THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS GAGGLE BY MIKE MCCURRY
MR. MCCURRY: Okay, here's what we're doing today. We've got the President of Egypt here today, as you know. Our schedule, if people don't know it, we'll do a pool spray in the Oval Office at 11:00 a,m. I expect the President to brush off questions there and say, we'll have a press conference later. And that's where we're going to do the work.
Q Is that what he's trying to do?
MR. MCCURRY: He's got an expanded meeting from 11:30 A.M. to 12:00 P.M. after their one-on-one and a working lunch over in the residence and a joint press conference scheduled for 2:30 p.m. The only other thing of note on the President's calendar -- well he's got some Boy Scouts -- the annual delivery of the Report to the Nation by the Boy Scouts of America happens today.
Q What time?
MR. MCCURRY: The Boy Scout kids are coming in at 10:00 a.m.
MR. MCCURRY: It's closed.
Q The Boy Scouts deliver an annual report?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q And you're keeping it private?
Q What is it on? Oh, their own activity? Okay.
Q -- Mubarak basically from 11:00 a.m. until the news conference and then a working lunch --
MR. MCCURRY: Through -- yes.
Q Has the President been in touch with the FBI Director on -- accountability?
MR. MCCURRY: Let's go back for a second, okay? On the -- then the only other thing I see on the schedule is from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. tonight about a third of the United States Senate is coming in here to get a briefing from the President. Also there will be General McCaffrey, Secretary Albright, Secretary Rubin, Secretary Cohen, the Attorney General, the Vice President, and they'll be making a case for -- the President announced on Mexico drug certification.
Q Are these -- chosen for their opposition to certification or --
MR. MCCURRY: It looks to me like they're chosen more because of their involvement -- they've been invited -- I'm not sure how many of these are actually coming, it looks like they're all members that are on relevant -- the relevant foreign affairs committees.
Q Do you know if the President will be part of this --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, yes.
Q The Secretary -- on what?
MR. MCCURRY: No, no, Secretary Cohen.
MR. MCCURRY: No coverage planned.
MR. MCCURRY: I believe it is in the Residence.
Q Stakeout from here?
MR. MCCURRY: No.
Q This is to try to not to overturn the --
MR. MCCURRY: To make the case of why the President's course of action was the correct and proper one. I would say, make the argument that the action that was foreseen by the House Committee vote last week was not the correct one.
Q Are the leaders among the ones coming -- Daschle, Lott and others? Can you release the list of names?
MR. MCCURRY: We'll release the list of who attends. Right now we only have who's been invited. I'm not sure how many will actually attend. But both leaders have been invited, yes.
Q That's a very high-powered group, Mike. Is there a reason for the high-powered gathering?
MR. MCCURRY: Of Senators?
Q No, of administration staff -- Attorney General, Treasury Secretary.
MR. MCCURRY: Because we want to make a high-powered argument.
Q Do you know when the vote is?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know when he Senate is --
Q -- House?
MR. MCCURRY: No, no, we've been working the House. We've actually been working the House as well.
Q -- meeting with the House --
MR. MCCURRY: I have to check, I don't know.
Q Has the President been in touch with Freeh on why he was not told of a possible Chinese intervention in the campaign?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he was not.
Q And if he hasn't why hasn't he contacted him and asked why? And was there no liaison in this government?
MR. MCCURRY: We had proper contacts with the Department of Justice, as we described to you in the letter that the White House Legal Counsel addressed to Chairman Burton February 24 and that we released --
Q I don't understand what you mean. Why didn't Freeh tell the President what was going on?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't speak for him. I don't --
Q Mike, yesterday Erskine said --
Q Was the President unhappy with that?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to characterize --
Q -- the proper context of that -- what happened came out in the newspaper, correcting the --
Q Mike, yesterday Erskine said that mid-level NSC staffers were briefed on this by the FBI, but told not to talk about it. Who told them not to talk about it, the FBI, Tony?
MR. MCCURRY: The briefing that was received by the career professionals at the NSC in June of 1996 which dealt with allegations of Chinese attempts to funnel money to Congressional campaigns was provided by the FBI and those conducting the briefing requested that the information not be disseminated or briefed higher up the chain of command here at the White House. Those who received the briefing respected that admonishment.
Q Why would that be? I thought that was the conduit -- I mean if you're briefing the NSC you're briefing the President.
MR. MCCURRY: -- they were given a very specific ground rules and they honored the ground rules.
Q Well, can you explain the purpose of it? What's the purpose of telling a low official at the White House if you don't want the President to know?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't speak to the purpose the FBI had in briefing the NSC staff, although it was reported yesterday -- and I cannot draw this link for you -- as reported yesterday, that the FBI around about the same time was informing members of Congress that they might be targets of efforts to --
Q But not in terms of the President's campaign?
