, how -- the 7,000 number is in the past what period of time, the legal -- and how many are pending now?
MR. MCCURRY: If you could check at INS on that, they could probably give you --
Q You don't know how many are pending now?
MR. MCCURRY: How many applications are pending --
Q in Cuba, legally.
MR. MCCURRY: In Cuba --
Q I mean, if this --
MR. MCCURRY: In Guantanamo, you mean?
Q No, no, no. If this -- if the process of legal immigration -- applying to the U.S. Interest Section, is working better now, I'm just wondering what's the evidence? In other words, how many applications are pending? Has there been a huge surge in people --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they -- yes, there has been -- there's a large increase of volume in the in-country processing. Part of the agreement announced in September of 1994, because of that high volume, was a lottery process by which they go into the pending application pool in Cuba and reward by lottery certain slots for legal migration, so --
Q You don't have any numbers on --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they are available. I don't have them here with me, but they are available, probably best retrieved, I think, from INS. I've got some background stuff here, too, and we can work through --
Q Follow-up -- I have a follow-up to Mick's question. In terms of these people who are not being forced to go back to Cuba -- are being admitted from Guantanamo, what was the reason not to say: our policy had been you will not get into the United States; we stick with it; you have to go back, too. If you can return people who come on boats now, why can't you return these people?
MR. MCCURRY: Why can't you return directly from Guantanamo, people directly to Cuba? Well, we had worked -- as a result of the migration agreement in September of last year, we did have a process by which that was used, I think, for over 500 who have now been returned.
Q No, those were people voluntarily --
MR. MCCURRY: Who have voluntarily been returned.
Q But we're talking about those who you said would never be allowed to come into this country. Why couldn't you just say that --
MR. MCCURRY: With this pool now that they would then --
Q Yes, the group in Guantanamo. Why didn't you stick to what you said you were going to --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it was preferable under these circumstances for humanitarian reasons, as indicated, through security reasons, there would be no way of repatriating those people directly to Cuba instantly. And as the General indicated, there are some concerns about civil disturbances which have occurred. So this is, from all respects -- from humanitarian, from financial -- financially the cost to the U.S. taxpayer -- and in terms of security -- and probably in that case first and foremost security -- it's much more advisable to proceed along the way that they've outlined.
Q In other words, if you think that if had attempted to return them, they would have rioted?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to say that that bluntly, but there, as the General indicated, there have been some concerns about the safety and security of those U.S. personnel which are there essentially guarding the camp.
Q But that was one of the motivating factors, wasn't it?
MR. MCCURRY: That was a factor, yes.
Q How come she turned away from it when I asked about her about it?
MR. MCCURRY: Okay -- I don't know.
Q Mike, could I ask you a crass political question, if you would permit?
MR. MCCURRY: Sure.
Q What effect do you think this decision here --being announced here today will have on the President's prospects for carrying Florida --
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, I don't -- there's no conceivable way of speculating on that. And there was -- in fact, the question has provoked outrage by your colleagues in the front row. (Laughter.) But I would reemphasize that the strong support of the Governor and of the Senator will indicate to you that certainly they're probably more aware than we of the political situation in Florida.
Q Mike, following up on that --
MR. MCCURRY: Let's go to Julia and then Jack --
Q Can you talk a little about what the discussions are between Senator Graham and Governor Chiles? Are they in agreement for financial aid and for slowing the rate of migration? And mainly, that some people think that they want to -- they want to encourage these people to go elsewhere. Florida doesn't want --
MR. MCCURRY: It would really be -- for a lot of reasons it would be more proper, I think, for both the Senator and the Governor to address that. As I said, we did consult very closely with them in devising this approach. I think it's safe to say that they believe that this is a workable approach. As to what that means long-term for Florida, they are in the best position, I think, to comment on that.
Q But what have you given them in terms of --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they -- we didn't have to give anything. I think they are very aware and very concerned about the situation. They have a community that watches very closely the conditions at Guantanamo and follow very closely developments related to Guantanamo and the financial assistance that is available and the work that CRS does with organizations in the community is well-known both to the Governor and to the Senator. And that type of work, as indicated here earlier, will certainly proceed, and every effort will be made to ease the transition as these people come successfully into the community so they become contributing and productive members of whatever community that they eventually settle here in the United States.
