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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 20, 1998
                            PRESS BRIEFING
                            BY MIKE MCCURRY

The Briefing Room

1:46 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: It's Friday at the White House.

Q Did you say anything in your speech that we ought to know about? Lewinsky or --

MR. MCCURRY: No, it was a good time. Have you ever been out there? I was out at -- oh, the Uniform Division graduated class number 118 today --

Q Were they all subpoenaed? (Laughter.)

Q Did they ask for advice on handling subpoenas or talking to the press?

MR. MCCURRY: Twenty-four fine people. I think that they haven't had the pleasure of being here long enough to be exposed to those circumstances yet.

Q Where were they?

MR. MCCURRY: They graduated from Beltsville. They spent about 24 weeks in a real intense training session, eight weeks down in Georgia and then the rest of it in Beltsville, and they --

Q Are they all for here?

MR. MCCURRY: -- get academic training and marksmanship training and legal training and a whole bunch of other things.

Q Did you give them any advice?

MR. MCCURRY: I welcomed them to the family, said that they were --

Q They will all be coming to the White House?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, this class will actually start here on Monday, and I talked about you all. And I said that they help us help you do your job, said that that was important, and I gave them -- I did an ode to the First Amendment.

Q Thank you. That would be a new one. (Laughter.)

Q Mike, are you ready for questions?

MR. MCCURRY: No. (Laughter.) Yes, I'll take a few.

Q Yesterday, did Bruce Lindsey -- not invoke, but did he indicate that he could not answer questions having to do with conversations with the President, short of invoking executive privilege?

MR. MCCURRY: Whatever he did in front of the grand jury is secret, by the longstanding guidelines that govern grand jury secrecy. I do not know what he did in front of the grand jury.

Q The person who testifies doesn't have to keep it secret.

MR. MCCURRY: That's correct. He can talk about his testimony, if he so chooses. I'm not aware that Mr. Lindsey has so chosen.

Q I thought he had briefed all these guys when they came back.

MR. MCCURRY: Lawyers and lawyers have contacts, but that doesn't change any of the obligations of other parties who are not witnesses to maintain confidentiality of the proceedings.

Q Why are you unable to at least let us know where things stand with executive privilege?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there was a court proceeding yesterday in District Court, and it relates to what I just told you. Grand jury proceedings are secret, for good reason, because they are where evidence is adduced and people determine if there has been any wrongdoing, and sometimes they adduce that there has not been wrongdoing. So to protect the innocent, grand jury proceedings are secret.

If a matter arises in the course of a grand jury proceeding that is already secret and has to be adjudicated in front of a court, they go to a court in a sealed proceeding. And sealed proceedings are treated very seriously by the lawyers who participate in them and they don't talk about them. So I can't tell you something that I don't know, and, in any event, lawyers can't talk about what they believe they cannot talk about resulting from sealed court proceedings.

Q But they can certainly talk about what they're prepared to do in terms of exerting executive privilege.

MR. MCCURRY: The very fine lawyer who heads the White House Legal Counsel Office is manifestly not going to do that because he respects Judge Johnson. I think he has a view of what the judge would consider inappropriate ex parte remarks, and I think he's going to honor what he believes his obligations as an attorney require him to do under federal procedures when there's a, quote, proceeding that is sealed. It's the court that seals the proceeding, obviously.

Q But nothing about testimony would be disclosed if you were to say yes or no, whether the President has yet invoked executive privilege.

MR. MCCURRY: How do you know that, Mark?

Q Just that statement wouldn't disclose anything one way or the other about testimony.

MR. MCCURRY: Assuming hypothetically that there had been some discussion of that kind of issue in front of the court in a sealed proceeding, we'd be revealing deliberations that had occurred in a sealed proceeding.

Q But nothing about the substance of the secret testimony.

Q As a principle is the President reluctant to use executive privilege, or does he think it's a valid tool to protect his conversations.

MR. MCCURRY: I think this President, like previous Presidents, recognizes the importance of preserving confidential communications. That's a longstanding principle that Presidents have fought for, going back to Thomas Jefferson.

Q Can you confirm what Charles Ruff has told the Washington Post, that he's willing to fight this all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe Mr. Ruff has said that to the Washington Post.

Q Just to clarify, is it the position of the Counsel's Office that it is unlawful for White House attorneys to discuss what Mr. Lindsey might have cited during his testimony to the grand jury, or is the White House electing not to discuss it?

