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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 22, 1999
                             PRESS BRIEFING
                              JOE LOCKHART

                           The Briefing Room

2:08 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: Welcome to the last scheduled briefing of the millennium. Let me do some housekeeping.

Q Of the year?

MR. LOCKHART: Of the year, of the century, of the decade, of the millennium.

Q Really? Aren't you going to have anything next week?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I'm getting to that. I've got housekeeping. First off, we have some very good news to report from our colleagues at USA Today. Mimi Hall gave birth to what is described here as a "giant boy," around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday; nine pounds, six ounces, 22 inches long. The baby is doing great; Mimi is doing great -- we still don't have a name.

Now, let me do a little bit on the holiday schedule. The President will have no public schedule now through the end of the year. As in past years --

Q Through the end of the year?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes. He's got next week off. He may have some private events that he'll attend Christmas Eve, that he has traditionally traveled to, but those are, obviously, private -- because I called them private. Then he'll be here at the White House on Christmas Day.

The briefing room will operate under normal business hours, with the exception of New Year's Eve. On New Year's Eve, the briefing room will remain open and the North Lawn will be lit all night.

Q What time will the briefing room open on New Year's Eve, like morning?

MR. LOCKHART: The normal time.

Q You're indicating that he could go somewhere out of town after Christmas?

MR. LOCKHART: No, no, no. I'm saying, Christmas Eve there are traditional events he attends that I expect he'll probably attend this year.

Q Vernon Jordan and church?

MR. LOCKHART: It's a secret. We don't want everybody showing up, Helen. But, yes.

Q What makes you think they will?

MR. LOCKHART: Unlike some people in this room, the people in the country love the President. (Laughter.) Or at least in the front row of this room, middle of the aisle.

Q That's all right --

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, but there's still time.

Q This is a scheduling question. Does the President stand to stay in town all day next week? Every day next week --

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any travel schedule.

Q Is he going to shop the rest of the week at all?

MR. LOCKHART: My expectation is he may have a few last minute items to get, and Christmas Eve is normally the day he pursues that.

Q Joe, do you think you're going to be able to give your regular Christmas Day lid?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes. I was supposed to ask him about that this morning, and I forgot; but I hope to get that by the end of the day.

Q So he's taking off the whole week? Friday, Christmas to New Year's?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes. He'll be in and around over the next couple days, but we don't have any public schedule and I expect that barring any changes, that next week will be a down week.

Q Will there be briefings next week?

MR. LOCKHART: No. No, I don't have anything planned. I will be here through Friday afternoon, gone probably Monday through Wednesday next week. Obviously, if circumstances warrant some sort of briefing, we'll change our plans and we'll all be here together and very bitter at each other.

Q When he goes out, we'll be alerted, the pool will be alerted?

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, yes, we'll do the normal pool gathering, and travel with him

Q Are you ruling out any out-of-town travel next week?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not, I just don't have any to report.

Q Joe, excuse me if you've already gone over this, but what's the plan for the Shepherstown talks? Will the President be going to the Israeli-Syria talks?

MR. LOCKHART: He'll be going on the 3rd, I expect, the day they begin, and then we'll play it by ear from that point --

Q Going where?

MR. LOCKHART: To Shepherstown. The conference center where they'll hold the second round of the peace talks.

Q Is that a school there?

MR. LOCKHART: No, it is a hotel conference center.

Q And are you going to do sort of like the Wye River, tight pool?

MR. LOCKHART: I think Wye River is probably, from a logistical point of view -- I mean, substantively, it's very different, but from a logistical point of view, it will be very similar to what we'll do there. We'll find a place to keep the pool there. I expect -- there are advance people out working on this today -- I expect that somewhere in the vicinity we'll try to set up a filing center where people can come and work out of, but not -- we should not expect to be ushered in three times a day to get a bird's eye view of what's going on.

Q Is it open-ended?

MR. LOCKHART: We expect it to go some time, but I don't have a precise time line for it. I'll stress that this is the second round of the talks; I don't foresee at this point a resolution to these -- in the particular talks at Shepherstown. But I think the parties are prepared to stay there for some time to work through some of the issues.

Q Is Assad coming this time?


