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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 11, 1998
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                              MIKE MCCURRY 

The Briefing Room

2:15 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Two housekeeping items -- first, the President will swear in Dr. David Satcher as the new Surgeon General Friday at 9:45 a.m. in the Roosevelt Room. Actually, I correct that -- the President can't swear in people, so the Vice President will swear him in. But the President will be there and congratulate our new Surgeon General.

And second, the event tomorrow on the Hill that some of you have asked about will be in the Dirksen Auditorium. It's an opportunity for the President to meet with the Democratic leaders and other members of the Democratic Caucuses in the Senate and the House and talk about our combined legislative agenda for the year ahead and the work that we will do in education and health care and economics and budget and other issues. It will be a dandy event.

Q What time?

MR. MCCURRY: It will be at 10:30 a.m. in the Dirksen Auditorium.

Q Is it open press?

MR. MCCURRY: It is open press. The Satcher swearing-in will be pool.

Q Mike, let me ask again as we did this morning about this Fox story. I won't repeat the question because you know the story. Do you have any comment on the story?

MR. MCCURRY: I really don't. I don't know what the individual saw. I don't pretend to speak for him, so we really don't have any comment on it.

Q Mike, can you explain why it would be if not impossible, unlikely, for that sequence of events to occur? That's been the explanation White House officials have offered.

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that we have any explanation of what he saw or what the circumstances were. I told some of you what is the general practice here, but what happened at the specific moment that he may have seen something, I just don't know what that is, so you have to talk to someone else.

Q What is the general practice?

MR. MCCURRY: The general practice is -- I mean, you all see it all the time when you're up here. You've got agents posted outside the door, and the Uniform Division folks redeploy elsewhere when the President is in the Oval.

Q But isn't it fair to ask the President or have someone ask the President? He clearly could tell us.

MR. MCCURRY: Sam, I think you know that we are just not responding day by day to stories.

Q Mike, besides the deployment of the agents, how are people cleared in to the Oval Office when they -- say, if someone showed up and said, I have some papers to deliver to the President, how are they cleared in?

MR. MCCURRY: Normally, they present themselves in the outer office to the people who would accept them and deliver them or admit whoever is going in.

Q By people in the outer office, you mean secretaries?

MR. MCCURRY: Betty Currie, Nancy Hernreich, whoever is there. Now, this was apparently -- Mr. Fox says it was on a weekend, and on weekends there are different combinations of people around, depending on who is working.

Q Well, that's what I was going to ask you -- what is the staffing on weekends? We can't see up there. Would there be somebody there?

MR. MCCURRY: Terry, I can't tell you what the -- I don't know what particular day -- in fact, I don't think Mr. Fox recalls what particular day it was. But he suggests a period in which we were very active around here. It was right -- could conceivably have been during the government shutdown when I think all of you and all of us were working weekends. So I don't know what day and can't speculate -- begin to speculate on who was there or who may have been there.

Q Typically, on a weekend, though?

Q Mike, was he breaking some unwritten rule or some written rule by saying what he said?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. You would have to ask the Secret Service.

Q Does the White House consider or the President consider --

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know what the rules are. You should ask the Secret Service.

Q Is a staffer with a hard pass normally able to just walk into the Oval Office?

MR. MCCURRY: No. I hope not.

Q Do you knock, yourself?

MR. MCCURRY: I tend to go through the outer office.

Q Do you go through Betty Currie and --

MR. MCCURRY: Sometimes no. Sometimes on weekends, if I have to see him, and they are not there for whatever reason, I just knock and go in.

Q That's what Mark was asking, right? I mean, can they knock -- not barge in but --

MR. MCCURRY: It depends. There's not any one set formula. And in any event, none of it is relevant to whatever Mr. Fox said because we don't know what happened on that particular moment.

Q There is a story that in the Paula Jones case lawyers claim to have depositions from five other women that say something or other.

MR. MCCURRY: I don't begin to know what those depositions say.

Q Is there concern that the independent counsel is trying to go after those women?