MR. MCCURRY: It's the view of White House lawyers that any discussions that occurred before the District Court resulting from testimony that Mr. Lindsey gave are sealed proceedings and it would be a violation of their ethical responsibilities as attorneys and a violation of federal rule 6E for them to disclose the contents of those deliberations in court. And, of course, you all are familiar with the rules that govern secrecy of grand jury proceedings.

Q Mike, since you're not going to tell us whether and when the President invokes this privilege, if he does, is it -- as a practical matter will we have to wait for that privilege to be then challenged by Starr and then it becomes a public court proceeding, for us to know that it's happened -- as a practical matter.

MR. MCCURRY: I can only cite for you what has happened in the past. When the President invoked executive privilege related to the Espy inquiry in June of 1995, it was adjudicated in the courts after a motion to compel, carried up to the Circuit Court of Appeals, and when judgment was rendered by the Circuit Court and was not appealed higher by the independent counsel, the opinion was unsealed. Now, I will tell you what we have already told you, that the White House Legal Counsel is attempting to resolve these issues and he wants to do so expeditiously.

Q Mike, isn't this similar to the same debate we've had about grand jury stuff? It can be done in secret; you don't have to disclose it. But you're also not bound -- you're not bound as a witness or as a player in this to disclosing it. You can disclose whether or not -- and you've hired a lawyer, a private lawyer at taxpayer expense to do this.

MR. MCCURRY: That's not correct, John. Not correct. The obligations of attorneys participating in a District Court proceeding that's under seal is to keep them confidential. And the judge would probably have a very harsh opinion of any attorney that violated the confidentiality of a sealed proceeding. If you don't believe me, ask the judge.

Q The White House was upheld?

MR. MCCURRY: The White House was upheld when it asserted the privilege. It was upheld -- the privilege was recognized at the District Court level. It was appealed by Mr. Smaltz and upheld in the Circuit Court of Appeals.

Q The question we were asking is at what point -- you're saying it didn't become public until the circuit court opinion was unsealed?

MR. MCCURRY: That's correct.

Q The District Court managed to keep it -- because it still is being adjudicated --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, once it was appealed -- on appeal it was still under seal.

Q But this is a completely legal decision, you're saying? There is nothing political about this. It isn't that you all think it would look bad for us to know that executive privilege is asserted?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't think discussions of executive privilege are necessarily helpful in a public opinion sense under any circumstance. But I'm telling you what the procedures are that, as I understand them, as they've been detailed for me by White House Legal Counsel.

Q Why aren't they helpful? Wait, could you just explain why aren't they helpful?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to -- you all know exactly what I mean.

Q Mike, in the Espy proceeding the White House actually asked the appeals court to close the proceedings so that the public wouldn't be allowed in. Would you handle this case in the same way or would you allow more access --

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not certain that is correct. I believe because it arose as a result of a grand jury deliberation, it was automatically under seal, but I'll double-check that point.

Q Just to correct -- I'm sorry, my question, I'll re-word it. The Washington Post says that Ruff wants an amicable solution, quote -- this is according to the source -- they are willing to take this to the Supreme Court and fight a battle for the ages, not just for this White House. Ruff genuinely believes this is not about what Bruce Lindsey does or does not know. If they do not take a stand you have --

MR. MCCURRY: I cannot comment on what anonymous sources are telling the Washington Post. I can tell you that Mr. Ruff takes very seriously the institutional obligations that he has related to the presidency. And on behalf of this President and future Presidents, preserving the confidentiality of communications to the President as part of the President's deliberative process is a matter that he takes very, very seriously. There's no question about that.

Q Mike, the Chief of Staff was up with Senator Lott today. Do you know if the subject of a resolution on Iraq came up and does the White House want a resolution on Iraq?

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't talked to Erskine since then, and there were probably a number of matters. We've had others who have been on the Hill and in discussion on a resolution. As we have said several times, we would certainly welcome an expression of support from the Senate. We believe there is sufficient sentiment of support in the Senate for such a resolution. And we'll remain in contact with the leadership to determine what the Senate will do when it comes back into session -- and the House, for that matter.

Q Mike, the President said yesterday he spoke to Jacques Chirac. Has he spoken to any other world leaders and is he thinking of speaking with Boris Yeltsin?

MR. MCCURRY: He has not -- I checked this morning; I haven't checked recently. I'm not aware of any additional calls since the Chirac call. And we have, of course, had communications via embassy and other contacts with the Russian Federation.

Q Has he heard anything from Baghdad in terms of the UN mission? Or does he expect to?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that we have heard anything from the Secretary General.

Q This weekend?

MR. MCCURRY: It's difficult to predict. Our assumption has been that the Secretary General would want to brief the Security Council at the conclusion of his mission.

