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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release August 12, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY
                      BARRY TOIV AND DAVID LEAVY

                           The Briefing Room

12:57 P.M. EDT

MR. TOIV: Good afternoon, everybody. Before we start, just like to pay a little tribute to -- well, somebody who is not here at the moment, actually. As you all know, UPI Radio is going to cease existence this week, I believe, and we're all sad about that, and UPI radio has been part of radio journalism in this country for nearly four decades, and we're all going to miss them. And Don Fulsom, who has been their White House correspondent for quite a while and has been with UPI Radio for almost half of the time they've been in existence, we're going to miss Don, too. We hope he'll return soon.

With that, any -- there's Don.

MR. FULSOM: Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)

MR. TOIV: Don, we hope you'll be back.


Q What about the sale of the Panama Canal?

MR. TOIV: Panama Canal. David, you want to get right up there and --

MR. LEAVY: Okay. The United States is satisfied our interests will be protected after the canal is turned over this December. We have seen no capability on the part of the PRC to disrupt the canal's operations. I just mentioned the so-called Neutrality Act, provides a guarantee for the security of the canal and that a law was passed to implement the Hong Kong-based firms who were in question, and part of that implementing law are provisions that insures that no vessel -- that the canal will remain open to vessels of all nations.

Q Whose law is that?

MR. LEAVY: My understanding is that the contract -- Panama's contract with the Hong Kong-based firm to operate the two ports of the canal was passed into law in January 1997, and that law contains the provision --

Q Panamanian law?

MR. LEAVY: Yes. Let me check on that, but that's my --

Q Any bid on this before we let the Chinese have it?

MR. LEAVY: Well, it's two -- they're Hong Kong-based firms. I believe we did bid on that. I believe there actually were some questions about the bidding. But we protested that and our team has been aware of the issue and looked into it, and as I said earlier, we're satisfied that our interests will be protected.

Q Is the U.S. and American vessels -- are they guaranteed access and transit through the canal?

MR. LEAVY: Yes, they are. There's the so-called Neutrality Treaty which provides for the security of the canal and the law that governed the contract of these two Hong Kong-based firms have a provision that allows all vessels from all nations to pass through.

I would also just note, too, that the container -- the firms are container shipping firms, and while they have ports on both ends of the canal, they're not the only ones, they don't have a monopoly or --

Q What about -- there was another issue raised, and that was intelligence matters. Will this give the PRC an added ability to monitor shipping that goes through the canal?

MR. LEAVY: I don't want to comment specifically on intelligence matters, Alec, though just to say that our national security team has looked into the matter and we're confident that our interests will be protected and guaranteed.

Q What do you mean by no capability?

Q David, does this company have ties to the Chinese military?

MR. LEAVY: I don't know if -- I know it's a Hong Kong-based company, but I'm not sure what, if any, ties they have to the PLA.

Q When does all this happen now?

MR. LEAVY: The actual official transfer I believe is in early December of this year. There will be a transfer, a ceremony. I'm not sure when the actual company contract goes into effect, but there will be a big ceremony in Panama this December to actually commemorate the official transfer.

Q And the U.S. actually approved of this?

MR. LEAVY: This was an open commercial contract. U.S. firms bid on it, the Panamanian government --

Q What, they bid too low?

MR. LEAVY: This was several years ago, so I don't have the exact specifics of the bidding process here. But there actually -- there were some questions just about the transparency of the bidding process. We raised our concerns at the time, but subsequently our team has looked into it and we feel that our interests will be protected.

And I would just note, too, that we've seen no capability on the part of the PRC, which is a heavy user of the canal, to disrupt its operations. So I would caution people not to get too alarmed over this issue.

Q You may think so, but it was very, very important in World War II. It might not be important in the next war, but I cannot understand how we could relinquish all of our interests in the canal. Well, you don't seem concerned.

MR. LEAVY: Helen, it's not relinquishing our interests at all in the canal. It's been a policy of this government for almost two decades now, to transfer authority of the canal back to the Panamanians. We've worked closely to ensure that that's done consistent with our interests. We're confident that it will be -- these are commercial contracts for port container processing. This company does not have a monopoly over that. We've looked into it. We think --

Q They control both ends of the canal.

