THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:30 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Good Monday to you. Let me ask you a question. Have you seen the GAO report on the safety of food items that are imported to the United States? Have you all seen that -- new GAO report that calls on Congress to give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to ensure that food eligible for import to the United States is produced under food safety systems that will provide the same level of protection as the safety systems in the United States. A good study confirming the wisdom of the administration's Safety and Imported Food Act, which is the subject of a letter that the President is drafting for the Speaker and the Majority Leader of the Senate, available to you in a short time, reaffirming that this GAO study is further evidence that we need to take the steps that the President has recommended to protect the food items that are being imported in the United States.
Q That would be by legislation?
MR. MCCURRY: By legislation. That legislation has been introduced -- the President called for it in October of 1997, and we are calling on Congress today to act in light of the GAO report today issued.
Q That the same laws would apply?
MR. MCCURRY: There's a variety of standards that would apply. So, essentially, you would bring into the protected framework that exists for meat and poultry other food items that are imported as well.
Q Who ordered the GAO report?
MR. MCCURRY: That's a good question. Someone in Congress, obviously. And having called that to your attention and having made sure that we get that letter out when it's available, we will move to other subjects.
Q What's the status of the Middle East?
MR. MCCURRY: The Middle East is still, unfortunately, characterized by divisions that exist between the parties.
Q And what are you going to do about it?
MR. MCCURRY: We are doing what the President just indicated a short time ago that he would do. He would see if there was a meeting of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister of Israel, we might build on some of the exchanges that have occurred in recent days and see if we can't, on the basis of the ideas the United States has put forward, bridge some differences and move on to the accelerated permanent status talks.
Q Well, at this point then are you still hopeful that a summit can take place?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that we really know what to expect at this point other than meetings which will try to lead to that outcome. It's desperately important in the view of the President to continue to work to see if we can't bring these parties together so that they can both resolve the issues that are currently pending between them and move on to the even more difficult, more serious substantive divisions that they will have to address if they are to resolve their final status issues.
Q Has she changed some of the ideas? Does she have new ideas to put down in front of the Prime Minister?
MR. MCCURRY: She is proceeding on the basis of the ideas that we have presented. The Prime Minister asked Ambassador Ross if there weren't some clarifications that could be examined. Ambassador Ross reported that to the President today, and based on some of the discussions they had here today, the Secretary will meet further with the Prime Minister later this week presumably. He should be here by mid-week.
Q Mike, when you talked about bringing the parties together, it would seem it's the United States and the PLO on one side and Israel on the other. Would you characterize the current state of affairs as an estrangement between the U.S. government and the government of Israel?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I would -- first of all, I would not accept the premise that we are on one side of the table or the other. We are there at the table with the parties, helping them bridge the differences that exist between them. And then we have been in a position to put forward ideas that have now elicited responses from the parties. And I think our role and our effort in this process is the same as it has been since Madrid. We are anxious to promote the kind of dialogue that the parties have used themselves to reach historic peace agreements and to see if we can't deepen and nurture that peace. And we do so as a long, steadfast ally of Israel and conscious of Israel's security needs, and very respectful of our close ally in the Middle East.
Q With the failure to meet the deadline, what about her threat to reassess our policies?
MR. MCCURRY: I want to make a couple of things clear. The invitation to the parties to come here to get the accelerated permanent status talks going was conditional, as you know, and the conditions were not met over the weekend, but there were some positive and useful ideas explored by Ambassador Ross, reported to the President today and on the basis of that, in the President's view, a good reason to ask the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to meet, as you know from the State Department.
Q Who proposed the positive -- you mean strictly from the U.S. side?
MR. MCCURRY: I think there were positive developments based on ideas shared by the Prime Minister.
Q Is the United States setting a deadline of any kind? Is there a two-week --
MR. MCCURRY: No, that was an incorrect report. There is a meeting to be pursued mid-week, and we'll see where we go from there.
Q Does the President's schedule -- would it allow a meeting with Netanyahu in London on Sunday or Monday if that was deemed useful?
MR. MCCURRY: The schedule is pretty full. I haven't heard of anything around here that would lead me to speculate that there might be such a meeting.
Q Mike, on January 31st of this year, Reuter's News Agency reported from Ramalla that the PLO Executive Committee had still taken no action to amend the Palestine National Charter's call for the destruction of the state of Israel. Since Article 33 of this charter requires a two-thirds vote to amend at a session called for that specific purpose, are you certain that Reuter's News Agency is wrong and you are right?
