THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY The Briefing Room
3:11 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: We will now resume the somewhat delayed daily White House news briefing.
Q Are you briefing now?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. We now return to our regularly scheduled feature attraction, the White House daily news briefing.
Q Are we about to rescue the UNPROFOR forces, the Dutch in Bosnia? And we've got follow-ups.
MR. MCCURRY: Let me say several things first. Obviously, the Serb offensive against Srebrenica is one more example of repugnant behavior by the Bosnian Serbs. This is a gross violation of the United Nations Security Council resolution, and the United States, along with other members of the world community, condemn this most recent attack by the Bosnian Serbs.
We call upon the Bosnian Serbs to vacate this U.N. safe area, to honor the safe haven itself, and we condemn the brutal attack on civilians that has been occurring in recent days.
We are going to be consulting urgently with our other allies; there's a meeting of the Contact Group that is scheduled for tomorrow. We continue to believe -- this question arose earlier -- we continue to belief that the United Nations presence in Bosnia is important because it helps save lives. The United Nations relief effort is the only way that hundreds of thousands of Bosnians are keeping alive in the course of the devastation that has resulted from the conflict. And we think that all the other alternatives that might be available are worse than the present situation which is a U.N. mission, fragile though it is, which helps keep the citizens of Bosnia alive.
I think that today's action or the actions in and around Srebrenica also reflect the importance of the rapid reaction force that is in the process of deploying to the theater, and other governments, including those that are troop contributors to the RRF are going to have more to say today about the actions of that force.
Q Mike, today Kerrey said that the attack raises questions about whether the U.N. can perform its mission.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think that it's fair to say that the United Nations has a Security Council resolution which mandates the protection of Srebrenica, and from all available reports, Srebrenica has now fallen to the Bosnian Serbs. I think that does call into question that aspect of the U.N. mission. Now, there are many features to the U.N. mission, including humanitarian relief, including other enforcement activities in the theater. But clearly, with respect to the protection of this particular Eastern enclave, it has not been a good day.
Q You're saying that's all Kerrey was referring to, he wasn't talking about the overall mission in Bosnia?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of. And I chatted with him briefly about that. The President's foreign policy advisors were here for the announcement on Vietnam. As you know, they took the opportunity to caucus briefly and to assess the situation in Bosnia. But as the National Security Advisor indicated, it is a fluid situation and we're going to have to continue to rely upon the reports we're getting from the United Nations. And then there will be further briefings, as Mr. Lake indicated, later today and into tomorrow by NATO military commanders who can talk more about NATO's military actions today in support of the United Nations.
Q Has there been a request from the government of Holland for U.S. assistance specifically?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any specific requests related to extraction, but for the Dutch government as well as for our government we are continuing to assess the reports that we're getting from the theater, and we're concerned in particular about the fate of the 40,000 civilians who are in Srebrenica, and obviously, with the fate of those U.N. peacekeepers, mostly Dutch, who are present with them and who may now be, according to some reports, escorting refugees away from the enclave.
Q If I could just follow up, have any U.S. troops been put on alert?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of, but I would refer that question to the Pentagon.
Q The status of the Dutch, though, would fall under the category -- if there was a request from the Dutch government, those peacekeepers would fall under the category of those that the President is willing to help?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they are, first and foremost, under the protection of the United Nations. There would have to be specific request for activity and those most likely would be relayed to NATO first. But, as I say, both the United Nations and NATO are assessing what the situation is on the ground, and it will likely be hours, if not into tomorrow, before we know more about what the situation is.
Q So are you saying, if I can get through all of what you just blah-blahed about, that there has been no request for --
MR. MCCURRY: Very eloquent blah-blahing, I thought.
Q -- there has been no request from either the United Nations, NATO, or the Dutch government for U.S. participation in extracting of --
MR. MCCURRY: I can't say that for certain because it is a fluid situation and we are getting reports about what the condition of various Dutch elements within that force that has been, until recent hours, in Srebrenica, what their current status is. And I have --
Q Can you say if the military is doing contingency planning for extractions --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, NATO had already been doing --
Q -- other than the big one?