MR. MCCURRY: Correct.
Q -- that they were not told at all?
MR. MCCURRY: There was nothing about the briefing related to attempts to influence the administration, the President, or the President's political --
Q Did Tony know about it? Did it go that high?
MR. MCCURRY: To my knowledge, Mr. Lake, as I have briefed you in the past, was not aware of this until it first appeared in the papers in February.
Q -- in saying to somebody, we purposely don't want Leon Panetta or the President or Tony Lake to know something? That doesn't make any sense.
MR. MCCURRY: That's your interpretation to make.
Q -- going to be asked about this today. Is he going to have an answer?
MR. MCCURRY: It will be a very difficult question to answer without having the appearance of impeding on an ongoing investigation with he Justice Department. It's been very difficult for all of us here to talk about this matter because of the acute sensitivity of the Justice Department and the FBI about what we say about their inquiry.
Q Can you help us at all to understand what purpose it serves for the FBI to brief low-level --
MR. MCCURRY: I can't.
Q Doesn't the President find out what is going on at NSA and so forth in terms of where we are able to get information?
MR. MCCURRY: The President gets a routine -- he gets a national security briefing each and every day.
Q Does the President feel well served by subordinates who get briefings and then don't pass the information on to him?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President understands that his staff ought to be in a position to have working relationships with other branches of government. And in this case, the two NSC staff members appeared to want to preserve the working relationship they had with those from the FBI who briefed them.
Q In the letter to Burton it said that the President has national security and foreign policy reasons for needing this kind of information. Did he not have those same reasons in June as he does today?
MR. MCCURRY: The nature of the -- the President was not aware of the June briefing until January of this year, after the stories appeared in the Washington Post. As you know, we requested other Justice Department materials that would allow the President to fulfill his foreign policy and national security responsibilities. And as Secretary Albright said last week, she raised our concerns about these matters when she was in Beijing.
Q But wouldn't he have needed that information nine months ago also, or why would he only need that today after it comes out in the newspaper and not nine months ago when the information was developing?
MR. MCCURRY: The information was not provided to the President or to senior foreign policymakers here in June for the reasons I've described to you. Had they been, I can imagine that he might have acted diplomatically --
Q Well, why does the President accept the fact that the FBI Director does not give him information that he needs?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't say that the accepted it.
Q Was he handicapped by the failure to provide the information? Were the foreign policy and national security concerns handicapped by the failure to provide that information in June?
MR. MCCURRY: That would require me to make an analysis of the information that was provided in June; I cannot do that.
Q But it sounds like the President did not , in fact, accept that. Is that the case?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't speak to that question.
Q Well, did he?
MR. MCCURRY: I just responded to her question. She made an assumption which you can't make, nor can I.
Q Well, he didn't get information. Do you think he should have had that information?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't have -- you're asking my personal opinion. My personal opinion doesn't count.
Q Well, does the President think he should have had that information?
MR. MCCURRY: I'd have to ask him.
Q We're talking about a breakdown here. World War II was also caused by a lack of communication between departments. Pearl Harbor.
MR. MCCURRY: You're asking me to comment on the reasons why briefers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation requested the information not be --
Q No, I'm not asking that. I want to know why the Director didn't talk to the President about this.
MR. MCCURRY: I can't answer that question.
Q -- working relationship preserved without the President being informed of regular activities between agencies?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there are routine briefings back and forth between agencies at that level that occur daily that the President is not made aware of because it's fairly down in the ranks of government.
Q Yes, but not because there is a ground rule put on the information that says don't pass it on to the President.
MR. MCCURRY: That is correct.
Q Well, is that unusual, highly unusual, extraordinary?
MR. MCCURRY: I'd have to check further. I'm not aware that that's a customary thing.
Q Mike, does the President feel that this occurrence reflects a procedure that must not happen again?
MR. MCCURRY: You're asking me to characterize it; I can't characterize -- I'm going to have to talk to him.
Q Why did the President encourage the Chinese to lease a port in California?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to check into that story.
Q -- the President made aware of that briefing, was he -- in any way?
MR. MCCURRY: When the President was made aware of that briefing we subsequently requested additional materials from the Justice Department, as you know. And as I said earlier, Secretary Albright indicated last week that she raised our concerns about these allegations when she was in Beijing.
Q -- so that would have been done -- in June --
MR. MCCURRY: Again, it would depend on the assessment of the information and what was available,a nd I can't comment on that because I don't know what the President or his foreign policy advisors would have recommended back in June of 1996 if they had been aware of the information in this briefing.
Q -- another subject?
MR. MCCURRY: This is a tough one because it is -- obviously -- about a highly classified briefing that involved sensitive intelligence matters that could perhaps impede on an ongoing Justice Department investigation. So my ability to satisfy your questions is severely restricted and has been restricted for some time.
