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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 15, 1999
                             PRESS BRIEFING BY
                               JOE LOCKHART

                             The Briefing Room

1:12 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: As I tried to hint at and indicate this morning, the President will have something to say on the agreement reached with the Germans on the payments and the fund that's being set up. He will do that, my guess is probably about 2:00 p.m. I expect then Stu Eizenstat, who has been an important player in these discussions, will come down here and have more to say to you on that subject.


Q Joe, what did the President think of the Syrian Foreign Minister's talk there. Would you regard that as provocative?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I think what the President is most interested in is what happens in the discussions that the Foreign Minister and the Israeli Prime Minister have come to Washington for. I'll remind you that this is an historic day. The Prime Minister of Israel and the Foreign Minister of Syria have never sat down to talk about anything, much less peace between the two countries. They have demonstrated their seriousness in this effort by coming here today for these discussions. I think the statements today recognized longstanding differences, but there was also a spirit of reconciliation that I don't think anyone has heard before.

So what's important is not what gets said in public, it's the work that is done in private. We have always believed that there are difficult issues here. If this wasn't difficult, it would have been solved a long time ago. But I think the historic moment should be recognized, that they're here today and that they've demonstrated their seriousness and their commitment to reaching an agreement.

Q Joe, in his opening address this morning, Mr. al-Shara kept on referring to the process as "the peace, the peace," as if it were already further along the road than many of us have been led to believe.

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I don't think so. I think that clearly, while we do recognize the historic moment today and we do recognize the intent and the seriousness of the parties, it would be wrong to minimize how difficult this is and how much hard work needs to be done. That work has begun today, but there's still a lot more to do.

Q While we're on the subject, Joe, he kept referring -- he didn't quite put the words "peace" and "treaty" together. He referred to a just peace and a psychological environment. Is it clear to the U.S. that Syria is offering the peace treaty in exchange for territory?

MR. LOCKHART: It's clear to us in the broadest sense that they are very serious about reaching an agreement, and that's why they're here.

Q But I mean, a piece of paper.

MR. LOCKHART: Part of what they're talking about here is how they'll move forward. That's what the function of the first set of meetings here in Washington is, to develop a process to move forward, and that's what they'll be working on.

Q Fighting in southern Lebanon has flared up this morning, and the leader of the Hezbollah says that he doesn't believe that either Lebanese officials or Syrian officials have put pressure on Hezbollah to tone down the fighting. Do you have any reaction to that? Is that helpful to the peace process?

MR. LOCKHART: I haven't seen those remarks, and I'm not going to comment without having looked at them. I haven't seen the report, so I'll have to look at them and I'll be back later.

Q The President met with Mr. al-Shara and Mr. Barak, and then he met with each of them individually. Can you characterize in any way what they spoke about?

MR. LOCKHART: Those meetings are still going on, and as I think I indicated this morning, the agreement I've made with the parties is, we'll let today's meetings take place, and then I'll come back at a later date, probably later this evening to give you a sense of how today's meetings went.

Q Could you give us just the time? Who met, who went, for how long?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. I just know that the President's meeting with the Syrian Foreign Minister is going on right now and hasn't broke. And so when they do break and I have a chance to talk to the participants, I'll get you more on that.

Q He met with Barak and he met with the two together. Was that just a short meeting before they came out into the Rose Garden?

MR. LOCKHART: No, they met after they finished the statements in the Rose Garden, had a meeting, the three of them, with their delegations, then proceeded to have -- the President met with Barak while Secretary Albright talked to the Foreign Minister, and then they flipped.

Q Why didn't they shake hands?

MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I'm not going to get caught up in what you all think are what's important here. What we think is important is that this historic moment has come, that they've taken this historic opportunity, that they're in the room doing serious work, and that's what's important.

Q But did if they did not agree to shake hands, maybe the peace process still has a lot of problems, even symbolic problems.

MR. LOCKHART: Again, I'll leave it to you to decide what you think is important. I'm telling you what the United States government thinks is important.

Q -- Barak was quite short. The meeting with Shara is taking much, much longer than the meeting with Barak.

MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't see that you have any way of knowing that.

Q Joe, when do you think they're going to make it across the street, and how is that part of the process going to work in terms of the U.S. role?

MR. LOCKHART: I think as we indicated yesterday and this morning, after the bilats, they'll be talking directly at Blair House. They'll have U.S. government officials, the Secretary of State and others available to them, and we'll just have to see how that goes.

