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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 15, 2000
                             PRESS BRIEFING
                              JOE LOCKHART

                    The James S. Brady Briefing Room

2:18 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: For the record, the press conference tomorrow is at 2:00 p.m. -- I had said 2:30 p.m, but it is 2:00 p.m. Now, it'll probably start at 2:30 p.m. -- (laughter.)

Q Opening statement?

MR. LOCKHART: My guess at this point is that he'll have a generalized statement with not a major announcement in it about what we're working on and hoping to get done.

Q Domestic, this time?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, domestic.

Q Will there be an agenda, do you think? Is he likely to --

MR. LOCKHART: I think he's likely to probably look at the agenda, unless we come up with something better between now and tomorrow. I'll let you know by the gaggle tomorrow.

Q There's a report that the Israeli and Syrian talks are going to begin soon. Do we know anything about that?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I've seen reports, various reports over the last week or 10 days on that, but I have no information, no real information on those restarting. It's obviously our hope that they can get restarted, as well as we can make progress on both tracks toward a comprehensive peace. But I don't have any information to report to you today.

Q Joe, do you have any comment now, or will the President have a statement later on the IRA's decision to pull out of the decommissioning talks in Northern Ireland?

MR. LOCKHART: I think we've now had a chance to take a look at the statement they put out. Obviously, we regret any indication of backtracking on the recent progress that was made in establishing clarity on decommissioning.

The talks are continuing. They include some talks tomorrow in London, between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, to resolve the impasse and try to restore the institutions. We're going to continue to work and support these efforts.

I think as the President has said over the last few weeks, that it's vital for all the parties to work creatively and flexibly to restore the momentum in order to get to a full implementation of the Good Friday accords.

Q Well, the President said he hoped however the impasse was handled, it was handled in a way that there wouldn't be backsliding and, clearly, that hasn't happened.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, as we said, we regret that any indication, no matter where it comes from, on moving back rather than moving forward -- because we have had some progress. But the talks will continue, and I think we will continue to avail to the parties our help wherever appropriate in order to try to get this back on track.

Q The President said in his statement on Friday that he found some positive signs in the second decommissioning report. Does he believe, or has he had any conversations with either Prime Minister Blair or Ahern about their reaction to the decommissioning report not being positive enough to keep the IRA involved in the conversations? It appeared their motive today was, at least in part, they didn't get enough credit for the progress they made on the decommissioning --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't see any advantage to speculating on motives. For our part, we're going to continue to vigorously make the case to the parties to commit to this process so that we can get to full implementation of the Good Friday accords and get the process on track.

Q Why is it helpful for the talks to continue if they don't include the one party who decommissioning is all about?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, it's helpful for the talks to continue because I think we've found that the line between -- wherever in the world we're talking about -- between conflict and peace is very rarely a straight line. And we're going to continue to work this from all sides. And you know, obviously this is not a positive development, but it's not a reason to give up on the process.

Q Well, did the IRA break its word? Did the IRA break its word?

MR. LOCKHART: Let me just say this. We have called on all sides to comply with commitments made in respect to the Good Friday accords. We will continue to work with all sides in order to have a process where they can do that.

Q Do you have a readout on the Azerbaijan meeting?

MR. LOCKHART: I do. Let me find it. The meeting lasted about 45 minutes, between the President and President Aliyev. I think the main areas of discussion were prospects for a Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement. Aliyev brought an update to President Clinton on the discussions that are going on between Azerbaijan and Armenia. They spent some time talking about Caspian energy development, and the common commitment between our governments on the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. And finally, some regional security issues.

Q What are prospects for a peace agreement?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, he talked a little bit about the -- the President for his part talked about the commitment the U.S. has made to support a settlement and a timetable that both parties can agree to. I mean, there's clearly some work to do on this, and I think I'll leave it to the President and his staff to provide whatever update he wants to, to you.

Q Joe, the President has been very chatty with the media in the last month or so, even talking with film critic Ebert. Is there any reason, motivation for this talkativeness?

MR. LOCKHART: Temporary insanity? (Laughter.) No, I think we did a number of interviews because of a lot of requests around the millennium -- because I think there were a lot of people to talk to, that were looking for the President's perspective on the celebrations and reflections on the last century and where we were going in the 21st century.

I think lately we've tried -- the President has tried to be accessible on a number of issues and agenda items that are important to him, and has been quite open to talking about those. It's hopefully more than just a passing phase.

