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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 12, 1998
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                              MIKE MCCURRY

The Briefing Room

1:20 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. The President's National Security Advisor, the Honorable Samuel R. Berger, will address the National Press Club on U.S. policy towards Iraq on Friday, February 13th. That would be tomorrow at noon.

Q But the President is going to be in Philadelphia.

MR. MCCURRY: The President will be in Philadelphia.

Q We're going to be in Philadelphia.

MR. MCCURRY: Good. (Laughter.)

Q I'd rather be in Philadelphia.

MR. MCCURRY: I'll be here with Mr. Berger. (Laughter.)

No, Sandy wants to take an opportunity to review where we are. We've got extensive work going on diplomatically and review the growing list of nations that are lending their support to the efforts we are making to achieve compliance by Saddam Hussein with the mandates that face him as ordered by the U.N. Security Council. And it's a good opportunity for the President's National Security Advisor to review the state of diplomacy.

Q What extensive work is going on diplomatically?

MR. MCCURRY: Secretary Cohen has been in Moscow; Ambassador Richardson is on his way to Asia; there have been extensive consultations in other capitals. The Arab ministers that represent the Gulf nations had a very powerful statement made yesterday that we hope Saddam Hussein heard loud and clear. There's a variety of things. Many things.

Q What's the reading here of the treatment that the Secretary received from his counterpart in Moscow?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I've spoken earlier today to Mr. Bacon and he's no doubt talked to some of your colleagues in Moscow, but he's -- the meeting itself was very cordial. They had a great deal of work to do and they did it. They clearly had a disagreement about the tactics that the international community ought to consider as we bring pressure to bear on Iraq, but there's no disagreement that Saddam Hussein and Iraq needs to be in full compliance. And they spent a great deal of time talking about how they can go about achieving that end.

Q Was there a meeting of the minds at all?

MR. MCCURRY: I think there was a lot of agreement on things that we could do in pursuit of the diplomatic path, but the Russian Federation clearly has a different view on the utility of use of force. And we've known that and there's nothing new about that.

Q Are they still concerned that there could be another world war resulting from a U.S.-led attack against Iraq?

MR. MCCURRY: I didn't hear in my report from there that Minister Sergeyev had expressed those thoughts. But I refer you to the readout that is now being given to the travel party with our Secretary of Defense.

Q Did they discuss the subject matter in The Washington Post --

Q Mike, has that disagreement, the tactical disagreement been affected by the published reports about Russia possibly selling germ warfare materials to Iraq at all?

MR. MCCURRY: No, to my knowledge, the state of view of the Russian Federation was well-known prior to that report.

Q But did they discuss that?

MR. MCCURRY: They discussed that and that has been reported to your colleagues in Moscow.

Q Any update on it?

MR. MCCURRY: No update. The Russian Federation has been very clear in denouncing both the report and indicating that their own view of the matter -- our view is very simple, which is that the purpose of the U.N. Special Commission that looks into the nature of the biological and chemical weapon programs in Iraq is to determine exactly what facilities they have, what equipment they have, what capacity they have to constitute those programs. And that's the place where we can learn the truth and it's important -- obviously very important for the government of Iraq to cooperate with UNSCOM; so, too, the government of the Russian Federation.

Q But what's the administration's view on the accuracy of the underlying allegations?

MR. MCCURRY: We don't have any independent information to either confirm or dispute that account.

Q What's the level of trust between the United States and Russia on security issues now in light of that report?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have a full range of working relationships at a variety of levels between our two governments on security issues concerning proliferation, concerning Bosnia, concerning technology matters, the Nunn-Lugar program which the Secretary of Defense will be looking into tomorrow. It's a very extensive and broad-based cooperation program. And we've had specific dialogue on matters related to proliferation, technologies, and dual-use technologies as it affects the Gulf region in the Middle East. So I'd say a high degree of confidence that we've got a working mechanism to address any concerns we have.

Q Line item veto reaction -- where does this leave everybody?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, as the President said in the statement that we've issued, he clearly signed the line item veto bill believing it to be constitutional. And though he's disappointed with today's ruling, it is his belief that ultimately the line item veto will be ruled constitutional by the United States Supreme Court.

Q Is he allowed to continue to exercise it? I realize there's nothing on his desk now, but --

MR. MCCURRY: He can. It is subject then to any litigation that arises pursuant to its use, but there's nothing that -- it has not been -- it's clearly a matter that will go to the Supreme Court eventually.

