THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:20 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon, everybody. Sorry I'm a little bit late. I was trying to gather some information. Let me just take a couple minutes at the top here because I know there have been some questions coming down into the Press Office about what the U.S. government's response to the Cuban plane has been.
We received word from Havana air traffic control to FAA in Miami around 10:00 a.m. this morning that a Cuban domestic flight had been hijacked and was in international airspace. At that point, FAA informed DOT and all other relevant law enforcement airport officials and the Pentagon were notified.
At this point, the Coast Guard has launched, or diverted three boats to the scene. The U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat, Monhegan, is arriving on the scene now, along with the U.S. Coast Guard Falcon Jet. There are three HH-65 helicopters that will be on the way shortly, and another patrol boat, the Nantucket, is en route. The Coast Guard cutter, the Courageous, is also on the way, and a C-130 has been dispatched to the scene.
As is custom in cases like this, F-16s were launched, although they never picked up the plane on radar. AWACs are now being deployed in the area, looking for a signal or beacon from the downed aircraft. All this information is incomplete, as, I think, the story is unfolding, but we did want to bring you up to date on what we knew.
Q Joe, I know security was very tight around the Blair House and the Secret Service did a great job, but despite all that, a man was found in the Prime Minister's bedroom. He was arrested, and the case is now in the U.S. District Courthouse or whatever.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I would refer calls on the specifics of that case to the Secret Service, that are doing an investigation now. But the part I can confirm is that the Prime Minister was not at the Blair House when this incident occurred.
Q The Secret Service confirmed the original story, but what I'm asking you, would you say that this was a security lapse or security blunder --
MR. LOCKHART: I'd say that it's certainly something that the Secret Service will be investigating, and I'd refer questions there.
Q Finally, if you can assess the Prime Minister's visit to Washington?
MR. LOCKHART: I think it was a very successful visit from the point of view of deepening our relations with India. I think the President said it best when he talked about having turned this relationship around from one of mutual suspicion to one of deepening understanding and cooperation. The President certainly hopes that this is the start of a more regular dialogue and reaching out between the nations, and we never go as long as we have in the past for a U.S. President to visit India and for us to concentrate so much on an important relationship.
Q Can you talk about the Mideast peace process? Has Israel walked away in frustration? What will the U.S. do from here?
MR. LOCKHART: I've seen some of the reports. They have not indicated to us any sort of time out. I understand that there was a meeting for today that won't take place. Obviously we're at an important time in this process, and time is not unlimited, but we also understand that this entire process has its ups and downs, has its moments of frustration on both sides, in differing ways.
Since Camp David, there have been a series of discussions that have gone on, both in the region and in New York, with the gathering there at the U.N., and it's certainly our hope that those will continue.
Q You said that you hadn't heard there was a time out?
MR. LOCKHART: They haven't used that language with us, no.
Q What language have they used?
MR. LOCKHART: That they are not meeting today.
Q Is there a reason for that?
MR. LOCKHART: You should talk to them about their reasons. I think if you take a step back, you'll find that there are often points in the process where one side does something or the other side does something in response. Obviously this isn't easy, but it's certainly our hope that this does not signal anything other than a temporary lull in the discussions and contacts.
Q Is that how you would characterize it, as a temporary lull?
MR. LOCKHART: See, you're asking me today. But again, I saw the phrase used about time out, a time out in the process, and that hasn't been the language that's been used with us.
Q Might this alter the President's assessment of a few days ago, when he said it wasn't a time for despair, but neither time for hope in the Middle East peace process?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think it actually reflects the wisdom of the President's remarks the other day as this being a difficult process that does not go in a straight line, but in a very uneven way, with ups and downs. But I don't know that we read this as a time for either hope or despair.
Q Joe, do you know if the Cuban plane was indeed headed towards the U.S.?
MR. LOCKHART: We have information from Cuban air traffic control that the plane was headed into international airspace and headed north. We do not, as far as I know at this point, have independent radar confirmation of that. That's correct, right, P.J.?
MR. CROWLEY: Yes.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes?
Q The Senate Armed Services committee is meeting today on policy toward Iraq. In your view, are the sanctions working, the military presence there? Is there an end game for the United States?
MR. LOCKHART: The policy is working to contain Saddam Hussein, to limit his ability to threaten his neighbors, the Kurds, and to keep him from reconstituting his weapons of mass destruction. The end game on this, I think, as was articulated at the hearing, is an Iraq that people have much more of a stake in, and an Iraq without Saddam Hussein.
Q Is there a policy shift coming that you see?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the hearing should have indicated that the policy is working and we believe that we should stick with it.
Q On Peru, Montesinos seems to be challenging President Fujimori's order to dismantle the intelligence service, and it appears he is supported in some way by a faction of the military. Does the administration have a sense of where the military loyalties like, what Montesinos might be trying to accomplish, and what the situation is in Peru?