MR. MCCURRY: You have to ask the independent counsel if he's going after women. I don't whether he is or not. (Laughter.)

Q Mike, what happened in the Roosevelt Room this morning? At first, the President seemed to be willing to take some questions and then he changed his mind. The applause just kept on going and going and going.

MR. MCCURRY: He had a boisterous response there and he -- I think he was prepared to at least take a question to indicate that he wasn't going to answer the question. (Laughter.) But he didn't get the opportunity.

Q Mike, did anybody say to the group, keep on applauding as he tries to answer the question until he gets out the door?

MR. MCCURRY: I wasn't in there. I didn't hear anyone say that.

Q But that -- could I just say that's very honest of you. He was prepared to take a question to indicate that he wasn't going to answer a question.

MR. MCCURRY: Thank you. I appreciate you commending my honesty.

Q You know, he has said, though, he would answer questions at some point.

MR. MCCURRY: I think he was prepared -- look, he was prepared to do it today. I mean, yesterday he didn't get an opportunity to answer any questions.

Q He had an opportunity --

Q Do you think he was prepared --

MR. MCCURRY: I think he was prepared to at least indicate, look, I've said what I have to say on this and --

Q He's welcome to come out.

Q -- the President saying that he will answer at the appropriate time. Once Monica Lewinsky has testified in front of the grand jury and broken -- between her affidavit and her tape recorded comments, would that be the appropriate time?

MR. MCCURRY: So you already know what she's going to testify to?

Q No. She is going to say one or the other.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I have no way of knowing what she's going to say and I have no way of knowing when the President will want to address the matter.

Q Mike, the last time there was some rumor that somebody had witnessed the President with Monica Lewinsky there was a sort of internal White House investigation to try to find out if that was true, and then you all come out with a statement and said it wasn't. Is there an internal effort now to try to find out what day Fox is talking about and see if anybody else --

MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to check. Or maybe you should ask Mr. Kennedy that. I'm not aware of that.

Q On Iraq, what's the latest diplomatic efforts? Are you closer to diplomatic solutions, or are you closer to military action in the White House view?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to speculate on exactly where we are. We are continuing to see if there is any utility to diplomatic approach, but we have not heard anything encouraging. And CNN had a Deputy Prime Minister on today saying not much that was helpful.

Q Why does France say that what Iraq is now proposing is a step in the right direction?

MR. MCCURRY: We don't share that assessment. The assessment of the United States government is that this is another attempt by Iraq to attempt to dictate the terms for U.N. inspections. And it is not helpful when the Deputy Prime Minister refers to the United Nations effort in Iraq as "an adversary," because UNSCOM, the special commission that includes the scientific technical experts that have been looking for evidence of weapons of mass destruction programs has a proven track record. They've got the expertise and the independence needed to get the job done of determining what the past tells us about Saddam Hussein's use of weapons of mass destruction -- biological and chemical weapons in particular -- and what efforts have been made to reconstitute those programs in the aftermath of the war. And Mr. Aziz appeared to be attempting to politicize that process, which has been and should be and will be an independent, scientific, technical effort by the United Nations to assure the world community that there haven't been such programs.

So a number of things that he said are very clearly out of line with the mandates Iraq faces from the United Nations. They are attempting to preclude UNSCOM from conducting inspections. They're trying to place limits on the duration of inspections. And they don't commit the government of Iraq to any permanent access to monitoring so that we can assure the world that Saddam Hussein is not attempting to reconstitute programs that he's had underway in the past. So this clearly is an unacceptable proposal.

Q General Zinni speaks of the pieces being in place in about a week's time. Is that a deadline?

MR. MCCURRY: No. I suggested to many of you this morning you should not read anything into his own assessment of what the deployment is. He's making a simple observation as a military commander of what force posture is in the region, but one should not read into that any timeline or sequencing that suggests other options.

Q Mike, there is a delegation from the Chinese Ministry on Religious Affairs touring the U.S. Do you know if they have -- I guess this is in conjunction with a delegation of U.S. religious leaders in China now. Has the President met with these?

