THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT AND P.J. CROWLEY The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:33 P.M. EDT
MR. SIEWERT: I have one announcement, actually. On Sunday, the President and the First Lady will host an event to send off a group of mothers participating in the Million Mom March. We expect that about 1,000 mothers will attend, including a large number of mothers who have lost their children to gun violence. And that will be here at the White House.
Q The time?
MR. SIEWERT: We'll let you know.
Q So does that mean he will not take part in the march himself?
MR. SIEWERT: He will host this event, and I think that will probably be the full extent of his participation.
Q Will he be receiving the apple pie from the Million Moms at this event?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. I'll ask.
Q This will be before?
MR. SIEWERT: This will be before. It's a sendoff event for mothers will be participating in the march.
Q Here, Sunday morning?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, here.
Q Jake, the President, at times, has expressed some reluctance about being dragged into the presidential campaign. Yet, in the interview today, he seemed to be pretty enthusiastically going after Governor Bush. What changed his mind, and why does he think it's appropriate now to take this attack role?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know that his mind has changed. I think it's always been clear who he's supported in this race. He had an interview where he was asked a couple of political questions and he chose to respond to them. I notice today, back to work and he wants to focus with the members of Congress on what we can get done this year. But he obviously has strong opinions about the race. It's no secret who he supports and he'll express them from time to time.
Q Does he feel that the Vice President needs his support to bolster himself in the polls right now?
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, I don't think so. I mean, the President has spoken out on this race before at different stages in the campaign, but the President thinks that the Vice President's running a strong campaign, he's the strongest candidate and he'll prevail in the fall.
Q Is there some fear that the -- or concern that the Vice President has come off as too harsh in his criticism himself and that maybe others should take up this role for the Vice President?
MR. SIEWERT: Not that I'm aware of.
Q He didn't want to answer the question about Social Security in the meeting just now, but he did make some pretty strong statements about what George W. Bush would do on other issues in the Diane Rehm interview. Doe the President believe that George W. will destroy Social Security by privatizing it if he's elected, as the Vice President has charged?
MR. SIEWERT: That was the first time I've heard him mention it at all in response to that question, and so I can't add to what he said. He said --
Q So he might not agree with the Vice President on that?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I'm just saying that he said today he might respond to that at some point. I've never had a chance to ask him about it.
I mean, we've addressed it from this podium. I mean, there's a fundamental problem with Governor Bush's plan in that he has a huge tax cut, which makes it very difficult to see how he could fund a lot of the other promises that he's made, from the recent promise he made on a health care tax to the Social Security plan. It's just very hard to -- the President has said from -- he's said to the newspaper editors; he talked last week about this, but there is a basic arithmetic problem, and it's not clear how all these numbers are going to add up. And until we see how they add up, there's just a lot of unfunded and hollow promises.
Q Yes, no, I get that argument. But what about just the private accounts, which the Vice President has attacked completely separately from the arithmetic problem?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, a private account doesn't mean anything until you explain how you're going to pay for it.
Q But if it's paid for, it would be okay with you?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I didn't say that. I'm just saying it doesn't mean anything until you've explained how the numbers actually add up.
Q Joe said he was going to have some information on federal assets at the Los Alamos fire?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, I've got a little bit of that here. I can tell you that there are over 600 firefighters working on this fire. That includes some private-sector and some state and local firefighters as well. But we have a pretty well-coordinated federal effort involving FEMA, the Department of Energy, staff from the National Laboratory, the Los Alamos. State and local officials are working together as well -- New Mexico state officials and the local officials as well.
Secretary Babbitt will be going out there shortly, and, as you've already seen, there are already a number of federal officials that are there.
Q I got a readout on some of the equipment from the Forestry Department. But what about additional federal assets? Military? Any dispatching --
MR. SIEWERT: I have not heard. I checked on that this morning; I have not heard of any military assets being used. It's possible that there will be some changes in that, but we'll check. As of right now, the only information I have is about FEMA, National Park Service, National Forest Service assets being deployed.
Q The President said he's going to want to get the facts once this emergency situation is dealt with about how this fire got started, and whether it was a mistake or reckless action, or whatever might have led to it. Does he have a sense of who should gather those facts? Is this something where the National Park Service should gather the facts, or the Interior Inspector General, or some outside body?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't think we've sorted that out here at all. I think the President said for right now, the focus should be not on how this all got started, but what we can do to end it. And I think that Secretary Babbitt has said that he's going to look into this thoroughly. Secretary Glickman has also -- they pledged together to get to the bottom of this. But right now, our focus should be now on doing everything we can to stop it.