Q Mike, may we have a question other than Cuba? Has the President given any thought to sending representatives or meeting with various and sundry militias throughout the country to explain to them that some of these false rumors that they've been operating on are false and talk to them one on one and give them some idea of what the government is doing, that they think the government's operating secretly against them, explaining that to them?
MR. MCCURRY: I am not aware of any such campaign. But I do think we have, and those of us who speak on behalf of the government, have made clear at every opportunity that a lot of their concerns are certainly not founded and not based in reality. It is -- a lot of -- in some cases almost bizarre theories that are quickly discounted by those in a position of authority within the government to discount those.
Q What do you mean almost bizarre?
MR. MCCURRY: The question is, why just almost bizarre, in fact, bizarre, and probably, in fact, bizarre is correct.
Q Was the President briefed on the capture of -- or the arrest of the two people? Has he been brought up to date on Oklahoma? And was he told almost immediately after it happened?
MR. MCCURRY: He was -- there was a meeting of our interagency senior team that is monitoring developments in Oklahoma City, both in terms of the disaster and recovery effort, and then also the law enforcement effort. That meeting occurred here about 9:30 a.m.. And I believe at roughly the same time the President was getting his daily briefing, in which he was made aware of the information that was shared with all of you by the Attorney General. I don't believe he was told anything more than what the Attorney General said here, because in fact, as the law enforcement folks do their work, that's about all that we know for a fact at this point.
Q Mike, under current U.S. policy, what incentives are there for Fidel Castro to cooperate and help the United States out of a fix like this?
MR. MCCURRY: Which fix? You mean his crumbling economy, the deteriorating effects of a totalitarian command-and- control economy?
Q No, the -- the political fix that the United States was in of having to either accept a vast number of migrants and anger part of Florida or turn them back and anger --
MR. MCCURRY: I am in no way of -- in no way in a position to comment on what might motivate Fidel Castro. I mean, I just can't possibly answer the question without speculating. Of course, I'll speculate, if you want me to, but --
Q But the United States has given Fidel Castro no assurances, other deals -- down the line --
MR. MCCURRY: No. As indicated --
Q orderly --
MR. MCCURRY: I believe you heard the Under Secretary of State indicate very directly that there were no such assurances given in connection with the migration agreement. Those steps that are available to the Cuban government are very carefully and directly outlined in the Cuban Democracy Act. And they make it very clear that bona fide transition towards political and economic reform in Cuba could result in carefully calibrated responses by the United States. That has long been clear because it is the law of the land -- law of the United States.
Q Could this kind of responsible action by the Cuban government trigger any of those things in the --
MR. MCCURRY: If you go back and look at the Cuban Democracy Act carefully, you'll see they talk specifically about steps that move towards economic and political reform. Adhering to some international norms of behavior, as it relates to migration and amicably resolving certain matters relating to migration, I don't believe fall within the scope of the Democracy Act.
Q How about the aging conference that Bill asked you for?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, let's do that --
Q Can I ask you one more Cuba question? I just want to make sure I understand. Is essentially Guantanamo Bay now closed to boat people?
MR. MCCURRY: That is -- it would be fairer to say, as a result of the policy that's just been reviewed, that those interdicted by the Coast Guard would be returned to Cuba and not sent to Guantanamo. That it is in effect closed. Now, there are always circumstances that develop depending on whatever crisis or emergency might develop. I wouldn't want to be so categorical. But in effect, that is -- I believe, it's fair to say that that -- those are within the scope of the procedures that have been outlined.
Q But also, can I follow that up -- more or less unrelated, but you've mentioned the Democrats that you've talked to. The Republicans, led by Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, who is Cuban, opposed this policy. They say that what you're doing, what the administration is doing, is basically moving toward normalizing relations with Castro, that this is some example of that. What do you say to --
MR. MCCURRY: That's just not a well-founded concern, because it is both specifically prohibited by act of Congress to move towards that type of normalization, absent the transition that must occur in communist Cuba, to move away from totalitarianism and to get on the right side of history. Normalization is dependent upon a willingness of Castro to shed the vestiges of communism that has so destroyed the lives of the citizens of the island, and to move towards democracy and market economics that is now flourishing everywhere else in the hemisphere.