MR. MCCURRY: The President met with the three U.S. religious leaders who went to China before they departed. I'm not aware that he is seeing the delegation from China that's here, although they have been, I believe, at the State Department, have they not? We can check and see where they've been, but they have not been here to my knowledge.

Q What is your assessment of Senator Helms' words and actions regarding the IMF?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, he has a clear point of view that I think I will leave to him to express. He did say one thing that I think we took some issue with yesterday. We are attempting to break the linkage between the IMF issue, which is very important for us to address and to address soon, and other issues related to population programs and things that have held up necessary foreign policy legislation or State Department legislation in the past. And I think Secretary Albright indicated that she agreed that we need to resolve those issues, but I think it's quite urgent that we proceed with legislation that will give the IMF the borrowing authority that it needs to address some of the situations in the Asian regional economy that we have been attempting to address.

Q Have you decided whether or not to resubmit fast track before the President goes to Chile?

MR. MCCURRY: We'll be working during the course of this year on fast track. I think it's quite clear at the moment that the first thing that should be on the fast track is the IMF legislation, given the importance we have attached to the efforts the IMF is conducting in the region.

Q Does that mean it's unlikely to go up before the Chile trip?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Chile trip is approaching and it doesn't appear to be likely that Congress would take that up in any event prior to April.

Q Mike, when the Wall Street Journal did the story about the steward, and when The New York Times did the story about Betty Currie, you and others here at the White House were quick to point us to lawyers who adamantly and vehemently denied the story. Are we to assume from your silence on this question about the 4-minute closed-door meeting that it may very well be true?

MR. MCCURRY: You are not to assume anything. You should actually seek the truth and report what you know to be the truth, and that's all you should do.

Q If it was wrong would you deny it?

MR. MCCURRY: I am not commenting on any of these day-to-day developments, and you know that.

Q When there have been a story that you said is false you have come out and said, that's wrong.

MR. MCCURRY: Look, I've told you I do not know what Mr. Fox saw. He has said some things about what he saw; I don't know what other comment I could make on it.

Q This is about Iraq. How the United States copes with the possibility of rising sentiment in the Arab population about anti-American feelings --

MR. MCCURRY: I would take strong issue with that and I would direct you to the statement that has been made by the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council today in which they very clearly condemned the delays that have been invoked by the government of Iraq. They have now specifically said that the Iraqi regime has continued with this intransigence, not caring about the dangerous consequences which could result from the stance that they have taken. The Gulf Cooperation Council statement on behalf of many Arab nations in that region is unequivocal in condemning the current Iraqi regime and its posture. I think that's a demonstration of the effect that our diplomacy has had, that others have had as we continue to bring pressure on Iraq to meet its international obligations.

Q Mike, the First Lady again today spoke at length about the Lewinsky matter, talked about its effect on the President, the effect on politics and what she expected to happen in the future. Why did she feel so comfortable talking about it when the President does not?

MR. MCCURRY: You should have asked her that question. It would have been a good question to ask.

Q Mike, is the administration surprised by the number of Republicans who are now saying that there should be some kind of end strategy to oust Saddam? In light of what Madeleine Albright said yesterday that we're not going to commit ground troops, there's no prevailing sentiment to do that, why are so many Republicans now saying that you haven't thought this through?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I don't know. I mean, one might turn the question on them and say, how would you propose to evict him from office short of committing hundreds of thousands of ground troops as we did during the Desert Storm War. I'm not certain that there would be any other way to do it. When we had a very large force on the ground in Iraq in 1991, we did not do it -- and in part did not do it because that was not the express mission as defined by the United Nations through U.N. Security Council resolutions. So those who propose that action I think have an obligation to explain to the American people how they would execute that kind of mission and what would be required of the United States in terms of putting people in harms way in order to accomplish that mission.

Q Mike, did the President have any response to Mrs. Clinton's remarks?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know if he's aware of them. I haven't talked to --

Q What gives us the right to bomb another country?