MR. MCCURRY: I am certain that the National Council of the Palestinian Authority has previously indicated that that section, that covenant of the charter is null and void. It is accurate that they have not promulgated a new charter and we have encouraged them to do so.
Q Mike, are you concerned that during his trip here -- there are some people who are suggesting that Prime Minister Netanyahu will use it to do some politicking on behalf of his position and these negotiations and against that of the White House. Are you concerned about this trip?
MR. MCCURRY: This is not "us" versus "them." This is an effort, a determined effort on the part of the United States to see if we can't help both parties bridge the differences that exist between them. And as both parties often do, they articulate their case publicly and they build support both domestically and internationally for their positions. That's a reasonable thing for leaders to do and that has been occurring throughout the long history of the Middle East peace process.
Q Has the Prime Minister agreed to meet with the Secretary and do you know when that meeting will be?
MR. MCCURRY: The Secretary, according to Mr. Rubin's briefing -- it's still going on -- but he's indicated that the Secretary and the Prime Minister did talk just after noon Washington time and agreed to meet at mid-week. I think they're working on the exact timing for their meeting.
Q What does the President feel about the domestic political pressure that's already been brought to bear and already the Israeli government is saying that they're going to be pressuring domestic groups in the United States to put more pressure --
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President doesn't believe that this process is about pressure. It's about helping leaders find the wisdom and the courage necessary to make difficult choices. And that is what he is determined to do, and he's determined to exhaust every possible avenue to get these parties to address those questions that still divide them so that they can move on to even tougher aspects of finalizing the peace that they projected when they signed the Oslo Accords.
Q Is he frustrated or exasperated?
Q Given the fragile state of the negotiations right now, is he frustrated or even angered at the fact that people are playing politics?
MR. MCCURRY: This is not about frustration, anger, exasperation. It's about persistence. And I think he's determined to continue to work hard to try to help the parties bridge the differences that exist between them. Peace depends on it, and you can well imagine the President very focused and very determined on helping these parties get to "yes," and not accepting "no" for an answer.
Q Would you characterize the positive nature of Mr. Netanyahu's comments? Is it a discussion about reducing the 13 percent number?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to substantively discuss it other than to say that, as we said after the Secretary of State's meetings in London, the Prime Minister has brought some creativity to thinking through the issues and we are still looking for ways to build on that and to see if there is not some formula that we can use to try to help both parties make forward progress.
Q Does that mean yes? Creativity means compromise?
MR. MCCURRY: There is a lot of diplomatic mumbo-jumbo that was designed to occlude -- (laughter).
Q Go back to the State Department.
Q Mike, on another subject --
Q One more on Israel. Is the White House giving any consideration to that suggestion by Safire that an outside mediator be appointed?
MR. MCCURRY: We've been hard at work, and I don't know that we've spent time reading what the pundits have to say.
Q Mike, on another subject. Since international organized crime is such a big problem for the U.S., why has it taken so long for the administration to handle or to deal with the issue?
MR. MCCURRY: It hasn't taken long. We've been hard at work going back now to two international summits on the issue, one at Sharm al-Sheikh and then follow-up discussions that have occurred within the G-7/G-8 format that will result in a very important domestic decision that the President will announce tomorrow, and will lead to an unprecedented review of that subject and the work that industrialized nations can do together in Birmingham; in fact, likely will -- great deal of hard work has gone in to making that a focus of the upcoming Summit of the Eight in Birmingham.
Q What are the major points of that initiative?
MR. MCCURRY: They will be announced by the President tomorrow, but they will help the United States -- first, the element that the President will announce tomorrow is how the United States will structure better its own efforts to combat international crime, drug-trafficking, money-laundering, terrorism, a whole host of international crimes that are more prevalent on the foreign policy agenda in the post-Cold War environment. And then that will help launch the President's participation and discussion about how we can better coordinate our efforts with other governments when the leaders meet in Birmingham, a subject that I presume we will hear more about at 2:30 p.m. when National Security Advisor Berger and Mr. Steinberg and Mr. Sperling, the National Economic Advisor to the President brief you.
Q Is the President inclined to -- the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that possibly he'd like to see Tony Blair act as an intermediary as well in the Middle East talks. Is the President open to that suggestion?
MR. MCCURRY: We've been very open to the very useful and constructive role the European Union has played in the process, including the Prime Minister's meetings in London. And we think it very useful for him to underscore the importance of asking the parties to make the choices we want them to make. But even Prime Minister Blair, himself, has acknowledged that the United States must continue to play the lead mediating role that it is playing.
