THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
Office of the Press Secretary
9:10 A.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Four words I thought I would never use in one sentence: Good news from Bosnia. (Laughter.)
I can tell you -- you can tell from Admiral Owens briefing that he is going to walk through operationally what they --how they handled the mission last night, so I'm going to confine myself just to some tick-tock on the President's activity and how he followed these events.
The President, throughout the last six days, has been following very closely and intensely all the efforts involved with the search and rescue operations in and around the area where Captain O'Grady's plane went down and the various reports -- sometimes encouraging, sometimes misleading, sometimes accurate -- about his whereabouts and possible efforts to rescue him. Beginning Tuesday night, he knew that there was some encouraging indications that Captain O'Grady might be alive, but they had not been able to nail that information down.
Q How did he know that? Was it through the radio?
MR. MCCURRY: Based on information coming from a variety of sources within Bosnia. The President -- on Tuesday night, Tony Lake reviewed with him, sort of the middle of the evening, about what we knew and what might be possible in terms of rescuing Captain O'Grady, but nothing developed on Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning, yesterday morning --
Q Who did Tony Lake meet with Tuesday night?
MR. MCCURRY: The President. Wednesday morning, just after the President's call to Prime Minister Rabin, with several others around, Tony said, you know that matter we discussed last night, there's nothing more on that and it looks uncertain. And the President -- since there were others present he couldn't talk about the matter publicly -- sort of gave a big sigh of disappointment and shook his head and, obviously, was sad that nothing had developed overnight on Tuesday night. This would be Tuesday night, very early Wednesday morning.
During the day yesterday, obviously, the search and rescue effort continued, as I'm sure -- the military guys are briefing now. They continued extensive efforts to acquire signals that might be emanating from Captain O'Grady's vicinity. Last night at about 8:30 p.m. we got the first indications that they might be making a positive ID on some of the signals coming from his whereabouts. We were just watching Admiral Owens here -- Admiral Owens was in constant contact with Tony, and Tony was relaying this information to the President as we went throughout the evening last night. But he indicated -- in fact, I think that they are showing the code name for the signals traffic, which was Basher -- I just saw that on the chart over at the Pentagon.
MR. MCCURRY: Basher 52. It was the military code.
Q Colonel Fetig, do you know?
COLONEL FETIG: They just randomly pick that stuff.
Q Was the President told this at 8:30 p.m. last night?
MR. MCCURRY: He was told at 8:30 p.m. last night that they had some encouraging -- I'm sorry -- we learned about 8:30 p.m., the White House learned about 8:30 p.m. after we heard it from a variety of sources that they were getting these positive IDs from Basher 52. And the President -- at around 9:30 p.m. last night Tony called the President and said, it looks real tonight, it looks like it's a go. The President was already aware that if they acquired a positive location that there would be a U.S.-led rescue mission and knew roughly what the parameters would be. That had all been reviewed with him in the days since the pilot first went down. So we knew pretty well what type of operational plan U.S. forces would pursue when they went in for a rescue mission.
So about 9:30 p.m. he got the word that it looked like it was a go. The President asked to get details as the evening went forward. Tony was in contact with a variety of people including Admiral Owens who is Shali's -- Fetig, what is Admiral Owens?
COLONEL FETIG: He is the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
MR. MCCURRY: So he was talking to Owens because Shali, of course, was overseas. At one point the updates were -- Owens called Lake at one point and said, "Our feet are dry," meaning that the helicopters were over land. Tony would pass on operational details as he got them to the President who was over in the residence.
Q So that went to Tony not to the President?
MR. MCCURRY: Went to Tony and then Tony related directly to the President.
Q Where was the President?
MR. MCCURRY: He was in the residence throughout the evening.
Q Was Tony in the Sit Room?
MR. MCCURRY: He was here in his office and then over at the residence at one point.
Q At the time of "the feet are dry," do you know?
MR. MCCURRY: It looks like that was in the military briefing they are doing at the Pentagon right now. You can get a good sense of that.
Tony, at 12:49 a.m., called the President and said, "Got 'em." And the President said, "That's great." And the President said -- this sounds like -- sounds like this is --
Q Got him or got 'em?
