THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary (Buenos Aires, Argentina) _______________________________________________________________________ For Immediate Release October 16, 1997
PRESS BRIEFING BY AMBASSADOR JAMES DOBBINS, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR INTER-AMERICAN AFFAIRS JEFFREY DAVIDOW, AND MIKE MCCURRY
Sheraton Buenos Aires Buenos Aires, Argentina
2:00 P.M. (L)
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We'll do a readout of the President's entire schedule of meetings today, and then I can tell you a little bit at the conclusion of that briefing about the town hall, if you'd like some additional details on that.
But I'm delighted to introduce again Ambassador James Dobbins, who's our Senior Director at the National Security Council for Inter-American Affairs; and Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Jeffrey Davidow, who will both brief you on the series of meetings the President had this morning and early this afternoon.
Mr. Ambassador and Mr. Secretary.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Thank you. Jeff and I were in some of these meetings together, and in the first of them I was there without Jeff, so I'll do the first part and then turn it over to Jeff and we can both handle the questions.
The bilateral session with President Menem was in two parts. First was a smaller session with a half a dozen on each side; and then there was a larger session in which all the Cabinet participants who came with the President participated in a similar group of about 16 or 17 people on the Argentine side.
The first session lasted for about 40 minutes. President Menem began by briefly describing the strength of the Argentine economy and the growing importance of foreign investment including, in particular, American investment. The economy is estimated to grow over 8 percent this year. And the U.S. is now the largest source of foreign investment, with U.S. investments currently representing 33 percent of the total foreign investment.
He noted that these results had been achieved as a result of an aggressive program of privatization and support for market reform. And at one point he noted that this privatization had included at one of its earliest stages privatization of the media. The President picked up on that to raise a theme that he has raised in the other countries we visited and has also alluded to publicly in each of the countries he's visited -- that is his desire to, his concerns, our concerns regarding pressures on the press throughout the hemisphere and the desire to look for ways to increase support for and protection of free press.
He suggested, as he has elsewhere, that we look for ways of strengthening the OAS human rights mechanisms to encompass problems of support for the free press. He noted that that OSCE organization in Europe has recently adopted a new structure with the purpose of protecting and advancing freedom of the press and suggested that this model might be looked at by members of the Inter-American system to see if it had some applicability.
President Menem noted that this was a useful subject for discussion at Santiago, the upcoming Summit of the Americas, and there was agreement that we should continue the dialogue among ourselves and with the other partners in the OAS in order to see whether we could advance this issue in Santiago.
The President also expressed support for the creation of a hemispheric judicial training academy. And, again, it was agreed that this was a useful item for discussion and possible decision in the context of the Santiago summit.
The President confirmed, as he already had, of course at the speech this morning that he has notified the Congress of his intent to designate Argentina as a major non-NATO ally. In this connection, he expressed his great gratitude for the consistent support which Argentina has given for international peacekeeping, including a number of international peacekeeping activities of great importance to the United States. He said in this regard Argentina was a role model which he hoped many other countries would imitate.
He noted that even with relatively small proportions of national forces committed to situations like Bosnia from a number of participants, if it was done at an early enough point, one could have a tremendous impact.
There was some discussion of situations -- Haiti, where Argentina was one of the earliest contributors. Algeria -- Menem was very concerned about the situation in Algeria. He and Secretary Albright discussed what might be done there. They went on to discuss the environment, the issue of global warming. The President made a presentation very similar to the one he had made with President Cardoso and the one he also made in very similar terms at the press conference in Brasilia about his vision of an agreement in Kyoto and the role of developing countries in his view that there was no inconsistency between developing countries reaching their growth goals and participating in a process of emission limitations.
On that subject, Menem, like Cardoso, was very interested, participated actively. Menem expressed general agreement with what the President was saying. Our officials are going to be talking further about environmental issues in the next few days and I expect that environmental issues will also be a topic on which the President and Menem will have more to say in Bariloche this weekend.
The President also raised his interests in electronic commerce, his proposals for a global regime which minimized regulation and maximized the growth of a free market on the Internet. Menem was very interested in this and indicated this was something that he wanted to continue the dialogue with us, work with us on these concepts and also work within Mercosur to bring the Mercosur partners along in this regard.