Q Joe, it's so out of character for the President to take days off when he's at the White House.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, Mark, it's really interesting that you ask that question, because when I -- (laughter) --

Q Let's not make this personal. (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: This is a true story. When the President looked at me with, I'd say, less than affection a couple of weeks ago, and said to me, why am I doing this interview with CBS Radio, I said, Mark Knoller came off vacation to do this. It's really important. And he said, I'll be glad to do it. And that stuck in his mind and he kept thinking, vacation, Mark Knoller, vacation, Mark Knoller. And then he thought, if Mark can take a vacation, so can I.

Q So is that what this is, a vacation?

MR. LOCKHART: No, it's -- (laughter) -- it's just time off. The family is here --

Q We can call it a vacation?

MR. LOCKHART: You can call it a vacation, call it whatever you want. But he will be around, but he won't have a public schedule. And I expect him to spend a good bit of time with his family.

Q Without getting into any details, can you tell us whether there has been any heightened security around the White House compound, concerns that we talked about over the past few days?

MR. LOCKHART: Certainly nothing that has been reported to me.

Q Joe, as you know, the State Department again issued another global terrorist warning. Is the President in touch personally with any of the world leaders or anybody in South Asia? Because Afghanistan is --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, the President from time to time is in touch with other world leaders, but I don't think he's been specifically talking to anyone on this subject. I think if you look at what the State Department did was an expansion or further information on the advisory that they put out some time ago. It was not new, by any means, and in fact, provided a little bit more information that has come to their attention because of events abroad, and because, as I think I explained yesterday, under their double standard rule, they have an obligation to provide the same information that they do to their own employees to U.S. citizens who are considering traveling abroad.

Q Do you anticipate, given the developments and the border situations in recent days, he might end up taking time away from his time off to be briefed on developments as this thing continues to --

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not in the business of anticipating. I can only say that the President is fully briefed and will continue to be briefed as events and developments warrant.

Q Joe?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes? You moved up. That's good. (Laughter.)

Q Either way, but the President says, be cautious, but don't change your plans. But there are some people who are planning on going to church on New Year's -- celebrations in church. And a lot of black churches throughout the country are canceling service because of threats from white supremacist groups. Has the White House heard anything like that or are they saying anything about that?

MR. LOCKHART: This is the first I've heard of that, and I think that's a separate issue than what the President was addressing. Obviously, that's something that the Department of Justice would take quite seriously. I think it's particularly this time of year to -- it's repugnant of people to make threats along those lines. And I think, as in cases of other threats and acts of vandal and violence against churches around the country, the Department of Justice will look into that.

Q A follow-up. Since the President has such a religious background and he says he's really religious, do you think that -- would he say that people should still go to church?

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, absolutely. I don't want these things to meld into together, so let me deal with them separately, which is it's very important and it's very much a part of people's lives, particularly this time of year, to come together as a community and go through religious celebrations. And I think the President believes that that's a very important part of our lives. On a much broader point, as I think the President indicated when he talked to the pool, he believes that people should carry through on their plans, go forward with the celebrations, take advantage of the opportunity of celebrating this important New Year's at the millennium, but exercise caution.

Q Joe, is the President at all concerned, or are you concerned, that by urging yesterday at the podium that and then he, himself, today, may end up sparking a deluge of reports to police and authorities by talking about anything suspicious?

MR. LOCKHART: I think in a situation like this there is somewhat of a balancing act here, whether it comes to law enforcement issues or talking to the American public and providing them the information they need, that we are responsible for giving them. But I think this is something that the law enforcement community is capable of dealing with. When we talk about caution, we talk about things like, you know, if you see something suspicious or that doesn't make sense, it's worthwhile in this environment to report it.

I believe that we have a responsibility to do that and provide the information. I also believe that we share a responsibility with you all, with the media, to try to report things, put things in perspective and report things and not have things be done in a way that unnecessarily worries the American public. I think that we take very seriously our commitments and our responsibilities, and I know the news media does, too. And it's sincerely my hope that we can continue over the next few days, as you all continue to have questions, to do this in a way where we do provide information and it is put in the proper perspective.

Q I have a question about some of the information the State Department is putting out, saying that there are threats, or there have been threats against, I think, tourist sites and hotels where people may be traveling overseas. What's the value in telling someone who is traveling overseas to a millennium celebration that there are threats against hotels or tourist sites? I mean, they're going to have to use both, aren't they?

