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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
July 29, 2003
Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
2:15 P.M. EDT
MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. The President was pleased to welcome Prime Minister Sharon back to the White House earlier today. As he said, Israel and the United States have a deep and abiding friendship. The President made clear that his commitment to the security of Israel is unshakable, as well as our enduring friendship.
They discussed a range of issues with a focus on the progress made in the Middle East peace process since Aqaba, and where more work can be done to build upon that progress. The President made it very clear that the United States continues to be strongly committed to the security of Israel, and that all parties have responsibilities to end terrorism and violence.
The President also talked about the importance of taking steps to improve the daily conditions of the Palestinian people, and we welcome the steps that Israel has already begun taking in that respect. As you heard in the Rose Garden, they also discussed a number of other issues, including the release of prisoners and the security fence.
This is a unique opportunity to improve the security and safety of Israel and add to the hopes of the Palestinian people by advancing progress toward two states living side-by-side in peace. And the two leaders, following their remarks, continued their conversation over lunch in the Old Family Dining Room, and continued to have a very positive discussion about peace and stability in the Middle East.
Shortly here, the President will be welcoming a bipartisan group of senators to the White House to discuss the importance of Senate passage of a comprehensive energy bill. The House acted to approve comprehensive and balanced legislation to reduce our reliance on foreign sources of energy. And the President will continue to urge the Senate to act quickly so that a conference can begin and that we can get a good bill to his desk for him to sign. A good energy bill is important to meet our future energy needs and to boost the economy. Many jobs depend on a good energy bill and a stable energy supply is very important to our economy as a whole.
And with that, I will be glad to take your questions. Jim, go ahead.
Q The President laid out two reasons why the administration believes it cannot declassify those 28 pages. But that said, isn't there something in that 28 pages that can be declassified? And secondly, do you have anything to say about how the Saudis have cooperated in the war on terrorism, because they say that they are being unfairly maligned here and cannot respond to blank pages?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, as you're aware from what I said earlier, we worked very closely with the joint congressional inquiry and provided unprecedented cooperation. We made sure that the joint committee had access to hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, that they had direct access to hundreds of individuals and intelligence community and law enforcement.
We worked to make sure that we could declassify as much information as possible because of how important that is. But what we will not do is compromise our national security by allowing information relating to sources and methods to be released, or allowing information about ongoing investigations relating to the September 11th terrorist attacks to be released. It is too important to our continuing war on terrorism and our efforts to go after and dismantle, disrupt, and defeat al Qaeda and its terrorist networks.
Q No, I don't think anyone really quibbles with that. But a Republican Senator on the Hill who you know is on the Senate Intelligence Committee has said that 95 percent of this could be declassified without endangering national security. So what do make of what Senator Shelby had to say?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I continue to reiterate what we said earlier. But in as the President said, there may be some point in the future where that information can be declassified, and when it -- as long as it was consistent with our national security and wouldn't harm our efforts in the war on terrorism -- but we cannot allow ourselves to weaken our efforts in the war on terrorism, or weaken our efforts to go after and pursue those who are responsible for carrying out terrorist attacks against the American people.
Q Would you at least tell us what the administration's view of Saudi cooperation and any Saudi encouragement or support for terrorism?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, our view continues to be one that the Saudis have been providing good cooperation in the war on terrorism. We certainly understand their concerns over the reports that have been made in the media. But because of these ongoing investigations and because of our national security interest, we cannot allow that information to be released at this time.
Q Senator Graham today said the only reason this is being withheld, that these 28 pages are blank, in his words, is it's all politics. He says that the administration is trying to avoid embarrassing the Saudi government.
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think the national security of the American people has anything to do with politics. It's the highest responsibility this President has and it's a responsibility that he takes very seriously. And we are not going to do anything that would jeopardize ongoing investigations. The President made that very clear in the Rose Garden. This is too high of a priority, and the consequences could be too severe if it were to be released.