Q Well, you should be able to tell us whether the President accepts the situation --
MR. MCCURRY: Wendell, I just haven't asked him that question, and I suspect I know the answer but I'd rather talk to him and know the answer before I give it.
Q Mike, who are the two NSC staffers -- Sandy Berger, was he made aware of it?
MR. MCCURRY: These were career professionals. And as I said earlier, the information was not briefed up the chain of command. Senior policymakers here were not aware of this until after the initial Bob Woodward story on June 13, although -- I'm sorry February 13. Although sometime in January one of the NSC staffers who received the briefing, because of a -- I believe of the William Safire column in the New York Times, called attention to the briefing to a lawyer for the NSC.
Q So wasn't that breaking the ground rules?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, at that point, because of -- at that point this person's memory was triggered because of something he read in the column, apparently, and he alerted the counsel of the NSC about the briefing he had received.
Q -- Tony Lake went up to the Hill tomorrow, don't you think --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know why Tony would because Tony was unaware of it apparently until after the article appeared.
Q Why would he have alerted anybody? I though he was not supposed to --
MR. MCCURRY: I think at that point he felt it was proper to tell counsel to the NSC.
Q -- once it had come out in the press he felt the ground rules were no longer operative?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that he could conceivably felt at that point the ground rules allowed him to share the information.
Q Are these two staffers still with the NSC now?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q Is their situation in jeopardy, their position?
MR. MCCURRY: No. Apparently, in view of the present National Security Advisor, they were acting consistent with the ground rules upon which they got the briefing. I'm declining to provide their names because they work in intelligence related matters.
Q Have there been other occurrences when briefings were provided here and officials were asked not to brief up the chain of command?
MR. MCCURRY: I would have to make a very exhaustive check to answer that question. I'm not aware of any.
Q You're not aware of any right now?
Q Do you know how many total staffers were briefed? Was it two?
MR. MCCURRY: Two.
Q Mike, but that would be --
MR. MCCURRY: I would hope so, but I --
Q Based on your experience at the State Department and here working with the NSC -- isn't it unusual for an agency like the FBI or CIA to come over here and brief someone and say you can't tell anybody else?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, Peter, I'll be honest with you -- I'm not -- well, I'm familiar with a lot of intelligence briefings that go on around here. I think in the area of investigative work, law enforcement intelligence, there are probably a lot of briefings that go on that allow agencies to exchange information back and forth. And where that information goes sometimes is very severely restricted because it's so-called department information.
Q But not to the President.
MR. MCCURRY: -- presumably to the President. But the President also doesn't sit and scan raw intelligence.
Q No, I understand that --
MR. MCCURRY: -- briefing that takes whatever is out there, and a lot of the information that's out in the -- channels of information every day, and it gets synthesized and analyzed and presented to the President by his briefers.
Q The sole purpose of NSC staffers is to keep the President informed.
MR. MCCURRY: And they do a good job of it.
Q Except when they're told not to pass it on to him.
MR. MCCURRY: When they are told not to do it by those who are briefing -- their ability to brief the President is -- they're restricted.
Q Who do they take orders from, the FBI or the President?
MR. MCCURRY: They work for the President.
Q Mike, you just said -- the broader picture -- over more than one incident are appalling.
MR. MCCURRY: That's an idea that -- I'm not going to -- (laughter.)
Q This kind of occurrence is highly unusual. At the same time, you said there are probably a lot of briefings to allow agencies who exchange information back and forth.
MR. MCCURRY: At this level --
Q At a mid-level --
MR. MCCURRY: At a mid-level, working level, interagency, particularly with respect to intelligence matters, I think there a lot of -- exchange of information between these agencies all the time that doesn't necessarily get pushed up --
Q I know, but --
Q But -- as a request to not to --
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I know of.
Q Considering the import of this --
Q I don't understand what you mean by exchange of information at this level, and whether or not --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm just saying that meetings like this may not be unusual. It is, as far as I know, unusual that it be asked not to be disseminated.
Q Wouldn't it have been proper for someone to reject the ground rules set by the FBI?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to answer that question --
Q If one of the NSC staffers went to the NSC counsel on the occasion of the Safire column, why didn't the two NSC staffers to go NSC counsel at they time they received the briefing and were told about the ground rules in the first place, and ask for advice concerning how they should proceed and behave.
MR. MCCURRY: I can't answer that question.
Q Mike, if a staffer is told not to brief up, what's the purpose of the briefing?
MR. MCCURRY: I already told you, I can't answer that question.
Q These are not people who would directly brief the President, they would have to brief up to another level before they would get to the President?
MR. MCCURRY: That's correct. That, in most cases would be correct.
