THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
1:44 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: Okay, Helen.
Q Terrorism. Had a meeting on terrorism here?
MR. LOCKHART: There's a group of people who work on counterterrorism issues that meet on a fairly regular basis with - interagency. I think as we lead up to the millennium and the issues that that brings on, and with some of the things that have been in the news, the group has been meeting. I don't want to get into their schedules, when and where they do their meetings, but you can assume that it's a group that gets together on a regular basis.
Q Was there an emergency meeting with all the top Cabinet people today?
MR. LOCKHART: No emergency meeting that I know of.
Q Well, this was not just an interagency, this was Cabinet secretaries for that level. Did they come up with any results, anything new?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to try to read out or provide too many details on the logistics of meetings beyond that there's a group of people that concern themselves with these issues that meet on a fairly regular basis.
Q The American people are concerned, since there is sort of a scare mode around and this emanating from Washington, so I think you ought to tell us.
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think that there is a scare mode. And if there is one, I think you all have to look at how you look at these issues and how they're reported. I think we have provided, both in the times when there are interview possibilities and with the State Department, with their system of advisories, the best information we can about the caution that needs to be taken.
Q But, Joe, based upon what the U.S. government now knows about the possibility of domestic terrorism around the millennium, is it something that people should be concerned about, or not?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we have made the case in the past that the U.S. is not invulnerable to domestic terrorism, but there's no specific information now about particular targets here. But I think given the - as we've said, as we head into the millennium, it pays for people to be cautious and vigilant.
Q Let me follow up on that. You say there's no specific information about particular targets. Does that mean that our best analysis is that this Seattle thing was not targeting Seattle's millennium festival?
MR. LOCKHART: We don't have - we are investigating that, and that is ongoing. But we don't have specific or general threats against particular targets in the U.S.
Q You keep emphasizing in the U.S. After the arrests abroad and the State Department declaration, is there still concern about a specific target abroad?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think as we've said in the aftermath of the arrest, the travel advisory warning from the State Department remains in effect.
Q So that's where the caution comes from?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, the State Department I think has been very clear in issuing their travel advisories. There's been several in the last three or four months.
Q It's only on travel.
MR. LOCKHART: I think we have vigorous law enforcement efforts ongoing now in the U.S., looking at the incident of last week, and we've, from several levels, indicated the wisdom of people being cautious. But there is, at this point, I can't report to you any specific threat against particular American targets here at home.
Q Joe, the CIA said that there may be 50 terrorist groups operating in Canada. Do you have concerns about the Canadian government's counterterrrorism efforts and their ability?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into the particulars of what the CIA has said or has not said, but we have worked closely and effectively with the Canadian government on this issue and many others.
Q Joe, I don't want to parse your words too much, but I just want to - you just said, "no particular American targets here at home." So are there particular American targets abroad?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I meant that -- I didn't mean that to lead itself to being parsed. Let me rephrase it to particular targets here in the U.S. that we've received. Now, obviously, the State Department advisory remains in effect for around the world, which they were very clear about what they were, which is - I don't have it in front of me here, but it talked about millennium and large crowds and things. I don't have any further information on that, I don't have any way to update.
Q Just to follow up, that was more sort of a generic warning about Americans traveling abroad. Do we have information about a specific target of Americans abroad?
MR. LOCKHART: As the State Department has said - and I don't want to repeat what they said to make it news today - I would go back and look at what they've said and look at what we said over the weeks, because there's nothing that's changed.
Q Did the President attend the meeting?
Q You said that nothing has changed.
MR. LOCKHART: Nothing has changed, and I've gone through this a couple times. I know you haven't been here, but I'm not going to go into and try to recreate everything we've done over the last two weeks.
Q But there's a separation between being vigilant just because there's the heightened risk for these specific dates and asking if there's a specific target that we know of. I'm not asking you to name a target. Are we concerned about a specific target?
MR. LOCKHART: And I think the advisory that was issued addressed that, and the comments in the aftermath of the advisory addressed that.
Q Did the President attend that meeting? The President? Who conducted that meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, listen. Let me answer it this way. The President has not attended any meeting in the last couple days of the interagency group that meets on this.