MR. MCCURRY: What gives -- well, it depends on what the circumstances are, but under relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions that apply in this situation, the world community has made very clear that the government of Iraq has obligations arising from the cease-fire that ended the Desert Storm War. And if those obligations are not, individual member nations of the United Nations have a right to do something about it.

Q Do you anticipate that another U.N. resolution will be enacted -- not that you need it, but that there will be as a matter of course another U.N. resolution?

MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't speculate on that. I think it's certainly conceivable, but not definite.

Q Would it be helpful if the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution saying Iraq was in "material breach" of its existing obligations?

MR. MCCURRY: It could conceivably be helpful, but it wouldn't be necessary if we got to a point where other measures needed to be considered.

Q But do you think that you would have the votes to pass that kind of resolution?

MR. MCCURRY: That's entirely beyond my capacity to speculate about. We wouldn't know until the issue was taken up. It's clear the Security Council will remain seized of this matter and continue to address it and no doubt hear a report from the Secretary General and others about the diplomatic efforts that have been underway. But how they will choose to address this situation is unknown at this point.

Q Mike, what is the significance of the countries that the President has chosen to tour in Africa?

MR. MCCURRY: Each of them I think showcases some of the efforts we are making to both promote democracy, economic development, sustainable development, and to demonstrate the enormous potential on the African continent for the emergence of a new global economic power. The enormous resources that exist, the ingenuity of the people of Sub-Sahara Africa, their ability to take advantage of the enormous commercial possibilities that are presenting themselves, our desire to engage with them, to enjoy both closer relations and a higher degree of commerce with those nations, all point to ways in which we can I think make in the 21st century our relations with Africa something they have never been before -- something that is not just a donor-aid recipient relationship, but something that really begins to develop a prosperous, thriving relationship between peoples.

And I think in each of the cases, from Botswana to South Africa to the other stops along the trip, to Ghana, you will see some of the fruits of the work that we have done to promote democracy and some of the things that we have done to sustain economic development in the continent.

Q Scott did ask a good question as to why Mrs. Clinton felt free to discuss it and the President believes it's not appropriate.

MR. MCCURRY: I would have to ask Mrs. Clinton in order to answer the question, and I haven't.

Q Is it the First Lady's role now to be the spokesperson for Mr. Clinton on the Lewinsky matter?

MR. MCCURRY: She has always been her own spokesman. That's what her role --

Q Well, she seems to be speaking for the President now.

MR. MCCURRY: She does because she is married to him and loves him and cares about him, and frequently addresses your questions about him. But I think she's a loving spouse first.

Q Mike, the First Lady gave an assessment of the Lewinsky issue and that was that it's not going to disappear, but that it will diffuse over time, that it's already diffusing. Is this assessment widely shared in the White House? Do you share this assessment?

MR. MCCURRY: I have no way of predicting what the future will hold when it comes to this matter.

Q Mike, some prominent Democrats suggested again today that Kenneth Starr can't possibly credibly investigate himself or his office over allegations of leaks or conflicts of interest. Does the White House share that view?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't think we pretend to tell Mr. Starr how he should go about credibly investigating leaks. I think we would suggest that there's great utility in having an independent effort to do so. And while we don't take any position specifically on it, we would note the interesting article that the Former Undersecretary of the Treasury wrote, talking about one case in which --

Q Noble.

MR. MCCURRY: -- yes -- one case in which he, in fact, looked at leaks himself.

Q This is connected to the speech you made at Harvard. Especially after this Lewinsky case is over, either the place in America is going to get hurt or the presidency is going to get hurt, and how do you think or how does President Clinton think about the whole situation of Lewinsky coverage -- I mean, the free press -- are you going to get hurt from this --

MR. MCCURRY: I think it -- there's no way of predicting at this point what kind of lasting damage we've done to the institutions of democracy. We'll have to wait and see how that develops.

Q Mike, the Russians have put their air defense and their early warning systems in a state of alert because of the situation in the Gulf. Did they inform the United States prior to doing this?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry, say again.