Q How do you explain the difference between Senator Shelby and the White House over what could be declassified? Surely he's not somebody whose views on national security issues would run counter to what you normally believe. But he says 95 percent can be declassified without compromising anything. Why do you take such an opposite view? Where's the problem here?
MR. McCLELLAN: We respect the views of members of Congress and those that were involved in the intelligence committee. We made sure that the information was available to those members. I hope that they understand and appreciate our views and our concerns --
Q -- what he thinks of the information.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- but it is -- I want to reiterate what the President said earlier. We will not do anything to compromise this nation's security or do anything to jeopardize ongoing investigations.
Q Can you give a readout on the meeting the President had with the Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister? Did the Foreign Minister make a request --
MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, that meeting is going on as we speak.
Q Is that the message the President is conveying now during the meeting?
MR. McCLELLAN: I expect he will convey the same message if that topic is discussed.
Q Saudi Arabia is an ally, and what can the President say to them today, what can he offer them today as a means of rebutting these accusations?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, and they will continue to be someone that we work very closely with in the war on terrorism. Saudi Arabia recognizes that -- the importance of confronting the threats posed by al Qaeda. Terrorism has hit their own soil from members of al Qaeda. And so, this is something we'll continue to work very closely with Saudi Arabia on, and we understand their concerns. But I hope that the American people recognize the importance of what we are doing.
Q But if it's not completely -- if everything in there is not going to jeopardize national security, then is there something that they can offer the Saudis today to help them rebut these accusations?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, that's getting into classified information that relates to our national security, that relates to our ongoing investigation, that relates to sources and methods. And I'm sure that there are people, as the President said, that are involved who would like to know their names. But we will not jeopardize these ongoing investigations by making that information available.
Q Can you walk us through who exactly, in terms of the NSC or CIA or FBI, is making the decisions about what should be classified and what shouldn't? Because with the NIE and the State of the Union debacle, we all found out how difficult cooperation and communication can be between the various intelligence agencies. So who's making the final call --
MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of the joint committee?
Q In terms of --
MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of the information in the 9/11 report?
Q In terms of what could be declassified and what can't.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in terms of the information, again, this was a 900-page report. The vast majority of the report we supported declassifying and making public. That was our position. But some of this does relate to our national security. And our position --
Q Who says that?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm getting to it. Our position is one based on a very important principle and a very important responsibility. When we worked with the committee, obviously, the appropriate intelligence communities were involved in that process and involved in those discussions, whether it's the CIA, FBI, or whoever it may be --
Q That's what I'm asking, is tell us who --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- but the White House is fully aware of these decisions as they're made and we're very supportive of these decisions because of the reasons I just stated, because of the importance it is to our national security.
Q Who makes the decisions?
MR. McCLELLAN: I just walked you through it. I think that's the way I would describe it.
Q Is it the CIA --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we're aware of the decisions that are made. But those discussions during the committee process were had with the appropriate intelligence agencies. And the White House is fully aware of that, and fully --
Q So CIA and the NSC -- was Condoleezza Rice a part of this?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- and fully supportive of the steps that we're taking.
Q Do you know who made the decision?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think I just spelled it out for you. I don't know -- that's a -- I think I'm being precise in the way that the process works. And if you go back and look at the process, that's the way it works, that those discussions are had with the appropriate agencies. The White House is kept fully aware of those discussions and involved, and we support those decisions.
Q To follow on that, did the NSC or Legislative Affairs brief Card or the President on what was being classified?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President is aware of these decisions, and fully --
Q Right, I understand. Who kept him aware? Was it in his morning CIA and FBI briefings? Was there someone at NSC charged with monitoring this?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think you can assume that the NSC is involved in this, that the Chief of Staff's involved in this. They're all aware, well aware of this, and the President is briefed on those decisions.
Q So was it the NSC that was monitoring what was being classified and what was being declassified?
MR. McCLELLAN: They're aware of that. They're aware of the process, as well.
Q -- the lead West Wing agency.
MR. McCLELLAN: They're aware of the process, as well. I think there are a number of people that are involved in it.