Q He's not restrained?

MR. MCCURRY: No, not that I'm aware of.

Q This business of an agreement among the President's lawyers and other lawyers representing witnesses before the grand jury, while legal according to everybody who's commented on it, does it not raise some questions of the propriety of that?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know why. Apparently, it's a fairly common practice, but the Legal Counsel's Office can tell you more.

Q Well, how does that work?

MR. MCCURRY: I can't tell you. I don't --

Q -- is it just after testimony?

MR. MCCURRY: Lawyers talk to lawyers. Beyond that, I don't know.

Q But after the testimony, not before the testimony?

MR. MCCURRY: I decline to specify because I don't know the nature of the contacts. The lawyers have contacts with lawyers. Beyond that -- and it's considered a routine practice. Beyond that, I refer you to the Counsel's Office.

Q Mike, John Travolta says that the President had promised to help him get Scientology worldwide recognition. Do you have a comment on that?

MR. MCCURRY: He may -- that may be a reference to what the United States government has done going back well over a year now to address the concerns that Scientologists in Germany have, related to some problems they've experienced there, with new concerns that we share. We have addressed those in the annual Human Rights Report that the State Department issues. There's a whole passage on it in last year's report, and I believe that it was in this year's report, too. Whatever -- that is a matter of public record we have pursued those concerns with the German Federation.

Q But the President told him personally that he would?

MR. MCCURRY: I am not aware of anything other than the work that we have done with respect to the specific concern in Germany.

Q Is Sandy Berger now personally in charge of that effort?

MR. MCCURRY: No, he's -- I think that the National Security Council and Mr. Berger have looked at that issue, but it was specifically with respect to the concerns we had about Germany.

MR. MCCURRY: Mike, the Secretary of State is up on the Hill talking about a long-term U.S. goal being the removal of Saddam Hussein and looking forward to dealing with a post-Saddam regime. What now is the White House thinking on the ability of the United States to help the removal of Saddam and get to that --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, other than stating that we believe a change of leadership would be in the best interests of the Iraqi people who have suffered because of the tragic decisions that Saddam Hussein has made, our ability to achieve that kind of change depends on decisions that are made in Iraq by the Iraqi people. We have long said that full compliance with all aspects of U.N. Security Council resolutions, in our view, would be inconsistent with Saddam Hussein's continued tenure in office because it requires him to acknowledge the legitimate political and individual rights of Iraqi people he has long repressed. And if they were granted that type of freedom to exercise their free will, we have long viewed that his continued tenure in his current position would be unlikely.

Q So would you hope that outlining this goal at this point would help win congressional approval of a resolution to support the operation?

MR. MCCURRY: Say again.

Q -- outlining this goal at this point will help your efforts to persuade Congress to give your support --

MR. MCCURRY: I think there is strong support for doing everything we can to encourage legitimate sources of dissent within Iraq. We have done work in the past with the Iraqi National Congress, other sources of bona fide opposition to the Saddam Hussein regime, and those efforts are, I think, widely praised on Capitol Hill. There are some who say they have not been sufficient and there should be more attention to that, and we have explored ways from time to time that we can maintain a variety of contacts with those in exile who are part of the legitimate opposition to Saddam Hussein's regime.

Q Would you hope that a byproduct of a U.S.-led military strike would be a chain of events that would lead to Saddam Hussein's removal?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, though desirable, that would not be the stated purpose of any military action, if and when the President has to exercise those options.

Q Mike, the Iraqi crisis has replaced the Asian financial crisis on the front pages of newspapers, but it seems that it's --

MR. MCCURRY: There is a lot of stuff on the front pages of the newspaper. (Laughter.)

Q It really hasn't gone away. And especially in Indonesia there's a real danger of general social upheaval which can affect the largest Muslim country in the world. Is the President able to devote as much attention to this as he should in light of the Iraqi --

MR. MCCURRY: Absolutely. You are correct that the condition of many of the economies in the Asia region continues to be fragile. That is why we have stressed through work that not only the President, but others in our government have done that we continue to stress the government's need to proceed with the type of economic reforms that they have indicated they would implement. And we have certainly communicated those views to the government of Indonesia in a variety of ways. And the President follows very closely those developments, because as he said in the State of the Union address and he devoted time to it in talking to the American people, the condition of those economies, what happens affects in a very material way the kind of commerce we have with them and that has a very direct impact on millions of American families. So it's obviously something the President would want to pay close attention to.

