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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 21, 1998
                          PRESS BRIEFING BY
                  PRESS SECRETARY MIKE MCCURRY AND       

The Briefing Room

1:45 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Good morning, everyone -- well, good afternoon -- whatever. For about 70 minutes at midday today, the President met with his senior foreign policy advisors and their deputies, and then the President continued for another half hour with a smaller group of just his principal foreign policy advisors, obviously discussing the situation in Iraq.

The National Security Advisor to the President, Mr. Samuel Berger, has graciously agreed to tell you very little about the meetings that have occurred today.

Mr. Berger.

MR. BERGER: It's called a minimalist introduction.

This is the second meeting we've had in the last two days with the President on Iraq. We met yesterday in the afternoon for roughly an hour with General Shelton and Secretary Cohen and Secretary Albright was there, in particular to discuss some issues associated with military action should that become necessary.

The meeting today was with the larger foreign policy group, including the people that Mike mentioned. We discussed the state of the diplomacy, the diplomatic effort, the likely timelines with respect to the Secretary General's mission. We discussed the efforts and diplomacy associated with the assembling of our coalition which has both diplomatic and military dimensions. There are more than two dozen nations now that have indicated that they would participate with us in the event that there is a military action here. Each of those carries with it a particular set of issues in terms of -- both on the integration side militarily, and on the diplomatic side.

We talked about various contingencies that might arise in the event that military action is required and how we would respond in those circumstances, and we talked more long-term about looking ahead to longer-term issues that arise in either context -- either context of a satisfactory diplomatic resolution or the context of a military action.

The President was joined by the Vice President for the meeting, and as Mike indicated, it was probably 90 minutes or so in its totality.

Q Sandy, are you hearing anything from Iraq from Kofi Annan's delegation?

MR. BERGER: Not directly. I don't believe that any of the team has spoken with the Secretary General since he left -- conversations with him before he left, including the President, Secretary of State, obviously the Ambassador to the U.N. But I don't believe there's been any discussion with him since he arrived.

Q Do you expect him to meet with Saddam Hussein?

MR. BERGER: I don't know.

Q Have you gotten any preliminary reports indirectly as to what he's finding?

MR. BERGER: Not that would be reliable.

Q Do we have confidence, does the United States, does the White House have confidence in the Secretary General about to give away the store? There seemed to be some concern that maybe he might go over there and be off the reservation and negotiate.

MR. BERGER: Well, I think we have confidence in the Secretary General to uphold the Security Council resolutions that have been adopted for the last seven years. And he's clearly indicated that that's his intent.

Q Does he have wiggle room to negotiate?

MR. BERGER: Well, there's some fundamental issues that we've indicated -- not just us, but all of the P5 have indicated are very important. And basically, they relate to access to all locations and maintaining UNSCOM as the operational control of the inspection process. So those are the two fundamental principles, and I think people have indicated in the past there could be details that would not undermine those two objectives that we would not object to.

Q Sandy, do you not expect to hear from him along the way this weekend, or do you expect to be come -- at the end of the week or at the end of the days that he is there -- with what is a last, best offer?

MR. BERGER: I think it's conceivable that we will hear from him over the weekend. I don't know for sure, but I think that's possible.

Q Did you expect to have heard from him by now?


Q Do we have people on the ground in Baghdad -- the United States specifically?

MR. BERGER: In what capacity?

Q Diplomatic.


Q Someone that he could speak with there?

MR. BERGER: There is nobody -- he selected his own delegation. I don't believe there are any Americans on the delegation. They're certainly not there in a national capacity. I don't think there are any American nationals in the delegation. There are Americans that remain in Iraq, but we hope they will leave soon.

Q There are reports the United States would accept a deal where Saddam Hussein's actual residences were off limits to UNSCOM inspectors as long as all of the areas were open in the presidential sites. Is that accurate?

MR. BERGER: Well, I'm not going to speculate on one hypothetical after another about what might be presented to us. We have indicated that we believe that there needs to be access throughout the country.

Q Including his residences?

MR. BERGER: Access throughout the country.