The President reaffirmed U.S. support for Argentine membership in the OECD. And I think that pretty much concluded the smaller session, and we then moved to the adjoining room, and Jeff Davidow, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, can brief you on that.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DAVIDOW: At the larger bilat which was attended by most of the members of the Argentine Cabinet and the officials traveling with the President, the two Presidents reviewed what they had discussed in the smaller bilat, and some additional points were raised during that time. The basic point of President Clinton was that the sea change in U.S.-Argentine relations that we have seen over the last half-dozen years has been extraordinary, and that we are appreciative of this.
The President talked -- our President talked about our attitude toward Mercosur, a theme that he had raised in Brazil, making the point once again that we have nothing against Mercosur and indeed, to the contrary, Mercosur has helped the economic integration and growth of this part of the world, and that we have benefited from that.
In relation to Argentina's membership in the OECD, as Jim said, the expressed support for this. He also noted that we have continuing concerns with Argentina about the protection of intellectual property rights. We recognize that the government of Argentina under President Menem has taken a number of important steps, but there are still others, some of which are caught in the Argentine Congress, that would be useful to take.
In the large bilat, the two Presidents also talked about cooperative activities on the problems of crime, drugs, counterterrorism; said that both agreed that we should increase our levels of cooperation and increase the levels of cooperation among all members for the Organization of American States.
That was basically the major points that were not mentioned in the smaller bilat.
The President, I should say, also made the point that later this afternoon there will be the first meeting on the Special Consultative Mechanism, which is chaired on the American side by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and on the Argentine side by their Foreign Minister, and that that will discuss another whole series of topics of cooperation and interest between the two countries.
After that meeting, the President met with five leaders of the Argentine opposition. As you know, Argentina is going to have an election on October 26th for about half the members of Parliament. This meeting is consistent with the kinds of meetings the President Clinton has had in his other trips in which he meets leaders of the political community. The elections themselves, the campaign were not -- repeat, not -- discussed in this meeting at all.
President Clinton began by talking about his vision of a partnership for the 21st century that would bring prosperity, protection of human rights, democracy, security to the entire region. He noted the extraordinary responsibility Argentina has undertaken in its participation in international peacekeeping, and made the point once again that action by responsible parties early in crisis situations can prevent greater disasters from coming.
There was considerable discussion on the part of the President, once again, of Mercosur, the fact that the United States supports Mercosur, and that we do believe that Mercosur is an important element in the construction of the free trade areas of the Americas.
The opposition leaders responded by noting that the essential basics of Argentina's policies vis-a-vis the United States, those of cooperation, and domestic policies -- that is, support for the free market, support for democratization -- are matters of state; these will not change on the basis of any election. And they confirmed that the relationship that the two countries have would continue whatever party or parties may gain electoral advantage.
The President returned to a theme that he has discussed at great length on this trip, which is how can societies which are progressing economically ensure that all members of the society benefit from globalization, from economic progress and change. And he noted, as he has before, that no advanced democracy has really come up with a perfect answer to this question.
There ensued a fairly lengthy discussion amongst the five political leaders and the President about strategies for improving the social compact. One topic that was discussed, for instance, was the rule of small and medium industry in providing jobs. President Clinton made the point that the best social program is a job, and that in the United States we pay great emphasis on job creation.
There was some discussion of what has happened in Northern Italy, where there has been a great development in small and medium industries; discussion of such things as the Small Business Administration in the United States, loan guarantees for small businessmen. The general discussion focused on how to create employment and make sure that no one gets left out of international globalization.
In that meeting which was extraordinarily pleasant in all ways, the five members of the congressional delegation that are accompanying the President as part of the official delegation participated. We went from that meeting to a meeting with members of the Jewish community of Argentina. The congressional members also participated in that meeting. There were seven participants on the Argentine side. Several of them represent organizations in the Jewish community; others are parents or spouses of people who were killed in either the bombing blast at the Israeli Embassy in 1992 or at the Jewish Community Center in 1995. Also included was a person who lost her husband in the Israeli Embassy blast, who is not Jewish.
The President made the point that these attacks were not only an attack on the Argentine Jewish community, but attacks on civilization around the world. There was considerable discussion about the need to fight terrorism. The President talked about his efforts to isolate terrorists and isolate those states that support terrorism.
