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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 17, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                              JOE LOCKHART 
                           The Briefing Room    

1:10 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: Hello, everybody. Before you criticize my tie you should know who gave it to me.

Q Who gave it to you?

MR. LOCKHART: My daughter -- so be careful.

Q Great tie, Joe.

MR. LOCKHART: I have an announcement before the announcement -- find a watch?

Q Yes.

Q Okay, never mind. Where's Steve? I told him they wouldn't laugh at that.

One announcement, the President will hold a news conference Friday, 2:00 p.m., in the East Room. You're all invited. I think we'll just rotate the wires. So if you've got two or three people, we'll go around four or five cycles, about 15 questions. That's fine with everybody?

Q Joe, when is the last time the President had a fullscale news conference like this one?


Q April 30th.

MR. LOCKHART: April 30th, in the White House.

Q What year was that?

Q Last year.

Q 1900.

MR. LOCKHART: Probably. Did you go first at that one, Helen, or did Terry?

Q Oooh.

Q That wasn't in the White House.

MR. LOCKHART: When was the State Department one?

Q December of '97.

Q Why has he decided now to hold a news conference?

MR. LOCKHART: Because he's been watching some of my briefings and he sees how much trouble you give me on a daily basis, and he said, I really ought to hold a news conference.

Q Seriously.

MR. LOCKHART: Holding news conferences is one of the many ways the President has a chance to interact with the press corps -- one of many ways. We haven't done one for a while. The President thought it was about time to do one.

Q Is this the start of something new -- or something old?

MR. LOCKHART: Or something blue?

Q Are you willing to commit to having regular news conferences now?


Q How regular? Once a month, once every two weeks?

MR. LOCKHART: I wouldn't think every two weeks, but as often as I can get them on the schedule.

Q How about every month?

MR. LOCKHART: That may be a little ambitious, but we can certainly try.

Q How do you explain the hiatus?

Q He has been handing out chocolates, Valentine chocolates to the press and having off the record dinners. Is he trying to mend some kind of relations or --

MR. LOCKHART: No. I think it's important for you all in the work that you do to understand the President's thinking. There's a variety of ways we can do that -- a news conference is probably the most open and formal way. But there's a variety of other ways, including bringing chocolate back to the press cabin. And I think it's important and it's important that we try to do it as many different ways as we can.

Q It's not only important, it's indispensable that he submit to questioning. It's the only forum in our society where the President can be questioned. So why did we have to go 10 months, almost a year --

MR. LOCKHART: Helen, I'd suggest that there's a number of different ways that you can question the President, it doesn't have to be in the East Room. I think your organization has had half a dozen opportunities to talk to the President in the last four weeks.

Q I'm speaking for others as well.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think you do a good job for the rest of them.

Q Joe, any preview of the speech Thursday night?

MR. LOCKHART: It's not going to be very funny. You know, I've looked at it, it's kind of flat. And I'd be really surprised if we exceeded expectations with this speech. (Laughter.)

Q What's the topic?

MR. LOCKHART: Humor, the press, the presidency.

Q What's funny about that? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: Nothing. That's what I mean. If you guys have any ideas at all.

Q Is he writing it himself?

MR. LOCKHART: He spent some time on the subject, yes.

Q Make the same speech at the Grid Iron?

MR. LOCKHART: No, it will be completely different, Helen -- much funnier. (Laughter.)

Q Does he have an outside writer?

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, we've got a group of people who generally get together about this time every year who offer some suggestions.

Q I have a question about China. Given the President's --

MR. LOCKHART: Jim Steinberg was just here, why are you asking me? Go ahead. (Laughter.)

Q Given the President's expressed support for Sandy Berger, will anybody in the administration be held accountable for the delay in the dismissal at Los Alamos, given that this came to the administration's attention in '96 and he has been there until '99?

MR. LOCKHART: There's an assessment that's going on now, a damage assessment. If we find that there are people who didn't do the job the they were supposed to do, we will take appropriate action.

Q Are you going to rely on the Jeremiah report --

Q Can you confirm an unofficial report that President Clinton will pay a visit to Slovenia in the summer?

MR. LOCKHART: I can confirm that for you. The President, as part of his travels to Europe later this year, going to the G-8 summit, will visit Slovenia. I've talked to him about this, he's very much looking forward to the trip and making the visit.