Q Jake, does the President have a new proposal to put before the conferees on the patients protection act? Why else would he be having them in? What's the point?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think he brought them down here to find out after seven months of discussion where they are on this. And he wanted a status report, he wanted to see if there was anything he could do to help move the process forward. The bill passed seven months ago, and every day that goes by, patients are denied service, or denied necessary treatment, and the President wants to know why the delay has been so long, and what we can do to move the process forward.
Q Can't the President find that over the phone, Jake?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think it's sometimes useful to bring people down here and find out where they're going, and to see whether there's anything we can do. He pledged at the beginning of that meeting to do anything he can, anything our staff can provide in the way of technical expertise, but frankly, it's been seven months, there's been very little action, just as there's been very little action on the gun bill. And from time to time, it's important to bring people down and see whether we can move forward.
Q Getting back to Larry's question -- it is my understanding the President was not going to lay anything technical or legislative on the table to try to break any of these well-understood logjams over things like the scope of coverage, external review, or other --
MR. SIEWERT: No, I think he basically wanted a status report from them, but he also wanted to pledge to work with them and to see whether there was anything that they could do to step up the pace of action.
Q It appeared to me that one of the things the President can do is say, here's my bottom line, can you get there.
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think we've shown some flexibility. We think -- look, there is a very strong bill that passed the House with overwhelming support from a lot of the Republican leadership and from most of the Democratic Party. That should be a blueprint for action.
Democrats in the Senate support that bill. So we know where a good, strong bipartisan majority in the House is, we know where most of the Democrats are, we know where a lot of Republicans in the Senate are. But we have a couple of people that have some very different ideas who are slowing action down on this.
Q Who might that be?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I'll let you figure that out yourself.
Q When was the last time he met with conferees here at the White House?
MR. SIEWERT: On this?
Q No, no, no, just on anything.
MR. SIEWERT: We had a meeting last month, I think, on juvenile justice with Chairman Hatch and Chairman Hyde and the Democratic leaders.
Q Do you have any updates, Jake or P.J., on other requests from other nations involving Sierra Leone for assets or movement or participation -- military, to move any other troops there?
MR. CROWLEY: That is still something that the U.N. is working through. The President had a brief conversation with Kofi Annan late this morning where they talked about the situation and the seriousness of the situation in Sierra Leone. The President continued to pledge that we would do whatever we could to support reinforcement of the mission in Sierra Leone.
We have a C-17 in Jordan right now, for example, that is prepared in the coming days to airlift some equipment for a special forces unit that is going into Sierra Leone to reinforce the Jordanian contingent that is already there. We continue our discussions and the U.N. continues its discussions with a range of governments on the -- bringing UNAMSIL up to its full deployment, so we've got the Bangladeshi contingent, the Indian contingent, another Jordanian contingent.
We have a logistics team that remains in Nigeria, working with Nigeria and the other West African states as their planned deployment takes shape. So a lot of planning is going on. I'm not aware of any new deployment announcements at this point. But we continue to work through how to best reinforce this force, and then how to sequence the arrival of these forces in the coming days and weeks.
Q If I could follow up, P.J., how is this planning, this logistical discussion, changing life on the ground for the better?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, it should send a clear signal to the RUF that this mission is going to be reinforced. The U.N. is serious about stabilizing the situation and bringing additional capabilities into Sierra Leone to try to get Sierra Leone back towards the peace process. So it should send them an unmistakable signal that the international community is committed to reinforce this mission, to stabilize the situation, and to see if we can't turn back towards progress on the ground.
But clearly, in terms of how this happened, it does take some time to work through.
Q P.J., the President has said again and again how upset he is about what happened in the Rwanda situation, and he didn't want to see that repeated. And yet it seems here that, once again, it's very slow for the Western countries to come to a focus on resolving this situation. And then it seems to often be focused on how Western nationals are gotten out as one of the primary concerns. Is there any frustration on the President's part that once again we have a situation where an African country is allowed to slide off the radar screen to the point where it became a tremendous problem?
MR. CROWLEY: I would disagree with a couple of the premises of your question. First of all, we haven't let anything slide. We are deeply engaged in various conflicts that are underway in Africa. You know, for example, Ambassador Holbrooke is currently in the region seeing what we can do to prevent a conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. We have a deep engagement with Rwanda and Uganda, for example, as their forces seem to be -- hopefully, we hope will disengage from a conflict that is currently raging outside Kisangani.
But in terms of forces, numbers are not necessarily the problem here. For example, in Sierra Leone, the West African states have taken a leading role through the years in both political support and military support to try to end the civil war in Sierra Leone. It was in fact the people of Sierra Leone that said to West African leaders, let's bring this violence to an end, which brought the Lome Agreement into effect. The U.N. deployed a force to oversee the implementation of this peace agreement. Obviously, the RUF have violated this agreement, and now the U.N., together with the United States and other countries, are looking at how we can best reenforce this mission.