The members of the Jewish community, all of the participants there were appreciative of the President's interest. They expressed some frustration about the fact that these two attacks here have not yet been resolved in the sense that the investigations haven't resulted in conclusive criminal proceedings. They expressed solidarity with the victims of terrorism attacks all around the world, including in the United States; stated that they would continue their efforts to find justice for their loved ones who were killed in these attacks. They are committed to keep this effort going and the President encouraged them to do so as a matter of respecting their dead and as a way of deterring further terrorist attacks both here in Argentina and around the world.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Let me just add on that, and then take questions. This group was asking the President both to make sure that the United States was providing what support and information it could to assist this case, which he promised to do, but also, prospectively, to work with Argentina, with other countries of the region to ensure against this kind of attack. And the President was able to say that he had discussed this both with President Cardoso and with President Menem; that one of the themes that we had been pushing in both countries is that we support increase in cooperation between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, and that we want to be helpful as they try to increase the attention that they're paying to counterterrorism cooperation.
Q Just to follow up on that, first, where was that meeting? Secondly, does President Clinton share the widespread belief here that President Menem has dragged his feet and isn't particularly seriously concerned about getting to the bottom of it?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: The meeting took place at the Sheraton, both of those meetings that we've mentioned. And, no, we don't believe that this has been a case of foot-dragging on the part of the Argentine government. The Argentine system places responsibility for these kinds of cases with the judiciary, not with the government. In a sense, a judge has to take charge of an investigation and draw on police resources, but has responsibility.
The Argentine Constitution also puts responsibility for attacks on diplomatic missions with the Supreme Court of the country. And the Supreme Court of the country, because it doesn't have responsibility for investigating other things, doesn't tend to have investigative experience or resources. And one of the reasons that most people think that the attack on the Israeli Embassy may have languished is because of this peculiarity in the structure that puts a responsibility on a body that's not very well suited to that.
As regards the other case -- the more recent, the judge who has been investigating that has been to Washington, he's met with both the CIA and FBI. He'll be having further meetings in Washington on the subject and we are seeking to provide all the assistance that we can.
Q Did President Clinton inquire of President Menem about the investigations? Did he say anything? I might have missed it, but I didn't hear you --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DAVIDOW: There was a discussion about terrorism and cooperation on counterterrorism, the kinds of training that we are providing in --
Q -- inquire about these two investigations, and what did he hear back from President Menem?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: President Clinton expressed our continued concern and support for progress in these cases and our willingness to assist. He had raised this when he met with President Menem at the Olympics, about six months ago now -- or whenever the Olympics were, a little longer -- and given him a letter on the subject at the time. And he renewed his interest and support for the investigation. And as I said, we are cooperating with the responsible authorities in Argentina and these investigations are under the judiciary.
Q How firm was the President on the question of human rights here and the freedom of the media? And how long did it take up in the smaller meeting?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I think that section of what was a 40-minute meeting probably took 10 minutes. There were a couple of ideas discussed and they weren't discussed in exactly the same part of the meeting. One was the idea of a hemispheric judicial training institute, which would be funded by the Inter-American Development Bank and other international institutions and would train hemispheric judiciaries and set standards. And the other was the discussion of freedom of the press and the possibility of strengthening the OAS mechanisms in the human rights area to support and promote freedom of the press.
Q Could you address the criticism that at the same time there is a trend toward great regional stability through Mercosur, the United States is actually participating in a negative way because of the special military status we're giving to Argentina, which has worried its neighbors, and the F-16s that we're selling to Chile, which, of course, has worried the Argentineans?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DAVIDOW: I think in part the President's strong emphasis both publicly and privately is an effort to -- a successful effort, I would say -- to counter that criticism. There is a view that has developed in some sectors of the press and political opinion in the countries of this part of the world that somehow the United States is trying to divide the countries of the region, one from the other, as part of some sort of maneuver to destroy Mercosur. That is totally wrong. We have responded responsibly to new realities in the region, and the President's great emphasis on our support for Mercosur as an important element in building the free trade area of the Americas is, indeed, a response to that kind of thinking, which is erroneous.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I might say that we heard nothing in Brazil which would suggest that these kinds of concerns are taken seriously or that, indeed, the grant of the status to Argentina is having a divisive effect. But certainly the President's statements, both statements explaining the decision with respect to Argentina and his support for Mercosur and discussions he had in both capitals about the importance of sustaining regional cooperation not just in economics, but in political and security affairs --
Q -- did the F-16s with Chile come up in this conversation?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: No.
