THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
3:37 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: A couple of people caught me after the press conference and said that they requested my presence. Fire away.
Q If you could elaborate a little bit more on exactly the procedure that's been carried out here to check who told what to whom and why it wasn't told to more.
MR. MCCURRY: I can't define it any more elaborately than the President indicated. He had Mr. Berger, after learning about this briefing and the question that it would naturally raise, asked the assistance of the White House Legal Counsel Chuck Ruff to look into the circumstances surrounding the briefing, learn what we could about the circumstances of the briefing, and then to develop any recommendations or conclusions that would be suggested.
Q When did he ask him?
MR. MCCURRY: Shortly after senior people here at the White House learned of the briefing the week of February 17th.
Q So this is an old inquiry.
MR. MCCURRY: It's been underway for a while, but obviously Mr. Ruff has been doing the work on it himself and he's had a number of things on his platter.
Q Mike, if it's been going on for these weeks, you're saying that they still don't know the answers to the questions that the President raised today, and that in all this time the President has never picked up the phone to call Freeh?
MR. MCCURRY: That's correct. And you can easily imagine for good reasons, with the Justice Department inquiry underway and the sensitivity on our part about the status of that inquiry, that we would not "pick up the phone" and start dialing the FBi without -- with procedure in place that's consistent with our policy about contact with the Justice Department.
Q Mike, this is the kind of thing that in private industry, if somebody excluded the boss from this kind of information, people would probably get fired. Is the job of Louis Freeh and-or Janet Reno in trouble because of --
MR. MCCURRY: To use your hypothetical example, most employers that I know at least have some procedure if personnel action is suggested. We don't even -- make a point of having some simple basic information about why such a briefing was offered in the first place.
Q Is there some concern, though, that perhaps the FBI agents who briefed the two NSC officials were concerned of leaks coming out of the White House and as a result they decided to ask that they not share this information?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't speak for the FBI agents who conducted the briefing.
Q You say that --
Q We can't hear back here. What was the question asked?
MR. MCCURRY: The last question was, was it maybe the concern of the FBI agents of leaks. I said, I don't have any way of knowing what the FBI's concerns were.
Q Mike, is it true that in the past it's been customary for generations for the President to be told if the FBI or the CIA are conducting an investigation involving a foreign country?
MR. MCCURRY: Has that been the practice in the past?
Q It's my understanding. They had to get permission I think from the President to do that.
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any statute that would require them to have permission, but I think you're probably right as a general proposition, any investigation like that would have been more widely known in the government. We don't know at this point what the status of the Justice Department inquiries into this matter are. We've seen the same newspaper stories that you have, but we have not been given an update on the criminal inquiry that's been underway since the end of last October.
Q -- before he went to this temple that he ask the National Security Council if it would be safe to go, if it was a good idea, and he was told to go ahead?
MR. MCCURRY: That's all contained in the matter that has previously been released.
Q Previously been released? Did you say yes to that?
MR. MCCURRY: There's a great deal of paper we can get you, Sarah, that was released some time ago that answered that question.
Q Mike, two things. One, the briefing dealt with possible funneling of money only to congressional campaigns, not to presidential? And second, it sounded to me as though, in answer to Gene's question, you did not take up the option of saying Freeh's job is not in danger, leaving us to speculate it might be. Would you like to clarify that?
MR. MCCURRY: I did not suggest that anything has moved to the level of being a personnel action because it's not at that stage. On your first question, because this was a classified briefing, there's not much I can tell you about the substance of it. I have seen it reported in the press that this briefing dealt solely with efforts by the Chinese government to funnel contributions to congressional elections; I have no reason to dispute that.
Q Mike, just to clarify one thing. You said that the President learned of this on February 17 that the White House had been -- that these people --
MR. MCCURRY: I can't -- I don't know whether -- it first was brought to my attention and other senior officials here February 17th, and it may have been shortly after that, or maybe over that weekend prior that the President --
Q And it seems like a fairly simple line of inquiry, who told you what, why did they tell you. Do you have any sense of why there's not an answer back yet on why this wasn't -- didn't go up the chain of command?
