THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
1:10 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: It feels like it's been a long time since we've been together. No wonder I've been in such a good mood. Anyway, let me start with, first, one personnel announcement -- worst kept secret in Washington. As many of you know, Mr. Barry Toiv will be leaving our service at the end of the week. It says here on this paper that we are amending our national monuments list -- we left one off and it's Barry. (Laughter.) But I'm going to, actually, have more to say on that on Friday, which is his last day.
But, as has been reported a few places, I do want to make a good announcement that Jim Kennedy has agreed to join my staff as a Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary. Many of you know him as the Special Advisor to the White House Counsel, someone who was fully employed over the last year, but thankfully has seen a decline in his part of his economy. He's done a great job for the President for Chuck Ruff, for Beth Nolan, and everyone in the Counsel's Office, and will be joining us beginning after the new year, officially.
Those of you who still have an interest in those old, boring subjects that he sometimes trafficked in, he'll be able to continue to help you.
Q On Monica and all?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, you've got questions he'll be able to help.
Q And who is replacing Jim in the Counsel's Office?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think, given the fact that the press in Washington are interested in the budget and the issues that the President is going to move forward on to make this country a better place, thankfully, no one.
Q Does that mean there will never be another scandal again in this administration?
MR. LOCKHART: That's what it means. (Laughter.) We're confident.
Q Did the President get a flu shot?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
MR. LOCKHART: November 3rd. The reason we know that is that it was one of the first questions in the "Ask the White House" series on the Internet last week, was did he get a flu shot.
Q But I guess it didn't work.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't know if he had a full-blown case of the flu. It was a bad cold combined with a bad -- the normal seasonal allergies, with all of the Christmas trees and decorations around, with some flu-like symptoms. You never know with these whether it keeps it from being a worse case, or whether it has no bearing. But this was, for him, who rarely misses a day of work, a pretty bad case.
Q So Christmas trees bother him?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, the Christmas trees tend to flare up his allergies. What he does for the season.
Q Joe, the New York Times, in reporting that Panama feels slighted when Albright cancels date at Canal, notes that the President said scheduling conflicts prevented him from attending. But the perception among many here and in Washington was that the administration was loath to revive conservative resentment over the handover in the presidential campaign next year. And I have a two-part question. First, in order to prove that the President's absence was in no way political, can you tell us what the scheduled events today are that were more important than his being present with the Panamanians?
MR. LOCKHART: You want to give me the second one, so we can get it all -- so I can do it quickly?
Q Well, why don't we --
MR. LOCKHART: Give me the follow-up. It's just easier that way.
Q All right, fine. It's more of the same.
MR. LOCKHART: Okay. (Laughter.)
Q When the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and Senator Sarbanes, the floor manager for these treaties, all join the President in absenting themselves, how can you blame Panama's former President Calderon for saying, it shows the United States has lowered their estimation of us even more?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me deal with the second one first, because it doesn't indicate any lowering of estimation. We have an important relationship with Panama. We've worked closely with them over the last 22 years to reach this day. I think if you look at what the President has said when he's been asked on this on a couple of occasions, he was talking about his schedule in general.
I think we've taken 12 foreign trips this year; that puts a heavy load on both the President and the staff. And there are many trips that he wants to take that he believes are important that we just can't do; this fits that category. So this decision is not made based on the politics. The President supported this treaty in 1977 -- '79 -- I think they started debating it '77 or '78 -- supported it then, supports it now, believes that this is the right thing to do.
I think some of the somewhat hysterical comments coming from the right, notwithstanding, that seek to distort the record, just have to be ignored, as is oftentimes the best way to deal with some comments. But we can't do every trip that's important, but our commitment to that region of the world is unparalleled by any President. I think we've traveled there more than any recent President, and that commitment remains the same and remains strong.
Q The Vice President said that you never asked him to go. Is that true? And why, if it's true, didn't you ask him to go?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, the President thought it was most appropriate to have the former President, Jimmy Carter, and the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State, in turn, because of the breakthrough in the Middle East peace talks, needed to be here.
Q Well, it's not until tomorrow.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think enterprising reporters will note that her role begins today.
Q You don't deny really that the U.S. doesn't look so great on this. After all, we're making a major change here. We built the canal. I don't know how many people died in building it and so forth. It's represented so much in terms of the Monroe Doctrine and World War II, and so forth.
Q 5,607 died.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you. What's the question?
Q My point is, don't you think that the U.S. -- the President will be remiss --
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the U.S. is well represented at this ceremony. We have a number of Cabinet officers there. It's unfortunate in one sense that the Secretary of State couldn't go, but in another sense, it's quite fortunate that we have these historic discussions that will begin tomorrow. So you take it as it comes.
Q Joe, is the United States letting the Taliban know that they will be held responsible for any acts of terrorism against U.S. citizens by the bin Laden network, and if so, how?
