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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 25, 1996
                           PRESS BRIEFING
                  AND PRESS SECRETARY MIKE MCCURRY                   

The Briefing Room

2:15 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, everybody. The President's national security advisors met for three hours this morning at a National Security Council meeting that was chaired by National Security Advisor Anthony Lake; ended around noon. The President's advisors established facts and information about the incident yesterday in which two U.S. civilian aircraft were shot down by Cuban military aircraft.

The President's national security advisors drew conclusions about this incident, then considered the nature of the U.S. response. The President was briefed on this meeting a short while ago by Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and the Deputy National Security Advisor Samuel Berger. The President will receive a longer memorandum describing some of the discussions later today.

In a few short minutes Secretary of State Warren Christopher will be departing on a trip to Latin America, and the President has asked him to come down and summarize today's discussions. After that, after a short break, we'll have some senior administration officials who will be available to take questions.

Mr. Secretary, welcome.

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Thank you, Mike. Before leaving for Latin America, I'd like to comment briefly on two lawless and tragic events that have occurred in the last 24 hours.

The brutal terrorist actions in Israel have claimed the lives of 25 Israelis and -- at least 25 Israelis and two Americans. These are the desperate acts of desperate people who would try to prevent the march of peace in the Middle East. I have a message for them today: You are cowards and you will not succeed.

Earlier today I talked with Prime Minister Peres, very early this morning, and then with Chairman Arafat. And the President has just talked with Prime Minister Peres. Both the Prime Minister and the Chairman made it unmistakably clear that these acts will not do anything to interfere with their commitment to stay on the path to peace, and they will do so.

I want to extend my deepest sympathies to the families of all of those who are involved and to tell you that the President and I are determined to do all we can to help Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East stay on the path to peace, and to take steps to ensure the security of Israel.

The Latin American trip that I'll be departing on in just a few minutes takes me to a region that has made a remarkable transformation to peace in the last decade. All but one of the hemisphere's 35 nations are now democracies. The one exception is Cuba, and we've seen in the last 24 hours a kind of conduct that Cuba is capable of.

Yesterday in broad daylight, on the instruction from Cuba's highest military authorities, Cuban military aircraft shot down two unarmed, small civilian aircraft who were in the Straits of Florida. It is clear that the Cuban actions yesterday were a blatant violation of international law and a violation of the norms of civilized behavior. Cuban explanations of why they took the actions they did are neither plausible, nor acceptable.

Today, as Mike said, the President's foreign policy advisors met for several hours to develop the facts, and then to consider -- develop a range of options that the United States might take in response to Cuba's totally unjustified downing of these two small, unarmed civilian aircraft. We discussed a range of options that the President might want to consider, and I'll tell you in advance I'm not going to comment on these options until the President has an opportunity to consider them.

The President has already instructed United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright to convene an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the incident and to discuss an appropriate international response. We will proceed promptly with our international partners to make clear to the Cubans that this violation of international law will not go unanswered.

Now, in the few minutes I have I'll be glad to take a question or two before the other briefing follows.

Q Mr. Secretary, last week the Cuban government cracked down on some dissidents that were planning some peaceful demonstrations within the island. Now this particular action. Do you see this as a shift in Cuba's policy, perhaps looking to provoke the United States into changing some of its -- what the existing relationship has been?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Well, we certainly noted those actions, those actions taken by the Cuban government. These actions in the last 24 hours are of an even graver and more -- different content. But we certainly have seen the Cuban government show itself for the kind of government that it is in the last two weeks, ending particularly with the events in the last 24 hours.

Q Was the United States aware of where these planes were going? And were they in Cuban air space?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: You'll have a full briefing on this subject in the near future and a detailed briefing. We're satisfied that the planes were in international waters at the time they were shot down, but let me say you'll have further information on this subject as you have a more detailed briefing.

Q Mr. Secretary, Retired Admiral Eugene Carroll says that about 10 days ago he was in Havana and he was asked at the time by Cuban authorities what would be the U.S. reaction if the Cuban authorities shot down the planes. He said he brought this information back to U.S. intelligence and to the State Department. Did you get that information? If so, what reply did we give the Cubans?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: We've told the Cubans over and over again that they should act with restraint in these situations, that they should obey international law. We hear a number of rumors of various actions they might take, and our consistent position with them is to remind them of the importance of their maintaining observance to international law.

The actions that they took yesterday were not justified under any circumstances. The international law is clear -- these were unarmed civilian planes, constituting no threat to the Cuban government. And as I said, it's a blatant violation of international law.

Q Mr. Secretary, would you rule out a military reaction of any sort to this? And when should we expect when the President will make his decision on how to react?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: As I've said, the discussion this morning presented a range of options that the President will consider. I'm sure the approach and the decision of the President will be an appropriate one. I don't want to tie him down to a particular time line, but we will take a reaction that is both appropriate and prompt.