Q That they put their air defense and early warning systems in a state of alert because of the situation.

MR. MCCURRY: I'd have to check with others to determine the answer to that question.

Q Mike, Italy said today that Italian bases would be open to the American planes to attack Iraq. Any comment?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we deeply value the partnership we have with the government of Italy and our very strong, very important relations with them through the work we do together on European issues, and, specifically, the work we do together with respect to NATO makes us welcome very much the expressions of support that we have had at the moment that we're dealing with a very troubling situation.

Q Mike, at the signing ceremony earlier today, was the President alluding to specific offers of support by the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland regarding the possible decision on military strike?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes. I mean, we have had from all three specific offers of support, and then I will leave it to those governments to indicate what types of support they would be in a position to provide, although some of that I think will develop as military planners assess how inter-operable the resources are than can be provided by those nations. But they certainly are welcome offers.

Q Back on Africa. Is Jesse Jackson going to be on that trip?

MR. MCCURRY: He is on a trip there now.

Q No, no. Is he going to be going with the President?

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, will he be going? I don't think we've put together the delegation list at this point.

Q Mike, have you heard from the Attorney General on her decision regarding Secretary Babbitt and an independent counsel?

MR. MCCURRY: Not to my knowledge. But I have to confess I failed to check with the Counsel's Office. I'm not aware that they've heard anything.

Q Mike, has the White House received any indication from Judge Starr that he's interested in talking to the President, one way or another, sometime soon?

MR. MCCURRY: That's a question that I will direct to Mr. Kendall, and I did point out it would be helpful if he answered the question.

Q What did he say when you pointed that out?

MR. MCCURRY: Look, we clearly -- if he's not going to be in a position to call people back, as he hasn't been due to your very good investigative work, I think we'll try to figure out some way that we can either get a written response or some indication from him how he wishes to respond.

Q In anticipation of a possible interview with Mr. Starr or something along those lines, is the President doing any preparations, writing anything down or refreshing his memory?

MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of, although from time to time he does meet with his legal team, obviously.

Q Mike, the Treasury and Justice Departments have been helping the Secret Service make an argument that they shouldn't be compelled to testify because it would impact their future ability to protect protectees. Does the White House have concern that if either current of former agents go out on their own and talk to the media, that their ability -- the agency's ability to protect has been jeopardized?

MR. MCCURRY: To the contrary. The White House Legal Counsel called both the Justice Department and the Treasury Department, I believe, and indicated that our preference is for them to handle that in ways that they determined were in the best interests of fulfilling their mission related to protective services. I think in a sense they said, keep us informed if there is anything that we should know of, but we really would prefer that you make it your call on how you proceed on that matter.

Q Are you saying that you wanted them to share information, but not to officially testify?

MR. MCCURRY: No, no, no. We wanted them to address the question of what is necessary in their expert view related to the mandate they have under federal statute to protect the President.

Q My question was whether the White House is concerned now that one former agent has already gone straight to the media?

MR. MCCURRY: If there is concern to be expressed it ought properly be expressed by the Treasury Department or by the Service itself.

Q But, Mike, on that, wouldn't any President need a sense of privacy, that the people immediately around him aren't going to be saying everything he does?

MR. MCCURRY: I think that the President expects that. But as to what the obligations are of individual members of the Secret Service or people retired from the Service, I direct you to the Treasury Department.

Q Mike, on a tax issue, Roth held a hearing this morning with people who are suffering because their spouses filed incorrect tax returns for whatever reason. Would the administration veto an IRS restructuring bill that contained an innocent spouse provision?

MR. MCCURRY: I think we'd need to wait and see. If there is an "IRS restructuring bill," it would have much larger implications than that one specific tax provision. So we'd have to look at the overall bill and I wouldn't want to speculate on what position wed take without looking at it. I would say that it's important to note all the work the IRS has been doing and that the new Commissioner has been doing to address exactly the kinds of concerns that we've heard from the Hill and heard from within the administration, heard the President himself express, related to making this a more customer-friendly service and helping individual Americans fulfill their obligation to pay taxes.