Q What is the President reaction to the nuclear tests in India and how will he express that reaction?
MR. MCCURRY: The President is deeply distressed by the announcement of three nuclear tests. He has authorized a formal presentation of our displeasure to be made to the government in New Delhi. While it was foreseen, given the electoral program of the newly-elected party that they might take this step, it still flies in the face of an international consensus about the need to promulgate and nurture the new regime on a comprehensive test ban, and we will certainly be sharing those thoughts and others with the new government in India.
Q Will this jeopardize any presidential plans to go to India?
MR. MCCURRY: It's impossible to speculate at this point about what impact this might have on the President's future travel plans.
Q Are sanctions being anticipated?
MR. MCCURRY: Sanctions are already anticipated when non-nuclear member states violate the restrictions that exist, or the consensus about those restrictions. There are certain unilateral U.S. sanctions that may apply, and those are under study at this point.
Q And what would those be?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not fully aware. Apparently in law, I believe there is a Glenn amendment that may be applicable, but we're looking at that question now.
Q Are you saying the President might decide not to go -- hasn't he already accepted an invitation?
MR. MCCURRY: He has and I'm declining to speculate on whether this will have any impact on those plans.
Q Do you think that this heralds a new kind of government in India, where they will be more belligerent and they're preparing more of their arms for --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there is a new government and that new government made clear during the campaign how it wished to approach the posture it would take with respect to nuclear matters. But setting that aside, we think it still is a negative development to see these tests publicly announced and undertaken by the government. And for all the reasons that we are working hard to promulgate the Comprehensive Test Ban, we would the governments would refrain from expanding the use of fissile materials at a time when we are trying to limit it.
Q Who is talking to them? Who is carrying the message?
MR. MCCURRY: We'll have to check and see. I think initially it was going to be communicated through Embassy New Delhi, but we can get more on that. They were addressing some of that over at the State Department as I came out here.
Q Over the weekend, James Carville said that -- when asked if the President were called to testify, that it might be appropriate for him to take the Fifth. I'm wondering, does that reflect White House thinking at this point if Ken Starr were to ask the President?
MR. MCCURRY: The only thinking on that will be reflected by Mr. Kendall, and I have heard him say no such thing. But he is the authorized person to discuss that, not I.
Q Are you able to tell us whether Ken Starr has invited the President to testify?
MR. MCCURRY: I am not able to tell you. I don't know.
Q Mike, in Ireland yesterday, Sinn Fein gave an overwhelming endorsement to the Good Friday Peace Agreement, and yet, in a recent statement, the IRA said they wouldn't give up weapons as part of the peace process there. Are you concerned there's mixed signals coming from the Irish Republican movement there?
MR. MCCURRY: We believe it is a very important, positive signal that Sinn Fein has taken this vote by an overwhelming margin, has put itself on the side of those who seek to make peace and who seek to use the opportunity of the Good Friday Agreement to further the peace process in Northern Ireland. All the issues related to arms decommissioning will have to be a part of that process and are addressed in it. The parties would have some obligations, as you know, under the agreement. But I think for the moment we will choose to interpret as a positive development the decision by Sinn Fein to encourage a yes vote on the referendum.
Q Mike, just to go back to your answer full of diplomatic mumbo-jumbo, where you kind of suggested that Albright would be open to something less than 13 percent?
MR. MCCURRY: First of all, our government has never discussed with any specificity what our ideas are. There are many of them. It is accurate that some of them deal with further redeployment, but we've never specified exactly what those ideas are.
Q Well, how come you haven't repudiated the 13 percent in all these days then?
MR. MCCURRY: Repudiated, I don't know that we'd repudiate -- repudiation and failing to negotiate publicly are two different things.
Q No, it isn't. I mean, you've seen this proposal out on the table for so long, you should have said it's not so.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's not what I'm saying now and I'm not -- I'm just saying what we have always said -- we've never discussed publicly the elements of the ideas that the United States has put forward.
Q How flexible is the United States, when Albright sits down with Netanyahu, how flexible --
MR. MCCURRY: We are determined to move ahead consistent with the ideas that we've presented and the Prime Minister is fully aware of that.
Q -- is a close associate and friend of the Prime Minister -- now having an unusual meeting here at the White House with -- of the National Security Council. I'm wondering the purpose of the meeting and who initiated it.
MR. MCCURRY: He is here to see -- you're correct, he's here to see our Senior Director for Europe at the National Security Council staff. And as we do from time to time when a visiting figure of importance within the political life of one of our close allies is here, we take the opportunity to exchange views. My understanding is that's the purpose of this meeting, and there is no other stated purpose, other than to exchange views as a courtesy.