MR. LOCKHART: We've seen the reports of house arrests. I don't know if that has been independently verified by anyone in our government. We believe -- we expressed concerns from the outset after the election of the move away toward democracy. We believe that the process that we embarked upon with the OAS to move Peru back on the path toward full democracy is the correct way and we believe that all parties in Peruvian society should work toward that goal.
Q Does the administration have any sense of what role the military or a faction of the military may be playing in this instability in Peru right now?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there are certainly, in the aftermath of the announcement by President Fujimori, there's some uncertainty about how they will move from the position they're in now toward full democracy; and we're going to continue to work with the OAS. I don't have an assessment of a particular faction within the military beyond saying that it's our hope and the hope of the OAS that all parties, including the military, will work toward moving on the path toward full democracy.
Q One last question on that. The opposition in Peru says the situation is such that Fujimori should resign right away and call for elections immediately because the situation is so destabilized. Does the administration have a comment on that?
MR. LOCKHART: I think, obviously, the United States and the OAS believe it's in Peru's interest to move quickly back to full democracy, but the particulars of how they do that is a matter to be worked out internally in Peru.
Q Joe, there's a report coming out on the Hill today that takes the Clinton administration to task for the prosecution of its relationship with Russia, saying that you all squandered a post-Cold War opportunity. Have you seen the report and do you have a response?
MR. LOCKHART: We have not seen the report. My understanding is that report comes out tomorrow. Let me make a couple of points about it. We have worked very diligently over the last eight years to engage the Russians to try to promote democracy and to make the world a safe place. It is very difficult work, but we have done -- we have taken very important steps. We have dismantled thousands of nuclear weapons, we have parts of the world now, parts of the former Soviet Union that no longer have nuclear weapons because of the work that has been done, and we have worked very hard, particularly on the issues of economic reform and the promotion of democracy.
This work is all ongoing and unfinished, but there is a lot to be said for what's been done in the last eight years. As far as the report, I think you're going to have to look at this report for what it is. This was done -- this is not a new investigation or a piece of new work, this is just pulling together some things, and it's being done completely by the Republican Party. They excluded all the democratic members who have jurisdiction or an interest in this part of the world. And coming so close to election time, it raises questions about why an important foreign policy issue is being done in such a partisan matter.
Finally I'd say, if you look at the report, I'd urge you to take a few minutes, go back and look at the last report that came from Congressman Cox, and see how well the conclusions of that report have stood the test of time, and take that into account when you look at this one.
Q Joe, back on the Middle East. Have the Israeli negotiators informed the administration that they expect the talks to resume as early as tomorrow?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that we've been informed of that or we have that expectation. It's certainly our hope that the contacts that have been going on since the discussions at Camp David will continue.
Q Joe, any progress report from the Labor-HHS appropriations meeting this morning?
MR. LOCKHART: I have not heard back from OMB Director Lew and his deputy, Sylvia Matthews. But as I said this morning, the President believes it's crucial we get going. It's near the end of September now and we do not have a commitment yet for smaller class sizes with additional teachers, we don't have a commitment yet on school construction. We don't have the proper commitment yet on after-school programs or on accountability. These are central to the President's agenda, I think central to the country's agenda, and it's getting very late in the game to have such important educational issues still not being resolved.
Q Joe, on oil prices, Secretary Richardson said today that the cost per barrel is getting dangerously high and the White House would keep its options open to reduce prices. Does that mean dipping into the oil reserve? And secondly, Saddam Hussein was accusing the Kuwaitis of stealing oil. Any comments on that?
MR. LOCKHART: On the first question, obviously we've been watching the situation on the oil markets closely. All options remain on the table, but we have reached no conclusion as of now as to the particular question of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
The second question was --
Q Accusing the Kuwaitis of stealing oil. Anything on that?
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, he is engaged in rhetoric that could not be backed up over the last 10 years. It's one of the reasons he's in the box that he's in right now, as far as his inability to get free from the sanctions that are containing him, and as I said earlier, his ability to threaten his neighbors. He's well-known for these kinds of statements, and they should be taken for what they're worth.
Q Joe, does the President agree with Bill Richardson that oil prices are dangerously high?
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't seen the Secretary's comments. I think the President certainly, based on his comments in the past, knows that the prices are above the historical level, and understands that we need to work with OPEC to try to move the prices, as they've indicated they want to do, back closer to the historical level.
Q Joe, the last time Saddam Hussein accused the Kuwaitis of stealing Iraqi oil, he invaded; and these comments now have caused a spike in oil prices. There is a concern, on the oil markets at least, that he might do something aggressive toward Kuwait. Does the administration share those anxieties and is it doing anything militarily to prepare for --
MR. LOCKHART: As I said, the administration has a robust force in the region that can enforce our containment policy if Saddam Hussein again. I think if you went back over the last 10 years and looked at all of his comments, you would find a lot of things that will go down as statements that he could not back up in one way or another.
Q Joe, on oil still. You keep saying that there are going to be decisions, so forth, but the price keeps going up. When do you think some of these decisions about whether to tap the Strategic Oil Reserve and so forth are going to be made?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think there's ongoing discussions, and if we get to the point where we make a judgment whether it's appropriate to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, that decision will be made, and it will be communicated.