Q Can I follow up -- one last question on Cuba. These people now will be put in the lottery with the other in-country applicants, or they will be admitted and then there will be a lottery with what slots are left?
MR. MCCURRY: The procedure will be that -- you mean the people -- people who are interdicted or people who are then returned --
Q people who are at Guantanamo now.
MR. MCCURRY: People who are at Guantanamo now --
Q She said they're going to be -- let in a special status or special --
Q at the head of the line.
Q Do they come first?
Q Yes, do they go to the head of the line.
Q Or do they get a chance to participate in the lottery with the other people?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, no they will -- they are going to be -- they will be paroled in over time as part of the 20,000 number. They don't go back to Cuba and then become part of the processing in Cuba.
Q But do they get in ahead of people who are applying now to Interest.
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, you mean people who are being duly considered as part of that -- they go in simultaneously, but over time they will -- there clearly will be people in Cuba who -- and there have been for even prior to the September '94 agreement -- who were waiting with their applications pending who were not in a position to be processed until others were taken care of. But these people will, as they transit out of Guantanamo, in a sense take spaces that are part of that 20,000 limit.
Q What is that anticipated time frame again?
MR. MCCURRY: I think -- I believe that during the course of the year, September '95 to September '96, the remaining 15,000 -- you see, there are about 6,000 who are eligible currently. Out of the 21,000, about 6,000 who are currently eligible on humanitarian grounds for parole in. So of the remaining 15,000 they would, from the period September '95 to '96, draw down the population at Guantanamo, so you'd end up in effect over the course of the coming year, reduce that population.
Q What happens to those people between now and September?
MR. MCCURRY: They start -- I think they start processing them on a case-by-case basis.
Q Does that draw down --
MR. MCCURRY: Listen, you guys -- this is really unfair to me. You had everyone -- the people who would have been much better at answering the questions --
Q They left you, Mike. They just left you here.
MR. MCCURRY: They left me here.
Okay, let's go -- let's do a couple more questions on other subjects, and then we'll call it quits.
Q If pressures on the camp itself are in part responsible for this, doesn't it then indicate that what you want to do is empty the camp as quickly as possible? And doesn't that really push these Cubans to the head of the line?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, yes -- I mean, in part, yes. The fact that they now have some sense of what their future will be, and they know their future is not permanent incarceration at Guantanamo will, we believe, have a -- the effect of raising morale at the camp.
Q But that, I don't believe, is what I asked. What I mean is, that's an incentive for the U.S. Isn't there incentive now for the U.S. to admit these Cubans first, to process them at least first more rapidly. What you want to do is empty the camp, to turn it back over to the U.S. service people to reduce the threat.
MR. MCCURRY: There is, as indicated, there will be a -- there will be an incentive to process them and to move them, transit them, into whatever communities they locate in. But that is done very carefully and done very deliberately. And it depends on sponsorship and the willingness of local community organizations to help --
Q Say yes --
MR. MCCURRY: -- embrace people. There are different ways of --
Q Just say yes.
MR. MCCURRY: -- handling it.
Q Empty the camp.
Q Oklahoma City --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry, back -- say again.
Q arrests in Oklahoma City. The Attorney General didn't want to talk about individual cases. But can you address a public concern that the people who did this may still be out there and ready to do it again or --
MR. MCCURRY: No, I cannot.
Q will these arrests convince people --
MR. MCCURRY: I cannot. Is there any other questions?
Q The 400 Haitians were still at Guantanamo -- I'm still a little unclear. Are they going to be going back to Haiti, or are they going to come to the United States? And how long will it take for those 400 Haitians --
Q Cuba. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have been working with the government of Haiti. We have a much different situation there. There's a democratic government that we can work closely with as we address questions of repatriation. And that's what we have been doing in that case. And those cases will be monitored and dealt with again on a case-by-case basis, but successfully resolved.