MR. MCCURRY: I think there is a very -- we've reported to you on other conversations we've had with the Justice Department on this matter. For example, we reported to you in the past that we've asked for information necessary for the President to conduct his foreign policy and national security responsibilities. We've told you -- I've told you that those have been very careful and disciplined discussions that have taken some time for reasons that you'll have to make your own guesses about, but you can imagine that this subject matter falls in that same category. There's a very strong desire upon the White House to conduct ourselves in a way that no one -- that there is no effort to impede any ongoing inquiry; more importantly, that there's not the perception of any effort to impede any ongoing inquiry, which is also an answer to the question, why don't you just pick up the phone and called Louis Freeh. It would be easy to misconstrue such a conversation.
Q If Berger does -- it's still the White House.
Q If I could follow up -- are we going to -- when you finally get the answer to this --
MR. MCCURRY: Mr. Berger did not pick up the phone and call --
Q No, but if someone from the White House -- they're going to have to make contact with the FBI, and that will be a question.
MR. MCCURRY: We have had proper contact between the White House and the Justice Department through Counsel, and we've reported to you on at least some of those exchanges on this matter already in the past.
Q Mike, can I follow up my question?
Q Mike, do you know what the President's reaction was when he saw the story this morning that $100,000 contribution had been solicited from this tiny tribe of Indians where the average income is like $3,900 a year or something?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know his reaction when he read the article. I know that he does not feel any contribution should change any legitimate effort by the government to review the status of a -- claim.
Q Just to follow up on the last question I asked, when you get a report back or when you figure out how this happened, do you think you'll be able to at least tell us about it? Because it seems like it's a pretty important question that people would have about why the FBI would feel that they had to conceal information from the White House.
MR. MCCURRY: Part of our concern is to protect any investigative process or any sources or methods that might be available elsewhere in our government. And I will not guarantee that I will tell you everything we learn on it because we may not be in a position to do that.
Q Mike, we now know that for years, under J. Edgar Hoover's tenure, the FBI was a private fiefdom that spied on people up to and including Presidents. Is there a fear that that kind of situation pertains here?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that we have any information that would indicate that they have been conducting the agency in that fashion. To the contrary; Director Freeh has given every indication of conducting the FBI as a professional law enforcement agency with enormous integrity.
Q But you had the Gary Aldrich book.
Q While you might not name the officials who got the briefing, can you tell us what their positions are? Were they an FBI liaison or a CIA liaison? What type of people were they?
MR. MCCURRY: They were people who work at the senior director level and below who worked on intelligence matters. And because they work on intelligence matters, I'm just not going to get into --
Q Mike, were they detailees? Were they detailees?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to get into that.
Q It's well-known there's the rivalry between the FBI and the CIA, but why was the FBI involved here and why not the CIA?
MR. MCCURRY: I cannot answer that question.
Q Just to clarify why it's taking so long to get the answers to these questions, are you saying that your sensitivity to the ongoing investigation is stopping you from getting the information that you need to answer the questions, or it's merely delaying it?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I'm saying that there is an effort here to in a very correct and disciplined way address questions so that there is no either direct or inadvertent interference with what is apparently an ongoing Justice Department investigation.
Q What I'm asking is, if the request went out on February 17th or thereabouts and the President said, and get me the answers to these questions -- could you just tell us -- I still don't understand why three weeks later you don't have them. And I understand that you want to be sensitive to this investigation --
Q It requires the White House Legal Counsel have direct follow-up with the Justice Department and he's got a busy schedule, and will pursue these matters. And it also has been the subject of exchanges between the White House and the Justice Department as you are well aware of, given the correspondence that we've had with Chairman Burton and given some of the things that we said publicly here.