MR. LOCKHART: One of the -- the most important thing I think they say when you're traveling overseas is to check locally, at the consulate or at the embassy. But I think the State Department, under their double standard commitments, needs to make available information that they are making available to government employees. I think they're obviously -- each of these situations is localized and people are encouraged to be in contact so they can work through how -- what's the best way to continue their travel in a way that provides them the most security or the greatest security that can be provided.

Q Just to follow up on that, I think Mr. Koskinen has talked about the fact that there are computer problems every day, every week; the systems crash, certain things happen around the first of the year. That doesn't necessarily mean we're having a particular Y2K problem . Is that true in the security area as well? I mean, people try to cross into this country from Canada every day that may have bad papers.

MR. LOCKHART: Sure. That goes a little bit to the point that it's certainly my hope that we can all do this in a way that provides perspective. There are law enforcement activities that go on every day in this country. There are all kinds of people who go to great length to break the law and a lot of law enforcement officials go to great lengths to catch them.

I think there is a potential to try to blend everything that happens in the law enforcement community somehow into this treat and this story, and I think people should be careful.

This is a little slightly off the point, but I know that a lot of people reported with great vigor what the FAA said yesterday, and I think left somewhat the impression that they were launching new security measures and extra security measures when, in fact, if you look at what they've done, they were communicating, I think responsibly, with their partners, people who work for them, the airlines, that they thought, given this time, they should use extra vigor in enforcing existing security regulations.

There is a lot of security. If you look at -- since the Gulf War, they have stepped up security at American airports. As we came toward the millennium, they had always planned to react in a way that was appropriate to the environment in which we were in, and so I think there is a sense that we need to try to work through a way to separate what is involved in this and what isn't, and find a way to make sure that at the end of the day, the public has a good sense of what it is we know, what the threat is and what is real and what isn't.

Q Just to follow up on that, are you saying in effect that you would have been issuing these cautions and the State Department would probably have been issuing these cautions regardless whether someone had been arrested at the Canadian border with timers and nitroglycerine?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the State Department had issued theirs before Seattle, and that was based on information that we've talked about. As far as the -- let's take the FAA. I know that they had a plan to deal with the end of the year. I think the heightened media interests over the last 48 hours led to a lot more coverage of something that was already in the works. Now, they react to their environment, and clearly, events play into the environment, but I'm trying to make a broader point here, which is that this information should all, as you go through it, it needs some sort of filter to provide perspective for people.

Q Are you going to have a press officer here 24 hours a day? I mean, reachable?

MR. LOCKHART: We'll have the same system we always have, which I think Jim Fallin is duty this week, unfortunately, the new guy -- (laughter) -- but everybody will have pagers and numbers, and I'll be reachable throughout the next 10 days.

Q When is the President going to issue the pardons, the annual pardons? Is that coming before the New Year, before Christmas?

MR. LOCKHART: Tomorrow. I'd check with us tomorrow, because tomorrow might be the day -- tomorrow. (Laughter.)

Q How many are there?

Q I can't believe they got an answer like that.

MR. LOCKHART: More than one, less than 10,000.

Q Anybody we know?

MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I have not been fully briefed on this. I expect there may be one person who has had some press attention and the rest probably people you don't know.

Q Is Pollard a pardon or what would his situation be

MR. LOCKHART: It's not relevant to the conversation I'm having here.

Q A group of Republican senators have written to the President requesting a delay in any decision the administration makes with respect to Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy. Is the President considering that request? Has there been a response?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think in fact, though, if they're trying to influence the process, the letter went to the wrong place. The INS is looking at this, the INS will make their decision based on their regulations and the law, and I think we all have to take a step back from this and try to do everything we can to take politics out of it. There have been a lot of people involved -- I haven't seen the letter, so I don't -- without regard to this letter, there have been a lot of people in Cuba, a lot of people other places who have tried to use this young boy to advance their particular views on this issue. And I think the INS is moving forward properly by looking at what the law is and what the law says about what's best for this young boy.

Q So then, delaying the process until Congress can effectively declare the boy to be a U.S. citizen, which would, in effect, take the administration off the hot seat with respect to making the decision --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, not necessarily. I don't know that whatever Congress did, if that would impact the process by which INS was doing it. But either way, INS should be allowed to do their job free of political influence from whatever side you happen to approach this issue.