Q Can I follow up on a major non-NATO military status for Argentina? Which other countries in South America have that status and what does it practically mean for Argentina? What will they be able to purchase now in terms of military equipment from the United States that they couldn't have purchased earlier?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DAVIDOW: To answer your question, Argentina is the first country in the world, actually, to receive this status on the basis of its participation in international peacekeeping efforts. We hope that other countries in the region, including countries that are also quite active in international peacekeeping, could also obtain the status. It is not a strategic alliance with Argentina. It is not a -- it does not denote any mutual defense obligations, nor does it make Argentina eligible for the purchase of any material that it would not otherwise have been eligible for.
It does have some benefits in terms of cooperation, in terms of training, in terms of research and development, all of which we hope will help Argentina continue its participation in international peacekeeping. It is, and has been acknowledged by the Argentine government and by our government, as a largely symbolic gesture on our part, recognizing Argentina's new status as a very active member of the international community.
Q Do any other countries in the hemisphere have it?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DAVIDOW: No. As I said, it is the first country in the world to get it in the post-Cold War era. We would hope that other countries would also express an interest in it, as well.
Q Is there any opposition in the U.S. Congress to this?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: We've notified the Congress, now, I guess it must be about 10 days ago. We've had no expressions of --
Q I was under the impression that Israel has non-NATO military status as well.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DAVIDOW: He's talking about the hemisphere.
Q The hemisphere. So there are other countries in the world, but Argentina is the first country in the hemisphere?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DAVIDOW: That is correct. There are seven other countries in the world that have this status -- Israel is one, South Korea, Jordan, Australia, New Zealand, and there may be some others. But as you can see, those are countries, in some cases, that are in parts of the world that are far more conflictive than the Western Hemisphere. The designation of Argentina should be seen as a new approach for this designation and one which is entirely focused on international peacekeeping.
Q What did Argentina do to acknowledge its acceptance of this status, and does it come with any obligations on Argentina?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: It's not a reciprocal arrangement, it's a designation. It's not an agreement, it's a unilateral gesture, and it imposes no obligations.
Q Is it something the they requested?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: They did request it, yes.
Q Can you give any concrete examples on the kind of research and development and training cooperation that they'd be eligible for that they're not --
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I honestly don't think that they requested this status with a view to anything specific beyond the recognition that it implies that they had fundamentally changed the nature of their relationship with the United States, which had been antithetical for three generations, to one that was cooperative and collaborative. And they were seeking recognition for that through this designation.
Q That wasn't my question. The question was, can you give some sort of -- something specific to hang it on so we don't just say, in terms of research and development and training --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DAVIDOW: Okay. Under the MNNA law, there is the possibility for countries which have previously received this and it would apply to Argentina, for research and development on defense issues. I can't give you anything more specific, but let me give you this specific thing. We engage in joint training with the Argentine military on a variety of issues, but largely focused on peacekeeping. This will enable us to give even more training, participate in even more exercises with them on this particular issue. The Argentines are also doing a lot of training, cross-training activities with their neighbors. This will help promote their ability to engage in international peacekeeping, as they are right now, and can be even more effective.
Q Could you explain what -- isn't the President, on of his concerns regarding -- can you talk about specifically what problems he sees in terms of the press -- Argentina and what he wants Menem to do about it?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Threat? No. I think -- I'm not sure what they're referring to when you said "threat."
Q No, pressure. You used the word "pressure," pressures on the press.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: No, he was referring to a problem throughout the hemisphere as he has done in each of the other countries he's visited, where the press -- for instance, where the press is either under pressure, where there are disagreements with local governments as there are in a couple of other countries in the hemisphere, between the press and the local government about their appropriate role; or where the press comes under direct threat from individuals, not from governments, where they're threatened and where in some cases they're killed.
I think the International Press Association, the hemispheric press association has pointed to a number of instance where journalists have been threatened or even harmed or murdered. And it is this general concern, which is applicable in Argentina, but it is also applicable in a number of other countries in the hemisphere, which the President was referring.