Q Speaking of military action, has the decision been made whether to go all the way to Baghdad to go after the National Guard, or will it just be infrastructure --

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to speculate in any way, shape, or form on that kind of thing.

Q On the meeting yesterday with Bruce Riedel and the Iraqi opposition leaders, could you tell us about that?

MR. MCCURRY: This was a meeting that followed on a similar session they had at the State Department, an opportunity for us to remain in contact with Iraqi opposition figures, whom we have lent public support to on numerous occasions in the past. We think that it is important for any nation to have a vibrant exchange of views, but especially important in a totalitarian state such as Iraq for bona fide opposition figures to be in a position to engage in healthy debate.

Q Is the President's speech to the Arab world, has that been broadcast yet by the Voice of America?

MR. MCCURRY: It's USIA, through it's WorldNet services, that would make it available to foreign broadcast entities and it has not been -- has been transmitted?

MS. LUZZATTO: It's been released, I'm not sure that it's been transmitted

MR. MCCURRY: It's been made available to foreign broadcasters for use as they see fit in their own environments. It is clearly designed to coincide with the Security Council's consideration of an expansion of the Oil For Food program so we can get humanitarian relief to the people of Iraq who have suffered through and by the decisions of Saddam Hussein for such a long time.

Q But that has not been acted on yet?

MR. MCCURRY: It's pending action. The indication is that they're wrapping up and some delegations were awaiting instructions before they finalize it. But it is clearly moving forward with some likelihood that it will be approved.

Q Mike, are you working to cross purposes there? Wouldn't a sustained bombing campaign cause a massive disruption in the Oil For Food program?

MR. MCCURRY: It would cause me to speculate on what targets might be; I'm not going to do that.

Q Do you have any idea whether this speech would be broadcast in Iraq? We know around Iraq, but what about in Iraq?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. It would be available -- presumably it will be on satellite and would be available to Iraqi TV. I rather suspect it won't be made available -- who knows.

Q Mike, if I could follow up on that notion, in planning for all of this is there any concern about the Oil For Food program? Is it being taken under consideration with regard to not being damaged in the bombing campaign?

MR. MCCURRY: I think that that program exists to help the people of Iraq who are suffering, who need food and medicine and need humanitarian relief. There's enormous concern about the type of damage that would be done to Iraqi citizens, precisely because Saddam Hussein has indicated he would wantonly put them in harm's way.

I'm not going to speculate on targets and what infrastructure might be damaged. They've had a good assessment that's been done and is available at the UN on how the Oil For Food program has worked, what they've done over the course of the last year in two separate phases. Iraqi production facilities seem to be in a position to work to move the oil that has been sold to provide that kind of humanitarian relief.

Q What's your understanding of the schedule of Annan's return? In other words, he comes back, he has to spend a day or two briefing the UN. Do you know what --

MR. MCCURRY: Our understanding is what he indicated publicly at the UN upon departure -- he couldn't predict how long it would take, he didn't think it would be interminable, he thought several days.

Q Several days after he returns?

MR. MCCURRY: Several days that he would -- he indicated he would be in a position to have dialogue with Iraqi authorities for several days.

Q No, I'm talking about after he comes back?

MR. MCCURRY: What happens beyond that is not clear at this point, but presumably he would return and brief the Security Council.

Q Is the Annan mission the last chance to avoid military action with Saddam Hussein?

MR. MCCURRY: It is a very good chance for Saddam Hussein to do the right thing.

Q Mike, can you explain a little more about canceling the Vice President's trip and whether any of the President's travels are being reconsidered?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President intends to -- at this point intends to go ahead with the trip to California next week, but clearly we will assess that on a day-by-day basis. And we will need to see what assessments are made based on Secretary General Annan's mission.

Q Why was the Vice President's trip canceled? To keep him in the country or near Washington, or can you be any more specific?

MR. MCCURRY: To keep him, as the President said, nearby and together with the President's other national security advisors so that we could assess the results of the Secretary General's deliberations in Iraq.

Q I understand Secretary Cohen had a trip to South America and South Africa also.

MR. MCCURRY: He was to be a part of the Vice President's delegation and then continue to South America and, as the President indicated yesterday, he wanted his national security team in town.

Q The weekend will be devoted to Iraq?

MR. MCCURRY: The President will likely have some more discussions with his advisors tomorrow. They're meeting today, will meet tomorrow. I think both times at least some of the participants in the meeting will talk to the President afterwards.

Q Is the President's decision on whether to launch air strikes still a matter of weeks or days away?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not speculating on time tables.