Q If I understood correctly, you said the briefing room will be open and the North Lawn will be open New Year's Eve?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, all night.

Q Why is that? Why are you doing that?

MR. LOCKHART: Because there are a number of people in the electronic news gathering business who plan to be here much of the night to bring in the new year with the President, and probably watch for Y2K glitches and the like.

Q -- is the President or anybody in this building worried about threats from terrorists? And also, if you have a message for Usama bin Laden today, what would be that? And other international terrorists?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the message to terrorists is simple: look at the record. Those who commit crimes against U.S. citizens, those who commit terrorist acts against this country will eventually be caught and punished.

Q Is anybody here in this building worried about from now until New Year's?

MR. LOCKHART: Do you mean personally? Listen, I think the President said it best when he said this is a time of year where families and friends come together to celebrate. They should do that, but with an eye toward being vigilant and cautious, given the environment we live in.

Q Joe, just going back to what you said earlier. Is the administration concerned that the reporting so far of this incident, the man arrested --

MR. LOCKHART: No, no. I think -- you know, some of this goes without saying. But I think we have an obligation on our side to provide as much information as we can to the American public on a timely basis about the environment, about issues having to do with their safety. And I think the media has a responsibility, too. I used the FAA as an example because I think there was one where casual viewers and observers would think that the FAA was doing things based on one element, rather than on an overall plan, and within in a context of what they've already been doing. So this is ongoing and it's certainly our hope that we'll do a good job of providing information and that information will be dealt with --

Q Did the White House give a go-ahead to the FBI and Justice to have a press conference?

MR. LOCKHART: We certainly knew they were doing it, but it wasn't our place to give a go-ahead.

Q You do admit it's adding one layer on another.

MR. LOCKHART: No, what I took away from that press conference was that the Department of Justice and the FBI were very straight about what the situation is and about how there is no specific threat against any particular target here, but that we're working hard; that we had an incident last week which, as far as the law enforcement community was significant, and that a lot of work is being done on. But I think if you listen closely to what they said, they lent -- they reminded people to be cautious, but indicated that, although they will be working hard on this, that people should go about their daily business.

Q Where exactly are the President and his guests going to be during this millennium thing outside? Are they going to be here on the White House grounds or --

MR. LOCKHART: No, there is an event out somewhere in the Mall area and they will be there.

Q Can we ask about protection in this kind of --

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to go into particular security elements, only to say that we take security very seriously and we expect this to be a secure environment for the President and those -- all the people in this area and from around the country and the world who want to come to celebrate the millennium here in Washington.

Q Presumably, they are isolated in a box or something, they're not mingling with the crowd.

MR. LOCKHART: I'm, obviously, not going to get into that.

Q What portion of what's happening on the Mall is a commercial event owned by CBS, and what portion is publicly available or available -- (laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: The President will have some remarks which will be available to all of you. Then there will be some performances that are part of the CBS special that will be on that night. So what the President says in his address to the country, as we approach midnight, will be available to both broadcast and other media.

Q At the memorial, Lincoln Memorial?


Q Do the President and Mrs. Clinton plan to visit Chappaqua next week?

MR. LOCKHART: They have not reported that to me.

Q Would they tell you? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: Probably not.

Q Visit where?

Q Chappaqua.

Q Speaking of New York, the Mayor of New York City is accusing the Secretary of HUD of behaving politically by denying the city control of federal homeless money. Did Mr. Cuomo run that by the White House before he did it?


Q And does the White House have any particular opinion?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I haven't spoken to everybody in the White House, but he certainly didn't discuss it with the President or the First Lady. He is responding, in large part, to a federal judge and his ruling rather than the mayor. And I think we believe that HUD has a responsibility to make sure that these programs are run responsibly, that they ultimately have to be the arbiter of that. And in this case, we support their effort.

Q Joe, can you please confirm the President's letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh about his visit to India and Bangladesh next month?

MR. LOCKHART: I would if I knew anything about it. I don't know anything about it. We'll check. Wait. Was that a trick question?

Q No.

MR. LOCKHART: Get me by saying, I don't know anything about the letter, but the trip is on, or something like that? (Laughter.)

Q No. Last night --

MR. LOCKHART: Okay, it wasn't a trick question. That's all I need. (Laughter.) Okay, thank you.

END 2:33 P.M. EST