MR. LOCKHART: The head of the counterterrorism unit at the State Department, Michael Sheehan, met with the Taliban yesterday and delivered a message that any terrorist activities by the bin Laden group we would hold the Taliban responsible for.
Q And what does that mean? Does that mean if there were terrorist acts by his associates that we would reserve the same rights we did earlier to bomb his installations?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not going to get into specifics. We just wanted to make sure they understood that their support and harboring of the bin Laden organization was noted here in the United States and that any activity that moved forward, we would hold them responsible for.
Q And what did Mullah Omar say in response to that?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll let them characterize their own response.
Q But can you tell us what Mr. Sheehan saw as the response?
MR. LOCKHART: No.
Q Did you have a good reason to give this kind of warning -- not you, per se, but did the U.S. --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that you are all aware that there is a travel advisory from the Department of State that was issued over the weekend. I can tell you that, recently, there were some suspects arrested and that we believe that they belong to the bin Laden organization and were planning terrorist acts. But beyond that, I really can't go into any more detail, because we consider this work that we're doing to combat terrorism in this group and other groups to be an ongoing effort.
Q Is that in the United States?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into where this happened.
Q Can you give us any indication at all of what kind of effort they were planning against Americans?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I can only tell you that I think the warning is clear about the cautions that we believe Americans should take. But beyond that, I don't think it would be productive to go into the details.
Q Joe, the President is quoted by The New York Times saying about the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, "the policy, as implemented, does not work as I announced, and as the leaders of our military, at that time in 1993 pledged to implement it." Does he believe General Colin Powell deliberately broke the 1993 pledge? And I have a follow-up.
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think as the Pentagon themselves have looked through in their review that they've done this year, there have been problems in implementation. There were recommendations out of the review that came -- that was released I think in August, and Secretary Cohen took further steps yesterday. So I think as the President was clear, there's problems with implementation that we need to address quickly.
Q And he's also quoted as saying, "I'm quite sympathetic with what she said," regarding Mrs. Clinton's statement, "fitness to serve should be based on an individual's conduct, not their sexual orientation." And my question is, this means that the President believes in recruiting all sexual orientations into our armed forces, doesn't it?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, if you look at the interview, which is quite clear, he said he was quite sympathetic to the statements she made because those were statements that were in the same vein as -- let me finish.
Q Oh, sure.
MR. LOCKHART: -- when he campaigned in 1992. Clearly, when the President assumed office, there was massive opposition on Capitol Hill, within some quarters in the Pentagon. We did the best we could, and the President believes that his focus for the next year should be trying to take the steps necessary to ensure the best implementation of the policy.
Q But the question is, if she says, "fitness to serve should be based on an individual's conduct, not their sexual orientation," and he agrees with this, this means he feels that they should recruit any sexual orientation, doesn't it, Joe? Or would he discriminate? Are you saying he would discriminate against some?
MR. LOCKHART: You know, you've had your shot today. Let's go around the room.
Q It's six years into the policy. Where and how does the President think it went wrong?
MR. LOCKHART: I'd suggest you go and look at the interview. He went into some detail about some of the issues, about the rooting out of people. But I think he was very clear there, and I don't think I can really expand on it.
Q Yes, but he was talking about the symptoms of it going wrong. What I'm asking is, how does he think it went off-track? Was it that commanders were not paying attention to people above them? Was it the Pentagon wasn't telling people that they need to work on this? Was it they didn't --
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I can't really reflect on that, only to say that he thinks it hasn't been implemented well, the Pentagon agrees, and we're taking steps to address that.
Q So what's he going to do to try to make it work better, then?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we have been working, for some time before you got interested in this in the last few days. We've been working with the Pentagon for much of this year to look at it, look at how it was implemented, see if there are things we can do to improve it. That's the process we've undertaken.
Q Just to clarify, Joe. It is not the policy of don't ask, don't tell that he's criticizing, it is the implementation of the policy?
MR. LOCKHART: The President -- it depends on what you're looking at here. He indicated in an interview that he had sympathy for those who criticize don't ask don't tell, because he campaigned on something different. But we couldn't get that through. And we live in the real world here in Washington, and when the vast majority of Congress is against something, it's not likely to implement new policy.
We've done the best we could. But within the context of don't ask don't tell, the President believes, and I believe the leadership of the Pentagon believes, that we need to do more as far as implementing that to accurately reflect the intent of the policy at the time when it was announced.
Q Joe, back to the terrorist arrest in the Middle East. Is it your understanding that they were in the late stages of planning, or the early stages?
MR. LOCKHART: Again, it would not be productive to get into the operational details of this.