MR. MCCURRY: NATO had already been doing some contingency planning; there had been some discussions related to the status of some of the U.N. elements that are in Bosnia. I think, as many of you know, Srebrenica has always been among the most vulnerable of the Eastern enclaves because of its proximity of the Serbian border, and also because of the geography of the surrounding region. So that has been a source of some concern. But it would be premature to suggest that there is any action plan related to extraction.
Q Can we go back to Mike's question, which I don't think really got answered. If a request were to come to the United States because they did not have any other way of extracting those U.N. troops, it would fall in the category of actions that the President has said --
THE PRESIDENT: The President in Colorado outlined some scenarios in which there could be such a request but he also indicated that first and foremost we would look to the force available in the theater currently. And, as you know, the rapid reaction force has been suggested and among the possible missions of the rapid reaction force would be assistance to UNPROFOR units that come under attack or in some extreme situation. And that certainly would seem to describe the situation that the Dutch find themselves in and around Srebrenica now.
Q But, Mike, the rapid reaction force isn't in place, U.S. Marines are.
MR. MCCURRY: Some elements of the rapid reaction force are in place. There are not any U.S. Marines on the ground in Bosnia.
Q Not on the ground, but they're nearby on the Kearsarge. I mean, is it possible that the U.S. could be --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to discuss possibilities. I don't think that would be fruitful.
Q Could you check to see what, though, specifically, what request if any has been made from either the U.N., NATO or the U.S. for some help?
MR. MCCURRY: We will check, but I think that both the U.N. and NATO will be in a better position to brief on that. But I will check and see if we've got any additional information available.
Q To follow on Bill's question, you don't mean, though, by these understandably careful answers to this unfolding situation to suggest any diminution or withdrawal from the previous presidential commitment to --
MR. MCCURRY: No. The President, I think, made himself clear on the conditions upon which U.S. assistance might be deployed, and I think they were very carefully prescribed.
Q If I could follow up -- however, you did suggest a diminution in the U.N. role when you talked about there is still a need for the U.N. there in terms of humanitarian efforts.
MR. MCCURRY: No, not only humanitarian efforts. There are other enforcement activities. There have been discussions in recent days about opening supply routes to Sarajevo, so there are additional activities in other parts of Bosnia. But Srebrenica has always been, as I say, among the most vulnerable of those five Eastern enclaves that are U.N.-protected areas.
Q Mike, again, I understand why you have to speak carefully. I would like to be able to know when I leave here today whether or not I can tell my readers that, yes, this is a case where the President may have to use U.S. troops, or, no, it's not that kind of case.
MR. MCCURRY: You would be telling your readers the truth if you say you don't know. And I don't know either, and I don't believe the President knows at this point because the situation is developing on the ground there.
Q Would a request from the Dutch in this situation meet the conditions he laid down?
MR. MCCURRY: That is so hypothetical and it's just not useful to speculate on hypotheticals at this point.
Q Well, Michael, what is the point of the President going to Denver and making a public pledge to rescue peacekeepers in danger when the first and most prominent case of that comes up and no one in this administration can say whether or not this is what he was talking about?
MR. MCCURRY: You're making an assumption that there have been requests, that there's a certain situation on the ground. And if you've got better information than I have, you should come up here and brief instead of me.
Q You don't have any information.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have the best information that's available, Ann.
Q What information do you have about the size of the refugee situation and the status of the Dutch peacekeepers?
MR. MCCURRY: The reports that we have are that there are thousands of refugees that are streaming north from the enclave. We believe that some of them may be escorted by Dutch units, but that's an unconfirmed report.
Q Could it be tens of thousands?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the population of Srebrenica was estimated at 40,000. In recent days there has been some consolidation from outlying areas around Srebenica, so it may, in fact, be higher. But there had also been some evacuation out of the region -- out of the enclave to the north.
Q Well, that would seem to indicate a massive humanitarian problem. Is there any way to deal with that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it was a humanitarian problem that already existed in Srebenica because they were running very low on available food stuffs and had limited access to utilities. It was a very dire situation to begin with. But, certainly, an outflow of refugees of that nature would pose additional burdens to those providing humanitarian relief.