Q Any plans to evacuate American citizens from Iraq?

MR. MCCURRY: There are some discussions at the State Department right now about departures that they're ordering.

Q Travel advisement?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the travel information they have updated I think on a pretty regular basis and made it clear that the United States government is advising American citizens about the need to be cognizant of the environment in which they might travel, particularly in that region.

Q They'd have to go over land, right, unless it's --

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to speculate on that.

Q Mike, two things: can you tell us how many Americans there are in Iraq right now and can you do the week ahead?

MR. MCCURRY: How many -- say again?

Q Americans there are in Iraq right now?

MR. MCCURRY: In Iraq? I don't know that we've got that. The State Department can probably tell you more. U.S. citizens there would be there presumably in connection with nongovernmental organizations and/or U.N. programs that are underway there. You're aware that the United Nations has withdrawn some of its personnel -- non-essential personnel -- from Iraq. The State Department is indicating some ordered departures that they're doing in and around the region at this hour. And it's obviously done with the notion of making sure that we're in a position to protect against any contingencies.

Q Mike, can you do the weekend and the week ahead?

MR. MCCURRY: I'll do that at the end.

Q Mike, I'm a little behind on this, are you releasing the President's taped statement to us?

MR. MCCURRY: Say again?

Q I'm behind on this. Are you releasing, or have you released the President's taped statement to us.

MR. MCCURRY: I think it's been released. Yes, it's been released, both the audio, video, and also the text.

Q Mike, has the President been briefed on the arrest the FBI made yesterday in Nevada?

MR. MCCURRY: He was briefed by the Attorney General yesterday, yes.

Q Mike, while you were charming the Uniform Division, did you tell them -- give them any indication on their union effort?

MR. MCCURRY: Did not discuss that issue.

Q How was he briefed?

Q And has that been moved ahead at all here?

MR. MCCURRY: Don't have anything new on that issue.

Q Reno briefed him here or on phone?

MR. MCCURRY: Just on phone yesterday while the President was traveling.

Q Mike, have you seen this Solarz-Perle letter, and any reaction to their proposal? They were talking this morning that the United States should vacate Iraq's seat at the UN, should establish safe havens in both north and south Iraq?

MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to look at that. I have not seen that.

Q Did it sound like a serious proposal?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'd have to look at it more. You may want to follow up with NSC folks on that.

Q You suggested that you didn't want to give away any bombing targets but you have said that you want to limit precision bombing to locations where weapons of mass destruction are being produced. You're not suggesting a change in that?

MR. MCCURRY: I have never suggested that or said that, nor would I suggest one way or another what targets might be limited to or include.

Q Well, you do want to limit civilian death, don't you?

MR. MCCURRY: Obviously, we always would want to protect non-combatants and try to reduce collateral damage, but war is war.

Q Has there been any move by Saddam to place civilians --

MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry?

Q Has there been any move by Saddam in the last day to put civilians in places that might be bombed?

MR. MCCURRY: There have been various assessments of that and there have been some public statements coming from Baghdad indicating that they are encouraging delegations. We have a concern that they may be encouraging news organizations to send personnel there, and that's obviously something that is, I think, of very serious concern to us. We don't want people to unnecessarily be in harm's way and we would encourage news organizations and all U.S. citizens to follow very carefully the advice that we're giving on travel in and around that region.

Q Which is what? Stay away?

MR. MCCURRY: It's available from the State Department, but it certainly alerts people to the high degree of concern about the status of matters in and around Iraq.

Q Mike, back on Nevada, to follow up, what's the White House view on the state of the national emergency preparedness in cases of people walking around with loose chemicals and so forth?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we've been doing a lot of work on this issue, you might know. Obviously, any attack using biological weapons, chemical weapons, could have very serious consequences -- exactly our concern as we think about what the government of Iraq might be doing with its own indigenous programs. But the materials that have been described in connection with Nevada are not necessarily easy to work with. It's not -- in the past hasn't been identified as the type of thing someone would use if they were interested in terrorist activity or any activity of that nature.

Nonetheless, we do have a very large program to train emergency response teams and health care providers in 120 cities. We've got an effort going on to help public health officials and emergency preparedness officials to deal with the consequences of an attack. They're also doing some research and development programs to develop advanced technological sensors that have got the capacity to identify threats or risks when that type of -- when agents like that might be available -- might be present.

And the U.S. law enforcement community has been very involved in kind of ratcheting up the level of concern around the country. All FBI field offices have personnel trained to identify and investigate chemical and biological criminal threats. It is safe to say that the degree of alertness and the intensity with which they focus on that was one of the reasons why we complimented the fine law enforcement work done yesterday.