Q What's the date?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have the dates. When I have the dates I'll make an announcement.

Q What city?

MR. LOCKHART: When I have the details I'll make an announcement.

Q Where else?

Q Any other stops?

MR. LOCKHART: That's all I have on this trip -- I think the dates are known for the Cologne G-8.

Q Is he going to Greece and Turkey on that trip?


Q George Mitchell tonight -- the President's thoughts, your thoughts, anybody's thoughts around here?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think I'll let you hear directly from the President. He was planning to talk about Senator Mitchell and the great contribution he's made to the peace process in Northern Ireland, with the incredible work he did -- now almost a year ago -- in helping to bring the parties together on the Good Friday Accord.

He's done that in the speaker's lunch, so I think you'll have the words directly from the President quite shortly. In fact, I may have to cut myself short so that you can listen to that.

Q Who will make the decision that the Serbs have gone too far? Will it be President Clinton or will he leave it to others?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think this is a decision that the United States will make with our NATO partners. And, again, as I think Mr. Steinberg just talked to you about, this is a decision that President Milosevic has got to make and he's got to choose between a path that we think can bring peace and return safety to the Kosovar Albanians, or a path that will inevitably lead to further violence.

Q Are you saying that Solana will take a poll, essentially, before making a decision?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I think those of you who know how NATO works, know that there is strong support within the alliance for trying to bring President Milosevic to this peace process. There is strong support for if that does not happen leaving the option of force on the table. And we will work closely with the NATO alliance?

Q Support doesn't necessarily equal a consensus, which is what you need.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, you need a consensus and what we have is consensus. The ACTORD remains in force and that was --

Q So Solana can proceed on his own without --

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, he has the authority, by virtue of the ACTORD, to move forward. And if he makes -- if we come to that point, that certainly could be an option.

Q You and others in the White House have been saying recently that this whole theft, if there was an alleged theft of nuclear secrets by the Chinese, took place in the mid-'80s. Did the Reagan administration do anything about it?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I mean, I think if you look at what led to the PDD and the revamping of security at the labs, it was a recognition that for some time security was not as strong as it could have been and the labs were vulnerable.

Again, what we've said is, I can't go into any great detail because I don't know what steps either the Reagan administration or the Bush administration took. I know when this came to our attention in 1997, the President moved immediately, we overhauled the way the counterintellgence programs are structured there, the security at the labs and some other issues, and we've moved aggressively, we believe, to address the vulnerabilities.

Q Why is it that these suggestions by Charles Curtis were not implemented? Was there some inadequacy in the way that Pena addressed this or --

MR. LOCKHART: That's best put over to Energy. I think that's an issue -- and I assume you're referring to a story that was in the paper today, and as I said in that story, these were not recommendations. By the time the recommendations came to our attention, we were already in the PDD process. And again, we took those recommendations and others to overhaul security.

As far as the time frame of between the changing of the guard and the secretaries, that's something I think you'd have to ask at Energy.

Q Joe, why is the White House satisfied that Pena moved aggressively on this when he knew what had occurred?

MR. LOCKHART: Again, when this was brought to our attention, I can't speak to that question in particular, but when this was brought to our attention, we moved as quickly as we felt we could to overhaul the way we did this, and we're in that situation now.

Q You just can't pawn this off on the DOE. When you say "we," if we is the Clinton administration, that includes the DOE. So you've been saying that we found out about this in 1997 --

MR. LOCKHART: That's correct.

Q -- but in fact, we found out about it in 1996.

MR. LOCKHART: David, there are indications that there were some recommendations that were not implemented immediately at the Department of Energy. I can only tell you what we know here at the White House. When this was brought to our attention, we moved quickly and completely overhauled the way we do security at the labs, and that was done very quickly.

Q And the White House isn't responsible for one of its agencies not moving more expeditiously?

MR. LOCKHART: Certainly. The President is responsible for the implementation of this government and he takes responsibility for that. I'm telling you what happened. And what happened is, this was brought to our attention in 1997 and we moved very quickly.

Q Doesn't that say something about the continuity in government, that there's a real threat of subversion?