Q Ambassador Dobbins, to follow up on that, what's the administration's view of the widespread assessment in media circles here and at home that the Menem government in many cases encourages violence and pressure on journalists?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I guess -- the only instance I know in which President Menem has been accused of encouraging violence was one quote that he used from Benjamin Franklin for which he subsequently apologized. There have been instances in which members of the government in the sense of low-level policemen have been accused of participating in abusing the press. This is a case of common criminality and corruption at that level rather than conscious government policy.
President Menem noted that one of the first steps of his government in their privatization campaign was to privatize the media, and certainly the media in Argentina is very vigorous and very critical.
Q Back on the ally status, is it wrong to say, as has been written here -- show Argentina priority access to American-made weapons, ammunition and spare parts?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I think that would be an over-generalization. What is -- do you have a quote that you're citing from?
Q No, this is this is just the way it's been written.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I think that would be too --
Q -- some priority access to this weapons and ammunition and spare parts?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Not as generically as you're suggesting. The legislation itself, in fact, carries some very narrow authorities. Those authorities are duplicated in other legislation for other purposes. So, for instance, you could grant something under that authority, an access to excess equipment which had been deemed surplus or a training program, but you could also provide that under another authority for somebody who was cooperating in peacekeeping. Argentina, for instance, already has access to excess American defense equipment, as does Brazil and Chile, under the authority that goes with cooperation and peacekeeping.
This authority gives you another basis to do it. But it's importance both for Argentina and for the United States is that it symbolizes the change in its international orientation and a desire to cooperate with the United States in international peacekeeping.
Q Does it provide any practical benefits for non-military high-technology purchases?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: No.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: No. It's completely silent on that.
Q Going back to Brazil just for a second and proceed on the same subject, is it correct that the Brazilian government did not raise the subject when you were there?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Yes, it is correct that they did not raise the subject.
Q The subject was not an issue in Brazil in any way.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: No. I mean, it was -- you could it to have been touched on in the sense that President Clinton made clear our support for Mercosur for cooperation among these governments, including in the area of security, that he was not asking any of them to choose between their relations with each other and their relations with the United States, as he said very explicitly. So in that sense you could say that it was encompassed in those general statements. But it was never raised by the Brazilian side in any form or by us.
Q Did the President raise the subject of corruption? And if yes, what was Menem's reaction?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I think it came up in the context of -- it came up only implicitly in the sense that we supported the creation of a hemispheric academy for training judiciaries. So in that sense there was a positive approach to it. There wasn't anything else explicit that I can recall.
Q The word wasn't mentioned?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I don't believe so.
Q On that subject, many Argentines are thinking that this new military partnership between Buenos Aires and Washington might lead up to a final settlement between the U.K. and Argentina about the Falkland Islands. My first question is, is the State Department worried about the reaction you might get from the British government? And secondly, do you have any actual -- government regarding this aspect now that Washington has promised them this new military liaison?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Let me answer part of the question, then let Jeff do the other half.
The British government was fully aware of this and was fully aware of it before we made the decision. We don't see any connection. I don't think they see any connection to the issue of the Malvinas and the discussions between the U.K. and Argentina and this designation which, as I've said, is designed to support continued cooperation and peacekeeping.
But why don't you talk about the other issue?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DAVIDOW: Well, there is no connection, period; absolutely no connection. The issue of the Malvinas was discussed and the President -- President Clinton listened to President Menem. No specific requests were made of the United States by the government of Argentina in this regard. President Clinton expressed our interest in seeing two of our very best friends continue the dialogue that has been going on for some time and continue the improvement in the relations, which are now excellent, between the United Kingdom and Argentina. That was the nature of the conversation.
Q Could you explain how this military partnership is anything more than a phrase? I mean, I don't understand it at all. You suggest that --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DAVIDOW: It is not a military partnership, okay. And I think we've explained it. The point is, it is a designation to Argentina which we use because we have an existing authority in legislation to do this to recognize that Argentina is a major non-NATO ally. But that is not a strategic alliance or a mutual defense obligation as other alliances are. It is a designation which recognizes Argentina's involvement in international peacekeeping and can be used to help Argentina and that involvement.