Q Senator Gramm of Florida apparently said today that fast track is dead for this year and he's very disappointed. Do you share that view?

MR. MCCURRY: I do not share that view. The President has indicated that he needs authority to open up foreign markets and that he will seek it this year, and we think that given the importance that free and open trade places in our overall growth strategy, which is producing such great results for the American people, that Congress will surely recognize the continuing ability to pry open foreign markets so we can export American goods and service will be something they will recognize is authority, A, that the President needs and, B, that he can use properly to continue the kind of economic performance America has enjoyed now for the last five years.

Q When will he send that up?

Q Yes, when will he?

MR. MCCURRY: He will send it at a proper point, sometime during the course of the year. But, quite properly in the realm of international economics, we are focusing, as we just did here in this briefing, on the situation in Asia. And I think as a practical matter, we have to look at the new borrowing authority for the IMF as a first order of priority, given the importance of the work the IMF is doing in the region now.

Q Mike, you said yesterday you didn't think that it was likely that fast track would be sent up or considered for the Chile trip. What's the timing for IMF? When do you think Congress will act on the IMF?

MR. MCCURRY: There are different assessments of that that you can get from talking to leaders on the Hill. I think there is widespread acknowledgement that it needs to be addressed quickly. I think the impact of that extraordinary ad signed by so many officials both in and out of government and so many leaders in the private sector that was in the papers earlier in the week probably had some impact on the Hill, too. So I would expect that they would want to move on that fairly swiftly. And you've heard what the Speaker and others have had to say.

Q Does the President still trust the Secret Service agents who surround him?

MR. MCCURRY: Absolutely. It's a very --

Q He does not doubt their --

MR. MCCURRY: -- very talented, dedicated group of people, both the agents who protect him and the Uniformed Division people who protect all of us here at the White House. And the President --

Q So these stories have not made him --

MR. MCCURRY: The President has a high degree of confidence in them and enjoys working with them.

Q What is the White House --

Q But he does not doubt their ability to do their job and not talk about it?

MR. MCCURRY: What they talk about is their business and whatever legal issue arises is something that Treasury and the Secret Service will have to tell you about, because I can't. I don't know and we're not playing any role in that discussion.

Q Back to John Travolta, Mike -- Travolta very specifically said that the President assigned Sandy Berger to give him a briefing as though he were a senator, and that the President did this to court Travolta in order to get a more favorable portrayal in Primary Colors. Could you address those two things?

MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to find out further, and I find that highly suspect. But I know that they did have a very brief discussion, I think at the volunteerism summit in Philadelphia, about the problem the Scientologists were facing in Germany. I think the President properly asked Mr. Berger to follow up on that. But that had long been -- I think what that consisted of was Mr. Berger explaining what we had been doing to raise our concerns pursuant to work that we had already done diplomatically.

Q To follow on that, is it right to attribute to Mr. Travolta some impetus in U.S. policy on this?

MR. MCCURRY: No, because it was, as I pointed out, raised in February of 1997, in the State Department's annual Human Rights Report, and had been the subject of diplomatic conversations back and forth between the United States and Germany long prior to Mr. Travolta raising it with the President.

Q Back on the Secret Service. You talk about the Treasury Department and the Justice Department as if they're entities apart from your administration. I mean, whatever decision Treasury or Justice makes is a reflection of what the Clinton administration's policy is.

MR. MCCURRY: David, we got into this yesterday, and I told you that as to the specific matter of what the Service should and should not be asked to testify to, as I indicated to you yesterday, we've made it very clear through White House legal counsel that we defer to the judgment of the Service and Treasury on that matter.

Q But what should they use as a criteria to make the decision?

MR. MCCURRY: Whatever their professional and legal experts believe is in the best interests that they're required by federal statute to fulfill. I don't pretend to know what that is, nor does the White House take a view on it.

Q Surely, the President has a very important interest in what that is.

MR. MCCURRY: Sure. He wants to be well protected and he believes he is, and he believes that the Service knows best what they feel they need to do in order to accomplish that purpose.

Q Does the White House have any response to a report in a British newspaper about the transfer of Robin Dickey from the White House to the Pentagon?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to answer that question.

Q Why?

MR. MCCURRY: Because consider the source.

Q What's the source?