MR. LOCKHART: Again, you're talking in the abstract here. I don't know if there is a specific allegation here of any information or secrets that were transferred because of the time lapse; I just don't know. But it's one of the things they're looking at. I think Secretary Richardson has been very forthcoming in looking at how the security issue was addressed and what we can learn from it.

Q Joe, The New York Times says that the White House was actually formed in April of 1996 about the security problems at the labs. Is that incorrect? You were saying '97.

MR. LOCKHART: Ninety-seven is when Mr. Berger was briefed on the significant problem and vulnerabilities at the labs.

Q Yes, but one of the key points in the argument here about who is responsible for what is whether that notification in the spring of 1996 was ignored because of election contingencies, including fundraising.

MR. LOCKHART: Let me answer that question directly. Absolutely not. It was not ignored if it had anything to do with the election, and it had nothing to do with our relationship or our policy of engagement. There's no evidence that it was. You can make the allegation, but beyond that, you have to have evidence that supports it, and there is none.

Q But then, don't you have to say what happened to that warning and why it was apparently not heeded?

MR. LOCKHART: We've talked about that, and we've talked about the difference between getting a comprehensive briefing about a systematic problem and having an isolated case. There may be a single case that we're looking into of espionage which, as the briefing said, was in a very preliminary form.

Q That's the '96 briefing you're talking about?

MR. LOCKHART: Correct.

Q The '96 briefing said it was in a preliminary --

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, preliminary investigation. As I understand it, there may be an isolated case. Ninety-seven was very different, which is the investigation had proceeded, they believed they had some evidence of a systematic problem and we addressed that immediately.

Q If it was just a preliminary assessment in '96, why did Curtis order a comprehensive set of reforms in late '96?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know the answer to that, and I would direct you over to Energy. What I can tell you is, when this came to our attention, which it did in mid-1997, we moved quickly to address what the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Energy -- the problem.

Q There was a report that during the course of the investigation of money-laundering and with regard to narco trafficking in Mexico, that some evidence came forward that the Mexican Defense Minister himself was involved with this money-laundering. Is there any truth to this? And also, was that investigation shut down?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I would refer you, on the details -- we're talking about Operation Casablanca, which was a three-year investigation and which, my understanding, was one of the most productive investigations that the Treasury Department has supervised. And from what they have said, there's no evidence that this investigation was shut down for anything other than law enforcement reasons.

Q The other question: is there any evidence that the Minister of Defense of Mexico was involved in narco-trafficking?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of any.

Q Joe, can I follow this question?


Q The Mexican government has already requested formally to the United States government to sustain or deny the case that the Customs agent was saying, that this investigation has the papers showing the involvement of the Minister of Defense in Mexico. Are you denying the case?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm saying that I don't have any information on it. I'd suggest you talk to the Department of Treasury on that issue.

Q Joe, will the Institute of Medicine study on medical marijuana influence the administration's position on that subject?

MR. LOCKHART: Sure. The study was done at the request of General McCaffrey and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. I think, as General McCaffrey has said out in his news conference that he held a short time ago, that it's important that we have this debate based on the science.

And this is an important step in the science of this subject. What we found out is that there may be some chemical compounds in marijuana that are useful in pain relief or anti-nausea, but that smoking --

Q Duh.

MR. LOCKHART: -- marijuana is a crude delivery system, and is not an effective delivery system. So I think what this calls for, as he said, is further research, and further research that's like any other research we do in developing drugs, through the FDA process, to try to find an effective way to take advantage of the chemical compounds that can be used to fight nausea or pain.

Q But beyond the science on this, what about the will of the people in the seven states that have voted to authorize the use of medical marijuana? I mean, this White House has often spoken about the will of the people, all during the impeachment year. Why is that something that the White House does not respect?

MR. LOCKHART: I think we obviously -- and as you've often pointed out -- respect the will of the people, but I think this is a scientific issue. And I'd hate to see there be a referendum on the latest technology in air traffic control. And I'd hate to see there be a referendum on FDA review processes. These are complicated scientific issues, and they ought to be debated on a scientific basis.