Q Who are they?
Q Who in the NSC did it?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- from the senior staff to --
Q Who in the NSC did it?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think there are a number of people, both NSC and the senior staff, who are involved in this process. We're fully involved in that process.
Q Scott, can you find out and bring it back to us -- it's a totally fair question.
Q In terms of, if you can, to the degree that you can enlighten us, it is still confusing about why you all say this material relates to ongoing investigations, and someone like Shelby says it's fine to release it. Obviously, he doesn't think it's an ongoing investigation, or whatever material is there is not going to reveal a source, or at least if there's a name, I guess you could take it out. But he clearly has a different, completely different impression of this.
MR. McCLELLAN: And I think we've clearly stated from the beginning that only the most sensitive national security and law enforcement information was not declassified. And the reasons we've always stated were the ones that we've continued to cite today.
Q So is Shelby wrong?
Q But how can he say -- how can you all say this relates to an ongoing investigation and he and others say, no, it doesn't, or it's not that sensitive? What are we missing?
MR. McCLELLAN: We're aware of the information in the report, and it's for the reasons I stated. And again, we're not going to do anything that would jeopardize our national security, that would jeopardize ongoing investigations that are relating to the September 11th terrorist attacks. We're going to continue to pursue everybody that was involved, continue to pursue every piece of evidence involved until we bring those people to justice and until we find them.
Q So Shelby is wrong then in his assessment of this material?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I'm not going to speak for senators and I'll let the senators speak for themselves. The information is made --
Q Again, his view on this is 180 degrees different from yours. Is he right or is he wrong?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll let the Senator speak for himself. Our view is very clear about why this information, the importance of continuing to keep this information classified at this time. Again, at some future point it may be able to be made available, but certainly not while there are ongoing investigations or there are sources and methods that could be compromised and that could harm our nation's security. We will not do that.
Q Homeland Security is warning of another possible hijacking of commercial airliners in the U.S. in a repeat of 9/11. Does the President view this as a serious threat? If so, what's being done about it?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that, in terms of the intelligence, it's something we continue to evaluate, continue to investigate. The Department of Homeland Security did issue an advisory over the weekend to airlines and security personnel, based on some intelligence received about al Qaeda's continued interest in commercial aviation in America and abroad. But the advisory was sent out so that the appropriate security personnel can be informed and take necessary steps, and they will take the appropriate steps. There are many security measures already in place, I would remind you, since September 11th. We have bullet-proof, reinforced cockpit doors; we have federal air marshals on airplanes; we have federal baggage screeners and passenger screeners that are very involved. So this is something we always take very seriously.
But I think what is important to remember is that al Qaeda continues to want to harm America, and it is all the more reason we are waging a global war on terrorism. We are making progress. We are disrupting and dismantling the global terrorist networks. And it's important to go after and confront these terrorists, where they are, before they can attack us. And that's what we will continue to do. That's what we have been doing, that's what we continue to do.
Q Scott, what it appears to come down to on this 9/11 report and the Saudis are allegations which, even before the release of this report, that supposedly there were some funds from Saudi officials that somehow got funneled over to the 9/11 hijackers. Is there any way that you can deny that right now, saying -- back the Saudis in refuting that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Look, I mean if you're asking me to get into specific information that could be -- that would be classified, I'm just going to stop you there. I'm not even going to -- regardless of what the question is, of trying to get into classified information, I can't do that. What I can do is tell you that the material in the section being discussed contains information about ongoing investigations about counterterrorism operations and about sensitive sources and methods. And that is simply something that we will not jeopardize, because it's about the safety and security of the American people.
Q Can I ask you a second question, though, on the President's meeting with Ariel Sharon? Last week, the President, standing next to Mahmoud Abbas, said that the wall is a problem, that the settlements must end. Does he seem to -- it seems he's backing off on that today.
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think he did at all. He continues to express his concerns about it. In fact, he said that one day, when we can end terrorism and dismantle terrorist organizations, there won't even be a need for a security fence.