Q There is a report out today in U.S. news that says administration officials concede privately that they would accept a deal placing Saddam's actual residencies off limits in exchange for free access to the hundreds of other buildings contained in the 27 square miles of sites that Iraq claims are presidential areas. What do you --

MR. BERGER: That is not a statement of the American government's position.

Q Is it an issue that the sites, that the difference in size is so great -- I think the White House was saying that these presidential sites covered 60 square miles, and now the U.N. survey team says 12. Is that an important issue?

MR. BERGER: In this sense. There are a number of presidential compounds in Iraq to which UNSCOM has never had access. I've heard a couple of different numbers -- 19 or 20, maybe more. In those compounds there are often one or more residential palaces or residential buildings. We have indicated that we believe there ought to be access throughout. Now, the reason -- at one point in this process he started talking about eight sites. He never told us what the sites were. I've been very careful, for example, as I've held up my trusty visual of Washington, D.C. versus one of his compounds to say we don't know if this is on his list or not on his list because he has not heretofore indicated what locations were -- he considered these presidential sites. Presumably, that will have to be clarified as part of any resolution of this.

Q Does the administration accept the survey team's report that the administration's characterization of these sites is exaggerated?

MR. BERGER: I don't think that was a quote from the survey team, I think that was a quote from an Iraqi government official, as I read it. But, in any case, no, because we have said time and again -- I'll show you the reruns of talks shows -- that we don't know what sites he's talking about because he hasn't told us. We can only imagine that they involve these presidential compounds, to which UNSCOM has not had access.

Q Have you evaluated the U.N. survey team's report?

MR. BERGER: I don't think we have it at this point. I've not seen it.

Q Is it correct to say that U.S. military preparations are proceeding as though they're going to be used now, they're not being delayed by these last-minute talks?

MR. BERGER: I would say that U.S. military preparations are proceeding without regard to these talks, that's correct.

Q So, I mean, in effect, the only thing that's going to stop the use of force is if Saddam very quickly complies to everything now?

MR. BERGER: Well, let's -- the Secretary General will presumably return to New York on Tuesday perhaps, and will report on what the state of his discussions are, and based upon that report we will have to make judgments about the following steps.

Q What discussions are going on over the weekend, if any, with congressional leaders about a resolution of support if military action is required? And also, can you respond to the letter from the numerous high-ranking Bush and Reagan officials saying this opportunity ought to be exploited for an oust Saddam strategy?

MR. BERGER: I haven't seen the letter, Michael just told me about it. So I'd rather not respond to something I haven't read. But the other part of your question was --

Q Congressional leaders --

MR. BERGER: I've had conversations, or others here, with the leaders over the last few days. I think they want -- they're going to, obviously, be back in town next week, assess the situation in their own caucuses. We still would like a resolution, although we've always taken the position that we don't require one, but we would welcome one.

Q There is a protest as we speak coming over to the White House or about to come over to the White House. And are you concerned about the continued signals that we're sending about the feel of the American people for this war? And what's your reaction?

MR. BERGER: Well, I think all of the data that I have seen that is not anecdotal is that Americans overwhelmingly support -- number one, they would prefer to see this resolved peacefully -- so would we, peacefully in a way that actually resolves the problem; number two, that if that's not possible, that they are -- by very large majorities, would be supportive of military action. And so I think that data is worth some weight here.

Clearly, whenever there is military action it provokes and evokes strong feelings on the part of many people. And I just would remind you, for example, that before the Gulf War the vote in the Senate to go forward was 52 to 48, after a very, very heated debate, passionate debate. It didn't stop President Bush from going forward. Saddam Hussein understands that. The American people generally unite behind their President in these circumstances, and there's no question in my mind they will again, and that Saddam Hussein understands very clearly the determination of this President.

Q Well, does that mean, Sandy, that the White House does not think any more action is required by the President or his top officials to go out and explain this policy, what it is trying to achieve, as you did at Ohio State with limited success?