MR. MCCURRY: Ambrose Evans Pritchard. And do I need to say any more to anyone in this room?

Q Does that mean she wasn't transferred or that she didn't work here or --

MR. MCCURRY: I think any legitimate journalist can take about 10 minutes and satisfy themselves that this is not a story worth pursuing.

Q But did Dickey work at the White House?

MR. MCCURRY: Of course she did.

Q And what was her role in the White House?

MR. MCCURRY: I can answer those questions, but you're posing them for reasons that are related to a story that has appeared in a foreign newspaper, written by someone who has, among other things, had interesting things to say about the death of Vince Foster and President Clinton and Ollie North meeting secretly to conspire on drug-running and all kinds of --

Q When? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: Well, needless to say, he's a fiction writer. And that is a story then that gets picked up and goes into the Drudge Report and then we end up talking about it here. And I just -- we've got to stop this.

Q Well, help us get it right, Mike. If we're getting it wrong --

MR. MCCURRY: I'm happy to do it, but I won't do it here. And I won't, by answering the question, give anyone in this room a legitimate reason to pursue a story that is very clearly way out of bounds. And it will take you 10 minutes of work as a legitimate journalist to satisfy yourself that this is not a story that you need to spend time on. And I'm not going to do it here.

Q Can we look later for some guidance from your office on --

MR. MCCURRY: If you want to report the story, and I think if you need to report the story to satisfy yourself it's not worth pursuing, we can take about 10 minutes and make it very clear to you that you don't need to spend time on it.

Q Actually, Mike, I mean, we have made some phone calls and the only answer we've received thus far from your people is the source of a story is suspect.

MR. MCCURRY: We'll be happy to take care of you right after this briefing.

Q I don't know this woman. Who is she?

Q What about any reaction you have to Monica Lewinsky's coming back to Washington?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't even know -- I know that you reported that she is. I have no idea whether that's true or not.

Q Any reaction to her mother's treatment?


Q How is her mother?

Q Mike, on the Secret Service, has the President yet taken a position on whether or not he'll support collective bargaining by the Uniformed Division?

MR. MCCURRY: It's a good question. I'd have to look into it.

Q -- the guy's taken off his mask.

MR. MCCURRY: A lot of them -- what?

Q He used to have the mask on and now he's come out.

Q There used to be a guy with a ski mask on there lobbying everybody who came through the gate for higher and collective bargaining. Now he's doing it without his mask on. (Laughter.)

Q He speaks in tongues.

MR. MCCURRY: Of all the weird things that I've had to think about, that's the weirdest of the moment.

Q You've got to get in touch with America and -- (laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: Look, a lot of the Uniformed Division guys feel very strongly about that and I think for good reason, and I think this administration's views on collective bargaining are well-known. But I would want to check further specifically on that question.

Q So nothing's changed since the FOP and --

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know whether it's changed or not changed. Let me check into it.

Q Any more presidential phone calls vis a vis Iraq? You alluded to some --

MR. MCCURRY: None yet. And we'll let you know if that changes.

Q Mike, on fast track, despite your statement, isn't it true that there would be more party unity --

MR. MCCURRY: Say it again?

Q Wouldn't it be true that there would be more party unity in an election year if the President did not press for passage of fast track?

MR. MCCURRY: That's a good theoretical question.

Q Does the name "Gephardt" mean anything to you? (Laughter.)

Q Mike, what about the suggestion that Democrats, especially, but many Republicans are confused about the President's policies towards Iraq, namely what he's trying to achieve? And as a result, they're lukewarm in supporting his potential use of military force.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have worked very hard through this testimony that the Secretary of State's been giving on the Hill; I just advised you of a speech the National Security Advisor will give; the President has addressed this in a variety of settings, including the State of the Union Address and other public opportunities he's had, and will continue to do so as we help Americans understand the stakes that we're dealing with and the precise objectives of the diplomatic efforts we have underway, our ultimate goals and objectives if we have to consider other measures. And I think it will be very clear to the American people, both what the President seeks as an objective, what the United Nations has assisted upon through the Security Council resolutions in play, and I think as they pay more attention to the elected leaders that they have in Congress, would be satisfied that both American support and what we need to do, and will understand why it is important to do.

Q In the Gulf War, the clear objective was the liberation of Kuwait. What would the clear objective be of another U.S.-led air strike?