Q Just to follow up on Jack and Ann's line of questioning -- at what point what will be necessary for you to be able to answer the question about whether this is a situation of --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there will be a lot of consultations with allies, a discussion about what available force is in the region, discussions about what condition the Dutch believe their units are in, and then requests relayed from the United Nations to NATO for assistance. And those could very well involve any number of scenarios. But it's, as I say -- standing here now and speculating on that is not going to be helpful to your readers who are interested in knowing what the facts are.
Q But earlier you said you didn't know what requests, if any, had been made and you said that you would check on that for us. That's still operative?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that will have to develop as the day goes on here because we are going to have to find out if there are additional requests that come in as they are able to establish contact on the ground. But as I say, I think the United Nations is going to be in a position to provide better information quicker on that subject.
Q Is there anything that the United States can or should do for the 40,000 civilians who, as you pointed out, are in increased danger?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they will clearly be discussions through UNHCR to evaluate what is the likely disposition of that refugee population, where they're going to wind up and how best to get them assistance.
Q Mike, in your opinion, who or what is responsible that the reaction force doesn't work as advertised?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't think there's -- we're not in a position at this point to evaluate the potential or the capacity of the rapid reaction force.
Q Mike, what's the status of U.S. money going to pay for the rapid reaction force?
MR. MCCURRY: That was among subjects that the President discussed with the congressional leadership last night at their dinner. And as you know, there's some opposition to U.S. funding for that force on Capital Hill, although the United States has made it clear we intend to provide material support at a level that is currently unspecified.
Q A couple of weeks ago the figure was given that $12 million had already been sent. Can you update that figure?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't as I stand here now, but we can try to work on getting an update. Check with Calvin on that later.
Q Mike, has the President talked to any European leaders on the Bosnia situation?
MR. MCCURRY: Not as of about two hours ago, but he's occupied with the Vietnam announcement and doing some other briefings associated with that. And I'll check and see if there are any further conversations.
Q Are there any plans to talk to them?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I am aware of, no. Because -- in part, because, as I indicated, I believe that there's already a scheduled meeting of the Contract Group tomorrow, which would be the venue for discussion with our other participants in the group on what are the possible next steps.
Q Any idea when you get the base closings?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't. I am not 100 percent certain but reasonably certain we're not going to attempt to get that announcement out today.
Q Why is it so uncertain?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's not uncertain. It's just there's a lot of news today, and my recommendation to the President was that we not try to handle yet another story today.
Q Why haven't you gotten a firm decision from him to wait until tomorrow?
MR. MCCURRY: Because he's the President and I'm not.
Q Has the President, in fact, decided to accept a recommendation, or reject it?
MR. MCCURRY: The President will make that announcement, not his Press Secretary.
Q Will he make it tomorrow? Do you expect it tomorrow --
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't rule it out.
Q Well, can you give us some sort of --
Q Would he do it in person, or just issue a statement?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he will want to set forth -- I think he's required by statute -- he may be required by statute, I don't know for certain that he is -- to set forth his views in a letter both to the Commission and most likely to Congress, too, if he, in fact, decides to forward the recommendations of the Commission to Congress.
Q Mike, what is the President doing tomorrow in Vienna?
MR. MCCURRY: Tomorrow in Vienna he's going to -- the President has been giving a series of speeches on values and how they are informed by the public debate in America on values. Tomorrow I think he's going to be talking more directly on spiritual values and religion, the role that freedom of religion plays in American social life. And I think he'll also talk about the First Amendment. I suspect he may talk about ways in which people can celebrate and observe their faith.
Q What's the venue?
MR. MCCURRY: The venue -- he's speaking at James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia.
Q To whom?
MR. MCCURRY: A group of students who are participating in a fairly interesting program that engenders tolerance of those of different faiths. There will be other members of the student body there as well.
Q How about the latest on the health of Boris Yeltsin?
MR. MCCURRY: Have no further information other than what we had earlier, and that was principally the same information that the Presidential Press Center in Moscow was sharing.
