THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:50 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. What's going on today at the White House?
Q The Iraqis say that if the U.N. Security Council votes yes on the resolution, they will expel the Americans.
MR. MCCURRY: That would be a sign of noncompliance, wouldn't it?
Q How seriously would the United States view that? And does the United States believe that UNSCOM should leave the country entirely in that event?
MR. MCCURRY: That would be a very serious breach of Iraq's obligations to the international community. We believe that the Security Council resolution that is in formation now in New York is a serious expression of the determination of the international community to get compliance by the government of Iraq for the obligations that they have. And any sign that they are not willing to comply would be read for what it obviously is by the world community -- an act of defiance and an act that requires further measures.
Q If you find a link between the Kasi conviction and the shooting of the Houston oilmen in Pakistan, what recourse does the United States have?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have the ability to work with the government of Pakistan which, in fact, we are already doing, A, to learn the facts and, B, to assure that those responsible are appropriately brought to justice.
Q Back on Iraq for a minute. You talked about requiring further measures. What timetable are we looking at and what are some of the options?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to specify anything having to do with timetable or further options.
Q What did the President talk about today with some of the White House staffers with this race initiative, and did you come up with --
MR. MCCURRY: Mr. Lockhart, you're on. Joe was actually at the meeting, so I'll let him answer that.
MR. LOCKHART: The President met with some of his senior staff and a few of the staff from the Race Advisory Board -- no members, actually, of the Advisory Board -- just for an update. They went through a couple issues that needed decisions, which they made, on location and format for the town hall meeting December 3rd. We will make that announcement shortly. But those decisions on definitely on location and most of the way toward how we want the town hall meeting to play out. And again, we'll announce that shortly.
They then spent a section primarily devoted -- led by Gene Sperling and Bruce Reed on some of the policy initiatives that the Advisory Board and the initiative has been working on and looking at. Then finally, there was a very little bit of discussion, because the President had to leave to go up to the memorial service, on beginning to think about all of the different issues that would come into writing the final report, which will be put together next year. So that was basically it. It lasted about 40 minutes.
Q Joe, there seems to be a big concern in the public that they're not being informed as to when these meetings are happening, like the Race Advisory Board meetings, the President's town hall meetings, and people feel that -- the American public is feeling that they're being left out and they want to attend these things or find about them. Have you talked about communication and how you will be informing the public so they will know maybe a month or two ahead of time instead of maybe two or three weeks?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure. I mean, again, today was an internal meeting of staff just to make sure that we were all on the same page and to allow the President to be presented with the options on the meeting. As I said, we made the decision. I think within the next day or so we'll be ready to inform the people both in the area that we're going to and the American public.
Q Is the President happy with the pace that the race commission has taken? There's been some criticism that it's gotten off to a really slow start.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, let me talk about today. I think he was satisfied both with how this town meeting is going to play out and also was very excited about some of the different policy initiatives that were put on the table. So I think he believes we're definitely moving in the right direction and he's very much looking forward to going to the town hall and launching what will be a series of these over the next year.
Q Just to follow up, is the White House staff getting more involved so that the race commission does a little more?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think that there's been a good working relationship with the people here at the White House and the staff over at the Advisory Board. And I think we bring -- the staff here brings some insights both the President and where we're going. And both groups have worked well together.
Q Since you can't tell us the place, can you tell us what type of format it will take?
MR. LOCKHART: That will have to wait just because we're nailing down the details. But it will be similar to town hall, which will have participation from people in the community where we're going, and we'll let you know once we know.
Q The community primarily -- will he talk this time to white Americans, instead of singing to the choir, as we've said before?
MR. LOCKHART: I think he will talk to a community that has White Americans and we will bring in a cross-section of this community.
Q I guess earlier at the gaggle Mike suggested that the meeting was to look at the focus of the commission and the structure of the commission. Are there problems in that area?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the structural part of the meeting was near the end, and that was more bringing together some of the research that will need to be done as far as writing the report and trying to make sure that we have all the people who are working on this both internally, and then we've reached out to a lot of people externally for their thoughts and that was really the structural part of the meeting.