Q -- has been received by the White House for such a high-level meeting with the National Security Council?
MR. MCCURRY: As a leading figure in the political life of his party.
Q Following the briefing with Dennis Ross this morning, is the White House confident that the Palestinian Authority has fulfilled its security commitments to Israel enough that Israel can make a double-digit, be it 13 percent or a different percent, withdrawal without any risks?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'm not going to specifically address the question because of the substance you tread upon. But I'll say this, something that's not remarked upon in some of the coverage -- there are a lot of obligations that both parties would undertake under some of the ideas that we've put forward, and many of them do fall on the Palestinian Authority. And those are very important obligations that they would undertake. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is aware of that, and I think that's one of the reasons why the search for some way in which we can all proceed amicably to resolve these differences will continue.
Q And also, has the United States spoken with India's neighbors to ask them not to quickly respond to the actions --
MR. MCCURRY: Certainly we have had contact with the government of Pakistan and urged restraint, yes.
Q On India again, was the administration caught off guard by this underground test, or where there some imminent signs this was about to happen?
MR. MCCURRY: It is my understanding we had no advance notification that the tests would occur.
Q So was it a surprise?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't answer that without delving into the kinds of information that we view and do not discuss here.
Q Mike, the Speaker wants to devote half the surplus to tax cuts. Is his saying that, does that any way affect --
MR. MCCURRY: Wait a minute, I thought he wanted to devote it to Social Security.
Q That's the other half.
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, so he changed, he doesn't want to go with Social Security first now?
Q Now that it's getting so big, he thinks there is plenty to go around.
MR. MCCURRY: I think his appetite is large when it comes to surpluses, and I think it would be well for us to wait and see exactly what the nature of the surplus is. And we detect on the Hill and in the ranks of his own Republican Caucus great sentiment for the President's notion that we ought to reserve that surplus for Social Security first.
Q But if you say you want to wait and see what the actual surplus is, are you indicating at all that you might be willing, if the surplus is large enough, to consider devoting some of it to a tax cut?
MR. MCCURRY: Our thinking about a tax cut is pretty well-known. We want tax relief to be targeted. It is carefully proscribed in the President's budget proposals, and that's the right formula, we believe, to proceed for tax relief -- which is important, but it ought to connect to the general theory about where the economy is going. But I think the President is quite confident that the American people appreciate the sentiment that we ought to take whatever surpluses arise and make sure that we've got what we need to do some of the hard work that will be necessary to assure the long-term health of the Social Security system.
Q But would you be willing to consider using some of the surplus, assuming the numbers continue going up, for a tax cut?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we will be interested to see if that germ of an idea pollutes the discussion further.
Q Mike, has the President seen the letter that Lott and Gingrich sent him about their concerns about the Loral-China transactions?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. Have we seen that letter? We have it and I know that we have responded over the weekend and indicated that we're willing to make available whatever information they need to satisfy themselves that these decisions have been made on sound national security grounds.
Q Mike, Mr. Blumenthal is quoted as saying that if anyone was offended by his calling Mr. Ewing "a religious fanatic," he is sorry, that it was not his intent to offend. And my question is, does the President believe that Mr. Ewing was unreasonable in being offended when Mr. Blumenthal called him a religious fanatic because he prays for divine guidance? And doesn't the President, himself, do that?
MR. MCCURRY: The President accepts the graciousness of Mr. Blumenthal's apology.
Q But, I mean, he said, if he's offended. Does the President think he should not be offended by being called a religious fanatic because he prays for divine guidance. I gather the President does that all the time.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know whether Mr. Ewing was offended, so I can't answer the question.
Q You don't?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know whether he was offended or not.
Q What do you think?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't presume to think for Mr. Ewing. (Laughter.) He does that for himself.
Q Did the Ambassador to the U.N. resign today?
MR. MCCURRY: No. Why would he? I don't anticipate any Cabinet level announcements this -- I don't entirely rule it out, but I certainly am not expecting any prior to the President's departure.
Q Mike, speaking of Cabinet persons, has Janet Reno called the President about Alexis Herman at all today?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I have heard.