MR. LEAVY: They control ports on both ends, but they're not the only ports, they're not the only shipping container company, so I think our commercial interests will be able to be protected and won't be a problem.

Q And on what do you base your confidence --

MR. LEAVY: Well, again, as I said, our team looked into this, analyzed it and made a judgment, and we're satisfied that our interests will be protected both in terms of national security and commercial.

Q David, you said no capability on the part of the PRC to disrupt. How do you know they have no capability, and can you put this in the context of the question I asked yesterday, the very bellicose statements by the Chinese Defense Minister threatening a high-tech war with the United States?

MR. LEAVY: Well, I wouldn't link the two here. The issue about the commercial viability of the canal and the transfer has been an issue that we've been dealing with literally for years. The Chinese are a major user of the canal as are we, as are other countries. There are significant legal provisions built into the transfer to make sure that all vessels will be able to transfer in. Again, these companies do not have a monopoly over the port container issue.

Q How many others have control?

MR. LEAVY: Let me check on that. The people I checked with today were pretty confident that our interests -- again, both commercial and security -- will be protected here.

Q Are U.S. soldiers out of the canal zone by the end of the year?

MR. LEAVY: I don't know. We had Howard* Air Force Base in Panama. I know that we're closing down. I don't know, Mike, what, if any U.S. personnel -- they're all checked out --

Q Senator Lott said you've given away the farm on this. He wrote a letter to Secretary Cohen. Is Cohen responding to that, or how do you answer him?

MR. LEAVY: I'm not aware the letter has been received. Again, our folks are well aware of this issue. This has literally been something that's been in the works for years. We've looked into it, and everyone seems pretty confident that --

Q It seems to me that we have really missed the ball on this, because the Panama Canal Commission has been warning and warning the U.S. that this was about to happen. And it seems that we would want to keep our stake in this canal that we built.

MR. LEAVY: I think our stake in the canal is preserved, Helen. Again, we have legal remedies for the commercial transport. Our national security team feels confident that our security interests are protected, so I don't think that we're losing or damaging any --

Q I don't know what you base your confidence on.

MR. LEAVY: This is an issue that comes as no surprise. We've looked closely at it, and our team feels pretty confident.

Q And did the U.S. conclude that the bidding process was fair?

MR. LEAVY: I think there were some concerns back in '97. I believe the actual bidding -- that the bidding process wasn't as transparent as we would have liked. We protested that to the Panamanians.

Q And what came of it?

MR. LEAVY: I'm not aware of any actual remedy that was changed, but our protests were noted. I mean, the contract went forward to the Hong Kong-based company, so I don't think there's any --

Q Do you know at what level the U.S. will be represented at the transfer ceremony in December?

MR. LEAVY: No. No, I don't think that decision's been made.

Q David, one more. In 1956, the British and French went to war over the Suez Canal, when the Egyptians nationalized it. What's going to happen if --

MR. LEAVY: Well, I think we're sort of talking past each other a little bit. Let me just take one or two more on this and let's move on. This isn't -- the Canal's not being nationalized by the PRC. This is a private company that has several contracts to work out of the canal in terms of shipping containers of commercial products. We bid on that contract --

Q How many private companies does the PRC have?

MR. LEAVY: Well, I can't confirm any specific PRC or PLA links to these companies. But let me just say, as I've said many times so far, is that these are private companies. We've got legal remedies. Our interests, both commercial and security, will be protected. Okay? Last one on this.

Q Kind of a related issue. There's also these reports that the PRC is refurbishing a former Soviet listening post in Cuba. Are you at all concerned that the PRC is heightening its presence in the Western hemisphere somehow?

MR. LEAVY: I'm not aware of that specific report, Alex, and no one's informed me of any heightened state of alert.

Q No, no. Are you concerned that the PRC is moving as a more aggressive presence in the Western hemisphere?

MR. LEAVY: Not that I'm aware of, no.

Q While you're up there, Pakistan? New flights by the Pakistanis today?