MR. MCCURRY: What has been the same goal and objective we are pursuing through our diplomacy, to substantially diminish his capacity to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction, specifically biological and chemical weapons, and to limit his ability to threaten aggression on his neighbors, as it has been throughout all of the efforts that we have pursued.

Q I thought the goal was to eliminate his ability to use those weapons, not substantially diminish it.

MR. MCCURRY: That's been addressed by others more senior than I in our government, but as a practical matter it would be hard to set that as a goal because you wouldn't have a high degree of confidence that you would completely eliminate it. I think it's accurate to say you could substantially diminish the capacity, but I don't know that you could say that you total eliminate it. And you have to be aware, as Secretary Albright was suggesting yesterday on Capitol Hill, that even subsequent to any military action there might be some effort by Saddam Hussein to attempt to reconstitute programs, in which case you had to leave open the option of additional military action if it was needed.

Q How close is the United States getting to the end of the diplomatic stage of this?


Q Is that a matter of days, or weeks?

MR. MCCURRY: The Secretary of Defense has said, even earlier today, that certainly not a matter of months --

Q That's days or weeks?

MR. MCCURRY: It could be weeks or days.

Q -- the wording that you're trying to diminish his ability to threaten his neighbors, does that put Saddam's conventional forces, Republican Guard forces, folks like that, at risk in any military operation?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to answer anything that would suggest or imply that we were debating an open discussion like this -- target sets.

Q Is there a division between the military and the political factions on this? Is the military --

MR. MCCURRY: Absolutely none. There have been a great deal of work that the President's national security advisors have been doing. General Shelton and others from the Pentagon have been full participants and they're all working very closely together.

Q Mike, when Prime Minister Blair was here, the British put out a very interesting paper on what UNSCOM had discovered. Is the U.S. planning to do anything similar or to that effect?

MR. MCCURRY: You'll recall back in November last year we did do a release of material that came from the work that UNSCOM has done, plus some of our own assessments. The President found that document that the Foreign Commonwealth Office put out to be very helpful, and I think that we are looking at the possibility of summarizing some of what we had put on the public record before at the end of last year, and perhaps do some more education of that nature.

Q Mike, on minimum wage, is the President willing to yield a tax cut to the Republicans in order to get it through?

MR. MCCURRY: I think the President wants to keep this economy moving forward, and it rests in part on the very important principle of fiscal discipline. The President wants targeted tax relief for the American people that fits in a strategy of economic growth. And some tax cut proposals would tend to set us right back to the days of big budget deficits and fiscal irresponsibility. So the President attaches high priority to the minimum wage, but he's not going to trade it for something that would wreck the economy.

Q How high a degree of risk is there that Western aggression against Iraq just serves to strengthen Saddam and his regime in the end?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there has been some analysis that suggested that was a possible outcome. I think that's why the statement made by the Gulf Council ministers yesterday was so significant, because it demonstrates that within the Arab world now, increasingly people are saying the consequences of any actions in the future rest solely on Saddam Hussein. And that's been said to him now very clearly by his brothers in the Arab world. And I think that that message will resonate, and I think that it will be matched by others who will suggest that he alone is going to bear the consequences for any future actions.

Q Any sense he's beginning to get the message?

MR. MCCURRY: If one interprets these concocted proposals to allow more access to sites as perhaps evidence that he's getting the message, you might suggest he has. But certainly he has not correctly learned the message yet, which is that he's going to have to comply with the requirements that have been placed upon him by the world.

Q How would the U.S. feel if another nation such as Israel or Iran or if the Kurds toppled Saddam Hussein? Would we give our blessing?

MR. MCCURRY: That's so highly speculative I don't think I will take that question.

Q What can we expect from Philadelphia tomorrow?

MR. MCCURRY: The President, he is speaking to the National Association for the Advancement of Science -- American Association for the Advancement of Science. It will be a talk about public issues, specifically tobacco, biomedical research, and priorities in the President's R&D budget. I think he'll have some interesting new statistics to share about tobacco use amongst -- by young people that will underscore the importance of moving ahead on the President's public health legislation, or the public health proposals concerning tobacco use. And he's got then a DCCC fundraiser at a private residence.

Q -- Satcher ceremony?

MR. MCCURRY: Prior to leaving here, he swears in Dr. Satcher. The Vice President will swear in Dr. Satcher at an Oval Office -- in the Oval Office.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:52 P.M. EST