Q And the initiatives you mentioned, the author of those are committee members themselves or White House staff? Who is promoting these initiatives?
MR. LOCKHART: The initiatives? It's a cross-section. Certainly we're seeking input from the Advisory Board and from their staff, but primarily, when policy gets put together and has to be vetted, particularly things that have budget impacts, by OMB, that's worked through the Domestic Policy Council.
Q Back on Susan's question, so is the commission and its work about where the President wants it to be, where he thinks it should be at this point?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I think that we -- today was a positive session. We went through a long process figuring out where and how we were going to do the first town hall and I think we're now within a day or so of making those announcements, and the President is satisfied they were moving forward, and we've made a decision.
Q How many town halls do you expect to have?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we talked about three or four. That number could grow a little bit and I don't know -- there has been some talk that the Vice President might be involved in a town hall someplace, so I don't know exactly.
Q The commission was established with the idea of promoting more of a national conversation about race. Does the President think it's had any effect so far?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I think if you look at both from the series of speeches he's made, starting in San Diego, and you look at the debate, this debate I think has moved up a level. And so I think we have started this debate. I think when we move now into this series of town halls, it will be more of a chance for actual dialogue face to face, which will be helpful. But, yes, I think these issues have been raised above where they may have been before the initiative was launched.
Q These initiatives, the policy initiatives, what's the timetable for them?
MR. LOCKHART: I can't be precise on that. I think it's a combination. There are some that will be somewhat short-term and some that will be very long-term. So we will certainly discuss all of them between now and the end of the year, the end of the calendar year for the initiative. But some are long-term that seek to go out and do things into the next century.
Q Are these things that would come up in the State of the Union address?
MR. LOCKHART: Possibly, yes, some of them.
Q Does the President have any concern that the growing debate in the country about affirmative action and the growing stances by the court and the Congress against affirmative action may actually be swamping whatever agenda on race he and the Advisory Board may have?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think he has a concern about swamping, but I think it's an important issue in the debate, in the dialogue. And that's why he chose to highlight that subject in the speech announcing the initiative. But I don't think he has a concern, nor do the people within the commission or the Advisory Board staff or in the White House think that it's somehow overshadowing.
Q Is there anything concrete that we can hang on to at this point? (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: We'll tell you soon. We will have an announcement very shortly.
Q Mike, if the Iraqis make good on their threat and expel the Americans, is it the U.S. position that UNSCOM should stay or go?
MR. MCCURRY: UNSCOM needs to do its work. It's important work, it is the eyes and ears of the international community in determining whether or not Saddam Hussein is pursuing programs related to weapons of mass destruction. And at the end of the day he will be forced to continue a program of observation that allows the world community some degree of satisfaction that he is not pursuing those kinds of programs. But how that unfolds is not something that any of us in this room know at this point.
Q Mike, surely there must be a position as to whether, if the Americans are kicked out, others should stay.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's already been clear nine times in a row that if Iraq attempts to dictate the terms of who participates in those inspections, those inspections are canceled by Chairman Butler. What we're doing today is to see that those inspections go forward, constituted as the Chairman of the Special Commission sees fit.
Q Mike, given French and Russian opposition to stronger language, stronger action against Iraq, what role would the administration like to see them take now, especially in communicating to Baghdad what the U.N. stand is?
MR. MCCURRY: We expect the governments of Russia and France, at the end of the day, to be part of a strong, unambiguous declaration by the world community that we hope will be a unanimous declaration. And we know that the governments of Russia and France have been saying much the same thing through their diplomacy that we have been saying -- that the course of action that Iraq is now on is unacceptable.
Q Do they have some special role? Is there some special onus on them, though, in getting the message to Baghdad?
MR. MCCURRY: They are part of the consensus we are attempting to forge at the international community and they played that role in previous debates on Iraq.
Q Mike, on Pakistan and Iraq -- on Pakistan, does the White House think it's wise for Secretary Albright to proceed with her trip?