MR. LEAVY: I haven't seen any new reports today. The only new piece on that is that our Assistant Secretary of State, Rick Inderfurth, had talked to the Ambassadors of both India and Pakistan yesterday about our concerns he raised what, both here and at the State Department, we've been saying the last several days, about trying to get back to the Lahore dialogue. But I haven't seen any new reports of any action today.

Q I think it was the Pakistani Defense Minister who said they were going to increase their patrols along the border -- airborne patrols.

MR. LEAVY: Well, as I said yesterday -- and I believe Jamie over at the State Department said -- that there is a 1991 airborne agreement between the two countries that governs the -- excuse me for saying this -- the modalities of air flights around -- I know, I'm being criticized for using the "m" word here -- but the modalities of the flights between the two countries along the border, and I think that's the appropriate channel to govern these instances. Actually, while I have the podium, let me just do a little piece of news as well on Russia.

Mr. Putin called National Security Advisor Berger this morning. They spoke for about 20 minutes. As you recall, Mr. Putin was Sandy's counterpart in the Kremlin. Mr. Berger expressed appreciation for the good work that the two have done on Kosovo, and non-proliferation issues. Mr. Putin reaffirmed Russia's desire to strengthen the overall relationship and cooperation and expressed that the new government intends to follow the Yeltsin-Clinton agenda that was put forth in Cologne earlier this year and follow the good work that Prime Minister Stepashin has done. And finally, Mr. Berger stressed the important of making progress on a whole range of issues, including arms control, non-proliferation and economics.

Q Who made the call?

MR. LEAVY: I believe Sandy called last week to wish congratulations, and Mr. Putin returned the call today. So he actually placed the call today.

Q So the Putin-Gore Commission -- would that go forward forthwith, or would that await his confirmation?

MR. LEAVY: I don't think any official business will go forward until his actual confirmation, but I don't know of any plans specifically on the Gore Commission.

Q Did they discuss Dagestan?

Q How long was the phone call?

MR. LEAVY: 20 minutes. No, Dagestan did not come up.

Q While you're up there, could you explain why Clinton's going in October to Canada?

MR. LEAVY: He's going to Canada, as we put out the other day -- yesterday -- that's still the other day -- that's yesterday -- (laughter) -- at the invitation of Prime Minister Chretien to attend a federalism conference outside Montreal. I think the agenda for the rest of the trip is still being put together, but that's the primary focus -- is a conference on federalism.

Q How long?

MR. LEAVY: It could be expanded but nothing to announce right now.

Q While you're at it, do you have any details on the New Zealand trip, other than what you put out yesterday on the trip --

MR. LEAVY: No, but we'll try to do a pre-trip briefing for you guys before you leave. It's going to be a little bit awkward because we have the Labor Day and then I think you guys leave the next day or the day after, so we're going to try to cram a briefing in between there and we'll put out a press schedule at some point, but --

Q Do you when he's meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister -- is that part of --

MR. LEAVY: I have no announcements today on that.

Q I'm sorry, on federalism -- would that be American federalism, or Canadian federalism? (Laughter.)

Q World federalism.

Q Is there some merger coming up we don't know about?

MR. LEAVY: I think, Mark, they'll probably share their experience -- no merger, but I don't have too much information on the conference, but sharing views on their experiences.

Q Federalism experiences.

MR. LEAVY: Federalism experiences. (Laughter.) That's it.

Q No trade?

MR. LEAVY: The conference is the primary event for the --

Q Will they be discussing a full range of bilateral issues as well?

MR. LEAVY: Yes, I'm sure the two leaders will meet in a bilateral context, but the meeting is the official reason for the trip.

Q Barry, can I ask you about the Puerto Ricans that President Clinton agreed to commute or remit the sentences of 16 of them?

MR. TOIV: Do you have a particular question, or --

Q Well, any --

Q Did he do it to help Mrs. Clinton in New York?

MR. TOIV: Why did he do it?

Q Yes. Why did he do it?

MR. TOIV: No, this has been an issue that has been under discussion in the White House for some time, and the President took this action in a way that recognizes that these individuals committed serious crimes. But that also recognizes that the sentences they received were far out of proportion to the nature of their crimes. And what he has done is to commute their sentences; some of them would be released on parole now, and others would be affected in different ways. But what he has done is to recognize that -- to recognize the unfairness of the original sentences, but to also apply conditions which first of all require them individually to renounce violence for any purpose, including political purposes, and they would also be required to keep to the conditions of parole.

