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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release July 18, 1996
                          PRESS BRIEFING BY
                            MIKE MCCURRY

The Briefing Room

5:47 P.M. EDT

MR. MCCURRY: I had promised some of -- some of you had asked for a update at the end of the day on the President's activities today, and so I'm here to give it to you. The President just got a briefing from Chief of Staff Panetta who had completed within the last half hour or so his second interagency conference call of the day, just getting an update from each of the relevant federal agencies on the response to the TWA 800 incident.

They went around -- he got, obviously, appropriate reports from National Transportation Safety Board, from the Department of Transportation that described Coast Guard efforts on search and rescue, and then others in the law enforcement-intelligence community and efforts that they have underway.

The President is satisfied that there is a very extensive, appropriate and swift federal response underway. He ordered Mr. Panetta to continue having daily interagency briefings so that he can be kept apprised of what is going on, and asked that he be kept apprised of any developing information overnight that we verify that is significant enough to draw to his attention.

The President today has spoken, as you know, to Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki to thank them for all the assistance that they're giving to the federal effort and also to inquire whether they need any additional resources. I think in both cases, I'll leave it to the Mayor and the Governor to describe for themselves, but we understand that they're satisfied with the cooperative effort they're getting from federal authorities. And I think they've said so publicly.

The President also felt it important to brief the congressional leadership. He called Speaker Gingrich, Majority Lott, Minority Leader Gephardt, Minority Leader Daschle, gave them essentially the same briefing that he got from Mr. Panetta so that they would be apprised of this information available to him -- made separate calls to each of those.

And then he also called Bob Dole and gave him much the same information and told him about the federal effort that was underway. He also said that we would follow up with him if we had additional information that we felt was important. We'd work out an arrangement through Sheila Burke to draw that to his attention.

The President also had a very warm and very sobering phone call with Mayor John Doring of Montoursville, Pennsylvania.

Q Doring?

MR. MCCURRY: Doring -- D-o-r-i-n-g -- and just talked with him a bit about the suffering that community is going through at this moment. The Mayor thanked the President for his remarks earlier today, the expression of sympathy for families of the victims. And they just talked a lot about how important it will be to bring that community together and to heal because they have suffered, obviously, an especially horrible tragedy.

Q How long did that conversation last?

MR. MCCURRY: It lasted about 10 minutes or so. Most of these were fairly brief calls because, frankly, the information that we have to impart at this point is not very detailed. There is more that we don't know than we do know at this point.

The President also spoke to Geffrey Erickson, who's the President and CEO of TWA. They had a good conversation about what the carrier is doing to meet its obligation to notify families and next of kin and to follow through on what they have underway.

The President very much enjoyed his Boys and Girls Nation event today. He said that's the one thing that he did today that really put him in a much better frame of mind. He enjoyed seeing the young people and certainly described that as the high point of a fairly dismal day. They did have a very moving ceremony during the Cabinet meeting that occurred here this afternoon. Members of the Cabinet went together to purchase Ron Brown's Cabinet seat and they presented it to Alma Brown, Michael Brown, Tracy and the family today. That was a poignant moment on this day. Mary Ellen can tell you more about that; she was there.

Q Mike, do you know anything about a warning in a Saudi Arabia newspaper?

MR. MCCURRY: Again, this falls in the hyperventilation category. There are almost daily in that region various threats, some of which we assess with varying degrees of concern. Some are clearly hoaxes. Some are sometimes just harassment. Some are of a nature that we take more seriously. This particular letter, I believe I'd call it, was delivered by ABC News to the State Department earlier today. They've translated it and in the translation that's available within our government there is not any specific time reference to tomorrow, to contradict what was reported on ABC. The translation available to us says -- makes a reference to dawn is their departure time, isn't dawn near enough.

It appears from our language experts who have looked at the letter that that is a reference to the presence of foreign forces in Saudi Arabia. According to our counterterrorism experts, there are no specific references in the letter to aircraft or to a specific incident that would have triggered on the part of the United States government any especially quick reaction to what we would regard as a specific threat. But in any event, we were not -- didn't come into possession of this until this morning. It's being further analyzed by our experts and then will be turned over to law enforcement personnel as well.

Q You said dawn is their departure time --

MR. MCCURRY: "Dawn is their departure time; isn't dawn near enough" is the translation that we've been provided.

Q When was it received?

MR. MCCURRY: We, I believe, came into possession of it this morning.

Q ABC did not report that it said American or aircraft.

