THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary (Warsaw, Poland)
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
July 10, 1997
The Briefing Room
3:50 P.M. (L)
Q The question was, whether the President was briefed on the possibility of this action going forward, whether or not this was a subject discussed among the NATO leaders, and I'll also throw in whether or not you can tell us -- there have been reports that there are other movements expected today -- whether there's anything you can tell us about that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: With respect to the President, the President was originally briefed about this operation either right before or on July 4th weekend. It was a subject then of discussion among senior administration officials involved with national security matters. The President approved U.S. participation in this operation on July 5th, I believe. He was, at that point, already out of the country -- spoke to him on the phone.
With respect to whether this was discussed in Madrid, it was not a part of the formal discussions. I can't tell you that it not discussed in one-on-one conversations that may have taken place, but it was not the subject of a discussion around the table. And with respect to further actions, obviously I'm not going to comment.
Q The obvious question is why didn't you go after the big war criminals whose names have been bandied about now for three or four years?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Rules of engagement and the authority the SFOR forces permit the commander in a particular situation when he encounters or is encountering war criminals and believes that he has a tactical capacity to apprehend in a way that is not unduly risky to exercise that authority. That continues to be the authority. No war criminal is immune from or exempt from that possibility. This was an operation -- those rules adapted in a situation with sealed indictments where SFOR was encountering these people quite freely and quite frequently, and had the opportunity, they believe, to seize them in a way that was deemed to be of acceptable risk.
Q Was this particular snatch in the mind of the President on the 4th, or was it a generic notion that under the circumstances you've just described, it would be all right to go ahead?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This particular operation.
Q This particular operation. Well, is this something about this particular operation -- because as you say yourself, these folks don't travel around rather freely. What was about these two guys and this operation that made it appropriate rather than some other group? How were these chosen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is a judgment that SFOR makes and the commanders make, and I would refer you to them in terms of the elements that went into this judgment. They sought approval from NATO in this time frame, and because American forces were participating, this was presented to the President and he was briefed fully on it and approved it.
Q Is this part of a new --
Q What precisely did the President approve in terms of American participation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I've indicated the apprehension itself was carried out by British forces. These individuals were located in the British zone, the British sector in Prijedor. But there were some U.S. assets that were in support capacities and in transportation and logistics, but not in the apprehension itself.
Q Yesterday, we heard what sounded like a rather plaintive plea from General Joulwan to get the political leaders to give them the power to do these things, and along with that, you've had frequent sightings, apparently, of wide notoriety of the better-known two top war criminals. Why not move on them and why not give them the authority, the military the authority it asked for?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, this was an operation that was deemed by SFOR and by NATO to be within its authority; that is, to detain war criminals that it encounters where the tactical situation permits such a apprehension. That is also the case for other indicted war criminals, none of whom are exempt from that. And those are judgments that will be made as we proceed.
Q Well, can you address General Joulwan's apparent request yesterday in public for the authority of the political leadership to go ahead and do more of this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I haven't seen General Joulwan's comments, so I don't --
Q Your presenting that President Clinton is almost a passive figure who signed off on this plan. Now, are you saying this is not --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is an SFOR operation.
Q But was there not a policy decision at the senior levels of the Clinton administration to interpret the current rules of engagement in a more robust or more liberal fashion to allow operations of this kind?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: SFOR interpreted the rules to permit this operation. NATO interpreted the rules to permit this operation. And we interpreted the rules to permit this operation.
Q You're saying there's no change in the way those rules are being interpreted?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is a situation, obviously, with sealed indictments that present some unique opportunities.
Q When were those indictments issued?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In March, by the War Crimes Tribunal.
Q If the President -- if it's part of the rules of engagement, what did the President actually have to act on, and will he have to act on every time SFOR thinks that there is some possibility of apprehending war criminals?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think because there were some American forces operating in the British sector in this case, we felt it was appropriate for the President to know about that, and to be informed. And he was and was fully supportive of it.
Q But is it required in future instances, to make some sort of decision?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Generally these are -- obviously, SFOR does not go to national capitals for every decision it makes. That authority rests with the SFOR commander and the people who work for him. But in this situation, given the particularities, it was presented to the President and he was fully supportive of it.
Q Is there any difference in action taken on sealed and open indictments?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, there is no difference except in this particular case, obviously, the fact that the figures did not know that they were indictees obviously presented opportunities.
Q Just to follow up on John's question -- it seems slightly more than coincidental perhaps that this happened right after the President said, look, we have got to get more serious about really enforcing the Dayton Accords and we're talking about bringing American troops out and Europe doesn't want us to, the President said, we ought to deal with the plan that we have on hand and make it work a lot better. So is there more than coincidence? Do you think that this perhaps rejuvenated in some way the operations? Did he somehow inspire this by maybe making people take a harder look about what was possible?
Q What the President has been doing for the last really two months is seeking to, with the other allies in NATO -- allies at SFOR, to reinvigorate the Dayton process. And I think the President on many occasions has enumerated the six basic areas in which we want to see -- concentrate on in the coming year: refugee resettlement, economic reconstruction, and bringing indicted war criminals to justice. So it is obviously a priority for us. I would point out that not very long ago, in the last two or three weeks, a Serb-indicted war criminal was apprehended as he crossed over into Eastern Slovonia and has been taken to The Hague. And the President said on many occasions that he wants to be supportive of the War Crimes Tribunal and we will continue to press for that objective.
Q Is there any cause and effect here with his recent push? Because he really has talked about it and seemed to be pushing harder. Do you see a cause and effect here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are pushing harder.
Q Is the operation that the President approved completed now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I believe this particular operation is completed.
