THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary (Tegucigalpa, Honduras) ________________________________________________________________________ For Immediate Release March 9, 1999
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART Hotel Maya Tegucigalpa, Honduras
3:00 P.M. (L)
MR. LOCKHART: I've got to go quick because I guess the President is ahead of schedule. But let me do one quick announcement, and then I'd be glad to take your questions.
President Clinton will award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Senator George Mitchell at the White House on March 17th, as part of the annual St. Patrick's Day observance. The Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor and is a fitting tribute to the extraordinary accomplishments of Senator Mitchell.
Q What is the President's reaction to the dismissal of the scientist at Los Alamos who is suspected of trading secrets to the Chinese?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President supports Secretary Richardson's action of dismissing the employee. The Secretary did it after conferring with the FBI on the status of the ongoing investigation. As you all know from Secretary Richardson's comments yesterday, the Department of Energy had already taken steps in relation to this employee, including suspending security clearance and moving him from a classified work place to a nonclassified job. So I think the President supports the move that Secretary Richardson made.
Q Well, Vice President Gore has now decided -- he said that he thinks it's George Bush's administration's fault and the Reagan administration's fault for letting this kind of activity -- and then your administration has signed an executive order in January of '98 tightening procedures at Los Alamos.
MR. LOCKHART: Right.
Q Did this happen on somebody else's watch?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the case in question here, the alleged transferring question, was something that happened in the early 1980s. I think the administration, in 1997, after having some concerns about the vulnerabilities that the labs brought to our attention proceeded to launch a vigorous assessment, using the CIA and other assets in our national security operation to look at ways to make sure that this alleged transfer would not be able to happen now.
They took a number of steps. There was a presidential decision directive issued in February of 1998 that has taken a series of important steps to address any vulnerabilities in the DOE lab system.
Q Joe, there are some people in Congress, though, who believe -- and are saying off the record or on background -- that the gentleman who was arrested, this Professor Lee, is apparently not considered to be, by the intelligence and law enforcement people, a major player -- that he is, in effect, perhaps even a scapegoat.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't have any information that would support that. I think Secretary Richardson acted properly. There is an ongoing investigation into this issue, looking at how technology may have been transferred in the 1980s, but I'd have to refer you to the FBI for details on that investigation.
Q Joe, does the President have any reaction to the sinking of the two boat loads of Haitian refugees, or Haitian -- and will there be any shift in the priority of using the Coast Guard to crack down on human smuggling, as opposed to drug smuggling?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not aware of any shift. But, obviously, this was a tragic incident with the loss of life, I believe, of more than 40 people, but I'm not aware of any shift in our policy.
Q Joe, back to the Chinese transfer issue. Don Nickles says that it looks like he's going to need to hold an investigation because he believes there's a real concern the administration kept the information about this from Congress.
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think so. I think the administration moved rapidly in 1997 when this came to our attention, took the steps we needed to, to develop safeguards against any illegal transfer, and Congress was kept fully informed. There were a series of briefings from the Department of Energy, starting in 1996, going through 1998, where I think there were a half a dozen briefings on this issue to the relevant committees in Congress.
Q Well, if you knew about this for so many years, how come he was fired only after it came out in The New York Times?
MR. LOCKHART: I think as Secretary Richardson pointed out, as I think some people at the FBI have pointed out, this was part of an ongoing investigation and they, in their judgment, thought it was better to move forward in this way and to try to gather information with this gentleman in his job.
Q Joe, Congressional critics are also saying that even after two GAO reports and the heightened security initiatives that you spoke about, there's still a serious security problem at that laboratory because of hundreds of thousands of e-mails, for various other reasons, there's still a big problem. Do you recognize that as the risk?
MR. LOCKHART: We have instituted a series of very new and very tough counterintelligence operations to try to look at the vulnerability of the DOE labs. We're certainly willing to work with Congress, with the Cox committee to see if there to see if there are other steps that need to be taken. We have taken this very seriously over the last two years. We've taken important steps to tighten security at the Department of Energy labs. But if there's more that needs to be done, we'll do more.
Q Joe, if there is enough evidence to fire this guy, why isn't there enough yet to arrest him, and what's the difference in standards?
MR. LOCKHART: I would refer you to the FBI on their ongoing investigation. My understanding from Secretary Richardson is the reason he was fired was lack of cooperation with the investigation.
Q What about the $900 million for the emergency relief down here? Do you think, or does the President think that his trip will free up that money? And he has refrained from making the same political comments you have about what's holding it up.
MR. LOCKHART: I think as people become aware of some of the things that we've seen, that the President has seen, some of the stories, some of the devastation that we've witnessed over the last two days, it's certainly our hope that we can work through some of these issues that have bogged down the debate on moving the supplemental emergency bill forward.
Q But, Joe, it's not about the merits of the aid, it's about how to pay for it.
MR. LOCKHART: This, what we've seen in the last two days, is the textbook case for emergency spending. This is something that could not have been foreseen. And we don't think we should pit one program against another program when we have a clear emergency here. This aid is needed; it's an urgent situation. The stories are heartbreaking that we've heard over the last few days, and we believe that it's in the best interest of our partners down here, our friends down here, that we move forward quickly.
Q Joe, the House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young today said the Republicans would require outlines for the possibility of a deal to get it passed. And you said that it would require that money would be put into a special U.S. controlled fund so that the State Department and AID would have direct pull over how it got spent. Is that acceptable to you?
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't seen that proposal. But I can assure members of Congress on these issues that we take extra care and work with the governments in question in these countries to make sure that the money is used appropriately and spent wisely. That has been the case, I believe, with the money we already sent down here. I think you saw today some of the results. We crossed a bridge today because of what the Marines were able to do here. And we're going to make sure that the money is spent wisely.
I think, more importantly, is we need to move forward and get this process done with. We need to get the money freed up and we need to get it down here where it can be used.
Q Hey, Joe, if you all want this to move quickly and the price of moving quickly is offsets, are you all prepared to look at other offsets? Or is it just offsets in general that --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't have the latest of what's going on back in Washington on this. We think, particularly on the Central American money, this meets directly the definition of emergency funding. And what we don't want to do is start pitting programs against it when there's an emergency down here. And I think the President believes very strongly and it's only been reinforced by what he's seen over the last two days, that we need to move forward quickly.
And I think, as he said yesterday, he's looking forward to when he returns to Washington, getting with the leadership and trying to get this issue worked out.
Q Where is Secretary Richardson? Is he with the President?
MR. LOCKHART: He will be here this afternoon or this evening.
MR. LEAVY: I think he got snowed in, because of the snow in Washington. He may not come down until tomorrow.
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, snow in Washington, but he's going to get here as soon as he can.
Q Joe, on the -- there's no official delegation. How many are actually here at this moment -- or coming or what?
MR. LOCKHART: How many people from the official delegation? There's probably a couple dozen people, from members of Congress to some administration officials from the State Department and from the White House staff.
All done? Thank you. Oh, I've got one more thing I'm supposed to read.
I understand from Barry that the Cloture vote for education, for the Ed-Flex bill, failed again today and I'm going to just read a quick statement by the President on that subject.
"For the second day in a row the Republican leadership has continued its efforts to stand in the way of voting on an amendment to finish the job of hiring 100,000 teachers to reduce class size. Communities across the country need to know that Congress will live up to the bipartisan commitment we made last fall to fund this effort. The American people expect us to work together to improve the education of our students. I call on the Republican leadership to allow an up or down vote on more teachers and smaller classes, and I call on every senator to support the Murray/Kennedy measure to reduce class size and hire well-prepared teachers across the nation."
END 3:10 P.M. (L)