MR. MCCURRY: That's right. That's correct. I was not -- I'm saying that our experts as they analyzed the letter noted the lack of any specific reference that would have been what we judge to be the kind of credible threat that would have caused us to make -- take some kind of action. But the important thing I want to note is that to my knowledge the United States government was not aware of the letter until after the incident.

Q Are you saying it's not credible?

Q Now, what did you think, that it was going to the troops in Saudi Arabia?

MR. MCCURRY: It is issued by a group called the Movement of Islamic, the Jihad wing, which is a group that we've got some familiarity with. They operate in Saudi Arabia. Most of the text of the letter is referencing events in Saudi Arabia.

Q Are you saying that this is not a credible -- that even after looking at it you do not think this is a credible piece of evidence?

MR. MCCURRY: They're going to analyze further the importance of this letter, that there's nothing in our preliminary analysis that would have led us to link this particular letter to the TWA incident.

Q But, Mike, in terms of -- you said there are three categories, hoaxes, harassment and things we take seriously. Whether or not this would have been linked to this event if you had gotten it earlier -- is this a hoax or harassment or do you take it seriously?

MR. MCCURRY: I can't describe it as any of those three categories. It would be analyzed further. The important thing is our experts don't believe this sheds much light on the TWA incident, which is the most --

Q You don't think it's warning about something that's going to happen in Saudi Arabia?

MR. MCCURRY: It is similar to warnings that appear almost daily in the region and that you can also read on the Internet. And they have been on the Internet almost daily.

Q What can you tell us about the reports that we're hearing that the Pentagon is now analyzing what the FAA believed to be a blip on the radar screen?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to say much. The National Transportation Safety Board will tell you more about the status of their investigation. I will leave it to them. What they normally do, not that there is anything normal about a crash investigation, but they analyze radar signatures for anything in the air in and around the time that an incident occurs. And they've been doing that and they've been trying to clarify any abnormalities that they see in their radar data. They're still working on that. That's the best I can tell you.

Q Is there some concern? As you well know, there's been some speculation by some American officials that this could have been some kind of surface-to-air missile.

MR. MCCURRY: There is no American official with half a brain that ought to be speculating on anything of that nature. There's no concrete information that would lead any of us in the United States government to draw that kind of conclusion.

They have to look at a lot of different possibilities. They continue to assess many different possibilities. They continue to look at all the information that would be relevant to getting answers. But we are quite some time away from having any answers that would point us in a particular direction. Broadly stated, they've got a lot of different possibilities that they continue to examine and they have not narrowed to my knowledge the focus on any particular explanation for this incident.

Q Did they detect any abnormality on the radar screen that you're aware of?

MR. MCCURRY: They are looking at -- they are analyzing the radar tracks and making sure they understand everything on it, and that work continues.

Q Mike, does the President's statement of earlier in the day that there's no evidence to suggest terrorism still stand?

MR. MCCURRY: That's correct, because there's no -- there's nothing that suggests one particular explanation over another one that I'm aware of at this point.

Q -- to suggest that it was an accident, either?

Q Has the President talked about his trip tomorrow and how he about going to the Olympics and the tone he wants to set in terms of all the worry that was already in place down there about security?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Olympics are an event that draws the world together, and, unfortunately, so is a moment of tragedy like this one. The President tomorrow was going to celebrate a moment in which the world comes together in the name of friendly competition, but it's a moment that will be made somewhat sadder by the tragedy that's now been suffered. But in its own way, events of this magnitude draw nations together for common purposes. And that's ultimately the spirit that the President intended to celebrate tomorrow.

Q What did the President tell Mr. Dole and the congressional leaders?

MR. MCCURRY: He gave them much the same briefing that has been available from those responsible for briefing in our government -- the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard. He shared with them the information that's available. I'll contradict some who have suggested that he suggested to any of these folks that he talked to one particular theory over another. The President was very careful to do that and very specifically told me that he had not suggested any particular hypothesis or theory in his telephone calls.

Q Like that it was an explosive device or this or that or anything in particular?

MR. MCCURRY: That's correct.

Q Mike, has he spoken to any foreign leaders? Has he spoken to the President of France --

MR. MCCURRY: He's -- David, jump in if there's any additional -- he had about a five-minute phone call a short while ago with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. The Prime Minister had called to express condolences, also to offer any assistance that the government of Israel might be in a position to offer. The President thanked the Prime Minister for that. And they also had a brief discussion because you all know that the Prime Minister has just been meeting with President Mubarak today. Correct? They had a brief discussion of the peace process.