Q Is there concern that perhaps Cuba has perceived any sort of softening in U.S. policy toward Cuba that would have facilitated them doing something like this without thinking there would be serious repercussions?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: There's no basis at all for them having that perception. We've given them no indication that this kind of conduct would be tolerated; on the contrary. We've given them every indication that they would be held to the high standard of international law. So nothing was done to indicate that this kind of conduct might be condoned. And I think our response will be a fully appropriate one.

Q Mr. Secretary, had there been an earlier violation of Cuban air space yesterday morning, and was there a Cuban warning to the pilots at that point -- between the earlier event and the subsequent one?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I don't want to get into detailed reactions over the last several days. You'll have a more detailed briefing from those who have followed every twist and turn of this. But let me go back to the central point, that the conduct of the Cubans yesterday afternoon in shooting down these two aircraft was totally, totally unjustified; totally without justification.

Q Is the United States going to take action on its own, or are we going to wait for the United Nations to come to some decision and follow what they say?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: We'll be consulting with our friends and allies about an appropriate reaction, but we'll also be considering actions that we can take on our own. We will not limit ourselves to a multilateral action, but we'll be considering actions the United States can take on its own.

Thank you very much.

MR. MCCURRY: Let me just tell you how we will proceed now. Several of your questions went to the nature of what we understand about the incident, and we're going to be able to provide you, among other things, a chronology of what we believe developed during the course of the day yesterday. That will be available in moments. We'd like to take about a 10-minute break so we can proceed to a background session -- no cameras, no audio. And we'll do that in about 10 minutes.

Q We are aware of these flights, aren't we? They go on -- these are not spies, are they?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the flights that occurred yesterday,a flight plan had been filed with the Federal Aviation Administration indicating the route that they planned to pursue. And there is some indication they deviated from that route.

Q Mike, have planes now been grounded anyplace that might be heading towards there? Has anything been said to civilian pilots not to even venture anywhere near Cuban waters until things get --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, that is -- the FAA can say more about that, but they have in the past met with pilots from Brother To The Rescue to inform them about some of the specific concerns related to those flight plans, and they can tell you more about pending action that they have concerning the license of one pilot.

Q Just to clarify -- you said these two planes did deviate from their route plan that they had filed?

MR. MCCURRY: You'll see in the information you'll get in a few minutes exactly what we know about that.

Q Mike, do we expect the President to make a decision on what his reaction will be today?

MR. MCCURRY: The President, as I indicated earlier, will get a very lengthy memorandum describing some of the conversations that the Secretary just told you about. That will go to him, most likely, sometime tonight. He will consider it during the course of the day tomorrow. I'll be in a position to tell you more tomorrow of what the status of his consideration is.

Q Can you give us some kind of range if you can, some sense of the options available to him?

MR. MCCURRY: He has a range of options; I'm not going to comment further than that.

Q There's no one alive in the downed planes?

MR. MCCURRY: The status of the search and rescue operation has been briefed at the Pentagon pretty fully, and you're seeing some comments now reported from those who may, in fact, have been eyewitnesses.

Q Are you aware that on February the 21st, 1995, was the beginning of the end of the Cuba independent war, and in just one year is the event that put in mind of the Cubans, an event occurred in 1898 in the harbor of Havana --

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, sir. Those who work on Cuban policy within our government are well aware of the history of the island.

Okay, last question.

Q -- are telling us so far about this, about seeing some sort of an explosion?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, you'll see in a minute. We'll begin to provide you with a fairly more detailed analysis than those eyewitness accounts.

Q A question on the Israeli bombing. An indication of the second American -- do you have an identity on the other American?

MR. MCCURRY: I will again refer you to the State Department because they'll handle that the way they normally do.

Q Do you think that this is going to advance the Helms-Burton bill that's in the Senate, especially those who really want to see it approved by the Congress? And what's the White House stand on that bill --

MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to project how the administration might view the Helms-Burton act in light of yesterday's incident. Again, that would be -- if it does, it would fall in a category of things that the President might want to consider. But certainly, our desire to see pressure from the international community and from the United States to achieve the change we wish to see in Cuba has been the hallmark of U.S. policy towards Cuba. It is defined by the Cuban Democracy Act which specifies the nature of the pressure we bring to bear on the government of Cuba to change practices and policies that we consider abhorrent. It is a totalitarian regime that has repressed its people far too long, and the purpose of all the work the President has done with this Congress with bipartisan support as defined within the Cuban Democracy Act is to bring about that change that Cuba so desperately needs.

Thank you, and we'll be on background in 10 minutes.

Q Is Lake going with Christopher, and who's preparing the memorandum of options for the President?

MR. MCCURRY: Mr. Lake at the NSC is overseeing the preparation of the memorandum, and, no, he is not going with the Secretary.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 2:30 P.M. EST