Q Joe, it's been made clear by some people that there are some areas of the world that perhaps would be more dangerous, if they do follow through on these threats, than others. Isn't there some kind of obligation to let the American people know where the real danger spots would be, so they can plan accordingly?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we've made very clear in our warning that Americans who are planning to travel overseas around the time of the millennium should check in with the relevant embassies and consuls. And they will be given the information that they need.
Q Joe, what was the President's reaction to the Hawaiian Supreme Court decision?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know, I haven't talked to him about it.
Q On same-sex marriage?
MR. LOCKHART: Haven't talked to him about it.
Q They upheld the referendum --
MR. LOCKHART: Haven't talked to him about it.
Q Will you ask him about that, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think we've done enough today.
Q Joe, the environmental --
MR. LOCKHART: Anytime anyone else wants to jump in. I mean -- (laughter.)
Q I want to ask a question.
MR. LOCKHART: Okay.
Q The environmental event that the President just had, one of the sites is the King Center. There was a fight with the National Park Service and the King Center back in -- well, the feud began in '94. Do you know what kind of resolved that? Because I understand the National Park Service --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know how it was resolved, but I understand, for the sites that we put forward, we now have the money to buy them, and we have sellers. So I think the process we need to go through is consulting and working with the appropriators on Capitol Hill. But I'm not aware of any particular problem.
Q Does the National Park Service have anything to do with this proposal the President is sending out, as far as the King Center is concerned?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, you'd have to go to the Park Service and Interior; I just don't know.
Q Joe, on the don't ask, don't tell again, the President's going to work hard to try to get this to work better in the next year. Why not just propose to Congress that they drop the ban altogether?
MR. LOCKHART: Because we make judgments from time to time about what we think we can get done and what we think we can't get done, and the President's made the judgment that at this point, the most appropriate use of our time and energy is to try to have this policy implemented in the best way possible.
Q You mean, there's not support on the Hill to get something passed?
MR. LOCKHART: In our judgment.
Q Joe, last week, the President indicated he was very willing to do almost anything it took to get the Syrians and the Israelis to come to a peace agreement. Would that include a trip to Syria while they're still listed by the State Department as a country that supports terrorism?
MR. LOCKHART: You're way down the road. We have an historic opportunity tomorrow to open -- I mean, I think that the Prime Minister of Israel has never sat down to talk with the Foreign Minister of Syria on any subject, much less a broad peace agreement. That's the important thing. The important thing tomorrow is to get this process begun in a positive way, find a way to get through the issues that they need to resolve, and I think anything else is just speculation. I'm looking way down the road.
Q And what's the President's plans tomorrow and Thursday in terms of appearing in public and making statements?
MR. LOCKHART: I expect you will see him tomorrow in some form. He'll have something to say as we start this process. We'll let you know the details once we finalize them. And then they'll go in to discussions. Both the three as a group of three, and the delegations, the President talking individually with the two parties, and then the two parties talking directly to each other. But how Thursday works out I think will depend a little bit on how Wednesday goes. We'll have some people in here in a few minutes here who know a good bit more than I do on this subject --
Q Joe, beyond these logistics that you've just outlined, what role does the President see himself taking? Is he going to be a mediator, a conciliator?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President and the United States government has played the role of helping the parties work through issues, and I think the President stands ready and willing to do whatever he believes to be constructive and appropriate. I don't know that we can completely predict how that will play out over the next days, weeks and months, but I think you should know from the past the President has been very deeply involved in this. He's talked to the leaders dozens of times and believes strongly that we are at an historic point where we have an opportunity for peace.
Q Joe, what kind of expectations should we have for these two days of talks? How far does he think he can take this over two days?
MR. LOCKHART: I think, realistically, what the two sides and the United States government can expect is they have a chance at the end of two days to discuss how they'll move forward. There is certainly no expectation that they can reach a broad, wide-ranging agreement on issues that are quite difficult and longstanding. But I think what they will hope to do over the next two days is work hard to find a process to allows them over a period of time to reach a peace agreement.
Q Joe, what was the President's reaction to that trial in Memphis regarding the assassination of Dr. King?
MR. LOCKHART: I have not had a chance to talk to him about that, so I don't know.
Q And what was his reaction to Exon-Mobile's decision not to give benefits to unmarried couples?
MR. LOCKHART: I didn't talk to him about that, either.
Q Will you do some talking with the President?
MR. LOCKHART: I talk to him about a lot of issues, not necessarily the ones that seem to dominate your mind.
Q Merry Christmas, you all.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.
Q Happy New Year.
MR. LOCKHART: Um-hmm.
Q I always seem to end up following Lester.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q Back on the terrorism issue, is it correct that U.S. intelligence was not aware of this group's intentions until they were detained? And how did it get to that point without a red flag going up?
MR. LOCKHART: Again, this is a longstanding practice to not discuss intelligence matters -- a, because it is not productive; and b, that discussing sources and methods can put lives at risk. And I'm just not going to engage in any of this discussion.