Q Is this the beginning of a new series of clemency decisions the President --

MR. TOIV: I'm not aware of any other -- of any other decisions like that --

Q It's traditional at the end of a second term that the President does these kinds of decisions. If you recall, George Bush did a bunch of pardons and clemency decisions at the end of his term.

MR. TOIV: Did he do those at the end of his term?

Q At the very end.

MR. TOIV: At the very end. Yes. We're not anywhere near the end.

Q Before they went to jail.

MR. TOIV: We're not near the end of this term, so -- (laughter) --

Q Barry, is it your understanding that some of these individuals have declined the clemency because they wouldn't renounce violence?

MR. TOIV: I'm not sure. I've heard some reports as to -- that they're deciding whether to accept or not. I don't know if they're going to or not. So that would be their choice, of course. But I would add that these are individuals who did not -- who were not convicted of any crime involving physical harm to any person and, yet, some of them received sentences of upwards of 50 years; some of them would not have been released for another 25 years or more, in fact, if the President had not acted.

Q Do you know if there was consultation with Puerto Rican officials?

MR. TOIV: I believe there was, yes.

Q What about clemency, what about Pollard -- pardon? Is that dormant?

MR. TOIV: Whatever we're unchanged. (Laughter.) I can try and repeat it for you. No, that's being studied, I believe.

MR. LEAVY: No final decision has been made.

MR. TOIV: No final decision has been made.

Q Do you have any kind of a read out on the economic meeting today?

MR. TOIV: It's still going on, as a matter of fact -- Mr. Sperling today is in the second half of his economic briefing. (Laughter.)

No, yesterday was more of an economic review; today is a little bit more of a budget review, as they review the issues that we'll be facing in the months ahead, when Congress comes back.

Q Speaking of budget review, a review of what Congress has passed, the Appropriations Bill -- the President's budget is already out there.

MR. TOIV: A review of all the issues that we're facing, that you're all very familiar with.

Q Is this a strategy session for how you'll counter the Republicans' plan to barnstorm on tax cuts this month?

MR. TOIV: Well, some of those issues are likely to come up in the meeting.

Q In what fashion?

MR. TOIV: In the discussion. But I do not have any details on the discussion, nor do I expect to.

Q Do you have any reaction to the rather cool response that Speaker Hastert got yesterday, kicking off the barnstorming tour?

MR. TOIV: Hardly a surprise. Well, I'll give you more --

Q Is the President going to Camp David?

MR. TOIV: -- hardly a surprise. Yes, the President is going to go to Camp David tonight, that's the plan.

Q Through Sunday?

Q Is that for the weekend?

Q What's the purpose?

MR. TOIV: I believe for the weekend, yes. Let me go back and finish -- I shortchanged Rick.

The Speaker and other Republicans have a PR campaign going to try and sell a tax bill that is distinctly not in the interest of the American people. And I think they're going to have an awfully hard time selling it. It's a bloated tax bill that will not allow us to address the challenges facing Medicare and Social Security. It will not allow us to pay down the debt -- pay off the debt in 15 years, as the President is proposing. It would not allow us to address the defense, education, and other priorities that are facing us.

The President has proposed a tax cut that makes sense: $250 billion tax cut, it's directed towards helping Americans save, primarily middle-income Americans. And we hope that when the Congress comes back -- if they want to, they can send that bill up here. It'll be vetoed. But whether or not they do, we need to get down to work. And let's do first things first. Let's start with Medicare.

Q Do you all have any reaction to Bush saying that he would have signed it in a heartbeat?

MR. TOIV: Yes, it's very disappointing. Any national leader, or anyone who hopes to be a national leader, who would suggest that they would sign a tax bill of this sort is someone who does not have the best interests of the U.S. economy at heart.

Q Are you going to mount any kind of counteroffensive, other than having the President criticize it here at the White House? Will Cabinet Secretaries be talking about it, other Democrats?