MR. MCCURRY: The President believes it's wise for her to continue
the diplomacy she is pursuing as her own staff and her own advisors see
fit. There are no indications that there should be any rethinking of
that particular j
Q One more on Iraq. I don't know if you can answer this, but is there any study which tells us about the possible spread of nuclear or biological material if those targets might be hidden in Iraq?
MR. MCCURRY: There is good -- the best place to look for that type of information are the reports that have been filed with the Security Council over time by previous Chairman Ekeus and now by Chairman Butler. They detail in very specific ways the concerns that the U.N. Special Commission has about programs in biological-chemical warfare. There is less concern about nuclear weapons development programs, but a strong degree of concern about biological-chemical weapons and then also about the capacity to deliver those weapons through missile technology. And you can learn a lot more by looking specifically at those reports.
Ken Bacon at the Pentagon has done a good job in recent days of walking through some of that, and we can make some of that available if you need it.
Q But if they're hit, if the targets are hit, what about the spread in the atmosphere? Do the reports discuss that?
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, I see. I don't want to speculate on that and speculate on military action at this point.
Q Mike, you seem to be careful not to be sort of raising the stakes here with this threat of expulsion of the American inspectors team simply equated to non-compliance inspection, as though it's more of the same. Is that really the impression you mean to leave?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it would be more of the same, because he has continually and persistently thwarted the ability of the inspectors to conduct their work and that is why the world community is about to make a very strong condemnation of that action. We are pursuing this diplomacy in a way that we think will work and that will bring the pressure necessary to bear on Saddam Hussein to change his course of action.
Q Two on Iraq. Is there any update on the reports of the U.S. government trying to stop the sale to Iraq of Czech radars that can locate Stealth airplanes?
MR. MCCURRY: I meant to get an update on that and I don't have one, Paul, but I can -- maybe NSC staff can help you.
Q All right. And the other question is, Richardson has been saying that the U.S. isn't yet saber-rattling. You've been very measured in your tone in your comments on the potential for military action.
MR. MCCURRY: You noticed.
Q Yet if you watch television you get the impression that we're halfway through the Gulf War, the drums are rattling and the whole bit. Is there a concern that it's too loud on TV, that there is too much pressure being brought to focus on the military angle?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. I think you should ask CNN that question. (Laughter.)
Q If the Iraqis do make good on their threat to expel the Americans, what does the United States expect from Iraq regarding their safe conduct?
MR. MCCURRY: We would expect them to make good the repeated assurances they have given both the United States and the United Nations that they guarantee the safety of those inspectors.
Q Back to Pakistan again. I know you spoke about this this morning -- do you have any specific causal link to draw between -- what happened in Pakistan?
MR. MCCURRY: No, we don't. We are trying to understand more, learning more. The best place to go for information is the State Department because they're in close contact with our embassy there.
Q Mike, does the President feel that if the Mid-East peace talks were more successful at the moment, that that would be helpful to the United States as it tries to build up support in the Arab world in this confrontation with Iraq?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that he necessarily connects those two. There are a variety of things that go into the various tracks of the Middle East peace process. It's fundamentally a question of what the relationships are between the parties and the government of Israel. We clearly would like more progress on that front now, but I don't know that that affects one way or another the ability of the United Nations or the United States specifically to bring pressure to bear on the government of Iraq, which is something that is independent of the peace process itself.
Q Mike, what can you tell us about the President and Vice President's interview with Justice Department investigators?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know anything beyond the statement that you got from their two attorneys.
Q Do you know how long the interview lasted?
Q One thing we want to know is whether they were under oath, or not. Is that something you can find out?
MR. MCCURRY: I do not know. I would direct you to their attorneys.
Q What's the purpose of the meeting between Vice President Gore Bill Lann Lee this afternoon?
MR. MCCURRY: The purpose is to build support for a nomination that ought to be going forward; it is being held in the Senate for no apparent reason other than a philosophical dispute between one senator and the President of the United States.