Q What's the status of any recess appointments, especially Bill Lann Lee? Will those happen soon?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, Congress is coming back soon, so -- I can't tell you. I'm certain that between now and when Congress returns, that there will be some recess appointments. But I can't tell you who or how many.
Q Do you have a date for the State of the Union?
MR. LOCKHART: Are we confirmed on the State of the Union? If you look at a congressional website you might find the 27th of January to be prominently displayed. But I really can't confirm that.
Q Joe, you're saying Congress is coming back, therefore, the recess appointment will be short? They get to serve until the end of the term.
MR. LOCKHART: No, no, no. You've got to do the appointments before they come back.
Q But they're not coming back until the end of January, so you have plenty of time to do them.
MR. LOCKHART: Right. Of course we do.
Q Oh, okay.
MR. LOCKHART: I meant in the broadest sense. Thinking about the millennium and 1,000 years, and -- (laughter) -- a month seems so short.
Q Has Congress been sounded out on what you have in mind for the settlement for the Middle East?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I mean we, obviously --
Q And what it is going to cost the United States?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, I haven't heard any real discussion about any additional aid that may be needed. We obviously provide a lot of aid to Israel. We provide economic aid to many of Israel's neighbors. And I expect that to continue.
We will keep Congress informed -- as many in Congress have a keen interest in the Middle East peace process -- informed as we move along. And if there is need for additional aid, obviously OMB will be involved with the appropriate appropriators.
Q Is the United States prepared to help Israel substantially to cover the costs of moving out of the Golan Heights, if indeed that should happen?
MR. LOCKHART: That is a hypothetical question. We have always stood ready to help our friend Israel. We've always stood ready to help to provide aid in the cause of peace. As we move forward, those questions I'm certain will be discussed.
Q Speaking of terrorism as we were earlier, is the United States confident as we go into these peace talks that Syria is no longer associated with terrorism in any shape, form or fashion, as has been alleged in the past by the United States?
MR. LOCKHART: To understand the United States view on that, the State Department has a report that's issued every year, and our concerns are expressed there, and expressed openly. As far as these talks, we think it's an important point in time, and we encourage both sides to work constructively together to find a peace deal.
Q Will the success of these talks lead to a decrease in terrorism?
Q Syria's still on the list, right? They're still on the list?
MR. LOCKHART: I phrased that carefully.
Q Exactly. If these talks are successful, and I'm not talking about just these two days, but over the long run, does the United States think that could lead to a decrease in terrorism?
MR. LOCKHART: I certainly think progress in the Middle East peace talks is a positive for not only the security of Israel, the security of the Middle East.
Q How about the security of the United States?
MR. LOCKHART: We'll see.
Q Can I ask you a question about -- the Israeli news media is carrying price tags for this. The Israelis are looking for $8 billion to get their army bases off the Golan, another $10 billion to move just 18,000 settlers and buy their new homes along the beach. Are those figures what you're looking at?
MR. LOCKHART: As well as I have been able to answer it, I've already answered, so I'd refer you to my transcript or the next briefers.
Q Do you expect a handshake tomorrow between Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Shara? Will you be working on this?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think we're working on some important issues of how to move forward in this process to find a way to a deal, rather than on any pictures or symbols.
Q Could I ask you a philosophical question?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Which I think I answered two, but -- (laughter) --
Q That's okay. I want it on the record.
MR. LOCKHART: Okay. On the record, I answered --
Q Why should the United States taxpayer subsidize either Israel or Syria to do what is in their own best interest to do that has made peace, anyhow?
MR. LOCKHART: I think, as a philosophical and hypothetical and whatever, the United States has always stood ready to help the peace process. We will remain ready to help in any way we can.
Q Where is the money coming from, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know what money you're talking about, and I think this is a dry hook.
Q -- all those billions. Where is it coming from?
MR. LOCKHART: I answered these questions. So if anyone has other questions --
Q You did? Somehow I missed it.
MR. LOCKHART: April?
Q Joe, going back to the question about the President's flu, you said he rarely misses days. How many days has he missed because of sickness since the beginning of his presidency?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll tell you, since I've been here, which is now going on four years, I think this is the first day I can remember. He missed some days because of his knee, which I guess you could define -- it depends how you define sickness -- but it's the first time I remember having to put off a series of events because he wasn't feeling well.
Q Well, considering that there may be spending involved, what type of consultations will be ongoing this week with senior members of Congress as --
MR. LOCKHART: I think I've just answered that question.
Q How did you answer that?
Q How did you answer?
MR. LOCKHART: Look at the transcript. Go back and look at the transcript. I answered all these questions before.
Q You stand ready to do everything, but that's --
MR. LOCKHART: And I said we'd be consulting with members of Congress both on the peace process and on any funds that might be needed, and OMB would be doing that.
Q Thank you.
END 1:34 P.M. EST