MR. TOIV: The tax bill?

Q Paid advertising? Yes.

MR. TOIV: I'm not aware of any paid advertising. But certainly, the President has been critical of the tax bill, and he will continue to be. And other -- members of the Cabinet and others know full well -- members of the Cabinet know as well as anybody what the impact of this bill would be on the programs in their areas, from education to defense to the environment. And so I'm sure that they will have some things to say in the coming weeks.

Q The White House has indicated that you'd be willing to look at some of their proposals, all the other priorities on that -- as long as it's in the $295-billion, $300-billion range. But if it's not -- if the bulk of that $250-billion range isn't savings-oriented, wouldn't the administration be concerned if it -- if there are adverse economic consequences?

MR. TOIV: You know, I'm not sure I understood that question, Paula. Could you try it again?

Q Well, if the Republicans were to negotiate a proposal in the $300-billion range, but it's not savings-oriented, instead, it has other things in the mix, would the administration still seriously entertain it?

MR. TOIV: Well, the President has made very clear that he is willing to consider other ideas as long as they are within that range for a total, of $250 to nearly $300 billion. Democrats in the Congress have proposed different ideas. The Vice President has proposed different ideas -- including, the Vice President has also proposed to include USA accounts as well.

But the President is willing to look at other ideas for how we shape that tax cut. He does believe that it should be primarily aimed at the middle-class. But he's willing to listen to different ideas.

But before we get there -- and I think you'll hear the President make this very clear in the interview that will be broadcast on Nightly Business Report tonight -- the President will make very clear that we need to do first things first. Don't put the cart before the horse. The President will say we need to focus on Medicare first, and we need to look at the other priorities, and then see what we can do about a tax cut.

Q And you're confident that they can't override a veto?

MR. TOIV: It sure looks that way to me.

Q Does first things first include Social Security, would that mean that we'll see a White House reform plan on Social Security before a tax cut is discussed?

MR. TOIV: The President has already proposed that we establish a lockbox, a true lockbox for Social Security, so that the trust fund cannot be used for any other purpose. He's also proposed that we take the interest that we'd save by paying down the debt and apply it to the trust fund and extend the life of the trust fund. That, in itself, would go a long way toward addressing the Social Security issue.

Q But that's not a reform plan for eligibility or --

MR. TOIV: The President has, again, has said on a number of occasions that he wants to work with the Congress in a bipartisan way on other reforms that would be necessary.

Q Barry, did you get a chance to ask the President whether he thinks the students of Kansas are well served by evolution being removed from their curriculum?

MR. TOIV: Well, I have not talked to him directly. However, as you know, while we do believe that the federal government has a very important role to play in ensuring that all students have access to the kind of quality education that they deserve, curriculum is a state and local issue, so we won't have any comment on that specifically.

Q I apologize if this has been asked before, but Janet Reno today suggested that state governments and the federal government explore the idea of gun licensing. Do you guys have a reaction to that?

MR. TOIV: Well, as you know, the Vice President has proposed ideas along those lines. And the President has had some positive things to say about the Vice President's ideas. Right now we are focused, though, on trying to get through the Congress sensible ideas for limiting access to guns to criminals and to children, in order to protect children. And those ideas have been enacted by the Senate and we are hoping that when they come back in the fall that the House Senate Conference Committee accepts the Senate provisions and that they can be sent to the President.

The President asked them to work on these issues over the break. He asked the Conference Committee to stay in town and work on it; he felt it was that important. They apparently did not. However, when they do come back they'll have another opportunity to go at it and we hope that they will.

Q So you're saying, Barry, that the White House has no position on whether schools should teach about Charles Darwin and evolution as a science, as a subject of science?

MR. TOIV: It's a curriculum issue. It's a curriculum issue, and curriculum issues are generally left to the state and local authorities. And that's -- so we aren't going to have any comment on that.

Q Don't you talk here about, you know, high-tech learning and different types of things that you think should be on the curriculum, using the Internet and so forth?

Q Tolerance -- teaching tolerance?

MR. TOIV: We have supported that, absolutely.

Q So why won't you talk about this subject?