But they had a good discussion about it. I think the Israelis understand the President's concerns. The President made it clear that he will continue to have a dialogue and discussion with the Israelis about this, as we move forward. We're pleased that progress is being made on several fronts in terms of the Middle East peace process. But there are additional steps that need to happen, and we want to continue monitoring the party's progress, working with them. Ambassador Wolf will continue to go to the region and be in the region and make sure the parties are holding to their responsibilities. Everybody has responsibilities to advance the process forward, including the Arab nations, as the President pointed out today.
Q -- now a freeze right now, a freeze?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q Should there be a freeze right now on that activity?
MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of --
Q In terms of the fence building and the settlements?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think Prime Minister Sharon addressed that issue. And it's one that we're going to continue to discuss with him. But the President has made his concerns clear in terms of that.
Q Without getting into classified information, can you say whether the President is confident that no Saudi officials assisted terrorists -- have assisted or are assisting terrorists directly or indirectly?
MR. McCLELLAN: The Saudis are being very helpful in our war on terrorism. That's what I will make clear. We are working with them to confront the threats that we both face. And that is something that we will continue to do. Investigations remain ongoing in terms of September 11th. I wouldn't read anything into it, one way or the other. I would let the investigations proceed.
Q So you're saying it's an open question?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm saying, I wouldn't read anything into that at all.
Q Let me follow up on the question then. Does the President believe that Saudi officials may have played some role in financing the terrorists?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that the President believes that the Saudis are playing a helpful role in cracking down on terrorist financing and helping in other ways to go after the al Qaeda terrorist network. Again -- Chris brought up a question earlier, and I said, I'm just not going to get into any questions about ongoing investigations. So I wouldn't take that to read anything one way or the other. Let's let the investigations proceed. We are going to pursue these investigations and pursue them to the fullest, until we bring all those responsible for the September 11th terrorist attacks to justice.
Q Can we come back to the security fence, if I may? I know what Prime Minister Sharon said about planning to continue with the security fence. Did the President ask him to slow down, to stop, to roll it back, anything like that?
MR. McCLELLAN: They did discuss the security fence. I think that the Prime Minister understands our concerns. We understand their views, as well. It's something that we want to continue to discuss, continue to have an open dialogue about with the Israelis, as well as with the Palestinians. So that -- I think it's best addressed that way as we move forward. And we'll continue to -- I think that you have to look back at what the Prime Minister said, as well, about -- he recognizes the importance of minimizing the impact on the daily lives of the Palestinian people. It's important to keep in mind -- and I think the President made this point very clear -- the importance of improving the conditions of the Palestinian people, allowing them to live free and normal lives.
And there are several points the President made on that. One of those relates to the issue of the security fence. And we welcome the Israelis stating that they want to look at this in a way that minimizes the impact on the daily lives of the Palestinian people. I think it's important to hear that part of the message from Prime Minister Sharon.
Q He expressed concerns, but he did not actually ask them to stop doing anything?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think he made his views very clear, as he did in the Rose Garden earlier today.
Q At this morning's session, you discussed -- turning to the domestic front -- the appropriations bill that the House passed by 400-21 last week, after stripping out the new FCC regulations on television ownership. Now, prior to the vote there were published reports the administration was considering a veto of the measure if the FCC guidelines were taken out. Is a veto still a possibility? And would you comment on the report in the London Financial Times that Chairman Michael Powell was considering resigning from the FCC as a result of this?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know anything about that report. I think if you go back and you look at the statement of administration policy we put out, it said that senior advisors would recommend such a move.
Q A veto?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, that's correct.
Q But I think it's still early in the process, appropriations process. It's something that we will continue to work with Congress on as it moves through the conference committee and, hopefully, have that provision removed. I mean, the FCC is appointed to address these issues. And we think that they did their job. And we have confidence in their judgment.
Q I have a follow-up and a question. On Sarah's question, are you considering raising the terrorism alert?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, not at this time.