Q Joe, that advisory covers, as I understand it, everywhere in the world except the United States. Would it be prudent for people in the United States -- is there any reason to think the U.S. is exempt from whatever threats there are around the world? And secondly, who has authority - the State Department doesn't have jurisdiction here - who has the authority to issue that kind of a warning?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there's - listen, the reality is the State Department has something that's come in the aftermath of - what, 10 years ago or so, this policy's been - of a double standard, which is, when the State Department communicates with government employees or officials around the world, they now have an obligation to let the American public have access to the same information. That is the basis for which they issue these advisories. And as you know, these advisories are issued from time to time concerning a particular part of the world or worldwide. So that is the basis for which the State Department moves forward.
I don't know. There is not - as far as I know, there is not a similar domestic policy on that. If there were specific threats that law enforcement agencies and the U.S. government needed to make, they would -- somewhere within that group, some information could be conveyed. But there isn't the same system that there is with the State Department.
Q To what extent did Secretary Albright's decision to block the Russian oil agreement have to do with the situation -
Q Can we stay on this before we go to that?
MR. LOCKHART: Sure.
Q One more question? What we have here is actually instead of someone just planning something against American fraud, we actually have someone coming into the United States with 100 pounds of explosives.
MR. LOCKHART: Right.
Q Under those circumstances, why isn't some greater warning, some more urgent warning?
MR. LOCKHART: Because, Jim, we're looking into this. And law enforcement officials and customs officials and all the people who are charged with this are doing a lot of work, and they are following the facts as they are able to put them together. And I think public officials are being quite open and accessible on this subject, but they don't have the answers yet.
I understand your desire to wrap this all up and have the answers quickly, but the work is being done and I think people have been quite up front at all levels.
Q That's not fair. What we're asking is, does the U.S. government know something about threats of terrorism more than just this general fear that's out there?
MR. LOCKHART: Are you talking domestic or foreign? I think we
MR. LOCKHART: I think we were very clear that there was credible information, information gathered - including information gathered from arrests in Jordan - about potential terrorist threats. And we have made clear that there is a travel advisory, people should exercise caution. And, if people are planning to travel, they should be in touch with the consulate or embassies wherever they're planning to go to get further information. I think we have been clear.
On the domestic front, we don't have anything specific to report.
Q Apparently, the INS is beefing up the borders, as you have told us here over the last couple of days, specifically sending agents to these unmanned posts, that aren't manned 24 hours a day. Why are they taking that action now? It seems like that's something that would have been logically done much earlier.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I would refer you to Customs on that issue. But they obviously have moved in the case that you are well aware of, and they're taking steps that they believe are appropriate to deal with it.
Q Is it fair to say, Joe, that would be something that t law enforcement agencies would be concerned about, that something could have happened at these unmanned entry points?
MR. LOCKHART: I'd ask you to go ask the law enforcement officials.
Q To what extent does the situation, or did the situation, in Chechnya impact on Secretary Albright's decision to intervene on the Russian oil?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, what do you mean by "intervene"?
Q Recommend that the loan not be approved, postponed indefinitely.
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know of any connection between what's going on in Chechnya. The problems that the administration has articulated with the loan have to do with the company and their business practices. And I think we've made clear that we've referred information to the Export-Import Bank. The State Department has done the same. The Secretary has talked to Mr. Harmon, the head of the Export-Import Bank and they'll be making their decision.
Q I thought that you had said that the administration would not exercise any political influence over the decision unless it blocked all loans -- to Russia because of human rights consideration?
MR. LOCKHART: No. And I think I may have indicated that in a gaggle, and that was in error. We do have the authority to block specific loans, which was my mistake. We have the authority under the Chafee amendment. It's been used six or seven times, I believe, since the amendment passed - so, very infrequently. But it does not have to apply to a country.
There are a number of illustrative examples in the legislative language about kinds of things, but certainly not limited to. It comes down to what we believe can be phrased as "national interest," and is not solely limited to human rights or security. There just are a number of illustrative examples that are there to provide examples rather than limits.
Q So the Russians should not interpret the Secretary of State's actions as having anything to do with their policy in Chechnya?
MR. LOCKHART: They should not. They should view concerns that we have about business practices, rule of law, transparency, corruption. That's how they should view it.