Q Was the President's purpose to give the two leaders separately a little pep talk about the importance of this? Can you characterize at all what he intended to do in his one-on-one?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think, again, I'll give you a better sense once I've had a chance to talk to the participants. But I think, in general, the President wanted to get these meetings started in a very productive way and lay out what the task ahead of us was.

Q Was the President eating lunch with Shara? Was that part of their meeting?

MR. LOCKHART: Given it's Ramadan, I think that would be unlikely.

Q Joe, this morning Jordan's Prime Minister told the Jordanian Parliament that 11 Jordanians, 1 Iraqi and 1 Algerian trained in Afghanistan were apprehended in an antiterrorist operation. This is the one, obviously, we've been hearing about for the last couple of days. Now that there has been a public acknowledgement of the existence of this operation, what can you tell us about it?

MR. LOCKHART: I can tell you that the Jordanian government, as reported to their Parliament today, launched an operation that resulted in a number of arrests of people we believe to be terrorists, as we've discussed over the last few days.

Q And these were terrorists that were targeting Americans and U.S. interests in the region?

MR. LOCKHART: Without getting into great detail here, we certainly believe these were members of bin Laden's organization that posed a threat to Americans.

Q Are you planning any closing event tomorrow --

MR. LOCKHART: We'll just have to take tomorrow as it goes. Tomorrow I expect, obviously, there to be meetings, but I can't give you any sense of what the schedule is.

Q Can you just clear up one thing on that question, on Jordan? The Jordanian Prime Minister seemed to be saying that they were arrested because they were targeting Jordanians. Do we have separate information that they were also targeting Americans? Can you clarify that at all?

MR. LOCKHART: I haven't seen that. I can only say that we talked about, over the weekend and early this week, about a number of threats that went into our worldwide advisory. I think you can safely include this in that and draw a conclusion from that.

Q I think what we're all trying to figure out is, knowing how you feel about bin Laden's organization posing a threat to Americans, is that what you're saying and responding to -- are these particular people, people who you have reason to believe were a threat to Americans?

MR. LOCKHART: I think if you go back and put together what I've said today with what has been said earlier in the week, you can get an answer to that question.

Q Do you know of additional threats --

Q -- still ongoing?

MR. LOCKHART: I think as we said before, we are following closely a number of threats and continue to be very vigilant on that front.

Q Forgive me if this question has been asked. Have there been discussions within the White House about taking Syria off the terrorism list?

MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.

Q Joe, back to the Jordanians for a second. The fact that the travel advisory, worldwide caution, was issued after the arrest was made, is that an indication that the United States was not aware of this particular cell until after the Jordanians wrapped it up?

MR. LOCKHART: Just in this time and place, I'm just not going to get into the details of our intelligence abilities, capabilities, what they know and what they don't know.

Q There was a rather extraordinary request to a number of news organizations to withhold details of where these people were arrested. Given that it's been announced now, can you tell us why news organizations were asked not to report that?

MR. LOCKHART: I think each of the organizations who were contacted were given a rationale, and if you need to know, ask the people who were called.

Q Joe, on a different subject, an affidavit by an aide to former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr -- this is in the Linda Tripp wiretapping thing -- this is from The Post today. And I wonder if you have any comment on that, that the Independent Counsel's Office may have facilitated getting the tape to Newsweek or one of those surreptitious tapes.

MR. LOCKHART: Listen, we have argued both publicly and in court about a number of concerns we've had on what we believe to be illegal contacts between the Independent Counsel's Office and the news media in terms of leaks. We've raised concerns about collusion in this case and I think this affidavit and these revelations only deepen that concern.

Q Joe, was the President alone with both Shara and Barak, or did he have notetakers?

MR. LOCKHART: I know he had at least two minutes alone, while everyone went out and stood in place, during that time. I think when they came back in, there were delegations for the first meeting. Beyond that, I just don't know, since they have not broken to come out and tell me.

Q Obviously, the handshake didn't take place, but that's perhaps not relevant at this point. But in those two minutes, at any point, can you give us some idea of the atmospherics and chemistry between Shara and Barak?

MR. LOCKHART: I can't only because I haven't had a chance to talk to the President since he went in this morning.

Q What about the gentleman who was ill today?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Let me tell you that that was the Deputy Foreign Minister, Mr. Shakkour.

Q The former or the active Deputy Foreign Minister?

MR. LOCKHART: I believe he's the active. That's the information to me. I think he began to feel ill right at the end of the ceremony. He was brought into the White House. Dr. Connie Mariano, the President's personal physician, examined him with her team, just upstairs, and pronounced him as well. He was suffering a bit from a little bit of the aftermath of a long flight over here and the fasting that goes along with Ramadan. He's now gone over to Blair House just to get some rest. But I think Dr. Mariano was satisfied that he was in good condition.