Q You suggested, though, that it implies additional exercises beyond just peacekeeping type operations. Could you elaborate?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DAVIDOW: I think the focus is in what we have said to Congress and what we have said to the Argentineans is essentially on peacekeeping. That's why this is a new way of utilizing this legislation the first time. We hope that there will be other occasions in which those countries such as Argentina, and there are some others in this region, maybe elsewhere in the world, who are particularly active in international peacekeeping, will get a special designation from the United States government.
MR. MCCURRY: Last question.
Q Did President Clinton make any commitment or any commitment on behalf of officials to try to help the dialogue between the British and the Argentine government along --
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: No, he said exactly as Jeff said, that we regard -- this is a dispute between two of the best friends the United States has ever had, and that we are pleased that relations between them are improving, that they are in regular discussion, and that we hope that they will be able to settle the issue between them.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DOBBINS: Thank you.
MR. MCCURRY: Thanks. Let me just very briefly tell you about the town hall. We've given out some details on what this is. Have you got enough on that already? Okay.
This town hall, which is being really produced by Univision at their request but certainly with the encouragement of the White House, is entitled "Voices of the Future: Face to Face with President Clinton." The audience participating will be about 300 young leaders from countries throughout the hemisphere. There are 125 that will be in the studio audience here in Buenos Aires. They are from a mix of countries -- Argentina, the United States, Mexico, Chile, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Colombia; I believe there are some from Cuba participating in the audience as well.
The audience was selected, put together by Univision -- people at the Univision public affairs operation can tell you more how they selected the audience. There will also be, by a live satellite link-up, 75 young leaders in Miami, 75 in Los Angeles. The age range is roughly 17 to 32.
And we don't have any preconceived notions of what the questions will be about. The President wants to make a presentation that's very similar to what he has been arguing to the audiences he's seen here, but he sees this as a great opportunity in front of a live audience here and connected to an audience in America to portray in a very visual way how our country and other countries in this hemisphere are interconnected.
All right, enough on that. The President has today used his line item veto authority once again to cancel a provision of the 1998 Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act. He has acted to strike a provision in that bill that was added at the very last minute which would declare a new open season for federal employees seeking to shift from the old Civil Service Retirement System to the new Federal Employees Retirement System that was created by an act of Congress several years ago.
This provision would have cost an estimated $1.3 billion over five years because it, in effect, makes more generous some retirement benefits available to federal workers. He struck specifically $8 million in the 1998 appropriations. It would have been, as I say, roughly $1.3 billion over the five-year period. We've got a statement that provides further detail on that.
Q Who added that provision, Mike?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe it was -- one of the strong sponsors was Senator Stevens, if I'm not mistake. I'd like to double-check that, but I believe that was the case.
The President believes this is an excellent example of why this authority is important. This is a provision that was not debated by either the House or the Senate. It was added during the House-Senate Conference Committee on the appropriations bill, and at that, at the very last minute. And the President believes one reason Congress gave him this authority is to protect against those last-minute expenditures of funds which need to be more carefully considered.
The President's main reason for acting here is this would have been a considerable cost to federal agencies that have scarce resources already that need to be devoted to programs. It would have required those agencies to shift money from higher priority efforts to the payment of more generous employee benefits for federal workers.
Q -- Senator Moynihan are filing suit, I think today, over the line item veto of the New York Medicaid funding. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think as you know, last week the administration explicitly clarified that the state of New York is not liable for over $1 billion related to regional provider taxes, which is the underlying issue that provoked the Presidents line item veto. We have also indicated our support for legislative provisions that would give the Secretary of Health and Human Services authority to give up all the current retrospective liabilities of currently impermissible taxes that are charged by a variety of states.
We are trying to solve, as you know, a problem that existed for a number of states, not only New York. The President and the administration believe that the offer extended to New York was very generous. I think it was almost two-thirds of the liability that would have been covered by the clarification that we offered. But if the state, with the support of law-makers, wishes to sue, the United States government will make whatever proper decisions related to how to contest that in course.
Q If I can just follow up on that -- does this effectively end any further negotiations as far as the government is concerned? Would the administration be willing to continue talking even while the suit is --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we, as you know, have been in very close consultation with the Governor's Office, with other members of the delegation, and made what we felt was a good-faith effort to resolve the situation and the clarification extended. But it was summarily rejected by the Governor. We would always be open to having continuing conversations if there's a desire by the state and by local officials to attempt to resolve the matter.
Q And is the line item veto -- how many line item vetoes has he issued as of this point?