Q Will the prospects of a recess appointment be discussed?
MR. MCCURRY: I have continued repeatedly to -- or repeatedly refused to speculate on that and I'm not going to change my position.
Q Mike, did they not tell you about the legal side of this, or is there a conscious decision for you to stay away? I noticed that you said he didn't learn about it until late last night. It's hard to imagine this was something that was just thrown on the schedule at the last moment -- to answer elementary questions like whether he was under oath or --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe it was thrown on his schedule at the last minute, but at the same time, the President was represented during the discussion by his private attorney, not by White House attorneys. So I'm directing you to his private attorney.
Q But these aren't content-related questions, I mean, they're actual questions on how long did it last, who was there, was it under oath. Why can't you just go ask the President these things?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to.
Q Why can't the President direct his private attorneys to speak to the media?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he has. That's what I'm directing you, to talk to them. It's up to them whether they want to answer it or not.
Q They won't. They won't return phone calls.
Q I've talked to them, and they won't in either case will they say --
Q Does the President have any plans to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits later this month?
MR. MCCURRY: We plan to meet with the Prime Minister at some appropriate point, but I'm not aware there's any meeting planned anytime soon. And my understanding is the Prime Minister may be attending events here in the United States outside of Indianapolis. But we plan to meet him sometime -- we're working on a schedule for a future meeting at a time that we can put it together.
Q Might you expect the President to drop in on the meeting the Vice President has with Bill Lann Lee?
MR. MCCURRY: I have not heard that, no.
Q What is the President doing in advance of tomorrow's committee vote to assist his confirmation?
MR. MCCURRY: As you know, he has spoken publicly to that question and has directed several to explore some arguments that can be made on the Hill. I'll let you know if there's anything beyond that.
Q Mike, just to be clear, Netanyahu's current trip there will be no meeting with the President -- is that what you're --
MR. MCCURRY: We are trying to work out a meeting at an appropriate time. I haven't heard of anything scheduled during this current trip.
Q Why is the President's schedule flexible enough to take a visit from King Hussein while he's here on a medical visit --Washington wasn't part of his itinerary, but they're adding it on -- but it's not flexible enough to accommodate Prime Minister Netanyahu when he's here visiting other cities?
MR. MCCURRY: We'll be very accommodating to the Prime Minister of Israel as you would expect. We just --
Q But you're making him fly across the Atlantic to come back for a later meeting. He's here in the country, or he will be, and you're not seeing him.
MR. MCCURRY: We work out the schedules of the President and the Prime Minister to the satisfaction of both governments. I haven't heard any concern raised by the government of Israel.
Q President Zedillo arrives tomorrow for a working visit on Friday with the President. Can you talk about what issues the President will raise with him? And also, do you know anything about the OAS agreement on arms trafficking?
MR. MCCURRY: I know that the two Presidents plan to visit the OAS during the course of the day on Friday. That will be an important part, element of the trip itself. I know that they've got a range of issues that will be on their agenda. They want to discuss ways that we can deepen cooperation on our effort to fight narcotics trafficking. Certainly there will be discussions of issues relating to migration and the environment, specifically, discussions about global climate change and the importance of working together to address that issue. They'll talk about further plans for hemispheric cooperation, leading up to the Santiago Summit of the Americas next April. And obviously they will discuss our trade and commercial relations.
It will be a good opportunity to review the status of the relationship; a good opportunity for the President to compliment President Zedillo on the strength of the Mexican economy. It has not been -- only a matter of years since the peso crisis in 1994, and the improvement in the Mexican economy, the strength of the economy and the response in the aftermath of that crisis, largely because of some very courageous steps taken by the government of Mexico with respect to economic liberalization, is something the President surely will want to note.
Q If, after this resolution on Iraq and the Iraqi officials have already indicated they don't plan to back down, what would the next step be? Can you just walk through it?
MR. MCCURRY: You know you won't have an answer to that question and you know that we're not going to speculate on what next steps are. There's no point in really asking that question.