Q When you refer to that, are you talking about the case with BP/Amoco, where this Tyumen Oil Company seized another company that BP/Amoco had a stake in?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm talking about - that is the particular company, and we have relayed a number of concerns about their business practices, though the Export-Import Bank has access to the information that we've given to them.
Q Has that decision been made?
MR. LOCKHART: No, that decision has not been made.
Q Joe, going back to --
MR. LOCKHART: Yes? Sorry, let's just finish on this.
Q Just to clarify, -- in other words, she sent a letter requesting a delay of the Chafee amendment has not been invoked?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think she - I'm not aware that she sent a letter requesting a delay. I know she's made the case that at this point there is information that we believe should warrant concern about going forward with this loan. But the Export-Import Bank's board is meeting, I think as we speak. And when they come out, they'll presumably have some announcement of how they're going to move forward.
Q And one other question. If the Chafee amendment is invoked, is that a final decision? Or is that simply an advisory decision to Ex-Im? And could they still go ahead with the loan guarantee --
MR. LOCKHART: My understanding of the law is, Export-Import Bank could move forward despite a Chafee amendment invocation?
Q Yes, sounds good.
Q Joe, back on millennium terrorism possibilities - we're talking about all these international possibilities and probabilities. What about domestically? I mean, you're standing there saying the people here should just be careful, be on the lookout. But there are a lot of people who are saying they want to stay inside because of the holiday, because of the possible - you know, terrorism threats and things of that nature. Will there be any stronger statements from the White House or from the State Department about domestically --
MR. LOCKHART: I think people in the government have spoken to that, and we are committed to providing accurate, real-time information to people to address their concerns. In this particular case, we don't have a specific threat against particular targets, so there's nothing I can report. But I think given that we go into the end of this year, we believe that people should be cautious. And in other circumstances, if they see something that might be suspicious, we're telling people to report it, and take the effort to, if you see something suspicious, report it. But again, there's nothing more specific I can report.
Q Joe, a follow-up. You're saying people should be cautious. Do you think it's overly cautious just to stay inside? Because many people are scared, as Helen said earlier in this conference, that people are actually scared.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, we are not advising people to change their plans and not follow through on what they planned to do for their millennium celebrations, whatever that might be. I think - we did think that it was worthwhile to raise these issues. There is a number of things in the news about the arrests and also the worldwide travel advisory, that it warranted to recommend that people exercise caution.
Q Joe, to clarify, going back to this oil company situation. If the Ex-Im Bank decided to go forward with the loan and you invoked the Chafee amendment, would that halt the loan guarantees from being exercised?
MR. LOCKHART: My understanding is, the Export-Import Bank can move forward if they choose to, despite the Chafee amendment.
Q I mean, what good is the Chafee amendment? Is that something of a recommendation of sorts?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, this is the law that Congress passed. It's the ability for the Executive Branch to weigh in the process.
Q You insist it's more of a situation that you're making a recommendation, in essence, to the Ex-Im Bank or making a request; they don't have to follow that request through?
MR. LOCKHART: That is my understanding of the law.
Q On the millennium, the public awareness is one side of the equation, deterrence is the other. Usama bin Laden is known to be planning attacks against the United States, he's supported by the Taliban government. Would the President pledge to retaliate against the Taliban government, or has he made that clear if there's an attack linked to bin Laden?
MR. LOCKHART: I think I reported to you all last week that the counterterrorism chief at the State Department met with the Taliban and made it very clear to them that we would hold the Taliban responsible for any steps Usama bin Laden took against Americans abroad.
Q Joe, what is the administration's knowledge regarding the Algerians in Canada, what their purpose was, the overall group, whether or not it has ties to Usama bin Laden? Can you give us any sense of what your understanding -
MR. LOCKHART: I think that we're looking at, as we said yesterday, associations, potential associations. I don't think we have a clear view at this point on the exact situation, but the investigation continues.