MR. TOIV: Because we feel this is an issue that -- this is a curriculum issue that is being addressed, and ought to be addressed, at the state and local level and we don't have anything else to say about it.

Q Has the President had any personal contact anymore with the L.A. shooting -- any of the victims or families?

MR. TOIV: Not that I'm aware of, Helen.

Q What can you tell us about the meeting with the Jewish leaders and what they're expected to discuss? How many are coming, and when this was all arranged and why?

MR. TOIV: Yes, this is -- the President will be meeting with a number of Jewish leaders later today. My guess is that it will be upwards of 30 or so -- maybe 40. And this is another one in a series of outreach meetings that he has done with various groups and communities. It was set up about a month ago -- is my understanding -- and among the issues that they will talk about will be the Middle East -- in fact, I believe Sandy Berger and Secretary Albright will both be in the meeting. We also expect them to discuss the hate crimes issue and, in addition, I suspect that the President will use the opportunity to discuss his broader priorities as well, in terms of the economy, in terms of the budget, and other matters.

Q Do you expect the Pollard issue to come up during the meeting?

MR. TOIV: I don't know.

Q How many leaders will be here?

MR. TOIV: As I said, my guess is somewhere between 30 and 40, but we'll put out a list -- after the meeting starts and we know who's actually here, we'll put out a list.

Yes, Paula?

Q Let me -- just to make this clear -- if Republicans were to agree to first things first, the White House would not consider the veto date as long as it's in the $300-billion range; any proposals like capital gains cuts, a state tax repeal, marriage penalty, or some form of across-the-board cuts?

MR. TOIV: What I said is after we do first things first; do Medicare and address these other issues, the President will be willing to discuss other ideas. I did not say that the President would be prepared to accept necessarily any particular ideas.

Please announce: In-town travel pool should gather now at briefing room doors for an escort to the motorcade.

Q Barry, your answer somewhat requires us to ask -- does the White House --

MR. TOIV: Oh, oh -- what did I do?

Q -- does the White House accept the theory of evolution as a valid, scientific principle? (Laughter.)

MR. TOIV: The White House as an institution -- I'm not sure if the White House as an institution has addressed that issue. I'll have to check. I'll have to take a vote here. I'll have to take a vote.

Q Barry, given the trauma the Jewish community has experienced and the President's promise to open his outreach meetings to coverage for the press, wouldn't this be a good session to have at least some kind of coverage of what he's going to tell these Jewish leaders so the community as a whole can know his concern?

MR. TOIV: I suspect that people inside the meeting will come out and give you a good idea of what he talked about.

Anything else?

MR. TOIV: No, they're not.

Q Can we just go back to the evolution question just one more time? Doesn't that fly in the face of the President's efforts to have national testing -- standardized testing -- doesn't that conflict with that effort?

MR. TOIV: Well, for what it's worth, the standardized testing that we've proposed has to do with math and education. But beyond that --

Q Math and reading.

MR. TOIV: Math and reading -- I mean, I'm sorry. Thank you. But -- so I'm not sure that conflicts in any event.

Q But the basic principle of censoring what is considered by most people a legitimate, scientific theory -- does the White House have no comment, no position on whether local and state school boards should censor that kind of education?

MR. TOIV: Not today we don't.

Q Maybe later this afternoon?

Q Whoa! (Laughter.)

MR. TOIV: Sorry, I missed that. What?

Q Your position is evolving? (Laughter.)

MR. TOIV: That's a Darwinian position.

Q The Camp David thing -- R & R?

MR. TOIV: As far as I know.

Q Did the President make the decision to go -- before or after he got to go through two days of Sperling briefings? (Laughter.)

Q When is he coming back from Camp David?

MR. TOIV: I think on Sunday.

Q Is the Fist Lady going with him?

Q Yes, who's going?

MR. TOIV: I think so.

Q Are there guests?

MR. TOIV: We don't talk about guests.

Q He goes to Kansas City the following day?

MR. TOIV: Pardon?

Q And he goes to Kansas City the following day?

MR. TOIV: Yes, he goes to Kansas City on Monday. But I don't know when he comes back.

END 1:27 P.M. EDT