THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART
The Briefing Room
11:17 A.M EST
MR. LOCKHART: Hello, everybody. Welcome. In an effort to try to let you all enjoy the run up through Christmas, we'll have a different schedule this week. I'll try to do this at around this time now through Wednesday. I think Thursday and Friday I'll try to do nothing -- "try" is the operative word there. But let me just run through the President's schedule, since we didn't get a chance to see each other this morning.
The President, at 10:00 a.m., had a meeting with the First Minister, David Trimble, from Northern Ireland. Mr. Trimble came in, I think they will have a general discussion of the peace process there -- I think with the implementation of the Good Friday accords, you'll remember there was a breakthrough in those discussions while we were in Seattle, that the President commented on. He may, at the end of that session, come out to the stake out. If he does, someone will wave at me and I'll get off quickly for those of you who want to go out or stay on, if that's what you'd rather do.
The President now is in a State of the Union meeting. He's got a meeting with his policy advisors and speechwriters. It's, I think, the first session that he's had with them. I know they've exchanged, they've sent some memos in that he's commented on. But it's a chance before we leave for the Christmas break for the President to give them some direction for that important speech. The President will have another in a series of his budget meetings, I think the fifth or sixth of the last two weeks, as that process needs to wind up, from a decision making point of view, by the end of the week so the OMB staffers can actually write the budget and get that work done by the deadline.
And at 1:35 p.m. today, we have the annual Children's Holiday reading event, which we know you all love to cover, the President and the First Lady love to do -- and I will not be providing side entertainment this year, for those of you who remember last year's event. A certain person is being left at home.
Q What? (Laughter.)
MR. LOCKHART: There are a couple of people in the room who know what I'm talking about, like Mr. McQuillan. For the rest of you, too bad. Questions?
Q Is the Jonathan Pollard release under active consideration? And would it be a part of the Middle East peace package, in terms of Syria? I mean, this is the speculation. Of course, there's a lot of pressure. And apparently, there was some meeting here --
MR. LOCKHART: There was a meeting last week. As I understand it, traveling with Prime Minister Barak was his representative who has been dealing with this issue. He had not had a chance to sit down and meet the new White House Counsel, so there was a session where they went through the process. I believe they've gotten all the input that they're going to get, but no recommendation has gone to the President.
But, no, I expect this to be dealt with on the merits, and not part of the overall process -- the ongoing Middle East peace process.
Q Is it under active consideration for Christmas or New Year's?
MR. LOCKHART: I would steer you away from that.
Q But the review is complete now, Joe, that he started last --
MR. LOCKHART: I think they've gotten all the information, as far as I know. They have checked in all the places they need to check in, but no recommendation has gone to the President.
Q When is that recommendation likely to go to him? Are we talking a matter of days, weeks?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't expect anything to happen imminently on this.
Q And who makes the recommendation? Ms. Nolan make it, or --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, she has assumed this responsibility from the previous White House Counsel, Chuck Ruff, and has the responsibility for making a recommendation to the President on it.
Q The First Lady is being urged by some Jewish groups in New York to play a role in this decision. Do you -- can you say whether or not she is?
MR. LOCKHART: She has not played a role, nor do I expect her to.
Q Joe, another 200 people, or over 200 people were arrested in Pakistan in connection with this terrorism activities, including this on the Canadian and U.S. border. Now, number one, what were they doing? Were they getting training in Pakistan, or where they come from --
MR. LOCKHART: My understanding from the Pakistani authorities disputes the question, which is, they arrested a number of individuals, up to 200, in connection with criminal activity in Pakistan. I think a Minister of Finance, one of the Ministers of Finance was murdered. So while this is a serious law enforcement operation in Pakistan, I'd exercise some caution in drawing any linkage to terrorist activity and other groups that have received a lot of attention.
Q I'm sorry, just to follow, some reports are saying it may be the timing. The new Pakistani ambassador just arrived here, and at the same time they were arrested there, so there may be some kind of hand-over to the U.S. authorities in connection with the Osama bin Laden group.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, my understanding of the situation is it has to do with a domestic criminal investigation which, while very serious in its nature, is not necessarily connected to the kind of international terrorism that we've spent a good bit of time engaging both with Pakistan and a number of other countries on.
Q Joe, given the results of the Duma election, do you think it's more important now for the IMF to go ahead with these loan guarantees to Russian institutions? And I understand there's a decision that's supposed to be made as early as tomorrow.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think what you're talking about is not the IMF, it's the Export-Import Bank.
MR. LOCKHART: And they are in the process of making their decision. They, as their charter indicates, make decisions based on economic and commercial considerations. They are in the process, as I said on Friday. The administration has provided information we believe is relevant, and at this point I have nothing further to report on that.
Q Can you say what the administration's position is?
MR. LOCKHART: The Export-Import Bank makes these decisions independent, based on commercial considerations. We have, under the Chafee amendment, the ability to block loans based on national interests clause and there have obviously been discussions about that, but no decision.