MR. BERGER: I don't accept the characterization of your question at all. (Laughter.) We didn't convince the 40 hecklers, but -- can I tell you how many people came up to me afterwards? No. But let me, more seriously --

Q Do you have more of a selling job to do, is what I'm saying.

MR. BERGER: I think it is always incumbent upon the President of the United States in situations like this, if force is contemplated or expected, to speak to the American people. He has done so on a number of occasions, most recently last Tuesday, and I would expect that he would do so again if we were headed in that direction.

Q Is the United States encouraged by the fact that Iraq let some UNSCOM inspectors into these eight presidential sites along with the U.N. survey teams?

MR. BERGER: I'm not going to draw any conclusions from that. I think we have to see what these discussions produce.

Q There are reports today that the President has approved a four-day, 24-hour bombing raid initially. Can you confirm or deny that?

MR. BERGER: The sources of that story are uninformed.

Q So you're saying it's not right?

Q How are you calculating the possibility --

MR. BERGER: Excuse me, I was trying to be very clear without blaming it on the reporters. The story is wrong. It's inaccurate, it's incorrect, and whoever provided that information doesn't know what they're talking about.

Q Sandy, Kofi Annan is supposed to meet with Saddam Hussein tomorrow. Can you put any credence into any meetings he has prior to that?

MR. BERGER: I think that it is clear this is not a Cabinet government in Iraq, that any basic decisions here will be made by Saddam Hussein and not by anybody else.

Q Does the President have any briefings planned for tomorrow on this?

MR. BERGER: I'm sure we will talk tomorrow. There is no meeting scheduled for tomorrow, but I'm sure we'll talk.

Q Could you elaborate a little bit more on what was wrong with the report today in --

MR. BERGER: No, I'm not going to -- unlike the people who were discussing that with reporters, I'm not going to discuss operational details. I think it is a gross abuse of public office to do so in a situation like this, and I just simply want you to understand there's a lot in that story that's not accurate and the people who were providing that information clearly are not people who are --

Q But you couldn't characterize if the tone was wrong?

MR. BERGER: No, I'm not going to.

Q How do you assess the characterization that Saddam Hussein might be willing to just simply absorb this attack and that he's prepared to take it, and that's one reason he's not being flexible on negotiations, that he might, for whatever reasons, either want this attack or think that it's not overwhelming enough to coerce him into doing other things he doesn't want to do?

MR. BERGER: I'm not going to try to get inside Saddam Hussein's head. I would say that if we are unable to resolve this and if the President decides -- unable to resolve this peacefully -- and the President decides military force is necessary, it will be a serious action.

Q Sandy, it sounds as if the President met with his advisors this morning without what could be arguably considered some very important information, namely, what Kofi Annan is finding on the ground in Baghdad. Does this mean that what's going on there is not relevant to the proceedings --

MR. BERGER: No. It means that in a situation this complex there are lots of dimensions to it. Obviously, what's happening in Baghdad is important. What happens if that succeeds carries certain issues; what happens if it fails carries certain issues. There's been a planning operation here that has been going on for weeks and some things require presidential approval, and certainly the President wants to be as knowledgeable and clear in his own mind about the up sides and down sides of each particular option.

So I don't think you'd expect us to simply not meet with the President for three months and then come in on Tuesday and say, well, here it is and here's what we plan to do. I mean, he's an integral part of shaping -- not only an integral part, the ultimate decision-maker in terms of what kind of options we will consider.

Q Does the White House have any hope that Annan can accomplish anything in Baghdad?

MR. BERGER: I hope that he can accomplish a diplomatic resolution that solves the problem, at least solves the problem that we're faced with right now.

MR. MCCURRY: I just want to add from here at the White House, underscore two warnings that have been issued earlier today in other parts of our government. I think some of you reported on the State Department's warning to all American citizens earlier today, strongly urging them to depart Iraq as soon as possible. The White House wanted to underscore the importance of that warning. And we've got a copy of it from the State Department if you haven't received it.