MR. MCCURRY: As of this -- I think we're up to -- this is the fourth bill upon which he's acted. I think --
Q This is the 55th by my count, Mike.
MR. MCCURRY: Thank you, Mr. Knoller, as usual. (Applause.) There's a trick -- there's a little asterisk on that, though, Mark, which is that the SR-71 provision that he struck, the funding for that was actually two separate actions because it was contained two places in the bill, but it was one project. I'll bet you Knoller did know that.
Q In your first two spending bills you made the point repeatedly that what might be worthy projects, it's just a matter of -- is this the first use against old-fashioned pork?
MR. MCCURRY: No, no. Look, it is not pork to provide good quality employee benefit coverage to federal workers. That by no means would the President consider that pork. He highly values the professional service rendered by employees of the federal government. But at the same time, we have a generous package of benefits that have been structured. This would have added to the cost that agencies have; it would have prevented some of those federal workers from having the resources to devote to program activity that they carry out. And the President, on balance, felt it was better to keep priority spending where it's needed and to specifically cancel out an open season that was not recommended in our budget, it was not recommended by the Office of Personnel Management, it was not included in any discussions the Congress had that I'm aware of.
Q How many people -- would this have affected all federal employees?
MR. MCCURRY: It would have -- the provision could apply to over 800,000 federal civil servants and congressional staff, and over 300,000 postal service workers. These are people currently covered under the Civil Service Retirement System who are not currently eligible to switch over to the Federal Employees Retirement System, which covers most new-hires to the federal work force.
Q It affects $1.1 million people.
MR. MCCURRY: It affects 800,000 federal civil servants and staff, plus the 300,000 postal service workers.
Q So 1.1 million people are going to suffer as a result of the President's line item veto?
MR. MCCURRY: -- 1.1 million people will continue to enjoy the excellent benefits packages that they currently have as a result of their federal employment; they won't have it added to.
Q Are there any other bills on which the clock is ticking on this?
MR. MCCURRY: The energy and water appropriations act, the Office of Management and Budget has been very carefully evaluating that bill. I believe the deadline for action on line item vetoes is Saturday.
Q Is that the one, Mike, with the certain dredging project down in --
MR. MCCURRY: That's the one that comes closest to oinking.
Q Did I hear you say that Cuba is participating in this forum?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe so, but we'll find out more about that. You need to ask the Univision folks, who actually gathered the audience together. I was given a list, and Cuba is included, but I'm not sure how many or who.
Q I've got a question on -- the U.S. Maritime Commission apparently said it's going to seize Japanese ships in the U.S. because they refuse to pay --
MR. MCCURRY: That probably just broke. I know that federal Maritime Commission has been meeting. We had asked them to try to extend the time, because our negotiators are in a discussion with representatives of the government of Japan on the underlying issue, the cost of services at ports. We will attempt to understand better what the decision of the Commission is. The President does have some authority under law to review actions that are taken by the Commission of that nature.
Q Do you expect him to override what they've said?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not predicting or speculating at this point. We need to understand more carefully whatever decision has been reached by the Commission. When I began this briefing, all I was aware of is that they were currently meeting and I did not know that they had reached any decision.
Q Do you know if the global climate change -- came up today --
MR. MCCURRY: It did come up today. Just from the little I gleaned from our briefers just talking about the meeting, I know that President Menem and President Clinton talked about the issue and its importance. They talked about the importance of coming to a common understanding as we prepare for the Kyoto conference.
I think you know that the Presidents are going to be together again on Saturday for a discussion of environmental protection. And I think it's likely that they will have some more to say on that subject at that time.
Q The First Lady today made a speech encouraging women to make their voices heard, press for political change and elect more women to office. Does this signal a change in her public visibility to --
MR. MCCURRY: I think she's been encouraging women to do that for most of her adult life.
Q But she talked about subjects which were perhaps touchy in a country like this, including family planning, and she even mentioned abortion. It seems that she's taking a slightly higher profile than she has in the recent past.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe that's so. I think that she has, very often when she's traveled to countries, been quite outspoken and forthright in the issues that she's raised. I think it's not always the case that she has as much press traveling with her, but some of you who have traveled with her on trips know that she has been quite outspoken on these trips.
Q -- that the President is going to Kyoto?