Q Mike, should we expect anything on drug certification this week?

MR. MCCURRY: I think all I've heard is that we are in kind of the final stages of considering the issue and the recommendations are being finalized at the State Department as they are every year before they come here for the President's review. I expect it will happen sometime in the next -- in the near future.

Q Well, March 1st is the date, but there seems to be a feeling that you'll put it out earlier than usual years.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I don't want -- it has -- as you know, this is an annual exercise that has some reverberations that we need to contend with diplomatically, and I'm sure that we'll want to set the groundwork and be in close consultation with a number of governments prior to issuing the certifications.

Q -- what's the status on Iran-Libya sanctions?

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, you mean the Total review? Still underway and not finalized.

Q Is that at the White House or remain at State?

MR. MCCURRY: The review has been an interagency process that's been conducted through the National Security Council, but I don't think it has to go from one agency back over here. The State Department has been doing most of the work on it.

Q When the Clintons first moved into the White House they were very concerned about Secret Service agents being on the family floor and so forth, and arrangements were made that they would stay outside. You can't say today, can you, really, that the President is not concerned when a former uniformed policeman is talking.

MR. MCCURRY: I answered Larry's question I think pretty directly on that. I think if there is concern it ought to arise from whatever professional, ethical obligations members of the Service feel they have -- professionally -- and that the best place to judge that and the best place to get comment on that are the people who supervise the Service. And that's the Treasury.

Q What's the status of the President's legal defense fund, the new one that's being created?

MR. MCCURRY: Haven't -- same as it's been. Have you checked on that anytime recently?

Q Ruff is still reviewing the --

MR. MCCURRY: Reviewing some of the ideas that have been presented.

Q Mike, you said that from time to time the President is speaking with his legal team. Daily, weekly? And what are they talking about?

MR. MCCURRY: It depends on whatever work they need to do. Probably some days he doesn't and probably other days he's with them more than once.

Q Mike, this morning the First Lady said that she was concerned about the big legal bills --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, she made more news than I'm making today. Can we just let her words sort of carry on their own? I don't need to provide color commentary on a very good interview she gave you today.

Q Yes, but specifically, what kind of legal bills will they be racking up? Are people talking to lawyers before they go before --

MR. MCCURRY: We disclosed those or have disclosed -- actually we have disclosed them through the Legal Expense Trust. I'm not sure how we will do that now that they have been disbanded, but I think you know the status of the bills that he owes, which are -- what -- $3 million or close to $3 million. And I can't imagine that the bills are going any which way but up.

Q No, she was talking about staffers. She was concerned about staffers that were having to pay --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, they have expressed that concern before.

Q You yourself did, as I remember, on Monday.

MR. MCCURRY: I think we are all concerned about people.

Q So are people talking to attorneys before they go into depositions? Is this where this money is coming from? Nobody has been charged with --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's correct, there's no -- even people who are in a position of being fact witnesses frequently are in a position where they have to retain outside counsel. Except in those cases where the government agrees that they can be represented by White House legal counsel.

Q The Attorney General can authorize payment, if she chooses to, for government-related activity. Is this particular instance we're talking about considered to be a government-related activity?

MR. MCCURRY: That's a determination she makes, so you would have to ask at the Justice Department. I have no way of knowing.

Q Mike, could you put out a transcript of the First Lady's comments?

MR. MCCURRY: We'll check with the First Lady's Press Office. I don't have any objection to it.

Q They have a recording, I'm sure.

MR. MCCURRY: I've seen a draft transcript around, so we'll see if we can't make that available.

Q Any plans for the foreign policy team to come over and meet with the President today on Iraq?

MR. MCCURRY: They have spent some time together in and around the NATO event that they did earlier, so they've been together and we do expect more work on it tomorrow. There have been a lot of conversations back and forth, and clearly we've been dealing with the aftermath of Mr. Aziz's award-winning CNN appearance.

See you.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 2:45 P.M. EST