So, Africa's very much on our radar scope, and we are deeply engaged politically, and we are willing to help militarily to help end this conflict.
Q So there's been no lack of will or focus on the part of the U.N. or Western countries to address this problem.
MR. CROWLEY: I don't think -- not at all. Not at all. I think -- but every once in a while, people are fixated on troops. It's not just numbers of troops; it is helping these countries gain the political will to end the conflict and establish a peace process so that we can move towards the kind of economic and social progress that we think clearly is in Africa's interest, and clearly Africa possesses that potential.
Q P.J., the conversation the President had with Kofi Annan -- was there any sense at all after that, of a timetable, when the facts on the ground in Sierra Leone might be turning for the better, and that what -- this is now talking about among western countries is not just a signal to the RUF, but something tangible that they have to come up against as they move toward the capital?
MR. CROWLEY: This is a very complex situation. You've got revolutionary elements that have to decide what the future is going to be. You have a clear statement from the people of Sierra Leone that they want this conflict to stop; and have made that clear to the RUF in demonstrations that have occurred in Freetown in the last two or three days.
And so you have a very strong statement from the West African leaders, both politically, and that they are determined to see an end to this civil war, and will use all means necessary, including military force, to see the situation stabilized. We are engaged deeply with them to try to help support them in any way we can. But this kind of international response takes time to put together.
Meanwhile, the force on the ground, things are quieter in Sierra Leone today. And the UNAMSIL Soldiers on the ground continue to refortify their positions and keep possession of key lines in and out of Freetown. And meanwhile, we continue to look to see how effectively and how quickly we can reenforce this mission. The Jordanians will be going in the next couple of days. Other contingents -- the Indians, the Bangladeshis, and Jordanians will be going in, in the next couple of weeks. So you'll quickly see the kind of international commitment that we are working through the U.N. to provide. Alex?
Q There are reports -- I don't know whether they're true -- but that the U.S. is the only country that's offering airlift, but also charging for it. Are we charging the countries, such as Jordan, Bangladesh, India?
MR. CROWLEY: To the extent that -- within the normal rules of U.N. assistance, we are reimbursed for the actual costs of airlift that we provide.
Q But the Netherlands, for instance, has volunteered its airlift capacity for free. Why -- if it's an emergency, why wouldn't we simply say --
MR. CROWLEY: I'm sure -- there are legal rules and regulations that I am not privy to, or able to enunciate here, that guide both how we provide assistance to the U.N. and how that assistance is reimbursed when appropriate.
Q Do we always charge, P.J.?
MR. CROWLEY: Major, it's a very complicated thing, depending on the type of mission and the type of support, what the mandate is. There are a myriad of rules. But in a particular case, if we're providing assistance under certain cases, that assistance is reimbursable as part of the peacekeeping assessment that we in turn contribute to as a U.N. member.
Q So this is more or less an issue of accounting then?
MR. CROWLEY: I would say so.
Q P.J., the military construction bill is now on the floor of the Senate. Within that bill is an amendment that was authored by Senator Byrd, which would put some very precise restrictions on the U.S. operation in Kosovo. What's the administration's position on that, and what's your assessment that one of the leading Democrats in the Senate is spearheading an effort to change the way the administration is approaching Kosovo?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think there has been bipartisan support for the mission in Kosovo, and there has been bipartisan opposition to the mission in Kosovo. So I wouldn't say this is anything new, going back to discussions that we had and debates that we had in the country a year ago.
We do think the proposed legislation sends a dangerous message to Milosevic, and potentially undercuts the success of the progress that we've experienced thus far in Kosovo. It was less than a year ago that we saw 900,000 refugees streaming out of Kosovo to Albania, to Macedonia. Through this international effort, we have put those refugees back in place. It's not a perfect picture in Kosovo.
And to the extent that the purpose of the legislation is to try to encourage our European partners, who are providing 85 percent of the troops and the vast majority of the support, we just believe that this ultimately would be self-defeating. And it undercuts our ability to work with our European partners to make sure that Kosovo gets the international support that it needs.
Q If American troops were to pull out, can the other elements of KFOR pick up the slack, or would the whole thing fall apart?
MR. CROWLEY: John, you're asking -- crystal ball. I think it would be very difficult. The international community still looks to the United States for leadership. We are partners in Europe. It is a clear national interest of the United States to see a stable, peaceful, undivided Europe. It is clearly in our interest to see Kosovo stabilized, and it is clearly in our interest to do our part. I would think it would be very difficult for Europe to continue such a mission if the United States pulls out wholesale.
Q Okay, thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: Thank you very much.
END 2:53 P.M. EDT