I also want to underscore the importance of the memoranda for media bureau chiefs and journalism organizations that the Pentagon is dispatching today to some of your bosses and to other organizations within the community of journalists, telling them that we cannot and will not give advance notification of military action if the current diplomatic efforts fail. But all journalists should be aware that there's a substantial risk involved in sending people to Iraq during a period that could be highly dangerous. And as the President and others have stated, we will do our best to minimize civilian casualties, however, the safety of any particular group of people, including journalists, could be jeopardized in the event of military action.

I think the President especially feels it's very important for journalists to be well advised of the risks they're taking by being in Iraq.

That's all I have. Anything else?

Q Was this just the normal thing, when you have the possibility of combat, that was issued by the State Department? It doesn't reflect any uncoupled feelings about what's going on on the ground in Baghdad in the last 24 hours?

MR. MCCURRY: No, it notes that there are diplomatic efforts that are underway, but there continue to be provocative statements issued from Baghdad and no indication of a complete willingness to resolve this in a peaceful fashion, although, obviously, discussions are underway. But prudence would dictate taking these precautionary measures.

Q Do you have any idea how many Americans may be in Baghdad?

MR. MCCURRY: We do not know. There are clearly some American citizens there connected to non-governmental organizations that are doing valuable humanitarian work. There are some that are no doubt part of the U.N. effort, although, as you know the United Nations is withdrawing its non-essential personnel from Iraq even as we speak. And there are obviously an undetermined number of U.S. citizens who have been granted visas by the Iraqi government who are there, and sometimes under circumstance we have no information about.

Q During the past couple of days there hasn't been much optimism expressed here about the chances of a peaceful solution. Have you heard anything from Baghdad to change that appraisal?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, Sandy answered that question, and we've seen some news reports indicating that the Secretary General has had an opportunity to speak with the diplomatic community there and he indicates that he's certainly got good reason to continue the discussions he's having. And as Mr. Berger just told you, we're hopeful that this can be peacefully resolved.

Q Mike, for those of us who weren't here in 1991, are these two warnings the same as the ones that went out --

MR. MCCURRY: They're not identical because they're worded to reflect the current environment for the diplomatic discussions that are underway. I'm not -- I don't recall myself whether there was a specific warning done, but I think there were a variety of warnings made over time by the Bush administration to news organizations alerting them to the risks they were taking by being in Iraq. But, of course, that experience I think has given some degree of expertise to news organizations who know how to operate under these circumstances. Our concern, as I mentioned Friday, has been that there are a lot of people now who apparently are going who have not had experience operating in what could become a war zone. And that is our real concern, that there be people over there who don't know what they're doing.

Q Does the United States send warning notices to foreign countries, warning them to put their nationals who might be in Iraq on alert, or their diplomats for that matter?

MR. MCCURRY: No, but we have, under our own so-called double standard policy, we do not make any warning to U.S. personnel anywhere in the world without advising the public, generally. And obviously, we're making some effort to take this warning that is directed to U.S. citizens and make it as widely known as possible.

Q When the Secretary General comes back with whatever he comes back with, do you expect it to be a consensus appraisal of several nations, or does it have to meet muster with President Clinton here in the White House?

MR. MCCURRY: That would be just a wild guess at this point. There's no way of knowing.

Q What's the President doing the rest of the day, Mike?

MR. MCCURRY: He's doing some other work in the office here, and then I think was going to try to take the balance of the afternoon off.

Q Will he still take this trip to California?

MR. MCCURRY: We haven't announced any change in the schedule, but I indicated Friday we will assess on a day-by-day basis his travel plans for mid-week.

Q Mike, when was the last time the President talked to Vernon Jordan?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know when the last time he did.

Q Could you find out for us?

MR. MCCURRY: The last time I checked on this I was told they had not spoken recently. But I can find out for you on Monday.

Q Mike, to follow up on my question, I'm not sure why it's as speculative as you said. I'm just saying, does he have to --

MR. MCCURRY: John, because we do not know at this point what conclusions the Secretary General himself will make based on his discussions; we don't know when he shares them with the international community, presumably with the Security Council first, what the reaction of other Security Council members will be. It would be just entirely a guess to suggest otherwise.

Okay. Good. See you Monday.

END 2:10 P.M. EST