MR. MCCURRY: No, no, I didn't intend to. I said, as we prepare -- as the administration, collectively, prepares for the discussion in Kyoto. There's been no decision, no change in our views on that. We don't know what is to be accomplished at Kyoto and there's been no decisions made by the United States government as to level of representation.
Q Do you want to comment at all on these videotapes that were released in Washington?
MR. MCCURRY: That's happened a hemisphere away and we've got people back there -- you've had plenty of commentary from the White House by those who are working at the White House on the issue. We're not working on that in this hemisphere at this time.
Q Can you at least respond to Specter's assertion that one of the tapes nails the President on the subject of coordinating campaigns?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware what Senator Specter has said; I haven't followed his remarks.
Q There's a suggestion that on one of the tapes the President seems to be basking in the fact that some of those --
MR. MCCURRY: Wolf, I haven't seen the tapes, so I can't react.
Okay, anything else?
Q It hadn't actually occurred to me before, but I heard it today from somebody -- was that however well-intentioned this hemispheric town meeting is, that it may contribute to a perception in the United States that all these Latins are more or less an amorphous group, the fact that different cultures, whether the Cubans or the Mexicans who are going to be at the Los Angeles meeting --
MR. MCCURRY: I think that when the individual leaders, the young people who are in the audience have a chance to ask their questions, I don't think they will look like an amorphous blob at all. I think they will be seen as interesting, engaged people, leaders of their own communities who are interested in issues.
And one of the things the President has stressed here are those things that we share in common with all the governments of this region -- things like respect for the rule of law, the importance of democratic institutions, the phenomenal success of market economics as a way to create growth in this regions. And the enduring values that we share up and down this hemisphere. And I think that, if anything, as you see a very diverse audience engaged, you'll see some of the central themes of this trip underscored, that we have a lot in common with other countries in this hemisphere and that we need to work together to address our common goals and objectives.
I think I'm done.
Q I was told yesterday that Steinberg is going to meet with the press association, the Argentinean press association.
MR. MCCURRY: It was the intent of a couple of our staffers, I think Mr. Blumenthal, maybe Mr. Steinberg as well, to meet with representatives of the press here in Argentina, also to follow up on some concerns that we have had expressed to us by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has raised some very serious concerns about the degree of harassment and intimidation that members of the media here in Argentina encounter.
You've heard the two previous briefers address that. That subject did come up with President Menem today. But there is a great deal of concern about the working conditions that journalists have, and we are concerned by the concerns that they have raised as to what might be the motivation of those who are suffering harassment and intimidation.
Q Mike, if I could just follow up on that. Given that there is concern about journalists being treated here, about whether or not this investigation of these bombings is being -- why would the government -- why would our government be giving what seems to be a boost to the Argentine military, when you share some of these concerns? I mean, it seems counter.
MR. MCCURRY: Those are separate questions. There has been a significant and dramatic change in the nature of civilian authority over the military here in this country, as is abundantly obvious, I think. But at the same time, our concern about freedom of the press and the role that a free press plays in a democratic life is very well-known and causes us to raise our concerns.
I've got to -- maybe take one last question, then I've got to go.
Q -- inconsistency between you and the previous briefers. I thought when they discussed the matter of press freedom in Latin America they were sort of saying that this is an issue that cuts across several nations -- while they may -- but then just as -- just if I can complete the thought, the fact that Steinberg and Blumenthal are going to meet with journalists here, and from what you just said, suggests --
MR. MCCURRY: We need to double-check and make sure that that --
Q But that suggests the administration is -- or acknowledges that the administration is particularly worried about press treatment in Argentina, that it's particularly worried here.
MR. MCCURRY: There are a number of countries in this region that have -- in which working journalists have reported these types of concerns. That problem is not exclusive to the working journalist community here in Argentina, and it's the reason why, as the previous briefer suggests, we have suggested there might be within the mechanisms of the Organization of American States a way to deal with the need to cultivate and respect the institution of the free press.
Q But is the problem worse here than elsewhere?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to characterize it as being worse -- because there are situations in other countries that, if you talk to some of your colleagues who do very good work with the Community to Protect Journalists, they can tell you that there have been isolated situations that have been more dramatic and more gruesome in other countries than the reported instances that have occurred here in Argentina.
END 2:55 P.M. (L)