Q When are you going to make that decision, approximately? In a week, a month, or --
MR. LOCKHART: I can't give you a time. When we believe that it's appropriate.
Q Is there a feeling here that there's -- basically this is domestic issue now, that there's not a lot more that OPEC can do, considering where supply levels are at, or is there still international work to be done?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think there's still discussions that are going on with OPEC countries, and as I said this morning, there are elements to the oil futures market that have to do with supply and other elements that have nothing to do with supply. So I think over time, the market will continue to digest the information available to them. We'll continue to monitor it.
Q Joe, has the President been in contact with Janet Reno yet on the Wen Ho Lee case, or is that meeting scheduled?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't think he has discussed with -- had a conversation with her yet on that, but I'm certain there's been no meeting set yet.
Q Joe, yesterday you said you will get back on the President's stand on amnesty for H/1B or amnesty for half a million illegal immigrants.
MR. LOCKHART: There are currently discussions going on trying to get the H/1B provision passed in the Senate, but also provide amnesty for about 500,000 immigrants. The President believes that we can and should do both of those things, and will continue to work to get both of those things done.
Q Does he still think that those things should be linked?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, he thinks that we should get both of them done, and the procedural fight that's going on right now is to try to delink them, to kill one part of the proposal. We believe that both should be done.
Q Anything more on hate crimes?
MR. LOCKHART: No. I know that the defense authorization is working its way to a vote. It's certainly our hope that the majority party will listen to the instructions that were sent in the vote last week and that hate crimes will be included.
Q Can you give us an update on when you're going to have the list of White House sleepover guests and Camp David guests?
MR. LOCKHART: My guess is either late tomorrow or early Thursday.
Q Can you explain why it takes several days to produce a list like that?
MR. LOCKHART: Because we don't get a second chance at this, we want to get the list right. And when it's right and it's finished and it's done, we'll release it.
Q Format, Joe? Is it going to be strictly paper?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, my guess it will look very much like the list we produced in 1997.
Q And no dates; correct?
MR. LOCKHART: I haven't seen the list, but I think in '97 we gave you just names and categories, so that's what I expect it to look like.
Q Are you talking to the people who did spend the night and alerting them that they're going to be on the list and talking to them about --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know what the process here is. I can try to get an answer to that, but I don't know what the answer to the question is.
Q Over what time span will the documents cover?
MR. LOCKHART: 1999-2000.
Q Joe, going back to the Senate, which part do they want to kill?
MR. LOCKHART: The 500,000 immigrant part. I can't remember the name of it, but it's not the H/1B.
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, the amnesty.,
Q You've -- left little doubt that you don't like the bill, but the debt reduction plan that the Republicans have, 90 percent of the surplus, passed the House I think with something like three votes against it. Is the President going to have to sign that bill?
MR. LOCKHART: Oh, listen, it's passed the House where gimmicks abound. Who knows what will happen in the Senate. I guess the problem is we're at September 19th in getting our work done and the House is still trying to figure out a way, rather than doing their business, to play politics. I mean, let's take a step back here for a second. This is like the mother of all Emily Litellas -- let's pass $2 trillion of tax breaks, and then when you get as far into the game as you can and you realize it's not working, saying, well, we were never for that, never mind; we're for debt reduction.
It's not credible, and anyone who takes it seriously hasn't been watching over the last two years. Other than that, I don't really have any views on it. (Laughter.)
Q Joe, the Senate is expected to pass PNTR for China this afternoon. How do you feel about the vote, and what in terms of a reaction --
MR. LOCKHART: Obviously, this is an important vote. This has been a very important piece of the President's agenda that he has worked as hard on this issue over the last probably 12 months as on any issue. And we expect a positive vote this afternoon, and in the aftermath of a positive vote I expect the President to stand somewhere right about here and come down and talk to you about that. Around 3:30 p.m.
Q When will he sign it -- if it does pass today, how long will be before he signs it?
MR. LOCKHART: My guess is we'll sign it rather quickly. It's just a question of how quickly they get it down here.
Q One more question about that bill the Republicans have made such a priority. Whether you call it a gimmick or not, doesn't it, in fact -- they're saying it would leave about $27 billion to play with tax cuts and spending. There had been talk that the spending might go even above that, based on the desires of either side. Doesn't the bill actually effectively limit it to that number, and isn't there a real --
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, hey have not gotten it out of the House. There's really -- I haven't seen anyone who has looked at the prospects in the Senate here in a positive way. But it goes along the same ways of their budget resolution, which was meaningless. And if we want to look for a positive here, maybe now that they've put down that they're for debt reduction, they may actually be for it, and maybe when we get through this process we won't have the sort of porked-up bills that we've seen over the last couple of years that have threatened the fiscal discipline.
I have a -- P.J. hands me a note saying the AWACs now have detected an emergency beacon in the area and on the scene where they are searching. But I have no further details yet on exactly where.
END 1:44 P.M. EDT