MR. McCLELLAN: Obviously, it's something that's reviewed on a regular basis, but, no, not at this time.
Q Any comments on today's Saddam Hussein tape, and is the United States really closer to catching him --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that in terms of the latest tape, obviously, our intelligence community will analyze that for its authenticity. I can't vouch for that at this point. One thing that I can vouch for is that his regime is gone, he is gone from power, and we will find him, as well.
Q Scott, a couple of days ago in the Rose Garden Abbas said the settlements must end. And he said that the continuing settlements was a threat to the peace process. I don't think there was a mention by either Mr. Sharon or Mr. Bush of that issue --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that issue came up in the meeting, as well. The President's views are very clear in terms of settlements; they must end. He's been very clear on that. I think Prime Minister Sharon addressed this a little bit outside, as well.
Q I think he was talking about the --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's correct, I'm sorry, you're right.
Q But did the President reiterate to Prime Minister Sharon today his view that these settlements must go?
MR. McCLELLAN: They discussed settlements, and I think the Israelis know the President's position.
Q And secondly, the President issued a warning of sorts to Mr. Sharon today. He said the Israelis need to carefully consider the consequences of their actions. What consequences was he alluding to?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we've always said that all parties need to recognize the consequences of their actions. All parties have responsibilities. All parties have responsibilities to work to end terrorism. We can't achieve peace as long as terrorist acts continue. And all parties, the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Arabs, have a responsibility to help end terrorism. All parties also need to recognize the importance of improving the conditions of the Palestinian people, helping the Palestinian people have -- go about their daily lives and have the economic conditions necessary to have hope and improve their lives, and move towards the two-state vision of peace and security.
Q Was that an explicit warning that certain Israel consequences are putting at risk the peace process?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's something that we've always said, that as we move forward that it's important to always keep in mind the consequences of actions and steps that are taken.
Q Scott, while the President said that Israel's border wall or fence, which is now 85 miles long, is "unhelpful," U.S. Border Patrol said yesterday that there are 68 miles of our Mexican border that are also fenced or walled. My question, first of two: Will the President, as an example to Israel, order that the Mexican border walls be removed? Or does he recognize a deep concern of Texans, New Mexicans, Arizonans, and Californians about the millions of illegal aliens that keep crossing there?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first, let me speak to the issue of the Texas-Mexico border. Because when the President was governor, he made it very clear that he was opposed to building a wall along that border, that walls tend to separate people. And he made his views very clear on that issue as governor. And so that was a view he expressed as governor.
In terms of the security fence in Israel, he's also made concerns known about how, over the long-term, that he hopes that that can end, as well, that terrorism will no longer be there and that the security fence will no longer be needed. But he has continued to make his views known in the meeting earlier today.
Q Page one of the Washington Times reports "U.S. reverses its position on Hamas. Powell says nonviolence key to new role." And my question: If this is done, despite Abbas, total violation of the road map's requirement that Hamas be disarmed, why should al Qaeda not be extended the same olive branch?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, I didn't hear the first part of your question. But the road map makes very clear that terrorist organizations need to be dismantled. And that's --
Q He has to disarm Hamas. He has not disarmed Hamas.
MR. McCLELLAN: That is the President's position. But he also made it very clear that Prime Minister Abbas is someone who is committed to peace, someone who is committed to --
Q -- when?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- committed to addressing security situations. They had a good visit about some of these issues.
Q Scott, I hope you clear up something for me. On this whole issue of the redacted pages and the Saudi request that we release them, I'm very curious about the timing of this. Saudi Arabia is supposed to be our ally and doing great things in the war against terrorism. There are 28 pages in a report that seem to allege or detail possible links between Saudi officials and Saudi money and terrorists. The Foreign Minister comes over here to personally appeal to the President that this be released so that they can answer these charges, and even before he walks into the gate, you're up there saying, we are not going to change our decision, nothing is going to be released. Are we sending some kind of message --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we made our position known during the joint committee process, as well. And I'm not going to get into any position where I'm prejudging ongoing investigations or prejudging where they may go. We're going to pursue them, where they may go.