Q Joe, apparently tomorrow there is some sort of DOE summit or meeting in Boston on home heating oil. Is that the kind of meeting, among others, that's likely to influence the President as he considers whether to tap this strategic reserve?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President, on the strategic petroleum reserve is bound by the statute there -- the very limited circumstances of which, in the context of what's going on now, we're not in one. But I think there's a lot of other things we can do, which the Secretary of Energy has been talking about, in addition to releasing almost $200 million in LIHEAP money for low income people. But there's a lot of things -- the Secretary of Energy talked about last week about breaking logjams, getting product to the most needed areas in the northeast. And this process is going to continue. He's going to be up in Boston tomorrow, meeting with a number of people who are in the industry and are impacted by the high price.

And as the President said today, he's going to continue to monitor this, because while in the current context he does not believe it's appropriate to draw down -- according to the statute -- the strategic petroleum reserve, this is worth, this situation is one that involves watching further and that context may change.

Q Joe, he seems rather agitated about this. Is there anything else that can be done, besides the LIHEAP money, to help middle class or lower middle class people that are having problems with heating bills?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, the Secretary of Energy laid out a number of ideas last week, both things we can do here and whatever influence we can bring to bear on oil-producing nations. And he will continue to follow that path.

But it is something -- you know, as the President said, we as a country, as far as heating goes, have -- except for some areas in the country -- have become much more dependent on gas heat and electricity. But there are -- there is a -- percentage-wise a small, but an important part of the population that still is dependent on home heating oil. And those people have been severely hurt.

And I think for people at the lowest end of the income scale, LIHEAP is designed to help them. And I think we are providing real help. But there are people just above that, you know, in the middle class, who are having difficulty paying their bills. So we're going to attack this from a number of different ways. And, again, this is something, as the President has indicated quite clearly, he's watching very closely.

Q But, Joe, the statute is for a national emergency, isn't it? I mean, how can that context change sufficiently to require tapping into the reserves?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to speculate on where we go from here, only to say that we will continue to watch this situation closely, and if the circumstances or context change and open up more opportunities, then we'll take them.

Q Joe, on Colombia, despite bipartisan support for the President's plan, there are some questions being raised on Capitol Hill, among them why there wasn't a larger budget request for Bolivia and Peru, which have had some success in eradicating the drug trade there; and also that a preponderance of the budget request goes to the Colombian military, as opposed to the Colombian national police. Can you explain the administration's position on those two topics?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, let me take the second one first, which is, what we're supporting here is the project that was put forward by President Pastrana. And this is a bold effort to really try to make inroads into the burgeoning drug trafficking problem that Colombia has, which impacts the United States directly. And we believe in the plan as he's put forward, and we believe that it is right. And I think there's bipartisan support for supporting that effort.

I think on the second question, I think -- you know, Bolivia and Peru are two areas where it actually makes our case; that they've actually implemented very strong anti-drug efforts and have really driven down coca production in those countries, whereas now we're sitting in a situation where Colombia is providing something like 80 percent of the cocaine that comes into this country.

So clearly we know where the problem exists. And I think this supplemental is an attempt to attack that problem. We've had success in the region with other countries. We have more to do in Colombia, and I think that's the reason why there is this concentration of resources.

Q If I could just have a follow-up. Some of the representatives of the Bolivian and Peruvian governments say now is the time they need a little extra money to keep the farmers from moving back to drug-related crops, and growing crops that are non-drug-related. And they would need more money from the government, the U.S. government, to help them assist those efforts.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, you know, we always are re-evaluating where the scarce resources of our government can go. We have made the decision that we've had success in other areas of the region, that Colombia remains the number one problem, and that's why we have concentrated our efforts there -- but not at the exclusion of what we're doing in places like Peru and Bolivia.

Q Is the President going to survey the tornado damage?

MR. LOCKHART: I have no travel plans for the President for this week on that front. I can tell you that we have received disaster requests from Georgia and Louisiana, and I expect that the FEMA preliminary damage assessments will be done shortly and that those will be acted upon by the end of today.

Q Joe, one more on Northern Ireland. I know it could be interfering with international affairs, but would the President consider going over in person if they asked him to help mediate?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has always said that he would do what he thinks is constructive for the process. He has been very involved in this process since almost the day he came into office, and that's been in a number of ways, including visits. So I have no travel plans -- I have no requests. But I can't rule anything in or out on this front.

Q As you know, he's very respected over there. Do you know whether this has come up at all?

MR. LOCKHART: I haven't heard any request.

Q Joe, again on Northern Ireland. Last week the President said before suspension that we were at a critical moment. Suspension has occurred, now the IRA has pulled out. Can you characterize where the President or the administration believes things are now? Is this an even more critical moment, the most dire since the Good Friday accord was first reached?

MR. LOCKHART: Listen, I don't think that providing further explanatory adjectives helps -- critical moment is a very descriptive phrase and it still applies.

Q Thanks.

END 2:30 p.m. EST