Q Mike, sort of a bottom line question. Is the administration satisfied with what the Chinese told Secretary Albright, and do you believe them now when they say that they were not trying to influence the election?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to characterize a private diplomatic exchange.
Q It seems to me you should have talked to Freeh, not to the Chinese.
MR. MCCURRY: What precisely do you suggest we would have told him?
Q I suggest that he would have passed on relevant important information like that to the President of the United States. The kind of impact that it has.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we requested that information of his boss, as you will recall.
Q -- said to the fact when White House staffers had already been briefed on it.
MR. MCCURRY: I draw a distinction between White House staffers and career professionals who work on the NSC staff.
Q Well, they're White House staffers --
MR. MCCURRY: It's not the same --
Q -- directives that there won't be any future kind of blinding of the President of these kinds of intelligence --
MR. MCCURRY: We would assume there wouldn't be.
Q Why would you assume that?
MR. MCCURRY: Because that is the customary practice.
Q But it wasn't followed in this case.
MR. MCCURRY: Okay, let's move on. You guys --
Q Are you briefing today?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not planning to.
Q If you're not planning to, just one more question. You at the time that the news reports came out, you said you guys had no knowledge of it. In fact, by then, the NSC staffers had already told the counsel.
MR. MCCURRY: That's correct. And I've gone back very carefully through what we've briefed. Those -- I've told you who I checked with and people I checked with were not aware of this briefing at the time, February 13th, that the story appeared. The first that senior officials here were aware of this briefing, I believe was President's Day, February 17th. If you look back at my briefing transcripts -- extraordinary torture -- careful on the subject so that I could make it clear that when the Attorney General, for example, said that they had provided to us information that had been disseminated through channels, I drew your attention to that comment and told you of the significance of that.
Q Is that what the news code word was meant to be?
MR. MCCURRY: When I kept saying that the news in the story -- the news in the story was an effort by the Chinese Embassy to "plan contributions directed to the DNC." To my knowledge, no aspect of this briefing in June of 1996 touched on that subject.
Q On the DNC --
MR. MCCURRY: Correct.
Q Are those two staffers still working here?
MR. MCCURRY: They're still working here, and they are highly valued and highly confident career professionals.
Q Different topic. Mike, was the President aware when he met last year with these Indian tribes of Oklahoma that the fundraisers at the DNC were putting pressure on them to contribute to the DNC, not only to arrange the meeting, but --
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't had time to look into that story.
Q When the President had congressional leaders three weeks ago up here, they agreed on five areas and they were going to set up task forces. It seems like these task forces have been slow to get off the ground.
MR. MCCURRY: We've had our people, our agenda items ready to go for some time now, and in some places on Capitol Hill, they've been ready to go, but in other places they haven't been. And I would hope that -- would have -- I hope there will be some further announcements on the structure of that work soon.
Q Apparently, Congressman Rangell, among others, is having a real hard time with the idea of these task forces stepping on the jurisdiction of the committees.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there has been --
Q Is that ever going to get off the ground?
MR. MCCURRY: -- a vibrant discussion on the Hill on this whole area. But for our part, we're ready to go.
Q The bottom line, though, no meetings?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there have been lots of discussions about meetings, but they haven't had them.
Q Might these never take place?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that -- my latest report is, it looks like they're getting ready to finish the structuring of this soon. All right.
Q Why do you draw a distinction between a White House staffer and an NSC career professional? Why is that different?
MR. MCCURRY: I think most people think of White House staffers as being those who work for the Executive Office of the President. There are 1,400 people who work at the White House, and not all of them are the people that the public would immediately think of as being White House staffers. They think of me as a White House staffer -- deal with on a day-in, day-out basis. This entire complex here literally 1,000-plus people, and the public, they understand that we have people from other agencies who are here in a professional capacity to help the President do his work --
Q But the NSC is a White House creature, isn't it?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, but as a distinction between the President's political appointees to senior staff positions -- those counsels and people who are career professionals are not the kind of people who meet with the President on a regular basis. That's the only distinction -- ultimately, they all work for the President and they all are, in effect, work here at the White House. But I think you understand the distinction that I'm trying to make.
Q People who have chosen --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, political --
Q Just to confirm for this meeting with -- you said it would be McCaffrey, Cohen, Albright and Ruben?
Q Reno -- and Gore.
MR. MCCURRY: And Gore.
Q That's who is scheduled --
MR. MCCURRY: We did, by the way, the same -- someone said, well, that's a high-powered briefing. We did the same sort of thing in and around Bosnia and in and around -- we had that level of --
Q Would it be possible to get the list of those who are --
MR. MCCURRY: We'll check with Leg Affairs.
Q These are people who are pro and con?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, both pro and con and bipartisan.
THE PRESS: Thank you.