Q Mike, are representatives from the Senate Intelligence Committee here today interviewing various NSC staff members in connection with the Lake nomination, or are they interviewing -- because there's a report that they're interviewing various NSC staff to discuss their involvement --
MR. MCCURRY: My understanding is that under an arrangement that was mutually arrived at, some NSC staffers may be meeting informally with members of the committee today. But I -- you'd have to ask the committee that question.
Q Mike, did the June briefing focus on any individual members of Congress or was the warning given in just generic terms?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm led to understand, while I am not going to comment on the substance of the classified briefing, I've seen it reported elsewhere that the briefing dealt with the generic subject of an effort to channel money to U.S. congressional elections and I believe it's been specifically reported elsewhere it didn't deal with individual names. And I don't have any reason to dispute those reports.
Q Does the White House find it all odd that now that we know that the FBI did go to Feinstein and Boxer and others and warned them directly -- didn't go to their staffs -- that the White House was not accorded the same courtesy?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to comment on that.
Q Why don't you want to comment on that, Mike?
Q Mike, does the President have confidence in Louis Freeh at the moment?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q I have a question, Mike.
Q Mike, do you know if it's routine for FBI agents to brief NSC officials and tell them, don't tell your superiors about this? Does this happen frequently or sometimes?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm told that's not routine.
Q But is there any --
Q Well, Mike, on that point, since the President said today that it was a mistake that he was not informed, have all NSC staffers now been informed that it is policy that they are not to agree not to pass things on to the President?
MR. MCCURRY: That may be the kind of issue that Mr. Berger and Mr. Ruff will want to discuss.
Q Is he also addressing whether or not this was policy or whether this was an isolated incident?
MR. MCCURRY: I suspect that would be the kind of question that we'd want to have an answer to.
Q Just now, the President said -- I'm paraphrasing, but he said, if he had known this, it would have sent up a red flag and he would have talked to Lake and Berger and Panetta and perhaps evaluated and made some changes. Do you think he's suggesting or do you think he believes that if these changes had been made, we would have avoided a lot of the Asian money problems that we've had?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that is highly speculative and requires a lot of hindsight that, unfortunately, we don't have.
Q What do you think he believes?
MR. MCCURRY: It could have, it might have. But the President was more suggesting his first and foremost responsibility is to conduct a foreign policy on national security affairs and information of that nature properly should be given to the President so he can act on it. As you know, once we did follow up to get additional information on the Justice Department on this matter, and when we did receive materials from the Justice Department, as Secretary Albright has now said, she raised this matter in a diplomatic conversation with the Chinese government.
Q Mike, what would be the benefit of briefing people at the NSC here if they couldn't do anything with the information? I mean, was there something that these people were able to do on their own?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that it would be very helpful at all.
Q So, why --
MR. MCCURRY: I can't explain why such a briefing was given.
Q Are you puzzled as to why these staffers are sworn to secrecy? Is that the story?
MR. MCCURRY: We don't have an answer as to why.
Q Who were the FBI guys? Were they senior officials and were they here on the direct orders of Louis Freeh?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. You'd have to ask them.
Q Secretary Albright gave it credence by bringing it up in Beijing.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, by that point, when she was in Beijing, there had been allegations that had surfaced in press accounts here in the United States that might also have been a way in which she could have brought these matters to the attention of the Chinese government.
Q Mike, I'm still confused about one thing. The matter --
Q Only one thing? (Laughter.)
Q Ten. (Laughter.)
Q Okay, at least one thing.
MR. MCCURRY: Try reading the Post article on Sunday.
Q That's what confused us. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I've never seen the word unclear in one newspaper article so many times. (Laughter.)
Q Now, the original Post article that talked about the fear of things going -- money going to the DNC somehow, the concern was so great about that, that Ruff, through Counsel, contacted the Justice Department. Doesn't this matter have equal concern for you? If so, why hasn't Ruff asked --
MR. MCCURRY: This is how we became aware of that matter.