Q So it's not so independent, really. I mean, much is riding on the U.S. and the White House seems to be going through a lot of agony on this.
MR. LOCKHART: This is not multi-lateral lending. This is a U.S. line of credit that goes out from the Export-Import Bank. So it's loan guarantees that a part of the United States government makes a decision on. And they are, based on their own internal structure -- they only look at the commercial viability and the economic issues. Under the Chafee amendment to their rules, the government has the right to block a transaction based on national interest, but no decision has been made on that.
Q Joe, what concerns does the administration have on how Canada is monitoring terrorism, or potential terrorists operating in Canada? And have those concerns been transmitted to the Canadian government?
MR. LOCKHART: I will note that we have excellent cooperation with Canada. I think as you've seen over the last few days there cooperation and I don't know that any particular concern has been transmitted.
Q Joe, has the President made a final decision on whether he will seek a reimbursement of any of his legal expenses from the independent counsel investigation?
MR. LOCKHART: No. It's premature to answer the question or even ask it, as that couldn't be done until the independent counsel has wrapped up its operations.
Q Well, is he considering it?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. There are a lot of decisions he's got to make right now; and decisions that are down the road, he'll make when he gets down the road.
Q Joe, there are other employees who have requested reimbursement for their legal fees. Is that under a separate legal provision for which the President isn't eligible?
MR. LOCKHART: My understanding of this -- which is very limited -- is that there is a provision by those who are covered under the statute, the independent counsel statute, which is a small number of people, rather than those who -- you know, staffers or those who get caught up in -- there's not that many staff people here who are covered under the statute.
Q Do you know if the United States is going to be supplying aid to those flooded in Venezuela?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, let me give you a sense. Obviously, as the President indicated on Friday, this is quite a tragedy, which proportions grow with each passing day. We have been on the forefront of the international relief effort. We immediately provided three helicopters and C-130 aircraft to help in rescue and relief operations. Those helicopters flew about 150 sorties a day over the weekend, rescuing people from remote and isolated areas.
In addition, we are now sending seven additional helicopters and will stage six C-130s out of Puerto Rico to assist in moving both people and material. The U.N. Southern Command CINC, Charles Wilhelm, is in Caracas today to assess whatever further needs the Venezuelan government might have.
On the USAID front, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance had sent a disaster response team there and additional experts are on the way today. One charter flight has already arrived with much needed blankets, plastic sheeting, water storage and carrying containers and other commodities that are useful in these disasters. Another charter flight is expected to arrive today.
We will continue working with the Venezuelan government to see, as the days unfold this week, how we can be more helpful. There has been a number of countries in the region who have also answered the call. And I think the Venezuelan government has moved forward very aggressively in trying to meet this disaster.
Q A couple of follow ups. One on the terrorism in general, as we go toward Y2K now. Is there anything different in this building, in terms of briefing the President, or activities in the NSC? What can you tell us about what's going on here on a day-to-day basis? Sort of in a --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think John Koskinen has run a fairly remarkable operation over the last year to prepare the federal government and to help prepare state and local governments, communities, schools, businesses, to meet the challenge of Y2K. And I think, as his final reports indicate, from the federal government's point of view we're ready. From most state and local governments, they're ready. There are pockets of areas where there's some concern. But they don't expect there to be any real level of unpreparedness here. That is obviously taking up increasingly more time of the administration, but has gone forward in a very methodical way under Mr. Koskinen's direction.
As far as the President's time, I mean, he's been fully briefed throughout the year, and particularly as we move closer, to what we're doing, and I think will be briefed through the command center operation that Koskinen has set up here in Washington through the day -- New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
Q But is Koskinen involved in terrorist threats?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm sorry. I thought this was about Y2K.
Q Well, that's one aspect of it, but certainly there's now, with the arrest, there's the terrorist aspect of it. And how has that changed things in this building, if at all, in terms of briefings and alert status, that sort of thing?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think you know on the worldwide front that the State Department's travel advisory went out now probably eight or nine days ago. And the law enforcement community in this country, and intelligence operations around the world, have been working diligently. I mean, I can't tell you that there's anything material that I can point to, as far as activity in this building, beyond a lot of work that goes into protecting against these threats.
Q Is it occupying more of the President's time, though, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: I think as things go, because it's an issue of concern, it probably is occupying more of his time than, say, two months ago. But we have ongoing efforts that look at both international terrorism and protecting against domestic terrorism. That work is something that the President has closely involved himself in, and has done a lot of work on.
Q Joe, has the President been briefed specifically on what transpired in Washington state on Friday of last week? And are there any national security implications to what happened?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President has been kept up to date on the situation there, and up to date on the latest information that law enforcement has been able to gather.