Q Did she treat him at all?

MR. LOCKHART: She did a number of tests and found that he was okay, but he was suffering a bit from what she determined was the aftermath of a long flight and the fasting.

Q Was he treated with --

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. That's doctor stuff.

Q In conjunction with the warning to Americans to be careful going abroad, has there been an increased security alert at American embassies? Have any embassies been closed?

MR. LOCKHART: There are no embassies that I know of that have been closed. And I think under our no double standard, what the public is told the embassies are told. So I'm not aware of anything. I'd go to the State Department, though, for any further information on that. None has been communicated to me.

Q Do you have any idea, when did Mr. Shara and Mr. Clinton begin their meeting?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't.

Q Can I just follow up on Mr. Palmer's question? What is the White House concern specifically about the tape, the handover of this tape to Ms. Tripp's attorney? Is it where it took place, the unusual time?

MR. LOCKHART: I think if you look at the record, it was an unusual time -- 12:30 a.m. at night at a motel. And I think there is certainly a basis for believing that they knew about a particular news weekly magazine's interest in this and could draw some conclusions about where the tape was going.

Q The White House and David Kendall have put in specific complaints to the Justice Department and to the courts about leaks in newspapers and quotes, but they haven't said a specific incident of this specificity of a meeting. Could this reopen some of the complaints that the Justice Department --

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. I would -- this is obviously something that Justice has looked at, and I would have to ask their --

Q Would you ask for a reopening in the case?

MR. LOCKHART: Again, that would be a question for counsel or personal counsel, actually, so I just don't know the answer to that. But as a general point, I mean, certainly I've expressed concern, others have expressed concern, whether it be in public forums or in court filings, and this seems to fall into the category of something that would cause us some concern.

Q Joe, if I can just come back to the terrorists one more time. Looking at the record, how the U.S. has dealt with bin Laden and the type of threat that he represents, can you characterize for us the level of threat against American citizens and interests this group in Jordan represent?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into trying to characterize, only to say that the worldwide travel advisory indicates that there is specific and credible information that poses a threat.

Q Joe, can you talk at all about what the President is prepared to do next year to improve gun safety?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that we believe that Congress has frustrated the American public on the issue of gun safety, that we have more than enough evidence, that we need to take steps. So we're going to move aggressively to work with Congress on issues that we've put before them, but we're not going to rely on Congress. We're going to find other avenues.

We're exploring using both our executive authority invested in the President that we have discussed potential litigation against the gun industry, and I think it's our overall sense that this is something the American public is demanding. And we're doing a lot of work now to be ready next year to come out and move aggressively to make sure that we're doing everything we can to make our streets safe, make our schools safe, and fight the problem we have with gun safety in this country.

Q What type of actions can be taken by executive authority?

MR. LOCKHART: It's something that we're looking at now. I think as you know, we've had a series of meetings over the last few weeks here at the White House and we're looking at things we can do, and I think you'll hear more about this next year.

Q How does the President view the resistance in Israel to relinquishing the Golan, not just among the settlers, but among the body politic?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President realizes that there is longstanding differences here, that these issues are difficult to resolve, but both sides are here as a demonstration of their commitment to finding a peaceful resolution. And as far as the specifics of how we get to that peaceful resolution is something that they'll discuss in the room, and I won't discuss here.

Q -- my question is how he views the resistance in Israel, the stridency of some Israelis to relinquishing the Golan.

MR. LOCKHART: He has not related a specific view on that to me.

Q Can you tell us how the schedule changed? Initially, Mr. Barak and Mr. Shara were not going to make any statements, and then suddenly, they did, and here Mr. Shara had a prepared statement that he wanted to make. And further to that, did the President believe that Mr. Shara's statements, particular about the Syrian role in the 1967 war, go beyond his call for both sides to not provoke the other?

MR. LOCKHART: I think I indicated before that there were expressions of longstanding views, and also if news is what you haven't heard before, then the news was the spirit of reconciliation, not what you have heard before. People have told me that. I don't know if it's true. (Laughter.)

But on the second point, the President is a gracious host to allow both of them to join him in welcoming the beginning of these talks.

Q Joe, last night in New Hampshire, the Vice President told a town meeting that he feels doctors ought to have the option of prescribing marijuana to help patients who are going through acute pain. Is that also the administration's position?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we think that -- our view is that we support innovative intervention to pain relief, particularly with terminally ill patients. We don't have yet conclusive scientific evidence that marijuana provides a therapeutic benefit that exceeds currently prescribed drugs. But we do support innovative ideas about moving forward and trying -- and research and looking at this, so I don't think his statements last night really put him at odds in a fundamental way with what the administration's position has been.