Q Mike, with the expulsion of U.S. inspectors make what has been a multilateral, not a U.N. issue, a unilateral issue for the United States?
MR. MCCURRY: Those inspectors are part of the U.N. team. The importance of the cancellation of the nine inspections today, that's a decision that's been made by Chairman Butler on behalf of the United Nations. The Americans are participating there as part of that team. And later today we hope you'll see a very strong statement by the United Nations, strongly supported by the United States government, that expresses exactly the concern and the condemnation of that action that Saddam Hussein deserves.
Q Is it fair to call that statement a compromise statement between U.S. views and those of others?
MR. MCCURRY: It's fair to say it's a strong, unambiguous statement and it reflects a very determined effort on the part of the United States government to keep the world community together and united as we face the provocation posed by Saddam Hussein.
Q -- reference to consequences with the United States, would the President rather have seen more specificity?
MR. MCCURRY: We indicated we sought the strongest possible expression of condemnation in unambiguous terms, and that's exactly what we've achieved.
Q Mike, over the years the President has been very laudatory about the role played by Egypt in the Middle East peace process. But Mubarak has taken sort of an increasingly independent line -- he didn't show up here after the blow-up following the tunnel episode in Jerusalem. Now he's not going to the Mid-East economic summit. Does the President still view Egypt as a full, 100 percent partner and ally in the Middle East peace process, or is there some reassessment going on with regard to Egypt's role?
MR. MCCURRY: The President's views have not changed. President Mubarak is, himself, a leader dedicated to peace in that region and provide enormous insight and strength of purpose when it comes to discussions related to that process. A number of leaders who have worked tirelessly and with a great amount of patience on the Middle East peace process do, at times, become frustrated when it's not possible to see the parties themselves making the progress they need to make.
But frustrations aside, we understand that patience is required and we need to continue to build the kinds of opportunities like the Doha conference that allow for relations in that region to take a more normal course. Those that choose to absent themselves from the Doha conference are missing an opportunity to be a part of what will surely at the end of time will be the history of that region -- growing commercial relations between nations, with Israel as a full partner economically in the progress that that region makes economically.
Q Doesn't it leave the President with the image of somebody who had some chits, had some IOUs with Mubarak and being rather rudely rebuffed on something the President regards as very key, very crucial to the pursuit of the Middle East peace process?
MR. MCCURRY: No.
Q Mike, don't the travel restrictions proposed by the Security Council represent a pretty small sanction considering that Saddam has shut down UNSCOM?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, Saddam Hussein has sought the lifting of sanctions; instead it appears that he will see a tightening of sanctions. That's not the course of action that he would have wanted, and it's an expression of the international community's sense that he is moving in the wrong direction, not the right direction. I suspect there will also be some reference to the further measures that are available if it should become necessary to increase pressure beyond those items that are referred to in the resolution under development.
Q But if I can follow up, do you actually expect travel restrictions to make him change course on this, which is so important to him?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that he has gained an opportunity to exploit what he perceived to be a lack of unanimity in the world community. Instead, his actions have provoked a united response by the world community. The nature of the restrictions are less important than what they say about the judgments being made within the Security Council and within the United Nations about Saddam Hussein. And I think that he has failed to achieve an objective and, if anything, made matters worse for himself through his provocations of recent days.
Q Is the President meeting with his security advisors this afternoon after the U.N. vote?
MR. MCCURRY: He is getting a report. They are meeting today and have, in fact, been meeting every day on the situation in Iraq. I believe they met yesterday; they are meeting today; they will most likely meet tomorrow and in coming days.
Q Is he meeting with them, or will he get a report on their --
MR. MCCURRY: He has been getting reports regularly from Mr. Berger and has been meeting separately and individually with some of the individual members and talking with them. There has not been a full-fledged Situation Room meeting of the President with the principals, but he has been in very active contact with them. He did meet with some of them on Saturday.