Q Has the President purchased a lot of water, and is he getting some extra cash out of the bank?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, he can always rely on Kris Engskov if he runs out of cash -- (laughter) -- which happens from time to time. I don't know about particular --
Q He doesn't carry any cash?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that -- John Koskinen has spoken to this in a number of forums and a number of groups. And his advice -- and I think it's sage advice -- is that people shouldn't overreact, but there are some modest steps -- I think he described it as preparing like you get a weather report that a storm may be coming in -- and just preparing yourself just in case there is a temporary disruption of power or something like that.
Q But, Joe, the President is in touch with the world leaders as far as terrorism and Y2K problem is concerned. Now, if other governments fail, then what kind of communications will the President have, or option to be in touch?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think one of the real areas of work and concern has been, because we live in an interdependent world, how other countries are prepared. I think there have been a series of reports done on that. And we have worked closely with foreign governments to help them meet the Y2K challenge, and to also understand the potential impact that it might have domestically, and to be prepared for that.
Q Joe, Starr has exonerated the President on Filegate and Travelgate. And he said publicly that he's not going to seek indictments on the original Whitewater issue. In that way, those cases have been closed. So wouldn't it be appropriate now to be considering the reimbursement, on at least those issues?
MR. LOCKHART: No, because that's just not the way it works. The way the system works, as described for me, is the Independent Counsel at some point in the future will shut down their operation, and there's plenty of time to consider these items. I mean, I will leave it to you all to try to figure out why the Independent Counsel now is spending time preparing objections to something that hasn't been raised. You know, there's an element of mischief here, but they can describe for themselves why they get up to mischief and the --
Q Joe, you said the President hasn't made a decision on that matter. Vice President Gore said yesterday that, in his view anyway, he thinks the President has a right to be reimbursed. Do you think the President has a right to be reimbursed? Does the Counsel here think that?
MR. LOCKHART: The statute is clear. You should all go and read the statute. But I'll tell you something: I'm not going to get drawn into a silly debate that some mischievous people want people to have for their own political reasons. I'm just not going to do it. If you have some reporting of analysis that's been done, or some decision that's been done, go ahead and report it, but don't expect that from me.
Q Are you really saying that this is all a facade, a fraud -- that there is no consideration at all?
MR LOCKHART: I'm saying go report the story. I'm saying that if you all want to show me the legal analysis that was done, if you want to show me the decision memos or the meeting times --
Q Well, we want to ask you if the President's thinking of it.
MR. LOCKHART: I'm telling you, there are certainly legal options that will be available, but it is premature to look at it. There is a legal trust right now that's raising money to pay the bills. And that's where it stands. Mary?
Q How much does he owe?
Q Excuse me --
MR. LOCKHART: I'd talk to the trust.
Q It's a lot of money.
Q Excuse me if you feel you've answered this before, but I am not clear. The number of absolutely innocent White House staff people who spent hours with Al D'Amato, which I think should be reimbursed on its own, do they have to apply independently or would they come under the President's --
MR. LOCKHART: My understanding -- and I would check with the lawyers -- I think they are covered by a different statute. The Independent Counsel has a number of people who are covered by it because of -- and, thankfully, we don't have this anymore, but when it was here, there were a number of people who Congress, in their wisdom, thought the Justice Department could not effectively look at, and they would take a step to go to Independent Counsel.
Those people who are covered are offered some potential relief based on the merits and a decision that the courts make. I think other people have potential relief. My guess is that the criteria is roughly the same, but it's covered by a different statute, as I understand it.
Q Joe, what's your reaction to the Russian elections?
MR. LOCKHART: I think what we've seen from the OSCE who honor them -- the initial reporting is that they meet the standards of free and fair. I think all sides there on the Russian government indicated concern that we share with the tenor of the campaign. It was a very rough and tumble campaign. But I think, most importantly, taking a step back, it says something about the system in Russia where elections are becoming more common, where the turnout is so strong, and the democratic institutions, regardless of what you think of who won and who lost, have become accepted as the norm, and that's a positive.
Q The results are basically an endorsement of the Chechnya policy that the rest of the world is condemning Russia for. Does that make it harder to stop, or to have any influence over the Russian government as they continue to pound away in Grozny?
MR. LOCKHART: Obviously, the domestic political audience may view it different than the international community does. But the international community is united in its condemnation of the tactics that are being used. As the President has said repeatedly, he believes that the policy is counterproductive, that it only emboldens the enemies of Russia and will not provide without an active political dialogue a solution to this.
Q That message isn't getting through. Is there anything else that can be done, especially now that their government is going to feel ratified in its campaign, to get that message through?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, I think this is a situation where the international community is going to have to continue to make the case to the Russian government and to the Russian people about how the rest of the world sees this.
Q Joe, were actions of government officials or the media's reporting of the actions about Wen Ho Lee unfair in the White House's opinion?
MR. LOCKHART: Obviously, this is something that's subject to litigation, which would be inappropriate for me to make any comment on. And as far as the media, you all will have to judge your own behavior on your own.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 11:37 A.M. EST