Q Can I just follow up on that? With the Attorney General deciding today whether or not to investigate Secretary Herman, I was wondering if you all are concerned at all that members -- most members of the President's Cabinet who have been -- have come under the scrutiny of an independent counsel or who have been faced with that threat are minorities. And if you're not concerned, how do you explain it?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, to be concerned about it would suggest that there is some deeper motive at work there. I don't know that there is, and I don't think I would pretend to speculate that there is. As to why that might be the case, I'll leave it to those that make allegations that then have to be pursued by the Justice Department under the statute. And I have great -- a high degree of confidence that the Attorney General proceeds based only on the law and her interpretation of the law, and not based on race.
Q What are the President's thoughts about Herman right now? Is he standing behind her?
MR. MCCURRY: She's doing a spectacular job as Secretary of Labor, and he has enough confidence in her ability and in her ability to set whatever these allegations are behind her.
Q Why do you think it's taking the Justice Department so long to dispose of these charges?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't possibly speculate on that because I'm not familiar with their review of the matter.
Q If an independent counsel ends up being appointed here, is the President concerned about being sort of nibbled to death by independent counsels? I mean, this is a lot of independent counsels, a lot of money being spent.
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President understands what it's like to be nibbled at by an independent counsel, so it's a fact of life rather than something to become overly preoccupied with.
Q What are his fears and feelings about the upcoming trip tomorrow in terms of what he hopes to accomplish?
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, he's got a very extensive agenda for the trip that you're going to hear about shortly, and a lot of excitement about some of the issues that were raised. They're literally going to be talking in Birmingham about the structure of the post-Cold War global economy, all the things that we can do to promote economic prosperity and growth while maintaining high degrees of employment, and taking care of those who haven't been able to share in that prosperity. That's a very exciting subject and one that the President has been thinking about for some time. He's delighted that Prime Minister Blair has elected to put the focus of the coming summit on that subject. And in addition to that discussion by the Summit of the Eight, the President has important bilaterals with Prime Minister Hashimoto, President Yeltsin --
Q President Chirac?
MR. MCCURRY: -- President Chirac, a number of other discussions that will be -- we have an important U.S.-E.U. Summit meeting on Monday -- so an extensive agenda that you'll hear about in great detail momentarily. I don't want to steal Mr. Berger's thunder.
Q There was a mention of an article in the New Yorker this week, that at some point after the billing records from the Rose law firm were found in the White House that Jane Sherburne herself --
MR. MCCURRY: Fingered lingerie?
Q Yes -- went through Chelsea's drawers and the President's --
MR. MCCURRY: Apparently, a year ago -- I had forgotten this, myself -- but about a year ago the Associated Press reported exactly that search and the article, interesting article in the New Yorker covers that at some degree. But some people thought that was news. I sure did when I heard it, but apparently it had been reported quite some time ago. Is that right? That's right. I'm looking at my authority on the subject.
Q Mike, has the White House responded to Senators Lott and D'Amato letter about -- the French oil company's investments in Iran? The letter contained admonition not to exert the waiver under the Iran-Libya sanctions act. Can you tell us what the reaction of the White House is?
MR. MCCURRY: I do not know whether we've responded directly to that letter. I know that we've indicated that the President has not made any final determination as to sanction ability and-or waiver. I know that the process is pretty far along and that we have as the statute indicates we should discuss the matter with our European allies so that we can better understand the degree to which they are working in concert with U.S. foreign policy to bring about those changes we desire to see in Libya, Iran, Cuba and other places.
Q Will that issue be on the agenda at the G-7 where the European Union, as you know, is opposed to these sanctions --
MR. MCCURRY: It was a subject matter at the Foreign Minister's last -- Finance Minister discussions over this past weekend, so I can imagine it might arise, although I think part of the purpose of the discussion this weekend was to deal with that issue at the ministerial level so that it would not overly preoccupy the leaders when they gather in Birmingham.
Q Is there a deadline, or does he have as long as he wants to make up his mind on that?
MR. MCCURRY: I think there is no deadline.
Q Mike, does the President agree with Congressman Waxman and Congressman Gephardt as to Mr. Burton's leading the committee --
MR. MCCURRY: He's restrained himself in expressing an opinion on Mr. Burton, as you know.
Q Mike, has the President talked with Speaker Gingrich lately about legislative prospects or the Speaker's stepped-up attacks on the President, or any other subject?
MR. MCCURRY: I should check with him, because he often has discussions with the Speaker that we sometimes don't know about. I haven't heard him indicate that he has had a conversation with the Speaker, but I haven't asked him directly whether he's had a conversation any time recently with the Speaker, so I can't rule it out. I haven't heard anything to indicate that he has. The Speaker hasn't been exactly sociable recently. (Laughter.)
Thank you. See you later -- in a short while.
END 2:03 P.M. EDT