Q Joe, Senator Inhofe says he's going to block nominations because he's upset that he thinks you broke an agreement with him over recess appointments. Is he right about that, and how do you -
MR. LOCKHART: No, as you know, as we, unfortunately, have to report on a fairly regular basis from here, the Senator is wrong. We made an agreement with Senator Lott, we consulted with Senator Lott on the nominee in question, and it's really unfortunate, given what the Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist has said about the backlog in our courts and the need to move forward judicial nominees, that you have a Senator, once again, starting a legislative session with more threats about how they can block appointees when I think most Americans know our judicial system needs progress rather than partisanship.
Q Joe, what can you say about the negotiations with the Cuban prisoners who have now been returned to Cuba, and the agreement with Cuba for their return?
MR. LOCKHART: Not much beyond what I think the State Department said over the weekend. It's obviously been a concern of ours that prisoners like this be accepted back in Cuba and I think it was important in this case that the Cuban government allowed them to return back as a way to break the stalemate.
Q But how do you square our reluctance to negotiate with terrorists and our obvious negotiations with these people and with Cuba to let them leave the prison system and go back to Cuba?
MR. LOCKHART: The policy here, the problem here is that Cuba won't accept them. These are prisoners who have no right to be here and should be returned to Cuba, and Cuba has said they wouldn't take them. And in this case they've agreed to accept them back, which is the proper decision for them and the proper place for them to be.
Q But there are some 800 others in pretty much the same predicament, aren't there? Doesn't this action encourage others to do what these guys -
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think hopefully this action will encourage Cuba to fulfill their responsibilities to receive those who are not wanted here in this country and should be back in Cuba.
Q Joe, on another double standard issue, the White House is reportedly recommending to people attending the millennium celebration that they wear silk underwear, that also women wear trousers instead of dresses. That recommendation went out to White House guests. Is there any broader recommendations for others coming to the millennium celebration?
MR. LOCKHART: My recommendations for most reporters is to wear shorts and no shirts so you can be as cold as possible. (Laughter.)
Q Joe, can you give us a quick readout on the Nazerbayev meeting?
MR. LOCKHART: The President met with President Nazerbayev for about 45 minutes this morning. This was really a follow-on to the meetings that he had with the Vice President. They discussed some security issues, some of the political developments and also some energy issues.
Q Anything on arms?
MR. LOCKHART: No, not that was specifically reported to me. I can go back and check on that, though.
Q Joe, do you know if they talked about this Island in the Aral Sea that's a biological toxic zone?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me check on that. That was not reported to me.
Q What's he doing for the rest of the day?
MR. LOCKHART: For the rest of the day - I did not bring his schedule out, but I'm certain that he has - he was doing his HMX Christmas photos and his military office departure photos as I came down here. There are about 60 of them leaving at the end of the year and it's a Christmas tradition that he -
Q How did he like shopping on-line?
MR. LOCKHART: He enjoyed it immensely.
Q Does he know how to do it?
MR. LOCKHART: No. In fact, he had to be extricated from the computer because he had an event and some people were waiting.
Q What did he get you?
MR. LOCKHART: It's a secret.
Q No, it's not - it's on the wires.
MR. LOCKHART: Hope so. I mean, what we put out to you guys is one thing, but what he got for me is a secret.
Q There was a new number today on the death toll in Venezuela. Do you have any update on the U.S. relief efforts?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, let me look at that. I think as I reported yesterday, General Wilhelm was in Caracas yesterday and has left a team of experts behind to deal with what is an escalating tragedy in Venezuela. We currently have eight helicopters deployed in Venezuela to fly rescue and relief missions. Two more are on the way. We have six C-130s staged out of Puerto Rico, and are flying missions into and out of Venezuela. DOD now currently has about $2.5 million set aside for these efforts.
USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance has committed initially $3 million for relief supplies and other emergency assistance, that includes things like blankets, shelter material, water containers and other relief supplies. There has already been two charter flights bringing them in and there's more, I think, on the way; as well as the embassy providing funds locally for things to be purchased there. We're going to continue to work with the Venezuelan government to assess their needs and how we can most appropriately help.
Q The Washington Post story today said that the President was on a timetable of March or earlier in the year for naming a new Fed chairman. Is that accurate?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know of any timetable beyond the natural expiration of Mr. Greenspan's term. I can only say that the President believes he has done a good job, has a lot of respect for the job he has done and likes him personally. And when we're ready to announce a decision, we'll announce a decision.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:05 P.M. EST