Q I'm just curious about the timing that -- he wasn't even allowed to come in the gate before we said, no. He wasn't allowed to make his pitch. That just strikes me as odd that we've come down so firm beforehand.
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I think that you're reiterating what we've already said. We certainly understand the concerns of Saudi Arabia and we appreciate those concerns. But we have concerns, as well, concerns about compromising our nation's security, or compromising ongoing investigations, something we won't do.
Q I understand that the President has concerns about improving the daily life of Palestinians. But what I don't understand is, besides to being committed to discussing the possible dismantling of terrorist infrastructure, what is being done to improve the daily life of Israelis?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I think that there is no stronger friend of the Israeli people than the United States and than this President, in particular. We continue to work closely with Israelis to -- we provide a lot of support to the Israelis, and we will continue to.
But I think that the best thing for all people in the region -- Israelis, Palestinians, people that are committed to peace -- is for us to continue to advance forward on the road map that was outlined, to continue to move towards two states that live in peace and security, side-by-side. Everybody's lives are going to be improved when we realize that shared vision of the Palestinians, of the Israelis, of the United States, and many other countries.
Q Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Defense Secretary, said last week this: "I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq." And I was wondering if the President agrees with that?
MR. McCLELLAN: We've made our views very clear in terms of foreign terrorists being in that country in terms of countries that maybe could be taking steps to prevent that from happening. So I think the President has
made his views very clear on that issue.
Q The other question is, New York Times reporter, Stephen Kinzer, has just come out with a book called, All the Shah's Men, An American Coup in the Roots of Middle East Terror. He documents a CIA operation, Ajax, which was a coup that overthrew a democratic-elected Mossadegh. And he makes the following argument -- and I was wondering if you agree to this -- he says, "It is not farfetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shaw's repressive regime and the Islamic revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York."
MR. McCLELLAN: I appreciate the opportunity to comment on a book that I haven't read, but -- you're asking about the Central Intelligence Agency?
Q It was a coup by the United States of a democratically elected leader in Iran.
MR. McCLELLAN: Russell, I haven't even seen that book --
Q Aside from declassifying these pages, what is the administration going to do to help the Saudis deal with this issue?
MR. McCLELLAN: What are we going to do? Well, I think that there's a meeting going on. Obviously, it's going on as I speak, so there's nothing I can report back to you on that meeting at this point. But what we're going to do is continue to work with the Saudis to confront the terrorist threat that both our countries and the world face. So we're pleased with the cooperation we've had. We're going to continue to work with them, and we have a good friendship and we will continue to move forward on that friendship.
But no -- but, look, let me make very clear, we are not going to do anything that would jeopardize our nation's security, that would jeopardize sources and methods that could harm our national security if those sources and methods were known, that would compromise ongoing investigations if information became public.
Q Well, no one is quibbling with that, but is there anything you can say that would disabuse people of the notion being spread by some critics that some Saudi officials knowingly supported the terrorists?
MR. McCLELLAN: Jim, again, there are ongoing investigations relating to the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Q I'm not asking --
MR. McCLELLAN: I would never get in position to prejudge any of those ongoing investigations. And I think that some of the questions going on want to prejudge it one way or the other, is relating to ongoing investigations --
Q I'm not asking about the outcome of an investigation, I'm just saying, does the U.S. --
MR. McCLELLAN: So we need to let those investigations continue and continue in a way where they are not compromised. That's what we're going to do --
Let me go to the back of the room.
Q Scott, has the White House political office or the President been in contact with any Texas officials, say Governor Perry or David Dewhurst, to discuss the redistricting back in the President's home state?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know if there have been any recent ones or not. Certainly, I know that Karl Rove has always kept an active interest in Texas politics. And there have been some discussions that I've already noted a while back. But I don't know of anything recently. I just haven't checked on it.
Q Thank you.
MR. McCLELLAN: Thanks.
END 2:46 P.M. EDT