Q But they certainly put him at odds with General McCaffrey's statements.

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think -- well, listen -- General McCaffrey has talked mostly about referendum on using -- broadly opening up the medical use of marijuana. Our position is that this decision ought to be made on the basis of science. At this point, there is not -- we have not reached a threshold of scientific study that shows that there is a therapeutic effect that exceeds the existing drugs on the market.

Q But General McCaffrey has made it quite clear in several interviews that I've done with him that smoke is not medicine.

MR. LOCKHART: I think I understand General McCaffrey's view, and it's the same as the President's, which is we do not oppose innovative research that looks to see if there's therapeutic uses for things other than the drugs on the market for pain relief. Right now that threshold has not been reached, but that does not mean that there shouldn't be research into looking at it.

Q You're in favor of research, but you're saying you're not in favor of any efforts by states or anyone else to proceed by making marijuana available for medical use?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of any state ballot initiative that we've supported.

Q Joe, John Huang is testifying today before the Burton Committee. Does the White House have any reaction to this?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think some people think that if something goes on long enough and you get enough reruns, it becomes classic television, and Burton TV has yet to reach that point. But I think there is a point to be made here, which is, the parties and the political leaders in this country decide what they're going to focus on.

The President's here today, he'll be talking about important work we've done with the German government on finding justice for Holocaust survivors. He's here doing the Middle East peace process. Historic talks with Syria and Israel. He'll be talking about the budget -- he'll be meeting on his budget later today about the priorities as we go into the next century, and Republicans in Congress are having another partisan hearing about 1996 and what they believe is some elaborate plot.

Now, I don't think that that will be backed up by the testimony, but you make your decisions, many Republicans would rather investigate than legislate. We prefer to take a different view, and we'll just let the public decide.

Q Does the fact that you're pursuing all these other options on gun control mean that you don't have much hope at this point that the Conference Committee on Juvenile Justice is going to produce a bill that you can support?

MR. LOCKHART: Actually, not at all. I actually think we do have a lot of hope. I think this will be an issue that, actually being an election year, will provide a catalyst. I think the American public overwhelmingly supports doing something about gun safety, and in an election year won't accept the fact that a conference committee can't get its work done.

Q And as I remember, the Senate bill that the Senate passed is something that you could support. Would that be enough at that point if they got together and --

MR. LOCKHART: It certainly would be a good start. It doesn't do all of the things that we wanted done, but it certainly would be a positive piece of legislation. What would be a step in the wrong direction is the approach that the House took. And that's what we'll be working on when they return.

Q Joe, there are reports that Attorney General Reno's health problems have caused her to step back a little bit and to let Eric Holder take a larger role. Can you comment on that, and does the White House have any concerns about General Reno's health?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of those reports, nor am I aware of her doing anything but the fine job she's always done.

Q I don't know if the President is going to be able to go into this in his statement, but can you tell us any personal role that the President might have taken in the slave labor negotiations?

MR. LOCKHART: I'll leave it to Stu Eizenstat to talk in detail about it, but the President actually played an important role in trying to mediate and find a solution that I think most parties will agree is a just one. But Stu will be down here in a little bit, and he can give you more --

Q Will he be able to say specifically -- when he made some phone calls, who he talked to?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I can tell you that he has been involved in this and as have the senior staff here at the White House.

Q -- referred to an October 12th letter from Clinton on the prospect of moving the talks forward. Can you say what was in that, or what that was about?

MR. LOCKHART: In the October 12th letter? I'll leave it to Stu, because I don't have --

Q Shara --

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, I'm sorry. Say again --

Q Clinton's letter to Assad on the peace talks --

MR. LOCKHART: Listen, there were numerous communications between the President and President Assad, innumerable phone calls over the last five or six months, and diplomatic communications. I'm not going to get into the specifics of those, only to say I think the President demonstrated a seriousness of purpose in trying to move the parties to a point where they could be here today in these discussions, and the parties in turn have demonstrated their seriousness by coming.

Q What time are you going to brief today?

MR. LOCKHART: We're working on it, but probably not before 5:00 p.m.

Q Will Barry have lamb chops at his going-away party? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: Barry? Shrimp? I can tell you one person who will not be invited to the gala, which is John Harris. (Laughter.) People who write the lamb chop story don't live to write a second one. (Laughter.) Thanks.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:40 P.M. EST