Q So, in a word, people should feel safe about catching their subways?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have acknowledged the risk that is there. It is one that the President talks about frequently in the world that we live in, we are not immune from the threat, that that's why we have focused so much work on counter-terrorism programs and on the law enforcement efforts that protect all American citizens.

Q Is there going to be any added security in federal buildings or airports if the crisis escalates?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't think I should discuss security measures, but there certainly will be an effort to remind the American traveling public of the need to be conscious of their surroundings and alert to anything that seems unusual. That's something that's good to be in that state at all times. But there will be reminders that are coming, including the ones today at the State Department about the degree of attention that people should pay to those kinds of issues.

Q Does this include the fact that the government is ensured that there are sufficient stockpiles of antibiotics -- for example, anthrax? If it's detected there is an outbreak that there would be enough to get to at a particular location?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm less familiar with what kind of assessment they've made on that. But there is a federal effort underway regarding vaccinations and other treatment programs. And probably people at HHS and other places can help you out on that.

Q There's something new -- 120 cities and all that?

MR. MCCURRY: No, that's a training program. In fact, they just had -- I think that the effort occurred here in Washington just within the last month or so, it's been underway for sometime now rising from some of the government-wide counter-terrorism work that we have been doing.

Week ahead?

Q Mike, could you elaborate a little on what you were saying before about the Iraqis encouraging news organizations to put their people in dangerous places?

MR. MCCURRY: We have had some sporadic reports that they are granting visas to local news organizations, presumably people who maybe are not as experienced as others that work for networks and other news organizations, and operating in dangerous climates. And that's a real concern of ours.

Q What do you mean? Granting visas and then encouraging them to go to some particular location?

MR. MCCURRY: Encouraging them to come to the country and -- you know, since we are not describing what's safe and what's not safe in Iraq, our concern would be for any U.S. citizen to be there.

Q There were two non-American journalists taking prisoner yesterday in Iraq because they didn't have visas. Is the U.S. getting involved if they are non-Americans?

MR. MCCURRY: I doubt very much that we are. I'm not aware of any involvement.

Q Before the '91 war, Marlin Fitzwater warned journalists in Baghdad, said "take cover." Would you do something like that?

MR. MCCURRY: I think at the appropriate time -- not so much me -- but I think in the more formal way, we will raise with news organizations concerns that we might have. We have already talked about doing that and talked about the right way to do that. And we of course don't want to do anything that suggests the President has made a decision he has not made. But we also want to deter people from going there in contravention of the kind of travel information we provide -- particularly if we don't think they know how to keep themselves safe.

I mean, experienced journalists who operate in war zones know how to cover a war. Our concern has been there may be a lot of people in this day and age when everyone's got a satellite dish who might not understand the right kind of precautions to take.

Q Week ahead, Mike?

MR. MCCURRY: Tomorrow the President will deliver the radio address live. The subject is going to be the serious disparities that exist in health care, particularly as they relate to disparities between racial minorities and the provision of health care. We're going to have Secretary Shalala and Dr. Satcher here for an embargoed briefing at 4:00 p.m., just to set that up. So you can have a little advance idea of what the President will be talking about tomorrow. It will be embargoed until 10:06 a.m. tomorrow.

And the President will, as I indicated earlier, be doing some work on the Iraq issue here tomorrow. Sunday evening the President and the First Lady host the governors that will be in town for the NGA midwinter meeting. And as they do every year, they'll be coming here for a dinner in the State Dining Room.

Monday morning the President will meet with the governors at 9:30 a.m. and will talk more about his education initiatives. Tuesday, the President will address the National Council of Jewish Women. We'll do a little more on the subject of that next week, but it will be at Hyatt Regency at 11:00 a.m. The President and the First Lady are scheduled currently to depart for California Wednesday afternoon. They've got a variety of events out there, political and otherwise. But as I say, we will obviously have to assess the President's travel plans day by day.

Q Mike, if this is just a political and personal trip, does that mean that this is just paid for by the DNC and by the Clintons, themselves?

MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to check. I think there are one or two other events as well out there.

Q What are they?

MR. MCCURRY: These guys can help you with that afterwards.

Q -- for the announcement of the certification process?

MR. MCCURRY: We have not set a date for that. That's obviously in its final stages. I haven't heard anything. I haven't heard the State Department indicate that they've sent a recommendation.

Q On Sunday, Mike, do the President and the First Lady intend to go to church?

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard their plans. Yes, we'll let you know on Sunday. Okay, thank you.

END 2:15 P.M. EST