Q Right, but when you say you got some information from the Justice Department about this through Counsel, why wasn't this part of the information you got?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, you're making a mistake in judgment there about when we learned of it. If we learned of it roughly around the week of the 17th, that came about because we initiated some inquiries in the Justice Department. So we learned about this at that time. And we have been acting since then to address some of the concerns the President and others clearly have.
Q Mike, my question is, why hasn't Ruff been able to find out the simple question that Mara was asking about -- about why these guys --
MR. MCCURRY: You're making judgments and assumptions about things that you think are simple, and maybe they're not. I don't know the answer to that.
Q Mike, are you on the record by name or a background? How are you treating this?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm on the record.
Q Mike, just to be clear about something. You said this morning that the memory of one of the people who was briefed was triggered by all of this, and is that how you learned that the White House was briefed? Because what you just said now just seemed to indicate that --
MR. MCCURRY: No, that's when I said -- the question was when was this information shared outside the two people who had briefed. It was shared with lawyers here at the White House in January after one of the people who received the briefing was alerted by reading something in the newspaper.
Q So, wait a minute, I just want to make it clear. So in January they were alerted. They told the White House, and I guess the President knew. So that on the day that you responded to us about the first article that Bob Woodward wrote, you were saying that the new part of it was --
MR. MCCURRY: No, that's not correct.
Q Okay, I just want to get the chain of events right.
MR. MCCURRY: In January, when one of the staffers had his memory triggered by the article he shared it with counsel. There's no evidence that that information then was shared elsewhere in the White House with the President, the Vice President, the National Security Advisor, the Deputy National Security Advisor, others in senior foreign policy-making roles. Had it been, I would have given you different answers, obviously, when I learned of this and when we first saw the very first Woodward story on February 13th.
Q But when you said in January --
Q You said, in January when you saw the article it was triggered. Oh, Safire's piece about John Huang -- okay.
MR. MCCURRY: Triggered this one individual's memory and he did draw it to the attention to some of the lawyers. But that apparently was how they started looking --
Q So that's the chain --
MR. MCCURRY: Right.
Q Then what caused it to become apparent to the senior level at the White House on February 18th?
MR. MCCURRY: Bob Woodward's story February 13th, and then follow-up inquiries that we made to the Justice Department through the Counsel's Office about what is the story with this story.
Q Mike, you and the President made it clear today that his ability to conduct the foreign policy of this country was hampered for eight months between June and February because of his ignorance of what went on at this briefing in June.
MR. MCCURRY: No, that's a rushing to judgment. I don't believe the President said that. He said that information -- if there is information available about efforts by foreign governments to influence our politics, that could conceivably be directly of interest to him in the conduct of foreign policy. I'm not suggesting to you that the substance of the briefing in June of 1996 rose to that level. In fact, I'm trying as much as I can not to say anything about the substance of that briefing.
Q No, but my question is, isn't this thing being compounded even further by the fact that here's the President of the United States sitting in his Oval Office, knowing for three weeks what happened the previous eight months and still being kept in the dark to this very day?
MR. MCCURRY: We worked hard, and have suffered criticism from high-ranking members of the United States Congress for it, to get some answers.
Q But who's in charge of foreign policy? Is it the guy on the Hill or is it the President of the United States?
MR. MCCURRY: The President of the United States is in charge of foreign policy, but the President of the United States, for good reason, doesn't want to take any actions that would impede any ongoing inquiries. And there has been the difficulty, and we've been trying to conduct ourselves appropriately so we don't face those sort of questions on a different --
Q So you're basically saying he's in a straitjacket?
MR. MCCURRY: No, no, I'm not. I'm saying we put proper inquiries to the Justice Department and we're getting some answers back.
Q Have you gotten any indication when the Justice Department might deem it feasible to come to the White House and inform the President of the United States what happened? I mean, could it be another week, another month, another year?