MR. MCCURRY: Got 'em -- got 'em.
The President said, great. The President said, "It sounds like this is one amazing kid." The President -- during the course of the evening, Tony had pulled from the military guys his training record. This story of Scott O'Grady will be one that all of you will enjoy telling at great length. He's really -- sounds like a pretty interesting character. So the President had heard a lot of personal details about him and about who he was and his background and experience.
Q You're saying he pulled those training records just last night or previously?
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, he had them previously. I mean, they had some just background information on him and who he was and all that sort of thing.
Q What sets him apart?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'll let his commanders and some others talk about that.
Q The first time the President heard the story of --this guy's personal details was last --
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, no, no, no -- it was days ago.
Q Days ago.
MR. MCCURRY: I mean, he knew who he was. There are very few people within the government that knew his identity because we were obviously protecting the privacy of the family.
Q But the President knew.
MR. MCCURRY: The President knew, yes.
Q Has the President been in contact with the family before the rescue?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he hadn't. And I'll tell you a little more about that -- it fits with another part of the story here. Tony told the President -- at that point, at 12:49 a.m., we were not saying anything publicly because Captain O'Grady at that point had only been rescued. He was on the helicopter. They were still over Bosnian airspace at that time. And given that that's hostile airspace, they wanted to make sure that he was safely back to the Kearsarge before anything was said publicly, or at least in the vicinity of the Kearsarge.
But Tony has said, "Mr. President, with your permission, I'm going to smoke a cigar." Tony lights a cigar from time to time. And Clinton said, "Well, come on over. I'm having one, too, on the balcony."
Q With or without your permission?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. So Tony went over the Truman balcony and they, on the back porch, puffed on stogies together and drafted a note to General Joulwan, which you've all got, which was --
Q This is all still 12:49 a.m.?
MR. MCCURRY: No, this is just after -- probably in the neighborhood of 1:00 a.m., 1:15 a.m., because we were still awaiting at that point confirmation that the helicopters were back over the Adriatic and safely in the vicinity of --
Q Mike, could you repeat the exchange between Tony and the President about the cigar, please? What exactly --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, Tony said, "With or without your permission, I'm going to smoke a cigar." And the President said, "Well, then come on over, because I'm having one on the balcony."
Q Said -- never mind --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. (Laughter.) For the obvious reasons. (Laughter.)
Q For about how long did they smoke these cigars?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, Tony went over there -- he had to go over to see the President because they were together drafting this statement that the President wanted to send to General Joulwan congratulating him and the forces of the U.S.-European command for the good job they did.
The President agreed they could not -- the President was very anxious to call the family because he wanted to give them the good news. But Tony advised him that he should not do that until, for operational security reasons, shouldn't do that until we -- they had confirmation that he was back toward the Kearsarge.
So the President, I believe around 1:45 a.m., placed a call separately to Captain O'Grady's family out in Spokane, and then to his father here in Alexandria, to call. When he called he couldn't get through for awhile because, as it turned out, our friend, Lieutenant General Mike Ryan was on the line. Mike Ryan, who some of you know was around here, was Shali's Exec, I guess, for awhile. Is that right Fetig?
MR. FETIG: No, he was Special Assistant.
MR. MCCURRY: Special Assistant --
MR. MCCURRY: No, no. Lieutenant General Mike Ryan, U.S. Air Force, is known to a lot of us because he was here, until just recently as the -- well, he's the NATO -- he's the Commander of Allied Air Forces, Southern Europe. He is sort of the Commander of AFSOUTH, which is -- no, not AFSOUTH, of Allied Forces, Southern Europe. He is the Chief Air Commander for the European Command.
He was the -- had overall coordination for the search and rescue effort. And Mary Ellen and I were saying -- we've seen O'Grady's sister on the TV this morning, and she's been saying how great the Air Force was and how well they kept in contact with her. And we said, that was probably no surprise to us because Mike Ryan is probably dealing with the family.