Q Can you draw a distinction for us --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going anywhere, so don't --
Q Under this type of rules of engagement that they're operating under, couldn't they go after Karadzic? I mean, he's been seen, he's out, people know where he is.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, the authority here is to apprehend war criminals who are encountered by SFOR where the commander makes the tactical decision that he can do so, and as I said, nobody, no indicted war criminal is exempt from the reach of those rules.
Q Can you draw the distinction for us? What has made these encounters distinct and different? They encounter these guys over several days, they think the have the tactical ability to take them into custody. What is different about the encounters with the other people in which they've obviously decided they don't have the tactical superiority?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to make any judgments about other war criminals.
Q You talk about it's okay to apprehend them if you encounter them, but it appears in this instance that they didn't just encounter them, they pursued them. They didn't just happen to be in the hospital or happen to be outside the restaurant, they seem to have gone after them.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My understanding here is that -- and again, for the details I would refer you to SHAPE. But these were individuals who were indicted war criminals. That fact became known to SFOR in March. These were also individuals with which the police chief in Prijedor and the head of the hospital, which were coming into very frequent contact with SFOR. Now, either they would have had to change their pattern of contact or, in fact, pursue the mission here, and it was possible to do that with a reasonable risk, and they did so.
Q But they were coming in frequent contact with them -- what was it that was different about today? Why after so many contacts did they happen to be in the right place at the right time in a restaurant today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to get into tactical details.
Q Should Karadzic at the very least view this as a warning and are you worried at this point, or is NATO worried about any retaliation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me answer the second question first. SFOR will act very firmly to protect not only itself, but other international personnel operating in Bosnia. We do not expect any reaction, but if there was one, SFOR would react firmly to such reaction.
Q And about the warning? I mean, is this at the very least a warning?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I said before, I don't believe that any indicted war criminal in Bosnia should feel that they are outside of the reach of SFOR.
Q Does this signal a new and tougher pattern of enforcement? I realize that you said that you've picked up war criminals before, but generally without much fanfare and not very many. Should we look for more enforcement, tougher enforcement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to speculate about what may happen in the future.
Q Can you tell me, were any other NATO leaders briefed on this? Was it kept between the British and the U.S., or did this go to some other countries?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I believe there were some others that were briefed. I'm not sure. That really was a judgment for SFOR and NATO.
Q Are you able to get into who the others might be?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q This was approved by the President on the 4th, but --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I said was the participation of American forces were approved.
Q Had he, when he met with Blair back in May and when they talked about Bosnia, had this been in the works then? Did they start putting this together then?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think as these leaders have been together over the past several months on a number of occasions, as you well know, in Denver, in Paris, in Madrid, the subject of Bosnia has been very prominent. We made it a central issue in Denver. It was a subject of a lunch discussion here, and a message that we have sought to deliver -- our objective has been, the President's objective has been to work with the other NATO members, the other SFOR partners and the others who are engaged in civil implementation to make sure that we use the time that we have while SFOR is there to the maximum advantage. And there are a range of those areas. War criminals is one; economic reconstruction is another. And, therefore, in a general way, this has been the subject of discussion. I don't believe, in those group discussions, specific operations have been discussed.
Q Did the President and Blair discuss this when Blair came to the President's hotel room on --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know the answer to that.
Q Did any other countries provide any other support?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On those kinds of operational details, I honestly have to refer you to SFOR.
Q Could you give us the details of the U.S. logistical and support -- which U.S. troops were involved, were they Army, Air Force?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You might go to the Pentagon for that. But I think basically, as I've said, these were logistical support and transportation.
Q If the rules of engagement weren't changed, is it fair to say that some new measure of political will has been communicated to the troops on the ground there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it is an important element of Dayton that war criminals be brought to justice, and to the extent that can be done consistent with SFOR's mandate and mission, and that will continue to be the case.
Q Is this operation the reason why the President yesterday said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on whether NATO troops would be more involved in apprehending war criminals?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think generally the President or myself or anybody in a position such as this are not going to comment about future -- potential future operations.
Q But this was a policy matter we were asking the President to comment on, and he said it would be inappropriate at this time for him to talk about it. Was that because he knew this operation was pending?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know what was in his -- I mean, he certainly knew this operation was in the works.
Q When was he told? Was he told today that it was --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think last night -- yesterday, I indicated that this might happen today. And then on the plane I got called by General Shalikashvili; Jim Steinberg, my deputy, was also in contact with others, and I told the President.
Q This was a planned, not a spontaneous operation. Is this the first of its kind in Bosnia, and does it represent a change in policy?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can't answer whether this was the first of its kind in Bosnia. There have been a lot of operations in Bosnia over the last two years. It was planned in the sense that, given the fact that they knew that these individuals were -- where they were, they were not, obviously knowing of the fact that they were indicted, it obviously was prudent to prepare for this rather than to do it in a totally haphazard way.
Q You gave very broad explanations for the reason of the indictment. What did these two fellows do?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know the answer to that specifically. Perhaps we can try to find out some more information. Maybe my colleague does.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My understanding on aspects related to the indictment because it has been a sealed indictment, the International War Crimes Tribunal will be making available information appropriately related to the indictment. Further information about the logistical aspects of the operation will be provided by Operation Joint Guard's joint press information center, which is located in Sarajevo. My understanding is that they may already be in the process of conducting some briefings. So you need to link up with your folks who are either in Bosnia or got contact back through Pentagon Public Affairs, who are probably getting a feed of that.
Q And indeed, when did the President first get word -- en route or when he got here, or what?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as I said, I told him yesterday this was likely to happen today, and then on the plane we got word from General Shalikashvili.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 4:00 P.M. (L)