MR. MCCURRY: Our counsel will pursue this with the Justice Department appropriately.
Q I just wanted to be sure that the President -- you said that the White House Counsel's Office --
MR. MCCURRY: Sara, one at a time, please.
Q -- the other day --
Q Excuse me, please. The White House Counsel's Office was made aware of this by the NSC staffers in January. Why did they -- why did no one in the White House Counsel's Office then take it to the President? Because we were asking the President today, hey, these people at the NSC didn't tell you in June --
MR. MCCURRY: I believe the reaction that was to follow up and to learn more about the circumstances of the briefing, and then the matter was not pursued -- is my understanding.
Q It just kind of fell through the cracks?
Q Mike, regarding foreign policy , I understand the President of the United States, President Clinton, is meeting with President Mubarak of Egypt at this time, and I understand the topic is regarding the foreign aid to Egypt. My question is, I understand that the CIA reports and the FBI reports are pointing out the persecution of Christians in Egypt and the recent incident happened recently about killing youth in a church, first time attack on a church, and still the President of the United States is supporting the government of Egypt. My question is there is any curtailing of the funds, the taxpayers' money in favor of religious freedom in Egypt?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know whether that subject was directly addressed in the talks that the two Presidents had. In addition, during his time here the Egyptian delegation, led by President Mubarak, has met with other officials at the State Department. It's conceivable to me that this is a subject that may have arisen during those talks, and perhaps you could check further at the State Department.
Q Mike, do you recall that the President was asked at a recent press conference what he would do about officials in the government who didn't notify him what was going on in their departments -- and his answer was, as I recall, in two parts. One, he said of course he would depend on the press to read in the news and find out what was going on. But he would expect loyalty from his appointees. I wonder if this is going to trigger some departures.
MR. MCCURRY: The specific briefing we're talking about, to my knowledge, involved career civil servants, career members of the United States government, not political.
Q No, that's not true. No, I asked the question and I know what I asked. He was asked about the people in the State Department. There were several examples of Kissinger and others people who had failed to inform Presidents of what was going on. He was asked what he thought about that. He said he would expect the loyalty of his appointees.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he does. But as I say, this is a briefing that involves, apparently, career members of our government.
Q I want to try the chronology just one more time. Is it true that senior officials learned about this early briefing back in June; then you went to the Justice Department for the first time February 17?
MR. MCCURRY: No.
Q How then did they come --
MR. MCCURRY: In June of '96 two members of the NSC staff were briefed. They were asked not to disseminate that information; they did not. One of them, in January of 1997, triggered apparently by seeing a reference in a column item, brought it to the attention of a lawyer on the NSC staff who shared it with a lawyer at the White House Legal Counsel's Office. No further action that I am aware of was taken, other then they asked to see if we could get some more information from Justice about it. The answer was, we could not get more information about it from Justice at the time. Mr. Woodward's story appears February 13th. Mr. Ruff learns about this June briefing I believe over the weekend prior to President's Day and initiates inquires at the Justice Department that you are now familiar with because we told you about them. That's the chronology.
Q Were they intimidated by the FBI?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't speak for these two.
Okay, last question.
Q You can't give any sense then of when you expect Ruff and Berger to get back to the President? You don't have a time frame.
MR. MCCURRY: They're going to get the -- they're going to get answers or whatever -- if they get answers, if answers are obtainable. They will follow up on them appropriately and we'll try to let you know.
Q On Syria, the President -- one of the Presidents made reference to some progress being made with Syria, some new ideas. Is there anything you can give more on that?
MR. MCCURRY: I can tell you on that point the two Presidents did talk at length about the Syrian track. As you can imagine, given that both Presidents have key insights into the process itself and how we might need to -- they share some ideas about how to try to move the Israeli-Syrian discussions forward. I'm declining to say anything specifically about what steps they might take, but they're the type of steps that would be readily transparent over time.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 4:03 P.M. EST