Q Sir, could I just ask you, on this St. Patrick's Day, can you just give us some sort of insight in the current thinking within the White House on the whole question of how the question of decommissioning is going to be resolved?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, as I think Mr. Steinberg was here before to say, and as the President will say, we have some issues which include decommissioning that are important to build on the enormous success of the Good Friday Accord. But there's still some work to be done, and St. Patrick's Day -- and coming to the White House -- is an opportunity to bring the parties together, to help them refocus their attention on getting the important work done.

Q But where do you see the actual pressure point being applied, sir? Is it a question of putting pressure on Sinn Fein and the IRA, or on the Unionists at this point in time?

MR. LOCKHART: I think it's a question of making clear to all sides that we've come an enormous way, and it's important that we not lose the progress of the last year, and we come to some resolution and get the Good Friday Accords implemented.

Q Joe, the budget resolution outlined by Domenici apparently includes $133 billion over 10 years of funding that could be used for Medicare. Is that enough? Are they addressing Medicare in a satisfactory amount?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the key word in there is "could be." I think the difference between our budget plan and theirs is that we are guaranteeing, in our plan, that money and a percentage of the surplus is reserved for Social Security, Medicare. I think what's guaranteed in their budget plan is a tax cut that's targeted away from the middle class. And I think if you --

Q Well, wait a minute. The specifics of a tax cut are not in their budget.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, they have talked about doing some sort of across-the-board tax cut, or some other tax cut. We don't know for sure. What we do know is, even if taking the targeting issue away from the tax cut, we do know if they do all the things they say they're going to do, it's going to mean that there isn't money for Medicare, and that you're going to see some pretty severe tax cuts on discretionary domestic spending.

And that's something that's real. You're looking at probably a 12 percent reduction in FY2000. That will go up to 28 percent reduction in FY2004. And those domestic spending cuts are very real. They come from law enforcement. They may come from Head Start. They may come from border patrol issues. They may come from cleanup on the environment. They're very real, and it's time that we start putting some specifics and details in here so we understand what it is we're debating.

Q But is that any worse than -- the administration is talking about a universal drug benefit in Medicare which according to some numbers, like the CBO, would be upwards of $30 billion a year. You want to spend just as much on new programs as they do.

MR. LOCKHART: I think one of the things we're planning to do -- we put forward a very specific budget with details of what spending we believe needs to be done, what investments need to be made, and how it's paid for. We will come forward in the coming weeks with something on Medicare which tells you how something like this can be paid for -- this doesn't really tell you. This gives you the benefits, talks about the tax cut, but I haven't seen a lot of press conferences among Republicans on the Hill talking about their Head Start cuts, or their law enforcement cuts, or the cuts in WIC funding. So I think it's time that we get past the political slogans and get to how are you going to do all this. You know, if you talk to our people at the OMB, they say these numbers just don't add up. You just can't do what they say they can do.

Q I wasn't quite sure about one thing yesterday. Is the President committed to a universal drug benefit for every Medicare beneficiary?

MR. LOCKHART: I think what -- we'll address that in the program. I think we're interested in having a very meaningful drug benefit. I don't think we're talking about a universal, free drug benefit, but we will address that directly and how that should be formulated and how it will be paid for.

Q So you're open to means testing for a drug benefit?

MR. LOCKHART: We're open to looking at different ways of structuring it and then I am not going to for the next, whether it's three weeks, six weeks, stand here and talk about what we might do. We'll tell you what we're going to do in specific detail and we'll be glad to debate the issue then.

Q What do you make of that survey today that shows 36 percent of the President's appointments to the Federal Bench are millionaires?

MR. LOCKHART: I should have gone to law school. (Laughter.) But speaking of surveys -- I'll finally get it in -- I've for two days in a row forgotten an important survey that came out on Monday which the Gallup organization polls the popularity -- not popularity, the proficiency of presidents on foreign policy in the post-World War II era, and President Clinton has jumped, has leapt, from sitting number eight in 1994 to number two in 1998. I'm certain that will be -- I'm sorry, number one -- President Kennedy was number one; he's now number two in the 1998 survey, so I'm certain that will all be reflected in your fawning coverage.

Q What about The Post poll this morning?

Q More proficient than FDR?

MR. LOCKHART: No, post-World War II.

Q And what about The Post poll this morning where Republicans are seen as much better on the foreign policy --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, that's why I'm talking about domestic policy here. (Laughter.)

Okay, I think we're done.

END 1:35 P.M. EST