Q Then why --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, again, we -- they look for opportunities for -- to make sure that -- (inaudible) -- transition that is consistent with our international obligations under migration policy. And that requires, in many cases, some examination case-bycase, of what situation an individual would face upon return to the country that they fled.
Q Mike, in this speech tomorrow, to the aging conference, is he going to sort of draw battlelines on this Medicare issue? Is that going to be the main thrust of the message?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't -- wouldn't describe the President as being combative. He is willing to cooperate with Congress to deal with a variety of issues associated with Medicare. Solvency is one of them, but also broadly define the status of health care in America, a subject to which this President has devoted enormous attention.
As we have made clear in the last day or so, we are willing to cooperate with Congress to address both the questions of Medicare financing. And we're also willing to address those questions -- insisting on addressing those questions in the context of overall health care reform -- reform that, one, extends coverage, additional coverage, to those now protected; two, that doesn't raise unnecessarily the cost associated with the program; three, that allows those individuals who currently enjoy choice under our system to continue to enjoy that choice so that that they're not coerced or sent unwillingly into managed care or HMO-type arrangements. And then, lastly, a solution that preserves the quality of health care in America. Those are all parameters that have been set forth very carefully by the administration and by the White House. And we believe we can work with Congress to resolve those questions.
That is not, as I said yesterday, the issue at the moment. The issue at the moment is the effort to cut Medicare significantly, by over $300 billion, in order to pay for a tax cut that goes to wealthy Americans, which is precisely what the Republicans intend to do. If they do not intend to do that, they ought to come forward and make that abundantly clear so we can move the debate forward.
Q In addressing that tomorrow, what will the President say to the conference?
MR. MCCURRY: He'll probably say just what I -- (laughter) -- no, he will address -- I think he's going to address these questions, but he'll address them in the spirit of willingness to cooperate with this Congress to address these questions, and to provide support for a program that has historically protected millions of Americans, especially elderly Americans, from infirmities and the dangers of sickness.
Q Will that be the crux of his speech?
MR. MCCURRY: That will be a substantial portion of it, but because it is a speech before the conference on aging, and because the White House Conference on Aging has a wealth of interest well beyond health care, I think he will address those issues as well, cite some of the things that we've been able to do specifically, and really talk a little bit about the improving quality of life for seniors in America, and as a result of the historic commitment we have to social insurance programs like Medicare, like Social Security, that have done so much to protect the elderly from indigency.
Q Mike, if he wants these things -- these -- set down these parameters for what happens to Medicare recipients as the system gets reformed, and he also wants to extend coverage -- I mean, he recently gave this list of incremental health care reforms he wants. When is the President going to actually make a formal proposal on health care, or isn't he?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we've indicated all along we would work with Congress to --
Q I know -- right. I know, but --
MR. MCCURRY: Now, the problem, the problem is, it's very difficult to do that absent some clear decisions from Congress on a federal budget. They are way behind in dealing with the budget.
Q But on other issues, you've gone forward, you've put up your Middle Class Bill of Rights, you've been very specific on some things the President wants on minimum wage, whether or not you had any chance of getting them passed. This is one of the President's most important priorities, and --
MR. MCCURRY: The President has outlined very -- from insurance reform to other areas, those areas in which he believes step by step incremental progress is available and the vehicle for doing that and the legislative language necessary to do that is abundantly apparent to all in the debate. We are not in a position to move forward on that until they resolve the central questions about what type of funding is available as a result of whatever budget the Congress finally at long last gets around to passing.
Q So he's not going to present anything formal --
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't -- I wouldn't -- you know, we are again -- keep saying over and over again, we're willing to sit down and work through the issues related to health care, health care reform, Medicare financing, changes in the Medicare system. But if it's done in an atmosphere in which there is clarity from the Republican majority about what type of financing will be available, what their overall fiscal strategy will be as a result of their budget politics, it makes it a lot easier for us to devise and define the right types of solutions. Absent some sense of what the landscape is like as a result of their budget policies, it becomes very difficult to move forward on the type of compromise approach that the President would certainly be willing to sit down with Congress to fashion.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:15 P.M. EDT