Q That's what I was getting to, my earlier question about the further measures that you just talked about that could possible be taken. There is no, I realize, deadline within this signal, this resolution to Saddam Hussein. When would you think that -- sort of just a rough idea of how long people would wait? Or do you think the alliance is firmly behind stronger further measures?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe that the world community is going to be behind an effort to convince Saddam Hussein he must change course. Now, I can't predict, you can't predict, no one can predict how that will happen and when it will happen. It will surely happen, one way or another.
Q Given that, as you pointed out, the Americans on that team are representing an international body, if it were the judgment of U.N. that one way to avert this crisis would be to make minor representations in the proportionate representation on that body, would that be something the United States would simply be obliged to go along with, since it's an international body? Or would you say, no, that's a slight to the United States?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we would consider any proposed inspections regime consistent with our own interests, but there has been nothing but indications from the Special Commission and from Chairman Butler that they will work aggressively to safeguard the interests of the world community and safeguard the interests that we have that the government of Iraq not pursue programs related to weapons of mass destruction.
I want to make it clear, however, that it will be up to the United Nations to determine a composition of those inspections regime and not Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz or any representative of the government of the Iraq.
Q But not the United States as well, right?
MR. MCCURRY: We, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council have a great deal to say about it.
Q Is it accurate to say the President is fully satisfied with the resolution before the Security Council?
MR. MCCURRY: He is fully satisfied with the resolution. It remains to be seen whether he's fully satisfied with the response from the government of Iraq.
Q Is the President going to veto DOD authorization?
MR. MCCURRY: It's still under study.
Q Well, before it was still under study, you people put out the word that his advisors were going to recommend a veto. Is that still --
MR. MCCURRY: It's still under study.
Q There's been some speculation that the White House is looking at a major tax proposal to include in the State of the Union address in January. I wonder where that stands, whether there are active discussions underway about some wholesale tax change?
MR. MCCURRY: I've indicated to you in the past that there are discussions underway and have been underway at Treasury and here at the White House on ways that we can make the tax system simpler, fairer, and when it's possible provide tax relief to the American people. We look at those ideas all of the time, and I think there is some interest in addressing those questions as the President looks ahead to the State of the Union. I can't rule in at this point any package of tax measures, but it's sufficient to say that the President's economic advisors will be looking at those sets of issues as they prepare recommendations for the State of the Union.
Q Has there been any Republican input in these discussions?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's the President's State of the Union address, so at this point, not. But we do have ongoing consultations on the Hill with members of the tax writing committees.
Q Well, at the same time, then, are you saying that simpler would mean flatter? When he was asked about that this weekend, he indicated misgivings about that possibly being regressive in nature. And as you know, Congressman Gephardt also has a flat tax proposal --
MR. MCCURRY: I thought the President had a very instructive and insightful answer on both the question of flat taxes and consumption taxation. I don't really see any need to add to what he said.
Q What's on the agenda tomorrow, Mike? Is he going to meet with King Hussein for sure tomorrow?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not anticipating that tomorrow, but I am anticipating the President will sign the Labor HHS appropriations bill tomorrow at some time. We haven't set a time. Morning.
Q Mike, do you say who from the White House was present for the interviews yesterday?
MR. MCCURRY: No.
Q Was anyone present from the White House?
MR. MCCURRY: No.
Q Mike, on Iraq, does the President think he has to handle this crisis differently from the one where George Bush's safety was in danger because George Bush was a United States citizen, because he was not a part of the U.N. inspection team and that was much more of a unilateral matter -- or bilateral, if you look at it that way -- between the United States and Iraq, and that this is different?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to speculate on the answer to that question.
Q When we talked about Treasury looking at fairer taxes, one of the big issues that the GOP is looking at is the marriage penalty -- tax. Is that possibly one of --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to -- there are a variety of areas that the President's advisors will explore, and we are far from making an recommendations to the President.
Q What does the President think of the nanny verdict?
MR. MCCURRY: He believes that the -- well, he noted the judge's remarks that justice mandated his decision with respect to reducing the charges and the service of punishment as well, and the President believes that the judge was in the best position to make those determinations.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:23 P.M. EST