Q Does the U.S. consider Netanyahu's offer just pro forma or does it believe that there may be something that they can contribute?

MR. MCCURRY: Because we enjoy a very close cooperation on counterterrorism programs and because Israel has suffered so much from the hands of those responsible for terrorist events, if there is any reason at some future moment to believe that there is assistance that they might provide because we make some determinations on the nature of this incident, that could be a very valuable form of assistance. But it is much too early at this point to suggest that we have made any conclusions about the nature of the incident.

Q Has anything moved forward at all concerning the call to the Tampa, Florida, station that Reno talked about this morning?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we're aware of that. The Attorney General talked about that. There have been -- the assessment of some of our experts -- a somewhat fewer than expected claims of responsibility. That typically happens, given an event like this. They're assessing the calls they are aware of. I'm not aware that they have assessed any of the claims of responsibility they have made to be a credible claim of responsibility.

Q What kind of action are you aware that is being taken in terms of maybe tracking the progress of that plane, like back to Athens or --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there is, as you can easily imagine, an extensive effort on that kind of subject.

Q In connection with that, what was the -- what has the U.S. government been doing in terms of communicating with the Greeks on how that plane was gone over and details like that?

MR. MCCURRY: I really don't have anything on that. I think you need to go to NTSB on that.

Q Will tomorrow's conference be an interagency meeting here at the Sit Room again, or just a conference call?

MR. MCCURRY: This format has been working well. The people are very busy in their various places of work, and so we'll probably convene it by teleconference as we did twice today.

Q -- noticed extra security here. Is it all federal installations?

MR. MCCURRY: I would have to refer to the Service. I'm not aware of any extra security precautions in effect here. But I'll refer that to the Service.

Q Who will travel with the President specifically to keep him briefed on this tomorrow?

MR. MCCURRY: We have an NSC contact who will be with him tomorrow. I'm not sure we've got the manifest together yet. The National Security Advisor will be there on security issues but there will be others --

Q There's a question here.

MR. MCCURRY: He's not planning to go according to Mr. Johnson.

Let me stress that there are a number of people, Mr. Panetta principally, who will be directing our interagency effort. And my guess is most of the information to the President will come by telephone by Leon. It sounds like the White House is still putting the manifest together for tomorrow.

Q Are there any change in his plans for tomorrow, different than he would have done --

MR. MCCURRY: I asked the President. The President told me he considers it very important to move ahead with the schedule tomorrow. He's looking forward to opening the Olympic Games, and he thinks it's very important to see that the games continue.

Q Mike, no indication yet of changes in his weekend travel plans to take account of this development or make an appearance at a memorial or something?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't have anything on that. I just don't have anything on that.

Q Could you envision him going to the town in Pennsylvania either Saturday or early Sunday?

MR. MCCURRY: Can I envision that? Yes. Does that give you any information that you can use to make your own plans? No.

Q We saw the President coming back from OEOB. What was he doing over there? Somewhere around 5:00 p.m.

MR. MCCURRY: We'll have to find out. I didn't go over there.

Q Have you been asked yet about the welfare bill, the version that passed the --

MR. MCCURRY: No, I haven't. General reaction on the welfare reform bill -- because of the President's very firm stance, because he's twice told Congress they passed unacceptable bills, they keep making improvements. This bill is some improvement. It still is way short of what we need in order to be satisfied. We have reformed welfare as we know it. We look forward to improvements that can be made in this bill as it goes to the Senate. We'll be working very hard with members on both sides of the aisle in the Senate and ultimately as the bill goes to conference to get a bill that the President will be pleased to sign and Congress will be proud to call genuine bipartisan welfare reform.

Q What does he think about the big margin that the alternative that he backed lost by?

MR. MCCURRY: There are still going to have to be improvements in the bill and there are still a very substantial number of Democrats who want to see legislation that moves more in the direction the bills the President has expressed sympathy for -- the Castle-Tanner bill obviously being among them, and over in the Senate the Breaux-Chafee bill.

Q Are you as optimistic as you sounded earlier?

MR. MCCURRY: We are -- the President remains optimistic that when it comes to welfare reform we're talking signature not veto.

Q Mike, can I clarify on the phone calls the President had with members of Congress, the subject was solely the crash? There was no legislative --

MR. MCCURRY: The President did not indicate to me that he got into other subjects on any of those calls, but he may have, he just didn't indicate to me that any other subjects came up.

Thank you.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 6:06 P.M. EDT