But the President, anyhow -- so the President did talk to the family and shared the news with them shortly after they had first gotten word from General Ryan. And --
Q So Ryan got in touch with them first?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, Ryan got in touch -- Ryan had been in, I would say, probably constant contact with them just to give them information as it was available. Now, as you've heard from the family, the father knew that there was some fresh information, but elected not to tell the rest of the family. So --
Q Q And would he have gotten that from Ryan, the bit about the finding the parachute?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to get into that, but I just -- actually, I don't know whether it was directly from Ryan, but that would be a good assumption. The President said that the family was very ecstatic. They were very proud of their son.
Q Mike, just to clarify, the news that Clinton shared with the family was what specifically?
MR. MCCURRY: That he was, I think, at that point, safely aboard the Kearsarge. But it was just to say that their son had safely been rescued.
Q But they had heard that from General Ryan a few moments earlier?
MR. MCCURRY: They had just heard that -- they had just gotten off the line with General Ryan.
Q They were never notified that the rescue was underway, or anything? You waited until it was a done deal?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. We had to for our operational security reasons to not pass that information on until it was complete.
Q These were two separate phone calls to the family and to the father?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q What did the pilot say when he was on radio contact? Was he giving a location or was he --
MR. MCCURRY: I think he was following, I presume, what his training would suggest that he needed to do in order to notify those who were looking for him. But I would really steer you to the Pentagon for that kind of detail.
Q Is the President going to call Captain O'Grady?
MR. MCCURRY: Tony asked him last night after he made the initial calls, he said would you like to try to get a hold of Captain O'Grady, and he said, no, I would prefer that he talk to his family first and then he's probably tired, so let him rest and I'll call him in the morning. I do think the President will probably try to talk to him later today.
Q He's going to be here in another two or three days. Would the President like to meet him?
MR. MCCURRY: It's too early to know the answer to that.
Q A Rose Garden reception, perhaps?
Q Is the President going to do anything on camera --
MR. MCCURRY: I think we'll just kind of -- I think we're just happy to have him back for right now. We'll see how he's feeling and what he wants to do.
Q Mike, either on the record or on background, can you talk at all about the activities that took place prior to the pickup last night, over the last five or six days involving U.S. forces?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I can say what General Shali had said, that there was an extensive search and rescue effort and one that we followed very closely here at the White House. There had been moments of optimism and moments of false optimism over the last six days. There have been some indications at various points that there were various signals that were being received. This was a very delicate piece of work by those who were searching for him. I prefer that those who did the work talk about it, because they can describe things in a way that will protect whatever security interests we might --
Q Concerning the false ID given by the Serbs --
MR. MCCURRY: The indication at one point by General Mladic that he was willing to discuss with us the return of the pilot is consistent with the outrageous behavior we've seen from the Serbs throughout the Bosnian conflict.
Q So he was lying?
MR. MCCURRY: Obviously.
Q -- this level, were any decisions made affecting the scope of the search or putting Americans in -- were any decisions made at this level affecting the scope of the search or the way it was carried out?
MR. MCCURRY: No. We were very -- I mean, the President, the President's national security advisors reviewed with him some of the options that would exist, and Shalikashvili reviewed some of the options that would exist depending on what contingencies developed. And the President was fully supportive of those.
Q While this was all unfolding -- I don't remember the exact day you were asked about retaliation, and you hinted that that may be on the agenda --
MR. MCCURRY: I never hinted at that at all. I said I did not speculate on such a thing.
Q All right. Well, let me ask you now, what about retaliation for the shooting down of this plane?
MR. MCCURRY: I will not speculate about such a thing.
Q Can you give us a quick schedule of --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. He will be out publicly at the police event at 11:00 a.m. and I expect he'll have some things to say at the top about the effort.
Q Was there any contact between the United States and the Serbian leadership to warn them off of this search, to keep them out of the way during this period?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of, and I've just seen -- report that they may have encountered some hostile air fire. I'd steer you to the Pentagon --
Q What's the rundown at the ceremony -- who talks first, do you know?
MR. MCCURRY: Can I leave that to one of these guys.
Q Let us know if he ever calls the pilot.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 9:35 A.M. EDT