Q Are we doing Panetta, too?
MS. GLYNN: Yes.
Q What does he have to say?
MR. MCCURRY: Ms. Glynn says, yes. They're going to talk about some of the discussions underway on the Hill on -- particularly on the HHS appropriations bill.
Q Is this going to step on the Vietnam story?
MR. MCCURRY: I doubt it.
Q Squish it like a bug.
Q What's the venue for the affirmative action speech next week? And has the President decided what it is he's going to say when he delivers the speech?
MR. MCCURRY: He will be working on the remarks himself. I think he's obviously narrowing -- he's got a pretty firm idea of what direction the remarks will take and the underlying policy review itself. The venue will likely be somewhere here in town. But we have not picked a location yet.
Q Mike, members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were here said they would be really disappointed if he moved to a needs-based system for some of these programs. Has he ruled that out? Is it something he's suggesting early on?
MR. MCCURRY: Since we're now close enough to the speech itself I'm not going to try to preview it.
Q Mike, on the base closings, Congressman Fazio came out and said that he thought the Base Closing Commission had a political edge to it, a political binge. Are you satisfied with the way that the commission was structured and do you think that politics played a role in their decision?
MR. MCCURRY: I've suggested before, and I think there is some element of politics in most things that happen in Washington. I think that's probably true in base closing commissions, as it is with the work of many policymaking bodies here in Washington.
Q Do current relations with China have any effect on whether or not Mrs. Clinton will go to China? And has she made that decision?
MR. MCCURRY: She has not made the decision, and I will check and see whether that will have some impact.
Q One of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus also said that he thought the set-aside programs would most likely be reformed substantially and that it would end up becoming something else. Can you comment on that?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't really want to comment on the substance of where the President will go with that review. As I say, it is close enough now that he will speak for himself on that subject. I think if you go back and review the instructions given to the Cabinet agencies by the Justice Department and in the wake of the Adarand decision, it would certainly suggest that there would have to be some modifications in programs like that.
Q Any movement on a Fed appointment?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of, but I haven't checked in the past several days. Ask me again tomorrow.
Q Mike, rescissions -- how does it look now?
MR. MCCURRY: I think based on the discussion the President had with the congressional leadership this morning, particularly given some of the remarks of the Minority Leader in the Senate, we're very hopeful that a rescissions package will be approved by the Congress very quickly and will be here for a signature by the President shortly.
Q Has he been personally lobbying Wellstone and Moseley-Braun?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that he has personally lobbied them. I think there's been some contact between the White House and some Senate staffs including theirs.
Q Is there a possibility that the President is coming out with a tax reform proposal?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe the Chair of the Economic Council Laura Tyson has indicated that the White House is reviewing various tax proposal. I don't think it is satisfied that it's got any definitive body of proposed reforms that we would lend an endorsement to at this time. We have noted that there have been some positive suggestions -- certainly the one made by Congressman Gephardt would fall in that category -- but tax reform itself is fairly complicated and what I think the view of the White House is many Americans are more interested in tax fairness than they are in tax simplification.
The tax system for many Americans is fairly simple because they file the -- for most Americans is fairly simple because they file the E-Z form. And it's not clear how much more simplification you can get than what exists currently through previous efforts at simplification.
On the other hand, the question of fairness is one that is important. One of the problems that the administration has generally with flat-tax proposals is we're not certain that reducing the level of progressivity in income rates -- income tax rates -- is something that enhances fairness within the tax code. In fact, the burden would likely fall disproportionately on lower income Americans or middle income Americans, and that's a source of great concern to the President.
Q Could you please amplify in what context the White House has had with Senators Wellstone and Carol Moseley-Braun, and could you tell us what kind of a problem, if any, it's causing?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't amplify it. My understanding is there was some staff level contact, but I don't have any information beyond that.
Q Is there any chance that the President might contact these senators directly --
MR. MCCURRY: I would think, based on the comments we heard from Senator Daschle this morning, that might not be necessary. But if that changes I'll certainly let you know.
Thank you. See you tomorrow.
END 3:33 P.M. EDT